Author Archives: Alan Brill

Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch on Philosophy of Halakhah

Last month, Rabbi Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch, the dean of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Maale Adumim, passed away at the age of 92 years old. As a tribute to him at the end of thirty days of mourning, I will devote a post to his philosophical writings about Jewish law. He had a unique Maimonidean intellectual perspective of rationality, autonomy, historic situation, and applying the law to achieve its uplifting purpose. We will look at three of his essays, two of which were written in Hebrew as part of his 1991 book The Way of Torah (Darkhei Hatorah) and one in English.(You may want to download the three essays before we start- Way of Torah, EmunatHakhamim, Rambam Science Taamei Mitzvot)  We will conclude with some quotes from his recent Hebrew lectures to students. (I am always happy for lists of typos)

Most of Rabbi Rabinovitch’s thought has been edited into a single Hebrew volume Mesilot bi-Levavam- this is the volume to buy.

But first, a little background the life of Rabbi Nahum L. Rabinovitch, a giant of a rabbinic figure. Born in Montreal, Canada in 1928, He studied under the Pinchas Hirschprung, who ordained him at the age of 20, afterwards he studied at the Ner Yisroel yeshiva in Baltimore, Maryland. He served as a congregational rabbi, first in South Carolina and later in Toronto, where he dealt with the nuts and bolts of basic congregational life even teaching primary grades in the day school he founded. While in Toronto, he completed a doctorate in the history of science at the University of Toronto specializing in Rabbinic probability and statistics as well as the mathematics of the medieval Jewish thinkers Gersonides and Crescas. In 1971, he accepted the spectacular offer to become principal of Jews’ College in London. He could have been the head of any institution in the North American or the UK. In 1983 Rabbi Rabinovitch immigrated to Israel  to accept an offer to become dean of the hesder yeshiva, Yeshivat Birkat Moshe, in Maaleh Adumim. For those who read Hebrew, there is a FB page collection of tributes from his students, including many entries from Rabbi Yoni Rosenzweig, an interesting one from Dror Bondy, and many others-here 

The best tribute to Rabinovitch was penned two years ago by Prof. Allan Nadler as “Maimonides in Ma’ale Adumim.” Nadler points out the Maimonidean nature of Rabinovtch’s thought in its emphasis on rationality, purpose, and close readings. Specifically, that “Maimonides must be interpreted through Maimonides” and not through the later commentaries encrusting Maimonides’ shine.  Nadler describes how Rabinovitch’s public reputation for some is as a liberal universalism and for others as hardline ultrarightist.

As a universalist liberal has praise for “both Christianity and Islam as movements that spread the originally Judaic principles of monotheism, morality, and even messianic hope to the entire world. He has praised the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council, even citing the text of Nostra Aetate as correcting what he regards as the historical perversions of Paul’s true attitude toward the Jews, which was in the end one of love.” Rabinovitch has a principled break with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate on their intolerant approach to conversion. Nadler wrote: “Rabinovitch’s works as a practicing halakhist have always aimed to make traditional life as livable as possible for his fellow Jews.” 

On the other hand, “after the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995,” a false report “was widely reported that Rabinovitch was among those who had applied the “laws of the rodef” (a lethal pursuer whom one is permitted to kill in self-defense) to Rabin.” Nadler thinks the report is entirely erroneous, but the damage was done and public opinion is less kind. (For more on his views of politics and religion- see here)

Rabinovitch is known for completely removing Christianity from the category of foreign worship. He also gave permission for Jews to contribute to the rebuilding of the Tabgha Church of the Loaves and Fish after an arson attack by Jewish extremists. He allows using electronic keys in hotels and considers allowing electricity, even turning it off, on Yom Tov. He allows disappearing skin lotions on Shabbat. He allows inviting guests who will drive for shabbat meals. He thinks non-Jews in Israel should have full equality and equal rights the way are treated in the USA. They should have been fully integrated into the culture.

Most notably, and in contrast to many other Orthodox rabbis, Rabinovitch is in favor of women learning the same rabbinic curriculum as men, he supported women in leadership roles, and affirmed their capability to decide Jewish law on any topic a man can decide.

Rabbi Rabinovitch developed a historical reading of Maimonides combining rationality with autonomy and historical development. He believed the Bible had a clear telos for both the individual and the community that we can know if we study the Bible correctly. The study of the Talmud and halakhah has to be done with this Biblical vision clearly in from of one’s understanding in order to derive the divine purpose.  In a Maimonidean way, he saw Talmud as conceptualization and mitzvot as having an intellectual-ethical purpose. Rabinovitch rejects the Brisker conceptual approach as swerving  from the direct meaning and intentions of Maimonides. Halakhah is less formalistic and more about purpose than other rabbinic figures. He could be compared to other Maimonides halakhic approaches such as those of Rabbi Yosef Kapach, Rabbi Yosef Rozin (Rogochover), Rabbi Prof Isadore Twersky, and various approach of the older generation of Kibbutz Hadati.

  1. The Way of Torah

In the 1970’s, there was a conference volume Modern Jewish Ethics that published Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s famous essay about how the rabbinic scholar has to incorporate ethical values in decision making and Prof Akiva Simon’s essay of a universal Jewish ethic of love they neighbor. Yet, it also contained an intriguing early adumbration of Rabbi Rabinovitch’s ethical thought “Halakhah and Other Systems of Ethics” where he presented his ethical system. In it, the Bible has an ethical aspiration to improve humanity, however each age has to rethink the implementation of the ethical goal afresh. He claims an ethical evolution as part of God’s plan whereby it is incumbent upon us to understand Torah anew in every age of history. Rabinovitch   demonstrated that there is  no   halakhic  or  spiritual  reason  to  deny  a  higher  ethical realization in the historical unfolding of the halakhic process.

Rabinovitch develops his ideas fully a decade later in a Hebrew essay (1988) and then a short book  (1999) by the title of “Darkhah Shel Torah,” Me’aliyot: Jerusalem, 1999), and reworked in his 2015 book. Fortunately, several pieces of the book have been translated. The entire volume deserves to be translated along with his other conceptual essays. As you read it, think how it compares to other halakhic methods. (If anyone wants to write a conceptual analysis, let me know.)

The essay translated as “The Way of Torah” begins by defining the image of God (Tselem Elohim) in each person as free choice to choose good without any coercion. Intellectually informed choice is the goal of the Torah. Just as knowledge accumulates in science, so too it accumulates in Torah. And just as science is a universal, making the entire world better, so too the Torah

Each generation acquires knowledge  and  power  from  the  efforts  of  its  ancestors, and, like a dwarf perched on the shoulders of a giant, its vision  can  penetrate  a  bit  farther  into  the  distance. Sometimes,  a  generation  will  advance  beyond  its  predecessors and thereby become equipped to teach its descendants  to  advance  even  further

The nation of Israel, which has already succeeded in producing such choice individuals, serves as a vehicle for this process, whose goal is to establish a society in which the kingdom of heaven will be realized on earth

Section Two- Progress

From that beginning, Rabinovitch makes the leap that there is an evolution of moral values in history, i.e. from polygyny to monogamy, from slavery to human rights of the individual, from war to peace, and from coercion to liberty.

There were original Torah ideals which were always applied based on the standards of a given era. Many of the Torah laws as expressed in the Bible or Talmud were only an accommodation for that time because that was the best they could achieve. Some Torah laws are given in accordance with minimal standards of the era, some for study alone to teach Torah values, and some for realization of moral and spiritual ideals.

Punishments and the system of legal coercion function heuristically to fashion social improvement without having any practical application today. However ideally the Torah should not be kept because of coercion and punishments are only allowed on an ad hoc basis when there is demonstrable communal benefit along with the consent of the entire community.

In  the  time  of  the rishonim (rabbinic authorities  of  the  mid-eleventh  through  mid-fifteenth centuries),  R.  Gershom,  Beacon  of  the  Diaspora,  saw that his generation was ready for a ban on divorce with-out  the  wife’s  consent and  for  eliminating  polygyny,  at least  within  the  communities  of  Western  Europe.By now,  his  enactments  have  spread  through  all  Israel.

Thus, from Creation itself the Torah teaches us that all men are truly equal. Maimonides read  it  as  follows:  “‘The  mold  of  primeval  Adam’  –  the form  of  the  human  species,  within  which  lies  man’s humanity and in which all human beings share.” However,  humanity  went  astray.  Men  subjugated  one another  and  distinguished  between  slaves  and  masters. These  distinctions  of  status  lack  substance  and  are  not grounded  in  reality,  for  the  Creator  regards  them  all  as equal.

