Monthly Archives: August 2021

Interview with Dror Bondi – Heschel’s Torah min Ha-Shamayim

“Everything depends on mazal, even the Torah Scroll in the Ark” (Zohar 3, 134a). Rabbi Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel’s great work Torah Min Hashamayim B’aspaklaria Shel Hadorot – Torah from Heaven in the Reflection of the Generations suffered from a lack of mazal. Only the first two volumes of the three-volume set were published. The third volume, however, appeared only in fragmentary forms and even then, with incomplete editing.  We must thank Dror Bondi, Heschel’s Hebrew translator, for publishing as complete a text of the third volume as possible. Bondi did amazing work by knocking on doors hunting for pieces of the manuscript, by perusing leads of potential copies, and through much archival work.  The work certainly suffered a lack of mazal but it also suffered from disrespectful neglect and tampering. Thankfully, in this interview Bondi names the guilty and then moves us to share his vision of how Heschel changed his life.

Dr. Dror Bondi has a doctorate in Jewish Thought from Bar-Ilan University. He lectures at Machon Kerem of the David Yellin College of Education. In 2012 he translated the first Hebrew collection of Heschel’s articles. He also translated into Hebrew Man’s Quest of God,  The Shabbat and Heschel’s Yiddish book, Kotzk. His own book Ayeca? about Heschel thought earned him Shalem Prize 2006. In 2017 he published the booklet God, Democracy and Humanism in the Thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel (by The Israel Democracy Institute). His new edition of Torah Min HaShamayim, based on newly discovered manuscripts which were never published, won HaPais Prize 2019. He lives in the Urban-Kibbutz Beit Yisrael in Jerusalem, a community of religious and non-religious who unite together in social and spiritual activism. Bondi’s work on Torah Min HaShamayim creates a beautifully edited edition of a classic of modern Jewish thought, which will be destined to many reprints. And likely, to have changed the mazal of this work for good.  

From the new edition, we see the development of Torah Min HaShamayim as a book. There was the idea for book two on revelation, then a turn to book one to describe Rabbinic thought, and finally a conclusion in book number three of the application of the first two books to our own age. Heschel understood Rabbinic texts as theological and as understood by their later developments in Jewish thought through Maimonides and Kabbalah up to Hatam Sofer and R. Zadok Hakohen. In many ways Heschel has provided    an    annotated    Norton’s    Anthology    of    Rabbinic Revelatory Thought  in  Judaism as well as instructions for the application of those texts.

The first part uses Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann’s dichotomy between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva. Many think  that  Heschel  always  favors  one  side  or  the  other;  in  fact,  in  each  chapter  he  seems  to  seek  an  approach  that  works  today. R.  Ishmael  as  a  defender  of  poetic  experience,  rational  cognition,  and  confronting  the  needs  of  the  hour.  Rabbi Akiva as the mystic, kabbalist, and idealist.   

R.   Akiva’s   conception   turned   towards   the   personal  God,  the  Holy  One,  blessed  be  He  who  “participated  in  the  pain  of  his  creature”;  in  contrast,  R.  Ishmael  surrendered  before  a  God  of  judgment,  mercy,  and  power . Regarding the relationship of heaven and earth, Heschel    presents    two    chapters    on    the    typological    attitudes    toward    the    shekhinah as God’s presence. For R. Akiva, the shekhinah is located spatially, in the west, in the Temple, as in  Ezekiel’s  vision.  This  approach,  in  turn,  generated later kavod theories and Kabbalah. R. Ishmael    senses    God    everywhere    in    the    temporal world,  as  in  Maimonidean  cognition  or  Hasidism.  One notices  the  similarity  to  Moshe   Idel’s   categories   of   theosophic   and   ecstatic. But, Heschel’s categories do not all line up; his two poles are floating. This first section contains Heschel’s  views  on  Judaism including God,  mizvot, prayer, ethics, and symbolism. Just the fist book alone would generate a full symposium

The second part of the book discusses Heschel’s view of revelation as a tension of the more textual Rabbi Yishmael and the more experiential Rabbi Akiva. We need to study the text in a rational manner, but Heschel also claims  that: “You  cannot  grasp  the  matter  of  the  “Torah  from  Heaven”  unless  you  feel  the  heaven  in  the  Torah.” You cannot be rational without the experiential sense of God’s wonderous “Whoever    denies    the    wondrous has  no  share  in  this  world;  how  much  more  so  can  such  a  person have  no  dealing  with  heavenly  matters.  If this  event  is  like  an  everyday  occurrence,  given    to    accurate    apprehension    and    description,  then  it  is  no  prophecy.  And if  the  prophetic  encounter  is  sublime  and  awesome,  without  parallel  in  the  world,  then it is clear that no description will do it justice, and silence becomes it.”

Heschel argues that  one  needs  to  experience  a  feeling of the Torah from heaven:  if one does not, one  should  not  be  teaching  or  studying  these  matters.  He declares  passionately  that  Judaism  is  not   limited to the   rational   non-experiential   approach   of   historians  and  talmudists. As Heschel already wrote in a 1933 poem, “Let it be clear: enthusiasm or mockery!”   One   needs   to   take   up   the   prophetic   banner   of   renewal,   the   poetic,   the   kabbalistic   or   the   Maimonidean,   or   one   must   openly     reject     Heschel’s     approach.     Heschel     demands   the  reader  to  not  limit  him  for  the  demands  of  those  who  do  not  hear  the  voice  of  God.

When the English translation of the book, Heavenly Torah, came out I gave a multi-week class in Manhattan on the work and wrote a long review article on it.(And see my post about the important review by Gedaliah Haber about the significant changes between the Hebrew and English editions.) I hope to find a venue for a slow and intensive reading of the new third part. I have not yet had a chance to go through Bondi’s reconstruction in detail.  

In main contours, the third part of the book, the one newly published by Bondi, deals with the daily life of living a life responsive to God. He deal with ethics, halakha, supererogatory acts, humra and kula, multiple opinions, intentional sin for a higher purpose, Kavod habriot (human dignity). In general, the question of how can we hear God’s voice today and submit to it. For  Heschel,  accepting  only  the  halakhah is  a  non-normative  position. Halakhah deals  with  matters  that  are  quantifiable;  aggadah speaks of matters of conscience and how to apply the halakhah in real life.

Heschel accepts the position of the Hatam   Sofer,   who   taught   that   there   is   no   certainty   in   halakhah,   for   “even   a   halakhic   ruling that appears to us to be firm and correct may  not  be  so  according  to  ultimate  truth”. For Hatam Sofer,  the  Torah  is  above  any  text;     aggadic     statements     such     as     “no     innovations  in  the  Torah”  (hadash  asur  min  ha-torah)   are   valued   over   halakhic   reasoning.   Heschel uses this fluidity to prove the need to look toward  the  ultimately  inaccessible  divine  Torah, wonder, fear of heaven, and conscience,  rather  than  knowing  Torah  only  by  means of juridical decisions. As Bondi wrote in the interview: “Modern Jewish movements try to change Halakhah in order to adjust it to modern values, but Heschel asks a Hasidic question: how does it reflect the divine concern.”

Bondi did a wonderful job of providing indexes to Biblical, Rabbinic, and Kabbalistic Hasidic works used by Heschel making the volume even easier to use as a reference for Rabbinic thought. However, the volumes lacks indices to exegetical and halakhic works cited. Hence, there is no way find the pages that Heschel cites the Hatam Sofer, the Kli Yakar or even Rashi.  This should not take away from the volume and it can easily be corrected for future editions.  The kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero defined mazal as a spiritual conduit for the flow of divine beneficence. We need to thank Bondi who was able to channel the flow of divine beneficence and thereby changed the mazal and the reception of this major work from neglect to widespread distribution.  He did a fine job.

  1. What is the story of the manuscript of the third part of Torah min Ha-Shamayim?

When I worked on my Ph.D. Dissertation, Heschel’s Hermeneutics, which includes a chapter about Torah min Ha-Shamayim (henceforth TMH), I felt that its third volume – published posthumously almost twenty years after Heschel’s death –  is simply not reflective of him.

Indeed, the chief English translator of this work, Rabbi Gordon Tucker (together with Leonard Levin), already wrote in his introduction that he found problems in it and that he looked for the manuscript but could not find it. Thanks God, during the last eleven years I discovered  many pieces of this manuscript proving that the third volume was incomplete and even misleading.

Here are the parts of the puzzle:

(1) My friend Bini Meir shared with me a treasure. He found in an Israeli archive a collection of Heschel’s letters to Abraham Meir Habermann (an Israeli friend which helped him to print volumes I-II in an Israeli printing house), in which he describes in detail his plan for the first half of volume III. I was shocked to read there that Heschel refers to a written Epilogue as well as to titles of chapters and semi-chapters which were never published. Two of these semi-chapters were published by Heschel himself as articles in HaDoar, but what happened to the rest?

(2) I discovered that during these twenty years the manuscript was being moved between several editors: Prof. David Weiss-Halivni received the original from Heschel’s wife, Sylvia who gave him all what she found, but she missed the Table of Contents and more. Halivni gave it to his student Rabbi David Feldman, who did not finish his work and brought it back to Sylvia; she asked Prof. Shamma Friedman to finish the work and gave him a copy of the original; Friedman gave it to Israel Hazani, who gave it to Prof. Adiel Schremer (who was then a MA student).

I called or wrote to all of them, asking if they know where the manuscript is, and why parts of the work were not published. All of them have nothing to tell me about the place of the manuscript (Schremer told me about the bad condition of the messy copy that he saw), except Rabbi Feldman who wrote to me: “I returned the manuscript to Dr. Heschel for publication, with the exception of perhaps one folder“!!!

Feldman didn’t reply to my further questions (i.e. what did he mean by the words “to Dr. Heschel”, while he gave it to Sylvia). After two months I sent an American friend to knock on his door, and I was shocked to discover that Feldman simply gave him a manuscript of 120 pages, much of it in Heschel’s own handwriting, which he kept at his home almost 40 years. These pages include more than two chapters about the issue of “Sin for the Sake of Heaven” (especially on intermarriage, and with a lot of radical Hasidic sources). We can only guess why Feldman did not give these sections back to Sylvia, but they were the most radical sections.

(3) However, these pages include only part of the chapters which were mentioned in the letters, thus I continued in my search. I found a copy of a copy of more than 500 pages at the home of Rabbi Tamar Kolberg (then, the reform Rabbi of Ra’anana), who was permitted to photocopy it (for her MA thesis) by Shamma Friedman, at the time he had it, at the end of the eighties. This part of the manuscript also includes some material (i.e. a third of a chapter) that were never published. It seems that the volume’s last editors missed it because of the bad condition of the copy they got.

