Rabbi Yakov Nagen Interview part 2- Torah Study, Zohar, and Interfaith

Here is the second part to our interview with Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen (formerly Genack) he is Ra”M in Yeshivat Othniel.  (Part 1 is here) This one comes after his successful American book tour.

This second part presents the topics that some consider Nagen’s greatest contribution, his approaches to Torah study. Much of this interview pertains to his book  —Water, Creation and Divinity: Sukkot in the Philosophy of Halacha [Hebrew] (Giluy 2008, forthcoming in English) as well as his interfaith encounters with Palestinians in the Holy Land.

Rabbi Nagen is part of the trend that coalesced starting in the 1980’s around, but not limited to, Rabbi Shagar z”l. The rabbis sought to move beyond learning in a formal manner to learning for meaning. One can compare Rabbi Nagen to others in this approach including Rabbis Dryfus, Dov Zinger, and Yehudah Brandes. For all of them, there are many methods of learning and many approaches to study Talmud. We should not be locked into a single method. (See the discussion in Rabbi Yuval Cherlow’s book on Torat Eretz Yisrael, 1998).

Rav Nagen’s emphasis is on the integration of Aggadah into the study of Talmud and into halakhah. Below are some examples pertaining to Sukkah and Arba Minim. I am not sure how clear they are to  someone who has not studied the tractate.

With great hyperbole, back in 2000 Rabbi Yuval Cherlow declared Rav Nagen as the new Rabbi Soloveitchik for our time in that the latter brought Kant and Existentialism into Torah and Rav Nagen is bringing comparative religion. While clearly and embarrassingly overstated, it does show a world of Roshei Yeshiva who see methods of learning as changing and as open to the wider world.

Rav Nagen also has integrated study of Zohar into his Talmud shiur. They do not study it as a side activity of knowing the world of the sefirot. Rather, Rabbi Nagan uses it to teach about contemporary relationship and to derive new customs. For example, he encourages his students to say when dating: “For the sake of the unification between the Holy Blessed One and His Shechinah” and that couples should say the evening shema together. A burst of new ritual creativity worthy of 16th century Safed.

Finally, this interview is his discussion of his work with local Palestinians and his visit to Al-Azhar University to share a common belief in one God. Nagen was a friend and student of Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa z”l, well known for his emphasis on interfaith and peace.

Torah study

1)       How does your Beit midrash seek meaning and spirituality beyond the more analytic Litvish approaches?

I think what is most exciting about Beit Midrash is its constantly evolving dynamic nature. When the Litvish approach was first developed in the late 19th and 20th century, it was an innovation. Rav Chaim Volozhin in Nefesh Hachaim stressed  Torah Lishmah, for its own sake.

I see the methodologies that I use not as replacements but further developments.  Classical lamdanot focused on a conceptional analysis that is often deliberately formalist and abstract. Distinctions in Brisk deal with defining the “What” and not asking the “Why.” For me there were two distinct phases of my development beyond classical lamdanot.    

A major thesis of Rav Shagar’s book “Uvetorato yahaga”  is his distinction between two basic approaches to the relationship between Torah and life- Brisker abstraction and his approach of meaning.

The first, the Brisker approach, views the Torah as divine and eternal in which the Torah is abstract and autonomous, and thereby disjoint from life and reality. The Torah being alienated from the nature flow of life is, in most aspects, a Brisker dogma and ideal. They created a closed language of lamdanut, denigration of “baalabatish” reasoning, and seeing a divide between how people think and how the Torah thinks. They view the Torah as devoid of emotional or human elements, thus claiming that the mitzvot lack reasons.  

The approach that Rav Shgar propounds, is one in which Torah can illuminate life’s questions and challenges. One creates a linkage between the flow of life and the Torah. Is God’s will manifested exclusively within the realm of halakha, or can God be found within life itself? The return to Eretz Yisrael and the fact that they live as part of Medinat Yisrael has led many in the Dati Leumi community in Israel to choose the latter approach.

2) How did you personally find Meaning beyond Abstraction?

In the first stage, while still a student as Yeshivat Har Etzion, I began working on an approach to “Halakhic thought” (machshevat Ha-Halakha), which remains conceptional but is more philosophic than classical lamdanut. The articles I wrote then eventually evolved into my doctorate “Sukkot in Rabbinical Thought – Motifs the Halacha of Sukkot in Talmudic Literature”.

In 1997, a later stage in my development, I joined the Beit midrash of Otniel founded by Rav Shagar’s students where there is a stress on seeking meaning. A meaning which finds existential and personal significance.

