Monthly Archives: December 2019

Rav Shagar on Shabbat Hanukkah- The Candle and the Sacrifice

Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah sermon brings together the debate whether the Hanukah candles are similar to a sacrifice as an act of destructive consumption or a moment of illumination. From there he weaves in a discussion of the difference between Shabbat guests and Hanukah guests.

This is our 19th post on Rav Shagar,  for #18 which was also on Hanukkah see here, Other entry points are herehere. herehere, and here.) The texts are first drafts from a collection of essays of Rav Shagar to be published by Levi Morrow and myself.

The first option of comparing the Hanukah candles to the Temple menorah and thereby the sacrificial service, Rav Shagar uniquely portrays sacrifice as destruction, destroying the object offered, and the need to be completely consumed. In this approach, Shagar, follows George Bataille’s book Theory of Religion in which we overcome the modern self by a return to sacrifice and destruction.  For Bataille, who died in 1962, religion is the search for a lost intimacy with animality and the cosmos. The ritual attempts to recovery the intimate original order through the violence of the sacrifice. Only by sacrifice can we destroys the functional utility of the object to return us to lost state of immanent being.

Making use of passages from Bataille’s theory allows Rav Shagar to portray Hanukkah candles as pure destruction which grants us liberation from thingness; it allows us to ascend to “nothingness and envelops itself.”

Mizvot such as Hanukah bring us back to a primordial religious experience which “destroys or nullifies any existence other than the existence of the creator, and denies any possibility of understanding the creator and encountering him.” Paragraphs such as this should serve a warning to comparing Shagar’s use of philosophy and post-modernism as Torah uMadda and even more of a warning against asking how Rav Shagar helps your suburban Orthodoxy. This is a nullification of self and the material world.

Rav Shagar see exemplars in figures such as Rav Nachman who were willing to sacrifice their very beings as an non-utilitatian offering of the self to seek God. They never expected to understand or grasp God, all we can do is offer up our very existences.

Rav Shagar relishes the 18th and 19th century Chabad conceptions  of completely nullifying the self (bitual hayesh) and thereby completely nullifying the world into a state of nothingness. We negate the pleasures of this world and seek a complete liberation from all things to “return to a pantheistic state of simplicity and oneness with existence.” Rav Shagar express similar hope to be the moth to flame in his book on martyrdom and self-sacrifice. So please stop thinking of him (or having bad Facebook discussions of him) as an intellectual pulpit rabbi who reads postmodernism. For him, we commit our whole beings toward death to have a possibility of a divine encounter.

The second approach to Hanukkah candles treats them as “energy, movement, and light” illuminating our lives. “Lighting the candle does not express self-sacrifice but the powerful Eros of life.” The candles ignite our souls into passion, an Eros of existence rising from the darkness of the ever-present Thanos.  

This Erotic illumination “leads to nostalgia” and sense of how light out of darkness leaves us lonely when we sense its fleetingness, and how much the candle is a mere “illusion of eternity” because we return to darkness.  Even when we have moments of illumination, Rav Shagar feels how quickly it will fade.  

Rav Shagar sees this distinction of sacrifice and illumination as the numinous and the pleasurable. The numinous as in Rudolf Otto’s classic book The Idea of Holy and the pleasurable as Freud’s pleasure principle. Rav Shagar will devote 3 lines to associating Otto’s numinous to Levinas and Derrida who have concepts of “the other” and “the difference.” The pleasurable is shown in the meat and rich foods of the Sabbath. The richness of pleasure is for Rav Shagar, an essential of Judaism. He gives a nice vignette about how he tells his students who eat dairy of Shabbat in order not to be exhausted that Judaism is about pleasure.

From this distinction, Rav Shagar glides into the importance of the familial shabbat table with its pleasure and inviting of guests as opposed to the doorway of hanukkah. Holiness is a good meal overflowing with “good and grace for the participants.” As Rav Nachman of Breslav says hosting guests is like hosting the shabbat. The home is being with oneself and allowing the walls between self and other to break down. Rav Shagar has similar language of being at home or “at homeness” about the Yeshiva, the beit midrash, and one’s non-foundation acceptance of faith. One create a sense of at-homeness.

In contrast, we light Hanukkah candles on the liminal border between the home and the dark evil world, between self and sin. The guest of Hanukahh is a process of overcoming the self and comfort to embrace an otherness and thereby embrace the Other. We have no permission to use the light in a utilitarian way as things are normally used in the home.  On Shabbat there is a solidarity and interpersonal closeness; On Hanukah, at the space of the from door, the outside world does not play by the rules of our hospitality and the guest retain freedom. (These Hanukah ideas are based on uncited Rav Nachman ideas of Hanukkah as wondrous and abnormal.  Rav Nachman has a story where a householder lights the Hanukkah candles and the guest magically takes him flying into the sky to paradise as well as uncited Derrida on hospitality.)

Rav Shagar concludes the homily with a prayer, or a hope, that opening the door can create connections never before possible and in addition we “will not require the exclusion of Otherness but will include it without crumbling.  The idea of new connections never before possible was part of his homily on Greek wisdom and Torah for a different Hanukkah- posted here. The discussion of no longer being exclusive of the Other is behind many of his expansive socio-political homilies.

The entire 3500-word homily is below and available as a download below. It is still a rough draft. It is from the book of essay that Levi Morrow and I are producing. Some of the sentences and paragraphs still need clarification.

Enjoy – A freylekhe Khanuke!

The Candle and the Sacrifice: A Sermon for Shabbat Hanukkah

Life and Death

Nahmanides in his Torah commentary equates the Hanukkah candles with the candles of the menorah in the Temple. [1] Other commentators have a reverse approach that contrasts the menorah, which was lit only while the Temple stood, with the Hanukkah candles, which we light throughout the exile. Based on this distinction, I want to explore some of the different meanings of candle lighting and its holiness, the candle of the menorah, the Hanukkah candle, and the candle of the Sabbath.

While lighting the Hanukkah candles we say, “These candles, they are holy.” What is holy in a candle, the light or perhaps specifically the way the candle burns, consuming itself?

