Monthly Archives: March 2023

Interview in Makor Rishon in January 2023

I was interviewed by Makor Rishon last year and it was published on January 18, 2023. Below is an English translation. It is a little awkward in phrasing since I gave the interview in English and it was translated into Hebrew and then back into English. some phrases and some of my voice were lost in translation. I find it interesting how I am understood in the portrait as basically all interfaith.

Here is the Hebrew original

R20 Conference in Bali, Indonesia -November 2022, press conference after my talk

“Hindu Meditation is Closer to Judaism than Vipassana and Buddhist Techniques”

Rabbi Professor Alan Brill teaches in a Catholic college, travels to interfaith conferences around the world, helps Indonesians articulate a moderate version of Islam, and compares Indian religions to Kabbalah; following his teacher Rabbi Soloveitchik, however, rejects the idea of a common alliance of all religions.

By Yeshaya Rosenman

“I have never taught at a secular college,” Prof. Alan Brill tells me with a smile. “I taught at the religious institutions of Jews, Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, and Hindus. I think I’m the only person in the world who has taught in each of these kinds of institutions.”

Rabbi Professor Alan Brill (61) is a full professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, a Catholic institution. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the thought of Rabbi Tzadoq HaKohen of Lublin at Fordham University, another Catholic university in New York. He belongs to the large Orthodox community of Teaneck, New Jersey, and visits Israel regularly. He is now in Israel attending an academic conference at Bar-Ilan University on the legacy of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I took the opportunity to chat with him about his interfaith activities with Muslims and Hindus, and about his unique writing on these subjects.

For the average Israeli, studying and teaching at Catholic universities sounds almost like studying at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. How did you get there?

“Fordham is right next to Yeshiva University, where I did my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in general philosophy. I thought about doing my PhD at Columbia University, but when I came to the interview, they told me: ‘We study religions through a social sciences lens. If you want to research “from the inside,” as a religious person, go to Fordham.’ Neither did I feel at all strange at Fordham, nor was I the only religious Jew there. One of the lecturers once told us: ‘Look around: Catholics, Mennonites, Greek Orthodox, and Orthodox Jews sitting together. You are not the typical Americans!’ At Fordham, I wrote about Maimonides, and my classmates wrote about a parallel Christian figure, Thomas Aquinas. I felt at home with them more than I do with secular non-Jews.

“That is how I feel today at Seton Hall. Northern New Jersey is one of the most religiously and linguistically diverse places in the world. Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu populations, in that order. It is the largest Indian diaspora outside Asia. The number of Muslims and Hindus at the university is steadily increasing. These are immigrants who want a conservative institution for their children, where religions are respected, where prayer is made accessible, and where the cafeteria serves Halal. By the way, in general, local Muslims trust the OU’s kashrut, and they have a website with a list of impermissible items containing alcohol. We have no violent confrontations with Muslims in New Jersey. This attendance at Seton Hall is a kind of natural, ethnic conservatism, not an ideological one like that of the Catholic justices on the Supreme Court. These are children of immigrants who want to escape the aggressive secularism of campus culture, who find a ‘Noah’s Ark’ in which there is almost no preoccupation with the culture war raging around us.”

In the wake of 9/11

During the ‘80s, Brill spent a few years in Jerusalem, and looked into the possibility of doing his doctorate at Hebrew University. After his doctorate, he taught Talmud at Maimonides High School in Boston and later Hasidism at Yeshiva University, at that time he was a sought-after lecturer at many Jewish institutions. In 2013,  he was awarded the prestigious Fulbright scholarship and chose to travel and teach Judaism at the Hindu university in Varanasi. Upon his return, he posted several recounts of his experiences to his excellent blog, “The Book of Doctrines and Opinions.” Later on, he lectured and was interviewed for various platforms, and finally authored a book called Rabbi on the Ganges (2019), an introduction to Hinduism for religious Jews. The book and its bibliography reveal impressive expertise of the English-language literature on Indian religions and is rife with ongoing comparisons to all arenas of Torah literature: Jewish thought, Kabbalah, and Hasidism.

This book was preceded by two others: Judaism and World Religions: Encountering Christianity, Islam, and Eastern Traditions (2012), and Judaism and Other Religions:Models of Understanding (2010). Selected excerpts of Brill’s books have been translated into several languages (although not into Hebrew).

“I studied general philosophy at Yeshiva University in 1978, and was ordained as a rabbi in one of the last years that people received semikha from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (‘the Rav’). I helped organize events and the summer lectures of his, but we did not have a very close relationship. I was close with Rabbi Walter Wurzburger, the Rav’s student in philosophy. Rabbi Wurzburger engaged in interfaith dialogue with Catholics after Nostra aetate (the historic 1965 Vatican council that announced a fundamental change in the Catholic Church’s attitude towards the Jews).

“It is often said that Rabbi Soloveitchik opposed interfaith discourse, but we have to specify what exactly he opposed. He was not opposed to intellectual discussions. The lectures that became The Lonely Man of Faith were given at the Catholic St. Joseph’s Seminary and College, where the Rav tried to explain Judaism to Catholics. Famous Christian theologians such as Paul Tillich also lectured as part of the same series. The Rav opposed a ‘shared covenant’ with Christianity. He refused to discuss similarities between the religions, or a common religious-existential experience. He did not want to build commonality between Jewish and Christian theology and did not desire a common religious brotherhood.

