Claire E. Sufrin is Associate Professor of Instruction and Assistant Director of Jewish Studies at the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies. Her research and teaching interests include modern Jewish thought, religion and literature, and American Judaism.
Sufrin thinks that we still need to confront Lyotard because he was observing something he observed. Her comments focus in several ways on why the Orthodox focus on “pluralism of multiple religious faiths” and not “the plurality within Judaism and Jewish thought” In addition, why describe Feldmann Kaye as the first when there are antecedents? Finally, is the definition of postmodernism used by Feldmann-Kaye focused on an Israeli Orthodox definition. Sufrin’s substantive comment on the treatment of Tamar Ross is the role of legal theorist Robert Cover for Ross, rather than postmodernism.
Claire E. Sufrin – Response
I want to start by thanking Professor Brill for inviting me to comment on his conversation with Miriam Feldmann Kaye. His invitation and then even more so the record of the Feldmann Kaye-Brill conversation led me to order a copy of her book and to wait for it with anticipation. (It is not yet in my university’s library system.) Alas, I am still waiting at the mailbox, and the original deadline I agreed upon with Brill has come and gone. So I offer what follows below with the caveat that I am responding to the interview as well as to the comments offered by my colleagues but that I have not yet read Feldmann Kaye’s book. As a result, I intend my contribution to this forum not to be a review of Feldmann Kaye’s work so much as a list of ideas and questions that I will bring to her text when it does finally arrive.
I agree that with Zohar Atkins that the term post-modernism
is inherently slippery. Especially if it refers to a “mood” rather than a
distinct movement. I appreciate the genealogy Atkins has constructed of
skepticism and other distinguishing characteristics of post-modernism.
He is certainly right that Lyotard’s claim that
post-modernity is the end of grand-narratives is itself a grand narrative. But
I don’t think that that structural problem should distract us from Lyotard’s
claim. We need to read Lyotard as responding to and trying to describe a change
he was seeing in the world around him. This is true even if he was himself
still struggling to leave a modernist paradigm behind him.
Yet, Post-modernism was a small blip on the screen of
modernity, rather than a new screen altogether. My way of measuring this is
inelegant but still must reflect something: when I was an undergraduate in the
late 90s, the term post-modernism was everywhere. One of my friends joked at
one point that she needed to take a course on the western classics in her
senior year, given all the time she’d spent deconstructing those classics in
every other class up until then. And yet, when I survey the undergraduates I
teach, they rarely have heard the term post-modernism or the name Derrida.
Postmodernism and Judaism
What about post-modernism makes it threatening to Judaism?
If Lyotard’s definition is right—and I generally think that it is and find it
useful in my research and teaching—then postmodernism is threatening because
Judaism is built on a grand narrative. That’s easy enough. But which sort of
pluralism (another word for “no grand narrative is allowed to reign supreme”)
is more threatening—the pluralism of multiple religious faiths? Or the
plurality within Judaism and Jewish thought?
Another point that may or may not be related: why do the other blog posts treat Feldmann Kaye as the first Jewish thinker to wrestle with post-modernity when the subtitle of Eugene Borowitz’s Renewing the Covenant (published in 1991) is “A Theology for the Postmodern Jew.” Surely there are other examples as well. [siteowner note- think of Marc Alain Ouaknin & Michal Govrin as Orthodox examples of postmodernists]
Borowitz, of course, wrote as a liberal Jew, a leading
figure in the Reform Movement. Does Feldmann Kaye acknowledge his book? Can
post-modernism be a starting point for conversation between liberal and
traditional Jewish theologians? If not, why is Wittgenstein a more comfortable
conversation partner than Borowitz?
If Levi Morrow is right and the “postmodernism” that
Feldmann Kaye has in mind is liberal individualism (something I’d suggest we
should associate with modernism, not post-modernism) and “what comes
after and/or attacks the ideas of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son, Rabbi
Tzvi Yehudah Kook.” This is a definition specific to a community within
If Morrow is right, there are a few questions I’d like ask:
first and foremost, what is the audience of this book? If it is other Orthodox
figures—perhaps Ross herself or followers of the now-deceased Shagar—then to
interrogate her use of the term “postmodernism” seems to miss the point.
Tamar Ross and Postmodernism
Unlike the other reviewers, I know Tamar Ross’s work fairly
well and I have a deep appreciation for what she tries to do in Expanding the Palace of Torah, even as I
am not sure she is entirely successful.
To me, the heart of Ross’s work is not her use of
Wittgenstein or others I might label “postmodern.” Rather, the importance of
her work lies in two other places.
One is her claim that revelation is continually unfolding, a
claim she bases on her reading of Rav Kook and prior Kabbalists and Hasidic
The other important aspect of her work is her engagement
with feminism, with other feminist Jewish theologians such as Judith Plaskow
and Rachel Adler, and with Robert Cover’s legal theory. (Disclosure: I’ve
written about Cover as a source of feminist theology elsewhere.) There is a
real struggle in this book to find a way for feminism and Orthodoxy to somehow
make sense together. Like Adler, Ross takes feminist Jewish theology to the
next level of complexity and intellectual integrity, beyond earlier works by
Judith Plaskow and Blu Greenberg, which were more focused on disrupting the
status quo and highlighting the exclusion of women from Jewish history,
thought, and community (if not more).
Is Ross postmodern? It’s not a term I would have applied to her; if Morrow is correct about the definition that Feldmann Kaye is assuming, then it applies to her insofar as she is an interpreter of Kook. But what does that get us? Perhaps Feldman Kaye’s book is best understood as a book about Kook’s legacy; but that does not appear from the interview to be the way in which she understands it. I look forward to reading the text and deciding for myself. I am grateful already to Feldmann Kaye, however, for engaging with Ross and giving her work the attention it deserves. To all those who have participated in the formal conversation on this blog and in other fora such as Brill’s facebook page by saying “I have not read Ross but…” I hope that this will lead you to pick up her book and take its claims quite seriously.
His organization Etz Hasadeh is both an emergent community oriented around the existential study of Jewish texts, philosophy, and poetry, and a lab for rethinking the field of Jewish education writ large. We promote the development of personalized, psychologically inflected, existential meaning-making skills. Etz Hasadeh offers an intervention in the way Tanakah and Rabbinic literature are taught and studied, clearing the way for a poetic approach to learning that empowers students to engage ancient images and ideas as metaphors for the challenges of contemporary life.
In this response essay, Zohar Atkins has several points.
First, and easiest to grasp, is that the term postmodernism is difficult to
define and may ultimately be more of a mood than a theory. Second, and more
substantively, Torah is about continuity, tradition, mesorah, and grounded
readings, not skepticism and the limits of knowledge. Therefore, to Atkin’s ear
much of the discussion of consensus, self-acceptance, and progressive
revelation sound like 19th century opinions of the followers of Zechariah
Third, postmodernism is clearly not Existentialism,
and Franz Rosenzweig already rejected the early 20th century idea of
living “as if” as inauthentic. Fourth, he finds problems with Feldmann-Kaye’s
use of Heidegger who rejected humanism and instead sought an opening to truth,
an unconcealing of Being allowing us to think.
Atkins does try to explain the use of postmodernism as
a way of saying “God wants us to be incapable of finding God. Postmodernism is
just another name for Galut Edom, the Roman Exile.” Yet, he
concludes that: “these flights of poetic fancy are not postmodern, they are
fundamentalist, mythic.” For Atkins, postmodernism has to treat every myth as
an idol. Atkins defines the task of the contemporary religious philosopher to
live “shuttling back and forth” with “an agon with myth for philosophy and an
agon with philosophy for myth. Postmodern theology, thus, is a relishing of
myth and a relishing of demythologization, yet it is an endeavor that, to me,
seems like it can only be idiosyncratic, and a source of great dissonance.”
Finally, Atkins considers thinking “a form of avodah, is a holy, religious task” in which engagement with postmodern thought is necessary. He appreciated the “effort to amplify and beatify Torah (yagdil Torah v’adir),” by placing “it in conversation with the wisdom and insights of other traditions,” in this case postmodernism. He is deeply committed to the horizons of our lived Torah. For him, “Torah should speak to everything we know, love, and experience.”
Concerning Postmodernism and Jewish Thought-Zohar Atkins
Postmodernism is notoriously—though perhaps appropriately—difficult to define. Is it a school of thought? A literary style propounded by a set of thinkers, writers, artists (often French)? A worldview rooted in skepticism so radical it always becomes its own object of critique? An aesthetic that fuses avant-garde and pop, a la Andy Warhol, Frank O’Hara, John Cage, and Lady Gaga? A historical epoch dating to 1968? A fancy or pretentious synonym for contemporary? A way of saying modernism mamash (really modernism)?
If postmodernism is defined as an aversion to fixed labels and determinacy, is
there any purchase to the term—l’shitato—according to its own standards,
or is it a self-cancelling term, like a witness who comes before a court and
says, “I am an unreliable witness”? Perhaps it is impossible to write about
postmodernism; “one cannot look upon its face and live.”
If I were postmodern, I cannot be said to have an identity; rather identity is something I perform. There is no self, just presentation. To be a subject is to be a prisoner of the social order; my name-dropping does not actually refer to thinkers out there in the world, but only to the act of citation itself, a gesture, a miming of authority. In this sense, the string of proper names, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, is no different than those found in, say, a song with many names in the lyrics.
One reason for the confusion is that one of
postmodernism’s chief proponents, Jean Francois Lyotard, defined
(paradoxically) the postmodern condition as the end of “grand narratives.” Yet
in so doing, Lyotard set up his own grand narrative, in which modernism was
said to be naive and postmodernism was presented as the end of history. In this
way, postmodernism’s self-representation is no different than the bombastic
pronouncements of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra or Hegel’s Absolute Spirit; I suppose
the main difference is the way in which these earlier iterations still aspired
at some ideal, whereas postmodernism aspired to pursue with one hand what it
took away with the other.
If Derrida has become a poster child for
postmodernism, then perhaps what distinguishes postmodern thought from its
critical antecedents is less its content than its mood, the mood of
disenchantment, levity, comedy, neurosis, anti-messianism; or as Derrida put it
“messianism without messianicity.”
Postmodernism and Judaism
When Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai asked the Roman Emperor
Vespasian for a yeshiva in Yavneh (Gittin 56b) he exchanged politically doomed
Temple-based Judaism for a new paradigm of Jewish life. Sometimes postmodernism
is presented in this way.
Yet if rabbinic Judaism saw itself as continuous with
its historical past, and still, at times, looked nostalgically to the figure of
the Temple in its fantasies, postmodernists emphasized and venerated rupture,
as implied in their prefix “post-”. Never mind that the slogan of literary
modernism was “make it new” (Ezra
Pound, translating an ancient Confucian sage); never mind that montage and
irony and indeterminacy and ambiguity were already important conceits before
postmodernism became a cultural shibboleth. Never mind that skepticism is an
ancient tradition, that subjectivism took off with Descartes, that pragmatism
was a Neo-Kantian idea already popularized by William James in the 19th century,
or that the so-called “linguistic turn” can be traced to Wittgenstein, a
modernist, if not earlier to Herder, Schlegel, and the romantic movement?
The ubiquity and unclarity of the term postmodern means
that it often does more harm than help when appended to another term such as
“Jewish thought” or “Jewish theology.” Does postmodern Jewish thought mean
thought that is influenced by postmodern thinkers, thought that simply occurs
in a historic period known as postmodern, or thought that is treated by critics
as having the worst signature features of postmodern writing, namely,
convolution, sophistry, relativism, a “retreat from judgment” (Arendt), etc.?
The term is so contested that it is probably better just to say what one means
than make appeal to this proper name; though one thing shared by postmoderns
through their debt to Quintillian, Schlegel, and Kierkegaard, is that it is
impossible to say what one means; to think we can is to commit the “intentional
fallacy.” “There is nothing outside the text” (Derrida).
Even here, though, postmodern analysis proves no
different than its modernist antecedents; for whether the analysis is
structuralist or post-structuralist, Freudian or Foucauldian, the point is that
the interpreter, and not the text itself, holds the key to its interpretation.
In some ways this posture is quite compatible with a certain understanding of
oral Torah, whereby the meaning of the written Torah falls to the rabbis rather
than, say, the karaites, historians, or philologists. At the same time, the
sages of the Talmud still sought to ground their arguments in a reading of
verses from the Written Torah, and subsequently, in the precedent readings of
I am not an expert in the thought of Tamar Ross or Rav
Shagar, yet I am a great admirer of anyone who, in an effort to amplify and
beatify Torah (yagdil Torah v’adir), places it in conversation with the
wisdom and insights of other traditions; Torah should speak to everything we
know, love, and experience. And even if Western thought is a kind of Exile, we
should take comfort in knowing that “the divine presence goes into Exile with
us.” Whether Ross, Shagar, and their expositor, Miriam Feldmann Kaye, succeed
or fail, we should applaud their effort at kiddush hashem, of
sanctifying (the Jewish) God. They follow the example of Maimonides, who said
that if Aristotle’s thought were true, the Torah would have to be read in light
of Aristotelian philosophy, and whose thought was, for a time, accused of being
heretical until it became a dominant school of Jewish thought.
The irony and self-contradiction of a postmodern
Torah, however, is the way in which it challenges the commonsense view of
truth. How can the critique of truth itself be true? What is meant by “truth”?