Moreover, one of the errors was an addition to the volume of a marginal note by David Weiss Halivni about Heschel’s interpretation. The editors thought it were Heschel’s words, and made it part of the book. When I showed it to Halivni, he could not believe that such an editorial error could be made in modern times, since he is a scholar who researched such errors in the Talmud!

(4) In the Appendix of my dissertation I examined all these materials, but I understood there are still missing sections.

I continue my search and I discovered that Byron Sherwin published an English translation of a chapter, which supposed to be part of the third volume. I asked Sherwin about it and he replied: “Yes, you are correct that the essay… was originally written by Heschel to appear in volume III”. Sherwin wrote to me that it was to be “a ‘summary, synthesizing’ chapter of the three volumes… Heschel gave me a photostat of a file containing this essay. The file was in a file cabinet along with the mss. of vol III”. Sherwin added that when vol III was published, he did not understand why this chapter was absent. He always wondered what happened to the file and why this essay in Hebrew was never found. I did not understand why Sherwin wondered quietly without corresponding to the editors (or later to Gordon Tucker) to let them know that he had a missing chapter.

(5) Finally, when the Heschel Archive at Duke University was opened (thanks to Susannah Heschel’s support, I was privileged to be one of the first visitors there), I found there almost all the rest of the pieces. The most important piece is the original Table of Contents (very different from the Table of Contents of the previous edition), which gave me the confidence that I figured out the entire puzzle. I also found there drafts of an introduction for volume III, as well as other two chapters (which I cannot explain how they was missed by the previous editors).

Interesting enough is the fact that even though Rabbi Feldman brought back to Sylvia almost all the manuscript, and she gave Shamma Friedman only a copy, I found at Duke only half of the original. In other words, half of the new edition was fixed only due to the copy of the copy, which was found at Rabbi Tamar Kolberg’s home! But where is the rest of the original?

Unfortunately, in my research at Duke I also discovered that R. Feldman made changes in the parts of the original which he brought back to Sylvia, thus I can’t guarantee that I succeeded to recover all Heschel’s authentic intention (and, of course, Heschel himself died before he finished his work). I added to the new edition a record of all my decisions, thus the readers can judge by themselves.

2. What new material is there in Hebrew part III that never came out?

The main materials which never came out are (in their order in the book):

(1) Half of the last chapter of volume II, with the ironic name “Lost Books”, most of it was published by Heschel in HaDoar and the rest was found at Duke.

(2) A chapter about “Views about Prophecy in the Middle Ages” (I added these two materials as appendixes of volume II).

(3) I created from drafts a semi Introduction for volume III.

(4) The first chapter of volume III, “Discussions about belief” (only its first part was published by Heschel in HaDoar).

(5) A third of the chapter “A Sage is Greater than a Prophet” (its other parts were mixed in the previous edition, but not in the right order).

(6) More than two chapters about “Sin for the Sake of Heaven”.

(7) The “summery” chapter which was translated into English and published by Sherwin, but was excluded from the English translation of Tucker.

(8) Many small additions and corrections as well as a rearrangement of the general order, and the correct title for that volume, “Epilogue”.

3. What conclusion can we draw from this new Part III?

The main contribution comes from the very original order. In the mess of the previous edition, one simply could not understand what Heschel was trying to say. For example, Heschel’s scholars debate his preference for R. Akiva or R. Yishmael, the two sages which were presented by him in the first two volumes. Now it is clear that he calls for a polarity between these two perspectives, as well as between their understandings of the belief of Heavenly Torah.

Volume III intended to be Heschel’s Psak (Halakhic decision) about this issue for our time. He wanted to call upon us to accept the humanistic reading of the text of the Torah, namely the Biblical Criticism (in the way of R. Yishmael) together with the deep faith that the Torah is Divine Revelation (in the way of R. Akiva). Indeed, He already wrote about his concept of polarity in this belief in his other writings but not in such depth and detail.

Moreover, I believe that this polarity is also the secret of Heschel’s methodology in volumes I-II, which was criticized by the philological-historical Talmud scholars. For example, Prof. Urbach in the introduction to his book The Sages (1969), castigated TMH as not based on the philological-historical approach. Most of Heschel’s defenders (i.e. Gordon Tucker) explained that Heschel indeed has never intended to engage in historical research, but only in his own Midrash, in order to put his philosophy in the ancient sources. However, as I explained in my epilogue to the new edition, Heschel did intend to offer his own method to gain a deep understanding of the Sages.

4. How would you explain the method of Heschel?

To understand Heschel’s methodology in TMH, one has to see it in the wider context of his last decade. Most of Heschel’s works in that time were dedicated to interpretation – The Prophets (1962),  TMH (1962-1965) of the sages and Kotzk and A Passion for Truth (which he submitted to publish in 1972) of Hasidic rabbis – instead of his own philosophy, Indeed, in the forties he has already published academic articles about Jewish figures, but his last decade’s works reflect an independent methodology, on which he wrote in all these works.

Heschel’s introduction to The Prophets focuses on the development of his methodology, from his dissertation (published as Die Prophetie in 1936) where he uses phenomenology, but when he came to translate it into English, he felt that he must develop a new way. Instead of using the phenomenological Epoché process of setting aside any judgement, he tries to combine it with an engaged response to the prophets.

Heschel’s Yiddish work, Kotzk, suffered from a very similar critique which was directed to TMH. The philological-historical scholars (i.e. Yaakov Levinger) claimed that Heschel’s work about the Kotzker is bad scholarship. However, Heschel explains there that he uses the unique Hasidic way of “standing before the author”, which was based upon the saying of R. Gidel (Yerushalmi Kidushin 19b:1): “one who teaches a statement in the name of its author should envision the author (Ba’al HaShmuah) as though the author is standing right there”, an inter-subjective response  with the author.

Vol. III of TMH clarifies Heschel’s polarity between phenomenology and this Hasidic way of learning. Just like the polarity between R. Akiva and R. Yishmael so is the polarity between these two methods. The phenomenological is the critical pole, requiring sensitive listening to the text (like R. Yishmael), but one should combine it with the intersubjective pole, with attentiveness to the author (like R. Akiva).

5. Did you update the editions of the Rabbinic texts used?

No, I didn’t. Heschel’s interpretations based upon the sources he had, sometimes, apparently, which he quoted by memory with mistakes. I found at Duke a list of corrections (maybe of Heschel’s student?) for the first two volumes, and I corrected them in the new edition. However, I didn’t correct other mistakes, when I feel that it might harm Heschel’s interpretation.

6. Any insight into Heschel’s Hebrew?

In my previous work I choose to translate Heschel’s English into contemporary Hebrew, which is quite different from his own Rabbinic Hebrew, especially in TMH. I decided to do it in order to bring Heschel to the Israelis of today, as Heschel addressed to the English readers of his days.

During my translation work I was astonished to discover how the Modern Hebrew is a secular-national language which cannot adequately translate Heschel’s English. I.e. there is no good translation for Awe. The biblical term Yirah, which is good translation of Awe, means for the most of the Israelis today only fear. Here is all the tragedy of Zionism in one word. Another example: it is very difficult to translate the word “religious” for Israelis. In Israel the immediate meaning of this word is Orthodox, Halakhic person, while Heschel meant much deeper and universal meaning.

TMH is a work that Heschel choose to write in Rabbinic Hebrew, and the result is fascinating. His language echoes the language of his sources, in a very similar way in which his Yiddish work, Kotzk, echoes the language of the Kotzker.

7. Do you think that Heschel could be accepted in Israeli university departments of Jewish studies? Do you think that he could be accepted in yeshivot?

I deeply hope so. In the academy today, there is new openness, paradoxically due to the post-modern understanding which is breaking the hegemony of the philological-historical approach. If we can use Foucault in order to understand Jewish sources, why not Heschel?

Moreover, I believe that this method can have a unique contribution to the understanding of texts of revelation or of interpretation of revelation. This is a way in which one relates to the polarity of Revelation-Text, to its divine Author as well as its humanistic writer. And especially, this is the only way to read Heschel, if one wants to understand him in his own way.

Of course, we will continue to use all the other wonderful methods, ancient, modern and post-modern. However, if we don’t want to forget that we are dealing with texts of Revelation, at least as its authors experience them, we have to remember that all those methods are only the critical pole. Our deepest challenge remains to meet the living author, as the writers of these texts understood them.

 In the Yeshivot there is still a commitment to the Litvak way of learning, which paradoxically reflects the Western way of thinking. Cheftza and Gavra, the famous terms of the Brisker method, are none but other names to the western dichotomy of Object and Subject. Heschel tries to renew the forgotten Hasidic way, the dialogical way of response to the author, which can be described by the two other terms – Duchra and Nukvah, the positive-active divine masculine and the negative-passive feminine of the Kabbalah (of course, we need adaptions to our new understandings of gender).

In some Israeli Hesder Yeshivot which have real openness to Hasidism, Heschel has already started to be part of the theological discussion. Now, I believe, with the new edition of TMH, he is going to get into their way of Talmud learning.

8. What did you learn about Heschel from this process?

I encountered him much more personally, especially in his loneliness. Indeed, I had already met him in his writings. I have never read someone who so deeply present in his words. But during this research I have encountered him in the depths of his own personal situation, as reflected in his letters and manuscripts, which shows his personal difficulties.

The manuscripts reveal that Heschel’s first intention was to publish a small book about the belief of heavenly Torah, but his manuscript was rejected by an Israeli publishing house (even though Buber recommended them to publish). Heschel even promised the publisher a follow-up book about the Besht (never published), but he was rejected.

However, due to this delay, Heschel discovered the whole dispute between R. Yishmael and R. Akiva, which was not part of the original book. Meanwhile, he found a British publishing house (Soncino Press) which agreed to print it by an Israeli printing house (Refael Chaim Cohen), but then Heschel discovered that they simply could not work together. He called Habermann for help, but his friend did not succeed. Paradoxically, all these problems let Heschel add more and more to the original book, until he decided to split it into two volumes, and then into three. I read Heschel’s words to Habermann – “Would you say that there is no end to author suffering?… I have no words and I have great sorrow” – Through these letters, I met Heschel more personally than ever.

When I went to Duke, I found there not only the missing pieces of the manuscript, but also personal materials which shed light about Heschel life. In fact, this archive demands an entirely new biography, as well as to publish a book of Heschel’s correspondences.