“I hold this approach, in line with the Rav. I reject the idea that there is a shared covenant between all religions or Abrahamic religions. After all the analysis and discussions, when all is said and done, each religion has its own unique theology, setting it apart in the context of prayer, exegesis, and spirituality. I am not looking to point out connections between religions; rather, I am trying as a Jew to react to the world of great religious diversity that surrounds us today. What’s more, I believe that there is wisdom in these religions—as the saying goes, ‘There is wisdom among the nations, believe it’” (Lamentations Rabah 2:14).

Although Rabbi Wurzburger suggested he join the interfaith activities when he was a student, Brill did so beginning only in the early 2000s, as part of the global flourishing of interfaith discourse in the wake of the September 11 attacks, which were carried out in the name of Islam.

“During that period,” Brill points out, “Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book The Dignity of Difference was published just a few months after 9/11, constituting a summary of the lectures he gave in response to the attack. Rabbi Sacks discussed questions of religious diversity and the place of Islam in the contemporary world, and this book raised his profile as an international thinker. At the same time, The Economist also published a book called God is Back. Until then, the West did not really treat religion as a living thing that influences world politics. Religious studies in universities focused on classical texts. But studying the Buddha’s sermons will not explain to you why the Rohingya are being persecuted in Myanmar, so they understood that there needed to be a change in the study materials.”

The Transformation of the Emirates

In 2004, Brill had the opportunity to explain his worldview on the subject of theology of other religions as part of a large conference of rabbis and senior Catholic clergy, under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress. “Present were figures like Rabbi Steinsaltz, senior members of the Conference of European Rabbis, and priests like Fr Patrick Debois. I gave a lecture there on the theology of other religions, which was the basis for my first book on the topic. I tried to clarify what the Torah says about other religions, employing four categories of relationships between religions, developed by others before me: exclusivity, inclusivity, pluralism, and universalism. Exclusivity means your religion is the true one, and everything else is false; inclusivity means that your religion is true, and you are willing to accept other religions on your own religion’s terms; pluralism means that there are many ways to worship God, or even many gods to worship and that all pathways are legitimate; and universalism will claim that all religions share a common kernel.

“Not all of these categories suit us as Jews, but it should be emphasized that these are not necessarily mutually exclusive categories. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook used more than one of these categories. The breadth of the library in your beit midrash indicates what you deem legitimate.

It should be noted that this lecture was given at a completely different era from that of Rabbi Wurzburger’s interfaith activities. In the audience were Hebrew-speaking priests with degrees in Talmud, as well as Jews who were well-versed in Catholic theology. This meeting did not belong to an inchoate earlier stage, but was one in which collaboration was already underway.”

What kind of collaboration?

“There can’t be just one format; it is always contingent upon local needs. Sometimes it is the fight against antisemitism, and other times it is promoting civil rights legislation. Nor should it be expected that the goals of Jews and Catholics will always coincide. I was working in collaboration with a host of Jewish organizations.”

You don’t necessarily find deep religious questions within the struggles for human and civil rights. What do we do with instances whereby antisemitism stems from sacred texts themselves, such as Islamic antisemitism?

“Recently, I was in Indonesia, at the personal invitation of the Islamic Nahdatul Ulama party. They read excerpts from my book translated into Indonesian, and wanted me to help them build a Muslim version of what I did in my book. I was also asked to help them formulate a campaign against antisemitism in Indonesia. The country has a culture of antisemitic conspiracies, from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the conspiracies about the Rothschild family.

“You have to understand that Islam in Indonesia is very different from what you are familiar with in Israel. There are two major Islamic parties, and they are the pillars of support for the democratic regime in Indonesia. Their Islam is a tolerant one, resting against the backdrop of the religions that preceded it in Indonesia: Hinduism and Buddhism. Nahdatul Ulama represents traditional Islam, which is syncretistic. They do not interpret the hadith stringently, and they combine Sufism with popular religion. The second party, Muhammadiyah, are ‘modern orthodox,’ as it were. They emphasize Islamic law, but are not an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both of these parties are opposed to extremist Salafist factions, who desire an undemocratic Sharia state. Neighboring Malaysia watches Indonesia closely. Even though it is a much more extremist state, if everyone else progresses, they will not want to be left behind.”

Can Islam be democratic?

“Islam in every country is different. Indonesia has its own unique story. You see, even their Hindus and Buddhists say they believe in the oneness of God, in the Prophecy, and in reward and punishment. On the other hand, Muslims there have no problem watching plays of the Ramayana epic, which is sacred to Indians.

From a different perspective, that of Turkey, I spent two days in the court of the Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen in New Jersey, and I heard him lecture to his students. He is a tolerant person, which is why he had to flee Erdogan’s Turkey. Islam in Senegal is also tolerant, but for completely different reasons.”

Is de-radicalization possible, given that extremist Islam has already become deep-seated?

