Monthly Archives: September 2020

Interview with Prof. Sarah Hammerschlag on Modern French Jewish Thought

When the works of French Jewish thinker Andre Neher (d. 1988) were translated into English, for example  Exile of the Word: From the Silence of the Bible to the Silence of Auschwitz (JPS 1980), the work did not make a splash in the United States. When the Algerian born Henri Atlan, the brilliant polymath biophysicist and philosopher who combined systems theory with the Kabbalah of Rabbi Eliyashiv, had five of his works translated into English about eight years ago, the American Jewish community took little note of it. And the many works of Rabbi Betzalel Leon Ashkenazi, known as Manitou (d.1996), the French Algerian thinker have still not been translated into English.

In short, modern French Jewish thought is largely unknown in the United States. A recent anthology seeks to bring the richness of these writers to an American audience, Sarah Hammerschlag’s Modern French Jewish Thought: Writings on Religion and Politics (Brandeis University Press, 2018).

The author of the anthology, Sarah Hammerschlag has her doctorate from the University of Chicago is a scholar in the area of Religion and Literature. Her research has focused on the position of Judaism in the post-World War II French intellectual scene. She is the author of The Figural Jew: Politics and Identity in Postwar French Thought(University of Chicago Press, 2010) and Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida and the Literary Afterlife of Religion (Columbia University Press, 2016)  The Figural Jew received an Honorable Mention for the 2012 Jordan Schnitzer Book Award, given by the Association of Jewish Scholars, and was a finalist for the AAR’s Best First Book in the History of Religions in 2011. She has written essays on Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot. She is currently working on a manuscript entitled “Sowers and Sages: The Renaissance of Judaism in Postwar Paris.”

The volume Modern French Jewish Thought: Writings on Religion and Politics (Brandeis University Press, 2018) was one of my favorite Jewish books of 2018 with its twenty-four well-chosen texts to illustrate the length of French Jewish thought. The range of texts go from the early days of the French Republic with their emphasis on universalism as French Israelite of the Republic to the Jewish questioning of their status by the end of the 19th century. Then Hammerschlag gives ample attention to the renewal of Jewish thought after WWII in French. To her credit, she gives full attention to the role of Sephardic Jews and Sephardic universalism and includes the writings of the Jews of the Maghreb, specifically Algeria and Tunisia as part of French Jewish thought.

Modern French Jewry starts with the French Revolution’s emancipation of its Jewish citizens and  the Napoleonic Assembly of Notables (1806), and convening of the “Sanhedrin” (1807), along with the integration of the Sephardic Jews in the papal cities. Jews sought integration and acculturation into France. At the end of the century, the Dreyfus affair shattered for many French Jews that dream of integration. After WWII and the Vichy regime, there was a need for a rejuvenation of Jewish life. There was also a mass immigration of Jews from the Maghreb bringing their traditionalism into French Jewish life. The convening of the Colloque des Intellectuels Juifs de langue Francaise, a meeting of French-speaking intellectuals which met at least every two years beginning in 1957,become the source of many of the published lectures on Bible, Talmud, Maharal, and Kabbalah by Levinas, Andre Neher, Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou), Éliane Amado Levy-Valensi and others.

Among the wide range of authors included in this volume are Joseph Salvador, Edmond Fleg, Jacob Gordin, Vladimir Jankelevitch, Albert Memmi, Shmuel Trigano, Henri Atlan, Leon Ashkenazi, Helene Cixous, and Jacques Derrida. Hammerschlag provides a fine introduction to the volume and short introduction sketches to the texts. The volume focuses on the themes of the universal and the particular and identification and disidentification with France, bringing up the ancillary topic of Zionism. This book should be in all major Jewish libraries and should without question be read by those who teach modern Jewish thought.

The standard survey of modern Jewish thought, however, is almost entirely focused on German thinkers moving from Moses Mendelssohn to Zunz to Cohen & Buber, then reaching Franz Rosenzweig. Today, it also includes Heschel, Solovetichik & Feminism. If you are lucky, it also includes Emmanuel Levinas as the sole French Jewish thinker. The question is how to integrate the rich French Jewish thought into the study of modern Jewish thought. This morning, I spoke to a professor who teaches modern Jewish history and thought, who liked the book, but said it would have no affect on his teaching. He did not see where these thinkers fit in.

In order to be integrated into Modern Jewish thought, there would need to be a guide to French Jewish thought giving the instructor ideas for an alternate syllabus to the usual German centered one. Maybe an article and then a symposium of how create a course that contains both French and German thinkers. Or maybe some new textbooks. None of this takes away from Hammerschlag’s fine volume, but now it is up to members of the field to figure out how to best use it.

I especially appreciated her inclusion of Zadoc Kahn’s “Speech on the Acceptance of His Position as Chief Rabbi of France” and Sylvain Levi’s essay “Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU)” because many works on modern Jewish thought include a section on Geiger and Hirsch as the founders of Reform and Neo-Orthodoxy. Rabbi Zadoc Kahn as a paradigm of more universal form of a modernizing “Orthodoxy” serves as a contrast to the German experience in that  Rabbi SR Hirsch wrote a long essay criticizing Kahn’s approach. So too, the inclusion of the importance of the AIU shows the type of Jewish day school so influential in France and the Maghreb. These essays were included, but the book did not have a great concern for how these ideas created the traditional Jewish childhood education of many of these thinkers, especially the Sephardic thinkers, who attended the AIU schools.  

 I would have liked an essay from the scholar Salomon Munk, or another scholar, to serve as a contrast to German Wissenschaft des Judentums. In addition, Hammerschlag specifically included Stéphane Moses to show conduits from German thinkers to the French thinkers, but I would have liked a 19th century version also. The volume includes both Jewish philosophers and authors who write about Jewish identity creating resources for both a class in intellectual history and one in thought, which can at times seem like two distinct projects.

Finally, I hope someone else continues this project and produces an anthology of French Jewish thinkers on faith, Torah, theology, and Kabbalah. Much of the literary production of the Colloque des Intellectuels Juifs de langue Francaise was about faith and Torah. Noticeably different than Germany and the United States, the French Jewish intellectuals found meaning in Maharal, Nefesh Hahayyim, and Aggadah.

The American project of a melting pot and of peoplehood along with suburbanization and denominations created a very different form of integration than in France.

In Israel, these post-war writings have more traction and integration than in the USA. There have been conferences and symposiums on these works and many translations in to Hebrew. Some of these French authors retired to Israel where they gave lectures. These French authors also had students who moved from France to Israel who became rabbis including Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Rabbi Uri Sherki of Mechon Meir, and Rabbi Eliyahu Zini of Haifa. The writings of these French authors also serve as a base for further thought. For example, Rabbi Ream Hakohen of Yeshivat Othniel uses Andre Neher’s essay “The Jewish Dimension of Space” (included in this volume) to develop his own settler ideology of space and land.

We have to thank Prof Hammerschlag for this volume. As a book with twenty-four separate essays, you can dip into the volume to see the diversity of French Jewish thought. This interview is itself very rich providing an introduction to many aspects of French Jewish thought.  Maybe, if you will find something that speaks to you in the book or the interview, you might consider looking at the volumes of French Jewish thought that have been translated in prior decades.  

Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida, and the Literary Afterlife of Religion:  Hammerschlag, Sarah: 9780231170598: Books
  1. How was France a unique Jewish opportunity?

As the first modern European state to emancipate its Jewish population, it stood for the possibility of freedom and equality. The fact that the consistory system established under Napoleon made the nation’s highest Jewish leaders employees of the state didn’t hurt this perception either. 

2. What was the concept of Universalism in French Jewish thought? How did the concept of Jewish Universalism change?

It is constitutive of the very distinction between Judaism and Christianity that Judaism is distinguished as a particularlism from “Catholic” Christianity.  Christianity, after all, emerges to overcome the particularism of Jewish law.  But the French Enlightenment brought with it a new claim to universalism based on humanist principles and thus  held the promise of realigning this demarcation.  These principles are enshrined in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man whose first article declares that men are born and remain free and equal in rights.  Numerous Modern Jewish thinkers have argued that Judaism itself was the originator of this principle by virtue of its monotheism—one God entails a unified humanity.  Thus we find in French-Jewish thinkers from the 19th century a commitment to reveal both that Judaism was the original universal humanism and that its concept of universal humanism is consistent  with the French Enlightenment ideal.

The question of how to maintain this claim while explaining Jewish difference is the challenge that these thinkers faced.  Joseph Salvador, writing in 1860 in his book Paris, Rome Jerusalem, handles it by arguing that every idea needs an exemplar and Judaism and the Jewish people play that role, exemplifying peoplehood as the ideal form of universalism. It is the very fact that their peoplehood is constituted by virtue of a law, or a covenant that makes them paradigmatic for all peoples.  

James Darmesteter, writing in 1892 makes his case based on the books of the prophets. In both cases the claim was one of  arguing for an identification between Enlightenment humanism and Judaism. This argument for identification is perhaps clearest in the mission statement of Alliance Israélite Universelle: If…you believe that the influence of the principles of ’89 is all powerful in the world… that the example of peoples who enjoy absolute religious equality is a force…come give us your membership, your cooperation.” 

While there is some backlash to this way of thinking at the end of the 19th century,  both because of the emergence of Anti-Semitism and growing movements of nationalisms across Europe, including Zionism, the claim for a certain species of Jewish universalism never really disappears in French-Jewish thought.  In the post-1945 era one finds the explicit move to reformulate its expression. Emmanuel Levinas, for example, clearly describes the Jewish people as the carrier of a universal message, but one which is itself at odds with Enlightenment thought.  For if the Enlightenment thinkers formulate their universalism in rational terms, the Jewish people are the carrier of an ethical ideal, which precisely stops rationality in its tracks and makes it question its drive to assimilate difference.  One  finds different approaches in Léon Ashkenazi  and Henri Atlan, among others, but what they share is the move to distinguish Judaism from both Christianity and liberal humanism.

3. How did the Holocaust change French Jewish Thought?What was the purpose of the Colloquium in post-war French Jewry?

The Holocaust clearly changed Jewish thought for every community of survivors.  What makes France’s situation unique on the European continent is that its Jewish population fared better than any other nation occupied by the Nazis. Of the 300,000 present, 75,000 were deported, few of which returned. 