Lighting the candles of the menorah was one of the priestly services in the temple “Speak to Aaron saying: “In lighting the candles toward the face of the menorah, light seven candles” (Numbers 8:2). The nature of this service emerges with greater clarity when contrasted to bringing a sacrifice. The sacrifice returns the “thing,” the object-animal, to nothingness via its destruction and consumption, as clearly expressed by the Olah sacrifice that is burnt up entirely on the altar. “The priest shall offer up and turn the whole into smoke on the altar. It is an entire offering by fire, a pleasing aroma for God” (Leviticus 1:13). However, we need to be specific:

The principle of sacrifice is destruction, but though it sometimes goes so far as to destroy completely (as in a burnt offering), the destruction that sacrifice is intended to bring about is not annihilation. The thing–only the thing–is what sacrifice means to destroy in the victim.[2]

In other words, the sacrificial act returns the objectness (the thing-object) to the intimacy of existence, to a state where everything merges in everything else, like “water in water.”[3] The sacrifice is therefore not elimination and absence but “returning to nothingness.” A return from existence, from the world characterized by functional and instrumental distinctions that tear things from the deep intimacy of the divine world, to where there is no accounting.[4]

On the one hand, the death of the sacrifice is the concept of limitation. Death from the perspective of life ends the differentiation of the world of things. The idea of limitation grants a thing itself, its existence, because limitation is necessary for existence. On the other hand, death grants existence its unity with itself. Through the disintegration of distinguished things, existence becomes liberated from thingness, ascends to nothingness and envelopes itself.

From the perspective of the living thing, the sacrifice ends in defeat, as it leads to deadness and elimination. It is impossible to “destroy the animal as a thing without denying the animal’s objective reality… one cannot at the same time destroy the values that found reality and accept their limits.”[5] Now that death manifests, the animal no longer exists from the perspective of life in “the world of things.” The sacrifice therefore turns into an existence of emptiness.

The absolution annihilation of the sacrifice expresses one of the primordial religious experiences: rejection and nullification of the value of the world. Religiosity inherently bears within it an experience of destruction, [6] in that “it destroys or nullifies any existence other than the existence of the creator, and denies any possibility of understanding the creator and encountering him.”[7] Hasidic conceptions of nullifying existence, such as the Habad contemplation of “everything before God is as nothing,” ultimately take part in the nullification of the world.[8]

You can see the broad attention to the experience of destruction in Hasidic teachings in the descriptions of the yearning and consumption of the soul where they are compared to a sacrifice that burns the pleasures and enjoyments of this world. In Hasidut, the sacrifice represents “the elevation of feminine waters,”[9] a process of love at the center, a liberation from things and a return to a pantheistic state of simplicity and oneness with existence. Faith grows out of this state. Reality receives its spiritualization from death, which deconstructs the differences in existence, as found in specific aspects such as commitment to martyrdom upon going to sleep, or when falling by lowering one’s head in prayer.[10] These leads to liberation from the ordered laws of existence, yet [mizvot] are bound up in frustration and inner pain since our existence does experience death and the destruction of existence as liberation. That experience belongs to the intimate nothingness, what a person “sees only at the moment of his death.”[11]

The sacrifice in the temple resonates with the requirement of martyrdom “with all your heart, with all your life, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). “With all your life – even if he takes your life.”[12] “With all your might (me’odekha)” “In Rabbi Meir’s Torah scroll they found it written: “Behold it was very (me’od) good” (Genesis 1); behold death (mot) was good.”[13] A person must commit his whole world to death in order to open up to the divine absolute, as only in the consuming of life does there exist the possibility of encounter with the infinite.

In contrast to sacrifice, the character of lighting the menorah candles is different in that it leads to illumination and vitality. Certainly, the candle consumes itself, but this happens in the process of living, as a consuming that is itself part of living, as “the soul that I placed in you is called a candle.”[14] The consuming is also present in the oil and the wick consume themselves as they burn. However, lighting aims not at eliminating but at burning, kindling, and illumination that give life. The inanimate oil and the wick transform into energy, movement and light. Just as a person consumes his stores of energy when integrating the spiritual and physical parts of himself in the process of living, so too in the lighting of the oil and the wick they unite and shine, receiving life. From this perspective, the lit candle reflects the process of life, the activity of the soul.Lighting the candle does not express self-sacrifice but the powerful Eros of life.[15]

(The ancient custom mentioned already in the Mishnah (Berakhot 8:6) of lighting of a memorial candle is the act that best expresses the metaphor of the candle as the soul of man. With the lit candle, it is as if the person resurrects the departed in his memory, his soul shining in the candle. Due to its comparison with the soul, the candle becomes the medium for the embodiment of the departed’s soul.)

The role of the high priest in lighting the candles is therefore different from when he sacrifices the offering. With the menorah, his role is to illuminate souls, to ignite them, to give them the passion and the Eros of existence.With the sacrifice, his job is to bring a person to self-sacrifice and personal consumption; to give up on the finite nature of his existence by overcoming himself. This is a different manner of Eros, wherein “strong as death is love, hard as hell is jealousy, and its darts are darts of fire, a blazing flame” (Song of Songs 8:6).

The Eros that we find in contemplating the light of the candle is the same Eros of the soul of man, a consequence of this duality of light and consumption. This Eros leads to the nostalgia that we find in various Hanukkah songs. The lightness is the small and raw existence of the candle-soul, the dim candle that stands outside under threat of the great darkness. The loneliness, the quiet, and the monotony of the lit flame create the illusion of eternity, as if it will continue forever, that the candle and the soul will never go out. From this perspective, the Eros of the small candle is greater than that of the mighty, brazen, light of the torch.