Despite  these  limitations,  the  institution  of  slavery remained, for the prevailing conditions precluded its abolition The Sages directed so much attention to remedial legislation related to slaves, and the doctrine of equality so penetrated  the  national  consciousness,  that  these  attitudes eventually became characteristic of Judaism and oppressive  regimes  attempted  to  uproot  them.

The Torah’s intent was originally against slavery as shown in the emphasis on how we all have the image of God. But already in the Torah, there were concession to allow it. The Rabbinic sages saw the original intent and restricted the application of slavery. In modern times, scientific and technological discoveries made slavery irrelevant. [AB Editor’s note- except we have more slaves globally than ever and even more prison slaves in the US than the 19th century.]

Was  this  “Jewish  religious  precept”  an  innovation?  Of course  it  was;  but  it  was  born  of  and  nourished  by  the Torah, and its origins are rooted in Scripture, though the world at the time of the Bible was not yet fit for it. Over the course of time, knowledge increased throughout the world,  new  scientific  and  technological  discoveries  produced sources of energy far mightier than human labor and  opportunities  for  leisure  grew.  Divine providence then  led  to  the  abolition  of  slavery  nearly  everywhere.

The abolition of slavery is simply a partial realization of the  exalted  ideal  taught  by  the  Torah;  and  the  history  of the West makes it clear beyond all doubt that one of the decisive  factors  in  that  process  was  the  widespread knowledge  of  the  Torah.

His third example is the concession of armies despite the value of peace. [AB- editor’s note -In the 21st century, the post WWII sense that warfare was on its way out does not have the same force anymore.]

The  final  example  bears  on  international  relations.  “R. Joshua  said: Great  is  peace,  for  the  name  of  the  Holy One blessed be He is called peace, as Scripture says, ‘And he called it “the Lord is peace.’

A nation not prepared  to  defend  itself  and  its  land  will  be  unable  to maintain  itself  and  will  quickly  pass  from  the  world…All the commandments related to war were given in order to restrict the scope of warfare and to replace an attitude that  glorifies  war  and  its  heroes  with  one  that  longs  for peace

Section Three – The importance of study of seemingly obsolete topics to understand the Torah’s value system of building a kingdom of heaven on earth.

The Torah’s 613 commandments fall into two categories. Some commandments  are  destined  to  endure,  in  their present forms, at the end of days; and as a person rises higher  in  character  and  intellect,  he  becomes  aware  of broader opportunities for fulfilling those commandments and  understanding  their  meanings.  But  there  are  other commandments  that  are  primarily  a  mechanism  for  bettering society and moving it toward the formation of circumstances that  permit  carrying  out  the  purposes  for which  man  was  created  –  the  Kingdom  of  Heaven on earth. These commandments apply only in certain situations, and our aim is to move beyond them, to a state in which we will no longer be bound to fulfill them

These commandments are presented in detail in the written  Torah,  and  the  oral  Torah  supplements  them  with  a multitude of additional rules and laws. Nevertheless, we have  learned  three  surprising  baraitot:”The  stubborn and  rebellious  son  never  existed  and  never  will  exist”;” The wayward city never existed and never will exist”; and” The  afflicted  house  never  existed  and  never  will  exist.”

Schoolchildren who are aware of the laws of the  stubborn  and  rebellious  son  will  never  become  one. A  community  whose  adults  study  the  laws  of  the  way-ward city can be assured that it will never give rise to the “root  bearing  gall  and  wormwood”  of  idolatry.  And  one who has learned to recognize the hand of God in natural phenomena  and  natural  disasters  will  no  longer  need afflicted  buildings  to  inspire  in  him  thoughts  of  repentance. Similarly for all the commandments whose object has  already  been  achieved  in  the  betterment  of  life  in practice; they retain their heuristic force. Even if human-ity has progressed and risen above the minimal level that certain commandments were given to ensure, continued study of the laws associated with those commandments can refresh the intellect and direct it to even higher levels, while preserving its existing accomplishments.

Over the course of generations, students of Torah develop  modes  of  critical  thinking  that  can  slice  through issues,  distinguishing  illusion  from  reality,  imaginings from  truth,  vain  puffery  from  glorious  responses  to God’s voice.

Coercion and Punishment: Means or Ends?

Lastly, the essay argues that legitimate governmental authority is based on consent of the community with no jurisdiction over religious matters. The government is therefore barred by halakhah from legislating and religious coercion.  In general, one should seek compromise and not the strict law, except as needed to prevent criminality. In this section the Torah is explained as requiring today a John Locke, US legal theory approach of governance by consent in contrast to the Torah’s seeming acceptance of the divine right of kings.

One should seek compromise even if it circumvents the given law because the Torah’s ways are peace. “Does  compromise  circumvent  the  entire  array  of  laws pointing toward a given determination? It certainly does; but  all  the  ways  of  the  Torah  are  peace.”

In this, Rabbi Rabinovitch follows one side of a Talmudic debate that he thinks is an “elevation of the judicial process to a higher level.”

It  thus  turns  out  that  the  source  of  the  leadership’s authority  lies  in  both  the  Torah  and  the  community.  The consent of the community must be expressly granted to specific individuals recognized as authoritative. It is clear that  if  the  community  votes  unanimously,  or  even  by majority,  to  confirm  specific  procedures  through  which compulsory measures may be adopted, the usefulness of those measures will be apparent to all. And in that case, the Torah as well will confirm them. There  is  an  ongoing  tension  between  aspiring  to  the Torah’s social ideal of undisturbed peace and recognizing reality, with its very real need to do battle against the dangerous  manifestations  of  a  few  undisciplined  evildoers. Even if the majority of a nation is suffused with a love of truth and peace,  it  cannot  give  up  the  power  to  block criminal tendencies at its margins… The  key  to  resolving  this  tension  is  to  make the  will  of  the  people  an  anchor  of  the  government’s authority to compel. Those whom “the masses have recognized as authoritative” enjoy authority, and that authority does not detract from the principles to which we aspire.

[T]he  king’s  juridical authority  is  confined  to  interpersonal  (i.e.,  non-ritual)matters,  where  he  can  act  to  remedy  society  through righteousness and judgment. But this authority is rooted as much in the consent of the nation as in the king having  been  chosen  by  God’s  prophet… One  of  the  rishonim summed  it  up  nicely “Whatever honor the masses are willing to give him, thatis  the  sovereignty  he  will  have,  to  the  point  that  if  they wish to take away all honor from him, all sovereignty will be taken away from him.

Two forms of authority: Torah and Govt authority

In Judaism according to Rabbi Rabinovitch, there is a separation of secular and religious authority. Even the authority of the Rabbis is only granted by the consensus of the laity. Even in Israel, the government is only by the will of the people. Major issues should have a referendum [AB- For Rabbi Rabinovitch, democracy is only consensus of the people. The rest of democratic structure such as a bill of rights, guaranteed freedoms and representational government are not discussed.] His thought should be compared to that of Rabbi Hayyim Hirschenson and other

As  a  practical  matter,  most  large  communities  through most  of  history  have  had  two  types  of  leadership.  The community appointed a rabbi and judges who were greatly  learned  in  Torah,  excelling  in  “the  quality  of  Torah scholarship” to the extent now possible. In addition, they appointed  a  community  leader  and  council  –  the  select-men  of  the  town  –  to  manage  the  various  matters  that required  attention.  Even  the  appointment  of  the  rabbi and other religious functionaries was up to them, subject to the approval of the community.

The  Knesset  should  deal  solely  with  matters related  to  the  improvement  of  society,  the  arrangement of  relationships  among  citizens,  and  matters  of  security and foreign affairs…The power to compel by force is essential  to  the  existence  of  a  sound  social  order,  but  that power  is  given  to  the  government  only  in  accordance with the will of the people, and it should be used as little as possible. If there is a need for far-reaching changes in the tax  laws,  in  the  military  draft,  or  in  other  matters involving  compulsion,  the  desirability  of  submitting  the matter to referendum should be weighed, and the principle of majority rule is widely recognized

The  Torah  authority  should  never  use  compulsion,  except  with  the  consent  of  the  community  that accepted  it  as  authoritative  and  granted  it  that  power. Even then, compulsion should be used only in instances where harm may be inflicted on others, such as in family law matters related to divorce, support, and the like. It is desirable that the Torah authority never employ force

Value of liberty

The punchline to this essay is that our age of individualism and personal liberty is better for the development of the Torah’s spiritual goals than prior age despite having less religious observance.