But perhaps more importantly WWII was a reckoning with the promise that France represented.  For many Jews, both observant and secular, the fact that it was the French government itself that instituted race laws against them in October of 1940 brought about a shattering of identity with the state and a movement to rethink what it meant to be a French Jew.  Judaism could no longer be conceived as one of France’s religions on equal par with Catholicism and Protestantism.  The reactions to this shift in identity, however, were multiple and the Colloque des Intellectuels Juifs de langue Francaise, a meeting of French-speaking intellectuals which met at least every two years beginning in  1957,  was one place in which various possibilities could be tried out.  At the first meeting much of the conversation was around the very subject of what Judaism was—a religion, a nation, a race, an order or alliance.

 From the beginning the colloque understood its mission as a reconceptualization of the Jewish intellectual. The prolific scholar and thinker André Neher ,  who served as president of the Colloque and  was among its most consistent participants, outlines this shift in the preface to the first volume of proceedings:  the Jewish intellectual needed to be transformed from one  whose identity as intellectual emerged from his or her (mostly his) concern to look outward beyond Judaism to one who used his education and training to examine his own tradition. 

What emerged was a series of conferences in which the colloquium participants addressed a question of contemporary significance by drawing on Jewish sources to show how these sources, whether Biblical, Talmudic or Kabbalistic could shed light on the current moment.  Themes ranged from “the question of the state” to the conception of femininity in Judaism to “Timidity and Audacity in Jewish Thought.” While the speakers and attendees shifted from year to year, Neher, Ashkenazi and Levinas provided the backbone of most meetings by presenting  biblical  commentaries (Neher), Talmudic readings (Levinas) and Kabbalistic interpretations ( Ashkenazi). Among the other participants were journalists, psychoanalysts, philosophers and political figures, usually including a range of religious and more secular figures. 

Each talk was followed by robust debate which is itself preserved in the volumes of the proceedings. In many ways these meetings were the  beating heart of the post-war French-Jewish intellectual renaissance and have recently been re-initiated by a new group of French-Jewish intellectuals.

4. What is the relationship of Asheknaz thinkers and Sephardi thinkers in French thought?

Because of its geographic position between Germany and Spain, France’s Jewish population has been a mix of Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities since the medieval period.  In fact the southern Sephardic communities in Bordeaux and Bayonne were emancipated before the Ashkenazic communities of Alsace and Lorraine because they were understood to be more enlightened.

The early 20th Century saw an influx of Ashkenazic Jews as a consequence of the Pogroms and then the waves of refugees in the 1930’s escaping Nazi rule.  These Ashkenazi newcomers brought a variety of levels of observance as well as  multiple political ideologies.  Among them were Zionists, Anti-Zionists, Bundists, Marxists and Hasidim, among others.

North African Jews are a very important part of the story of French Judaism both before and after decolonialization.  Algerian Jews were granted French citizenship in 1870 with the Crémieux Decree, although it was revoked during the Second World War. Even for Jews from neighboring countries such as Tunisia and Morocco, protectorates of France, the sense of identification with France before the war was inculcated by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, which ran schools across the Mediterranean basin. 

The influx of Jews from North Africa to France in the 1950’s and 1960’s, which was clearly accelerated by the process of decolonization and the Algerian war had a profound impact on French Judaism.  The arrival of North African Jews diversified the community even further. It also shifted the balance between the communities. 

By the mid-1980’s the Mizrahi Jewish community constituted the majority of the French-Jewish population.  They are often credited with adding new life and vigor to French Jewish cultural practice, but they also brought different styles of observance and different conceptions of Jewish identity, which sometimes caused friction with the established leaders of the French-Jewish community.   Despite the presence of the Alliance Israèlite Universelle in a number of North African countries, many émigrés were less assimilated than their contemporaries in the Metropole. They had maintained a connection to the traditional texts and styles of Jewish learning and tended, thus, to be less self-conscious about their observance, having not absorbed the same pressures to assimilate as their peers from the Metropole. The very division between nationality and religion which had developed within the French-Jewish tradition didn’t easily translate to the North-African Jewish experience. Their commitment to Zionism was often more militant, and less conflicted, which ultimately also helped solidify Jewish commitment to Zionism in France.

5. What was unique about the speeches of Rabbi Zadoc Kahn?

Rabbi Zadoc Kahn was the chief rabbi of France from 1889 to 1905, a time of great significance in France’s history and particularly in French Jewish History.  Not only did he have the opportunity to reflect on what the centennial of the revolution meant for France’s Jews, he then also had to lead the French Jewish community during the Dreyfus Affair and just up to the time of the 1905 law that separated Church and State in France.  It was a pivotal time, but he was also in many ways a pivotal figure.

From an Alsatian community, he served as chief Rabbi when Alsace itself was not a part of France as a consequence of the German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian war, which meant that the center of gravity for French Judaism itself shifted to the capital.  It was a time thus of loss but also the time in which French Judaism underwent its most extensive reforms since the Sanhedrin. This included changes in the Shabbat Services, such as further emphasis on French language, outreach to women, as well as an expansion of childhood religious education..

He was a leader of the movement to create an academic study of Judaism in France , creating the first French organization for Jewish Studies, the Société des études juives in 1880, which helped coordinate and promote the  science of Judaism in a  French key.  La Science du judaïsme was itself a direct translation and import from Germany, but its character clearly shifted in translation. 

Succinctly this difference can be summed up in terms of the host culture in relationship to which Jewish Thinkers needed to situate themselves. While in the German provinces this entailed understanding Judaism according to an account of historical development, the emergence of its idea. In France the task was to relate Judaism to the tradition of French universalism and humanism, to show that French Republicanism represented the reemergence  of a vision that was originally Hebraic.  Zadoc Kahn sought both to help develop the academic study of religion in France into one rivalling Germany’s, but at the same time to help it maintain its distinctly French character.

In all his efforts he was forward thinking in his sense of how Judaism could be strengthened by modernization, without at the same time embracing the Liberal/Reform tradition that had begun in Germany.  He was the quintessential embodiment of what it meant to be an Israélite–and thus of the possibility that one could be fully assimilated into the French nation and remain deeply observant, deeply Jewish, at least from the perspective of those who claimed it. I wanted to include him in the volume as a historical point of perspective.  He can help us to think both about what the past and the future of French Judaism looked like at the cusp of the 20th century, and to recognize what the culmination of a century of French-Jewish citizenship looked like in the persona of the community’s highest leader. 

6. Why was Sylvain Levi included?

Sylvain Levi (1863-1935) is in many ways an outlier in the volume, for his intellectual career was not primarily in the study of Judaism.  An expert in Sanskrit and Indian religions, he is certainly best remembered outside of the Alliance israélite universelle for his scholarly contributions to those fields.

I included him because I think of the Alliance israélite universelle as itself such an important contributor to the character of French Judaism, that I wanted to find a way to give it voice.  Levi’s reflections on its contributions in 1932 provide that perspective.  In addition, it is fascinating to me to see how the organization itself helped perpetuate a conception of Jewish universalism and how ambivalent it was about the Zionist project as a consequence. Levi’s comments after he had visited Palestine in 1918  encapsulate the anxiety that a Jewish state would compromise the perpetuation of that Jewish universalist vision, particularly in its French form:  “The French genius with its passion for universal humanity…is the closest parent of the messianic spirit; it is its natural safeguard against the sectarians who have never given up stifling it.”

7. What was the message of Jacob Gordon? What was his influence?

It is difficult, of course to sum up the thought, writing and teaching of Jacob Gordin (1896-1947)into a message. He is a fascinating and understudied figure. Besides his thesis “Investigations on the Theory of Infinite Judgement [Untersuchungen zur Theorie des unendlichen Urteils] in 1929, we only have unfinished manuscripts and articles—many of them entries in the Encyclopedia Judaica—and transcripts of his courses from his students. Partially that is a consequence of his dying young, at the age of 51, just at the moment when his influence began to take hold and partially it is a consequence of the tumultuous times in which he lived. He was in Saint Petersburg in 1917 for the Russian Revolution, in Berlin for Hitler’s rise to power and in Paris in June of 1940 when the Nazis invaded. At the same time, he was enormously influential on many important figures included in the volume: on Emmanuel Levinas, André Neher, Léon Ashkenazi and others.

What’s fascinating about his thought is the confluence of Hermann Cohen’s Neo-Kantianism with strands of Jewish Mysticism.  The result is a teaching that rests heavily on the notion that the Jewish people have a particular role to play in the universe.  In the text I included in the volume, which was itself pieced together from lecture notes, Gordin describes the Jewish people as les ménagères, the housekeepers of the universe and describes suffering as purification. This lecture was given at the end of World War II to Jewish youth contemplating what it meant to remake the post-war world.  He was at the time advocating for the importance of the Jewish diaspora in playing this role and thus resisting the pressures of Zionism.  However, Léon Ashkenazi, one of his most significant disciples, would later argue that he thought that if Gordin had lived past 1947 he would have embraced the Zionist movement.

8) What was Leon Ashkenazi’s early view of the diaspora?

Ashkenazi (1922-1996)  who was born in Oran, Algeria and came from a long line of influential rabbis on both sides of his family.  At Seventeen he joined the Éclaireurs israélites, the Jewish Boy Scouts and became one of its most influential leaders, so much so that he is often referred to for his scout name, Manitou, given to him for his dynamism and charisma.  He was partial to Kabbalistic interpretations of Torah, particularly to a reading of the tradition that centered on the claim that the Genesis stories of the lineage and generations of the patriarchs held the secret of human history. 

As for his early view of the diaspora, it  was close to his teacher Jacob Gordin’s,  a view clearly evident in his 1954 essay “Judah and Israel” in which he describes the diaspora as serving as the spiritual center of Judaism and the state of Israel as the physical center . “If the Levites had fulfilled the religious task of the Israelites in biblical times, allowing the other tribes to occupy themselves with temporal matters, now the Diaspora was to play the priestly role, thus allowing the Israeli Jews to be occupied with temporal concerns,” Ashkenazi wrote.    It was his 1956 encounter with Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook that changed his perspective and convinced him that a new era had arisen and with it a new task: to become a Hebrew in the land of Israel.

9. How  does Albert Memmi give an Existential reading of Jewishness?

Albert Memmi (1920-2020), who grew up in Tunisia, was himself a product of this history of French citizenship in North Africa and the school system of the Alliance Israélite Universelle.

 In Portrait of a Jew he describes being torn between multiple worlds.  His father, a harness maker was pious, but by his adolescence, as I write in the anthology, the sources of Memmi’s identification with Judaism had already began to shift. He describes himself in turn as a Zionist youth, a patriotic French Universalist during lycée and a Tunisian nationalist.  Each of these identities were thwarted in turn by the events of his lifetime and led him to an exploration of Jewish identity as “a fate.” 