Two Holies

As a general principle, bringing a sacrifice and lighting the candles present two different types of consciousness regarding the holy: the numinous and the pleasant. This echoes a split found in the Bible, where the holy sometimes appears as the awful and terrifying mysterium tremendum, which demands the destruction from sacrifice, and sometimes as the illuminating good, replete and pleasurable. [16]

The holy arouses fear and brings with it the destructive. In the language of Levinas and Derrida the holy represents the “other” and manifests the “gap” and “difference” that cannot be bridged. “Anyone who touches the mountain shall die. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be either stoned or shot; beast or man, he shall not live” (Exodus, 19:12-13); “They shall not enter to see the dismantling of the holy, lest they die” (Numbers 4:20). However, the holy also appears as good and pleasing, overflowing its bounds: “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our Lord. Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in the Lord is the source of your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). The holy day is sanctified when it is called “delight,’ the lord’s day, ‘honored” (Isaiah 58:13), and seeking the favor of God through eating rich foods and drinking sweet drinks: “Then you can seek the favor of the Lord. I will set you astride the heights of the earth, and let you enjoy the heritage of your father Jacob; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Ibid. 14). The symbol of pleasure is oil – “You anoint my head with oil; my drink is abundant. Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life” (Psalms 23:5-6). Oil bears an erotic connotation in the Hebrew Bible: “Your ointments yield a sweet fragrance, Your name is like finest oil— Therefore do maidens love you” (Song of Songs 1:3), and it is holy “Make of this a sacred anointing oil, a compound of ingredients expertly blended, to serve as sacred anointing oil” (Exodus 30:25).

This facet of holiness is manifest on the Sabbath – when we light the Sabbath candles – in the Sabbath foods, which are generally rich, as the poet wrote: “to delight in pleasures / swan, quail, and fish;”[17] in the Sabbath sleep, which is pleasure; and in the command of marital intimacy for scholars, especially on the Sabbath.[18] All of these flow into the candle – the oil and the wick.

(It seems to me that the difference we find in the Hebrew Bible between the holy as the numinous other and the holy as harmony and pleasure is root of the debate that I sometimes have with some of my students about the Friday night meal. They are accustomed to eat a dairy meal in order to avoid eating rich and exhausting foods. Against them, I claim that this damages the holiness and pleasure of the Sabbath. In response, they say that each person’s pleasure is different, which is correct. Despite this, I answer them that the fact that they prefer dairy to meat, the light over the fatty, is a lack in their Judaism.)

The Sabbath candle is like the light of the home, gentle and pure, it does not impose a blinding otherness on a person, nor dread. It is also not part of the thunder and lightning of Mount Sinai, where anyone who touched the mountain would die.[19] The candle lights up its surroundings, the home. The holiness here is familial, the light belongs to the home and is meant for the home, like a good meal, overflowing with good and grace for the participants; the good and grace connect the participants one to another.

It is therefore not surprising that the holiness of the Sabbath is inseparable from the hosting of guests, as Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav asserted “hosting guests is like hosting the Sabbath.”[20] The pleasure of the Sabbath is manifest in the harmony of the body and the soul. The additional soul of the Sabbath, which Rabbi Solomon Yitzchaki explained it is “an additional soul that expands his consciousness for eating and drinking,”[21] leads to reconciliation between contradictory elements, reconciliation that is parallel to life, which connects body and spirit, oil and wick. The Sabbath candle is a candle of harmony in the home: “What is ‘My soul is removed far off from peace’ (Lamentations 3:17)? Rabbi Abbahu said: That is kindling the Sabbath lights”[22] because the candle provides the satisfaction and fullness of the home. This is also the origin of hosting guests on the Sabbath – a person has a homey dimension, a “being with himself,” and it is with this that he hosts guests. This is reconciliation of contradictory elements on a social level; the walls between a person and “the other” fall down for the sake of unity, subjectivity (nafshut), and fellowship.

Can we identify these characteristics in the Hanukkah candle? This is a candle of “each man and his family,”[23] rooted in feeling at home. On the other hand, “we have no permission to use them, only to gaze at them,”[24] since this light, the light of the candle, evokes the gap between it and the person who lights it. A person has no permission to use it, in that, he must keep his distance from it. Moreover, this candle is located “just outside the doorway of the house,”[25] and “sin crouches at the door” (Genesis 4:7). The candle does not only belong to the home and to the feeling of being at home, but also to an Other space, dark and outside the known, familiar, boundaries, the demonic space. This candle’s roots are in war, the war of the Maccabees, not in the harmony of the Sabbath. To sum up: the Hanukkah candle carries within it both facets: the sacrifice and the menorah; consumption of the soul and the Eros of life; the outside and the home, otherness and hosting guests.

Hosting Guests

Two different types of hosting guests follow this approach: that of the Sabbath, which is when a person opens the doors of his well-lit home, and that of Hanukkah, connected to the harsh aspects of the divine (gevurot), when a person transcends himself toward “the Other” who is outside the door, and brings him into his home as an Other.[26] Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Halevi of Homil, a student of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, describes it thusly in his Hanukkah sermons. The Sabbath is “specifically a person for himself, in his home, with his household who obey his will. In contrast, the behavior of Hanukkah, which is outside the home where there is authority besides him and his will is not sovereign. This is why you must behave differently there”[27]

Sabbath hosting guests is an outgrowth of a person “being with himself,” the solidarity of a person with himself and of his household with each other. The basis for hosting guests is the state suitable to reveal the familiar in a person and between people. He invites the “Other” into his home due to the fellowship and closeness that will exist, and perhaps already exists, between him and the household. He is invited to be a member of the household and to take part as a son in a home lit up by Sabbath candles and angels of peace. Ultimately, this mutual acceptance flows from the commonalities between people and it reveals what they share, the soul, which is a person’s good intentions, to which all sons and daughters of the home belong.

Hosting guests on Hanukkah is something else entirely because it requires self-sacrifice and inspires fear, rather than the harmony of the Sabbath. This hosting of guests requires a person to overcome himself and his “I”, as an absolute process, a decision, a revolution that he undergoes in relation to the Other, overcoming the otherness of the Other.[28] It is a process of consuming through self-overcoming and putting faith in the Other despite his otherness. It is hosting guests without depriving the Other of his freedom, and therefore not expecting solidarity and interpersonal closeness but simply otherness – often deep chasmal otherness – between guest and host. This lets strangeness invade the home, and therefore this hosting of guests destroys the feeling of being at home as the reality of the home loses its everyday familiarity. The candles are lit and shining – seemingly warm and familiar – but we do not have permission to use them, only to gaze at them – they estrange themselves from the person lighting them.

Hosting guests on Hanukkah does not occur in the lit home, but just outside the front door. Just as the sacrifice is a liminal concept (musag gevul) between the existence of things and their nullification, so too the Hanukkah candles stand on the border between the home’s feeling of familiarity – which has its rules, definitions, and distinctions – and the lack of feeling at home that crouches at the door. Hanukkah hosting guests does not force the guest to accept the house rules, and therefore it requires the host to overcome himself and allow the guest his freedom to be, without knowing what effects this freedom will have and without restraining him by the light of the candles of the home.