To give a short example of how I apply the differences: the default chakira in classical lamdanut it to asking whether “cheftza or gavra“, is it in the object or the person. In contrast, in my class it’s often the distinction explained in my book between “Doing” and “Being”, an action or a state of mind. Recently in Yeshiva we studied the mitzva of Tefillin, and I argued, based on both the Biblical sources and halachot, that the fundamental difference between the Tefillin of the head to that of the arm is that the first is sanctifying our “Being” and the latter our “Doing”. These are concepts that touch on life and opened discussions about what and how tefillin can transform.

3)   Is there a connection between the Aggada and Halacha?   

Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook often cited the Hatam Sofer that mixing Halacha and Aggada is forbidden as a forbidden mixture (kilayim). Indeed, Halacha and Aggada are distinct genres. Lack of recognizing of the uniqueness of each can lead to a mishmash.

However there is an organic connection between that makes each essential to understand the other, in which the proper integration can bring a deeper understanding of both. 

As a friend of mine pointed out, Kilayim itself isn’t a blanket prohibition, the clothes of the kohanim in the Beit Hamikdash were made of kilayim. For the record allow me to point out, the original quote of the Hatam Sofer dealt not with halacha and Aggada but rather with mixing halacha and kabbalah.

Rav Zvi Yehuda’s statement diametrically the opposite of statements by his father, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, who has issued the most vocal call to integrate Halacha and Aggada.

I begin my book on Sukkah by quoting Rav Kook from Orot Hakoda 1:25  “The Halacha and the Aggada must unite with one another….”.  When my efforts on the interplay of Halacha and Aggada were challenged by a colleague who quoted to me Rav Zvi Yehuda about kilayim, I countered by the quote from Orot Hakodesh. To which my critic responded: “No, no. you don’t understand, in Orot Hakodesh it  is referring to an abstract truth in the upper worlds, not something connected to the reality that we are living in.”

Rav Kook the father is motivated by his holistic and nondualist worldview that seeks to uncover the One underlying all with a connection between Halacha and Kabbala,  I would view this connection as based not only on theological but on academic, literary and historical grounds.  As Yonah Frankel, a pioneer in the study of Aggada and midrash. has pointed out, all of our sources from the Sages contain both Halakha and Aggada – the Bavli, Yerushalmi, Midrashei Halakha and, to a lesser extent, the Mishna and Tosefta. Furthermore, the same sages engaged in both genres

The idea that Halakha and Aggada are unrelated would belie all we have learnt from anthropology and comparative religion – rituals have significance and meaning and often reflect a value system. The burden of proof is on anyone who would argue that Judaism is the exception.  Yair Lorberbaum, in his book, Image of God has a marvelous chapter on the relationship between Halacha and Aggada in the Sages.

4) How do you see this relationship between Aggada and Halacha  in the context of your work ?

The field of the relation of Halacha to Aggada is relatively new.. In my doctorate  and book on Sukkot, I grapple with this challenge of working in a new field, but there is still a long road ahead. In my work the focus would be best called “machshevat Ha-Halakha“. I study the halakhic for its ideas based on its sources, definitions, literary structure, and contexts within the back and forth of the halakhic discussion.

In addition, through my doctoral work, I was exposed to additional fields that contributed to my research. The study of ritual and symbolism in anthropology and comparative religion, can lead to insight into Halacha. This method does not necessarily lead to “parallel-mania” between Judaism and other traditions. Often, quite the opposite results – comparison highlights what is unique about Judaism.

5) How does this apply to learning Sukkah? Can you offer examples?

 The Aggada  in Sukka 11b brings an opinion that the Sukkah parallels the Divine clouds that encompassed the Jewish people in the desert. The meaning and scope of the idea is uncovered by studying the halachic parameters of Sukkah.

In Tannaic sources eating in the Sukkah is compared to eating of Korbonot(Mishna Sukka 2:6), and other laws derived from the seven days in which Aaron and his sons lived in the Mishkan during the process of its consecration (Sefra Emor 17).

In the Amoraim the Sukkah emerges as an abode of the divine, highlighted through its connection to the Kodesh Kedoshim, the inner sanctuary. The minimum size of the Sukkah is derived from the lowest level that the Shechina manifested above the Ark, or from the size of the space between the Ark and the wings of the Cherubs above it.  The intricate sugya in which these  laws appear is in fact examining the relationship between heaven and earth (Sukka 4b – 5b).