Memmi was an interlocutor of both Sartre and Fanon and one can certainly see a certain overlap in their vocabulary and sense the parallels that emerge in Memmi’s portrait of the Jewish “situation.”   What one finds in “Portrait of a Jew” is an attempt to describe the Jewish experience without recourse to religious categories, but out of the experience of anti-Semitism, a task which might even seem to follow from Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew (Réflexions sur la question juive) (1946). He was ultimately an ethnic particularist and a Zionist, but not based on the claim of their being a racial or ethnic essence to the Jewish people, rather it is a consequence of  reckoning with centuries of exclusion and coming to the conclusion that the state of Israel was a historical necessity.  That said  he rejected the religious justification for the state’s existence and vocally supported Palestinian rights.

10. How did Richard Marienstras give a vocation to the diaspora?

As Richard Marienstras (1928-2011) himself describes in Être un people en diaspora (1975), paraphrasing Count Clermont-Tonnere, the promise of the revolution was to given everything to Jews as individuals and nothing to them as a nation.  The French offer of emancipation seemed thus itself to assume a dichotomy: either Jews were a nation, defined as a collective, or Judaism was a religion, thus an individual assertion of a belief system or une confession in French.  The later possibility is established in France as a counter-conception to national identity. 

Marienstras,, who was renown as a Shakespeare scholar  was also a polish émigré who had spent time in Palestine as well as in Tunisia. He  wrote to resist the dichotomy, particularly as it had itself been reinforced by the Zionist movement which itself reclaimed Jewish nationhood in Palestine.  For him, this choice was a false one, especially given the two millennia of diasporic Jewish existence.  Diaspora was a vocation in the sense that it offered the possibility of minority belonging, a form of political identity that resisted the hegemony of the nation-state.  Along with minority groups in the U.S. such as Native Americans, and African Americans, as well as regional identities in France, such as the Basque people, Marienstras saw diasporic Jews as playing an important political role, voicing resistance to both capitalism and statist politics. 

While the American civil rights movement was certainly something of an inspiration for him, he also saw the long Jewish history of diaspora as serving a paradigmatic role for other diasporic groups.  He envisioned a future in which diasporic peoples could work together as forces of resistance.

11. How did Henri Atlan present universalism? Can you say anything on his views on Kabbalah God, or Judaism?

Henri Atlan is an incredibly fascinating and multi-talented person.  A medical doctor, biophysicist and a philosopher, his works range across these fields.  He has described himself as something of a Spinozist.  

Atlan has a very interesting essay, not included here, in which he addresses his views on Jews/Judaism and universalism. The essay called “A chosen people” contrasts Jewish universalism, which Atlan describes as one that begins from Jewish particularity and achieves universality “by taking differences into account,” with the Christian and Islamic universal monotheisms which follow a model based on the election of believers.    Jewish election, he suggests is actually more in tune with ancient polytheisms, in which a god chooses a people and thus is fundamentally a tribal god.

For Atlan, Jewish election only becomes scandalous when read through the lens of the later traditions of Christianity and Islam.  Atlan’s familiarity with Kabbalah came originally by way of Léon Ashkenazi and the Chabad master Zalman Schneerson, brother of the late rebbe, with whom Atlan studied in Paris. 

Kabbalah, Atlan came to realize had its own logic, its own formal rationality.  In his work Les étincelles de hazard, for example,  the Kabbalistic retelling of the fall serves as a means to understand the human condition, not as a source for sin but as a mythological expression of a range of issues pertinent to human experience, from knowledge to sex to technology.

12 What was Helen Cixous’ view of her Judaism?

For Hélène Cixous (1937- ) her Judaism is closely tied to her experience as a woman.  She initially experienced both as sites of exclusion and marginalization.  It is clear however that her Jewishness is also a means of identification with a certain experience of uprootedness in modernity, an experience which is certainly not only of negative valence for her.  She has written lovingly about Kafka, Freud, Celan and the Brazilian Jewish writer Clarice Lispector,  and it is clear from these texts that she has felt a strong sense of identification with these figures. She saw these writers as teachers, who could show us how to mourn but also how to hope, a way of embracing, what she called, quoting Paul Celan, the Singbarrest, the singable remains. 

13. Are  there points you want the reader to know about how French Jewish thought differs from German Jewish thought?

More important to me than simply distinguishing the two is the possibility that French Jewish Thought can help us broaden how we understand what constitutes Modern Jewish Thought.

Certainly, German Jewish Thought has provided the fundamental paradigm for Modern Jewish Thought and to some extent has limited how we conceive of the genre.  From its earliest coinage, the canonical texts of Modern Jewish Thought—Buber, Cohen, Rosenzweig, Fackenheim among others—were understood as valuable for their edifying potential.  They were read as guides to how to understand what Judaism can offer the modern observer.

Without foreclosing on this possibility, I want to expand the genre to include texts that ask even about its very terms and engage in their historical-political constitution and negotiation. If we take Modern French Jewish Thought to have commenced with the Assembly of Notables, then we can think of it as a tradition preoccupied by the very terms of modernity and Judaism. French Jewish thinkers perennially had to deal with explicit political pressures coming from outside beginning with  the need to prove that Judaism was a religion and not a national identity, a pressure that is reversed by the end of the 19th century when they are accused of being the secret architects of the French Revolution. One can sense those pressures at work in the self-descriptions of Judaism, but this helped induce  the creative work of mining the tradition’s sources to address these pressures.

Of course, the other way to distinguish the two follows from their historical scope.  German-Jewish Thought essentially reaches an endpoint with the Holocaust.  But it was only in the late 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s that French Jewish thinkers became deeply familiar with the interwar German  canon, thus postwar French Jewish Thought provides a postwar chapter to the Weimar German story, even as it has its own history leading up to the Second World  War.  The French had to contend with how to think about Jewish diasporic existence in Europe after WWII in a way that was unparalleled in other nations.  

Interview with Ariel Evan Mayse on Speaking Infinities

Prof Joseph Weiss (1918–69) in a famous essay distinguished between the ‘Hasidism of Faith” and the “Hasidism of Contemplative Mysticism.” In the Hasidism of faith, typified by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the emphasis is on belief and faithfulness to a distant God, overcoming the absence via prayer, conversation with God, music, and personal words, our lacks, our melancholy and our fears are to be sublimated toward the divine. In contrast, the Hasidim of Contemplation, typified by Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch, know as the Maggid of Mezritch, is about ecstatic prayer to reach the infinite divine. One nullifies the self and reaches the mystical realm divine Nothingness.  

In the last few years, much of the Neo-Hasidut interest has been in the former, creating a psychological approach of hitboddedut, longing, desire, rejection, and abyss. But, some are  attracted to the latter, the contemplative merging with God. Prof Ariel Evan Mayse in his recent book returns us to focus on the approach of the Maggid of Mezritch giving us a lucid exposition of the role of language in contemplative prayer.

Ariel Evan Mayse joined the faculty of Stanford University in 2017 as an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies and serves as the rabbi-in-residence at Atiq: Jewish Maker Institute ( Previously he was the Director of Jewish Studies and Visiting Assistant Professor of Modern Jewish Thought at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts. Mayse holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from Harvard University and rabbinic ordination from Beit Midrash Har’el in Israel. He co-editor the two-volume A New Hasidism: Roots and Branches (Jewish Publication Society, 2019) with his teacher and colleague Arthur Green. Recently, his book was published, Speaking Infinities: God and Language in the Teachings of the Maggid of Mezritsh (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).

Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch was, in many ways, the architect of the Hasidic movement as a social organization. The Baal Shem Tov and others such as the Zlotchover Maggid, or Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Bar, were spiritualists or charismatic teachers who taught and exerted pietistic leadership for those they encountered. In contrast, between the Besht’s death in 1760 until his own death in 1772, Dov Ber created the idea of the Hasidic court and the importance of the rebbe for guidance. He also assigned future territories of influence to at least ten of his leading disciples. Hence, his disciple, Elimelech of Lizhensk received Poland, Aaron of Karlin received Lithuania,  Schneur Zalman of Liadi received White Russia, Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev received Northern Ukraine. These students created the Hasidic dynasties. Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch’s teachings were summarized as epigrams and short paragraphs which his students published as broadsides and pamphlets to attract disciples to this mystical teaching. Posthumously, Rabbi Dov Ber’s homilies were collected and edited.

The Maggid of Mezritch as he is known today, and in older literature he was known as the Maggid of Rovne, taught a doctrine of seeing God in all things. Everything contains divine sparks or reflects elements of the divine. Even physical pleasure should be considered as reflected divinity. One should know that no place is devoid of the divine and in everything one does one should make it into a form of worship. Some of his disciples occasionally overturned conventional religious categories by thinking that learning Torah takes one away from thinking about God or that God wants us to serve Him with our daily actions, not just ritual commands.

Rabbi Dov Ber’s view of prayer was that man loses himself and his surroundings through concentration of all his thought and feeling upon union with God. When a man becomes so absorbed in the contemplation of an object that his whole power of thought is concentrated upon one point, his self becomes unified with that point. So, prayer in such a state of real ecstasy, effecting a union between God and man, is extremely important. “The purpose of all prayer is to uplift the words, to return them to their source above. The world was created by the downward flow of letters into words and take them back to God. (Maggid of Mezeritch)

The Maggid has a specific language for this process of mystical contemplation of “divestment of corporeality” the world of limits, “world of speech” materiality, and the ego. One then enters in the limitless “World of Nothingness” and let oneself be a passive vessel of the divine.”

Prior to prayer he must cast off corporeality, characterized by finitude and limit, and enter into the aspect of Nothingness, which is without end.  For man must direct all the wishes of his heart  toward the Creator alone, and not do anything from his own self;  This is impossible unless he enter into the attribute of  Nothingness, to know that he does not exist at all, and then he will not turn to any thing of the  world at all, seeing as how he does not exist at all.(Maggid of Mezeritch)

The Maggid is also know for the sexualization of this mystical union. If joy is felt as two human bodies come together, how much greater must be the joy of this union in spirit! – (Keter Shem Tov 72b).

Decades ago, Joseph Weiss in his studies and Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer in her Hasidut Hasidism as Mysticism: Quietistic Elements in Eighteenth-Century Hasidic Thought (Hebrew 1968) focused their scholarly research on this via passive, quietism, and contemplative mystical union. Ariel Evan Mayse shifts the focus to the role of language and linguistic theory in the Maggid’s approach.