“In 2018, before the Abraham Accords, I was on an American Jewish Committee (AJC) delegation to the Emirates, the aim being to familiarize the Emiratis with Jews and rabbis. Right before my eyes, the Emirates went from extreme Salafism to ‘spiritual but not religious.’ Over the years I had contacts with Saudis, and they want to progress in a different way. Morocco also has its own approach.”

And where is the state of Israel in all of this?

“The process I’m observing in Indonesia is supposed to be similar to what is happening in the Emirates. In 2019, I taught a semester at the illustrious Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and visited major Islamic colleges in the country. This was the initial stage, and now the phenomenon is burgeoning. After laying the infrastructure in Indonesia for meetings with rabbis and Jews, the conditions will be riper to implement normalization and diplomatic relations with the state of Israel.”

The Pandits refused to eat with me

How did you arrive at your engagement with India’s religions? It is a pioneering field in which few religious Jews have engaged.

“Over the years I read Indian religious texts. In 2012, I applied for a Fulbright senior scholars award, with the goal of teaching in a foreign country. Given my prior research on Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and his writings on Jewish meditation, the concept was to travel to India and compare Jewish techniques to Hindu meditation, which I immediately realized is more akin to Jewish methods than Vipassana and Buddhist techniques are.”

There are those who claim that Rabbi Kaplan took Indian material and rendered it in Jewish terms. Do you agree with this assertion?

“Rabbi Kaplan read Eastern texts, and essentially reframed Jewish materials within frameworks that were commonplace in Eastern discourse at the time. It should be noted that Indian materials from before the twentieth century were written using very complex, abstract, and difficult-to-understand terminology. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Swami Vivekananda, in his book Raja Yoga, adapted these texts into simple instructions for practice, and in so doing constructed Indian meditation as we know it. Other guides copied him. Rabbi Kaplan did something similar with the Jewish tradition: he translated the complex and abstract texts of the Kabbalists and Hasidim into simple language. He availed himself of his general knowledge of physics, psychology, and Eastern teachings. He did not read the Indian literature in the original.”

In your mind, why are Jews and Israelis attracted to India?

“Initially, it is because of India’s ‘exotic’ nature—Israelis don’t necessarily understand at all the difference between a Hindu, a Buddhist, or a Sikh. They see modernized ashram culture. It should be emphasized that ashram culture is neo-Hinduism, it is not the religion that Indians themselves know. For 98% of Indians, religion means dietary restrictions, marriage laws, purity and impurity, life cycle rituals, holidays, etc. In fact, the ashrams don’t call themselves Hindu, instead using other names, such as ‘followers of Advaita Vedanta.’

We have to grasp what an insult it is when an Israeli who meditated in an ashram begins to essentialize how religion functions in the East. Imagine if a non-Jewish tourist who studied ‘Kabbalah’ for a few weeks were to explain to a religious Jew how to properly pray with kavvanot.

And does the Indian commoner have any familiarity with what is studied in ashrams?

“There are many movements in Hinduism. They each emphasize different aspects and are intended for different audiences. There is religion for the middle class, for academics, and for spiritual types. If you are a Gujarati businessman, you will go to Swaminarayan’s BAPS institutions. They build huge temples in the ancient Indian style, in the private ceremonies at home, there are no statues and no offerings. For them, everything is internalized and performed meditatively in one’s consciousness.”

So Maimonides was right when he said that the more religion progresses, the more abstract and monotheistic it becomes?

“Not necessarily. ISKCON is a movement with Christian influences, which is why they are fans of icons, and cleave to the image of baby Krishna as Christians do with baby Jesus. Two stages in the modernization of religions can be identified: first, the period from pre-modernity to modernity; and second, the twentieth century to the twenty-first century. In nineteenth-century India there were reformers who belonged to the local enlightenment movement, the ‘Bengali Renaissance,’ such as Ram Mohan Roy and his disciples, who are very much the Indian parallel to Reform Jews. Thereafter, thinkers like Sivananda articulated the Hindu commandments in ethical and non-mystical terms, similar to our own Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Most of the Indians I met still think of their religion in this way, and are offended when people say that their religion is mystical and not ethical.

In the twenty-first century, you see a new stage where Hindu or Buddhist meditation teachers teach meditation for the purpose of stress-reduction and achieving happiness, wealth, and the like.

Classical Indian texts already have all the layers we are familiar with in Judaism. Mimamsa corresponds to Jewish Midrashei Halakha, Nyaya corresponds to its medieval scholastic thought, and texts that I have researched in Tantra literature correspond to Kabbalistic kavvanot. I plan to publish a comparison of Tantra to Kabbalah.”

The Colonialism of Monotheism

What is your opinion on the deification of human beings in India? To the Jewish observer, this is a shocking phenomenon.

“Also to many Indian observers, certainly the Pandits. Any time you would mention to them –you might get an earful on the moral corruption of these characters.”

The Tantra literature you mentioned is a genre of Indian mystical literature known to Westerners mainly in its sexual valences. What does Tantra mean to Indians?

“In India, meditation that combines intention and action is called tantra. The purpose of tantra is the union of the male and female elements, Shiva and Shakti. This might be compared to the unification of Qudsha B’rikh Hu and His Shekhina according to the Kabbalists. Tantric techniques are very complex, with similarities to the kavvanot of the Kabbalists. I showed Indian colleagues texts of the prayer kavvanot from the early Kabbalists, and they immediately recognized the similarity. These colleagues are people who read Gershom Scholem and his disciples and already have a general familiarity.