The Hanukkah candle therefore presents multiple facets. As a candle, its center is the home, but as a sacrifice, it lacks homey familiarity. Minimally, the head of the household is perturbed. The Hanukkah candle is exilic, the candle of a broken house. Only such a candle enables the wondrous Hanukkah hosting guests and opens the door to the abnormal, which can create connections never before possible. Hanukkah illuminates within us the time when concepts like the home and feeling at home will not require the exclusion of Otherness but will include it without crumbling.

[1] On Numbers 8:2.

[2] George Bataille, Theory of Religion (New York: , 1989), trans. , 43.

[3] Ibid., 19.

[4] Ibid. pp.44-45.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See: A. Sagi, Etgar HaShivah El HaMasoret (Hebrew), Jerusalem-Ramat Gan 2003, p.92.

[7] E. Goldman, cited in: Etgar HaShivah El HaMasoret, ibid.

[8] This mindset is rooted deep in the role of the religious utterance, which is ultimately meaningless in context of the divine absolute, the divine intimacy.

[9] See, for example: R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya (Hebrew), Iggeret HaKodesh, 28.

[10] See: “Sleep is one sixtieth of death” (B. Berakhot 57b); On the prostration of Moshe and Aharon when faced with Korah’s rebellion: “‘And they fell on their faces and said, “El, God of the spirits of all flesh’ (Bemidbar 16) – Come and see, Moshe and Aharon committed themselves to death… This is the tree of death, and every mention of prostration refers to this (Zohar III, 176b). Sleep and prostration are a form of suicide and return to a state of simplicity and oneness. Therefore, it is no wonder that, in Lekutei Moharan, I 35, Rebbe Nahman asserts that sleep is one of the ways to return existence “to the place from where it was taken.”

[11] Rav Tsadok Hakohen Rabinowitz of Lublin, Tsidkat HaTsadik (Hebrew), #127. Based on Pirkei DeRebbe Eliezer (Hebrew), ch.31.

[12] Sifri, Va’et’hanan, #6.

[13] Bereshit Rabbah 9:5.

[14] Talmud Bavli, Tractate Sabbath 32a.

[15] [The eros of life is a combination of eros and thanatos; death takes some part in in it. However, death’s presence appears as part of life itself, not as the absolute consumption of the sacrifice. If there is death, it is as part of life and serves as the background – the intensity of light emerging from darkness. – Y. M.]

[16] See Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational (London: Oxford University Press, 1936).

[17] From the song “Mah Yedidot,” sung in Ashkenazic communities on Friday night.

[18] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Sabbath, 30:14. See Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, “Mitsvat Onah,” in Vayikra Et Shemam Adam: Zugiyu Umishpahah Mimabat Yehudi Hadash (Efrat: Mekhon Binah Le’itim, 2005), ed. Zohar Ma’or, 193-233.

[19] Based on Exodus 19:12.

[20] Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav “Hakhnasat Orhim,” in Sefer Hamiddot, 4. Regarding hosting guests, see Shimon Gershon Rosenberge, Panekha Avakesh (Efrat: Mekhon Kitvei Harav Shagar, 2005), 53.

[21] Talmud Bavli, Tractate Ta’anit 27b.

[22] Talmud Bavli, Tractate Sabbath, 25b.

[23] Ibid., 21b.

[24] Tractate Sofrim, 20:6.

[25] Tractate Sabbath, ibid.

[26] We can understand the particular Hanukkah type of hosting guests from Rebbe Nahman’s story “Ma’aseh Me’oreyah,” which takes place at the time of candle-lighting. Rebbe Nahman depicts hosting guests in this story in a manner entirely un-Sabbath-like. Rather, it is full of fear and terror of the otherness of the unknown that the guest brings with him. See Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Leha’ir Et Hapetahim (Alon Shevut: Mekhon Kitvei Harav Shagar, 2014), 125-135.

[27] Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Halevi of Homil, Hannah Ariel (Ashdod, 1998), Genesis, 57b.

[28] See Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, “Simha, Solidariyut, Ve’ahavvah,” in B’tsel Ha’emunah (Alon Shevut: Mekhon Kitvei Harav Shagar, 2011), 107-111.

Interview with Prof. Ephraim Meir- Faith in the Plural

With classes finished for the semester, I need to catch up on my reading. On my table are several recent books, all of them of the last four years, explaining the recent turn to interreligious studies. The current trend is to replace the word interfaith with interreligious since the term faith is a Protestant understanding of religion. And to place greater emphasis on the prefix “inter” to show that we are interconnected, with interreligious moments all around us. Diversity is continuous factor in our lives playing a role even in law, politics media, athletics, and education. Another part of this trend is to replace the survey of world religions class with a class on interreligious moments in our lives. Students learn more about Judaism by discussing why Satmar representatives went to an open casket memorial in a funeral home but won’t go to a church funeral than studying random snippets of Genesis and Leviticus compared to the Vedas and Koran.

A recent Jewish book to deal with this new interreligious moment is Prof Ephraim Meir’s Faith in the Plural (Idra Press, 2019), which is brand new and surprisingly not on Amazon or even available as of now in the US. The book has a great cover by Utah artist Suzanne Tornquist. (The cover art is also available as a talit or tefillin bag).

Prof. Ephraim Meir is Professor emeritus of modern Jewish Philosophy at Bar-Ilan University. His PhD is from KU Leuven in theology and he taught for decades at Bar Ilan University. A prolific author his recent works are Levinas’s Jewish Thought between Jerusalem and Athens (2008), Identity Dialogically Constructed (2011), Differenz und Dialog (2011), Between Heschel and Buber (2012; with A. Even-Chen), Dialogical Thought and Identity (2013), Interreligious Theology. Its Value and Mooring in modern Jewish Philosophy (2015) Becoming Interreligious (2017) and Old-New Jewish Humanism (2018). From 2009 until 2017, he was the Levinas guest Professor for Jewish Dialogue Studies and Interreligious Theology at the Academy of World Religions, University of Hamburg. He is President of the International Rosenzweig Society.  