Mayse presents the idea that Hasidism saw a linguistic vitality echoing in the cosmos, in which Rabbi Dov Ber considered all human tongues, even in their mundane forms, to have the potential to become sacred when returned to their divine source.

The language of prayer is the “World of Speech” who origin is in the “World of Thought”; the mystic awakens first the realm of thought before the words flow from his lips. At the same time, the Maggid thinks God emerges from the silence of a pre-verbal inner realm that unfolds gradually through the structures of being. Words allow the mystic to bring down and articulate this realm of divine infinite and silence.

Especially strong is Mayse’s discussion of revelation. “The Maggid claims that the Torah is an expression of the sublime depths of God’s silent Mind from which it emerged…. God therefore constricted—or focused—this primordial Scripture into letters and words, an intricate latticework of narratives and laws. That’s what happened at Sinai.” According to Mayse, “this particular take on revelation has the utmost practical meaning for him, precisely because the Maggid understands the giving of the Torah matan Torah as an ongoing process rather than a historical event.” The Maggid draws a “parallel between God and the human teacher,” the Hasidic preacher. The ineffable wisdom flows through the preacher’s words into the mind of the disciple. Hence, the book makes a point of looking at the role of orality and mysticism in the creation of the Maggid’s own homilies.

Mayse qualifies the antiquated William James idea that mysticism is beyond words, solely as an ineffable experience by showing the immense role of words and language in the Maggid’s mysticism. Mayse used Wittgenstein, Michael Sells, the scholar of Islamic mysticism, and others for this conceptualization.

However, this year also witnessed the publication of Moshe Idel’s Vocal Rites and Broken Theologies: Cleaving to Vocables in R. Israel Ba‘al Shem Tov’s Mysticism, who only sees the words and goes to the opposite extreme and denies the mystical element in many Hasidic texts. Idel see these text as a form of vocal linguistic magic and ritualized vocal linguistic practice for power and not contemplative mysticism. In the coming years, the term paper for many a graduate class in Hasidic thought will be to compare Ariel Evan Mayse to Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer on one side and to Moshe Idel on the other.

In sum, this work is a fine historic-literary analysis of the Maggid’s abstract theory of language. A detailed look at the different ways that language is mentioned or used. Even though the book was clearly written with passion for the subject, the topic is explored as part of the academic study of the history of Kabbalah, a study of tropes and images. Personally, I would have wanted to see ritual studies, psycholinguistics, or performance studies play a role in the analysis.  I also found its modernist views of language could have benefited from the richness of post-structural ideas. The interview ends with two questions on the contemporary application of these ideas – to environmental concern and to our lives.

  1. What is the thesis of your new book?

The book offers a comprehensive intellectual biography of Rabbi Dov Ber Friedman, the Maggid of Mezritsh I argued that his innovative theory of language is the singular key to unpacking his abstract mystical theology, and suggest that Dov Ber must be considered one of the foremost architects of the emergent socio-religious movement that developed into Hasidism

It is commonly assumed in the study of religion that mystical illumination is necessarily beyond language. The homilies of the Maggid demonstrate otherwise. His sermons portray language as a divine gift, referring to the faculty of language as nothing less than an aspect of God dwelling within the human being.

I did not set out to write a comparative book about mysticism, and throughout the book I note the significant dangers of interpreting the Maggid’s teachings through the broadly-construed lens of “mysticism.” Nevertheless, natural conversation partners for the Maggid would include ibn Arabi, Meister Eckhart, John of Cross, Teresa of Avilla, Farrad ud-din Attar, to name just a few. But that is a project that must be left for a different day.

2. What is the role of language for the Maggid?

The Maggid understood the process of redeeming language by “raising it up” to its source in the Divine to be the crux of religious service and key to cultivating a life of contemplative holiness. What does the Maggid really mean? Can language truly be “returned” to God without annihilating it, thereby essentially undoing the project of creation? . Rather than negating the power of word or retreating into meditative silence, the Maggid’s argues that the process of elevating words to their divine source requires a full and unreserved embrace of language. God formed the cosmos through a series of creative utterances that continue to saturate the fabric of existence with sacred life-force. Moreover, all acts of revelation—divine, but also human—are driven by the urge to break forth from silence and cast one’s wisdom into words.

A tsaddik whoworships through the [divine power of the] letters becomes connected to the supernal wisdom (hokhmah)… He enters the gateway of Naught (ayin), concentrating on the fact (ma‘aleh ‘al libo) that, were it not for the power of God in him, he would be nothing at all.

That being the case, all [that he is and does] derives from God’s power. Human speech is the divine World of Speech, through which the world was created. The World of Speech proceeds from [God’s] wisdom. This is the source of pleasure and delight that God receives from the worlds.

Even now, the worshipper should speak only for the sake of divine pleasure, thus returning the letters to their ultimate source in hokhmah.  (MDL 60 pp 94-95)

The primary goal of divine service, says the Maggid, is properly aligning the stream of language from the deepest realms of the mind to the spoken utterance.

This is accomplished through uniting a  dyad found throughout the Maggid’s homilies: ‘olam ha-dibbur (“the World of Speech”) and ‘olam ha-mahashavah (“the World of Thought”). This symbolic pair plays a critical role in the Maggid’s theory of language. Spoken language expresses an idea that first appears in the mind, but the Maggid also intends it as a prescriptive instruction: the worshipper must constantly seek to unite the World of Speech and the World of Thought in every utterance (MDL, no. 34, p. 53). ‘Olam ha-dibbur and ‘olam ha-mahashavah are linked as the oral elements of language are aligned with the realm of cognition and contemplation within the speaker’s mind.

The Maggid follows the position of the Kabbalists, who describe Hebrew as a divine tongue holding unlimited cosmic secrets. But his theory of language goes deeper yet, since he suggests that all human speech may become filled with divine life-force and power.

One’s every utterance is filled with God’s power because the name Y-H-V-H is, by necessity, “garbed in every word and expression.” (LY 264, fol 81a)  The Maggid’s homilies suggest that all languages—even their mundane forms—become redeemed when returned to their divine source.

3. How can the Maggid not refer to the Besht? What then is his authority?

Why should the Maggid have needed to refer to or quote the BeSHT? The latter had not yet been crowned, anachronistically, as the “founder of Hasidism.” From what we know, they only met a few times, though the hagiographical accounts describe their meetings in electrifying terms. If we are to believe Rabbi Shlomo of Lutsk’s account, they studied some rather obscure books of medieval Kabbalah (Raziel ha-Malakh, Maayan ha-Hokhmah), and the BeSHT taught him the language of the trees and the birds (a common Kabbalistic trope inherited from rabbinic literature).

But rather than absorbing a large body of particular teachings and then passing them on to his own students (or readers, in the case of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye), what the Maggid took from the BeSHT is best described as an ethos, a sensibility or an approach to the religious life. The BeSHT emphasized joy and the paramount value of ecstatic prayer, but he also taught that God’s vitality is omnipresent, animating all physical phenomena and thus transforming even the most mundane tasks into opportunities for divine service.

The Maggid took this legacy and developed it further, reshaping and reinterpreting key aspects of the BeSHT’s teaching in light of his own religious personality and philosophy. His introspective and contemplative religious path was markedly different from the approach suggested in the teachings of the BeSHT, and the Maggid continued to espouse a religious ethos defined by a deep fear of sin and a distrust of physicality. But taking the BeSHT’s notion of God’s immanence as a kind of linguistic vitality echoing in the cosmos, the Maggid developed a theory of language in which all human tongues have the potential to become sacred.

The Maggid also combined the new spiritual orientation with a new social structure, including the emergent Hasidic court. For this reason, the Maggid must really be considered one of the foremost architects of the emergent socio-religious movement that was developing into Hasidism  in the 1760s and which happened further in the lifetime of his students. The tale of the Maggid’s life is the story of an introspective mystic, painfully shy and utterly confident in equal measures. Wary of the company of others and alert to the boundaries of language, the Maggid was a religious intellectual for whom God is revealed through the innermost reaches of the mind and heart. But the Maggid was pulled toward a life of public teaching and leadership and thus took a central role in the formation of Hasidism.

4. What is the relationship of Silence and Words in the Maggid’s thought?

God emerges from silence through the pathways of language. All divine revelation originates in a pre-verbal inner realm that unfolds gradually through the structures of being. The cosmos was formed through the divine word, perhaps even through the Torah itself. God’s creative utterances continue to inhere in the cosmos, animating all existence and causing the world to shimmer with divine linguistic power.

This process took on a different form at Sinai, as God’s endless wisdom became cloaked in the mantle of words. Summoned by the prophet Moses from the reservoir of infinite silence, the Torah became a garment of letters for this boundless divine life-force. Rather than one-time events whose significance is relegated to historical memory, these processes continue as God—and God’s language—are reborn through the power of human speech.

The Maggid, an introverted religious type, understands full well the power of contemplative silence and his homilies describe a contemplative realm beyond even cognitive language.But the primary thrust of his teachings consistently underscores the enormous spiritual power of human words. Silence may allow the worshipper to reach for the highest rungs, yet wordless contemplation threatens to leave the cosmos devoid of God’s vitality. Silence is only a transient moment in the service of returning the language to God. Raising up the letters through the various cognitive worlds and thus reinfusing them with sacred life-force, is immediately followed by drawing them back down—our summoning them forth—so that the influx of divine vitality may be revealed in the world

Language is a divine gift, one that demands great responsibility and commands human action; we have a religious duty to engage with and redeem language.

The tsaddikim could create a world if they wished to do so. (Sanhedrin 65b) “The heavens were created by the word of Y-H-V-H” (Ps. 33:6), and it is written “and He breathed into him the soul of life [and man became a living soul]” (Gen. 2:7), which is rendered by the Targum as “a speaking being.”

One cannot refer to parts when speaking of God, for God is endless (ein sof). One cannot describe the Infinite as blowing only His speech into his nostrils. Therefore, [all of God’s essence] was included in this speech. (271 fol 89b)

Words afford an opportunity to overcome the limitations of world defined by particularity and multiplicity through revealing the ineffable. All speech, although its letters and words appear separate, unites the speaker with the infinite Divine as they are raised up and returned to their root in God. Moreover, the Maggid’s embrace of language extends to his approach to pedagogy as well, since the riches of the intellect—as well as the depths of one’s inner experience—cannot be revealed to another without the mediating power of the structures of articulated speech.