Our age  is  characterized  by  the  widespread  view  that individual liberty is a value greater than any other human need.  There  is  much  that  is  good  about  that  phenomenon,  for  only  one  who  values  free  choice  can  come  to recognize  how  that  choice  should  be  used  to  advance lofty  spiritual  goals.  And  even  though  our  generation compares poorly to its predecessors with respect to faith and religious observance, its deepening sense of individual liberty represents definite progress over past achievements. Until modern times, there prevailed an authoritarian  worldview,  which  regarded  discipline  as  the  highest value.  Today, liberty  enjoys  the  highest  priority.  Only a person conscious of his power to choose can act entirely out of free will.

God’s  kindnesses  overpower  us.  We  now  can  illuminate Him  as  He  illuminated  us.  The  nation  returning  to  its land  has  the  capacity  to  renew  the  eternal  covenant through  its  own  free  will,  and  now  only  the  personal example  of  faithful  adherents  of  the  Torah  can  exert influence and cause the Torah to be spread throughout all segments of the nation.

Text #2 The Talmudic Term Emunat Ḥakhamim

A different section of the book on Emunat Hakhamim was translated in a different journal. Here the concern was the meaning of the Rabbinic idea of having to have faith in the sages.  The style of the translation differences greatly than the first piece. I left each essay in the translator’s style.

For Rabbi Rabinovitch, belief in the Rabbinic Sages means that their texts have deep significance and that it is incumbent upon us to comprehend the deep meanings of those texts. It does not mean giving contemporary rabbis authority or seeing them as having special powers of understanding. We keep the functions of the Biblical prophet who hears a direct divine voice separate than the Sage who authority is based on knowledge.

Emunat  ḥakhamin  thus  has  two  parallel  planes.  On  the  one  hand   is   the   faith   that   the   words   of   our   Sages   contain   deep   significance and truths that are worth seeking out. On the other hand is  faith  and  self-confidence  that  with  one’s  G-d-given  mind  it  is  possible  to  comprehend  the  wisdom  hidden  in  the  words  of  the  Sages.

Rambam  carefully  and  clearly  explains  the  difference  between  a  ḥakham  and  a  prophet.  The  authority  of  an  established  prophet  derives  from  the  commandment “To him shall you listen” (Devarim 18:15). We are not to  ask  him  for  reasons  or  explanations.  The  main  purpose  of  a  prophet  is  to  guide  those  to  whom  he  was  sent,  in non-halakhic  matters.

 The   authority   of   a   Sage   is   different.   Although   we   are   commanded  to  honor  and  fear  him,  it  is  only  because  of  his  Torah  knowledge, which can be evaluated with straightforward logic. Unlike a prophet, a ḥakham is obligated to provide a reason for what he says.

Citing Nahmanides, he reiterates that Torah is subject to debate unlike mathematics. In the end, we have to follow truth not authority. Even ordinary students of the Torah have an obligation to seek the truth and not rely on codes or authority.

Since   the   wisdom   of   Torah   is   unlike   the   study   of   mathematics, there is room for opposing opinions. One ḥakham sees one  aspect  prevailing,  while  a  second  sees  the  opposite.  It  is  clear,  however,   that   both   sides   justify   their   position   on   recognized   principles and criteria. To this person, a particular component carries more  weight,  while  to  the  other,  it  carries  less.  Therefore,  even  one  who disagrees with a certain ḥakham still has emunat ḥakhamim that the words  of  this  ḥakham  are  not  meaningless,

If at the  end  of  this  process  it  is  necessary  to  choose  between  differing  opinions, emunat  ḥakhamim  places  upon  the  decider  the  weighty  obligation to act according to truth—to the degree that he is capable of perceiving it.

The Responsibility of the Individual

Rabbi Rabnovitch opens up the search for the meaning of the text to anyone with sufficient background and to go back to the original sources rather than rely on codes or formalism 

This  obligation  to  work  at  achieving  and  clarifying  the  truth  is  not  limited  to  those  who  are  on  the  level  of  deciding  halakhah.  The  Torah  was  given  to  all  Jews,  each  of  whom  is  obligated  to  learn  the  Torah sufficiently to be capable of arranging all his actions according to halakhah

For  this  reason  many  [poskim]  prohibit  issuing  halakhic  rulings  out  of  books  which  summarize  the  laws  without  providing  reasons  or  background.  It  is  therefore  not  permitted  to  postpone  studying  the  reasoning  behind  the halakhot….”

Finally, a notable characteristic of Rabbi Rabinovitch cited by many of his students is that he encourages he students to understand the reasoning of a decision and more importantly to ask themselves how they would have answered.

Yet,  even  when  one  asks  a  rav  to  rule  for  him  and  the  rav renders  a  psak,  he  is  not  relieved  of  his  responsibility  to  understand  the  reasoning  behind  the  psak.

Thus, one who consults even an outstanding rav is considered negligent  if  he  does  not  attempt  to  clarify  and  confirm  that  the  psakhe  received  is  indeed  correct.  This  is  how  great  is  each  individual’s  responsibility  for  his  actions;  this  is  how  effectively  he  must  clarify  the  correct  ruling,  as  well  as  what  Hashem  expects  of  him  in  each  situation

True emunat ḥakhamim obligates one to delve deeply to find the reasoning behind the ḥakhamim’s words while at the same time requiring the student or inquirer to be critical and to investigate rigorously,  in  order  to  verify  that  there  is  no  room  for  dissent.  

He rejects the Ultra-Orthodox use of the term to ascribe prophetic status to rabbis.

Recently,  some  have  begun  applying  the  term  “emunat  ḥakhamim”  to  something  else  entirely,  something  that  Ḥazal  never  discussed—that  ḥakhamim  also  have  prophetic  authority  in  divrei  reshut. There  are  those  who  label  such  childish  behavior as “emunat ḥachamim” while in reality it is a distortion of this great  attribute.  Instead  of  acquiring  true  Torah,  those  who  cling  to  this  distorted  “emunat  ḥakhamim”  distance  themselves  from  the  light  of  the  Torah  and  are  ultimately  incapable  of  distinguishing  between  right and wrong.

Text #3 RAMBAM, SCIENCE, AND TAAMEI HAMITZVOT

Here is one of his articles from 1997 called Rambam Science Taamei Mitzvot a topic he wrote often about in the 1970’s. In this one, he emphasizes the importance of freedom of inquiry and the compatibility of Torah and science but then connects it to the very project of Torah. He also cites approvingly T H. Huxley’s idea of seeking perfect intellectual freedom guided by reason. Rabinovitch affirms evolution, the artificial creation of life in a laboratory and that one can accept the scientific negation of human uniqueness. These are not against Torah because what matters is scientific proof.

Others Rabbinic scholars has given the same esteem to science but in the second part of the essay he compares scientific method to Torah. For the most part, both science and Torah are about observation and seeking the reasons of the rational system. He shows how Maimonides used the scientific thought of his era to understand Torah, meaning that they have similar structures. Unlike Rabbi Soloveitchik’s characterization of science as forming conceptual schemes, Rabbi Rabinovitch see observation, cause & effect, and functional application.

The first principle of science assumes that there are natural effects which can be observed. So too there are observable consequences of obedience to the Torah. Naturally, there are some laws with effects that can be foreseen, and even human legislators could design such rules in order to achieve desired ends.

Many of the commandments can be broadly described as concerned with ethical character-traits, On this issue, most of the commentators have made the most of the fact that Rambam adopted the Aristotelian ideal of the mean in its entirety. Both in his. early discussion, in· the Commentary ‘to the Mishnah, and in the later development; in the  Mishneh Torah, in many passages the very language used is reminiscent  of the Nicomachean Ethics. After a· discussion of what constitutes utility or useful ends withreference to human behavior, Rambarn cites extensively from a treatise by Galen,  On  the Utilities of the Parts of the Body. Then he proceeds to point out an analogy with respect to human psychology. There is a parallel between the psychological and physical functions of the human being both in structure and development. (195)

From this parallel of science and Torah, Rabinovitch asks about applying contemporary psychology to understand Torah and helping it lead to our betterment. There are always new vistas.