For me, it was shock to discover how deep was his Mesirut Nefesh – he simply gave his life in order to save the soul of Judaism, as well as for saving the Western world from its own racism etc. – but almost no one understood him.

9. How do you see the role of halakhah in Heschel’s thought?

Heschel’s understanding of halakhah is Hasidic, in the original sense of the term, as a devotional way of life. For him, there are two independent poles: Halakhah (Jewish law), and Aggadah, (Jewish thought and devotion), only the combination of these two poles creates the complete Torah. Moreover, above the Torah, stands God (who is not a Jewish man!). God’s relationship with human beings opens us to a dialogical co-existence with Him and between fellow humanity.

There is no identity between God and Halakhah, and that’s why there are situations of “sin for the sake of heaven” (i.e. intermarriage, in which we feel the contradiction between Halakhah, the Jewish law, to love, the divine presence).  Litvaks think that Halakhah is the only way to God, but Heschel tell us that Agadah is the way of God to us! Of course, we need both of them, like body and soul, but when one realizes that there is no identity between God and Halakhah, one starts asking questions about the gaps between them: to what extent does Halakhah today still reflect God’s care for us and demand from us? Modern Jewish movements try to change Halakhah in order to adjust it to modern values, but Heschel asks a Hasidic question: how does it reflect the divine concern.

10. What are the problems of the English edition of  Torah min Hashamayim?

The English translation of TMH is an unbelievable work, I simply cannot imagine how difficult a project it was. However, I must say, the English translators decided to omit many passages from their translation, maybe because they felt it was too long and too complicated. For example, they did not translate half of the introduction for volume II and they omitted a whole semi-chapter from the chapter about Deuteronomy. Moreover, they made changes in the order of the work. For example, they changed the place of chapter 30 of volume II (in their order).Gordon Tucker’s short introduction to every chapter are very helpful, but I made my own introductions for the new edition – and I hope that “these and these are the words of the living God”.

11. Why were you attracted to Heschel’s thought?

I grew up in Shavei Shomron, one of the first settlements, in a very ideological right wing family. The name of this settlement means Samaria Returnees, which echoes “Shavei Zion”, the Zion Returnees from Babylon after 538 BCE. Thus, I was guided by the vision that I am part of the greatest redemption; a vision that I am part of the group leading the Zionist movement to the renewal capital of the ten tribes, to greater Israel. We didn’t hate the Arabs; they simply were part of the landscape. The first Intifada was not easy for us, but the stones and the Molotov bottles only deepen our ideological commitment. Why was my sister’s friend murdered by stones? As a kid, the only reason that I found is that we are part of the greatest mission: the apex of the Zionist movement (which itself is the elite of the Jewish people, who are the pinnacle of humanity).

That’s why the peace process led by PM Rabin, was so hard for the young man I was. Rabin called us the peace enemies. He broke our messianic visions, as well as the illusion that we are the heralds of all Israelis. I was only eighteen when Rabin was assassinated, but I was not surprised; he was our Antichrist. But I was deeply shocked to understand that my land-centeric Judaism murdered my ethnocentric Zionism, that I have to choose between the two sides of my right-wing Torah: the Holy land and the Holy people – and my Holy Tablets were broken.

 I had just started studying in a Hesder Yeshiva, but this background made my Yeshiva years a long journey for healing. In spite of all the deep Jewish learning I was privileged to receive it did not succeeded to fix my broken tablets. I even tried to learn a year with Rabbi Shagar, but his postmodernity only further tore my Jewish map into pieces; I did not experience his mystic solution.

 Deeply desperate, I became an insurance salesman in our family business. Fortunately, it was too boring for me, thus I went to learn one day a week in the MA program in Jewish Philosophy at Bar-Ilan University. Prof. Ephraim Meir fascinated me with Buber and Levinas, and encouraged me to write a MA thesis about Heschel. I came to Heschel without expectations, after my first reading in the course he sounded to me much less sophisticated than other modern Jewish philosophers.

And then, suddenly, he made me feel my own radical amazement. For an instance, his perspective opened my mind, surprising me with another point of view about my Jewish map.  I felt as if he tells me: “my friend, you know why you could not find your way though you deeply know the Jewish map? Because you look at it from the opposite direction! Your national and Orthodox perspectives are idolatrous; they made you look at the Holy Tablets as an idol, which had to be broke. Don’t look for fixing anymore; Get thee to an alternative perspective, unto a land that I will shew thee. I was attracted to Heschel because he showed me God’s Second Tablets.

12. Will Heschel be attractive to young Israeli Jews?

One of the main problems of Zionism, the revolution which states that Judaism is an ethnic phenomenon, is that it made Jewish thought an unnecessary part of the Jewish national culture. The new state of the ethnic Jews creates a lot of important novelists, which describe the Israeli experience, the Israeliyut, but there is no word in Israel for Jewishness (and the term Yiddishkeit here means the primitive costumes of diaspora Jews). There are very few Israeli Jewish thinkers, most of them comes from non-Israeli diaspora backgrounds.

Heschel’s project tries to suggest Judaism as a human alternative to the ethnocentrism. Zionism understands Judaism as another national culture (like Russian or German culture), and Orthodoxy understands Judaism as a particular religion (like Christianity or Islam), Heschel understands Judaism as a unique universal contribution to humanity. The Sabbath‘s subtitle is: Its Meaning for Modern Man (namely, Human Being); not for Modern Jew.

Heschel is attractive to young Israeli Jews who look for a change. More and more young Israelis, seculars as well as religious, suffer from the famous dichotomy of the Jewish vs. democratic state. Why does our Jewish identity have to contradict our democratic values? Many young Israelis come back from India with a spiritual thirst, but they feel that the Jewish sources, in their Israeli interpretation, demand them to pay with their democratic values. Heschel offers them an alternative.

For Heschel, Judaism is not an identity – an answer to the questions what is your ethnicity or your religion?  Rather, it is a response to an intimate question of God. The creator of every human being in His image calls us and we respond to Him. God is not a Jewish concept, a part of the Jewish identity, and Judaism is not only an effort for a surviving of a nation or a culture. First and foremost it is a dialogical respond to the universal God, a self-transcendence of a nation, dedicated to Tikkun Olam. For Heschel, this relationship is not an exclusive to Jews, but a model for all humanity and all nations of how to understand their identity as a response to God.

13. Why is it important that Heschel chose time over space?

For Heschel, one of the deepest contributions of Judaism is its unique understanding of time. He claims that in our western civilization we tend to appreciate time only when we move in space or earn space. The Sabbath is the deep alternative: though there is no moving and there is no money, we experience the holiness of Time. Heschel explains that the secret of the Sabbath is the intersubjective moment between God’s revelation and one’s response. Such a moment is a sacred time, without dependence on space. When you respond to God’s concern, you open your mind to His perspective: instead of being a subject who objectifies all around you as a mere space, you experience a sacred time with all the creatures and a sacred solidarity with all the people.

 Heschel saw the failure of the western objectification in the racism in Europe and America. Moreover, he was afraid that if the Jews will establish another European national state, it might be another state of objectified space rather than a universal contribution of dialogical Time. In this sense, his Sabbath, published in 1951, is a Jewish alternative to the western Zionism.

However, since 1957, and especially after 1967, Heschel started thinking about an alternative Spiritual-Zionism. In his book Israel: An Echo of Eternity (1969) he developed a dialogical understanding of space. A place in which dialogical moments of time are not alien. The place in which our parents fell in love is deeply meaningful for us. If one comes to such a place with open heart, the place becomes a dwelling place for time (the love of our parents inspires us there). Then, instead of objectification of this place, one will hope to make it a place of love, of equality and peace. Heschel called Israel to remember that the Holy Land is not a place to be objectified. Open your hearts to the moments between God and Isaiah or Jeremiah, and to the true meaning of the temple. Then you will experience the land as a demand for a state of encounter with the divine, and for solidarity between human beings.

My book Rabbi on the Ganges -paperback

The paperback edition of my book Rabbi on the Ganges: A Jewish-Hindu Encounter (Lexington Books) came out two weeks ago. Now is the time to buy it for yourself or as a gift. It will interest all those who want to know about the Jewish-Hindu Encounter including the Hin-Jews, Bu-Jews, and the Jewish Yoga practitioners that you know in your life. You can read it over the holidays. Or buy it now and bring it with you when you plan on hiking in India.

Rabbi on the Ganges: A Jewish-Hindu Encounter as described by Rabbi Yakov Nagen, Otniel Yeshiva

Rabbi, professor, traveler, storyteller, spiritual seeker, all of these roles have woven together to enable an outstanding achievement: Alan Brill’s Rabbi on the Ganges. This book serves both as an introduction to Hinduism and also as a comparative study of Hinduism and Judaism. Brill has an ability to sift between the essential and the trivial that allows this introduction to be significant and meaningful, exploring the history of Hinduism and its variety of denominations and philosophies.

Despite the enormous amount of information, the book doesn’t feel dense but rather very readable. In terms of the comparison to Judaism, there are insights both relating to the rituals and practices of these religions but also the deep spiritual teaching. Brill also shows parallel developments in both religions, such as regarding the status of women and responses to modernity.

One of the most significant messages of the book is showing how the contemporary Jewish view of Hinduism is based on a Hinduism of antiquity rather than the Hinduism of today. For me, this book has been transformative, and I believe that it will form a basis for a fruitful relationship between Judaism and Hinduism.

You can read a review here in Chava Bahle, The Journal of Interreligious Studies 30 (August 2020)

Jewish anxiety about the allure of the so-called “Eastern” religions reached a fever pitch in the 1960s and 1970s, when American ashrams and meditation centers were filled disproportionally with Jews as both adherents and teachers. (I myself was sent hurriedly to our rabbi’s esteemed wife, who  had  learned  about  cult  “deprogramming.”  My  misstep?  Having  read  and  praised Bhagavad Gita: As It Is, a gift to my twelve-year-old self from Hare Krishnas at the local shopping mall.) Brill’s serious, respectful treatment of the Jewish-Hindu encounter in Rabbi on the Gangesprovides much needed breathing room for Jewish lay readers to think about Hinduism with a respected Modern Orthodox Jewish writer who clearly cherishes his experience

And for those who prefer podcasts for their reviews, here is a podcast at New Books in Religion with Raj Balkaran

Amazon – Rabbi on the Ganges

Lexingtom Books – Rabbi on the Ganges

Indiebound – Rabbi on the Ganges

Interview with Raphael Shuchat on R. Hayyim’s of Volozhin’s Conversations

Mitnagged Spirituality may sound incongruous to many, may be even an oxymoron. Modern American Jewish studies focuses almost predominantly on Hasidut and Neo-Hasidut, but strikingly less so on Lithuanian Jewish spirituality.  However, there have been over 25 years of conferences on the thought of the Vilna Gaon and his followers, mainly at Bar Ilan University. Little of this material has become integrated into English language studies of modernity.