5. How do you use the conceptual categories of Michael Sells?

Michael Sells, the scholar of Islamic mysticism who also discussed nonplatonic themes of mysticism, factors so prominently in my work because he tries to tilt to conversation around kataphatic (language-embracing theology) versus apophatic theology (negative theology in which God may be described or known only through negation rather than positive attribution). Sells moves them from a strict binary in which mystics either embrace words or disregard them, seeing these impulses as existing within a dialectic rather than an either/or, showing that language can be used in paradoxical and performative ways to overcome its own limitations. Thus the worshipper or spiritual educator maintains a foothold in the world of language and in the ineffable beyond at the very same time.

6. How does your work relate to the prior studies of Gershom Scholem?

Gershom Scholem was initially electrified by issues of language in Kabbalah and thought to write his dissertation about this subject. He chose to work on the linguistic theory of the Bahir; language and Kabbalah became the subject of his life’s work. He insisted on the linguistic nature of Kabbalah vis-à-vis all other mysticisms, offered in response to Martin Buber and the other universalizing scholars, since Jewish mystics encounter God takes place within the words of the Torah and the language of being itself.

Scholem’s reading of Kabbalah and its theology was shaped by Benjamin’s “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man”—and both he and Benjamin were deeply influenced by the German philosopher and Christian Kabbalist Johann Georg Hamann, whose influential “Aesthetica in Nuce: A Rhapsody in Cabbalistic Prose” (1762), argues for the existence of a divine language that is constituent of being. Poetry, he argued, is the most elevated form of language, a tongue closest to the divine source from which all human speech emerges. This interweaving of divine and human language, of God’s word as interpreted and translated into human speech, is key to Scholem and Benjamin’s understanding of language “as such.”

It is therefore really interesting that Scholem could not, or would not, apply this way of thinking about mysticism and language to his studies of Hasidism. He rejected Buber’s existentialist reading of Hasidism and his reading of Jewish mysticism in general, but on this point, it seems that Scholem was himself deeply influenced by Buber’s interpretation of the mystic quest as a journey toward wordless silence. The work of Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer, the first and only scholar to devote an academic monograph to the Maggid and his school, reiterates this thesis in greater depth

That’s where my book comes in. I argue that Schatz-Uffenheimer and Scholem have, in many respects, missed the key to the Maggid’s theory of language and thus to his theological project. Setting this right will teach us something about the integration of human and divine speech in the teachings of the Maggid, but also the place of language in mystical religion more broadly.

7. What is the role of orality and oral teaching in understanding the Maggid?

I draw upon the conceptions of orality in Walter Ong, Deborah Tannen, William Graham, and others who note that oral speech is often distinguished from its written counterpart by its rhetorical style, linguistic register and semantic structure. But oral speech, from public sermons and political orations to hushed whispers, includes another dimension: the experience of hearing—or uttering—the words. Hasidic sources understand this element as part and parcel of a homily’s spiritual significance and the meaning of the sermon as a religious event, often describing the words of a tsaddik as a theophany akin to the revelation at Sinai.

Idel has pursued this line of thought regarding the BeSHT’s emphasis on spoken words, and, although Haviva Pedaya has argued that the Maggid’s approach to language is primarily visual, it characterizes the Maggid’s ethos and ideas as well. Hasidic teachings—including those of the Maggid—generally favor oral speech over the written word, but the picture is more complicated because Hasidism was essentially a hybridized culture, one in which spoken words and written language interface in complex and often surprising ways.

8. How does Wittgenstein help in understanding the Maggid?

Wittgenstein’s early writings are useful precisely because of their similarities of his linguistic theory to elements of the Maggid’s mysticism but also their significant differences. At the end of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein describes philosopher’s brush against the limits of language and the eventual move beyond words, entering a realm of non-sense that is utterly indescribable. This attempt to confront irresolvable mysteries is described as climbing a ladder rising above even the most succinct and precise philosophical statements. There, language buckles under the inscrutable paradox and the ladder of logical propositions must be cast away.

The Maggid’s teachings, by contrast, offer a very different perspective on the contemplative’s encounter with the ineffable. Rather than the rungs of philosophical language, the Maggid’s seeker of God climbs the ladder of words and letters in an inward journey toward the infinite pool of divine wisdom concealed in his heart and mind. But far from retreating into contemplative silence or casting away latter, the words remain in place and the worshipper’s sacred speech transforms the people around him and allows the world to shine with renewed divine vitality.

9. Your last chapter on prayer and the role of silence in prayer seems very similar to Rifka Schatz. You make a big deal of your going beyond her work, but it seems you return to her basic analysis, regardless of your greater mentioning of the concept of words.

The chapter on prayer is where my analysis does come closest to that of Schatz-Uffenheimer, since so many of the Maggid’s teachings on tefillah focus on transcending the self and the journey into the innermost seat of contemplation. Now, Schatz-Uffenheimer admits to certain differences that separate early Hasidism, her book focuses on the Maggid’s teachings on wordless rapture as similar to those of the Christian mystics who emphasize silent repose in worship.

Rather than “greater mentioning of the concept of words,” as you put it, I’m trying to show that devekut, cleaving to God in prayer, is attained precisely as worshipper articulates the words of prayer and concentration. This, taught the Maggid, awakens the divine vitality within the letters of the liturgy. In such moments of illuminated worship, the divine word (shekhinah or ‘olam ha-dibbur) speaks through the worshipper, revealing once more that human language embodies the divine quality of sacred speech. Awareness of this power, linguistic as well as contemplative, brings the worshipper to a state of humility and self-transcendence, allowing one to pray for the needs of shekhinah  instead of his own personal desires. In certain moments of contemplative prayer, one may venture beyond words. But this elation is followed closely by the worshipper’s return to the structures of language.

The mussaf prayer on Shabbat includes keter. We raise the World of Speech up to the World of Thought. There the illumination is so great that no distinctions are visible. But according to this, no vitality would remain in this lower world. This world exists because of a divine need, for there can be no king without a people. Therefore, we immediately recite, “Where is the place of His glory.” “Where” (ayeh) refers to the three initial sefirot, where there are no divisions. Then we say, “From His place may He turn in compassion,” to bestow his goodness here, since there can be no king without a people…

The life-force of all things comes from the World of Speech, meaning the letters. Now the letters long to connect to their source. It is their vitality. But when some change is required, then the letters of speech are lifted up beyond the attributes (middot). [The one praying] falls silent and cannot speak until the transformation has been accomplished. Then song may be recited once more. (LY no. 224, fol. 66b; and see MDL, no. 118, p. 192)

Only through the medium of words may one’s illuminated experience be concretized, expressed and shared with others. These dimensions, core parts of the Maggid’s legacy, are some of the things that Schatz-Uffenheimer discuss.

10. Why is it important that letters are auto-emanated?

What’s important is that the letters represent a stage in the unfolding of the Divine, a process that transpires across the name Y-H-V-H. The build-blocks of language – all languages – are right there in God’s self-emanation. So, the early Kabbalists describe the emanation by means of the letters and words of divine speech as a manifestation of the Godhead within a finite structure. God is embodied within the speech through which the world was created, much as the Divine is expressed through the framework of the sefirot. The Maggid takes this paradigm and applies it to the font of human language within the mind and expanding through the levels of cognition and articulation, suggesting even that all languages can become a manifestation of this divine name.

11. What is divine vitality?

Divine vitality (hiyut) is one of many parallel terms (like shefa, ruhaniyut), which emerged in the works of medieval Jewish thinkers writing under the influence of Sufi devotion literature, used by the Maggid to describe the divine immanence that pulses within creation. It’s related to his concept of the ayin, the infinite divine Naught, or hokhmah, God’s wisdom, that represent the infinite potentiality hidden within each and every thing in this world.  

12. What is the Maggid’s view of revelation?

The Maggid claims that the Torah as an expression of the sublime depths of God’s silent Mind from which it emerged. Scripture, he suggests in a clever reinterpretation of rabbinic traditions, predated creation as an endless expanse of divine Wisdom. Perhaps the primordial Torah was even beyond language, a surging font of sacred illumination undefined by words. The Maggid concludes that this limitless Torah could not be apprehended by the human being. God therefore constricted—or focused—this primordial Scripture into letters and words, an intricate latticework of narratives and laws. That’s what happened at Sinai.

Scripture could only have been given by someone who grasped the most intimate and powerful divine name, the one that animates all others and signifies the aspect of God that sustains all existence.

Our teacher Moses grasped the essence of divinity, which is the vitality of all the names [of God], where there are no distinctions and all is utter oneness. Therefore, the Torah in all its breadth (bi-kelalutah) was given through him. This was not the case with the other prophets, who grasped the essence of divinity only [as it was projected through] the divine attributes and names (middot ve-kinnu’im)…

Moses grasped [divinity] through the name Y-H-V-H, the all-encompassing vitality, such that the entire Torah, in general and particular, including all that a faithful student would innovate, was given through him. (MDL, no. 132, pp. 228)

Now Torah that predated the theophany at Sinai was, perhaps, pre-linguistic and without specific content, and the Maggid suggests that Moses may have taken an active role in shaping the textual fabric of the Torah..

This particular take on revelation has the utmost practical meaning for him, precisely because the Maggid understands the giving of the Torah matan Torah as an ongoing process rather than a historical event. This happens in several different and interrelated ways.

In turn, sacred study reenacts the intimate encounter between God and Israel at Sinai – through it one becomes linked to the pre-linguistic realm of divine thought, ushering a flood of creative inspiration. BecauseGod’s wisdom is continuously contracted into the words of Scripture, this revelatory act of divine self-limitation enables one to pierce the mantle of language and reclaim the sacred vitality within its letters. And, drawing a parallel between God and the human teacher, the Maggid suggests that ineffable wisdom flows through the preacher’s words—and, in particular, through parables—into the mind of the disciple.

“A teacher should always teach his student succinctly” (derekh ketserah). (Hullin 63b) If a master wants his disciple to understand his expansive wisdom, but the student cannot receive it [in its current form], the teacher must focus his mind (metsamtsem sikhlo) into words and letters. For example, when one wants to pour something from one vessel into another and is afraid lest it spill, he uses another vessel called a funnel (mashpekh). The liquid is contracted into it, and therefore the [second] vessel can receive without any of it spilling outside.

The matter is just the same with a teacher whose intellect is contracted into words and letters. He speaks them to the student, and through them the student can receive the master’s expansive mind. (MDL, #101, p. 178. See also OT, be-shalah, #92, p. 128.)