Looking at the totality of the halacha calls us to see also the theme of Sukka as the home during the course of Sukkot. Rav Yuval Cherlow once told me that in wake of my approach of Sukka as Temple, I presumably would identify with the position that frowns on marital relations in the Sukkah. I argued that the whole point of the interplay between the Sukka as Temple or as home, is a vision to connect the home and life to the holy, and the sukkah encompassing life and not dividing it, as Tosphot points out (Sukka 43b), in the mikdash it is forbidden to sleep, whereas on Sukkot one is obligated to sleep in the Sukka.

6) What insights can you offer about the Araba Minim?

I see the Arba minim as both reflecting the divine and as a sacrifice.

I point out that Rabbi Akiva’s halachic opinion that there is only one of each Min, is reflective of his approach that each of the Arba Minim is a symbolic representative of the divine, thus one of each. An interesting historical point made by Professor Sperber is that the coins from the Bar Kochba revolt have a picture of the Arba Minim in accordance with Rabbi Akiva’s approach, which reflects the tradition that he was the Rabbi of Bar Kochba.

The dominant approach, however, in the Mishna and Talmud relates to the Arba Minim with many of the parameters and categories of sacrifices The Aggada explicitly makes the comparison between Arba Minim, and sacrifice.

Both of these approaches to Arba Minim, as representing the divine or as sacrifice fit well with the above conception of Sukka as Temple. In general Sukkot is the primarily holiday of the Temple. Sukkot is the time in which Solomon dedicated the Temple. I argue that the nightly celebration in the Temple, Simchat beit hashoava, is a reenactment of the events and ceremonies behind the story of the Temple, such as David’s wild dancing in front of the ark as a procession leads it to Jerusalem. In the future too, the time that humanity comes to the Temple is designated as Sukkot (Zecharia 14).  

7)       What is the role of Raphael Patai and Mircea Eliade in your work?

Patai was a pioneer in  comparing Jewish ritual and those of ancient cultures and religions. Ideas of each person being a microcosm, and of the Temple microcosm. The cosmic significance of the water libations is illuminated by the parallels he brings. One flaw is that he notes similarities but what often is most interesting to me are the differences.

More significant for me was the work of Eliade, to which Professor Moshe Idel, who together with Professor Moshe Halbertal was my doctoral mentor, encouraged me to study.Eliade, who was one of the twentieth century’s foremost scholars of religion, contrasted two different approaches to time: the cosmological and the historical. In the cosmological model, time is cyclical: what was is what will be. Time flows backward, in a constant, recurring return to a mythical age. This conception of time is derived from, among other things, the phenomena of the natural world, which repeat every year without fail. For instance, in the spring the flora bloom, during the year the plants dry out, and in the following spring they grow anew. Eliade contrasts this conception, which pervades the pagan world, with the historical view of history instilled by Judaism. According to which time and the world are always marching forward.

The importance of the historical approach in Judaism lies in the fact that it makes room for morality and values. Were that not the case, nothing could change, and man’s actions would be meaningless. Eliade himself, it bears noting, identified with the cosmological model: as a fascist and an anti-Semite, he was not much enamored of the historical approach.

In my book on Sukkot, I argue that the Jewish tradition did not supersede the cosmological approach, but rather added to it, maintaining a unique synthesis between the cosmic and the historical. Sukkot has both historical components, in the context of the story of life in the desert and cosmic in terms of the renewal and return to nature, a theme that also appears through laws of sukkot.

8) What is the goal of Torah study from a universalistic perspective?

 I believe that the role of Torah study for the Jewish people is so fundamental, touching on our deepest identity, essence, and destiny. My universalism leads to a greater emphasis on the significance of Torah study. As I don’t see the Jewish people as having different DNA or different soul as non-Jews, but rather as sharing a common humanity and image of God  (tselem Elohim), therefore it is the Torah that makes us unique,  who we are and who we can become. The blessing we say on the Torah “God…who has chosen us from all the nations and given us the Torah” tells us that it is the Torah that gives us our status. The richer, deeper and more significant the Torah is, the more we grow. As a result, to fulfill our role I see the value in reaching new realms, and see openness to the world as opening up pathways to this expansion of Torah.

This belief reflects for me my hashkafa (worldview) of Modern Orthodoxy. Openness to the world has a value and but also a price. I see the challenge and obligation of Modern Orthodoxy as working to ensure that the price we pay for our exposure to the outside world to be justified by the ways we are blessed by this engagement.