Over the course of the last generation the writings of the circle of the Vilna Gaon and his students have been explicated by Idel, Etkes, Liebes, Shuchat, Baumgarten, Brill, Waks, Avivi, and others. New manuscripts are being edited and new connections to the history of Jewish thought are being worked out. Idel showed the influence of Abulafia on some of the Gaon’s students, Liebes showed the influence of Sabbatian writings, Eliezer Baumgarten has given us some of the best explications of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin’s Nefesh HaHayyim, as well as fine explications of Rabbi Isaac Haver, Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Naftali Hertz Halevi, and Shlomo Elyashiv. I have written on the use of philosophic terms, prayer, and suffering. In fact, our last conference was in January 2020, right before COVID.

Moshe Idel in one of his recent books devoted a chapter to Lithuanian Kabbalah claiming that it should be added to our roster of major trends in Jewish Mysticism, a major trend which Gershom Scholem ignored. Raphael Shuchat’s edited DAAT volume (2015) on Lithuanian Kabbalah is a good place to start.  Raphael Shuchat’s recent book Rav Hayyim Volozhin’s Conversations with Students of the Yeshiva [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Idra Publications, 2021) contributes to the ever-growing roster of new works.

Rabbi Dr. Raphael Shuchat who has an MA from Hebrew University and a PhD from Bar Ilan has been working for his entire career on the Vilna Gaon and his disciples. His dissertation turned into book on the Vilna Gaon’s concepts of redemption received the Minister of Education’s Prize in 1997, He edited, together with Moshe Hallamish, a volume of the papers of one of the Gra conferences in 2003. He teaches Jewish Philosophy at the School for Basic Jewish Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

Rabbi Dr.Raphael Shuchat received a major grant from the Israel Science Foundation to publish some of the manuscripts of this circle which still needed to be published. His work, together with Dr. Eliezer Baumgarten,  on Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin’s hanhagot, his pietistic statements, is discussed below. He is also working on new edition of the Gaon’s commentary on Shir Hashirim based on 6 mss., together with Dr. Roi Goldshmidt.

R. Hayyim Volozhin’s Conversations with Students of the Yeshiva (Tel Aviv: Idra Publications, 2021)

Shuchat’s new Hebrew volume R. Hayyim Volozhin’s Conversations is not about new ideas, rather it is the needed journeyman’s work for a field. Zev Gries worked on the hanhagot (pious directives) of early Hasidism in 1979 and published in the 1980’s. The publishing of the manuscripts of R. Hayyim’s hanhagot and a comparison of the recensions was desperately needed. For those who ae familiar with the published Maaseh Rav on the pietistic practices of this circle, this book will be a pleasant update, if not then this will be a technical and possibly tedious. For those new to the topic, start with reading of R. Hayyim’s Nefesh Hahayim, recently translated into English

Turning to content, one of the best new nuggets in this book is that the Vilna Gaon said to learn Zohar for one hour a day after the morning prayers. But that this directive was edited out from the printed editions.  And we know from other sources that R. Hayyim advocated the basic study of Zohar and Shaarei Orah of R. Yosef Gikatilla, as well as the summery of Cordovero’s Pardes Rimonim- Assis Rimonim by R. Shmuel Gallico,

We also find out that there were students with a hassidic devotion in the Volozhin yeshiva and R. Hayyim even had a grandson, Shlomo Eliyahu Ben Yosef Rabinovich, who was so inclined. 

We also see a focus on discerning from where do magical and clairvoyant powers used by Rabbis come from. It seems the Vilna Gaon relegated Hasidic powers to the demonic side, while claiming their own powers including exorcism as from the magical power of Torah and the performance of yihudim. Shuchat does not address the undercurrent of Western European mesmerism that was part of early 19th century Lithuanian Jewry.  

My favorite tidbit is that R. Hayyim claimed to have a method of divination through studying Torah with enthusiasm and when one reaches certain level of lishmah (lishmah here defined as a moment of enthusiastic oneness or ecstasy- it does not mean for its own intellectual sake) at that moment, they should think of the topic they seek guidance in and make a request whether to do or not, and whatever comes into their mind at that moment,  this is what they should do. The Goral HaGra- the Vilna Gaon’s method of prognosis of the future is a piece of 20th century pseudepigrapha, but these concerns go back to the Vilna Gaon himself.

Finally, one of the pious directives that interests me, is that one manuscript exhorts the reader to visualize every letter and word of prayer as one says them, one visualizes while praying similar to the directive of Rabbi Hayyim’s student Zundel of Salant in his prayer directives. And one of the recensions exhorts one only to visualize the divine names. Neither visualization practice became part of the later image of Mitnaggdim.

Dr. Raphael Shuchat speaks about the Vilna Gaon
  1. What are the hanhagot literature of R. Hayyim?

The hanhagot (ethical behavior) literature of R. Hayyim referred to as the ‘sheiltot‘, meaning, questions, posed by students of the Volozhin yeshiva to him. The sheiltot are similar to the hanhagot literature of other Eastern European Rabbis of the time, especially among the hassidim, but differ in that they discusses halakhic issues and well as issues from Jewish thought and kabbalah.  These hanhagot were circulating among the students of the Volozhin yeshiva in the last years of Rav Hayyim’s life before any of his printed works were known.

The importance of the sheiltot is that they give us a portal into R. Hayyim’s view of Judaism. The questions are in every aspect of Jewish life. Therefore it differs from posthumous Nefesh Hahayyim, his main work, which was intended as a Rabbinic-Kabbalistic world view of Judaism as an alternative to the Hassidic View.

2. What is Keter Rosh?

Keter Rosh, already printed in 1914, was the first published and the best-known collection of the sheiltot questions and came out in many editions. It contains many of the questions in the other collections but not all of them. However, it also was heavily edited sometimes changing the meaning of the answer.  The book claims that the sheiltot were written down by R. Asher HaCohen Ashkenazi, while he attended the Volozhin yeshiva in 1819. Keter Rosh was published in 1914 by R. Shlomo Ashkenazi the grandson of R. Asher Askenazi and the nephew of R. Eliyahu Landau. However, other collections of sheiltot, like the Podro manuscript, contain sheiltot not found in Keter Rosh.

Keter Rosh was not the first published collection of Sheiltot of Rav Hayyim. The first is found in Shaarei Rahamim 1871, and an additional collection is contained in Hanhagot Yesharot 1893 and then again in a collection referred to as Orhot Hayyim in 1896 published by R. Eliyahu Landau together with Tosefet Maaseh Rav. The manuscript was the aforementioned text written by R. Asher Ashkenazi and was the basis of Keter Rosh.

In my book, I back to the sources and look at five manuscripts that were the basis of these printed editions and some that were not published. The manuscripts are ascribed to various authors including R. Yisrael of Shklov, which is unlikely, since he had left to Israel already by 1809. The printed editions give the feeling that the sheiltot are mostly concerning halakhah however these manuscripts demonstrate that at least half of them are in matters of hashkafah (Jewish thought).

3. What were the new revelations discovered in these conversations – sheiltot?

We learn that R. Hayyim first met the Gaon at the age of 19, or that in the latter years of his life he has a special room designated for meditating (heder Hitbodedut). Maybe the most interesting quote is found in the Podro collection where R. Hayyim says: “The Gra said that the main effort of man must be concerning transgressions between man and man in all their details”.

There are also interesting sources concerning the hassidim. In Nefesh Hahayyim R. Hayyim never mentioned the hassidim by name, but in the sheiltot he (or the student) refers to them as the “kat” (group or cult) or the ‘known’ ones.

The sheiltot point out ideological disagreements with hassidism but R. Hayyim was tolerant towards them in day to day life permitting students with a hassidic inclination to study at the yeshiva. We discover that he had a grandson who became a hassid and how he told him to keep the halakhot of the Talmud and not to speak about the Gaon.

The most obvious questions in the collection concern torah study, especially R. Hayyim’s rejection of Pilpul (casuistry)  and how he saw the study of Talmud “aliba dehilkheta”, to understand the practical halakhic outcome. However, R. Hayyim does make it an imperative to study all of the Bible, Hebrew grammar from Sefer Hamaslul, midrash, agaddah, musar (for non scholars), and Zohar.

The material shows that R. Hayyim frequently warned against ecstatic experiences and revelations referring to them as coming from the other side (impurity or demons).    He also brings many statements and stories in the name of the Vilna Gaon in this context. All this is congruent with R. Hayyim’s introduction to the Gaon’s commentary on Sifra diTzniuta, where he portrays the Gaon as being against personal revelations outside of Torah. It is of interest for researchers to note that R. Hayyim is the only student of the Gaon to speak of this problem concerning revelations and ecstatic experiences.

4. Why were these hanhagot not published before?

Most of these sheiltot were published at one time or another as I mentioned before. However, they were appended to existing books almost as an afterthought and the origin was not explained clearly so they were not taken seriously. When we examine the manuscripts; one is in the handwriting of R. Yosef Zundel of Salant, a close student of R. Hayyim, whose student R. Yisrael of Salant founded the Musar Movement in Lithuania. Another ms. is in the handwriting of R. Shmuel Moltzen who published the book Even Shleimah, a popular collection of the Vilna Gaon’s ideas.

5. What is the role of Torah and Torah Lishmah in his R. Hayyim’s path?

Torah study and particularly torah lishmah, in its purist state as a mystical connection for R. Hayyim is the basis of all human spirituality as shown in the entire fourth part of Nefesh Hahayyim.

The sheiltot discuss Torah study in a very practical way since it is instructional for the students. The goal of Talmud study to derive the practical halakhah and to understand how it arises from the theoretical discussion. “People says that studying poskim with out the Gemara is like [eating] fish without pepper whereas Our Rabbi said it’s like pepper without the fish”(sheiltot).  

However, he interprets this in a mystical way, in that the study of Torah is an act of connecting to the Divine will which is a way of clinging to God (devekut). As R. Hayyim says in his commentary to Pirkei Avot , Ruah Hayyim, “The act of studying Torah is the main goal and the knowledge gained is secondary”.

In the sheiltot it says: “Our Rabbi said: the Zohar writes that one who merits a halakha inherits one world, refers to any law.” The idea of inheriting a world refers to attaining a certain spiritual ability and clarity as the Torah is the Divine logos for mankind.