Can psychology today cast more light on this basic issue? What can modern theories of the subconscious add to our understanding of the function of ritual in maintaining and restoring mental health? Can the observance of [mitzvot],to help to generate spiritual and mental energy to sustain the individual and society

These and similar questions arise naturally out of the Rambam’s discussion… In astronomy, for example, the search for new data must continue unabated as new vistas constantly open up for investigation. So too “The judgments of the Lord are true, they are righteous altogether” (Psalms 19:10). Yet much of that truth and righteousness are hidden from us, “and we do not know the manner

Quotes from Lectures

A distinctive trait of Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch was that he would ask his students of “What do you think?”  He wanted to instill in his students the lesson that it is not enough to be given an answer or know the answer.  Rather, one must master the ability to think for yourself. He stressed independence rather than submission.  This in turn lead to many of his students, even relatively young, writing their own responsa to answer contemporary questions based on their own understanding the logic of the text. The approach is to test a hypothesis through experimentation as in science, a realist approach. Here are some quotes from classes on his approach to Torah study (freehand translation). Sources –Here andHere You can compare this approach to that of Rabbi Lichtenstein and others.

We have to think about how we arrive to truth. A person can only arrive at truth through experimenting how to understand according to the best of his ability the matter. This is Torah Lishmah, learning to understand the matter to understand the meaning of the text that one studies…But if at some point, one discovers that what one thought was a mistake, it does not mean that all the Torah one learned… were a waste of time. … One needed to test the possibilities…if one tries several interpretations and proved that they are not correct, at least you know where not to look. This too is understanding.  (freehand translation)

“A major principle in understanding in learning and every quest for  truth. Everyone who loves truth needs to be prepared to work for many years…only to discover that everything one thought was not correct.”

“God wants us to take responsibility. God gave us intelligence to understand what true responsibility is. Dogs and cats should be trained for obedience. But a human is not for obedience training. A person has values which are the source of his motivations. These establish his path in life.

The Torah attempts to instill in us values before enumerating the commandments…To understand true values we need a common sense. Someone who thinks they are not required to evaluate anything with their own mind but think all correct action is the results of an explicit text is making a grave mistake. We do not need Torah for an explicit text.

The principle of the Torah is to act with responsibility. To act with responsibility means to act according to the correct value of human responsibility to oneself, one’s surroundings, to one’s family, to one’s nation, and to the entire world. This is what God wants from us. Someone who thinks that one single factor of what one should do is what is written in a book falls into one of two types of ignorant thinking. If the book is a true book, then he does not understand what is written there, and if the book is not true, then he is doing nonsense.

Interview with Tzvi Langermann about Ibn Kammuna

What books influence the theism of 20th century United States? Obviously, William James on religious experience, Rudolph Otto on the tremendum, Martin Buber on I-Thou, and Paul Tillich on ultimate concern. These are the works that color the theological language of modern theism beyond and before any specific allegiance a person may have to their Judaism or Christianity. Alternately, the sociologist Christian Smith, describes the American God with the phrase moralistic therapeutic deism. Even if one has affirms a specific denominational position, the average person regardless of religion would reflect the general theological language.

What would have been those works in the 13th century Judeo-Islamic world? It would probably have included Ibn Sina, Al-Ghazali and some Sufism. A good window into 13th century theological language are the writings of the Jewish author Sa’d ibn Mansur Ibn Kammuna (d. 1284), who provides an exemplar of  “Abrahamic Philosophic Piety, a theological pious theism that transcends the specific of Islam,  Judaism, or Christianity.

Last year, Prof. Y. Tzvi Langermann, translated Ibn Kammuna’s book entitled  Subtle Insights Concerning Knowledge and Practice (Yale University Press, 2019). Professor Langermann is a hidden gem of a scholar. He earned his doctorate in history of science at Harvard and teaches in the Department of Arabic, Bar Ilan University. He is expert in medieval Judeo-Arabic science able to explain the astronomy, astrology, physics, math, medicine, Sufism, and philosophic piety in the medieval classics. I sat in on one of his courses many decades ago when he focused on Andalusian astrological works. (He would not remember me).  The class helped me though my teaching career in my ability to explain the cultural world of Ibn Ezra, Yehudah Halevi, and Bar Hiyya. The recently deceased Maimonides scholar Prof Joel L. Kraemer (d. 2018) wrote that he always learned something new by speaking to Tzvi Langermann.

In recent decades, Langermann has turned East, working in texts from Yemen, Ottoman Empire, and the Mongol empire. Besides Ibn Kammuna, he translated and edited Yemenite Midrash: Philosophical Commentaries on the Torah: An Anthology of Writings from the Golden Age of Judaism in the Yemen, a medieval philosophic midrash.

Below in the interview, Prof Langermann describes his study with the great Yemenite rabbinic scholar Rabbi Yosef Qafiḥ (also spelled as Kafach or Kapach, d. 2000). Rabbi Kafah taught how to study Talmud without the Ashkenazi influence of Rashi and with an understanding of Torah dependent on the philosophic religion of Saadiah and Maimonides. Through this interview, I also learned that recordings of some of Rabbi Kafach’s classes are available.  

In other projects, recently Langermann published a new responsa ascribed to Maimonides on selling of Chametz on Passover (Shut says Rabbanu Hagadol but probably the Rif). Langermann is skeptical of the recent trend of finding Al-Ghazali’s influence on Maimonides. I recommend watching his 13 minute lecture on Islamicized Yoga in Yemen Jewish thought. And his free U of Penn course on medical manuscripts.

To return to our topic, Ibn Kammuna, a Baghdadi Jew, wrote an analysis of the three major monotheistic faiths based on excellent knowledge of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This work, Ibn Kammuna’s Examination of the Three Faiths: A Thirteenth-Century Essay in the Comparative Study of Religion was translated by Moshe Perlmann (1971) offers a window in how comparative religion would have been approached in the 13th century Ibn Kammuna quotes copiously from Hadith and Islamic traditions. Naturally, Judaism wins as the best of the three. As noted by others, the book feels like a modern book in its candor and appeal to common sense logic & religious experience.

The new work, Ibn Kammuna’s Subtle Insights Concerning Knowledge and Practice (Yale University Press, 2019).is a gold mine of ethics, ritual, piety, and religious thought of the 13th century. It is the sort of work that someone like me finds valuable quotes about the medieval Jewish experience and its culture.

Written for the newly appointed Islamic governor of Isfahan, this compact treatise and philosophical guidebook includes a wide‑ranging and accessible set of essays on ethics, psychology, political philosophy, and the unity of God. Here too, Ibn Kammūna, accepts the commonality of all monotheisms, both prophetic and philosophical.

In medieval society as presented in the book, society had two elements the common person who followed religion based on the authority of prophecy and the philosopher intellectual who has a philosophic religion. This book presents what  Langermann calls “Abrahamic Philosophic Piety”, a world where everyone accepts the two principles God and prophecy. God is the same for all and is referred to as first cause, creator, and deity. Allah, Theos, and Hashem are automatically assumed to be the same universal God. Ibn Kammuna’s universalism is sympathetic to the idea of a pre-existent soul and possibly even gilgul (reincarnation).

The medieval classics of Abrahamic Philosophy Piety are not just an abstract Platonic-Aristotelean philosophy, rather a pietistic path to God. As noted above, if the late 20th century spoke an Existential language of seeking God in dialogue and as meaning in life, the 12-14th century sought God through an inner focus of God. This volume presents repentance- applying equally to all Abrahamic religions- as turning to focus on God, to settle the mind on God. Prayer is the intentional act of placing God on the heart. Gratitude toward God and offering thanks to God are important parts of piety. Ritual law is kept as self-restraint, but the focus is on God. The piety of the book shows ordinary Sufism without belonging to a sufi order (tarikah) or chanting God’s name (dhikr).Ibn Kammuna’s discussion has parallels in Bahye Ibn Pakudah’s Duties of the Heart and Maimonides in the Guide.  The universal goal is the happiness of loving God as in Maimonides (Yesodei Hatorah, chapter 10) in his Mishnah Torah. And as Maimonides presents it, prophecy is an outgrowth of philosophic perfection(Yesodai Hatorah chapter 7).