Yoga is generally about abstract mental states of absorbtion—even if in modern versions of yoga, such as hatha yoga, there is a majority focus on breathing and postures. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, these body postures are described in just 13 words. Whereas in the ancient yogic texts, you will find mountains of words about different mental states.

“The transgressive things that Westerners associate with the worlds of tantra—which Indians themselves hardly engage in—are referred to as ‘left hand tantra.’ ‘Right hand tantra,’ however, centers visualizations, similar to the philosophy of kavvanot. Left hand tantra is concerned with ‘sin performed in God’s name’ (‘aveirah lishmah), that is, intentional transgression of religious prohibitions in order to be above the Law and beyond religious notions of good and evil: forbidden marriages between high and low castes, violations of purity laws, laws of worship, and more.”

When it comes to Tantra, is there a recognition of feminism?

“Indian discussions of female deities and female spirituality do not necessarily go hand-in-hand with feminism. On the contrary, sometimes such discourse is entangled with misogyny and the subjugation of women. Many more social reforms are needed in India, and religion alone will not provide for that.”

And after all is said and done, Indian culture is idolatrous. In fact, it can be associated with the most classic case of idolatry known to us from the Bible. If there is one animal we associate with idolatry, it is the cow.

Brill laughs when I mention cows. “First of all, Indians never pray to or worship cows. The cow is the symbol of motherly kindness, which gives nourishing milk to all. Therefore, it is simply on the same stratum of existence as humans, and therefore humans may not eat them. In the Dharmasastra it is written that ‘every day one should help gods, humankind, cows, and the poor.’ In India, there are different stages of religious development, wherein different reforms were undertaken. There is a striking difference between Indian and Jewish traditions: we do not claim that the worshipers of Ba’al and Ashtoreth, or the golden calf and the copper snake, are part of our tradition. But the Indians will say that all the disparate stages of their religion were once a part of their faith, and only today certain parts are no longer extent.

“It is important for me to clarify the question of polytheism and monotheism. The majority of Indians, about 70%, are Vishnu worshipers, and about 24% are Shiva worshipers. They all worship one transcendent God, above nature, who is not one of the forces of nature—irrespective of our notion that using idols even to worship one God is forbidden by the Torah. Recently there was a conference on Vaishnavism, with 16 speakers from around the world, and the lectures are about to be published as a book. Every speaker claimed to be a monotheist. They also do not worship individual idols, but indeed one God, ‘God of gods,’ as in the Torah.

This is how they see themselves today, and this is what they read back into their classical texts. Shiva worshipers have always believed in only one God. The novelty is that the Vaishnavas are even willing to ignore the Vedas, the most ancient layer of Indian religion, for this purpose. The important medieval commentaries on the classic texts all state that the highest understanding of religion is toward Oneness of the paraBrahman, as the formless divine. Sure, it’s unsurprising that they did away with Vedic horse sacrifices; theologically, however, they made an even deeper revision as a reaction to the spiritual challenge of monotheism that arose starkly via encounters with the West.”

Many Indian polemicists speak fervidly against monotheism and against the zealotry of the Abrahamic religions.

“They say ‘monotheism’ and mean ‘colonialism.’ The monotheism they hate is Christianity, which granted the British the right to conquer India in its name, and Islam, with which they are in conflict to this day. They have never heard of Judaism and think of monotheism as a single religion that strives to destroy all other religions. India’s contemporary right-wing and its spokespeople demand that Islam be tolerant again, as it has been for many years in India. They view fanatical Pakistani Islam as a mutation shaped under Arab influence, foreign to the subcontinent.”

Becoming Elijah Interview with Daniel C. Matt

There is a story told about the birth of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement. His parents, Reb Eliezer and Sara, were known far and wide for their generous hospitality. Elijah the Prophet was once sent to their home to test their sincerity. One Shabbos afternoon, Eliyahu banged on their door carrying a staff in his hand and a knapsack on his back thereby clearly desecrating the Shabbos.

Reb Eliezer opened the door and warmly greeted his guest.  Although Reb Eliezer understood that the beggar had violated Shabbos, he pretended not to notice. Reb Eliezer told his guest. “Please, come and join us.” The next morning, Reb Eliezer and his wife prepared to send the beggar off with a generous donation, as well as provisions for the way. Not once did they mention a word about their guest’s lack of Shabbos observance the previous day.

As he was walking out the door, Eliyahu Hanavi revealed to Reb Eliezer his true identity. “Since you did not shame me when I came to your house,” Eliyahu told him, “you and your wife will soon be blessed with a son who will illuminate the world with the depths of his Torah.” The following year, Reb Eliezer’s wife gave birth to a son, Israel, who become the Baal Shem Tov.

In this story, the prophet Elijah serves as a divine messenger to test the sincerity of mortal humans and to bestow miracles. He also stands in for the modern Jew giving up observance.  In the 21st century, these stories continue to flourish with ever-new permutations of Elijah as a divine helper who still shows up on the streets of New York or Jerusalem.