Another reason why universalism leads to this imperative is the vision of the Jewish people as continuing to  contribute to humanity through the venue of Torah – in the words of Isaiah 2:3 “From Zion will go forth Torah and the word of God from Jerusalem” . This challenges us to develop a Torah that can speak to humanity as a whole and be transformative for their lives and for their connection to God.

Interfaith Work

9)    Why do you engage in interfaith work with local Palestinian imams and sheikhs? What is accomplished?

The return of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisroel, and the birth of a Jewish State is not the end of the story but the beginning. After two thousand years of untold suffering and determination, we have a moral responsibility to create a state that will realize a vision that justifies this journey of the Jewish people. We need to heal the relations between the Jewish people and humanity, and to connect with other followers of God in order to serve him from a place of connection and brotherhood. The state gives us an imperative to try to make the other into a brother.

More and more it is recognized in Israel the significance of religion in reaching these ends, including even the political. The great insight of Rav Menachem Froman, my friend and mentor, was that if religion is part of the problem, then it will have to be part of the solution. Belief in God has the power to separate people, but it also has the power to connect them.  For those who believe that the other worships a different God, faith will drive a wedge between the two parties. However, for those who believe that we both love, cherish, and pray to the same God, belief will only draw us closer together.

When it comes to Judaism and Islam, the two primary religions in the conflict, their theology binds far more than it divides. Jewish rabbinic literature values Islam for its belief in the unity of one God. In the Koran, Islam grants a special status to Jews as “Ahlul Kitab” – People of the Book. However, while these theological tenets may lay the foundation in principle, peaceful relations between peoples can and will only be built through direct encounter, through laying down the bricks one at a time. The work comes through real life meetings between persons of different faiths, opportunities to acknowledge and encounter the Other’s religious and ethnic identity.

For years I have been active in interfaith meetings both in Israel proper and the West Bank, largely under the auspices of two organizations – the Abrahamic Reunion (AR) and the Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA).  I see the power of these sessions as twofold. First, such meetings have the power to change what the attendees think about the Other. Second, and perhaps more significantly, these encounters take those truths one already knows cerebrally and brings them down from the head to the heart, turning them into a living existential reality.

Human connections alone cannot be a substitute for political solutions, but they create fertile ground for solutions to develop and ultimately flourish. These connections can help ensure success of any future resolution and open up new possibilities to finding an optimal solution for all parties.

10) Why did you visit Al Azhar in Egypt?

On several occasions, I hosted my friend Dr. Omer Salem at Yeshivat Otniel who lectured to our students. At one point he offered to host me in Cairo at his University, Al Azhar University. Al Azhar was founded more than a thousand years ago and is one of Sunni Islam’s most important institutions. I realized that there is ongoing debate in Egypt about who are the Jewish people and thought that be going there an ability to impact on this discussion, so together with Dr. Joseph Ringel and Rebecca Abramson (a haredi journalist) we set out for Cairo.

Omer wrote his doctorate at Al Azhar University, on the topic of the status of Jews and Judaism according to Islam. This is the same topic that the former Grand Imam of Al Azhar Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, wrote his thesis, on Ahlul Kitab, the people of the book.  They however reached opposite conclusions. According to Tantawy, Islam has a negative attitude toward the Jews.  

“[The] Qur’an describes the Jews with their own particular degenerate characteristics, i.e. killing the prophets of Allah, corrupting His words by putting them in the wrong places, consuming the people’s wealth frivolously, refusal to distance themselves from the evil they do, and other ugly characteristics caused by their deep-rooted lasciviousness … only a minority of the Jews keep their word. … [A]ll Jews are not the same. The good ones become Muslims, the bad ones do not.” 

In contrast, Omer took the opposite approach and saw as what he believes is the positive conception of the Jews in Koran as the key to reconciliation in the Middle East as he argues in his book, The Missing Peace: The Role of Religion in the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

There are, however, Jewish believers with whom Islam has no problem. Surah 3 says that there is ‘a party of the people of the Scripture [who] stand for the right, they recite the Verses of Allah during the hours of the night, prostrating themselves in prayer.’ The Quran praises the Jews for obeying the Torah.”

 “[If your ways are pleasing to Allah], even your enemies will become your lovers. Remember that you are the chosen people. You may doubt that Islam appreciates and respects the Jews, but when Muslims ruled the world they were the protectors of the Jews. My vision is to restore this attitude. I want to say to my Muslim brothers and sisters: You are not the enemies of the Jews, you are their protectors.” 

11) Who did you meet with while at Al-Azhar University ?

We met with some of the professors there.