R. Hayyim claims that divination is only possible, or allowed, if it’s done while studying Torah lishmah, as it says in the sheiltot:

{indent} “[Our Rabbi] revealed a secret to me: To take advice from the Torah [as a way of divination]: when one has studied with enthusiasm until they feel that they have studied to a certain level of lishmah, at that moment, they should think of a request whether to do or not, and whatever comes into their mind at that moment,  this is what they should do, for this is advice from the Torah”.

This can only be understood if we realize that for R. Hayyim the act of Torah study as a form of Torah lishmah is a form of unio mystico in which human knowledge and Divine knowledge can touch, even for a moment.  

6. What should be the curriculum?

 R. Hayyim told his students to study grammar and Zohar but no official time slots were allotted for this in the yeshiva. We know of scholars who studied kabbalah privately with R. Hayyim.  Concerning kabbalah it says in the Yosef Zundel ms.: “To learn Zohar and Shaarei Orah [by R. Joseph Gikkatila- 13th century] in order to understand the connotations [kinuyim] in the Zohar… and the summary of  Pardes Rimonim [referring to Asis Rimonim by R. Menahem Azariah of Fano] is good to study”. R. Hayyim is following the Gaon who in the original version of Masseh Rav written by R. Yassakhar Ber in paragraph 60 [which was censored in most editions of Maaseh Rav afterwards] it says to learn Zohar for one hour a day after the morning prayers. 

In the sheiltot it says: “It is good to learn the book maslul”. This book is on Hebrew grammar and refers to the book written by Hayyim ben Naftali Hertz Keslin published in Hamburg in 1788.

7. What were the spiritual powers of the Gra?

 In most of R. Hayyim’s introductions to the Gaon’s works he refrains from mentioning any special spiritual abilities of the Gaon except his knowledge of and devotion to Torah study. However, in his later introduction to Sifra diTzniuta he mentions that the Gaon attempted to produce a Golem, had angelic maggidim appear to him to teach him torah (which he refused) and had a revelation of Elijah the prophet. This, it appears, was a change in tactic, from hiding the Gaon’s spiritual side in order not to lend support to Hassidism, to describing the Gaon as one of great spiritual exponents, who downplayed these abilities in order to study torah.

The sheiltot are of this second opinion and reflects R.  Hayyim’s position in the last years of his life. It is interesting to compare this to  R. Menahem Mendel of Shklov’s introduction to Pirkei Avot, in which he describes the Gaon as having astonishing spiritual powers.

The question of whether this is an agenda oriented description or not. R. Hayyim in general does not shy away in the sheiltot from describing the Gaon’s abilities even as an exorcist  or a controller of demons, but claims that all this was secondary to Torah study and for the Gaon this was meaningless as an end in itself.

8. What is R. Hayyim’s method of prayer? How does prayer relate to Torah?

In the sheiltot, as in Nefesh Hahayim, the main purpose of prayer is adoration and not supplication. The purpose of adoration is a connection in which the human being can strengthen the spiritual side of reality therefore rectifying the world by adding holiness to the cosmic balance.

In Nefesh Ha-hayyim, R. Hayyim seems to downplay the intent of the tefilla by emphasizing the reciting of the letters of the tefilla, however in the sheiltot the intent is considered central and the pronunciation of the words as secondary. I think it has to do with R. Hayyim’s different audiences. Nefesh Ha-hayyim is addressing people who are spiritually developed, whereas the sheiltot are addressing students of the yeshiva.

Another interesting notion is that R. Hayyim told R. Yisrael of Shklov that when praying with the Sephardim, (in the land of Israel), not to deviate from their customs.   

Even prayer receives its potency through one’s spiritual level attained while studying Torah.  

 R. Hayyim writes in Nefesh HaHayyim: “The essence of prayer depends entirely on Torah study, and without it, prayer is not heard, heaven forbid, as it is written, ‘He who turns a deaf ear to instruction – his prayer is an abomination (Prov. 28:9)”.

Nevertheless, for R. Hayyim, Torah study itself as a way to achieve devekut (clinging to God): “When engaged in study and contemplation of the Torah, there is certainly no need to pay any thought to devekut, for by study and contemplation alone he cleaves to God’s will and His  word, and God is one with His will and His word”.

In addition, “[R. Hayyim] said that he would give all [the merit] of his prayers for one new halakhic novelae [hidush] from the gemarah”. For this act of discovering new ideas from the Torah is connecting to the Divine will.

9. What was the polemic against Hasidic Rebbes who claimed prognostic powers?

These manuscripts reject Hassidic Rebbes’ abilities to know the future or esoteric knowledge.

I will offer two short examples. Not only is the sheiltot literature the only place where the word Hassidim is mentioned in connection to R. Hayyim, but there are two unusual statements: One, concerning the Hassidic Rebbes and one concerning the Baal Shem tov: “I heard one [person] say to the Gra [the Vilna Gaon] that the Rebbes of the Hassidim know nothing without deception. The Gra answered: No. There are things [techniques] they practice and through them they know some things in the near future and some mysterious ideas (see Nahmanides, Exodus. 17, 7)”.

In this quote, the anonymous person claims that all the Rebbes are charlatans but the Gra counters and claims they are using known techniques to reach hidden knowledge, of which the Gra disapproves. The addition in brackets was probably added by the writer or copier and it refers to Nahmanides’ claim that one can receive secret knowledge from the “other side” , meaning the side of impurity, through various techniques.

The second quote can be found in the R. Yosef Zundel manuscript: ” My teacher [R. Hayyim]  said that everything the Besht knew was through nocturnal divination by way of dreams [sheelat Halom]. [However] the Gra of blessed memory, had an ascent of soul without the use of Divine names [yihudim], just naturally”. The contrast here is to demonstrate the level of the man of Torah who is naturally spiritual and therefore, can certainly gain insights from the upper worlds, however the Hassidim need to use techniques to reach these levels due to their inferior spiritual abilities).

10. What was the rejection of the Hasdic concept of Intentional Sin for the Sake of Heaven?

Performing a sin for heaven’s sake (aveirah lishmah), is mentioned in the Talmud as a legitimate action in special circumstances. The Talmud goes as far as to say: “Greater is a sin for heaven’s sake [lishmah] than a transgression not for heaven’s sake” (b. Nazir 23B). Early Hassidic leaders used this idea to justify bending certain rabbinic based halakhot, such as praying the daily prayers in their specific time frame. These thinkers saw the importance of the right mind set and preparation as overriding the time factor.

R. Hayyim claims that the idea of aveirah lishah for Jews was only allowed before the Torah was given. In the sheiltot it says: “aveirah lishmah: this was allowed only before the giving of the Torah [therefore Jacob married two sisters] . The ‘known’ ones,[i.e. the hassidim] say that anything can be included in aveirah lishmah. However if that were true, why would we need the 613 commandments, whatever we know to be lishmah we would do and what not we would not do? But in truth, after the giving of the Torah we cannot dislodge from the Torah and the mitzvot or the words of the Sages. we cannot rely upon the ideas of our evil inclination…

[Aveirah lishmah] refers to before the giving of the Torah, or for a non-Jew even today. They can worship God in any way they see fit as long as it is for His sake and they must keep the seven Noahide laws. But the people  of Israel were given the Torah which puts boundaries and limitations on our actions”.

11. Why were the minhagim based on the Zohar debated and why did the Gra choose to get involved?

The Gaon and R. Hayyim opposed basing Jewish law on the Zohar. R. Hayyim, in the name of the Gaon, claims that those who thought that there are conflicts between halakha and the Zohar either misunderstood the halakha or the Zohar: “I heard from him [R. Hayyim] that the Gra said that the Zohar is never contrary to the Gemara, only there are those who do not know the meaning of the Zohar or of the Gemara and therefore they say that there is a difference of opinion” (sheiltot).  It is interesting to note that when R. Hayyim takes on major argument  he always bring quotes from the Gaon to strengthen his position.

I will bring just one example:

[indent] “Our Rabbi asked the Gra (of blessed memory) about wearing the tefillin of Rabbenu Tam. This is what Rabbi Hayyim said: Regarding a person who does not go four cubit without tefillin, you don’t put on tefillin according to Rabbenu Tam so as not to remove the Rashi tefillin, But what about me, [R. Hayyim, who does not wear tefillin all day?].What is wrong with me [R. Hayyim] putting on tefillin of Rabbenu Tam to satisfy all the opinions?

[The Gaon] answered: If you want to satisfy all the opinions you must put on 24 pairs of tefillin. He [R. Hayyim] was astonished and wondered what the 24 options were. [The Gaon] answered: Go and check. He checked and found them……

Our Rabbi, [R. Hayyim] said [to the Gaon]: But the holy Zohar states that tefillin of Rabbenu Tam are of the world to come and the Arizal states clearly to put them on?

He [the Gaon] answered:  I am scrupulous about the world to come. Those who are, let them put on tefillin of Rabbenu Tam. However, this is not the real meaning of the Zohar. After hearing this from the Gaon, from that day on, our rabbi did not put on Rabbenu Tam tefillin”. (Podro 72)

12. What have you found new in the Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) commentary?

The Gaon’s commentary  on Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) was first published in Mikhtav Eliyahu (Prague 1811) however is was a small part of the commentary. The entire work was published in Warsaw 5602 (1842) by Zeev ben Isaac Israel as two commentaries- nigleh and nistar (revealed and hidden). The publisher claims that he copied the work from a manuscript owned by the Gaon’s grandson, possibly R. Yakov Moshe of Slonim. It is clear R. Yisrael Shklov’s Introduction to Peat HaShulkan that the Gaon wrote a full commentary on Shir Hashirim. However, It is unclear if the Gaon wrote the commentary himself or if R. Menahem Mendel wrote it on his behalf as a scribe. The latter seems more probable.

The work was published again in Warsaw in 5647 (1886) by Shmuel Luria in a different format. The two commentaries were united into one but an additional kabbalistic commentary was added to the simple commentary in chapters one and two. In addition to this, the publisher added the commentary of R. Avraham, the son of the Gaon, at the end of the book as well as the Rokeah’s commentary to the song of songs. This edition was reprinted again in its entirety in Jerusalem in 1895 by R. Naftali Hertz Halevi in his Siddur Hagra and again in Jerusalem in 1982.

In the aforementioned Warsaw 1886 edition, one commentary is referred to as the commentary according to the simple meaning (Al pi Ha-nigle) and one referred to as the mystical or kabbalistic commentary (Al pi ha-Nistar). My new edition of Shir Hashirim contains both commentaries in their entirety. For the first commentary we have three manuscripts and for the second, which is slightly more kabbalistic in orientation we have six manuscripts. One in the handwriting of R. Yosef Ziundel of Salant and one that seems to have been copied during the Gaon’s lifetime.