Prof Meir’s latest book Faith in the Plural (Idra Press, 2019) along with his prior works Interreligous Theology (2015) and Becoming Interreligious (2017) are his views on this change. Meir affirms the social fact of religious pluralism and also a theological view of pluralism based on John Hick. To give my reaction upfront, I accept the former and not the later. In addition, I don’t think Meir himself needs to affirm the later based on his own theory of trans-difference and testimony.

In the 1960’s, interfaith events, the Jewish-Christian reconciliation, and Church’s renewed encounter with Asian religions changed the theological climate. Alan Race created theological categories Exclusivist, Inclusivist, and Pluralist for the spectrum of positions taken at the time.

By 1970, John Hick the world renown philosopher argued that we must undertake a Copernican Revolution and assume one ultimate Reality and all religions are just attempts to grasp the Ultimate. Hick was widely influential and respected. Yet, in recent decades he received much criticism for thinking his was the only correct opinion, for his lack of empiricism, and for actually precluding interfaith understanding since religions are only metaphors and symbols for the ultimate Reality. In the 21st century, much of the field has turned to various acceptance models that differ with Hick. Mark Heim argues that religions do not offer the same goals. For example, Christian redemption has little to do with the Yogic conception of perfection. George Lindback argued that each religion is a closed system, with different non-comparable rules. And the most common method now is comparative theology, where I compare my faith to another and seek understanding but without making any major claims about the relationship between my faith and the world’s faiths. (I find myself within these 21st century approaches.)

Ephraim Meir’s book assumes John Hick’s position as his starting point to argue for a philosophy of dialogue. Not dialogue in the 1960’s sense of comparing theology, but a 21st century definition. We dialogue as an act of encounter and knowing the complexity of the world, we dialogue in a Levinas sense of the other religion breaking into our world and making demands, and we dialogue to produce social justice and reduce violence. For Meir, dialogue moves the pluralistic position forward.

Meir gives five characteristics or requirements for dialogical theology, and this is one of the strong parts of the book. His five are humility, translation, uniqueness, hospitality and learning. Here Meir is seemingly building on the interreligious approach and comparative theology of the last decade including those of Francis X. Clooney, Marianne Moyaert, Catherine Corneille and many others. Yet, they are not cited or referenced

Meir, however, specifically is steering clear of developing a theology. And he does not think he needs to address comparative theology. He maintains a clear focus on dialogue both inter-religious and intra-religious.

Meir’s major point is that we understand and relate to other religions through what he calls trans-difference. His dialogical approach is not a meeting or in-between like Buber’s rather we belong simultaneously to the broader world and to our own framework. We are part of the specific and the general.

Another one of his concepts is testimony. I reveal the divine by my own self contraction and listening to the other. This concept is an outgrowth of his reading of Rosenzweig, Heschel, and Levinas.  His reading of the modern classics to produce his concept of trans-difference is how he deals with contemporary issues such as identity, authenticity, otherness, and understanding.

The book has several chapters on his deriving his views from the Jewish thinkers. The book also has a chapter comparing Jewish & Christian views of freedom as well as an interview with Ephraim Meir on the relationship of Jews and Christians.

Finally, and as theoretical grounding for his project, Meir approaches Perry Schmidt-Leukel’s interreligious work as contained in his recent Gifford lectures as a valuable means of interpreting religious diversity.  John Hick created a pluralism in which only the Ultimate Reality is real and religious systems are not, thereby reducing the importance of the differences between religions. Perry Schmidt-Leukel approaches the issue in a new manner using the concept of fractals. Here each religion is a fractal of the Ultimate Reality, recapitulating its structure and at the same time each religion has a fractal relationship to other religions. Each religion is a part of the whole and almost everything reappears in some way in the different religions. Think of a cauliflower, if I break off a floret it has the same basic structure as the entire cauliflower, similarly each floret is similar to the next floret. Applied to religion, the religions are similar in structure therefore one religion can understand another. The pluralism respects the differences between religions as florets but sees a unit in the repeating pattern combined to make a larger pattern.

If you think one religion is a floret and another is an eggplant and a third is a carrot, then this fractal model would not work. Meir’s movement away from the fractal model is two -fold. First, there are many cases of impossibility of dialogue, of fundamental theological differences, and of lack of understanding. All aspects that can only be overcome though dialogue. Secondly, Meir wants to emphasize the ethical, social-relations, and seeking to mend the world more than any philosophic truth claim. Hence, Meir formulates his trans-difference as an ethical alternative to a truth-claim approach.

Which brings me back to my opening. If Meir is basically about social and ethical relationship then the other interfaith models could also work, including comparative theology.  I really liked the book in its understanding of dialogue, especially his use of Jewish sources to derive the approach. The book has  good Jewish ideas about religion as trust not intellectual assent. There are many gems in Meir’s valuable book, which can be picked out and used elsewhere. I was struck by the value of the book because I am in the middle of collecting my interfaith talks into a small volume and found his Jewish formulation of general interreligious ideas very helpful. I will definatley be using many of his ideas particularly in his reading of Jewish texts in future talks and papers.

I thank Meir for discussing my books for a few pages. He is one of the few who understood my Ricoeur influenced position in those books correctly.  However, a Ricoeur position is able to maintain particularity without becoming pluralist while still being comfortable with translation, hybridity, hospitality, and the impact that an encounter with another religion has on a person or system.

The former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in the first edition of his Dignity of Difference presented a pluralism in which each religion has its own covenant, its own religious path and morals. God does not want a single unified path, rather we are broken into tribes and peoples. Rabbi Sacks quoted Nathanial ibn Fayumi’s idea that God sent a prophecy to each nation. Ephraim Meir writes that as a philosopher, he is less interested in concepts such as revelation and covenant and more interested in dialogue and pluralism. But most interested in these topics of inter-religious meaning either seek the theological, the wisdom of other faiths,  or the explicit social application.  But those who want a philosophic approach thinking with and around Levinas will enjoy the work.

Interview with Prof. Ephraim Meir

1)      Please explain the concept of Faith in the Plural.