Dr. Bakr Zaki Awad, the dean of the School of Theology whose specialty is the relationship between the Torah, the New Testament and the Quran, yet he had never met a rabbi in his life. He had a lot of powerful questions to raise about Judaism. One issue he raised was that Muslims want everyone to be Muslims, but Jews don’t seem to care who becomes Jewish. He saw this as Jewish antipathy towards other people. I told him that the Torah starts with our common humanity in the story of Adam, where we are told that all of humanity is created in the image of God. Judaism sees itself as having a role to play in the story of humanity, but not that everyone should be Jewish. Our role is to awaken certain values and a connection from God to humanity, which we see for example in the seven Noahide laws. We see in Islam a fulfillment of that vision.

When we visited the University of Fayum where we met another professor of Omers’. When he heard we were Jewish, he told us a very sweet story:

One day someone came and knocked on the gate of the palace identifying himself as the brother of the Caliph. The visitor is ushered in, but the Caliph isn’t able to recognize his brother. The Caliph asks, “Are you my brother through my mother?” “No” is the reply. “Are you my brother through my father?” Again the answer in negative. The caliph continues to think and finally asks again, “Are you my brother in Islam?” The visitor answers, “I am not a Muslim. ”“So how are you my brother?” asks the Caliph. “I am your brother as all of us are children of Adam and Eve.” The Caliph responds: “You are right. I will treat you as my brother to demonstrate this to the world.”

Integrating Zohar into our Lives

12)       Why is Zohar study important for today’s yeshiva?

 I mentioned in the previous interview Rav Kook opening statement to “For the Perplexed of the Generation”– “That Humanity is created in the image of God,

this is the essence of the entire Torah” I see the connection of the human and the divine as the fundamental idea of the Kabbala, the heart of which is the Zohar.  I see the power of this concept as sanctifying and empowering all human life and interpersonal relations as well as human endeavors.

13) How do your current shiurim on Zohar focus on love in the Zohar?

The love songs of Shiur HaShirim between the male and the female, which is in the words of Rabbi Akiva, the holy of the holiest (Mishna Yadaim 3:5), is an allegory, but the question is for what? The traditional answer is for the love between God and the Jewish people. Within the teachings of Rabbi Akiva it is clear that the realm of the divine includes also the earthly love between man and wife (Sotah 17).

The Zohar adds a third dimension to these love songs, as the love and yearning within the realm of the divine, between HaKadosh Baruch Hu and the Shekhinah. What is critical and often missed is the dynamics and interrelation between these three dimensions. Or as I tell my students that before going on a date to say “For the sake of the unification between the Holy Blessed One and His Shechinah “”לשם ייחוד קודשה בריך הוא ושכינתיה .

Often passages that the commentators see as abstracting dealing within the divine realm, I will ask what this could means when actualized in the human realm and applied to our interpersonal lives..

There is a beautiful teaching in the Zohar at the beginning of  Shir HaSHirim, that a kiss of love has four spirits, ruchot,  in it. It can be explained abstractly about the interaction between heavenly sefirot but also as an insight our interpersonal relations.  Two people in a relationship are really four spirits. Each person has their own individuality but in time each encompasses something of the other, and gives it a new form, thus in a relationship there are four spirits connect.

Another teaching in the Zohar on love is in Parshat Teruma that the source of the four letter name of God, the tetragrammaton is the very similar four letter Hebrew word, Ahava, love, which the Zohar states the letters of which  “above and below are dependent” (Zohar Teruma 146a). So love increase God’s presence.

14)    Explain how do you think the Zohar wants us to do Shema as a couple?

The earliest time of Shema in the morning is when there is enough light for one to see his friend (Shulchan Arukh 58a).  Rav Reem HaKohen once explained that the reason is that Shema is accepting God’s majesty upon us and in Judaism, as by Sinai, this should not be done alone but with others.

My first thought was that the corollary should be that at night, the Shema said before going to sleep should be said with ones’ spouse.  I later discovered many passages in the Zohar stressing the great unity of Shema is the unity between male and female. For example the Zohar terumah (133b) says that the first phrase “shema…ehad” is the inner unity of the groom, the second “Baruch….Voed” is the bride entering modestly into the huppah and thus this is said in a whisper. Or “all mitzot each reflect either the masculine or of the feminine, the exception being Shema which is unity as thus has both (Zohar Hadash Ruth 110a)  The explicit meaning of these passages is that this is about the unity between those aspects of the divine, but in my approach to Zohar I see this as actualized also in the partnership of a couple together accepting God.

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