Reading Feldmann Kaye’s interview, my impression is
that she/Ross regards postmodernism in a positive light as the doctrine that
truth is decided through intersubjective agreement. To me, though, that’s not
postmodernism at all, but positivism, and I don’t see how it’s much different
than the historicist view established by the Conservative movement in the 19th
century. Perhaps the fundamental claim that revelation is ongoing, is
culturally rooted, is emergent, is not different in kind, but only in degree,
from the ideas of Zechariah Frankel. Majority rules is not postmodern, its just
liberal. Minhag yisrael halachah hi (the customs of Israel are
legally binding)—is no different than Vox populi Vox Dei or
Rousseau’s theory of the general will. We find the norm of law by consensus in
the Talmud; but law is not truth; and saying there are many truths a la
postmodernism is different than saying we can’t know the one truth; the former
is an ontological claim, while the later is an epistemological one.
For non-specialists for whom the above sounds rather
dense, let’s just put it this way, Franz Rosenzweig criticizes the view that
truth is decided by human will as “as if thinking,” a form of theological
hedging whereby the non-believer says that the only way to live a good life is
to act as if God exists. If postmodern Jewish theology is “as
if” thinking, is Pascal’s wager 2.0, I find it weak. If postmodern theology
just means existentialist religiosity, it’s both hardly new, and hardly
radical. Kierkegaard and Rebbe Nachman share the view that one cannot have
certain knowledge of anything, yet this self-skepticism becomes a tool for
motivating a leap of faith that, unsurprisingly, is outwardly quite submissive
to dogma and the protocols of religious observance. The only thing that
distinguishes a religious existentialist and a regular eved hashem is
the existentialist’s emphasis on interiority.
Feldmann Kaye invokes non-foundationalism as a
hallmark of both postmodern thought and postmodern Jewish thought, yet ends up
defining it in a foundationalist way as the agreement of people on what the
For Heidegger, truth is “unconcealment,” not social
reality, which he sometimes derides as “hearsay” in Being and
Time, nor is truth some kind of individual experience a la the
romantics. Meanwhile, for Nietzsche, truth is perspectival, yet it is the task
of strong artists and thinkers to will their truth into existence by exercising
a will to power; consensus is for the herd of half-dead unoriginals who are
still too bound up with “slave morality,” whether they be religious
fundamentalists or bourgeois secularists (or, as we now see in our day, bourgeois,
religious fundamentalists). Heidegger is a non-foundationalist insofar as he
rejects systematic thought based on first principles, yet the reason for this
rejection is not because he is skeptic, but because he believes foundationalism
is ontologically impoverished, does not enable us to properly think, and
If non-foundationalism means we keep the Torah “simply
because” we are thrown into a heritage, rather than because we have good
rational reasons and justifications that can withstand critical (Western)
enquiry, this is a kind of honest, modest, and yet Rube-Goldbergish way of
utilizing academic thinkers to basically follow in the footsteps of Rebbe
Nachman’s simpleton (see the story “chacham and tam”). It’s good therapy for
people who are born into a thick knowledge of and commitment to Jewish life,
but it is unlikely to win any one over; perhaps this is its virtue—it’s
anti-patronizing, nice, polite pc liberalism. I happen to be a slave to God and
you happen not to be, but, hey, these are both just lifestyles we inherited
from our families.
If you believe that God revealed everything to
Moses, all the oral law, and all the principles for expounding it, it is very
difficult to make sense of the story in Menachot 29b in which Moses sits,
confused, in the back of R. Akiva’s classroom. If Rabbi Akiva is so great,
Moses asks, why wasn’t the Torah given to him? “Be quiet. Such did it come to
One might be tempted to ask, similarly, why God did
not reveal postmodern thought to Moses; why did God wait for our generation to
reveal postmodern philosophy? To ask such a question, though, is to go crazy,
for it is the kind of question that postmodern thought forbids asking with a
straight face (it is somehow less absurd to ask why God waited to reveal
relativity theory to Einstein).
On the other hand, if we translate it into metaphysical terms, we can say that God wants us to be incapable of finding God. Postmodernism is just another name for Galut Edom, the Roman Exile. But these flights of poetic fancy are not postmodern, they are fundamentalist, mythic. Postmodernism is monotheistic insofar as it treats every myth as an idol, even the myths of Sinai and the myths of an unbroken mesorah. My shuttling back and forth represents not postmodern theology, but an agon with myth for philosophy and an agon with philosophy for myth. Philosophysought to defang myth; religion is the submission to it. To be a religious philosopher is to defang and submit at once, to make a myth of defanging while defanging it. Postmodern theology, thus, is a relishing of myth and a relishing of demythologization, yet it is an endeavor that, to me, seems like it can only be idiosyncratic, and a source of great dissonance. If I were an amora, I would suggest that this dissonance is divinely prescribed, that philosophy corresponds to the first set of (broken) tablets and myth to the second (whole) set, both of which were kept in the ark together. And if I were an amora (playing Abaye to my own Rava) I would counter, and say the first set refers to myth while the second set refers to philosophy. Teiku.
Use of Heidegger and Derrida in the
Feldmann Kaye’s invocation of Heidegger is a tease;
little besides the name Heidegger is given to us that suggests what a
Heideggerian approach to revelation could involve, but even if there were, it
is arguable whether Heidegger can be called postmodern. He is certainly viewed
that way, negatively by Allan Bloom and positively by Richard Rorty. I have no
doubt that Heidegger has much to contribute to contemporary Jewish life and
thought, but none of the views espoused by Feldmann Kaye in the name of Shagar
and Ross fit Heidegger’s thought too well, and none reflect a deep
phenomenological influence; the value of cultural particularism is not unique
to Heidegger and Heidegger would have eviscerated terms like “culture” and
“experience” as remaining caught in a retrograde metaphysics of “humanism.”
When you compare Derrida to Heidegger, besides the
linguistic and political differences, you find a tonal difference. Heidegger’s
mood is heroic, tragic, messianic; Derrida’s is playful, jestful, cerebral.
Heidegger and Derrida are both gnomic writers; yet one senses with Heidegger
that he has something serious to say; with Derrida, one senses that the
performance is the point, that there is nothing besides the rhetoric. In
Heidegger, rhetoric serves the purpose of thought. In Derrida, one feels, there
is nothing besides rhetoric. Derrida scholars can disagree; Heidegger reads as
a reluctant spiritual Master, as a thinker. Derrida reads as a comedian, as
Aristophanes to Heidegger’s Socrates, which isn’t to say Derrida isn’t serious
or that there isn’t a seriousness to his jocularity, or that he doesn’t have
something to say. Still, one never feels levity reading terms like Seinsfrage,
Geworfenheit, Erschlossenheit, die Frage nach dem
Technik; meanwhile, Derrida’s essays seem haughtily pitched to deflate
everything of its gravity, as if any form of seriousness were somehow in danger
of becoming an instrument of fascism. One can certainly make the argument that
Heidegger is postmodern or else presages postmodern thought, yet his
aesthetic—even when playful, even when self-questioning—has a devotional
quality to it. We should consider whether postmodern Jewish thought and life
require us to be jesters in the Derridean mold or pietist in the Heideggerian
one. In the end, the issue of postmodernism might be one of tone and aesthetics
more than content (after all, postmodernism can also be framed as a privileging
of form and frame over content, e.g., “the medium is the message.”)
For those of us who aspire to think, who believe it is of the utmost import, and who, as Jews, or as religious folk, believe that thinking is a form of avodah, is a holy, religious task, engagement with postmodern thought is necessary. It may be necessary even as a Jacob’s ladder we climb and then kick away. I don’t believe postmodern thought often succeeds in “thinking,” yet I believe it helps us spot the ways in which we are not yet thinking, and this humility is needed today, not just for ethical and political reasons, but also for spiritual ones. To know that one is not yet thinking, is this not the awe of heaven?
I am grateful to Miriam Feldmann Kaye for introducing the question of postmodernism into the contemporary discussion of Jewish thought and theology, not because I believe postmodernism can save Jewish life or thought (I’m not sure any doctrine, even an anti-doctrinaire one could do this), but because the question of how to live a sincere, elevated, responsible, pious Jewish life that is critical, self-critical, and open-minded, is upon us.
The review deals with Feldmann-Kaye’s use of the writings of Rav Shagar. Morrow is pursuing a graduate degree on the writings of Rav Shagar so he has the passion of a graduate student in his vigorous comments. He rejects the ridged division of Rav Shagar into periods (such as “traditional,” “existentialist,” and “postmodern,” Yet he still works with the division to note that an early homily based on the Maharal should not be used as postmodern, and to note that Rav Shagar has explicit Existential essays in the spirit of Sartre. Morrow points out how the book needed to update its 2002 references since the majority of the writing were published since that date. Finally, Morrow returns us the Israeli sociological meaning of postmodern as post Rav Kook’s religious national project in order to point out that Rav Shagar himself remained in the Yeshiva, taught Torah and was not aiming to be a postmodern, even when he read those works.
Levi Morrow is a Masters student at Tel Aviv University, and is writing his thesis on Rav Shagar and Franz Rosenzweig. He has translated a forthcoming book of Rav Shagar’s holiday derashot, as well as many of the teachings and poems of Rav Shagar’s friend and colleague Rav Menachem Froman. Levi teaches Jewish Philosophy in Jerusalem, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.
A Postmodern Theology from the Writings of Rav Shagar?
Feldmann Kaye’s Jewish Theology for a
Postmodern Age focuses primarily on Rav Shagar and Dr. Tamar Ross. Is it
meant to introduce their respective theologies to the reader as examples of
postmodern Jewish theology? Or is it meant to use them as resources for the
author and readers’ own theologies? A close reading of the book indicates that
the latter is more correct, that constructive theology takes precedence to
can’t speak to the depiction of Ross’s theology, but the depiction of Rav
Shagar cannot serve to introduce new readers to his theology. The focus on
Postmodernism renders it at best partial, and in some cases actually misleading
in understanding the thought of Rav Shagar. A few examples will suffice.
discussing the idea of cultural particularism and the historical conditioning
of the subject, Feldmann Kaye quotes from Shagar’s Panekha Avakesh, a collection of derashot on the parashah from when
he was interim Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat Hakotel in 1982-83. Feldmann Kaye
Shagar’s conception of cultural
particularism relies on a forceful alienation and negation of the self, which
leads to an all-encompassing awareness of the influence of one’s surroundings. He acknowledges the strong parallels between
postmodernism and hasidic introspection… With the self utterly nullified,
the individual is no longer subject to delusions. She can look into herself as
if she were a perfect limpid vessel and finally appreciate who she is and,
indeed, the extent to which her identity
and character are the result of a host of conditioning factors. (JTPA, 34; emphasis added)
However, the text
she references doesn’t mention Postmodernism or Hasidism, and misses the source
of the self-negation in the writings of the Maharal. Rav Shagar stresses the
importance of negating the active, egoistic self, as well as purifying the self
from urges and desires, in favor of a return to the “source” and “root” of the
person, which enables recognition of divine truth (Panekha Avakesh, 62-63). There are many types of
self-negation, and in some places Rav Shagar does connect it to the historical
conditioning of individual identity and character (see, for example, Luhot U’shivrei Luhot, 52). Here,
however, he’s talking about a pious duty to cleanse the self of desires and of
ego in order to connect to a person’s divine source and gain a divine
understanding of truth.
I’m not of the opinion that his thought can be
neatly divided into periods (such as “traditional,” “existentialist,” and
“postmodern,” as I’ve heard suggested), but there’s clearly some truth to it.
His early texts (and Panekha Avakesh
is the earliest of his published teachings!) simply don’t reflect postmodern
themes and ideas, which would make some sense as he doesn’t seem to have read
them yet. Some of the same concerns may exist throughout, but the changing
forms these concerns take is important. Rav Shagar talks about negation of the
self, bittul, from his earliest texts
to his latest. In the former, this means humility, purification of the self,
and connection to the source. In the latter, it means recognizing the divine
nature of the self exactly as it is (Luhot
U’shivrei Luhot, 419).
example of the value of a closer reading arises in a discussion of freedom. Feldmann
Kaye discusses an essay called “Freedom and Holiness” from the book Kelim Shevurim (a lightly edited
appears in the later Luhot U’shivrei
Luhot, and it was translated into English in Faith Shattered and Restored), and remarks that
Shagar guides his readers away from
the existentialist idea of freedom as individual autonomy. He takes Jean-Paul
Sartre to task by arguing that his understanding of the concept leads
inevitably to nihilism or fatalism… Shagar takes exception to Sartre’s
understanding of the self. The latter lays the burden of freedom on the
individual, placing on her shoulders the onus to choose her own essence and
thereby devise the ‘project’ that is her existence. Sartre saw the self as the
sole arbiter of values. Shagar, however, criticizes such a conception of
freedom on the basis that it leads to anarchy, and proposes instead to shift
the burden for formulating truth claims onto the community… he qualifies his
own version as ‘mystical freedom,’ that is, an inspired freedom derived from
‘the unity of the human and the divine’ which enables the community of Israel
to shape its own set of truths ex nihilo
(or in mystical terms as yesh me’ayin).
problem here is that Rav Shagar is actually aiming at a version of freedom
closer to Sartre than to any other thinker he mentions, a “Sartre Plus” model
rather than a rejection of Sartre (this is eminently clear from the essay, but
also from similar texts such as Passover derashot on freedom in Zeman Shel Herut, 163-168, 169-178, and an essay on the self in Nahalekh Baragesh, 139-146). In the essay, Rav Shagar
catalogues models of freedom, including that of the Tanakh, the Rambam, Rav
Kook, and Sartre. Of all of them, Sartre is the only one who believes that
freedom means the ability to create values, and this is what Rav Shagar wants
Shagar’s problem with Sartre is that Sartre, he says, thinks human creations
can never be meaningful because they can never transcend their creator and gain
a sense of absoluteness, meaning that a person can never commit to values that
she herself created. He solves this by paradoxically identifying human creation
with divine revelation. After a person creates their own values, they should
paradoxically see them as divine values to which they must commit. Living a
life of “covenant” (“berit”), Rav
Shagar says, means seeing our freely-made choices as inevitabilities, like a
person seeing their freely-chosen spouse as the only person they could possibly
have married. This is Rav Shagar’s “Sartre-Plus” model of freedom.