Ibn Kammuna advocates kindness towards all creation and kindness toward animals, offering several choice lines about kindness toward creatures. In the book, Langermann speculates of possible Buddhist or Indian influence on this position, but in this interview, he is more cautious, viewing the kindness as an outgrowth of the Abrahamic Philosophy Piety. Usually, authors that I interview are cautious in their published writing and more speculative in unofficial interviews. In this case, it is the reverse. Langermann is more cautious in this interview but proffers in several places potential influence on Ibn Kammuna of Patanjali’s Yoga sutras (19) and in several places the possibility of Buddhist influence. (62, 148).

Ibn Kammuna is also important because he helped spread the thought of the Islamic thinker Suhrawardi (1151-1191) by writing a commentary on his work and integrating his though into this work. Suhrawardi taught a concept of illumination through luminous intuitions, divine sparks, and mental flashes into the pure heart. This experiential element is one of the factors giving Ibn Kammuna a modern religious flavor, looking a personal experience and mental flashes. (As a side point, David b. Joshua Maimonides (Egypt circa 1335-1410), last known nagîd belonging to the famous Maimonides’ dynasty wrote a Judaeo-Arabic work Guide to Detachment influenced by Suhrawardi).

Another vector of this book is the court of Mongol Khan where Indian and East Asian works were read and sometimes integrated. For example, the Khan’s vizier was Jewish born Rashid al-Din who wrote a survey of the culture religions of Asia for the Khan, showing his knowledge of the various 13th century schools of Buddhism.

Finally, Professor Langermann’s scholarship has brought to light the scholarship of Yeminite Jews, including pietistic and Sufi commentaries on Maimonides as well as the influence of Yoga ideas on medieval Yemenite Jews.  Yoga texts could be integrated into Jewish thought the way Islamic philosophic texts could.

All these points, make his book a major contribution to the study of medieval Jewish religious culture. As soon as I read it, the book’s groundbreaking content struck me.  The content of any given paragraph or page may not be new; it may just be citations from other works. However, the glimpse into the richness of ideas available to a Jewish reader at the time and the way they formed a theology of theism, akin to Tillich or James in our day is the innovation. Most surveys of medieval Jewish thought still follow Harry Wolfson’s trajectory from Saadiah to Cresacas without a glance at lands further East or towards the science, ethics and piety. This book could be assigned to help remedy the situation. Alas, the unfortunate problem with this volume and with much of Professor Langermann’s scholarship is that it takes a scholar to read them, they are treasures of philology. But they need to be brought to the educated philosophic Jewish reader.

One final note on the concept of “Abrahamic Philosophic Piety” as a philosophy of religion. I taught in Muslim Java in Indonesia this past summer, where the country accepts a form of this “Philosophic Piety.” All recognized religions had to affirm a monotheistic God, prophecy and scripture. Not just the three Abrahamic religions as in Ibn Kammuna’s books, but also Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucians also sincerely affirm monotheism, prophecy, and scripture. They all fit into a global theistic philosophic piety.  Langermann’s edition of ibn Kammuna and my Indonesia experience leaves me wondering about the potential of a 21st century Jewish version of this universalism.  

Interview with Prof Langermann

1)   How are you a disciple of Rav Kafah?

My late father purchased for me the set of Kafah’s translation of Maimonides’ commentary to the Mishnah; this was in the late seventies, when I was still in graduate school. I was very impressed and made it a point to try to make contact with the rabbi upon my aliyah in late 1979.

Eventually I found his synagogue and began to attend regularly his “shiurim”, or study sessions: Sunday evenings we read philosophy texts, mostly by Maimonides and Saadya, and Thursday evenings we studied Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (halakha). I attended regularly for about twenty years, until the rabbi’s demise. I also learned a good deal of Talmud in his synagogue; for the first time I realized that one could make sense of the Talmud without Rashi! I also would ask from time to time to meet with him privately in his home study

2)   What is unique to Rav Kafah’s translation style of the Guide?

Every translation of the Guide is unique in its own way. Rabbi Kafah stands out in that he came to the Guide as part of a still living tradition of studying it in the original, beginning with his grandfather’s classes when he was not yet bar mitzvah. He must have read the Guide from cover to cover dozens of times before he began to translate. There is a certain feeling for the language that cannot be learned; you have to grow up with the language as your mother tongue and the language of the place where you live. The only other translator who had such a native command for the language was Harizi, and that’s why Harizi’s translation is so important, despite its well-known issues. There are certain mistakes that a native speaker would never make.

Rabbi Kafah’s notes are also invaluable, especially the many references to Saadya. Though Saadya is never mentioned by name, he looms large behind the scene, but you have to be expert in Saadya to detect this. Most trained academics know how to find Saadya in discussions of divine attributes and such matters. However, the rabbi could detect where Maimonides is responding to Saadya’s translation of biblical verses, because he seemed to know Saadya’s translation by heart! Many times, as we studied texts, I heard Rabbi Kafah cite Saadya’s Arabic translation of a verse right off the cuff. By the way, a complete set of recordings of one of the cycles of his lessons on the Guide has been uploaded to archive.org.

3)      According to Ibn Kammuna what are the fundamentals of religion that all agree upon?

From his book on the three faiths (Ibn Kammuna, Examination of the Three Faiths, trans. Moshe Perlmann, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1971)  it is clear that the one thing all three so-called Abrahamic faiths agree upon is the truth of prophecy, which in fact has two components: that prophets receive divine revelations on all sorts of issues, and also that some select prophets reveal to us the code by which God commands us to abide. Therefore, he has a section on the general phenomena of prophecy which is separate from the individual chapters given to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Elsewhere, including the book whose translation I have just published, he displays a list of tenets that are agreed upon by “the masters of traditional religions” and those who are masters of “intellectual tenets” agree upon. These are the existence of the deity, the end of days, and doing good works.

Clearly the ideas are the same, it is their source that differs: “religious” people receive them from prophets, whereas “intellectuals” (that is, those whose tenets ultimately derive from reason alone) arrive at them by some type of discursive reasoning. Medieval philosophers, in one way or another, considered the acquisition of essential truths to be not just a laudable action, but the telos of human existence. There were debates or worries about the limits of human knowledge, but, even though there are things that we cannot possibly know, this does not detract in the least from our obligation to pursue knowledge.

It is not hard to see how the religions could agree on the existence of some supreme being or the requirement to do the good. As for the end of days, there is some traditional support for this in revealed scripture, though to varying degrees: not that much in the Jewish scriptures (though perhaps more in rabbinic tradition) but strongly emphasized in Christianity and most especially in Islam.

 “Intellectuals” (as defined above) for their part  would have held cosmological or astrological ideas that the universe as we know it will come to an end; it will exists for only a finite (if “astronomically” long) period, though it may regenerate in infinite cycles.

Religion is perforce traditional, since prophets come infrequently, and so the communities that form around the prophet must pass on the prophetic revelations from generation to generation.

In contrast, “intellectual” tenets can in theory be rediscovered and reconfirmed (or refuted) at any given time. To be honest, though, we should admit that tradition and authority play a decisive role in “intellectual” communities as well; contemporary academia being just one avatar of that phenomenon.

4)      Why did Ibn Kammuna create an almost de-Judaised and de-Islamisied philosophy both here and in his other writings?

That is a very complex question. First of all, he did not do this in all of his writings. His famous “Examination of the Three Faiths” has a distinctly pro-Jewish bias, which was not lost on Christian and Muslim readers. It is not overtly polemical; he does not attack any other religion—and believe me, the polemical writings such as those by Ibn Hazm and Shmuel ha-Maghrebi are quite toxic. However, Judaism does come out looking the best of the three in that book. Similarly, his relatively unknown treatise comparing Rabbinites and Karaites (an internal Jewish schism) clearly favors the Rabbinites.

Suhrawardīs Talwīḥāt is a book of basically Aristotelian philosophy with no “religious” identity and so is Ibn Kammuna’s commentary on that book.

“Subtle Insights” is a much more delicate work. In my reading—and maybe some will disagree—Ibn Kammuna has very cleverly included enough Islamic references so as to make the book appealing to his Muslim patron, but not so much as to cause a Jew, Christian, or even an unaffiliated intellectual to feel that the book is not addressed to him.

5)      Why are the different names he uses for the deity?

 He will use Allāh occasionally, but that is very commonly used in Jewish writings, even in Sa‘adya Gaon’s translation of the Torah into Arabic. I am sure you know that today, it is Muslims—specifically, more recently, some intolerant people in Malaysia—who objected to the use by Christians of the name Allāh.