“Faith in the Plural” has a double meaning. First, it is faith in plurality: a plurality of voices and lifestyles is celebrated. One does not just note the existence of the plurality but rejoice in it. Others are approached in a positive way and recognized as different and equal to each other : one may appreciate their unique particularity and learn from their perspective and lifestyle. If you believe that we all live in one world, characterized by diversity, the acts of communicating, translating and extending hospitality become possible.

Secondly, it is faith in plurality: faith exists in the plural. Consequently, different expressions of faith are appraised as revolving around the Transcendent, approached in different ways.

The title of my book “Faith in the Plural” implies, therefore, honoring plurality (faith in the plural)  and, more specifically, honoring religious plurality (faith in the plural).  The first is appreciating the diversity of the world and the second is a fundamental commitment to a philosophic and theological pluralism, similar to John Hick.   

2)      What is a dialogical approach?

Dialogue follows Peter Berger to embrace the complexity of the world; following Levinas it interrupts one’s monologue, and similar to Paul Knitter strives for social justice.

A dialogical approach allows that the other interrupts one’s own monologue. In a genuine conversation or meeting, what the other says or does may become relevant for one’s own position. Dialogue is necessarily transformational. Although dialogue is not always possible, it remains a challenge and opens unexpected perspectives. With their unique make up, persons are also interconnected.

 A dialogical or interreligious theology goes beyond sameness and otherness, beyond radical dissimilation and radical assimilation, through respect for different lifestyles and the reality of communication. In search for meaning, dialogical theology is essentially pluralist and, as such, this pluralized theology is an alternative for age-old religious conflicts. Fear of the religious other has been an obstacle for the shaping of a heterogeneous, democratic society. Dialogue overcomes this fear by working with deep listening to others with a view of mending a fractured world by getting involved with them. 

Dialogue as I conceive it is not easy. It aims at creating a relational I and a dialogical society in which one strives for equality and social justice.  There are limits to dialogue. People can become so entangled with evil that transformation is impossible. With such persons, not dialogue, but justice is needed. With radicalized extremists and (religious) fanatics dialogue is impossible.

Dialogical theology emphasizes interaction between religions in view of the creation of peaceful societies. It is a pluralized theology, in which interreligious dialogue  interrupts one’s own religious narrative and in which interreligious dialogue  is transformational, as  every authentic dialogue.

Dialogue embraces the complexity of the world, interrupts one’s own monologue and strives for a democratic society and social justice.

3)      What are the characteristics of dialectic theology?

Dialogical theology has a number of characteristics:

  1. A first condition for dialogical theology is to be humble. Since there are many religious others who organize their lives around the Ineffable, one has to recognize that one is not the only one to talk about what cannot be defined. Humility is required once one realizes that one’s own religion is only one color in the multicolored garment of Joseph.
  2.  Translation is a second characteristic of dialogical theology. It is an important criterion for a successful interreligious dialogue. Translating is not only a possibility, but also a duty because of the valuable “trans-different” relationship with religious others. In a good translation, one avoids radical assimilation without links to what is outside as well as radial dissimilation without bridging that allows for contact. In translation, uniqueness and bridging paradoxically belong together. It implies openness, crossing borders and bridging. Translation is an act of peace because one communicates the own in terms of the other. Because we live in one, shared world, translation and communication are possible and necessary. No religion is so unique that it cannot be understood by people, who do not belong to that religion.
  3. Respect for the uniqueness of religious others is a third condition of my dialogical theology. Religious others are incomparably unique. There are many ways to the Transcendence. In deep listening to religious others outside and inside our own group, one may learn a lot. There is no other way than one’s own way. That is true for all those in one’s own group and for the many others outside our own group. In dialogical theology, uniqueness and translatability are not opposed.
  4. In dialogical theology, one welcomes the other and allows her to enter into one’s own world. Extending hospitality to the other and paying visit to the other’s home are lofty human possibilities that bridge between worlds. Passing to the world of the religious other or allowing the other to visit our world necessarily change us. It may lead to critical questioning of the own tradition and to enriching our personal religious existence. Welcoming the other is basic in all real dialogue.
  5. Last but not least, learning from the religious other is crucial in interreligious theology. Religious persons who meet religious others may enrich their own spiritual life, reread their own home tradition and creatively shape it. 

4)      What is the concept of trans-difference?

The concept of trans-difference is central in my dialogical theology. It lies at the heart of the interreligious dialogue. The term brings together differences and a bridge between differences. By using this term, I avoid the danger of a closed identity that does not recognize one’s belonging to the entire world as well as a kind of universality that absorbs particularity.

In trans-difference one belongs to a specific group as well as to the general world. Belonging indicates pertaining to a particular group. It also designated relatedness to universal mankind. The relation between belonging to a singular community and to the broader circle of human kind is sometimes harmonious. Frequently it is characterized by tension and conflicts. Trans-difference combines both realms of belonging.  

“Trans-difference” respects different, specific, contextualized viewpoints and, at the same time, promotes connectivity and communication. It affirms differences and goes beyond them in non-indifference. It creates an open, dynamic identity that has otherness in itself.

5)      How is interreligious dialogue testimony (or witness)?

The recognition of the other and the care for her are a “testimony.” Testimony  is a fundamental category in the meeting with the religious other. Through the tact of contraction of the I before the other and through deep listening to her,  the glory of the Most High.

Listening to religious others without an agenda is in itself a testimony to the Infinite. By enlarging our religious worldview, we come to a fuller appreciation of the Transcendent. Interreligious dialogue could promote a religiosity based upon human rights and a shared humanity and testify to the intimate relation between divine revelation and mending the world.

Testimony or witness is a clearly religious notion. In my understanding, testimony interrupts a violent way of being, it is a sign, pointing to an elevated, non-violent world. Different religions testify in different ways to the Transcendent and may become a “sign” for each other. “Testimony” (‘edut) and “sign” (nes) are Jewish categories that fit a dialogical theology from a Jewish vantage point.

Inspired by Levinas, I deem that in responding to the other and in the ethical meeting with her, the ‘I’ testifies to the Infinite. In Levinas’s philosophy of the other, the one who says “Here I am” before the other testifies to the glory of the Infinite. The ‘I’ becomes a witness of the Infinite in taking infinite responsibility of the other. Applying Levinas’s ethical metaphysics to the field of interreligious dialogue, I conceive true dialogue as a testimony: in openness and non-indifference to and care for the religious other, one bears testimony.  Holiness resides in testifying to a God who hears the cries and sees the tears of oppressed people.