Moreover, the emphasis on community
that Feldmann Kaye sees in the essay is almost entirely lacking. The discussion
of the concept of freedom in Tanakh mentions that the “subject” with whose
freedom Tanakh is concerned is the nation, not the individual, and I can see
Feldmann Kaye could construe that toward a postmodern cultural particularism.
However, that concept is nowhere to be found in the section on “mystical
freedom,” or the passages on Rambam or Rav Kook, for that matter. The emphasis
is on the individual and her ability to make creative choices, and the essay
concludes with a discussion of how modern man (ha’adam ha’akhshavi, which if I would most accurately translate as
“the contemporary individual,” but that begs my conclusion) possesses an image of
God on the level of ayin,
nothingness, a liberating non-essentialism that allows them the ability to
create ex nihilo.
Updating the References
a more technical note, I want to briefly address the issue of references. JTPA is a revised version of Feldmann
Kaye’s 2012 PhD dissertation, and it has been excellently converted by the publisher
into a more popularly accessible book. One area that did not receive enough
attention in the intervening years, however, was the references to Rav Shagar’s
writings. Many volumes of his writings have been published since then, and
referencing (nevermind quoting) them would certainly have enriched the book,
but they are almost entirely absent (with the exception of She’erit Ha’emunah). Just to give one example, her discussions of
both cultural particularlism and linguistic determinism would be greatly
enhanced by Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah derashah “Religious Life in the Modern Age,” Faith Shattered and Restored,” 41-65,
published in Hebrew as “Halakhah,
Halikhah, Ve’emunah,” Le’ha’ir Et
Additionally, many of the references
may have made sense in 2012, but the publishing since then has made them
confusing. For example, there are references to “Broken Vessels, vol. 2,” a non-existent second volume of Kelim Shevurim. For someone well versed
in the editors’ footnotes to Rav Shagar’s writings from before it was published
in 2013, this is clearly Luhot U’Shivrei
Luhot, which the editors sometimes referenced as a forthcoming, expanded,
second edition of Kelim Shevurim.
However, for anyone not so versed, the reference is unhelpful (this also means
that the correct pagination could have been tracked down, and wasn’t).
Similarly, there is the essay “My Faith” which has been published twice, in
Hebrew and English (Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot,
Faith Shattered and Restored,
21-39), but which in 2012 was an unpublished file available only to those in
the know. Feldmann Kaye’s reference to the text demonstrates just how thorough
her PhD was, but the lack of an updated reference, referring to either of the
essay’s two versions, is frustrating.
Is Rav Shagar a
way of conclusion, I would return to more substantive issues Is Rav Shagar a
Postmodernist, or a thinker who deals with Postmodernity? ( cf. JTPA, 35) He is certainly the latter;
perhaps he is sometimes the former, but he is also so much more than that. It
is a shame that so much of the discussion about him revolves solely around his
interest in Postmodernism. He was a constructive
theologian as a Rosh Yeshiva, deeply in tune with the cultural and religious
shifts his community was undergoing, and he marshalled the best of the Jewish
tradition and his readings of non-Jewish philosophy to respond appropriately.
As with the first example in this review based on the Maharal, there are of many more postmodern counterexamples from Rav Shagar’s writings. In one text, he explicitly denies the ability of a person to create ex nihilo, instead celebrating the bricolage of creating something new out of something else (See She’erit Ha’emunah, 24). But that itself is exactly the point. There is so much in the writings of Rav Shagar, which are quite rich and full of theological explorations, that make it reductionist to consider them only from a postmodern perspective. Rav Shagar was a born-and-raised Kookian Religious Zionist, a Post-Kookian Religious Zionist, a brilliant talmudist, a driving force in Religious Zionism’s Hasidic revolution, an existentialist, and yes, a postmodernist as well. Appreciating all of the different voices that emerge from his writings requires care and precision, something I find somewhat lacking in Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age.
Furthermore, the matter of
Postmodernism quickly becomes a question of what we, and Rav Shagar, mean by
it. Tomer Persico and Alan Brill have shown
how Religious Zionist opponents of “Postmodernism” and Rav Shagar himself
define postmodernism as liberal individualism. For all of them, “Postmodernism”
is what comes after and/or attacks the ideas of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and
his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, a category that can include a lot more than
what people typically call “Postmodernism” such as Buber, Sartre, and Rav Nachman.
It’s not incidental that Rav Shagar’s
“postmodernism” is shaped by his Jewish theological context. He spent his whole
life in the yeshivah system, never attending university, and was not shy about
his unfaithful, ahistorical readings of secular philosophical texts: “We aren’t committed to ‘scientific,’ faithful-to-the-original,
readings of Western or Eastern philosophy” (Luhot
U’Shivrei Luhot, 132-133).
On some level, there’s something
fundamentally strange about trying to identify Rav Shagar with a given
philosophical stream, while he was so self-conscious and explicit about
appropriating a variety of such streams for his own theological ends.
Understanding Rav Shagar requires paying close attention not to his
affiliations but to his appropriations, the way his readings of non-Jewish
texts constructively shape both those texts and his understanding of Judaism,
“the external light and the internal vessel.”(ibid.).
JTPA is an excellent constructive work,
one that attempts to delineate specifically postmodern issues for theology, and
then proposes methods for dealing with them through readings of Rav Shagar and
Dr. Ross. Feldmann Kaye’s call for a “visionary theology,” one deeply in tune
with both Jewish mysticism and the power of religious language, is a call for
us to do much the same.
Anthony Giddens, the world-renowned sociologist divides Western modernity into three periods, the enlightenment, modernism, and late modernity. The Enlightenment as the first form of modernity, characterized by the 18th and 19th centuries’ attempt to turn towards literacy, reason, science, and autonomy, as well as the fight against the old regime and traditionalism. Modernism, the second form of modernity, is the enthusiastic embrace of the late 19th and early 20th centuries’ turn to urbanization, individuality, and new understandings of humanity and society. The goal was to cultivate a religion that grapples with modernist challenges and accounts for individuality. Modernist expert knowledge— such as science or the university— during this period was authoritative. Late modernity, the third form of modernity, was a loss of trust in the expert authority of modernity, which resulted in the emergence of multiple forms of authority while also embracing the new materialism and post-secularism. We are in the later age. Some who emphasize philosophy and theory call this period last period postmodernism, a period that sees the limits of modernism. and its universal visions.
Among those using this philosophic language is the recent book by Miriam Feldmann Kaye, Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age ( Liverpool University Press in association with Library of Jewish Civilization, 2019), a short but smart book encouraging us to simultaneously expand our horizons and those of contemporary Jewish theology. Miriam Feldmann Kaye, a recipient of the Cambridge Theological Studies Prize, holds a BA from Cambridge University, MA from the University of London, and PhD in Jewish History from Haifa University. She is currently a Teaching Fellow at Bar Ilan University. She recently completed a Lady Davis Post-Doctoral Fellowship, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She also teaches in the MA program for Jewish Education at the School of Education, the Hebrew University. She is Founding Director of the Israel branch of the Faith and Belief Forum (formerly the Three Faiths Forum).
Feldmann Kaye’s book seeks to make philosophy and theological meaning from the writings of Rabbi Shagar and Prof Tamar Ross. She seeks to rescue them from sociological explanations grounded in changes in Israeli culture, and instead, sees them as directions for Jewish thought in the post-modern age, postmodern in the broad sense of general philosophic trend after modernity.
Feldmann Kaye’s method is to first present the theological tenor of the current age, followed by showing how Rabbi Shagar and Prof Ross fit into this age, then to give examples and directions for expanding these ideas. Feldmann Kaye is comfortable contextualizing her subjects in postmodern thinkers even if the subjects themselves have not read them. If Wittgenstein is important in the 21st century, and her two thinkers fit into this trend of Wittgenstein, then she can offer other thinkers and ideas – such as by Paul Ricoeur, W. V. O. Quine, or Martin Heidegger- to amplify and develop the idea. This method would be akin to discussing the Existential Age of Buber, Sartre and Camus, then showing that Heschel and Soloveitchik should be contextualized as Existentialists, and concluding with ideas from Tillich, Maritain, or Rahner.
All her discussion points to Feldmann Kaye’s own “visionary theology” bursting out between the lines of the book never articulated, even with my coaxing for this interview. She has sympathy for the post-secular 21st century ideas of Richard Kearney’s anantheism and Jean Luc Marion’s saturated event. She wants to open up to a theology “which does not rely on an ultimate and singular truth, but posits instead that the notion of a multiplicity of truths.” For Feldmann-Kaye “The implications are twofold: firstly, since faith does not lend itself to scientific verification, it becomes difficult to justify a preference for one’s own world view or way of life. Second, if such truths are perceived as culturally particular social constructs, their prime function is limited to defining communal boundaries.” I heard part of it at the World Congress of Jewish Studies in 2017. I hope to hear more.
The book focuses on three specific themes in their thought, (1) Cultural Particularism, (2) Language, and (3) Revelation.
In 1979, Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, a work acknowledging that the era of modernism and existentialism had ended. In its place, Lyotard offered skepticism about universalizing theories and a rejection of universals and metanarratives. Feldmann Kaye relies heavily on this seminal work to define the philosophic climate of our era.
The first, cultural particularism is Feldmann Kaye’s way of saying that there are only local religious truths; no longer do thinkers have to respond to modernist universals of authority and knowledge. Rav Shagar has an approach of being at home in the study hall and one finds one’s truth in the study hall, while Prof Ross has an approach of working within the particularistic canon of Kabbalah, Hasidut, and Rav Kook. Feldmann Kaye does not discuss the biographic element that Rav Shagar and Tamar Ross were friends and talked to each about theology. Nor does it discuss their specific personal uses of Hasidut, Rather, her book discusses the relationship of kabbalah and postmodernism in the thought of Sanford Drob and the role of truth in Heidegger.
The concept Feldmann Kaye focusses on is that of language and especially of Lyotard’s reading of Wittgenstein. Lyotard (mis)used Wittgenstein’s phrase “private language” to mean that there are no longer universal truths. She shows how Rav Shagar and Prof. Ross each have a sense of a private language and she discusses parallels in Richard Rorty, Jean Baudrillard, more Heidegger. I wish she had been more analytic here since Wittgenstein is subject to many interpretations by theologians. Evangelical and Fundamentalists read Wittgenstein as interpreted by the scholar DZ Phillips as a fideism, a dogmatic private language in which the gospels are a private language not subject to any alien methods. In contrast, the scholar Norman Malcolm reads Wittgenstein as only allowing an act of faith since we cannot have any certain knowledge. But I believe Prof Ross is closer to a third reading, in which language is the rules of a game or the grammar.
Finally, Feldmann Kaye’s third topic is revelation based on these ideas of truth and language. She shows that Prof Ross accepts an idea of progressive revelation, a metaphysical idea of the unfolding of the truth, which she based on Kabbalah and Hasidut. But rather than discuss the Ross’ feminist application of this view of revelation, Feldmann Kaye opens up the discussion to Paul Ricoeur’s theory of interpretation. Rav Shagar uses the language of the study hall and treats the ongoing creativity of the Torah scholar in what he calls lamdanut as revelation.
There will be posted a few responses to this interview in order to generate some discussion. I will return with some clarifications and some of my own views on the topics after the responses. We should thank Miriam Feldmann Kaye for opening this discussion with her smart book Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age about the importance of contemporary thought for Jewish thology. In the meantime, this is a good chance to read, if you have never read it, Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition a dated period piece and then jump to the 21st century by reading Richard Kearney’s Anatheism: Returning to God After God(2011) to get a sense of how the secular ideas of postmodernism are used by 21st century religious theologians including Miriam Feldmann Kaye.
Are you actually discussing postmodernism?
The thinkers I
deal with Rabbi Shagar and Tamar Ross grapple with late 20th century modernist
thought continuing to read current thought through to the current era. Rabbi
Shagar joins several Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century who engaged with
the existentialist movement, Ross with analytic engagement. Both of them
grapple with Rav Kook, joining the ranks of some of the most significant
theologians in contemporary times.
It would be
reductionist to call them ‘postmodern thinkers’. I have clarified this
important point – that the majority of thinkers I deal with, reject the term “postmodern”,
and especially the label of “postmodern thinker”, and I have tried to respect
this throughout. They are not just postmodern thinkers, but rather, draw on a
breadth and a depth of contemporary philosophical movements.
In fact, I am
not dependent on the term ‘postmodernism’ and would not have been opposed to
using in the title the term “twenty-first century Jewish philosophy”, or even
more specifically, contemporary. In the way in which I have used it,
postmodernism refers to the temporal era of the end of the 20th and
start of the 21st century A period after modernity – literally
post-modern- in which we see the limits of modernity. In its most basic sense,
postmodernism embodies a critique of different elements of modernity.
that, taking sensitivities into account, I am not afraid of the term
postmodern, and neither to use the word relativism, and believe that these
words and concepts must challenge and draw us in as much as they repel us.
I do not think that postmodernism immediately signals relativism – it is important and preferable to separate between the two, and challenge the ambivalence towards the term. In the more lenient use of the word ‘postmodern’ in this book, I draw attention to what is meant by using this frame of Jewish thinkers who engage with postmodern philosophy.
2. Is ambivalence towards Postmodernism justified?
I want to
address the ambivalence towards the term postmodern. Postmodernism is a contentious
word which is easily associated, by some, with a nihilistic relativism. The
outlooks it espouses indeed reflect a breakdown of ultimate truths and values.
identify with the hesitation surrounding the term, and have sought to break
down the fear in a way that theologians have done for centuries with
surrounding cultural movements which have seemed, and which have been, strongly
at odds, with the worldview that one seeks to maintain.