In his recent award-winning book Becoming Elijah: Prophet of Transformation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), Daniel C. Matt shows how Elijah evolved from his portrayal in the Bible as a zealous prophet, attacking idolatry and injustice, championing God to a folk hero champion of the common Jew. Though residing in heaven, Elijah revisits earth—to help, rescue, enlighten, and eventually herald the Messiah.

Daniel Matt is a noted scholar of Kabbalah who spent 18 years translating the Zohar. His nine-volume annotated translation The Zohar: Pritzker Edition – received various awards and has been hailed as “a monumental contribution to the history of Jewish thought.”. Matt received his Ph.D. from Brandeis and taught for many years at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.  Daniel lives in Berkeley and currently teaches Zohar online ( People I know locally highly recommend his online Zohar class.

Recently, Becoming Elijah was awarded the inaugural Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Book Prize, established by Yeshiva University. It is interesting to note that this is one of the first times the university has given any award to a book not affiliated with Orthodoxy.

Matt’s book Becoming Elijah: Prophet of Transformation was published by Yale University Press in their series Jewish Lives. Therefore, he presents a biography of Elijah through the ages, the way Jack Miles wrote an award-winning biography of God. Matt surveys how this Biblical zealot evolves into a popular figure in Jewish tradition. Becoming Elijah traces how Elijah develops from the Bible to Rabbinic Judaism, Kabbalah, and Jewish ritual (as well as Christianity and Islam) culminating in Hasidut.

The book is enjoyable and a quick reading as a romantic anthology of sources, part folklore, and part literary work. Matt gives most sources no more than a paragraph, so the book is a rapid survey more than analysis, more kaleidoscope than theology. Matt’s bibliography is a gold mine of works on Elijah. I would still recommend as an ancillary reading Aaron Wiener, Prophet Elijah in the Development of Judaism: A Depth-psychological Study(Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1978) which offers psychological analysis. Matt’s book can profitably be read alongside its out-of-print predecessor.

The commitment to the biography format treating each literary unit- Midrash, Kabbalah, Jewish ritual- as if it was a self-contained historic event or major trend may have been too restrictive in that many things were associated together that needed their own section. For example, all Kabbalistic citations are in a single overpacked chapter.

In the last chapter, Matt presents the Hasidic idea that individual people contain an aspect of Elijah in their own souls, in which there is an inner quality of Elijah within all of us. Which he interprets with his own unique Neo-Hasidic homily as the evolution to inner compassion.

The book stops without modernity at the end of the eighteenth century. Therefore, we do not hear the above story of the parents of the Baal Shem Tov. We do not get to hear how S Ansky uses Elijah as a harbinger of the breakdown and destruction of Galicia Jewry. We do not hear how Elie Wiesel treats Elijah “as the chronicler, the historian of Jewish suffering. He takes note of every tragic event, every massacre, every pogrom, every agony, and every tear; thanks to him, nothing is lost. His most magnificent role is that of witness; he is the memory of the Jewish people.“ And we definitely don’t get to hear how Jacques Derrida considers Elijah- which is his own middle name- epitomizes the “coming of the other” into the differential space of language. In the later texts, the figure of Elijah is invoked to signal the promise of a language—performative rather than affirmative, paradoxically determined by its own indeterminability.

The book will make a great gift to your hosts for Passover Seder and buy a second copy for yourself as your Passover book. Pick a nice bottle of wine for a Passover lunch and then spend the day reading the exploits of Elijah, the prophet.  Maybe when he visits everyone’s seder this year, he will recount to us his latest adventures to add to his already rich biography.

1) How long have you been interested in Elijah?

I have been interested in Elijah ever since I was a little boy, the curious son of a rabbi. Of course, we expected Elijah annually at the Seder, but he seemed to pop up so frequently, especially every Saturday night, when we sang a song about him as we said “Goodbye” to the Sabbath Queen. I wondered who he was, and if he was real.

Writing Becoming Elijah occupied me for about 5 years: two years of reading and collecting sources, a little more than a year of writing, and then about 2 years of editing and seeing the book through the publication process.

2) What did Cynthia Ozick say about Elijah? Does your book agree with her statement?

One of Cynthia Ozick’s characters (in Envy, or, Yiddish in America) has this to say: “Please remember that when a goy from Columbus, Ohio, says ‘Elijah the Prophet’ he’s not talking about Eliohu hanovi. Eliohu is one of us, a folksmensh, running around in second-hand clothes. Theirs is God knows what. The same biblical figure, with exactly the same history, once he puts on a name from King James, COMES OUT A DIFFERENT PERSON.”

In Becoming Elijah, I make a different distinction, but there is some overlap. The biblical Elijah is a fierce zealot; in his post-biblical career, he becomes a compassionate hero, helping those in need, spreading wisdom, and ultimately making peace in the world.

3) Why is your book called “Becoming Elijah”?

Throughout most of the book, the title Becoming Elijah means: how the biblical Elijah (the fierce zealot) was transformed into the compassionate hero who rescues those in need, the super-rabbi who spreads wisdom and will ultimately bring peace to the world. But at the very end of the book, the reader discovers another meaning of the title: how each of us can cultivate our own “aspect of Elijah” (behinat Eliyyahu), thereby in a sense “becoming Elijah.”