13. I know that you have done extensive research on the Vilna Gaon’s understanding of messianism and the quest to settle in the land of Israel.

There is limited material concerning R. Hayyim and messianism or the aliyah to Israel of the Students of the Gra. Howver, we do have testimonies concerning his involvement in helping to raise funds for this aliyah in 1808.  R. Yisrael of Shklov describes R. Hayyim as the person discussed their potential aliyah with. R. Hayyim obviously supported this endeavor. We also have sources that R. Hayyim was in charge of the local fund for the prushim in Israel and made sure that scholars and non-scholars alike benefited from the fund.

The Gaon on Tikunei Zohar writes that his generation is Ikvot Meshicha, (the foot prints of the messianic period). In a unique quote found in the sheiltot (149) and in the R. Yosef Zundel manuscript, we find a similar statement by R. Hayyim:

“I heard from our Rabbi on the verse: ‘She fell and will not arise again the daughter of Israel’ [Amos 5,2] our Sages taught the meaning: ‘ She fell, and will not[fall again], arise O daughter of Israel’ [Berachot 4b]. He said that the daughter of Israel is referred to as falling like the falling sukkah of David. Meaning, every day she is falling for every day is more cursed than the previous one, therefore, she falls until she reaches the lowest level and cannot fall anymore. And Now we have already reached [the point]’ Arise o daughter of Israel”.

14. Do you allow the possibility that some of the presentations of the Vilna Gaon or of R Hayyim are hagiography?

It is possible that the stories alluding to R. Hayyim’s spiritual abilities were dramatized. It’s also possible that some of the stories about the Gaon were dramatized but there is no other source with which to corroborate them.

Heidegger and His Jewish Reception- Interview with Daniel M. Herskowitz

The themes of Existentialism are well known in Western society at this point. These include lived experience, anxiety, choice, authenticity, being-unto-death, temporality, and mindfulness. But at one point, they were not the language of pop-psych books and shallow clergy sermons. They were the serious turn of 1920’s modern philosophy away from the rationality and grand scale questions towards asking the basic phenomenology of our lives and how we are finite fallible being faced with our own deaths. The leading figure in this turn to the human condition was Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), who started teaching in 1923 at Marburg and then in Freiburg after 1927. He placed Being and temporality at the center of his thought. Many of the future greats in 20th century thought were his students and reacted to his thought. This list includes Rudolf Bultmann, Nicolai Hartmann, Paul Tillich, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Leo Strauss, and Hans Jonas. His ideas were the overwhelming intellectual force in German philosophy of the 1930’s.

Not just major philosophers, but also theologians, psychologists and religious thinkers turned to his Heidegger’s thought. His ideas traveled to France where they were adapted and developed by major thinkers such as Sartre. Part of this existential movement was a return to Kierkegaard (d.1855), an introspective Danish thinker who lived a century prior, in order to mine his brooding for ideas about the human condition of death, anxiety, sin, and fallenness. Heidegger even learned Danish in order to better understand Kierkegaard.

How was this Heidegger moment received in the Jewish community? Daniel Herskowitz, answers the question in his great new book Heidegger and His Jewish Reception (Cambridge UP, 2020). The book is a rock-solid overview on how Jewish thought received, processed, and grappled with Heidegger’s thought. This is the book that most professors of Jewish thought spent the last half year reading, taking notes, and working into our future class lectures. Herskowitz’s book is a serious work of intellectual history, which will be required reading for graduate programs and advance courses in Jewish thought, and it is a book that will generate hundreds of graduate papers. The book already won the Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Young Scholars Award for Scholarly Excellence in Research of the Jewish Experience, and it is worthy of many other awards.

Daniel Herskowitz received his BA The Open University of Israel; MA Hebrew University of Jerusalem; DPhil Oxford: Research Fellow, OCHJS; Stipendiary Career Research Fellow in Jewish Studies, Wolfson College, and now he was awarded the prestigious British Academy fellowship which he will take at Oxford.

Herskowitz demonstrates the tension of attraction and repulsion to Heidegger’s thought among Jewish thinkers. Many of whom used Heidegger’s thought to diagnose the problems of modernity or to formulate their own Jewish solutions. Everyone who knows modern Jewish thought can speak of a generic concept of Jewish existentialism or label someone a Jewish existentialist, but Herskowitz reorients us to seeing the entire period framed as Jewish reactions to Heidegger.

Much of Herskowitz’s book Heidegger and His Jewish Reception deals with the major philosophers who are Jewish such as Karl Lowith and Leo Strauss. I assumed that most general philosophic book reviews will focus on the general thesis of the book and on the major philosophers. Therefore, I decided to focus this interview on the relationship of Heidegger to the Rabbinic world. I specifically asked about the relationship of Heideggerian thought to Rabbis Altmann, Soloveitchik, Hutner, and Heschel, as well as the religious usages by Schoeps, Buber, and Levinas. Much of this interview is not limited to the book but is found in specific Herskowitz’s journal articles on Rabbi Hutner, Soloveitchik, Heschel, and Wyschogrod.

I must note before going further, that there is no need to create any bube mayse that Rabbi Soloveitchik was in Heidegger’s Marburg classes or that he must have attended the Davos conference making it seem that Heidegger’s works in the 1930’s were obscure or only know by the few. They were known in all major universities, and Soloveitchik’s friend Altmann was doing his degree on Heidegger’s thought.

In this interview we see how Martin Buber’s criticized Heidegger’s philosophy as holding dangerous ideas compared to his own dialogical and prophetic account of human existence. Yet, Buber was one with Heidegger’s critique of modern life as being consumed by a technological approach toward the world.

Alexander Altmann claims that Heidegger’s ideas of Being and Time could be applied to Torah, halakhah, and Jewish peoplehood. More interesting, is that both Altmann and Soloveitchik identified with the volkish elements in Heidegger’s thought.  Jews find Jewish destiny over fate through Torah and Jewish peoplehood, in the same way Heidegger thought that he would find his destiny in the Nazi party. Herskowitz shows that many of the elements in Soloveitchik’s thought that we associate with Kierkegaard may actually be parallel or from Heidegger.

Heschel completely rejected Heidegger as pagan and in contrasts with the Biblical view. Levinas also rejects Heidegger as pagan compared to the Jewish ethical approach, being is evil and the goal is to be otherwise than being. The demand of the face of the stranger breaks any wallowing in Being.

Rabbi Hutner surprisingly followed Heidegger the closest by finding true authenticity in experiencing the angst from death and through finding the eschatological horizon of life after death. However, the Torah exhorts us to find authentic life in the individual observance of the commandments as the ticket to resurrection.

Hans-Joachim Schoeps and Michael Wyschogrod both thought Jews should affirm a Karl Barth position to escape from  a sinful, godless existence, to an authentic Jewish existence attuned to divine revelation.

Herskowitz’s next project is to read the works of Cohen, Rosenzweig, Buber, and Levinas in light of developments in Protestant thinking and specifically in light of a move ‘back to Luther’ that was set in motion at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. It analyses their negotiation between commitment to Jewish sources and Lutheran structural assumptions and explores how they polemicise against Christianity while sharing with it a common inheritance. This study confirms that just as there is a medieval tradition of Jewish Aristotelianism, so there is a modern tradition of Jewish Lutheranism.

I look forward to that work on Jewish Lutheranism especially after this major work reframing the history of twentieth century Jewish thought. The weakness of this volume was the same as its strength, that the book remained focused on the level of intellectual history without any serious presentation of Heidegger’s philosophy or ideas. Even this interview is much more of a documentary record, done exceptionally well, than a grappling with Dasein. A reader unfamiliar with Heidegger’s philosophy, not counting in any way having read articles debating and castigating his Nazi affiliation, should read one of the many introductory volumes to Heidegger’s thought written in the last quarter century before tackling the book.

  1. Why was Heidegger important?

Heidegger emerged on the philosophical scene in Germany in the years between the wars, a period that was as politically shaky as it was intellectually productive. During that time there was a general attempt to develop new ways to think about some fundamental philosophical and religious questions. These including new ways of thinking about human existence, the human-divine relationship, politics, law, and more. For many, the most pressing issues were related to the individual’s subjectivity, concrete temporal existence, decision, and authenticity. This more existential sensitivity implied not only a rejection of the supremacy of reason, but also an aversion to the abstractions of metaphysics. Heidegger’s 1927 work Sein und Zeit [Being and Time], with its penetrating analysis of historical human existence in the world and its ‘jargon of authenticity’ turned him almost overnight to a central spokesperson for this philosophical perspective.

2. What was the Jewish Reception of Heidegger’s thought?

If much of medieval Jewish philosophy is rightfully perceived as operating under Aristotle’s domineering shadow, determined by its concepts, possibilities, and boundaries, and the same is true with respect to nineteenth century Jewish thought and Kant, then the previous century might be termed the ‘Heidegger century’ in Jewish European thought.

Now, this general perspective was shared by many young Jewish thinkers were tried to reimagine and reformulate Jewishness along these lines, and many saw Heidegger as a thought-provoking and challenging thinker to think along with – and against. We find, therefore, that Heidegger’s philosophy loomed large for the long list of thinkers for whom this period was formative, like Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Gershom Scholem, Hannah Arendt, Max Brod, Margarete Susman, Leo Strauss, Hans Jonas, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Emmanuel Levinas, and many more (including thinkers of a later generation, such as Emil Fackenheim and Michael and Edith Wyschogrod).

Leo Strauss spoke for many when he said of his early student years in Germany during this time: “Nothing affected us as profoundly in the years in which our minds took their lasting directions as the thought of Heidegger. While everyone else in the younger generation who had ears to hear was either completely overwhelmed by Heidegger, or else, having been almost completely overwhelmed by him, engaged in well-intentioned but ineffective rearguard actions against him,” (An Unspoken Prologue,” 450).

Of course, Heidegger’s support of Hitler, made public in 1933 – for which he refused to express remorse publicly – together with the conviction that his politics derived from his philosophy, made the Jewish engagement with his thinking extremely fraught and painful. But what is striking is that Heidegger managed to regain his preeminent philosophical status after World War II and the Holocaust, in both the general and Jewish world of thought. It is fascinating to see how Buber, Strauss, Levinas, and many others continued to seek out Heidegger’s post-war published work and to respond to it in their own writings. It was not, then, only Heidegger’s early, more existentially leaning philosophy that proved so fertilizing for Jewish thought, but his later reflections on language, poetry, the gods, and technology were as well.  