This is why I
decided to change the title of the book, initially, “Jewish Theology in
a Postmodern Age”, to “Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age”. This
change frames the purpose of the book – Jewish theology engages with its
contemporaneous philosophical trends, and the volume addresses profound
development of what will, in my view, become an immersion in the areas of
intellectual creativity that the postmodern age has begun to offer. It must be
understood as an enigma which demands our attention and as a challenge to
thought, rather than a corrosive problem which must be destroyed.
The change in
the book was made to highlight the distinctions between postmodern philosophy
and Jewish thought, and to reflect the nature of the book which is a
philosophical quest to understand the parameters of a new conversation.
In light of
this, theology takes an active role engaging in that conversation where
postmodernism as a worldview might be constructive, as well as destructive, to
contemporary Jewish philosophical debate.
I made clear in
the outset of the book, that my aim has not been to defend postmodernism –
rather, to examine its various themes, as a negotiation with diverse elements
of Jewish thought in the twenty-first century. This means leveraging what
philosophy of religion became towards the end of the twentieth century –
existentialist, dialogical, pragmatic, and following how these ideas develop
into the new century. In this sense the main question becomes whether and how Jewish
thought which can function and be compelling, in today’s world.
This change reflects my approach towards the thinkers I deal with: their engagement with issues of the day, does not necessarily class them as postmodern thinkers. Rather, I have written about their thinking as addressing certain issues that postmodern philosophy raises, and the acute questions it raises.
3. Why is it important to approach Rabbi Shagar’s and Tamar Ross’ thought from a philosophical viewpoint?
One of the main characteristics of the book, has been to set
aside sociological analyses of both Shagar and Ross. My own academic training
has been in the field of philosophy of religion.
This forms the backdrop for my intense engagement with Shagar
and Ross. It is the lens through which I examine numerous texts. I probe their
thinking, asking the critical questions of contemporary times, from a Jewish
perspective. I specifically analyse Shagar’s later engagement with non-Jewish
continental philosophers, even if he did not read them, which is so important,
in my view, for understanding the true contribution he makes to contemporary
Jewish thought. I am interested in the epistemological and linguistic
contributions that Ross makes to Jewish philosophy, seeing feminism as a case
in point, rather than as the central objective.
In Israel, some of the discussion around the yeshiva world of Shagar is associated with New Age and the pop-Hasidut of contemporary “spirituality”. Much continues to be written on this topic. Suffice it to say, there is more than meets the eye to this neo-Hasidic thinking, which actually calls for an understanding of the roles of Hasidut and Kabbalah in postmodern theology.
4. What are Rabbi Shagar’s and Prof Tamar Ross’s main contributions?
Ross and Shagar
are engaging in an original dialogue about culture, language, revelation.
They both demand
a revision of the concept of Torah and revelation for a postmodern age. Shagar
and Ross are two of the first thinkers to reconceptualise revelation on terms
which do not get caught in the issues of modernity. Although in the book I deal with their
thinking in parallel, I draw points of reference for comparison and contrast.
The book shows how this dialogue is representative of the sort of discussion seeking to engage which strands of contemporary philosophy will be most accepted in contemporary Jewish thought. In this way, we are offered an unusual insight into how they firstly recognise, and secondly handle postmodern ideas. This forms the basis for an analytical consideration of how internal Jewish theological ideas are interpreted in this age.
5. What is Cultural Particularism?
book is split into three main conceptual sections: cultural particularism,
language and revelation.
particularism’” is a central feature of postmodernism.I use
this term to refer to the position which states that our understanding and interaction
with the world is contingent upon culture.
to radical interpretations of cultural particularism, the category of
objectivity is limited altogether, and only multiple different perspectives
based on local perceptions and interpretations, each anchored in a specific
cultural context, hold water.
in these interpretations the notion of objectivity is a figment of our
philosophical imagination, itself conceived through the lenses of our
my book, I analyse the impact of this contentious theory specifically in the
realm of religion. Firstly, postmodern theology regards religion as a
particularistic endeavour, fundamentally rooted in cultural idiosyncrasies. As
a result, it downplays the modernist quest for universal truth and objectivity
outside one’s culture. Secondly, truth claims no longer purport to represent
absolute, universal, and justifiable statements about the world. A radical postmodernist world view conceives of
an individual’s values and beliefs as a drop in an ocean of culturally-accepted
This shift in thinking carries far-reaching implications in the domain of Jewish theology. Currently, most Jewish religious responses to the challenge of cultural particularism have come, perhaps inevitably, from a generation of thinkers who have found themselves in a transitional period between modernity and postmodernism. Even though philosophically they accept the notion of multiple truths, they still dread the ethical and practical implications of relativism.
6. How does Rav Shagar deal with Cultural Particularism?
discussing their treatment of the problem of multiple truths and relativism, I show
how their arguments facilitate the acceptance of a multiplicity of
truth-claims. Nevertheless, I underscore a persistent refusal on their behalf
to what they view to be a ‘collapse’ into a relativism according to which one’s
own faith holds nothing truer than that of others.
appropriates cultural particularism by rendering truth subject to a cultural
context. He rejects the idea of a fixed, monolithic truth as little more than
an artificial, human construct.The way he envisions the community
‘playing’ a sophisticated language game allows for a degree of freedom and
human creativity rarely observed in traditional circles.
particularism, the deconstruction of the universal, of the monolithic, is linked
to Shagar’s notion of Beit’iut
-“home-ness” shorashiut – “rootedness”. The philosophical ‘home’ is
the starting point of theology, rather than an empirically decided universal
standpoint. Beitiut is an example that Shagar uses for cultural particularism.
Religious meaning is where the home is. The starting point for ‘doing’
philosophy is not a neutral or objective standpoint – rather it begins and
necessarily must remain, in the particularist context called ‘home’.
Shagar’s discussion on Shabbat and the Hindu ritual of Samadhi,
he draws comparisons between the spirituality of these two states of existence.
The home is the contextual and therefore conceptual starting point, which I
delineate as cultural particularism.
Given the role of immersion in contextual community, often described as a socially constructed community, collective discourses are what inform practice and conversation around its meaning. The individual does not operate in a theological vacuum, as he or she did prior to these times, even in times where existentialism was most prominent in religious discourse – wherein the personal experience affected and was effected by one’s own religious experience – the ennui or malaise of the age.
7. How does Prof Tamar Ross deal with Cultural Particularism?
Ross views local religious truths as valuable precisely because they are
relative to a particular group. She uses this relativism to put forward a
non-empirical, kabbalistic, metaphysical truth, and in so doing, endeavours to
redeem relativism from its negative connotations. She affirms the relative
nature of each religion, and claims that such a conception of religious truth
permeates the history of Jewish thought
Ross, like Shagar, dismisses the self as the
frame of reference for determining reality. She reaches this conclusion by
exploring the implications of a Kookian, Hasidic conception of the divine as a
singular unity, which converge with the postmodern breakdown of subjective and
Having internalized the
epistemological uncertainty characteristic of the postmodern critique.
Ross seeks to establish a sound ground for religious
knowledge. She turns for that reason to non-foundationalism, a contemporary
epistemological position that justifies truth-claims not on the basis of their
purported grounding in some neutral or objective source of knowledge, but on
the degree to which they cohere with other beliefs and opinions. This attitude
she contrasts favourably against any sort of radical postmodern relativism, which
turns the rejection of absolute truth into nihilism and anarchy on the
simplistic assessment that all truth-claims are of equal value. Instead of
establishing the truth-value of a proposition against the background of an
objective, metaphysical source, non-foundationalists rely on intersubjective
agreement within the wider community
similarly takes Kook’s innovative and non-traditional theology as an inspiring
model. She describes him as ‘wise to be suspicious of all claims to absolute
truth, or to any direct and perfect correspondence between our perceptions and
ontological reality’. Indeed, she identifies with his scepticism and notes that
such a feeling ultimately leads to ‘a fundamental shift in the expectations
surrounding traditional theological claims’.
However, for her, cultural particularism, does justify one’s
ability to posit a belief of ‘truth’, without believing that this constitutes
the only truth. From an analytic philosophy perspective if a truth is
subjective, then it is not Truth.
From the perspective of continental thought, it is evident that this misses the point. It is perspectival. This forms the demand for postmodern deconstruction of the notion of Truth altogether, linking to the ‘inter-subjectivity’ of Heidegger amongst others.
8. Is Cultural Particularism relativism?
There is a
question asked of Shagar: if cultural particularism defines the starting point,
the all-pervasive contextualisation of language and culture have the potential
to relativize values as a whole.
We find a response to this question in Ross’ discussion of
the self through Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam- even if it was not used by
Shagar or Ross. Analytic (behaviouralist or neopragmatic) theories of language,
propounded by Rorty, Putnam and Quine, is the idea that language it holds
meaning insofar as it means something to the one who uses or understands that
language. In other words, a metaphysical being or essence is not assumed when
using such language. How is this constructive in philosophy of religion?
Because the distinctions between language as ‘true’ or ‘false’ need not
bother us so much anymore. Philosophy has moved on from these questions, and
this gives us the opportunity to reconsider a Jewish theory of language. I have
said many times, that this is not necessarily a new idea, but the response to
it, in the relevant discourse, is highly original.
For Ross, this reading deepens the question as to how
mysticism should be understood. If not given to neo Hasidic spirituality, how
should mysticism be interpreted on the philosophical level? Empirically or
allegorically? In response to the theory of cultural particularism and
relativism, she responds by questioning the role that truth claims play, rather
than their supposed abstract metaphysical essence.
Shagar addressed the issue through an interpretation of Slavoj
Zizek’s reading of Jacques Lacan, and the idea of chosenness. Shagar provides us with
a unique reading of this sort of discourse, interspersed with interpretations
of Hasidut, and its relevance to this new thinking.
Ultimately Shagar bequeaths to us a “hierarchy of truth”,
rather than an acceptance of the zero sum game that some modern vs. postmodern
debates seem to embody.
I critique all these responses concerning the limitations as to how far Jewish thinkers can go in cultural particularism without falling into relativism. I end this section with a broader observation that the deconstruction of universalism, plays an ethical role in its breakdown of the fallacious belief in ‘one truth fits all’.
9. How do both thinkers deal with language in a postmodern age?
If language cannot describe anything beyond itself, how can
any statement be true? Do beliefs serve any purpose if they do not express
something true about the world? According to postmodern theory, each culturally
particular community functions according to its own semantic and linguistic
system, similar to Martin Heidegger’s “intra-worldly” and Ross’ “inter-subjectivity”.
For Tamar Ross, certain aspects of this new postmodern philosophy
of religion become fundamental in examining what we mean when we use
theological language. To give three examples, Francois Lyotard claimed that
meaning is contingent on its context. For Rorty, language serves the claim of
different collectives, and in this sense is functional. Jurgen Habermas and
others view this in a constructive way – how does meaning arise in a particular
Wittgenstein’s theory of the “language game” is utilised at
various points in constructing postmodern positions, by Shagar and Ross.
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of ”language games” is
often held up as his flagship contribution to the philosophy of language.
However, his idea of ‘Forms of Life’ is critical in studying a contemporary
Jewish consideration of religious language. It is in fact far more telling
of the nature of religion today, and how language functions as a
theological tool in our communities.
Thus, the role of Wittgensteinian thought must be reconsidered. It is at this point where the role of language comes in. Ross in a way, clears the path for what Shagar means when he speaks of revelation.
10. Does Language affect Reality?
Before the advent of postmodernism,
philosophers generally viewed language as concordant with reality. In other
words, they assumed that the words, phrases, and sentences we use correspond to
the objects in the world that we purport to describe. This assumption that a
‘signifier’ (most notably, in speech) necessarily relates to a specific
‘signified’ is known as ‘correspondence theory’. Philosophers of language, in
turn, seek to investigate the nature of this relation. They consider, among
other questions, whether and how language reflects reality. This is
known as ‘the problem of language’.
For Shagar, language illustrates,
and manifests itself through, reality. It is the nature of reality, which
changes, together with that of language. According to Jean Baudrillard, the
very nature of reality alters according to the cultural-linguistic turn. I
discuss his theory of semiotics as coinciding with theological interpretations
Shagar wrote about Baudrillard,
combining his thinking on the nature of reality with mysticism. This led Shagar
to an analysis of the role of mystical language as descriptive of reality,
without having to be understood as empirically historic. Semiotics is the study of signs. It relies on the fact that our
understanding of society comes through ‘signification’ (signs) which are
referred to by language and in the media, but that do not exist in and of
themselves. Hence language and cultural rituals symbolize, but do not embody, reality.
Today’s world is full of ‘signs’. Although we may not be fully
aware of them, these signs surround us, and effectively build up what
Baudrillard terms a simulated ‘hyper-reality’. Facebook and Twitter, for
example, create an artificial, simulated social existence. Virtual exchanges on
the cyberspace—on our smartphones and computers—allow individuals to bypass
reality. It is crucial to
recognize that a simulated reality is not a false reality. It means that we are
aware of the factors that make our reality what it is. Shagar turns to
Baudrillard to reconfigure the role of language in postmodern religion. His
position is original on two accounts: it acknowledges the problem of language,
and in response, re-envisages it as a network of signs that help the religious
community generate its own simulated reality.To him, the language
of the community serves to engender, rather than merely refer to, the religious
values of its adherents.
The way Shagar is able to accommodate these positions is by relying
on the Jewish mystical tradition. He employs concepts drawn most notably from
Lurianic kabbalah and Bratslav hasidism to draw out a theological discourse
that comprises both postmodern linguistic elements and traditional ones.