He also uses the very common wājib al-wujūd, or “necessary existent”, and other appellations that are found in philosophical texts; after all, “Subtle Insights” is a book of philosophy. He occasionally employs al-ilāh, which is etymologically the closest in Arabic to the Hebrew Elohim. On the other hand, he is generally (though perhaps not always) careful to avoid cognomens that imply a Creator God. He will use terms like mubdi’ which means something like “source”. I think that he wished to avoid taking any stand on the issue creatio ex nihilo, which not all philosophers were comfortable with.

Using more than one name for the deity is not unheard of. The Torah does it; “critical” scholars claim that different writers chose specific names, for whatever reason, but the traditional approach has always been that God has more than one name. After all, how can one name capture an infinite being? Even today, and in English, we say “Heaven” as in “Heaven forbid!” or “The One Above”, the “Creator”, and more.

6)      What is his view of a pre-existing soul and of the stability of the individual soul?

Ibn Kammuna accepts the notion of the pre-existing soul; in doing so, he breaks with Avicenna, the foremost authority in his historical setting.

He also seems very much to accept the related doctrine of transmigration, since a soul that enters the body after having already lived a life in a different body is pre-existent. That doctrine—which many (unfortunately) now take to be a cardinal belief of Judaism—was frowned upon, let us say, and so Ibn Kammuna never quite commits to it openly.

He definitely held to the idea of a stable self, some “package” that identifies the individual and can even remain intact as it moves from one person (who has just passed away) to another (who has just been born). However, this cannot be simply the soul, since the soul is and must be susceptible to substantive change and improvement (or, heaven forbid, degeneration) as one lives one’s life. The soul and the self have different names in Arabic, but it is not clear to me—and may never have been fully worked out by Ibn Kammuna—just where and how they differ.

7) How does he explain repentance? How does he explain worship?

Repentance is the starting point of the voyage whose ultimate goal is the return to God. It’s a state of mind, a combination of the pain felt from past mistakes and the resolve to do better. To use a different analogy, it is the decision to leave the path that takes one away from God and to take the path that takes one to Him. This resolve is considered today, I think, to be the sine qua non for the possibility of teshuvah, whereas teshuvah itself consists in strict observance of the Law.

But for Ibn Kammuna, repentance consists in resetting the mind and consciousness, devaluing things of this world (i.e. material possessions and bodily pleasures) and giving value to what exists beyond the material world, i.e., the eternal abstract truths that allow a glimpse of the Truth. Hence even people who are punctilious about the Law need to repent if their minds are focused on this world. (Maimonides is very much of this opinion too.)

Worship consists in “devotion and presence of the heart”; the heart should always be primed to do what is good. He endorses prayer, even supererogatory prayer. Prayer is a combination of intention and recitation, with primacy given to the former. He also speaks favorable of certain bodily postures which, however, are useful in funneling “lights” directly to the heart. Good intentions can take precedence over worship; sleeping with the intention of restoring one’s strength to do the good is better, he says, than praying in a state of fatigue.

8) What is the role of the law and ritual duties for Ibn Kammuna

I think that he, like Maimonides, considered the chief purpose of the Law to be setting our personal and social lives in order. On the personal level, this means basically restraining our appetites by setting limitations on food, sex, and other matters. He seems to be in line with those (both Jews and Muslims) who felt that the details—for example, what specific foods you eliminate from your diet—are not essential; there is nothing intrinsically better for a Jew or Muslim to abstain from pork than it is for a Pythagorean to abstain from beans. I am not sure that he would have felt that any religious commandments are pure “ritual”, whatever that means.

I have no idea how observant Ibn Kammuna may have been with, say, sabbath observance or tefilin; I would suspect that he saw value in maintaining the tradition, but I have no idea how all this played out in real life. I would like to make one more point that I think is important: Ibn Kammuna, like Maimonides before and Rashid al-Din al-Hamadhani afterwards, were all Jews who served potentates in some capacity; and they all paid the high social and political price for being Jewish, even if (again I don’t know) in their outwards demeanor—how they dressed, what they ate or didn’t eat—they were no different from Muslims (or Christians, Zoroastrians and others) with whom they associated. Everyone knew that they were Jewish or, in the case of Rashid al-Din after his conversion, formerly Jews.

9)      What is his unique approach of compassion to animal ethics? Does it show Buddhist influence?

He says that the divine command to be compassionate towards all things extends to animals insofar as we are enjoined to exploit them in the lightest manner possible and to slaughter them only for nutrition or our safety (presumably he is excluding the hunt for the pleasure of hunting which was so popular among the nobility of his day).

However, he takes a fairly extreme position—again, seen against the backdrop of the thought of his time—in hinting, though not quite declaring, that animals possess an immaterial soul, and not just the soul that was thought to be part of the body; I means the soul that basically manages and regulates the body.

Buddhist ideas of compassion towards animals certainly made inroads into the Ilkhanid realm, and one cannot rule out the possibility that Ibn Kammuna took something from them. However, I have found traces of discussions of the ideas about the souls of animals  in Avicenna and his disciples, and that would certainly be more likely to be a source for Ibn Kammuna—if we need to identify a source. Ibn Kammuna invested the greater part of his intellectual energies in studying the soul, and some of his ideas about animals may come out of his original research and speculation.

10)      What is the influence of Suharwardi, Sufis, and Ismaeli thought on Ibn Kammuna?

Ibn Kammuna commented on Suhrawardī’s Talwīḥāt. In fact, his was the first and one of the most penetrating commentaries on that book, and played a significant role in bringing Suhrawardī to the attention of the medieval scholarly public.

In a paper published about twenty years ago, I suggested that Ibn Kammuna discovered Suhrawardī’s writings during his stay in Aleppo, to which city, along with many others, he fled from the Mongols. The Talwīḥāt is rather tame compared to some of Suhrawardī’s other writings, but it still gives some indication of the direction that he was taking. Ibn Kammuna clearly read some of Suhrawardī’s Sufi writings, from which he quotes. For example, his definition of the thanks that we must offer God looks to come directly from Suhrwardi. The same holds for his paragraph on the love for God as the happiness or felicity that comes with envisioning the presence of the beloved deity.

Now to the Sufi’s. I have a lot to say. Though I have hardly published on Sufism, I’ve taught a number of courses. The first thing is this: the type of Sufism I encountered in “Subtle Insights” is by and large what one may call fairly standard piety, turning away from this world and devoting oneself to God. He does assign a great deal of value to knowledge of God, but this is no less a part of the philosophical tradition than it is of Sufism. The many similarities between Sufism and so-called philosophical mysticism are not given enough attention.

Not a few scholars rail against “binary” approaches, then forget their own preaching when they get down to the business of writing. It is not just a question of “terminology”. The type of experience that one may arrive at—that one hopes to arrive at—at the culmination of the philosophical quest is, viewed as a phenomenon, not different from the one that which mystics claimed as their own.

That ultimate experience is by definition indescribable, so how can you say that the “stupefaction” of the philosophers is different from that of “mystics”? In what way can you say that is, if neither is describable? (Maimonides would say that the trance of the mystics is a self-induced delusion, vertigo rather than a true religious experience, but let’s not get in that.) 

In the book Ibn Kammuna compares the special powers attained by some Sufis with those possessed by the prophets. But don’t forget, many philosophers thought that prophecy would follow automatically when someone attained “perfection” in philosophy. Trying to untangle the threads of Sufism and philosophy in thinkers like Ibn Kammuna is unwise, in my opinion. Suhrwardi was equally at home in both, because they both aimed at the same goals; ditto for Ibn Sina, and even, to some extent, al-Ghazali, as we now know. And don’t forget Plotinus!

Getting back to Ibn Kammuna: he does speak of maqāmāt, the way-stations used by Sufis to check their progress. There is no denying that this is a word used by Sufis, who have a whole system of identifying and describing the different stages; some of this is in the book that I recently translated. Still, there is no denying that philosophers such as Maimonides warned initiates to take stock constantly of their progress, and not to try to reach beyond their capacity at any given moment.

My point is that whatever Ibn Kammuna takes from Sufism—and it is a lot—is well integrated into his Weltanschauung, which we may call Abrahamic philosophical piety—if we have to give it a name.