6)      What happens to truth claims in your approach?

I suggest not to focus upon truth as a complex of sentences with which one has to agree. In Hebrew èmèt, truth, is rather related to trust and confidence. One could focus upon peace, which is higher than truth.

In a dialogical theology, truth comes into being in dialogue. “Truth sprouts from the earth” (Ps. 85:11), from beneath, in the pursuit of justice and a good life for all and in dialogue and loving relationships with others. In Jewish thinking, one does the truth. Instead of searching for abstract truth, one may search for a meaningful life and for cross-bordering values. The aim of truth is peace and peace conditions the search for truth. Recognition precedes cognition. Attitudes more than words give access to the Transcendent. In my view, truth is relational and linked to the transformation of the human being. 

More important than truth claims is the praxis of ethical behavior. The tree is known by its fruits. A rigorous position of the defenders of the gate easily becomes aggressive. We do not know God as He/She/It is. John Hick who created the modern pluralistic position, thought all religions are just attempts to grasp the Real.

The Transcendent – what John Hick calls the Real – is “known” within human values and within one’s ethical way of living. All religious traditions have human concepts about the Real (Adonai, the Trinity, Allah, or Vishnu, Brahman, Tao or Nirvana) which are not the Real itself, but rather human responses to the Real. In this perspective, it is forbidden to absolutize any experience of the Transcendent.

Absolute truth claims led, and lead, to much violence and intolerance. History shows that much violence has been done if one defends the exclusivity of one’s religion or its superiority over other religions, which are seen as false or less true. Absolute truth claims disregard intra- and inter-religious plurality. Dogmatic thinking with a lack of openness may become coercive and exclusive and block the way to a religious search.

The problem with religious people is that often they consider God as their God, without recognizing that their God is also the God of others and that “no religion is an island,” as Heschel felicitously phrased it. Another great thinker, Franz Rosenzweig, noted that God did not create religion, he created the world. This makes religions relative; they all exist in view of mending the world. He also adds that God is the truth, in which human beings participate. Truth is always truth-for-us and therefore relative, without relativism.   

7)      Is this relativism?

John Hick and the pluralist position does not say that all religions are the same. Hick, and followers of the pluralistic position, are not relativists. Hick merely says that the Real is not what is known from it through our conceptual apparatus and that also others have salvific paths to the Transcendent.  He  disagrees with the position that one presents one’s own religion as the only true one. Rather, all religions are an approach to the Transcendent.

One does not have to leave one’s own religious narrative in order to recognize that diversity has to be accepted and celebrated. Excessive love for the own makes us forget the other. The own religious love story does not prevent one from appreciating the religious love stories of others. It is not relativistic to recognize, as did the Yemenite Jewish theologian Nathanel ben Fayyumi in the 12th century, that God sends a prophet to every people according to their own language. More psychologically phrased: different religions correspond to different human needs. 

Before my mixed public of Orthodox and non-Othodox Jews I explain that cultures and subcultures have different ways of relating to the Most High

8)      What is Schmidt-Leukel’s fractal position?

John Hick was a pioneer who made a Copernican revolution in theology to sees all religions as attempts to understand the transcendental Real.  Theology is a form of poetics and symbols to express the Real.

Perry Schmidt-Leukel’s interreligious theology continues Hick’s pluralism. However, Schmidt-Leukel  conceives of theology as “science,” in search for truth. His emphasis is more upon the cognitive dimension of the diverse beliefs.

Perry Schmidt-Leukel discerns fractal patterns in the various religions following Benoît Mendelbrot, who used the term “fractals” for patterns that display self-similarity across various scales. 

With his “fractal”‘ interpretation of religions, Perry argues that there is a fractal face also in cultural and religious diversity. His fractal interpretation of religious diversity is on the inter-religious, intra-religious and intra-subjective levels. He claims that the diversity among religions is also present within the religions and within the religious orientation of individuals. If one follows his argument, the different religions (and cultures) are less separated than might be thought at first sight: they have regular structures that return, but also irregularities that point to different contexts and arrangements.

Already Wilfred Cantwell Smith called for a world theology or global theology. Perry’s creative, pluralist “interreligious theology” perceives fractal structures in the religious diversity and encourages interreligious comparisons and learning.

Perry Schmidt-Leukel’s model is unity in diversity, unity in difference. He claims that “[r]eligions resemble each other, but they resemble each other in their diversity.” His main point is that, if religions are not intelligible to each other, we could not understand other cultures at all: religions are never totally other. He assesses diversity and complementarity. Different religious types are all part of the human experience. This phenomenological view allows for comparability.

Perry Schmidt-Leukel’s model of interreligious theology greatly contributed to the pluralist revolution in theology in offering a theory that explains the interconnectedness of religions and the possibility of interreligious learning.

9) Where do you differ from Schmidt-Leukel’s fractal position?

I agree with Perry that comparability is possible since our own experience is part of the experiences of humankind. With my “trans-difference,” I interpret religious uniqueness differently.

First, in my view, this does not mean that everything is comparable. Certain incommensurabilities preclude the translatability of all things into something else, as well as the reduction of all otherness to structurally identical or analogous elements. My point is that, just as languages possess words and expressions that are idiomatic, religions have an otherness that is not reducible to sameness.

Perry looks for compatibilities in order to create a communication platform. To my mind, some elements in religions are not compatible with each other, not overlapping and not parallel, but rather radically different. I agree that translating religious categories is a possibility and even a necessity, but should less than complete comprehensibility and complete transparency not be possible? The Jewish love of the Law, for example, greatly differs  from the Christian freedom as free from the Law. From a Jewish vantage point, the Christian recognition and appreciation of this Jewish specificity is vital in the Jewish-Christian encounter.

Perry too recognizes limited incommensurable elements in religions, but his emphasis is more on comparability and translatability than on incomparable uniqueness. Consciousness of uniqueness does not necessarily lead to feelings of exclusivity or superiority. In fact, recognition of the uniqueness of religious others is a constituent in my dialogical theology, which combines uniqueness and sharing a common world.

Second, my interreligious dialogical theology is much more deed-centered than Perry’s. I interpret interreligious pluralism in an ethical way.    