Through Ross we arrive at a fascinating, and
distinct treatment of the language in her interest in the structures and types
of language available to us. For her, the metaphor is instrumental in opening a
world of reality which might lend themselves to, as she says, “direct
intimations of the Divine”,
For Jacques Derrida, we find that metaphors can express truths with more power than any literal statement. For language is poetic, and imaginative, rather than literal. So, literal statements about empirical facts on which religious claims might be made, are in fact, lacking in their potential for describing a reality far beyond what is imaginable, and therefore more fitting to the sort of dialogue that we have. The purposes of language in the realm of theology, are less to describe factual events, and more to create and sustain a phenomenologically compelling image of the world as it is true to us. In this sense, we move further away from the language game as a problem for theology.
11. How do the chapters on culture and language lead to a new approach to revelation?
The first two
chapters bring together a new approach to Torah min Hashamayim ‘ (loosely
‘translated’ as Torah from Heaven) wherein the ‘text’ responds to the
issues raised in the two previous chapters. Torah min hashamayim (Torah
from Heaven) is released from modern ongoing debates of science vs religion.
Denominations as being formed around responses to these questions. Certain
Jewish communities, particular in the diaspora, retain this question as the
overall arbiter of what is meant by Jewish thought. Moreover, it is applied to
aspects of Jewish practice.
Ross’ epistemology is her idea of cumulative revelation –
where Torah min Hashamayim is understood as a perpetually unfolding reality,
manifesting itself in the lives of those who live by it. Shagar’s position is
not dissimilar – but expressed in a more yeshiva-style way, wherein truths and
meaning in Torah are unravelled through Lamdanut – ultimately a theory of interpretation and
hermeneutics. Torah inherently refers to and embodies continual revelation. For
both, Torah min Hashamayim is a continual, ongoing, dynamic process,
accompanied by upholders of the faith via halakhic debate and praxis, and
engagement with textual exegesis and its intersections with the ruach –
spirit – of the world around us. The will of God is continually discovered in
each generation. Neither position is necessarily ‘postmodern’ but it is
expressed in language of the cultural-linguistic turn. So, the “life of the
text” as Mikhail Bakhtin argues, presents a solicitation of the text within and
outside of a language game, reaching out beyond this world to an unspeakable
reality – necessarily undetermined (“deferred” according to Derrida) in
The book compares Tamar Ross to Paul Ricoeur’s understanding of the “conflict of interpretations” and its meaning in a textually generative community. Linguistic interpretative techniques are esoteric in their nature, pulled out of a static existenceand given a life of their own, in a dynamic, living process. Similarly, for Shagar, Lamdanut, does not constitute a language game, but a reaching out for a reality, generating its genuineness as a phenomenological community. Lamdanut and biblical and Talmudic interpretation, represents a grappling with the text which fits with the notion of postmodern hermeneutic activity as part of the continuing manifestation of oral Torah. It is here that Covenant becomes the immense and intense engagement in this process, in its various manifestations.
12. How is phenomenology important to this thinking about revelation?
movement of the 1920’s sought to explore the philosophical articulation of
human experience. Edmund Husserl, and later, Martin Heidegger, put forward the
claim that experience happens with human existence, rather than as separate
from it. Whilst it was others who were to apply this to religion, it has come
to provide a different and more useful way of considering religious language
and the experience around linguistic dialogue. Experience is a key component of
how religious meaning and truth are understood. Religious phenomena include the
sense of the miraculous, the encounter with a striking text, or the sensation
of transcendence at a holy site. It is the community as phenomenological
discourse, which accepts upon itself the ultimate link to and connection with
Revelation as “perpetual revelation” is a development on the
acceptance of the ideas of cultural particularism and language. Revelation and
the language through which it is understood and experienced, depend on the
nature of reality.
Torah min Hashamayim becomes the primary cultural particularist,
linguistic conduit, for religious experience, rather one that works against it.
Study is itself done through language and Torah is transmitted from Moses to
Sinai in our very textual and dialogic activity. This is one of the main points
that we arrive at in postmodern Jewish theology.
And it is this that I
have termed Visionary Theology – an embryonic model for Jewish thought today.
The methodology reflects the objective, which is to weave
together postmodern and Jewish thinking side by side, rather than as
conflicting opposites. I place
Jean-Francois Lyotard and Michel Foucault alongside Jewish thinkers in speaking
about the first step of my claim – cultural particularism. Much of contemporary
Christian post-metaphysical theology deals similar themes, such as that of
Jean-Luc Marion and Richard Kearney – an area of theology which I continue to
I have put forward the case for their opening up to a
Visionary Theology which does not rely on an ultimate and singular truth, but
posits instead that the notion of a multiplicity of truths as compatible with
The implications are twofold:
firstly, since faith does
not lend itself to scientific verification, it becomes difficult to justify a
preference for one’s own world view or way of life. Second, if
such truths are perceived as culturally particular
social constructs, their prime function is limited to defining communal
This past summer I taught a graduate course in comparative mysticism at University Gadjah Mada in their Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies in Yogyakarta, on the island of Java in Indonesia. In addition, and maybe more significantly, I spoke at a variety of Islamic colleges (& Christian and Hindu colleges). Indonesia is the 4th largest country in the world and it is the largest Islamic country in the world.
The goal was to bring them a knowledge of Judaism in order to clear up misconceptions and to foster a more receptive attitude to Judaism. I was sponsored by Gadjah Mada University and by the AJC-API (American Jewish Committee -Asia Pacific Institute) for the University teaching and sponsored by Gadjah Mada University and the regional Islamic colleges for my important travel to give talks.
University Gadjah Mada is the major center for the study of religion in Indonesia and is the feeder school producing the faculty of the Indonesian Islamic colleges. I stayed in a lovley guest house a mile from the university and walked to work each day down the main shopping avenue.
In my class, I covered contemporary approaches to mysticism such as Michel de Certeau, Jeffrey Kripal, and Amy Hollywood, then the theory was applied to mystical texts from the Christian, Islamic and Jewish traditions. I taught a course in mysticism since it complements the Indonesia emphasis on mysticism as a main rubric for self-understanding of their own religion and as an easy way to introduce Judaism into the curriculum since I spent about 40% of the classes discussing Judaism. I was specifically brought to introduce the Judaism into this major graduate program of religion, which because of its status as a feeder school producing MA’s and Phd’s who go into administration and teaching in Islamic colleges.
predominately an easy-going hybrid Islam oriented more toward local traditions
of the arts and devotion than law. By their own estimates, no more than 25% of
my classroom prayed daily, let alone five times a day. They said it was between
them and God. They said they all fasted during Ramadan but did not go to
They like Sufism but
are not into Sufi saints or graves. They read the Sufi mystics Ibn Arabi and
Mulla Sadra about the “unity of being” (waḥdat al-wujūd) in which all of
creation is a manifestation of the divine. But they also accepted as meaningful
to their Indonesia Islam the universal Sufism of the West, including Inayat
Khan, Idries Shah and Robert Frager. This acceptance of western universal Sufism
by Indonesian is similar to going to Monsey NY and finding the Chassidim
My syllabus included
the Jewish Sufism of Bahye, Ovadiah ben Avraham ben Maimonies, Isaac of Acco,
and Eliyahu deVidas as a bridge topic to show a Judaism that was similar to
their Islam before I turned to the Zohar and Hasidism. We also covered
Christian Kabbalah as a hybrid form of Kabbalah because their own conceptions of
religion are about hybridity.
Indonesia was founded
on the motto of “unity in diversity” and has Pancasila as an official ideology
in which one must accept one God, revelation through a prophet and scripture.
The government has determined that the six official religions that follow this
are Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. It
is a world where Muslim acknowledge Hindus and Buddhists as having one God and
where conversely Hindus and Buddhists see themselves as having one God,
revelation, and scripture.
Pancasila was legally mandated from the founding of the state until 20 years ago. Now, it is still accepted but has many interpretations and variants. How much it is social policy as opposed to theology is debated; one finds explanations of this as a policy of social cohesion and for others it is a liberal and tolerant reading of Islamic theology. The country uses the phrase “God almighty” in official events to refer to all six religions.
The Islamic focus on tawhid-
divine unity remains in place but also includes the other religions. Tribal
religion is treated as culture and folkways- not as theology or religion- so those
practices can be integrated into any of the six. The tribes were basically made
to pick one of the faith for their identity cards, Depending on the region they
chose Christian, Muslim, or Hindu.
Jews are not included in this list anymore since there are not many Jews in Indonesia. They were briefly included at the founding of the state before they emigrated to Australia and the U.S. There is a trend of recent conversions to Judaism clustered in several cities, which deserves its own discussion. (In the meantime, read the two articles here and here)
There are also Muslim
who study Hebrew and Jewish books as Judeophiles. Many of the latter reached
out to me before I arrived when they read the announcement of my arriving.
My own host professor
at the university and co-instructor is one of these Judeophiles. He is Christian,
teaches Judaism, and has been on The Brandeis Schusterman program for Israel
studies. He even translated Heschel’s The Sabbath into Indonesian and
could not find a publisher because there was no market.
However as I write this,
I note that Americans tend to know little about Indonesia and few college
students study Indonesian. Sufism is a good way to introduce Indonesian Islam
before I speak directly about the Islamic colleges.
The East Java city of Kediri is
on the site of an 8th century Hindu city and is now an Islamic factory town,
known as the headquarters of the leading brand of Indonesian cigarettes, mainly
clove cigarettes. When I visited Kediri to speak in an Islamic college, my
hosts graciously took me to the shrine of Sufi Sheykh Sulaiman Al-Wasil
Syamsudin. The shrine is downtown right near the bus station and main hotel
owned by the cigarette company.
In the 12th century, Sheykh Al-Wasil Syamsudin brought Sufism and Islamic teaching to Kediri in East Java from Persia. His Sufism included astrology and fortune-telling. In the 16th century, a Chinese Buddhist style enclosure was built around his tomb with Hindu and Buddhist temple ornamentation. The shire has an actual inscription about his work in old Javanese. The tomb is in the middle of a small graveyard. Around the graveyard is a mosque, community cemetery and concessions for Islamic ritual objects.
When I visited at ten PM
there were only two men reciting Quran as a remembrance of God near the tomb
and another two or three women behind a curtain. There is no set ritual to be
done there. Outside the shrine, there were a few tables with literature from
the various local Sufi organizations who venerate the shrine. Finally, as in
Turkey, there were shops for sweetened Turkish style coffee in glasses.
Around the shrine, one sees
items of the broader syncretic faith of Java. These include a mural of the
Chinese goddess of the sea on the wall of one of the shrine’s building,
Javanese Gamelan instruments, holy water for ritual in the Hindu style., and a
“Cambodian tree” as a place to pray for marriage (like Amukah in the Galilee).
This syncretism is characteristic of traditional Javanese Islam; one that does
not worry about purity, legalism, or other faiths. This syncretism was
important for me to see with my own eyes.
Clifford Geertz, the
important anthropologist, considering true Islam as centered on law (fiqh) based
on his knowledge of Islam in Morocco, and therefore saw Javanese Islam as an
Islamic veneer over Javanese traditional religion. More recent scholars such as
Mark Woodward reverses it and makes Islam as the primary religious category,
which uses the local cultural blend of a Hindu-Buddhist-animist practices as ways
to be Muslim.
Sufism is an alternate
fundamental mode of Islam that is alternative to the version we know based on
law. This is the primary mode of Islam in the Islam of Kediri. The Quran and
Hadith are read in Sufi terms. It is strictly Muslim, in that, Muslims use
Islamic prayer modes and chant Quran, Javanese Hindus and Christians do not.
But Islam is embedded in Javanese culture. For greater detail, consult the
experts on Indonesian Islam who have produced a vast secondary literature.
This Sufi Islam that accepts
the practices of the local Javanese culture is rather mellow, pluralistic,
irenic, and accepting of its cultural setting. In addition, Java also has many
nominal Muslims, without Islamic practice or knowledge. I will talk more about
it when I discusses the colleges that I visited and people I had personal
discussion with about Islam. But it is important to note how mellow is their
tradition flavor of Islam. One of my colleagues at the University, recently
wrote a paper showing how Islam is compatible with animism. A paper that is
border line between empirical observation and creating a progressive 21st
century Islamic political theology that embraces tribal religions.
Since I taught mysticism, I
found out quickly from both my classroom students, and subsequently from
readings, that Indonesian Sufism and mysticism to them is not the sublime
unitive mystical experience of William James or an inner meaning as described by
the classic books on Arabic and Persian Sufism. Rather they used the word
mysticism for any religious experience or connection to religious or ritual
forces. The terms in Indonesia are kebatinan, which in class they used for any religious
experience and kepercayaan for relgious faith.
Ritual done by Sufis is seen
as having powers and blessings. And Sufi leaders, for their followers, have
supernatural powers. People want the blessing (Karamat) and become Sufis. For
Geertz, this was a native Javanese animism with an Islamic veneer and for
current trends it is clearly Islamic Sufism making use of local language and
There are many Sufi groups in
the city of Kediri. The major groups recruit the male adolescents at the
Islamic boarding schools and are traditional quoting Al Ghazali and requiring
the following of Islamic precepts. However, there are others ranging from those
that include women and children, to those that recruit through social media for
outreach, and there are those that primarily cater to addicts and criminals.
Some allow non-Muslims to attend. Some of them only meet at the shrine and not
in a mosque because the nominal Muslims do not feel comfortable in the
normative in the Mosque.
In general, the Sufi
directive is that everything one does should be for God, “Le- allah” and one
should think of god in all you do. Similar to the parallel concepts in Hasidut
and Neo-Hasidut. According to the books about Kediri Sufism, even for the
traditional groups, they assume if something is not forbidden in the Quran then
it is permitted.