Though Ibn Kammuna clearly quotes from Suhrawardī, he could have gotten the same ideas from any number of sources (as Suhrawardī surely drew on earlier sources). None of the elaborate ideas of Ibn Arabi and his school are to be found in Ibn Kammuna, as far as I know. Moreover, I find nothing in Ibn Kammuna to indicate that he owes any special debt (or debt at all) to the “Jewish Sufis” who preceded him: Bahya, the descendants of Maimonides, or even Yehudah ha-Levi, whose Kuzari is a major source for the “Examination of the Three Faiths”. One last point: the type of piety urged by this sort of Sufism is very similar, in places indistinguishable, from the philosophical ethics of people like Miskawayh or Maimonides for that matter, with roots in Hellenistic thought. Ibn Kammuna has nothing to do with Sufi ceremonies such as the dhikr.

Finally, you asked about the Isma‘ili’s? That would be about as politically incorrect as you can get under the Mongols. The Mongols captured the Isma‘ili fortress at Alamut in 1256 and did not go about it gently. Moreover, Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, who was an associate of Ibn Kammuna and a very powerful figure at the Mongol court, was at one time an Isma‘ili, one might even say a “verbrennter”  Isma‘ili, but wisely de-Isma‘ilized his religious philosophy after the fall of Alamut.

11)  Was there anything unique about philosophy and theology under Ilkhanid rule? Can you make any statements about the role of Hindu, Buddhist, and Asian ideas on Jewish thought in this context?

The only thing I would mention is the compilation of encyclopedic works—encyclopedic in the sense of covering many fields of knowledge though not necessarily in depth. Ibn Kammuna’s “New Wisdom” is one example. It could possibly be the case that people feared that the Mongols would destroy the written heritage of centuries; after all, they did destroy most of the great library at Alamut, and a lot more. I think that some intellectuals felt that they better summarize—but also develop—the knowledge that had been painstakingly amassed over centuries in the hope that some of it would survive. But this is pure speculation on my part.

As for Asian ideas and the Jews—well we should speak of Rashid al-Din al-Hamadani, born Jewish in 1247, though he converted to Islam by he age of thirty. He was vizier to the Khan, had very ample resources, and made a monumental effort to make Chinese medicine available in Persian; one book on this topic survives, Tansuqnamah. However, he seems to be pretty much unknown to Jewish thinkers. Ibn Kammuna did not have that much of an impact on Jewish thought, but there are manuscripts of some of his writings in Hebrew letters (though in the Arabic language); but Rashid al-Din is unknown to Jewish readers.

12)   How did Yemenite Jews have an Islamic version of a Yoga text?

Yemen was the major entrepôt on the very busy trade route between Egypt and India, so there was constant contact. However, the yoga text that was read by Yemeni Jews has a very complicated history, not yet completely unraveled. It was called in the Yemen Mirʾāt al-Maʿānī, “The Mirror of Ideas”, or perhaps “The Mirror of Meanings”. The text has been studied by Carl Ernst, who also promises an edition; for now, see some of the chapters in his Refractions of Islam in India. The Arabic text is compiled from an otherwise lost Sanskrit text on yoga, a Gnostic text (“The Acts of Thomas”), and a text by the same Suhrwardī that we spoke about earlier. It was copied into Hebrew letters, and I have identified some fragments in various collections.

It was cited, for example, for its discussion of the twelve-chambered heart in one of the philosophical midrashim that came out of the Yemen. Some of the extant fragments describe yoga postures, including one for levitation or flying. One Yemeni writer thought to connect this with the midrashic phrase, “qaftsa ha-arets”, literally “the land jumped”, used to describe the case where a long journey takes a very short time, or what seems like a very short time.

13)   Can you describe the Yemenite commentaries on the Guide? Are they published and available? Do they show Islamic Influence?

There are two major commentaries, one by Hoter ben Shelomo, perhaps the most prolific writer on philosophy produced by medieval Yemeni Jewry, and a long anonymous commentary, which I am in the process of editing and translating (simultaneously) into English and Hebrew. 

(There is also a very rich, dense set of marginalia to the Guide written by a Muslim; that is a whole other story). All three commnetaries date to the fifteenth century, roughly, as does most of the extant science and philosophy produced by the Jews of Yemen.

I do not think that  commentaries by Jewish writers are all “Islamic” in some sense, even if the source is a book written by a Muslim. For example, one of the commentaries has a very long gloss on Guide II, 40, which begins by quoting Aristotle (not named) that man is a social being. The political philosophy that the glossator endorses, which is also that of Maimonides, is based on the idea that without a strict law code, we would eat each other alive. This is the view attributed to the Shi‘a by Jāḥiẓ; but it is not proper to call it Islamic, since it has roots in antiquity and continues through Hobbes and beyond.

However, the same commentator describes the prophet as khalīfat Allāh fī arḍihi, “God’s deputy on His earth”. That is a Qur’anic phrase; the commentator does not note this, and he may have been unaware of its origin. Some Qur’anic phrases were thought to be philosophical or sapiential maxims. I published this gloss in a Hebrew article a few years ago; an English version will be included in a book that I am due to submit by the end of 2020, called In and Around Maimonides.

Influence is one of the most overused, and misused, terms in the publications on Jewish thought that I have seen. The philosophically inclined Jews of Yemen read books written by Muslims, books with a decidedly Islamic tinge if not substantial Islamic content; they found these works interesting and useful for articulating their own outlooks, which are avowedly and self-consciously Jewish. If the truth of this sentence suffices in your view to pronounce Islamic influence, then such influence cannot be denied. I am of the opinion that there is much, much more to the word “influence”, both as an historical-cultural process which must be characterized as precisely as one can, and as an expression of the political and social climate within which we—the scholars working now on these subjects—live and work. I am not much of a theorist, so I try to contribute I can by example, that is, by putting into practice my understanding of what influence is and what it is not, etc. etc., in my own work. I should stop here. 

Blogging Again & Book Sale

This was a difficult season of Zoom classes and Teams meetings. My blogging will resume tomorrow night and continue though the Summer and Fall. I will be back to full time writing and blogging is an natural outgrowth of my full time writing. For the blog, I have interviews, reviews of new books and discussions lined up.

In the meantime, if you dont own my books Judaism and Other Religions or Judaism and World Religions- Palgrave is having a flash sale – they are $19.99 in the USA and 19.99GBP in Britain and € 19.99 in the EU.

But only until tomorrow May 11- In the USA you only have a day to order from this URL–It is a special link for the textbook sale. Try this https://www.palgrave.com/us/shop/textbook-sale?token=txtb20

See you tomorrow with a blog post.

Rabbi Menachem Froman on Accepting our Selves- Our Faces

Below is a translation of an essay by Rabbi Menachem Froman z”l of Tekoa done by Levi Morrow. We have a long prior post on this blog discussing Rav Froman’s ideas and a translation of some of his aphorisms here. The essay below discusses how we can remove the social mask we wear by an act of self-acceptance, showing a noted similarity to the thought of Rav Shagar.

Translator’s Introduction-Levi Morrow

Rav Menachem Froman (d. 2013) was a Religious Zionist rosh yeshivah, grassroots political activists, and all-around cultural figure. The narrative arc of his life moves from growing up secular and studied for a degree in Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University (though students inform me he never took the final exams that would have enabled him to graduate) to becoming religious and studying at Merkaz Harav. He became Rav Tsvi Yehuda Kook’s personal attendant. He would later become a teacher and rosh yeshivah in his own right, as well as a driving figure in the grassroots movement for peace between Israel and Palestine.

He also had a  deep and enduring interest in all forms of creativity–art, poetry, literature, theater, etc. Among his posthumously published writings and teachings, is a book of poetry entitled Accounting for Madness (HEB). His poetic, creative sensibilities, however, cannot be confined to his poetry. In one of his Torah teachings, he poetically equates religiosity with depth and suggests that depth–such as found in the writings of Franz Kafka and Amos Oz–is somehow divine.

This blending of the religious and the poetic may never be more clear than in the Torah teaching translated below, which meditates on the image of a face–and what it means to have a face. The face is the very nature of Torah itself. In this short piece honoring the anniversary of Moshe’s death, the 7th of Adar, Rav Menachem Froman explores the issue of identity through the metaphor of the face.