Heidegger fomented twentieth century European Jewish thought in a profound, indelible way, unmatched by any other thinker. The list of Jewish thinkers who found Heidegger’s philosophy meriting serious and repeated consideration makes it difficult to argue otherwise. But this ‘consideration’ came in the form of a wide range of intellectual exchanges, such as identification, incorporation, negotiation, critique, and rejection.

3. Can you briefly discuss some of the ways Martin Buber responded to Heidegger?

Buber had a decades-long fascination and confrontation with Heidegger. A friend of Buber, Werner Kraft, recorded an impression he had during a conversation with Buber, where Buber criticized Heidegger: “Buber then said: ‘Heidegger’s central idea is false,’ but I have the impression that he […] cannot free himself from Heidegger.”

A common way of framing Buber’s critical engagement with Heidegger is as following. Buber accused him of presenting a picture of human existence that was essentially self-contained and that cannot truly account for or encounter the ‘You’, the other who is not the self – be it the fellow human or the ‘eternal You,’ God. In Buber’s terminology, Heidegger’s version of selfhood is ‘monological’. As an alternative, Buber put forth his ‘dialogical’ account of human existence, where that which is most meaningful takes place in the ‘between’ and the self is fully constituted only in and through the encounter with the other.

This presentation is not incorrect, but I think it is just one facet of a far more extensive confrontation of Buber with Heidegger.  Ultimately, we see that Buber’s critical engagement with Heidegger did not simply focus on Heidegger’s notion of selfhood but targeted his whole understanding of how we humans inhabit the world.

Buber saw Heidegger’s philosophy as holding dangerous existential, theological, moral and political ramifications, and opposing it was of utmost importance. As part of this confrontation, Buber accused Heidegger of ‘magic’, that is, of advancing a coercive and utilitarian approach toward the world and claimed his philosophy led to Nazism and to nihilism. Buber also tries to appropriate the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, who Heidegger considered the German poet, for his own dialogical thought.

Yet Buber still held Heidegger in the highest esteem, claiming he was on par with thinkers such as Kant and Hegel, but also Buber developed his alternative to Heidegger on the basis of assumptions and concerns which he shared with Heidegger.

Both Buber and Heidegger believed that modern life was being consumed by a technological approach toward the world and that this generated an impoverished way of living. In this context, Heidegger speaks of the need to cultivate a certain closeness and attuned to the world, a way of living that is not coercive toward what ‘is’ but gratuitous and responsive. He calls this ‘dwelling poetically.’

Buber moves in a parallel direction while seeking to counter Heidegger. He advocates as a Jewish-dialogical alternative that I call ‘dwelling prophetically’, a faithful openness to the intimate encounter with the plenitude and presence of God and of the other person. For Buber, the model for this kind of dialogical existence was the biblical prophets.

4. How does Alexander Altman use Heidegger in his theology?

Altmann’s early reading of Heidegger during the 1930s is one of the most interesting and surprising Jewish engagements with the philosopher. It takes place before Heidegger’s affiliation with Hitler became known, and therefore demonstrates both how original Jewish thought was conducted through the conceptual frameworks that were found compelling at the time and how, perhaps, Jewish encounters with Heidegger could have looked like had the political and moral factor not made it inevitably fraught.

For example, in one essay Altmann develops the claim that Judaism is based on two fundamental and particularistic notions, the understanding of revelation as halakha and the Jewish peoplehood. To ground the latter point, he turns to section 74 of Being and Time, where Heidegger outlines how the authentic existence of the individual partakes in the wider context of a community and generation. As part of this outline, Heidegger employs a number of charged volkish terms to describe the communal aspect of authenticity, like ‘volk,’ ‘community’, ‘struggle’, ‘fate’, ‘destiny’, ‘heritage’, and others.

Notably, Altmann claims that Heidegger’s terms could be perfectly applied to Jewish existence: Volk is the Jewish peoplehood, their ‘heritage’ is the Torah and the halakha, and their ‘destiny’ is to live out the word of God in their historical existence. Only as a member of a wider historical community, bound by tradition and driven by a task, can the Jewish person attain authenticity.

Altmann’s reading of Heidegger in this essay is noteworthy for at least two reasons: first, it runs against a common interpretation that saw Heidegger’s philosophy as conceptually linked to Christianity. For Altmann, Heidegger’s volkism made his philosophy more appropriate to Jews than to Christians, because Jews are an organic Volk while Christians are a Church, a theological construct. Second, Altmann identified with the volkish elements in Heidegger’s thought, the very elements that led Heidegger to a political party driven by hatred towards Jews and that engendered a philosophical scheme that excluded Jews.

5. How does Heschel’s “Who is Man” respond to Heidegger?

Heschel’s Who is Man? should be read as an attempt to counter the theological surge of interest in Heidegger’s philosophy that took place in the United States at the end of the 1950s and through the 1960s. Heschel poses a confrontation between his own biblical Jewish theology and what he considers Heidegger’s paganism. His basic premises is this: any framework that denies the essential link between humans and an ineffable God, the personal, compassionate, and demanding biblical God, is ultimately nihilistic and tied to paganism. In Heschel’s understanding, such paganism and nihilism is exhibited in Heidegger’s fixation with being and his godless analysis of human existence.

Heschel claimed that without the reference to God, Heidegger cannot offer a compelling account of authenticity or a moral benchmark to evaluate action. In his understanding, the human according to Heidegger’s godless framework can only ‘be’, not ‘live’ as a moral creature. Heidegger suffers from what Heschel termed ‘the ontocentric predicament’ – prioritizing a de-personalized ‘being’ that cannot account for the true humanity of humans, the moral charge of their existence, or the created nature of the world.

In a handwritten note I found in Heschel’s archive in Duke University Library, Heschel wrote in relation to Heidegger: “The issue is not being itself, for being itself is the invention of metaphysicians. Being in the world as expressing man’s existence confines man and limits the problem. The true issue is being with God.”

Heidegger manifested for Heschel what he saw as the religious and moral bankruptcy of modern secularism and some of the profound flaws of western philosophy. Heidegger confirmed Heschel’s belief that what the world needed most was the biblical God whose pathos and care towards humans grants value and meaning to their lives and enables the moral work toward redemption.

It should be noted that Heschel’s analysis of Heidegger is based on various misrepresentations of Heidegger’s view. In fact, there are some important issues in which both thinkers share a common approach, and some of the ‘biblical’ alternatives Heschel offers in contrast to Heidegger’s philosophy resemble Heidegger’s real position. Nevertheless, his critical engagement with Heidegger teaches us a lot about how Heschel understood the challenges of the spiritual world around him.

6. How does Rav Hutner use Heidegger in one of his essays.

Rav Hutner drew on a plethora of sources – Jewish and others – in his writings. From early on he was occupied with issues concerning existence, authenticity, freedom, temporality, and selfhood, and in his writings, there are various intersections with the existentialist perspective that rose to prominence in the early decades of the twentieth century.

For example, as part of his attempt to come to terms with the question the meaning of life in light of the looming fact of death, Hutner appropriated – and also adapted in an original way – the Heideggerian notion of ‘being-toward-death’ in order to develop a Jewish existential comportment toward life after death, ‘being-toward -resurrection’.

Hutner believed, with Heidegger, that authentic existence is drawn from a certain comportment toward death and the future. But in contrast to Heidegger, for whom death sealed the horizon of existence, Hutner claimed that true authenticity is gained by experiencing the angst from death and by overcoming it, and by comporting oneself toward beyond death, toward resurrection and eternity. For Hutner, the horizon of death is critical for authenticity and a real source of existential angst, but when understood properly, it itself opens a further horizon, the eschatological horizon of life after death.

What is interesting in Hutner’s notion of ‘being toward resurrection’ is not only the usage of Heidegger for the sake of Orthodox Jewish thinking, but its individualized and existential application: ‘Resurrection’ confirms the possibility of an authentic and meaningful life in the face of death. In this way Hutner binds authenticity in the face of death and commitment to traditional Judaism, because observance of the commandments is the ‘ticket’ to resurrection and is therefore a religious mean and end for the Jewish seeking authenticity.

7. How do Rabbi Soloveitchik and Heidegger use Kierkegaard’s idea of the moment?

Both Soloveitchik and Heidegger (as well as many other thinkers) draw on Soren Kierkegaard’s notion of ‘the moment’ (or ‘blink of an eye’). I don’t think Soloveitchik used Heidegger. Some scholars made the Soloveitchik-Heidegger connection on this issue but I think it is a parallel through Kierkegaard.

For Kierkegaard, the ‘moment’ is a religious and existential event of self-transformation that takes place in an elevated instance, touched by eternity. The ‘moment’ is based on a conception of time that is different than the common, every day one. It does not perceive time as a succession of present moments, in which ‘eternity’ would mean the passing of an infinite number of these ‘now’ moments.

Rather, time is approached from a more existential and experiential perspective, and the ‘moment’ is the intersection between a moment in time and eternity. Here time is measured by quality, so to speak, rather than quantity, and eternity is time in its fullness, a moment of wholeness and completeness that encompasses past, present, and future.

Soloveitchik in Halakhic Man models his account of repentance on this Kierkegaardian notion. For Soloveitchik, repentance is an event that takes place in the transient present moment, but is elevated to a moment of temporal fullness. It grants a defining overview on one’s life from which one’s past is revisited from the point of view of the present, taking in view the future – and the eschatological future. This conception of time is at the basis of Soloveitchik’s account of repentance because it is what allows past sins to be completely erased, as if they had never occurred in the first place, rather than acts of transgression that are simply atoned for.

Heidegger, too, utilizes Kierkegaard’s notion. In Being and Time he speaks of an ‘Augenblick’ (German rendering of the Danish Øieblik), an elevated ‘moment’ of authenticity which likewise encompasses what Heidegger calls the ‘ecstatic’ and future-oriented temporality of human existence. For Heidegger, however, the ‘moment’ is not a moment of fusion with eternity and it does not describe the event of repentance, but a moment of existential resoluteness in which the fullness of time makes present the finitude of the individual’s time and accounts for her anticipated death.

8. How does Rabbi Soloveitchik use Volkish ideas similar to Heidegger?

Volkish thinking has many connotations and variations, making it difficult to outline a clear-cut definition of what the volk is. In general, the volk refers to a primordial and close-knit communal body – something like a live organism – that is founded on a common language, tradition, custom, religion, land, and also blood. The volk is said to have a spiritual, even metaphysical vocation, usually referred to as its ‘destiny’ or ‘fate’, which it must struggle to actualize over against those who seek to hamper it. The volk was often thought about through a distinction that was introduced in a different context by the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft, that is, between an organic and reciprocally-connected community, the volk, and a selfish and utilitarian (modern) society.