The task of the discerning student, claims the Maggid, is to reverse the process of revelation by reaching inward to the ideational core concealed in his teacher’s words.

13. How does this connect to an environmental ethic?

In short, global climate change and the impending environmental disaster represent one of the greatest moral and existential crises of our day. Developing a Jewish language for meeting this challenge requires rethinking categories of Torah and finding ways to reformulate Jewish obligations in light of the Anthropocene, but we also need to find new ways of thinking about sacred narratives and theology (aggadah) that create a poetic language to motivate and inspire. The innumerable rabbinic teachings that expound the values of environmental stewardship should be developed, such as the following well known passage:

 “Consider the work of God; for who can heal that which is damaged?” (Eccl 7:13). When the blessed Holy One created the first person, He took him and showed him all of the trees of the Garden of Eden, saying, “Consider my works—how beautiful and wonderful they are. All that I have created, I have created for you. Pay heed to this! Do not damage or destroy my world, for, if you do, who will heal it after you? (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13).

The teachings of Jewish mysticism—and of Hasidism in particular—will be particular helpful in championing the cause of environmental ethics. The radical understanding of divine immanence in these sources unabashedly describing the physical world as saturated with God’s presence:

The blessed Creator made everything and is everything. In each moment, without ever ceasing, God bestows blessing upon His creatures and upon all the worlds above and below… constantly forming, revitalizing all of life, moment to moment; all is from the blessed Holy One, who is perfect and all-inclusive (R. Levi Yitshak of Barditshev, translated in Arthur Green, Speaking Torah Spiritual Teachings from Around the Maggid’s Table, with Ebn Leader, Ariel Evan Mayse and Or N. Rose (Woodstock: Jewish Lights, 2013), vol. 1, 80).

In my contemporary application of this passage, we see how the cosmos shimmers with sacred vitality, a creative divine life-force that unites all being. This divinity is manifest in the beauty of each flower, bird, and waterfall.

As David Seidenberg and Arthur Green have argued, such a world is surely not meant to be thoughtlessly trodden upon or slowly destroyed through relentlessly mining its resources. This vision of God’s presence in the physical world, incorporated into our rich legacy of mystical aggadah, shows us how to ask new questions of ancient Jewish legal literature in search of relevance to environmental concerns. Re-grounding these values in the language of halakhah thereby demands that we act with conviction in light of the theology and moral claims expressed in the Jewish mystical sources.

14. How does this focus on mystic language contribute to our lives?

“The renewal of man,” claimed Abraham Joshua Heschel, “involves a renewal of language” and rethinking our relationship to the word is a crucial step in reckoning with the nature of what it can mean to be human. Like all teachers, I struggle with the limits of language as a finite medium of communication. My time is the classroom includes frequent pauses—even on Zoom!—allowing students to gaze beyond the surface in an effort to consider the pulsing heart of the text. This can be uncomfortable, but thus we enter the quiet liminal zone of interpretation together, stepping into the echo chamber that surrounds its words as white spaces upon the page.

But, like the Maggid, my refusal to sink into permanent silence represents an embrace of the quest to share my inner world with my students. Choosing speech over silence links us to other human beings, forming an intimate conduit of communication between masters and disciples, parents and children, and experts and novices These words serve as vessels, channels through which the possessions of one human mind and soul are shared with others. In spending the past decade with the teaching of the Maggid, starting with my first semester of graduate school and now into my years as a faculty member at Stanford, writings about his life and thought has become a kind of spiritual practice. In what follows, I have attempted to share something of that with the readers of this book.

The Maggid’s contemporary relevance is a means for deep appreciation for the immense power of language, and an understanding that words can be debased and misused. Choosing speech over silence links us to other human beings, forming an intimate conduit of communication between masters and disciples, parents and children, and experts and novices. This is not automatic, however, and the repercussive, vital dimensions of language can only be awakened through presence and intention. It takes much work—and much practice—to cultivate these qualities in our words, no matter which language we are speaking. The Maggid’s teachings can give us a vocabulary and a paradigm for thinking about the potentially sacred nature of even the most ordinary language. 

We are, as Charles Taylor notes, a language animal. The specific scholarly interventions of my book have much to do with the intellectual history of Kabbalah and Hasidism, but there are deeper questions at the heart of the book that are not restricted to this particular academic field. How do we create meaning through language? How do we forge relationships with other people through words, and what are the limitations of such communication? How does the experience of oral speech differ from human connections via its written forms? And, what’s the nature of spiritual education? These are the same kinds of questions I try to get my students to ask in the academic classroom through studying Jewish texts. The Maggid’s sermons seem arcane and opaque, but they provide concrete answers to these questions and, more importantly, they serve as textual anchors for classroom discussions.

Rabbi Elinatan Kupferberg responds to Prof Aaron Koller on the Akadah

In July, I posted an interview with Prof Aaron Koller on his book Unbinding Isaac (JPS, 2020), his book took issue with the Kierkegaard’s approach to the story of the binding of Isaac, and he rejected the influence Kierkegaard had on the thought of Rabbi Soloveitchik and Yeshaya Leibowitz. This was, in turn, used rejected a Judaism that he required us to suppress our sense of morality. He showed that it was not the true reading of Genesis or the predominant one of Jewish history nor does it fit Maimonides view of prophecy.   

Three days later Rabbi Zach Truboff  responded with The Things We Do For Love: A Response to Aaron Koller, which defended the role of passion, compulsion, desire, and projections in religion mediated by Julia Kristeva, Eric Santer, Yishai Mevorah, and Maimonides on passionate love of God.

We gain another response to Koller written by Rabbi Elinatan Kupferberg who defends the role of submission to the law and not following our ethical intuitions, defense of Yeshivish Orthodox thinking as found in the Hazon Ish and Rabbi Hayyim of Brisk. Kupferberg argues that Rabbi JB Soloveitchik did not need Kierkegaard for focusing on submission, rather his direct Rabbinic antecedents already emphasized the need for submission to the divine will, and more than that, the Divine will is assumed to be moral even if we do not see it.

Rabbi Elinatan Kupferberg is the Rabbinic intern at the RJC in Riverdale, NY. He currently learns in the Beren Kollel Elyon in Yeshiva University. His learning includes the Telshe Yeshiva of Chicago, Yeshiva Zichron Moshe in South Fallsburg., Brisk in Jerusalem, and Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood.He has an MA from BRGS.

Rabbi Kupferberg divided his essay into four parts.

In the first part, he shows how Jewish thought, as exemplified by Rabbi Isaac Arama’s Akadat Yitzhak considered God’s word as intrinsically ethical even if it appears immoral. Rabbi Hayyim of Brisk felt the same way and hence Rabbi Soloveitchik did not need Kierkegaard.  

In the second part, he presents an Orthodox worldview in which Jerusalem must take precedence over Athens.  Kupferberg present an Orthodox reading of Leo Strauss, where morality is not from reason or human understanding but entirely from listening to God.  He also presents an original homily based on a leit-motif of the word ‘eikev as showing how the Akadah’s idea of obedience is the very core theology of Deuteronomy. And he presents Maimonides on the sublime as showing a limit to the human intellect.

In the third part of the essay, Kupferberg shows how the Hazon Ish does not acknowledge any moral criteria in understanding the law. While in Kupferberg’s view and own self-understanding, he as a Centrist Orthodox rabbi does acknowledge, similar to Rabbi David Hartman but not as firm, that the ethical played a role in Abraham pleading for Sodom. he does note that he finds Rabbi Hartman’s readings questionable. Furthermore, Kupferberg is willing to recognize that the Talmudic desiccation of the laws of the rebellious son was done for ethical concerns.

More than this, he sees Orthodoxy as having a tension of obedience and moral concerns. But the moral concerns are always tempered by the obedience. For Kupferberg, who exemplifies many in Orthodoxy, ethical concerns end when they “bump up against the facticity of the text” Meaning that the system and the status quo are already taken as a factual reality, which limits moral concern to small moments in the system. Kupferberg see himself as engaged in independent moral reasoning but recognizes that it is restricted by the norms and ideals unbudgeably established by Torah and halakha.

Identifying the biblical text or halakha with moral rationalism is itself an act of moral surrender, since it assumes a position not arrived at or subject to autonomous moral thought.Personally, Kupferberg identifies with Telshe thought as essentially the position sketched out.

He concludes the third part with a sharp dichotomy of those autonomous rational people without prior commitments to facticity of the text, in his mind they treat the Bible as immoral, archaic, and irrelevant. Rather, the correct approach is to have a commitment which is heteronomous, about obedience, and following the Biblical text as understood to support the halakhic worldview. At this point, Koller’s entire thesis or concern with increasing moral concern in Modern Orthodoxy has been rejected before a stricter approach about obedience the text, albeit one with some moral concern.

Kupferberg contrasts his understanding of Telshe approach to the Hazon Ish to say that he does indeed have a significant moral element compared to the Hazon Ish’s formalism. For Kupfererg, this is a solid qualitative difference between his approach and Hazon Ish. But the thesis of Koller’s book and Koller’s argument was against a Centrist Orthodoxy that already had a greater moral element, this difference seems more rhetorical than substantively. Those who find Centrist Orthodoxy as not morally concerned are already discussing a Centrist version of Rabbi Soloveitchik, not a Haredi version. The false dichotomy would also place Levinas’ heteronomous Biblical vision, used by Koller as a conclusion, as somehow on the side of autonomous rational self.

Finally, in fourth part of the essay he gives a contemporary example of the firm need for ethical submission and heteronomy, the case of Israel/Palestine. For Kupferberg, he can have unencumbered ethical concern for the Rohingya genocide or the Uyghur genocide. But he has to temper his ethical concerns when it concerns Palestine because in his Centrist Orthodox view the facticity of the text restrains it. Kupferberg may have moral concern for the situation in Palestine. He trusts, however, that his relation to the land is God’s covenantal command. He concludes with a paean to the Akadah paradigm as the basis of his reading of Torah and of the religious life.

In the end, Kupferberg offers an alternative religious worldview to take of Prof Koller. I am not sure that there can be much give and take between the opinions. When many in the current generation feel a need to reclaim a moral sense over fidelity to the text, this essay goes in the other direction.  He excludes those Jewish thinkers who emphasis the moral rationalism of the Torah such as Rabbis Saadiah Gaon, Shmuel David Luzatto, SR Hirsch, or Rav Moshe Shmuel Glasner to name a few. In fact, just this week a new book of Rav Menachem Froman Z”L quotes, including one that starts “Religious obligation is a disaster.”