4) Why did you choose the opening quote from Cordovero?

The 16th-century kabbalist Moses Cordovero writes this about Elijah: “His mystery is really the mystery of divinity spreading. Divine energy clothes itself in him, extending to the world. . . Elijah never appears in the world without the mystery of divinity revealing itself through him. The mystery of God on earth is the mystery of Elijah . . . The closest that divinity can possibly come to humanity is the mystery of Elijah.”

I came across this quotation shortly before the book went to press. I chose it as the book’s epigraph because it conveys what Elijah eventually became: the embodiment of the Holy Spirit (ruah ha-qodesh) and a semi-divine figure.

Cordovero’s remarkable statement may strike some readers as more Christian than Jewish, with Elijah functioning as an intermediary between God and humanity. Well, Elijah is unique, and he frequently mediates between heaven and earth. He is a virtuoso of the in-between, communicating heavenly teachings to earth and inspiring the Kabbalists with new insights and revelations. Yes, Cordovero’s formulation is extreme, but already in the Midrash, God Himself affirms His similarity to Elijah:

“The blessed Holy One said, ‘I revive the dead, and Elijah revived the dead…. I bring down rain, and Elijah brought down rain. I stop the rains, and so did Elijah…. I brought down fire and brimstone upon Sodom, and Elijah similarly brought down [fire]…. He lived and will go on living until the revival of the dead.’”

5) How does Elijah evolve over the centuries?

I trace how Elijah evolves over the centuries, how he “becomes” the full-fledged Elijah. In the Bible, he is a fierce zealot, fighting for the one true God and jealous on behalf of YHVH. Already here, there are certainly mythical and legendary elements—and a hint of the mystical, as well. For example, at Mount Sinai, Elijah encounters God not in the loud phenomena of nature (wind, earthquake, fire), but in qol demamah daqqah. In the King James Bible (and ever since), this remarkable phrase is translated as “a still small voice.” But more accurately, it means “a sound of sheer stillness.” From out of stillness—a pregnant, vibrant silence—Elijah hears God’s voice. We can now appreciate this as an indication of the power of meditation: God can be found in stillness and silence.

At the end of his biblical career, suddenly a chariot of fire… appeared… and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Was this a spectacular death? Or did he escape death entirely? The answer is not clear, but the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash assume that “Elijah lives and endures forever.” These rabbis transform Elijah into a super-rabbi, who appears to certain select rabbis, instructing them. He also miraculously saves worthy people in dire straits.

In medieval Kabbalah, the mystical dimension of Elijah becomes more prominent. He is the source of mystical wisdom who enlightens spiritual seekers, the embodiment of the Holy Spirit. One kabbalist, Hayyim Vital, actually describes how to stimulate “a revelation of Elijah” (gillui Eliyyahu). The various preparations he recommends include normative religious practices and more demanding spiritual ones: turning back to God (teshuvah), intense study of Torah, an ascetic lifestyle (limiting food, drink, and sensual pleasure), seclusion, immersion in a ritual bath (miqveh), meditation on the Divine Name, emptying one’s mind of wordly concerns, and love of God. As Vital concludes, “Through these practices of devotion, Elijah (gratefully remembered) will reveal himself. The greater one’s devotion, the greater [Elijah’s] revelation.”

Later, a Hasidic master teaches how each of us contains “an aspect of Elijah” (behinat Eliyyahu), which can manifest as a mystical insight, a creative urge, an eagerness to uplift others. By cultivating this aspect, or spark, we can, in a sense, “become Elijah.”

6) How is Elijah a shape-shifter?

This is one of the most remarkable things about him. I used to think that the term “shape-shifter” referred mainly to certain superheroes in comic books, but actually it’s a term from the academic study of folklore, referring to mythological characters who adopt different forms. After ascending to heaven, Elijah becomes angelic, but he is capable of assuming various human types. He can appear as an ordinary person or especially an old man, the archetype of wisdom. But often he appears in disguise, adopting whatever personality is appropriate to the situation. In various tales, he impersonates a horseman, an Arab, a Persian, a slave, a royal minister of a gentile ruler, a Roman dignitary. Elijah can mold his angelhood into any identity he needs.

Of his many transfigurations, the most shocking one involves Rabbi Me’ir, a leading sage of the second century. Me’ir had boldly rescued his sister-in-law from a Roman brothel, to which she had been condemned. Consequently, the Roman authorities posted Me’ir’s “wanted” picture on the city gates:

“They went and engraved Rabbi Me’ir’s image at the entrance of Rome and proclaimed, ‘Anyone who sees this face—bring him!’ One day [some Roman officers] saw him and ran after him; he ran away from them. . . . Some say that Elijah appeared to [the pursuing officers] as a prostitute and embraced [Rabbi Me’ir]. [The officers] said, ‘Perish the thought! If this were Rabbi Me’ir, he wouldn’t have done that.’ [Thereby he was saved.]”

To rescue Rabbi Me’ir, Elijah fashions himself into a whore and behaves accordingly. Here, he’s something of a benign trickster, making fools of gentile oppressors; he is champion of the Jews in a risky world.