My dialogical theology comes closer to Paul Knitter’s soteriocentric model, which combines a theology of religions with a strong commitment to mend the world. In my dialogical theology, I put the emphasis upon genuine, transformational dialogue, in which the question whether theological utterances are compatible with each other is less important than the moral quality present in the various responses to the inconceivable reality.

10)  What is an ethical interpretation of interreligious pluralism?

With his creative and sophisticated fractal interpretation of religious diversity, Perry Schmidt-Leukel conceives theology as a “science,” in search for truth. His emphasis is upon the cognitive dimension of the diverse beliefs.

My dialogical theology is more about trust than about truth. Dialogical theology involves deep listening and perfecting society by getting involved with (religious) others. In this pluralized theology, peace is more elevated than truth and does not have to retreat before truth. It is rather the result of the common search for meaning, which is present in different religious groups. 

I emphasize the ethical dimension in the different religions. From my perspective, the aim of truth is to bring peace. To be attentive to the other and take care of her is above the rational order of truth.

Perry has a logocentric fractal interpretation of religious plurality. My interreligious theology is characterized by a deed-centered approach to religions.

A pluralized theology is not primarily the result of knowing more religions or knowing them better (although that is important too), it is first of all about recognition of the other. Being present to religious others and listening to them without hidden agenda is a “testimony” to the Infinite. By enlarging our religious world, we come to a fuller appreciation of the Transcendent, approachable in care for the other human being.

11)  You quote a wide variety of Jewish pluralists, are you basically in agreement with them? Your list includes among others the diverse approaches of Kogan, and Zalman-Schachter-Shalomi?

One may cherish and love one’s own religion and, at the same time, take seriously the encounter with religious others. Travelling in a multi-religious world does not diminish in any way love for the own religion, in which and from which one lives. We shape our identities, but we are also shaped by others, intra- and inter-religiously.

Michael Kogan in his Opening the Covenant (Oxford 2007) seeks to include Christianity within God’s covenant with Jewish people.  He quotes Paul in 1Cor. 9:22 who claims that he became “all things to all people so that by all means some might be saved” and asks “why cannot God do the same thing?” For Kogan, “all faith are true that lead us from egocentricity to participation in the infinite life with all its ethical and spiritual blessings.” I am in agreement with his pluralist view that God reveals different truth to different peoples in different historical circumstances. Kogan opens up the covenant and develops a multiple revelation theory, which states that others too have a covenant with God. He is also right in writing that Catholic ecclesiolatry, Protestant scriptolatry and Jewish ethnolatry want to replace the infinite with finite forms. Kogan formulates his pluralism in this way. I do not work with different revelations or covenants, but with the term “trans-difference,” which is a philosophical notion, more fitting for a dialogical theology.

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi develops Jewish theological insights on Jesus. A Jewish look at the Gospels is relevant for those Christians, who want to understand Jesus better in his Jewish historical and cultural setting. For instance, Buber’s view on Jesus, as developed in his Two Types of Faith, is useful for Christians, who frequently interpret Jesus in light of later dogmatic developments. Buber situated Jesus in the series of Suffering Servants. Schachter-Shalomi goes beyond the historical Jesus who preached good moral behavior and see him as “axis mundi” for his followers. According to Schachter-Shalomi, Kabbalah offers a model of divine embodiment. In this perspective, Jesus is an “incarnate of Torah.”  

Schachter-Shalomi’s view on a more transcendent Jesus differs from the classical Jewish one, which takes distance from the divinization of finite human beings. Yet, what is forbidden for Jews can be allowed for non-Jews. The views of Kogan & Schachter-Shalomi go beyond a confessional Jewish theology. They interact with Christianity and engage in a dialogue with Christians.   

12)      What happens to a fixed religious identity in your approach?

In my view, “trans-difference” creates an open identity that has otherness in itself. The loftiness of the human being resides in the realization that the I is always linked to the non-I and that interconnectedness ruptures one’s totalizing tendencies. Interconnectedness brings us out of our cocoon, in humble service of the other. This a life long task.

However, frequently, religious persons define themselves in contrast to others. Religious others are often met with animosity and a-priori assumptions instead of sympathetic listening. The alternative for such a fixed religious identity is a dynamic identity, open to others. In a dynamic religious identity, one discovers that one belongs to the entire world, in which a plurality of religions testifies to the Transcendent. 

A dialogical theology is about crossing borders and leaving fixed identities in openness to others, without losing one’s own embedment in concrete cultural and historical contexts. In dialogue with religious others, one may become conscious that many other traditions also approach the Transcendent in their own way. 

Religious identities are linked to religious traditions. However, these traditions are ambiguous. Ideally, they are a dynamic process and develop continually. Practically, they are frequently absolutized. Traditions should be conscious that they are not the divine source itself, but only a response to it. As other human realities, they may reflect divine realities that become manifest in human connectivity. They may also become inhuman, violent and cruel. The million dollar question is if religious traditions will be able to exercise self-contraction and give room to each other. Traditions may instrumentalize the Transcendent in function of the own interests, producing shaming, blaming, exclusion, discrimination, violence and war. They may serve themselves as particularistic traditions, divorced from values. Alternatively, they are particular expressions of a universal bond in favor of a unified humanity. The choice is between love of the own by excluding the other or cultivate a universal belonging in one’s own unique way.  

The success of dialogical theology depends upon the elasticity and willingness of (the adherents to) traditions to connect to the Divine through peaceful and dialogical relationships. One may creatively revisit and reimagine the own tradition in light of what one learns from others. A critical participation in a religious tradition allows for experiencing, experimenting, creativity and change. A non fixed, dynamic identity avoids making a caricature of the other and creates the possibility of an expanded “we.” It places relationality again at the heart of the religious experience.

13)  What does the Rabbinic concept of chosen people mean?

Chosenness is something positive: it is the privilege of having duties. In traditional Jewish life and thought, God loves the Jewish people “with great love.” Before the reading of the Torah, we bless God “who has chosen us from all the nations.” Love is always linked to chosenness. One is chosen in order to be responsible for others. In this sense, every human being is chosen to be there for others. Chosenness is not haughtiness, it is rather an election to be in dialogical relation with the (religious) others.