This division of worldviews is part of a bigger divide. I received many emails from Centrist Orthodoxy educators after I posted the interview with Professor Koller wanting to defend fidelity to the law over what they saw as the immoral anarchy of human reason.  Many who defend Prof Koller’s position would see the position of fidelity to the law without only minor ability to be moral as the height of immorality and suspension of the ethical.

Either way, I have to deeply thank Rabbi Kupferberg for coming through with flying colors and writing a substantive essay defending his position showing the position of post-Brisk Centrist Orthodoxy, and its fellow travelers.

Rabbi Elinatan Kupferberg responds to Prof Aaron Koller

Part I

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard challenged the readers of Abraham’s Binding of Isaac (the Akedah): There were countless generations who knew the story of Abraham by heart, word for word, but how many did it render sleepless? It appears my teacher, Professor Aaron Koller, wants to help us sleep more satisfactorily.

In his recent book, he argues that the prevailing Modern Orthodox interpretation of the Akedah is of distinctly Kierkegaardian origin. Abraham’s suspension of his ethical instincts and unquestionable submission to God’s will are both morally troubling and inconsonant with Jewish tradition, where faith does not supersede ethics and Abraham’s remarkable act of faith is not meant to be normative. Instead, he offers an erudite explanation of the revelation not to sacrifice Isaac, arguing that it is the core teaching of the Akedah. The lesson of the Akedah is ethical.

Koller defends his reading on the grounds of its cogency as biblical interpretation and its coherence with traditional Jewish perspectives on the Akedah. Though I find his literary interpretation of the unbinding compelling and insightful, I want to argue that it is precisely on those grounds that his approach to the Akedah’s ultimate significance should be rejected.

Koller is correct that Judaism, which considers morality a basic obligation, cannot accept a Kierkegaardian interpretation of the Akedah which translates Abraham’s faith into a general obligation to obey the Torah at the cost of being morally monstrous. However, Jewish thought does not need recourse to Kierkegaard to account for Abraham’s seemingly absurd act of faith.

Traditional Jewish thought did see a clash of God’s word and rational ethics at the heart of the Akedah. But, instead of embracing the absurd, it prescribes the conviction that, despite its impenetrability, God’s word must be reasonable. It was this ethos of submission to God’s will that thinkers such as R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik drew on in their interpretations of the story.

Four hundred years before Kierkegaard, the 15th century Maimonidean philosopher-exegete R. Isaac Arama (in his coincidentally named Akedat Yitshak, Sha‘ar 21) described the essential conflict of the Akedah as the clash between faith in the wisdom of God’s word and human rationality. The intention of the trial was

to actualize [Abraham’s] perfection and thereby complete his reason and knowledge… it should completely elevate him from the tier of a natural philosopher to the superiority of divine Torah, since this is the greatest philosophical absurdity, and it is evident that no one would do so unless the compulsion to obey the insight and command superior to human reason endured in his soul with both love and fear…

The significance of the Akedah is that Abraham’s faith in God’s word triumphed over his reason. Abraham persevered because he recognized that God’s words represented a pattern of thought that human reason can’t reliably master. And, precisely because the sacrifice of Isaac was considered absurd by any rational philosophy, and it was only sensible for Abraham to comply if he had faith in divine wisdom, did the trial elevate him above the limits of human rationality.

The religious experience of the Akedah, applied to us, generalizes as submission to the divine wisdom as manifest in the entire Torah. The lesson of the Akedah is that the same submission “is a standing obligation for every person.” Completing the analogy and further anticipating Kierkegaard, R. Isaac Arama adds that the Akedah teaches that one must follow this divine wisdom even at the cost of committing what society would consider a patently abhorrent crime (Akedat Yitshak, Sha‘ar 27).

In the 19th century, the intellectual sovereignty of God’s word emerged at the forefront of the Orthodox Rabbinic consciousness. R. Hayyim Soloveitchik, building on the theological groundwork laid by his father R. Yosef Dov (author of Beit Halevi), developed his method of Brisker halakhic analysis founded on the belief that Torah is epistemically independent of science or the natural realm. It can only be understood and expressed in its own terms, with its own discursive tools, defying the reach of academic or other distinctly human modes of understanding.

And for R. Hayyim, this was epitomized by the Akedah (Hiddushei Maran Hagriz Halevi Hahadashot §37). R. Hayyim begins his analysis of the story with the midrash which describes Abraham’s response to the news that Isaac was not to be sacrificed.

R. Abba said: [Abraham said:] Yesterday You told me: “For through Isaac your seed shall be recognized.” And then You tell me: “Take your son.” And now You tell me: “Don’t extend your hand to the boy.” God responded to Abraham: “I do not violate My covenant… (Ps. 89:35).” When I told you “take your son,” I didn’t say, “sacrifice him” rather “bring him up.” [I mean:] Bring him up and then take him down. (Bereshit Rabbah 56:11)

R. Hayyim questioned why Abraham only challenged God’s conflicting statements after Isaac was released. Why did he act in solemn subservience rather than immediately addressing the conflict? R. Hayyim explained that, in theory, it is actually forbidden to entertain doubts regarding the logic of God’s words. Human rationality is not a standard by which the Torah is measured. However, one of the traditional principles of Biblical exegesis is: Two verses that conflict with each other until a third verse arbitrates between them, which sanctions questions asked within that framework. Working in the opposite direction of R. Isaac, R. Hayyim applies this hermeneutic to Abraham’s engagement with God’s statements. When God spoke to Abraham at the beginning of the Akedah, there was no “third arbitrating verse” yet, so questions were as yet forbidden. And so, at first, Abraham was silent and solemnly complied. Only once Abraham received the third statement (Don’t extend your hand…) was he able to use this method to inquire after God and clarify the previous statements. Throughout the Akedah, Abraham’s actions and thoughts were guided by the strictures of Torah.

The idea of the Torah’s philosophical independence was passed down to R. Hayyim’s grandson, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik. It shaped his halakhic thought, (conspicuously motivating the thesis of his early essay, The Halakhic Mind), and it informed his reading of Abraham’s obedience during the Akedah. While Kierkegaard influenced R. Soloveitchik’s approach, the distinctly Brisker hue of his understanding of the crux of Abraham’s faith has been overlooked. When addressing this central problem, his interpretation eschews Kierkegaard and echoes his grandfather, R. Hayyim.

Yet how did Abraham take this divine command? Did he argue, beg for mercy and clemency? Did he ask God the dreadful question: “If I am to sacrifice my son, what is to become of the great promise?” We marvel at Abraham’s sedateness, complacency, and peace of mind. The enormous feat of the knight of faith was demonstrated not in his actual compliance with the divine order but in the manner in which he behaved in the face of the most puzzling divine absurdity. The blood-chilling fear of meeting the nonsensical did not overcome Abraham. Abraham’s performance is not to be equated with a compulsory submission to a tyrannical power who overwhelmed it; nor should it be understood as an act of fatalistic despair… Abraham did not realize the absurdity and paradoxality of the divine order… Naively, almost irrationally, did he conceive of the demand as somehow compatible with the whole… By acting the way he did, Abraham unconsciously relieved the tension and reconciled himself with God.(The Emergence of Ethical Man, 156-157).

R. Soloveitchik refuses to see Abraham abandoning his reason in favor of the Kierkegaardian absurd. Instead, he adopts the Brisker conviction that God’s word is in some way sensible despite its defiance of rationality.

Seeing R. Soloveitchik as a Kiekergaardian exegete of the Akedah obscures how he read the most conspicuous part of the biblical story itself. The existential drama of Abraham’s inner world takes place between the lines of the text. The Abraham we directly encounter, the one presented to us for reflection, is serene, unquestioning, and eager to listen to God. In biblical terms, he fears God. While Kierkegaardian explorations into Abraham’s psyche may be religiously fruitful, it is the understanding of how Abraham’s silent faith triumphed that is salient for the Akedah’s religious message. When it comes to this crucial picture, R. Soloveitchik avoids Kierkegaard and colors it in accordance with his Brisker heritage.

Part II.

A careful reading of the biblical text bears out this Abraham-centric reading. Beginning with the Torah’s opening self-description, the text informs us that what follows is to be a test of Abraham. The nature of the test is not spelled out, but the angelic speeches make clear the basis upon which Abraham was evaluated. The first speech – “now I know that you are fearful of God and you did not withhold your son… from Me” – indicates what the trial has revealed (Abraham truly fears, or reveres, God) and why (he didn’t refrain from sacrificing Isaac).

As Maimonides describes, fear of God is the experience of the limits of one’s rational mind when encountering the majestic wisdom of God (MT Yesodei Hatorah 2:2; GP 3:52). Recognizing the boundless, cosmic, wisdom of God causes man to shrink back in fear and awe, suddenly conscious of his mortal deficiencies. Leo Strauss, in his essay Jerusalem and Athens, has argued that this idea is, in fact, the Bible’s core teaching about wisdom, as encapsulated in the verse: The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. Attaining wisdom begins with first recognizing that limited human reason is transcended by God’s wondrous wisdom. Natural human rationality is insufficient for true wisdom, which consists of apprehending the divine wisdom that God has revealed, namely, in His commands and His Torah.

Adapting Maimonides’ explanation of fear of God to the Akedah, the description of Abraham as fearful of God means he was not moved by his embrace of the absurdity or irrationality of God’s word but, as R. Isaac Arama interpreted, by the recognition of its supra-rationality. Within the bounds of his own rationality, God’s words remained inscrutable. But Abraham had faith in the divine intellect beyond the reaches of human reason.

This interpretation enables us to understand Abraham’s cryptic response when he was asked by Isaac about the whereabouts of the lamb. Abraham was unable to articulate what he believed – it was entirely unintelligible to him. The only certainty he had, and therefore the only answer he could give, was “God will see to the lamb Himself.” Only from God’s perspective was the identity of the lamb knowable.

The significance of this obedient faith is underscored in the angel’s second speech. Because of Abraham’s obedience, the angel reinforces God’s promise of land and progeny with a divine oath. The significance of the oath should not be overlooked. Not only does it appear at the climax of the Akedah, it is the apotheosis of Abraham’s own narrative. After a life of recurring promises, it is the first time that God finally secures His word to Abraham with an oath and it is also the final dialogue between God and Abraham. Effectively, the ordeal of the Akedah marks the culmination of the God-Abraham relationship and the election of Abraham as the patriarch of God’s chosen people. It’s hard to imagine that we are meant to see the unbinding of Isaac as the high point in the drama.