7) What were your literary principles in deciding the amount of space to give to each use of Elijah in the tradition?

Elijah begins as a biblical hero, so I wanted to devote a good amount of space to the chapters in the book of Kings describing his remarkable life in the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 9th century BCE. The next major stage is how the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash transform Elijah into a super-rabbi, and this too deserves a lengthy chapter. The mystical quality of Elijah becomes more prominent in the Kabbalah, and I devoted a full, shorter chapter to this phase. The book is in a series called Jewish Lives, but Elijah is also a significant figure in Christianity and Islam, and I devoted a shorter chapter to this feature of his endless career. Most Jews know of Elijah because of his prominent role in several rituals (especially the Passover Seder and circumcision), so this demanded a separate chapter. The final, brief chapter emphasizes the mending or rectification (tiqqun) of Elijah (from zealot to compassionate hero), and thenreveals the hidden meaning of the title: how each of us can, in a sense, “become Elijah.”

The book is a biography, as are all the books in this series (Jewish Lives). But this is not a normal biography, because according to Jewish (and Christian and Islamic) tradition, Elijah never died. I constructed the book to show how Elijah is reimagined again and again. Each generation pours their yearnings into him and draws comfort from him. So the various portrayals of the immortal prophet reveal not only the multi-faceted character of Elijah, but also the mind of the people of Israel through the ages—their needs and ideals.

8) How does Elijah give hope?

Elijah gives hope because since he never died, he is available—ready to help those in need, able to traverse the world, reaching any destination “in four glides.” Furthermore, he will announce and herald the coming of the Messiah. This is foreshadowed in the Bible itself, not in the book of Kings, but in the later book of Malachi, which concludes with God’s promise: Look, I am sending you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the day of YHVH, great and awesome. He will bring fathers’ hearts back to their children and children’s hearts to their fathers.

Unlike Christians, who can pretty easily picture Jesus, it’s difficult for Jews to picture the Messiah. Elijah provides a more readily imaginable figure, which made it easier to Jews to maintain their belief in the ultimate redemption. That’s why in the Grace after Meals, we ask God to send us not the Messiah, but “Elijah the prophet…, who will bring us good tidings of salvation and comfort.”

9)  How is Elijah like Moses?

The Midrash lists about 30 parallels between the two! For example, “Moses redeemed [Israel] from Egypt…, and Elijah will redeem them in the time to come.” Both are called “man of God” (ish ha-Elohim). Moses parted the Red Sea, while Elijah parted the Jordan River toward the end of his biblical career. Both had a zealous quality, though Elijah was more extreme. Both were in a cave (or crevice) on Mount Sinai. Moses spent 40 days and forty nights on Mount Sinai, while Elijah journeyed forty days and forty nights to the same site. Both, in moments of despareration due to the stubbornness of the Israelites, asked God to take their lives. Both ended their earthbound lives in the same vicinity: east of the Jordan River, across from Jericho.

How are they different? First of all, Moses died a natural death, whereas Elijah, it is told, neve died, but rather ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot and ever since has been returning intermittently to earth to help those in need. In this sense, you could say that Elijah surpassed Moses.

In a crucial way, however, Moses outshone Elijah. After the sin of the Golden Calf, he pleaded with God to spare Israel. Elijah, on the other hand, kept accusing Israel, complaining to God, The Israelites have forsaken Your covenant… and I alone remain. Moses was rewarded with divine intimacy, whereas Elijah was relieved of his prophetic duties for failing to defend Israel. According to one early midrash, when God told Elijah to anoint a successor in your place, what God meant was: “I no longer want your prophesying!” Elijah is the only prophet who, roughly speaking, was fired!

10) Do we encounter Elijah today? Why did you not include any stories of later eras or modern encounters with Elijah?

There are many contemporary stories of encounters with Elijah, for example, those assembled by Eliezer Shore in his book Meeting Elijah. These modern accounts are certainly interesting, but they aren’t significantly different than earlier tales and traditions in the Talmud, Midrash, Jewish folklore, Kabbalah, and Hasidism.

We can encounter Elijah in several ways. One is by imagining him—opening the door for him at the Seder, or sensing his presence as the guardian of the covenant at a ritual circumcision. Another is by following the advice of Hayyim Vital, and making some of the preparations he recommends (see above, question 3), which may lead to a mystical experience, a “revelation of Elijah” (gillui Elliyahu). Another is by discovering an aspect of Elijah (behinat Eliyyahu) within ourselves (see above, questions 3 and 5).

What really happens when a person experiences a “revelation of Elijah” (gillui Eliyyahu). Is this an inner experience or a direct encounter with the immortal prophet? According to several kabbalists, the distinction is not that clear. Moses Cordovero writes, “Sometimes Elijah clothes himself in a person’s mind, revealing to him hidden matters. To the person, it seems as if he pondered those things on his own, as if that innovation suddenly entered his mind…; it feels as if he said it himself.”