They do not relate to
stringency of later generations. Most of the Sufi groups care little about
later Arabic fatwas or later fiqh. I received similar answers from the Muslim
graduate students in my classroom or local Muslims in Jogja (Yogyakarta). If
you asked them about how they relate to anti-Christian (or Jewish or Hindu)
writings of the medieval ibn Taymiyyah (or other conservative Islamic
thinkers), they answered that it is not Hadith and does not apply to them or
that they are not Salafi so he does not matter.
Finally, I wanted to take my entire University class to a Sufi dhikr or visit a tarikah since as a group of university liberals they had never been. They may have personal theologies based on Ibn Arabi or Mulla Sadra, but no actual pietistic practice or exposure. But my hectic lecturing schedule outside of the university precluded the visit. Next time.
Besides teaching graduate school at the university, I traveled to speak about Judaism in several Islamic colleges around the country. The goal was to give them familiarity with Judaism.
Many Indonesian attend religious colleges- Christian,
Hindu or Islamic- funded by the state and subject to state supervision. They
are generally BA institutions; students go to the secular universities for
graduate school. The Islamic colleges teach Islam in a college social-science
style. They have a mandatory freshman course in Islamic religion and culture.
The rest of the courses are part of the various majors. A history major can
take history of Islam, a sociology major can take a course on Islamic
sociology, an education major can take courses on Islamic education. Even a
college that has a major in Islamic law, offers courses of a historic-social
nature such as “Rise of the Salafi in the Modern Era.” The overall approach to
their Islam is to rely on the Indonesian tolerant culturally embedded form and
to study in a historic manner.
In some ways, one can compare their Islam to ideas of
a tolerant “Catholic Israel” historic form of Judaism with deep
respect for folkways and using their own clear thinking about the classic texts
over the stringent interpretations made in later centuries. The heads of these
Islamic colleges ideally have graduate degrees from places like the center of
religious studies at the secular Gadjah Mada University where I taught. These
deans, and department heads have the responsibility for the formation of a
tolerant Islam in their institutions.
In each Islamic college, I began my talk by
introducing myself and my religious background as a Jewish American, a rabbi,
and a professor. And in each place, I created opening connection by recounting
how the medieval Fatimid traders who originally brought Islam to Indonesia
included Jews among the traders. We have responsa from the Cairo Genizah
permitting wives back home in Egypt to remarry after Indonesian shipwrecks.
Indonesians understood these as analogous to the similar fatwa permitting
remarriage for the Muslim traders. But they also understood that Jews were on
the Fatimid trading ships as part of what Marshall Hodgson called the Islamic
Caliphate; the Jews were part of the diversity of Islamic Egypt in many ways
similar to my culturally belonging to the US.
The first part of the talk was an introduction to
Judaism as similar in structure to Islam in unity of God, prayer, and the other
pillars of Islam. I also showed similarity in dietary practices, circumcision,
and other rituals. Then, I repeated those ideas in a historic manner mentioning
Talmud, hadith, kalam, Maimonides, shaariah, fatwas, responsa and Jewish sufis.
Then, I gave a brief overview of Jews under medieval
Islam, both symbiosis and tension. I included famous contrasts such as the high
that Shmuel Hanagid reached and then the pogrom against his son. I continued
the history briefly survey the decline of the Jewish-Muslim relationship under
colonialism and the rise of nationalism. I transitioned to contemporary
interfaith efforts of Muslim organizations as well as very briefly mentioning
the basic terms of 21st century interfaith and intercommunal relations.
Finally, I concluded with the story of one of my
current Muslim Seton Hall students. He came to the program wanting to know
about interfaith and Christianity, and through the course of his study decided
that he wants to become a professor of Judaism in a Muslim country. He is
currently working on a PhD on medieval Jewish texts. I concluded with his story
as an exhortation for them to encounter Jews and study Judaism.
The students ostensibly know English as part of their
HS and college education, but in all the school I used a translator stopping
after every idea. In the first school, the translator only helped with some
words and summarized a few ideas. By the last school, I sat with the translator
the night before and went over the entire talk.
The content of the talk was not original. It included
the texts from the two chapters on Islam from my book Judaism and World
Religions, articles and handouts from Rabbi Prof Reuven Firestone, and speeches
from Rabbi David Rosen. For the first talk, not knowing what the students would
be interested in discussing in the questions and answers, I brought lots of
pages with me. A whole stack. For the next talk, I just brought the script of
The reaction was better than anyone expected. I was
told to anticipate 30-50 students showing up in each school. Instead I had
attendance numbers like 200 in Manado and 160 in Kediri. They were excited
beforehand and afterwards to meet a Jewish scholar. There was sincere
appreciation for opening new vistas. After one of the times that I spoke, a
female student came up to me saying: “You give really good dawah,” using the
Arabic phrase for outreach or calling to God.
They had never heard any of this material before. They
did not really know the basics of Judaism, the history of Jews under Islam, or
met a Jew. In some ways, and I don’t say this to flatter myself, it was like
Swami Vivekananda speaking at the Parliament of World Religions (1893) to introduce
Hinduism, when his audience knew nothing about Hinduism, or at best, just knew
it as paganism. I do not know the stereotypes that they had before the lecture
since there was no before the lecture survey and Jews are not a big topic for
I was repeatedly warned to prepare for abrasive
questions from the students about Palestine/Israel. In each case I was told to
brace myself. But these questions never came. Maybe they were just polite.
Maybe I seemed more of a cleric than a politician, the same way one would not
ask a Swami from the Vedanta society about Indian national politics. I assume
that I was perceived as more religious knowledge so no political questions. Or
maybe they themselves do not associate their Islamic practice in anyway with the
politics of Arabia, Pakistan and Syria, or even their own governments actions
to suppress rebellions. Alternately
as one Christian pastor involved in seminary education told me “Israel is a
Christian country” and he did not understand the existence of post-Jesus
Instead, I was asked by the students in each school
about the normal concerns of contemporary college students. The questions of
the students were: Judaism and LGBT, Judaism and feminism or woman’s rights, is
internet good for religion, and what is the role of the internet in fostering
peace or violence. They did ask about overcoming social media hatred about
Middle East conflicts. They also asked about Jewish dietary laws and the exact
times of Jewish prayer. They wanted PowerPoint images of Jewish ritual objects,
tallit, tfillin, head coverings, synagogues, Jews from different lands. I
regret not having prepared such a display.
They had little interest in the theological questions of Moses vs Mohamed, or the nature of Jewish scripture, or even Quranic passages. They already have a basic respect and tolerance for other faiths as part of their curriculum.
Since the Indonesian constitution states that “the nation is based upon belief in one supreme God.” The first tenet of the country’s national ideology, Pancasila, declares a required belief in one God, revelation and scripture, which is fulfilled by accepting Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Confucianism. There would be an automatic sense that we all worship one God and one sticks to one’s tradition. This basic equivalence of faiths as political theology allows them to easily add Judaism to their accepted religions. They have all studied this in high school as part of civics or civil religion.
The Islamic colleges seek to go beyond the mandated
course and offer a required course in world religions as part of their goal of
creating a tolerant Islam. They actively dismiss the hardline exclusive
readings of Islam produced in other countries. So, my audiences knew something
about Judaism from the chapters in introductions to world religions books of
Huston Smith and Ninian Smart. Those 1960’s classics present Judaism as
essentialized, without medieval history, and as a religion outside politics.
They have the other world faiths discussed in Ninian Smart in Indonesia, so I
was the novelty of meeting a believer in faith they never met before.
There are few books in Indonesian exclusively on
Judaism, some of the few books available are Abba Eban, My People and a
work by a Dutch Christian. This Fall 2019, one of the Islamic colleges will be
introducing a new course focusing on Judaism. I have a copy of the textbook
that the teacher produced; it builds on the categories of Ninian Smart. I also
met students who are studying Hebrew and came to the event in t-shirts embossed
with Shalom in Hebrew.
After each talk, I would be surrounded by dozens of
students wanting to take a selfie with me. Indonesia is a very big Instagram
country. There are hundreds of pictures on Instagram of me with young female in
a jilbab (Indonesian name for hijab) students. The jilbabs are an interested
facet of Indonesian Islamic life. They were generally not worn in the 1980’s
and returned in the 21st century as part of the self-identity of the younger
generation. The head covering by the young generation absolutely drives crazy
many of the baby boomer age Muslims who feel their children are getting too
religious. Yet, this young generation is more educated, open, and tolerant.
There is a vast literature on how the young feel the
jilbab is essential to their Islam and how at the same time they are more
likely than the previous generation to write dissertations on eco-feminism or
greater feminist rights. Part of the current acceptance of the jilbab is that
they are now in bright colors, vivid patterns and serve as bold fashion
accessories. More than half of my graduate classroom was female. From what I
hear, that is a major change from 15 years ago.
On the other hand, most of these same women wanted to shake my hand and then put their arm around me for the selfie. I asked many of them: Is touching a member of the opposite sex permitted. I have been in other Muslim counties where it clearly was not permitted, even in non-Salafi ones. Each woman gave the same basic answer. “We are not Salafi” so we touch. Salafi functions as a pejorative in the language of the college students for those too strict in the law or those who invoke a fatwa made in the Arab lands. They have their own identity as traditional Indonesian Muslims.
What about Salafi Islam? Isn’t it taking
Some of my readers may remember that Bali was bombed in
2002 by Jemaah Islamiyah, a violent Islamist group. But the government has been banning,
imprisoning, and expelling radical Islamic forces. Those convicted in relation
to the bombings were sentenced to death.
On the other hand, the NYT considers the younger generation
of feminists and phd students who wear a jilbob as a right-wing turn. However,
it is a truism around the world that the younger generation of Orthodox of any
faith who are more educated than their parents have a greater return to textual
practice as part a transition from traditionalism to a text-based religion. And
Indonesia has had religious parties that have wanted more Islam in the country since
it founding 1945, but they want an Indonesia Islam.
Recently, there was a wonderful article by Muhammad
Sani Umar & Mark Woodward, “The
Izala effect: unintended consequences of Salafi radicalism in Indonesia and
Nigeria” in Contemporary Islam. In the article they “argue that the Salafi
religious and cultural agendas are incompatible with Islam as understood by a
vast majority of Muslims in these regions.” They see the extreme Islam as inauthentic
compared to their version. The Salafi seek to ban the cultural Sufi world of
poetry, music, performance and that drives the Indonesian to totally reject the
Salafi. The Salafi want to introduce
Arabic culture and people are proud of their Indonesian culture, so the Salafi
are obviously false. They show that Indonesians associate all forms of Salafi-
Wahhabism with violence and terrorism.
To return the opening discussion of how does
Indonesian Islam accept Hinduism and Confucianism as a unified monotheistic God
of tawhid. Indonesians study the Sufi mystics Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra who are
monists and define tawhid as the “unity
of being” (waḥdat al-wujūd) that denies an ontological distinction between
Allah and creation because all of it pre-existed in the mind of Allah prior to
the moment of creation. All of creation is a manifestation of the divine; we experience
the divine in all things. Since Salafis reject these propositions, then from
an Indonesian perspective they do not have the proper Islamic worldview.
My students certainly had these mystical perspectives
and their parents certainly went to Sufi shrines. Hence, they are compelled to
reject Salafis. Arabic beards and robes do not make the Muslim, rather the
unity of God in the heart.
Plato, in the Republic wrote “when modes of music
change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.” Here
the converse is true. The Indonesian commitment to Gamelan music and ritual
performances means the extremism is not
accepted. I am not an ethnomusicologist and did not pay the same attention to
music as to religion. However, gamelan music is taught to children. People told
me that their relatives taught it to them as children or they went to Sunday
school for gamelan music. One Sunday morning,
standing before an open-side building design, I watched such a class for 30
kids. I even met some American ex-pats who were sending their girl – age six to
the Sunday gamelan class. People shows off to me that they could play. But
outside of the classes or special festivals and events, I heard little of it on
any island. Even the masjid in Kediri had a set up for playing gamelan music in
Nevertheless, yes, 2019 Indonesia is stricter than
1999 Indonesia. Alcohol and porn are banned on Java as an act of upholding Islamic
values- but that does not mean they want other aspects of the law or the
undoing of religious diversity.
Do not confuse Java with Aech on the northern tip of
Sumatra, which follows Sharia. I did not visit it and it functions, in many
ways, as its own region. I also was not in Papua or the Maluku islands.
In addition, do not confuse Islamic popularism in
politics with Islam as a religion. Indonesia has its share of Islamic versions
of Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, and Bezalel Smotrich, below the threshold
but making lots of noise. But they are not Bnai Brak Haredim, so too the
Islamic popularists are not Haredim.
For example, there is preacher at as a masjid on/near
the campus of University Gadjah Mada who advocates an ethno-national Islam of
wanting to exclude Christians and Hindus from teaching and living together, but
it has little connection to Islamic observance or knowledge of Islam. The same
ethno-nationals may not pray Islamic prayers or follow Islamic law. It mainly attracts
the formerly secular and those in the natural sciences. The strictly observant Muslims
are products of Islamic boarding schools and are more politically tolerant than
these ethno-nationals. The University’s administration counters the
ethno-national Islam by giving greater voice to the graduates of the Islamic
boarding school system who can read Arabic and know the Islamic religion.
Finally, seventeen years ago in 2002, was the last
time the university had a visiting professor of Judaism, Rebecca T. Alpert of
Temple U. In her own account of her time in Indonesia, she remarked how people
thought she was crazy to go to a Muslim country. Now, it is common to meet fellow
ex-pat Jews in Dubai, in Turkey, and elsewhere. Also she notes how she learned
of how the Biblical stories are portrayed in the Quran in this visit. Now there
are Jewish professors of Islam and Christianity as well as Muslim and Christian
professors of Judaism. The age of globalization creates a field of greater
travel for interfaith work, and in the 21st century there is greater
Jewish-Islamic encounter and knowledge of one another. My trip did not have the surprise element
but is all part of today’s interfaith work.