Now, many of these features appear in Soloveitchik’s writings when he refers to the Jewish people or Knesset Israel. He speaks of Israel as a trans-generational organism, a living whole, a metaphysical entity for which the individual should sacrifice herself. Perhaps Soloveitchik’s most famous usage of volkish vocabulary and ideas can be found in his The Lonely Man of Faith (1965), where he speaks of two kinds of communities, the natural community and the community of the covenant, which are described exactly as a Gesellschaft and a Gemeinschaft – the former, a utilitarian coordination, the latter, an existential companionship.

In a different work Soloveitchik distinguishes between two ways the individual can approach suffering: ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’. The former characterizes pure factual existence lacking direction and meaning, the latter is active, imbued with meaning and direction. This distinction can apply nationally or communally as well: a community can be a ‘Covenant of Fate’ or a ‘Covenant of Destiny’.

This volkish terminology is a point of contact between Soloveitchik and Heidegger, because Heidegger, too, made use of the volkism in his own highly abstract and idiosyncratic way. He similarly spoke of the ‘fate’, ‘destiny’, and ‘heritage’ of a community that seeks to actualize its historical mission. For him, of course, the volk was the German volk, and its destiny pertained to spearheading a new openness to the holiness of being. His volkish impulse let him to the Nazi party, but it is also the reason he ultimately became disillusioned by it and distanced himself from it.

That Heidegger and Soloveitchik both made use of volkish ideology and vocabulary in their respective writings – albeit in different ways, with different referents, and for different ends – is but one demonstration of how important strands of twentieth century Jewish thought shared a common conceptual horizon with the German philosopher. While they were often fervently critical of his thought, they also shared some important assumptions and theoretical frameworks with him. This makes Heidegger’s Jewish reception a more complicated matter than simply one of ‘critique’ or ‘rejection.’

9. How does early Levinas deal with Heidegger?

Levinas’s relationship with Heidegger is extremely complicated. There is no question he admired Heidegger’s philosophical genius and his own thinking can be fully understood only with the backdrop of Heidegger. At the same time, Levinas identified a direct link between Heidegger’s philosophy and his shameful politics. In fact, he claimed that Heidegger embodied a violent and totalitarian impulse that was fundamental to western thought.

Therefore, while it is certainly true that Levinas’s thought is a forceful attempt to counter Heidegger’s philosophy and propose an alternative to it, this alternative is itself importantly marked by Heidegger’s own intellectual interventions. In one of the many fascinating interviews Levinas gave toward the end of his life, he was asked if it is correct to say that he “went through Heidegger, beyond Heidegger, by means of Heidegger.” Levinas’s answer was this: “always with pain and suffering. But I cannot deny it. Mont Blanc is Mont Blanc.”

In several of his early writings, Levinas explores two ways of being in the world. One he terms ‘being pagan’, featured by a sense of confidence, enrootedness, and sufficiency in an impenetrable totality of the world that lacks the possibility of transcendence. He associates this mode of existence with the world of Heidegger’s philosophy, in which everything is consumed by the immanence of ‘being’. For Levinas, mere ‘being’ is always the site of evil, power, and idolatry, and Heidegger’s biography confirms this.

Levinas terms the second way of being in the world and the alternative to the first, ‘being Jewish’. This existential modality is a universal category and not exclusive to any certain people or religion. It is marked by a sense of uprootedness, estrangement, and insecurity because it is a way of existing in a world touched by transcendence, a totality punctured by otherness. ‘Being Jewish’ means being unheimlich in a world called into question and called to action by transcendence, which Levinas called ‘creation.’ At the same time, and consequently, it is the existential mode in which morality, peace, and religiosity are accessible. In his early writings, then, Levinas follows Heidegger in developing a distinctive way of experiencing being, but he does so in order to formulate an alternative to Heidegger.

10. How does later Levinas deal with Heidegger?

In my reading of Levinas, his later, more mature works continue to develop this initial opposition between Heideggerian paganism and ‘being Jewish’, but he does this in what is, on the face of it, a more explicitly philosophical context, and the opposition is reformulated as the distinction between violent ontology and what Levinas calls ‘ethics.’

In the later writings the ethical impulse of otherness and transcendence is dramatically more pronounced (though it was already present earlier). Levinas claims that the experience governing the encounter with the Other, who interrupts the totality of being, is that of fundamental separation, holiness, and above all, demand. The self’s sense of rootedness in the world is interrupted and revamped from without by the call of the Other demanding to respect its otherness.

There are, of course, many developments and shifts between Levinas’s early and later writings, but I see a clear and instructive line of continuity between them. Levinas’s mature thinking develops his earlier reflections on the axis of the pagan Heideggerian mode of being and the Jewish mode of being. This is confirmed by the fact that there is a strong correspondence between what we find in his philosophical works and what we find in his analysis of Jewish texts. For example, in a parallel manner to his philosophical claims, Levinas describes Judaism as pre-eminently focused on the responsibility for the other. Similarly, in his essay “A Religion for Adults,” found in the collection of Jewish themed essays Difficult Freedom, Levinas proclaims that “Judaism teaches us a real transcendence.”

11. How does Hans-Joachim Schoeps use Heidegger in his theology?

Schoeps was an idiosyncratic thinker who believed that the analysis of human existence offered by Heidegger in Being and Time was an apt description of the contemporary Jewish person: secular, absorbed in immanence, and lacked a ‘consciousness of God’. The average contemporary Jew existed in a state of sin and alientation from God, and the existential analysis developed by Heidegger described precisely that deprived state of existence.

In his early constructive theology, Schoeps encouraged his fellow Jews to overcome their ‘Heideggerian’ state of secular existence and to return to a Jewish life of obedience based on the ever-present event of the Word of God. Oddly enough, Schoeps believed that Karl Barth, the Swiss Protestant theologian, offered the most appropriate framework for authentic Jewish theology and existence.

In effect, what Schoeps was doing was imploring his fellow Jews to turn from Heidegger to Barth, that is, from a sinful, godless existence, to an authentic Jewish existence attuned to divine revelation.

Another Jewish Barthian, Michael Wyschogrod, makes a closely related argument. In his Body of Faith he presents Heidegger as the epitome of western philosophical ontology but also the philosopher who demonstrates best the shortcomings of this way of thinking. As an alternative, Wyschogrod offers his account of biblical Judaism that takes its lead from Barth. (I have an article on Wyschogrod, Heidegger, and Barth coming out soon in JSQ.)

12. Why is there a debate on the relationship of Franz Rosenzweig to Heidegger?

In one of the last pieces that he wrote before his untimely death, “Exchanged Fronts”, Rosenzweig discussed the encounter between Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer that had just taken place in Davos, which was seen as staging the confrontation between the representative of the ‘new’ philosophical perspective (Heidegger) and the representative of the ‘old’ philosophical perspective (Cassirer).

In this piece, Rosenzweig expressed much enthusiasm about Heidegger’s philosophical perspective. He associated his own thinking, which he termed ‘New Thinking’, with Heidegger’s, claiming that both sprang from the actual, temporal existence of the human being and rejected the abstractions of idealism and metaphysics. Rosenzweig even suggested that not Cassirer but himself and Heidegger represented the real heirs of Hermann Cohen, the great Jewish neo-Kantian thinker whose project was generally continued by Cassirer.

In general, there is a question about just how familiarized Rosenzweig actually was with Heidegger’s philosophy and his positioning of Heidegger as the heir of Cohen is contentious.

Rosenzweig’s open association with Heidegger caused much discomfort, especially after 1933, when many wished to disassociate Rosenzweig, who had quickly cultivated a heliographic status in the Jewish imagination, from Heidegger, the Nazi collaborator. And throughout the twentieth century there are various attempts to demonstrate that despite Rosenzweig’s own assessment, a closer analysis suggests that his thought actually differed significantly from Heidegger’s on a number of important issues.

The most extensive argument in this regard was made by Karl Löwith, a former student (turned critic) of Heidegger’s and a central figure in shaping the philosopher’s twentieth century reception. In an essay “M. Heidegger and F. Rosenzweig or Temporality and Eternity”, Löwith sets out to show that while there are some analogous moments in Heidegger and Rosenzweig, they are in fact profoundly different. The distinguishing factor, Löwith maintains, is that Heidegger’s is a philosophy of radical immanence and temporality, while Rosenzweig’s philosophy, which begins with temporal existence, is ultimately geared toward transcendence and eternity.

Löwith’s essay was published in 1942 and for a long it was taken as the final word on the matter. In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the Rosenzweig-Heidegger connection – I have counted over 30 titles on the topic published in the last decade or so –  and while there is nothing particularly new in the juxtaposition itself, it seems that now the tendency is to acknowledge their shared conceptual horizons rather than to emphasize their differences.

13. Why did some Jews associate Heidegger’s thought with Christianity?

Heidegger had a Christian upbringing and some of his early original philosophical writings dealt with classical Christian theological texts. He soon distanced himself from his Christian rearing and in his 1927 book Being and Time he sought to develop a philosophical scheme that was not beholden to metaphysical and Christian assumptions about what it means to be human. In this sense, his philosophy is decidedly non-Christian, and at times even anti-Christian.

The trouble is that some of the basic categories that Heidegger puts forth in his early analysis of human existence seem to be of discernible Christian origin. Among the notions that bear the stamp of Christianity are ‘guilt’, ‘fallenness’, ‘call’, ‘revelation’, ‘being toward death’, but there are many more. It is clear that in Heidegger’s philosophy they do not refer to traditional Christian content and they are employed in a clearly non-theological context. But many readers, and many Jewish readers, saw this as proof that a number of Heidegger’s basic categories have Christian roots, and that even if they were ontological and philosophical, they still preserved something of their Christian origin and continued to carry Christian resonances.

This interpretation was widespread, and it included the likes of Edmund Husserl, Ernst Cassirer, Karl Löwith, Rudolf Bultmann, Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber, Leo Strauss, Max Scheler, Gunther Anders, and Susan and Jacob Taubes, to name only a few. According to it, Heidegger claimed to be offering a neutral and formal account of human existence as such, but he was in fact caught up in Christian assumptions about what it means to be human and ended up outlining a secularized Christian conception of human existence.

This was one of the reasons evoked by Jewish thinkers to make the point that Heidegger’s philosophy was ill-suited for Jewish thought. Insofar as his understanding of human existence bore an inherent Christian charge, it could not be applied to the specific case of Jewish existence.