Abraham’s obedience to God also resurfaces again in the Torah. In the narrative, the oath is accompanied by the peculiar phrase “since [you] listened to My voice (‘eikev ’asher sham‘ata bekoli).

The phrase only reappears in the Torah first when God repeats the oath to Isaac in chapter 26 and then again in Deuteronomy chapter 7. Moses tells the Israelites that if they listen to God, (vehaya ‘eikev tishme‘un), God will guarantee them the oath He swore to Abraham their ancestor. In other words, just as Abraham received the promises on account of his listening to God, his descendants who inherited the promises must likewise listen to God to benefit from them. By describing Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac and the people’s observance of Torah in the same, highly specific, terms, the implication is clear: we should be emulating Abraham.

Part III.

Koller writes that Kierkegaard’s glorification of the knight of faith, who overcomes his own natural thinking to suspend ethics, has no place in Judaism, a religion whose operative assumption is that religion ought to agree with ethics.  Granted, this is an important theological distinction between Judaism and Kierkegaard’s Lutheranism regarding the place of ethics in religion. However, the conceptual agreement of religion and ethics doesn’t preclude an ethos of submission to God’s will. It simply means that part of surrendering to God’s will means accepting that it is ethical. 

The purest exponent of this theology was the Hazon Ish. The notion that halakha is determinative of ethics formed the backbone of the Hazon Ish’s veiled critique of the Mussar movement’s ideas of general spiritual and ethical self-development in his Emuna u-Bitachon. The Hazon Ish took the fact that halakha necessarily entails ethical judgments to its extreme logical conclusion: Halakha makes decisive and thoroughgoing ethical claims which are prone to contradict the discernment of even the most perfected moral conscience. Polemicizing against Mussar’s independence and lack of reliance on halakhic strictures, the Hazon Ish articulated an alternative ethos of submission to the ethical code implicit in the norms of the Torah. The only way to improve oneself morally from a Jewish perspective is to study and surrender to the ethic of the Torah.

However, accepting the lesson of the Akedah as surrender to God’s word does not necessarily entail following the Hazon Ish in the abandonment of moral reasoning when faced with challenging religious obligations.

The Akedah is not the only story where Abraham is positioned in moral tension with God. The counterpoint to Abraham’s submission at the Akedah is, of course, Abraham’s moral courage on behalf of Sodom. Koller addresses this contrast through David Hartman’s analysis (A Heart of Many Rooms, 12-14). Hartman placed both religious paradigms alongside each other and argued that both submission and moral courage are operative in Jewish tradition. God both demands unconditional surrender to His command and invites moral initiative.

Hartman stresses the tension between the two paradigms, between unconditional surrender and moral initiative, informs the range of Talmudic interpretations of the biblical law of the rebellious son. The Rabbis morally questioned the justice of stoning a child for juvenile acts of gluttony. Their responses range from invoking an Akedah mode of argument to accept the literal meaning and forfeit moral justifications; to offering a justificatory interpretation that the Torah foresaw more heinous crimes the child will inevitably commit; to accepting the critique and concluding that the law is entirely theoretical and meant only for study. (though I find this reading very questionable). From Abraham at Sodom we learn that when parsing God’s word, one does not leave morality outside and approach the text as an empty receptacle.

Nevertheless, Koller, similar to Strauss, is unconvinced, arguing that the paradigm of Sodom is unhelpful for tempering the religious message of the Akedah. The stories do not reflect different religious models – but different realities. In the story of Sodom, God engaged Abraham, offering an implicit opening for his initiative. Whereas in the Akedah, Abraham is confronted by “a blunt and unambiguous command.” The paradigm of Sodom is unrelated and, therefore, incapable of saving us from the austere demands of the Akedah.

Here I must disagree with Koller. Granted, the realities are different, but the story of Sodom still importantly contextualizes and qualifies the religious force of the Akedah. Taken on its own, the Akedah presents a categorical response to all contact between God’s word and ethical sentiments, namely, total surrender. Reading the stories together, however, Abraham’s obedience at the Akedah is recontextualized as a response that actually exists at one end of a spectrum of this type of conflict. On one end of the spectrum are clear, direct, and personal divine orders, and they claim unconditional obedience. This is the paradigm of Abraham at the Akedah, when God spoke to and commanded him personally. But God’s voice does not always materialize with such peremptory authority. Jumping to the other end of the spectrum, we find the paradigm of Sodom: God implicitly inviting man into a moral dialogue with Him. And, in between the two, are all the instances where God’s word is not so transparent or directly personal nor His invitation so unequivocally open. In other words, where the examples of real-life struggle of faith and ethics are.

Not all moral dilemmas are as binary as the sacrifice of an innocent child, where moral surrender automatically violates Judaism’s commitment to morality. Most encompass shades of gray, with multiple possible resolutions, where giving up some moral autonomy does not necessarily mean acting unethically.

In fact, integrating Koller’s reading that the command not to sacrifice Isaac was an ethical revelation makes the traditional interpretation of the Akedah less morally troubling. If the possession of children by their parents was conventional moral logic until the revelation at the Akedah, then up until that point Abraham was not in conscious violation of the moral law. Abraham’s faith that God’s command was just didn’t come at the cost of consenting to murder.

The Talmudic dispute about the law of the rebellious son is instructive here. The passage in the Torah is textual case law, it is not a direct, personal command from God. Rather, the rebellious son is somewhere in between the paradigms of the Akedah and Sodom, enabling the range of views regarding the strength of the opposing moral questions. But, since it is God’s word, the surrender of the Akedah paradigm can’t be totally avoided. Even in the most extreme option, when the Rabbis deny the application of the law in practice, they don’t allow their moral confoundment to suppress the passage or deny its wisdom. God forbid. Instead, their commitment to God’s word – the Torah – leads them to conclude that it is meant to be studied.

And herein is the inescapable moral surrender that we do learn from the Akedah. Commitment to the Torah creates a dialectical tension between heteronomy of God’s word and the autonomy of man’s moral reasoning. With no prior commitments, a moral reasoner appalled by the obedience demanded by the biblical text would be free to dismiss it as immoral, archaic, and irrelevant.

The Rabbis demonstrate how a committed Jew cannot escape this tension. However far he is carried by the power of his moral questions, he will inevitably bump up against the facticity of the text. He cannot escape his commitment that it is, at the very least, educative and worthy of study.


Much of Orthodox Jewish thought, in my case typified in Yeshivish Orthodoxy by Telshe, does not take halakha’s ethics to be as exhaustive and defined as the Hazon Ish did, allowing more room for independent moral reasoning. But there is nonetheless a more nuanced, but very real, surrender of autonomous moral reasoning inherent in the acceptance of the authority of the Torah. Even identifying the Torah with moral rationalism in the vein of R. Saadiah Gaon or Maimonides is effectively moral surrender since it accepts a position not produced by, or subject to, autonomous moral thought. Overlooking the surrender to God’s word epitomized by the Akedah ignores what is a vital element of religious life even for modern communities who champion critical thought and independent moral reasoning.

Examples of this surrender are more ubiquitous in halakhic life than one might think. Accepting the authority of halakha introduces competing moral and religious responsibilities that, subtly but pervasively, prevent one from living a wholly autonomous ethical life.

When a committed halakhic Jew works through an ethical question, he doesn’t face an uncharted moral landscape. The Torah has already established obligations, priorities, and inviolate boundaries that restrict and readjust the paths his reasoning can take.

Moreover, even if we put aside consideration of the Torah’s express moral claims, there is still a degree of ethical heteronomy entailed in the elementary acceptance of the Torah’s conceptual framework. Here, I will speak personally, but I imagine I am not alone.

Suppose I was asked to weigh in on international territorial disputes and two virtually identical cases were brought before me for my assessment. One was the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the second was an entirely isomorphic case, with identical histories and religious beliefs, but the Kurds replaced the Israelis and the Swedes replaced the Palestinians. I confess I would judge them differently. And not simply due to my individual biases, though not overlooking ethical concerns (nor justifying any specific course of action). Whichever moral assessment I made about territorial rights in the abstract, and then applied to the latter dispute, would necessarily be somewhat adjusted (in whichever direction) by my faith that God made a covenant with my ancestors in which He promised us the land of Israel. My faith in the covenant would be incorporated into the broader calculus. (In fact, one who subscribes to Satmar theology, for whom the eschatological conditions of the covenant shift the moral balance toward Palestinian territorial rights, is equally complicit in moral surrender).

If someone asks me how I could alter my moral judgment on the basis of faith, I will respond that it was on the basis of this type of surrender that God originally sealed the election of my ancestor Abraham.

And, indeed, Jewish tradition recognizes that are instances where the Akedah paradigm comes to the fore and the force of God’s command subdues man’s ethical instincts. An example of this clash of faith and ethics is presented in Yoma 22b:

Rabbi Mani said… When the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Saul: “Now go and attack Amalek,” he countered: Now, if for one life the Torah said to perform the ritual of  breaking the heifer’s neck (egla ‘arufa), all the more so [must I have pity on] all these Amalekite lives. And if the men have sinned, in what way have the animals sinned? And if the adults have sinned, in what way have the children sinned? A Divine Voice then came forth and said to him: “Do not be overly righteous” (Ecclesiastes 7:16).

Drawing on Ecclesiastes, R. Mani asserts that Saul must surrender his moral instincts in face of a direct and unambiguous divine command. The choice of Ecclesiastes here is deliberate. Ecclesiastes joins the Akedah paradigm with its trenchant skepticism and despair about the fruitfulness of man’s reliance on his own wisdom or notions of virtue. And yet, like the Akedah, Ecclesiastes’ message is also balanced. Its skepticism is met by the constant confidence of Proverbs that the wise and discerning man can live a good and ethical life.

The Akedah, however, has a different lesson. Its message is one of fearing God, acknowledging the unassailability of His wisdom, and surrendering to His command. Or, to put it the way Ecclesiastes would:

The end of the matter, everything having been heard: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the entirety of man.

11 Years of the Blog

I am still here after 11 years of blogging. The blog spans three published books, many countries of travel, and, most of all, 1000 blog posts. If you appreciate this blog, then in lieu of any payment or contribution, please post at least one of my posts for 2020-2021 on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other social media. I would be even happier if you post two or more of this years upcoming posts over the course of the year.