Nagen who has visited India as part of the bigger wave of 30,000-40, 000 Israelis who visit India each year. This gap-year in India has had a profound impact on Israeli youth, who seek to find some of the same spiritual values and ennobling aspiration of Asian religions in the Judaism they return to in Israel. It is common to see Religious Zionist youth with Hindu and Buddhist works and it is common for them to attempt an integration of meditation, visualization, yoga, or monism into their Judaism.
Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen (formerly Genack) studied at Sha’alvim Yeshiva, Har Etzion Yeshiva, and RIETS. He obtained his BA, MA and ordination from Yeshiva University and has Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. His PhD on Rabbinic thought was the basis for his book on Tractate Sukkah —Water, Creation and Divinity: Sukkot in the Philosophy of Halacha [Hebrew] (Giluy 2008); The Soul of the Mishna – a literary reading and search for meaning [Hebrew] (Dvir, 2016). Nagen is a leading rabbinical figure in interfaith encounters with Palestinians in the Holy Land. He has organized prayer vigils bringing together Israelis and Palestinians against religiously motivated violence. Currently, he is Ra”M in Yeshivat Othniel allowing him full Rav Shagar inspired freedom to ask new question. Nagen was a friend and student of Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa, well known for his emphasis on interfaith and peace. There will be a part II to this interview where we discuss his views on Rabbinic thought and Interfaith.
Nagen is responding to this turn to India by helping his readers see commonalities between the two faith. They are not in contradiction, rather complimentary. Nagen’s basic rubric is the distinction between Doing and Being.
Doing is the active life of accomplishment, looking to the future, and building society. Being is the activity of living in the moment, accepting the depth of the inner life, and the silence of meditation. Nagen acknowledges that it has taken a turn to India for Jews to rediscover Being. However, Nagen repeatedly points out in his classes and in this book that a Jewish spiritual path combines both Being and Doing.
The point of his book is that is OK to turn East, it is fine for the turn to Hinduism and Buddhism to return us to this inner point. His innovation is that once we rediscover this quality of Being, we rediscover that it was all along with Judaism, and we can return to Jewish texts. He acknowledges that it was not found in the immediately prior era of Brisk and Yeshiva learning, but it is found in the breath of Judaism. The turn to India should lead us back to the depths of our own tradition, Kabbalah, Hasidut, and even a spiritual reading of Rabbinic texts. The goal is not to knock Asian religions as lacking, rather they have something to teach us and we need to return with this new emphasis and reintegrate it into our lived Torah.
Even though we are seeking spirituality, orthodox Neo-Hassidism is not the approach. we need to work out our own forms of be here now – to embrace our 21st century life. What does it mean to see God in all things in our contemporary lives? How are all things in God? A world where everything is a manifestation of the divine and we should come to appreciate it. We need a Torah spirituality that gives us compassion like the Buddhists or love like the Christians and a spiritual acceptance of others. Much of Neo-Chassidism obscures the spirituality by focusing on jargon, externals, particularism, and romanticism. A positive example of how to read texts how to present spiritual ideas powerfully and simply is Eckhart Tolle. We can use his method to present Jewish spirituality just as clearly and powerfully. Yet, always seeking to reground it in the Jewish commitment to mizvot and worldly activity.
I am not sure all of his groundings of East in West work, for example his grounding of OM in Shalom or his grounding of Buddha in Moses may be a bit too speculative. In addition, Nagen focuses on the East and Being in a way that does not really differentiate Jains, Buddhists, the many varieties of Hindus, and Sikhs, he just treats them all as Indian spirituality. He discusses Hinduism and Taoism in the same paragraph. Nagen’s homilies do not offer anything to someone who wants to learn Eastern thought. He does not have sustained exposure to Eastern thought but neither do the Israelis who have been to India that he is speaking to during shiur. However, he does open Torah themes that others have never opened up. He is the next generation after Rabbis Shagar and Froman pointing to a more experiential Torah.
Nagen’s spirituality is based on meditative quiet, existential depth, and sincere awe of the compassion and goodness he sees in Asian religions. More than a decade ago, American scholars of congregational spirituality divided spirituality into four types: (1) working out the cosmos and the game plan for reality; (2) emotional enthusiasm (3) contemplation and inner self; (4) the giving of oneself in helping others. Nagen is unique against a backdrop of Orthodox emphasis on types one and two, much dancing and/or kabbalistic esotericism, he offers us “Being” the third option of an Eastern inflected spirituality of the inner self combined with “Doing” the compassion for all beings and reality.
Be, Being, Bless (Magid, 2019) is an enjoyable read, which offers new vista into the meeting of Eastern spirituality with Judaism. The book’s arrangement as Torah commentary on the weekly section of the Torah makes it into a delightful choice to read on the Sabbath or take to synagogue. The book allows us to journey with Rabbi Nagen as he shares his own experiences, which he uses to develop his creative integrative path. At the same time, he provides a Torah role model for this generation of seekers. We have a Rosh Yeshiva sharing the journey East with his students and coming back enriched and transformed. He is the Rosh Yeshiva who says that it is not only OK, but enriching. I would recommend for all those looking for a path of integration of Indian spirituality and Judaism.
Interview with Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagan- Be, Become, Bless
1) What is spirituality?
Spirituality is an emphasis on the emotional, imaginative and experiential elements. Spirituality is a search for meaning in life in which there is a sense that there is more to life than what is visible and familiar. It aspires to be transformative to how life is lived and experienced. In the context of religious life, it is the thirst for a direct connection to God and to experience the divine. Its praxis includes a greater focus on prayer that is spontaneous and personal prayer, not only verbal prayer but also connecting to God through music, art and meditative techniques.
Much of the Jewish literature which deals directly with these issues are Chassidut and Kabbalah. Understandably, the resurgence of Jewish spirituality is often referred to as neo-Chassidut. However, I feel this is a problematic term as is creates a very particular historical and cultural frame of reference for this phenomenon. Instead I see spirituality as a vital and fundamental impulse at the heart of Judaism and indeed of religion in general.
I find that the use of the broader term of spirituality facilities encompassing a broader range of ideas and sources, especially those outside of Judaism. I find it leads to less using labels and jargon and thus challenges us to use a language of life itself and demand of the ideas to have inherent meaning.
In contrast, I consider the Chassidic masters of the 18th century thought the 20th century not as starting points for today, rather as records of the significant expressions of this impulse in prior ages. By not using hassidut and its historical context as the point of reference, allows to focus on the inner essence and not externalities. Thus, I do not recommend returning to clothing characterizing a certain context, nor do I seek a cult of personality relating to masters such as Rav Nachman.
2) How did you turn to spirituality?
One could argue that the materiel success of our generation frees us from focusing on basic survival needs and opens us to the bigger questions of life and its meaning.
On a personal note, however, it was an opposite path which brought me to focus on spirituality. The formative insights in the book emerged in response to painful and traumatic events, primarily of the second Intifada (2000 – 2005) in which many close friends and students were killed, this is what pushed me and others to question life and to search.
When my student Avi Sabag was killed by terrorists half a year after his marriage, one of the most oppressing thoughts was the disparity between how hard it is to build a life, how much parents worked raising him, how much his teachers invested in him, and how much the person himself worked to build. I saw how easy it is to destroy. While being consumed by this thought suddenly, I realized that there is another way to look at life, not as a series of progressive steps, but to see each part, each day as an end it itself. I eulogized Avi as having lived few years but many days, thousands of days of rejoicing in the blessings of life and bringing blessings to others. Each day of life is a fulfillment and world in its own, and the challenge of life is found in how I lived today.
This insight evolved into a practice that I have done for many years – I begin each class by saying the Hebrew date, to recall that it is unique, never was and never will return, which pushes my consciousness to focus on today. I then add the verse “This is the day that God has made, let us rejoice in it (Tehillim 118:24) to direct my consciousness to see life itself as a blessing. Only later I discovered this focus on living the present as theme in Breslov Chassidut and in Eastern spirituality.
This return to spirituality is much more pronounced in Israel than in the United States. I see this in the context of exile and redemption. The Talmud (Berachot 8a) teaches that after the destruction of the Temple, “all God has in the world is the four amot of Halacha”. This reflects a tragic limitation of the sphere of divinity in life. In many of his writings, Rav Kook saw the essential spiritual significance of the return of the Jewish people to Israel, as a return of religiosity to the totality of life of which is what spirituality strives to fulfill. In a similar vein I once heard Rav Shagar give a lecture about why Briskers’ have a conflict with Zionism. Zionism he argued is about the return of the Jewish people to history and life, Brisk see the divinity of Torah and Halacha as being above and therefore detached from life and time.
3) How is God present in the world and how is everything in God?
When my children were four and six years old, they had a conversation at home about the relationship between God and humanity. Noa returned from kindergarten and declared that God is in heaven. Hillel replied, “God is everywhere – in the mountains and in the sea and in heaven too. I will explain it to you: Do you see how our house surrounds us and we are inside it? God is like our house. Later I discovered that the simile my son chose to explain that the world is within God appears in the ancient kabbalistic work The Bahir (1:14): “Why is the letter bet closed on all sides and open in the front? This teaches us that it is the house (bayit) of the world. God is the place of the world, and the world is not His place.”
This is not just an abstract idea. Kabbalah teaches us that God is present in everything: in life, in humanity, and in humanity’s relationship with the world and all living creatures. If we open ourselves up to this way of thinking, it will change the basic consciousness mediating our experience of reality. It is an insight that teaches us to open our eyes and hearts to the light and goodness in the world and in humanity, to love life and consider it a blessing, to understand that there is a principle that unifies everything.
4) What is the distinction between doing and being?
Jawaharlal Nehru, former prime minister of India, described the cultural divide between east and west as what is the fundamental question of life – for the west it is “what to do?”, for the east “what to be?”
The difference between “doing” and “being,” in this intercultural comparison, is the difference between wanting to change reality through action and the capacity to accept reality as is, between orientation toward the future and a recognition of the present. Existentially speaking, it is the difference between defining oneself in relation to the question “What do I do?” and the question “Who am I?”.
A central thesis in my book is that the land of Israel is at the crossroads of East and West, a geographical-historical fact that carries profound spiritual implications. Judaism contains ideas that are generally identified with Eastern religions, along with ideas that underpin Western thinking. Judaism’s grand spiritual message is the synthesis of these disparate elements, an outlook that unifies “being” and “doing.” One obvious reflection of this is the structure of the Jewish week, six day of doing and one day, shabbat, of being.
The terms “being” and “doing” are not extraneous to the Torah – they appear in the text itself. In the first description of Creation, the Torah relates a story of action. Humanity is made in God’s image, and its purpose is to rule over the world. In describing the purpose of Creation, the Torah uses the word “laasot,” meaning “to do” (2:3). The second story, in contrast, describes an existential experience of “being”: humankind is portrayed as living in harmony with nature in the Garden of Eden, and the purpose of its creation is given as “It is not good that the man should be alone” (2:18). In the first description, the relationship between Adam and his wife is outward-facing – they are charged with changing reality by being fruitful and multiplying, enjoined to procreate so as to dominate the world. But in the second narrative, the relationship faces inward, and rather than multiply, the male and the female coalesce: “…and [he] shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh” (2:24). Together, a man and a woman are the answer to human solitude, and being in union is the pinnacle of their relationship.
The Torah relates the creation of the world twice: chapter 1 of Genesis divides it into seven days, while the telling in chapter 2 focuses on Man in the Garden. This repetition is the basis of Rav Soloveitchik’s essay The Lonely Man of Faith of two archetypes of Humanity. I suggest an alternative reading to that of Rav Soloveitchik that considers the difference between the stories as an expression of the gap between a life approach of “doing” and a life approach of “being.”
5)What do we gain by looking to India? What does it have to teach?
First allow me to preface by saying that I see it as a positive and not a problem when Jews and Judaism are blessed to learn from others.
I know that there are those who always will try to find a source for everything in ancient Jewish sources to make it “kosher” or will try to claim, based on the Zohar, that Eastern spirituality emanates from the gifts that Abraham gave to the children of the concubines who went East. (Genesis 25:6). However, if one truly believes that God is the source of all life and that there is a spark of the divine in all things and ideas, then what should count is not is it Jewish or from a Jewish book but is it an expression of the divine. Furthermore, the vision of unity that stems from this belief sees a value of connecting to the divine in all things.
The dynamics of giving and receiving is a powerful way to connect to the potential of the divine in the world. Once, on a hilltop in India, I thought of a Drash on the name of God, the tetragrammaton. The first letter, Yud, in Kabbalah reflects giving, the second letter, Heh, receiving, the third Vav is the letter of connection and the fourth, Heh, is the letter of teshuvah, return. In the encounter between Judaism and the world there are four blessing, the blessing to give, the blessing to receive, the blessing to connect and finally I belief that a Judaism in deep dialogue and connection to the world will lead to teshuva, return, of those who have strayed afar.
For me the value of exposure to the East is less about learning new ideas, rather the value is the simplicity and directness with which the basic ideas of spirituality are presented, especially the concepts of Nondualism and Being. This is something that we can learn from and what I try to implement in my book.
Professor Shalom Rosenberg at the beginning of his book “Good and Evil in Jewish Thought” brings the anecdote from the beginning of “The Little Prince”, about the Turkish astronomer who finds the planet of the little prince. At first, he is not taken seriously because of his strange garb. When Ataturk takes control of Turkey and has all wear modern attire, the astronomer after changing his clothes is finally listened to. So too, the Eastern garment for spiritual ideas makes them more effective in gaining our attention. Our goal is not to use the Eastern garment, rather to learn from the East how to use more accessible, familiar and not arcane language to discuss spirituality; we need to a language that is lived in.