A famous contemporary of Cordovero’s shares this view. Discussing a Talmudic story in which Rabbi Yehoshua son of Levi meets Elijah, the Maharal (R. Judah Loew) of Prague writes: “It makes no difference whether [Elijah] was revealed to [Rabbi Yehoshua son of Levi] in a vision or whether he was revealed as such, not in a vision. For frequently Elijah would speak words to someone, and that person did not know where they came from. It seemed to him as if those words came from himself―but they were the words of Elijah, speaking to him.”

In other words, the encounter with Elijah can take place deep within. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, it is “an inner experience, a fact in the soul.”

11) You end the book with a Hasidic story and then conclude about our need to become an Elijah of compassion in ourselves. Can you explain?

Over the course of his endless life, Elijah learns to tame his fanaticism, but he never loses his passion. Rather, he channels that passion into mending himself, his people, and the world. We can “become” Elijah by imitating his transformation. By caring for others, we embody his quality.

That Hasidic story conveys this nicely: A pious Jew once asked his rabbi why Elijah never appeared on the night of the seder, even though the door was opened for him and his goblet of wine was waiting on the table. The rabbi told him: “There is a very poor family in your neighborhood. Go visit them and propose that next year you and your family will celebrate Passover with them in their house and that you’ll provide everything they need for the whole holiday. Then on the night of the Seder, Elijah will certainly come.” The man did as he was told, but after the following Passover he returned to the rabbi, complaining that once again Elijah had failed to appear. The rabbi responded, “Elijah came, but you couldn’t see him.” Holding a mirror to the man’s face, he continued, “Look, this was Elijah’s face that night.”

12) Can we compare Elijah to a Bodhisattva. Have you thought more about that comparison?

In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a person who could enter the ultimate bliss of nirvana but instead decides to remain here in the mundane world in order to help others, both materially and spiritually. Elijah is transported to heaven, but he, too, refrains from basking eternally in celestial bliss and instead makes himself available to human beings here below. He inspires and demands ethical behavior and spiritual progress.

People often contrast Buddhism and Judaism, and there certainly are significant differences. But this parallel enables us to appreciate their shared wisdom. The bodhisattva, refusing to abandon life on earth, remains committed to the here and now. This brings to mind the contrast between Enoch and Elijah. According to the Jewish mystical tradition, Enoch, like Elijah, was transported to heaven, becoming an angel. But these two heroes proceed to act very differently. Enoch never leaves heaven. Why should he? It’s so blissful up there. But Elijah remains committed to people struggling down here on earth. That is his greatness.

13) You seem to have avoided the Jungian approaches entirely such as Aaron Wiener’s book on the prophet Elijah or Jung’s depiction in the Red Book. Why?

Wiener’s book, The Prophet Elijah in the Development of Judaism, was actually very important to me, and I cite him frequently in my extensive endnotes (12 times, to be precise). Already in the Introduction, I paraphrase one of Wiener’s basic claims, that “Elijah follows the path of the archetypal hero: uncertain origins, trials and adventures, transformation, and return into the world.” I proceed, throughout the book, to illustrate Elijah’s heroic journey. What I avoided was Wiener’s repetitive Jungian jargon, which I find tiresome.

14) Do you think you have a spark of Elijah in your soul? Do we all? What does your book mean for contemporary spirituality?

We each have a “spark of Elijah,” which the Hasidic master Nahum of Chernobyl also calls “an aspect of Elijah” (behinat Eliyyahu).

Elijah is important for contemporary spirituality because he isn’t perfect. He is a flawed human, like each of us. To me, the most striking thing about Elijah is how he undergoes a mending or rectification (tiqqun). You could say that certain rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash engineered this tiqqun because they couldn’t bear the harsh, fanatical contours of Elijah’s biblical personality. For them, he was simply too extreme, too remote and exalted, unable to mediate between God and mere humans. They criticize him, but more significantly they refashion him, softening and refining his image.

But from another perspective, Elijah effects his own tiqqun. He becomes immortal because his task has not been completed; he needs to mend his ways. Frequently returning to earth, he harnesses his zeal to help the persecuted and wretched. Instead of castigating the people of Israel, he fervently defends them. His wrath is spent. Now, in helping others, he cultivates kindness; his heart opens, and he discovers how to love.

Centuries after encountering God on Mount Sinai, he finally grasps an implication of the sound of sheer stillness (qol demamah daqqah)that he experienced there: to succeed in transforming others, fierce power is often less effective than patient gentleness.

In the Bible, Elijah saw everything as black-and-white. In his later phase of existence, he realizes that conflicting views can sometimes be equally true. As he declares in the Talmud, “Both these and those are words of the Living God.” He reveals the unity within the contradictions of tradition. Eventually, paving the way for the Messiah, he will “harmonize disputes.” The biblical zealot who slayed his opponents will come “to make peace in the world.”

Having mended himself, Elijah can stimulate others to strive for personal and social tiqqun. Having been flawed, he is familiar with failure. He failed to turn Israel completely and firmly back to God, and consequently, he begged God to take his life. But, having sunk so deeply in despair, over the ages he gradually learns how to lift anyone’s spirit.

Elijah is a model for how we can deal with failure, with negativity, with our negative traits. If we feel rage, we can learn from the immortal prophet how to transmute it into compassion. By quieting our restless mind, we can become attuned to the soothing yet potent sound of sheer stillness.