I must point out that some of the systems of Eastern spirituality are one-dimensional, believing that one technique or one idea, is enough to be a gateway to awakening. However, I see this as a gross limitation of life and reality, on the other it is very effective to convey that particular idea.
For example, Eckhart Tolle’s best seller “The Power of Now” focuses on the significance of being present in the present. The fact that he sees this as end all allows him to convey this idea very powerfully and passionately. However, this exclusivity I see as very problematic, I once heard a tape of his being cynical of people who go to Africa to help the poor as futile, being that what really would uplift life is learning to live the Now. With my students I teach Tolle but also present the limitations of his approach.
6) How is your approach about accepting the other?
One of the chapters of the book, was originally titled “God is in other people”, My translator, Elie Leshem, very cleverly changed that to “God is other people” as a play on Sartre statement that “Hell is other people”. I discuss the Zohar conception that giving to the other is giving to God because God is in the other. The first time in the Zohar that the doctrine of broken vessels is mentioned, is the context of people with broken lives who are the broken vessels of God’s divinity.
This idea of the divine in each of us goes back to the fundamental statement about the nature of humanity in the Torah, that we are all created “in the image of God.”
Rav Kook begins his book “For the Perplexed of the Generation” with the statement – “Humanity is created in the image of God, this is the essence of the entire Torah” I certainly see this as the fundamental idea of the Kabbala, including the Zohar and the Ari, especially their stress on the Partzum of God.
7) What is your connection of OM and shalom?
The similarities between Om and Shalom are apparent. Shalom includes the Om, and both refer to the divine. Within Judaism not only Shalom (Leviticus Rabba 9:9) but Om is a name of God according to th Sitrei Torah of the Zohar (Zohar Vayera 108b- it lists 70 letter combinations each to be considered a name of God- in this case alef vav mem).
Both “Om” and “shalom” connote oneness and harmony. Therefore, they are used to summarize and conclude: “Om” often appears at the end of sacred texts, such as in Hinduism’s Upanishads. The word “shalom,” too, concludes many prayers, including the Grace after Meals (“The Lord will bless His people with peace”), Amida (“Who blesses His people Israel with peace”), and the Priestly Blessing (“and give thee peace”). In talmudic and mishnaic literature, many tractates are concluded with Shalom.
However, what I find most significant and fascinating is how these similarities highlight the differences between them.
The following insight originated while I was preparing for a lecture to be given at the Boombamela – a week long New Age shanti festival held during Pesach on a beach near Ashdod which in its heyday attracted tens of thousands. I thought to talk about similarities between Om and Shalom, but realized how this missed the point and the message that I wanted to convey to the people there.
Shalom incorporate the Om but is not limited by it: According to Sefer Yetzira (The Book of Creation) at the root of language are three “mother” letters – alef, mem,and shin – each of which represents a different element of creation: mem stands for water, shin for fire, and alef for air (Yetzira 3:4). The three elements reflect the dialectic between fire and water, with air symbolizing the synthesis between them (2:1). The Zohar (Vayikra 12b) notes that “shalom,” begins with the letter shin and ends with the letter mem. The shin, it explains, represents fire (esh), while the mem represents water (mayim). Shalom is the capacity to encompass those binary opposites. The duality between fire and water is symbolic for the duality of doing and being and of western civilization and eastern spirituality.
For example, in the foundational text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, water is likened to the Tao itself (the indefinable, infinite principle that underlies and sustains all of creation). The book praises water and its attributes – nothing is as soft and yielding as water, which is yet strong enough to overcome and wear away that which is hard. Consequently, the Tao advocates inaction (Wu wei), a passive approach to reality. Many other Eastern traditions also teach that enlightenment is attained by accepting reality and “flowing” into it, a process that takes place mostly in one’s psyche, irrespective of action. The sound of the “Om” rises up from the water.
Western culture is founded on fire. The calendar is derived from the solar year, and the Christian Sabbath is Sunday, the day of the sun. Greek mythology, which, in many respects, remains to this day the foundational mythology of the West, associates the dawn of civilization – the very possibility of creation and progress – with Prometheus, who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humanity. Fire symbolizes the active principle, that which imposes its will upon reality. Dynamism, the will to effect change in the world, and the desire for progress – these are the foundations of Western society.
8) What are the fundamental differences between Judaism and Eastern religions?
I would start with the differences in the conception of the divine. The classical conception of God in Judaism and the other Abrahamic religions are based mostly on dualism, meaning a clear differentiation between the divine and the earthly. Creator and creation exist independently of one another – a distinctness that enables dialogue. God created the world, He steers it and acts upon it; man talks and prays to Him, and examines His ways in an effort to learn from Him and obey Him. The individual can maintain a real relationship with God, with room for feelings such as love and hate, fear and anger. These religions cast God in human terms, as Father, Lover, and Brother.
The Eastern religions, in contrast, are non-dualistic. They consider God and the world to be one, and their religious experience is an awakening to the oneness underlying everything (Brahman, or “infinite expansion,” in Hinduism, and “emptiness” in Buddhism).
My friend the late Rabbi Menachem Froman used to relate an anecdote that illustrates the difference between the two outlooks. During the Dalai Lama’s first visit to Israel, the Dalai Lama took part in an interfaith conference by the Sea of Galilee. It was a drought year, and Rabbi Froman, who also attended the conference, convinced the other religious leaders to join him in a prayer for rain. They all stood together – rabbis, sheiks, and priests – and prayed for rain. But the Dalai Lama whispered to Rabbi Froman that he did not believe “in this kind of thing.” I mention this anecdote in the book. But what I don’t mention as I didn’t want to move the focus from the essential point, was that the next day there was pouring rain!
The difference between the two approaches is the essential starting point of the great divide presented in my book between “being” and “doing.” In a world where everything is one, humanity’s purpose is to reveal the unity underlying reality, which to the naked eye seemingly comprises endless disparate elements. However, when God is conceived as being outside the cosmos and acting upon it, the individual’s challenge is to act and strive to rectify reality.
Judaism incorporates a synthesis between doing and being, the conception of the divine incorporates these two conceptions of God.
Rav Kook presents this approach in his Shemona Kevatzim (1:65). In the overt level of reality, God is distinct from the world and maintains a relationship with it, but on a deeper, more concealed level, all is one; everything is divine. The sources of “overt” Judaism, including the Bible, Talmud, and halakha, deal mostly with a personal God, while Jewish mysticism – Kabbala and Hasidism – is concerned with the inner Torah, with uncovering the divine in all of reality.
The complex relationship between God and the world can be likened to the love between a man and a woman. In order for there to be a loving relationship, each must reserve a place in their lives and their personalities that is separate from the other. It is only from such a place that they can emerge, love, and carry on a relationship. At the same time, each aspires to feel, even within that separate space, a sense of unity and shared experience with the other. A great example of this ideal is Rabbi Aryeh Levin, who – as the famous story goes – went with his wife to the doctor and complained, “My wife’s leg hurts us.”
9) You advocate the cultivation of compassion, Isnt that Buddhist and not Jewish?
I am happy that Buddhists cultivate compassion. However, I protest the assumption I often hear expressed, consciously or unconsciously, that once a world religion or culture is identified with a value however significant and authentic it is can become almost taboo for Jews.
Similarly, concerning human rights, there are circles in which you can be accused of in influenced by western values, which they consider in opposition to Jewish values.
To say “God love you” can elicit a response “that sounds very Christian”. But it is Biblical and part of Torah. I am not defined by the negation of what defines the other. Compassion is Buddhist, it is Jewish, it is Divine.
10) What lesson do we learn from the Sikh temple in Amritsar?
The Golden Temple in Amritsar is the holiest site in Sikhism. As Sikhism is a purely monotheistic religion, this was the only Temple I entered while in India. For 2000 year we don’t have a Mikdash, the Golden Temple can give a taste that helps us grasp the experience of Mikdash. However, as in all my encounters with the east, was struck not only by the similarities to – but also the differences from.
The Jewish and Sikh temples are similar not only in what is conspicuously absent from them – idols – but also in terms of their content. The Golden Temple houses the original Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, just as the ark in the heart of the ancient Jewish Temple contained the Stone Tablets of Moses and the first Torah scroll, written by Moses. At the center of the Sikh temple, an old man in white vestments sits and reads from the Guru Granth Sahib, surrounded by a group of elders, also clothed in white, who play music. This recalls the atmosphere in the Temple, in terms of both the white vestments of the ministers and the musical instruments, which in Jerusalem were played by the Levites.
I was impressed especially with the eating rituals in the Golden Temple. Every visitor, upon entering, receives a helping of food. The ritual has a moral implication: everyone eats together. The ritual reminded me of the eating of the burnt offerings in the Jewish Temple. When it comes to the Pascal lamb for example, all Jews eat the same sacrifice in the same place, in a national meal meant to drive home the fact that we are all free.
Another similarity is the welcoming atmosphere it both temples: the Golden Temple is open from all four directions and features a hostel for non-Sikh guests. Those are expressions of an openness to all of humanity that echoes Isaiah’s prophecy about the future Temple: “For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is. 56:7). Indeed, already during the dedication of the First Temple, King Solomon asks God to heed the prayers of “the stranger that is not of Thy people Israel” (I Kings 8:41–43).
Yet, alongside the many similarities between the two temples, there are also differences. The Temple in Jerusalem occupies a far more central role in Jewish life – including thousands of years of mourning for the destruction of the Temple and yearning for it to be rebuilt – than the Golden Temple does in the Sikh religion, where it is of relatively minor importance.
Perhaps the difference stems from the varying meanings associated with the temple in the two religions. Sikhism does not contain a concept of sanctity of place and time. The significance of the Golden Temple is an expression of the fact that it houses the religion’s original scripture. The absence of discrete holiness – such as in time or place – stems inter alia from the idea that God is everywhere. Although Judaism, too, believes that no place is devoid of His presence, it retains an idea of sanctity of place. Judaism believes there are special sites that facilitate intimacy and an encounter between human and divine.
It is due to this conception of holiness that the Temple is designed in a manner that is at once welcoming and removed and exclusive. The Temple is open on one side to all – women and men, Jews and gentiles alike – and all are allowed to bring offerings, but the farther in one progresses, the more stringent the demands. Entry into the heikhal, the main sanctuary, is contingent on special physical and spiritual preparation, and there are places where one is forbidden from entering. In the encounter with the divine there is a constant dance between revelation and concealment, a running and returning (ratzo vashov).
If holiness is to dwell within a secular world, there is need for boundaries and separation. Thresholds are there to awaken our sense of the sacred.
11) How can we compare Moses and Buddha?
The similarity in the arcs of their lives is clear: both begin as princes in the royal palace, both leave their sheltered lifestyle behind after encountering the suffering and pain of existence, and both eventually become spiritual teachers. But there are further parallels between them that highlight a fundamental difference.
Buddhist tradition tells of the four sights, a series of encounters that Siddhartha Gautama has enroute to his enlightenment, when he leaves the palace and becomes the Buddha. The first encounter is with an old man, the second is with a sick person, and the third is with a dead body. Through these encounters, he comes to the realization that human existence is steeped in pain and suffering. Finally, Siddhartha meets a man who grapples with his suffering by practicing asceticism, and from him draws hope that the problem of suffering is not insoluble. In the wake of that meeting, Siddhartha devotes his life to sharing his insights with others.
Moses, too, has a series of four encounters after emerging from Pharaoh’s palace. As with the first three sights of the Buddha, Moses encounters human suffering three times: an Egyptian beating a Hebrew man, a Hebrew man beating his comrade, and a group of shepherds denying the daughters of Yitro access to a well. Yet Moses, unlike the Buddha, intervenes to right the injustices he encounters. In the fourth encounter, which is parallel to the Buddha’s meeting with the monk, God reveals Himself to Moses. That encounter, too, revolves around the issue of injustice, and concludes with Moses taking upon himself the mission of returning to his people and rescuing them from bondage. He thus devotes himself to a life of action, of “doing.”
12) How does this turn to spirituality and the East affect my role at Rav in the Yeshiva Otniel?
In order to obtain an inner an inner balance between spirituality and halakhah, I asked the Yeshiva to allow me to be the Rosh Kollel Halacha for a number of years so that my primary endeavor would be the nitty gritty of halachot.
I ultimately realized that this balancing must be a day-to-day challenge, not merely a topic for an occasional talk. I mentioned earlier that for many years, I have begun each class with my students by noting the date and then adding the verse, “This is the day that God has made; we will rejoice in it” (Ps. 118:24), thereby expressing the perspective that life itself is a blessing and that joy is to be found in recognizing this reality. At some point I realized that this is creating an imbalance and I searched for a way to end each class to correct this. After a long search I found the solution, a close each class the last verse of Ecclesiastes together: “The end of the matter, when all is said and done: Fear God, and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of man” (Ecc.11:13).
I once heard Dr. Micha Goodman compare the relationship between spirituality and religion to that of love and marriage. Spirituality without religion is like love without marriage. Religion without spirituality is like marriage without love. Following Goodman’s analogy, I would add that we must be careful that the discourse of spirituality will be of love that inspires marriage and not of love that makes marriage seem unnecessary. Here I see the danger of neo-Sabbateanism promoted by certain New Age gurus, such as Ohad Ezrahi, who are explicitly antinomian. My hope and belief is that spiritual focusing on mitzvot will lead to greater observance and give an opening to expose many to Jewish practice. Time and time again I tell my students that this is the challenge. Spirituality not replacing commitment but empowering each other.