According to Rav Froman, our face is something we are essentially stuck with, yet it also plays a pivotal role in how other people identify us, and perhaps even in how we identify ourselves. As such, the face serves as a fitting symbol for the more inflexible aspects of ourselves, such as our families and cultural upbringings. Some people spend their entire lives trying to escape who they are, only to realize they’ve run directly into being themselves. We put on masks, trying on new identities, typically only to discover that the change is not even skin deep. Is real change–changing our face rather than simply putting on a mask–even possible?

Moses, Moshe Rabbeinu, drawn from the water, son to both Egyptian princess and Israelite slave woman, is a man of many faces and identities: prince of Egypt, hard-fisted seeker of justice, leader of thankless complainers, and prophet-legislator of God’s people. In many ways, the lion’s share of the Torah is dedicated to descriptions of Moses as he slips between these roles, or perhaps grows into each one in turn.

So how did Moshe relate to himself, to the constraints of his inflexible face? Rav Froman proposes two possibilities: First, perhaps Moshe simply ignored his face, refused to let it determine the course of his life. Given enough determination, we can create ourselves, choosing who we want to be rather than simply accepting ourselves as given. Second, perhaps Moshe recognized the force his identity exerted upon his life, and consciously accepted it. He “saw his own face from within rather than from without,” meaning that he was simultaneously able to appreciate his identity from a distance and still experience it as his identity–a paradoxical blend of freedom and attachment that Rav Froman suggests may not “make any sense to say.” Choosing to embrace a given situation can change it from a prison to a home, from dim fate into luminous destiny. This, Rav Froman suggests, may even be the deepest element of the Moshe’s teachings.

These two approaches correspond to two important ideas in the thought of Rav Froman’s long-time friend and colleague, Rav Shagar: self-creation and self-acceptance. Rav Shagar grapples constantly with the nature of the self and personal identity, oscillating between–or attempting to synthesize–the two poles of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and Jean-Paul Sartre. Sometimes Shagar wants us to recognize that we have a pre-existing identity and choose it freely, and sometimes he wants us to boldly choose to create ourselves, to shape ourselves into who we want to be without any thought to who we already are. So too in this piece from Rav Froman.

This text reflects Rav Froman’s sophisticated literary sensibilities. Most of it is an extended, playful discussion of what it means to have a face. On the more technical side, the text is also full to brimming with specifically chosen language, whether face-related metaphors, references to traditional Jewish texts, or instances that combine the two. I (Levi Morrow) have done my best to convey all of these linguistic elements into English to the best of my ability, but there was never a chance of perfect success. Many elements simply could not be recreated in this English version, and readers are therefore referred to the felicitous Hebrew original in Ten Li Zeman. I have attempted to smooth out or clarify any awkward instances and obscurities resulting from this poetic translation, but any that remain are surely the fault of the translator, not Rav Froman or any editors.

A Chosen Face- Rav Menachem Froman

We have known Moses since Egypt. We have known him face to face. Sculptors and artists of generations made use–like spies–of their greatest and freest creativity, making wild and far-ranging guesses. Ultimately, it is clear to anyone who looks that these artists depicted Moses in their own image–his face is their face (not that this devalues their art in any way). In contrast, we know exactly what he looked like. We don’t feel any need to try and depict him. What would be the result? That he had a big nose? A high forehead? Anything we could say wouldn’t actually clarify anything. And what does it matter anyway? Suffice it to say that he had a face just like each of us.

And just like each of us, Moses certainly suffered from his face from time to time. Who would tell such a bold-faced lie as to deny that they sometimes wish they could change their appearance? Having to wear the same face day after day, moment after moment–is exhausting. Some people face this duty with great enthusiasm–they smile broadly, full-lipped. Some consistently and intentionally take the two-faced path. These are the bold-faced revolutionaries who would see their own faces (and those of others) thrown back in either wild laughter or heart-wrenching tears. The heart can perhaps even be torn, but not the face. Acts of despair like these don’t change the way things look. In the best case scenario, these attempts result in a few more wrinkles. Only the light cloud resting over the frustrated face alludes to the heroism-turned-embarrassment.

Many put their trust in time. But with every journey, and with every stop, the hardships of the wilderness increasingly scorch our faces. Moreover, the years bring old age–as they always do, which is why we cannot uplift the face of the noble, nor give splendor to the face of the wretched (Leviticus 19:15; Job 34:19)–and begin to mark us with its signs. So you imagine that, at this heavy cost, perhaps you have at least had some success in that external realm that is as intimate as possible–more trenches in your forehead, more cuts around your disappointed mouth. You have a conversation with your contemporary about the ways you’ve managed to escape your fate, when your son comes up and your friend lets slip the unkindest cut of all: “Wow, he’s so similar to you! Like one face reflecting another in water! (Proverbs 27:19)!”

We have no choice but to lower our eyes and admit, ashamed, that we live in this terrible state of constant denial and avoidance (hester panim). Someone with a big nose will have it his whole life, no matter how wide his nostrils flare with anger. He can’t reduce his suffering by even a millimeter unless he avails himself of the surgeon’s scalpel.

Of course, there’s always the most radical path–you could wear a mask. The immediate result would no doubt be striking, but its protection wouldn’t last forever. It will immediately become clear that this winning ticket–which fell into your hand as if from heaven–comes with a heavy price. A mask, by definition, is something external, not internal. The problem I describe affects us all too deeply for some superficial fix. You can’t escape the claustrophobic constraints of your face behind the even harsher constraints of the mask, just like you can’t escape thick chains by fleeing into a dungeon. Someone persuaded to follow this path will ultimately tear off–in a fit of terror–the veil that surrounds him. This dangerous path necessarily brings confusion, and you will spend far too much time trying to remove your own face. When you finally realize your mistake, your face will blacken like the bottom of a pot.

These hardships–which are the fate of every person–affected our teacher Moses as well. Even after he went up to Mount Sinai twice and neither ate nor drank for days on end, and even after the rest of his miracles, Moses kept guiding us with the same bright eyes and kind face we always knew. However, certain events suggest to the unbiased mind that something here is different–the cord that connects all men has here been cut. We cannot forget that right after his encounters with the creator, when he brought us God’s holy words, we saw his face as simultaneously terrible and wondrous. It was as if the very skin of his face shone and became like a speculum that shines. In a manner defying all understanding, anyone who looked at Moses then could see that he had no idea that something special was happening to him; he was acting as though his face remained the same as always. My proof: Moses did not understand our fear and continued to address us and summon us before him.

The careful scoffers dismiss these contradictions by saying, “It was Moses! We can’t know anything about him!” But his faithful devotees claim that Moses merited that for which every man on the face of this earth hopes, and escaped his unfortunate constraints (metsarim). They add that he merited this because–in contrast to all of us–he never felt pinned down by the contours of his face.

Expert readers of the biblical verses explain that Moses hid his face from his face, meaning that he saw his own face from within rather than from without, if that makes any sense to say. This lack of self-awareness–which is both simpler and more complex–is why the Torah says that he was the humblest of all (Numbers 12:3), that no one had arisen like him who knew God face to face (Deuteronomy 34:10). The fact that he continues to appear as he had previously, they explain, was an act not unlike putting on a mask. Moses stepped free of the fate of his face, but he took it up again out of free will. Perhaps we should call this what it is: A chosen face. Some say this is the innermost aspect of the Torah of Moses.

Based on Hebrew from Ten Li Zeman (Maggid Books, 2017). Originally published in Davar, April 19th, 1987.

Rav Shagar on Shabbat Hanukkah- The Candle and the Sacrifice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy – A freylekhe Khanuke!

The Candle and the Sacrifice: A Sermon for Shabbat Hanukkah

Life and Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Holies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hosting Guests

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

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

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

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

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


[1] On Numbers 8:2.

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

[3] Ibid., 19.

[4] Ibid. pp.44-45.

[5] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[12] Sifri, Va’et’hanan, #6.

[13] Bereshit Rabbah 9:5.

[14] Talmud Bavli, Tractate Sabbath 32a.

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

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

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

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

[19] Based on Exodus 19:12.

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

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

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

[23] Ibid., 21b.

[24] Tractate Sofrim, 20:6.

[25] Tractate Sabbath, ibid.

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

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

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

Interview with Prof. Ephraim Meir- Faith in the Plural

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Prof. Ephraim Meir

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

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

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

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

2)      What is a dialogical approach?

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

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

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

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

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

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

3)      What are the characteristics of dialectic theology?

Dialogical theology has a number of characteristics:

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

4)      What is the concept of trans-difference?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6)      What happens to truth claims in your approach?

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

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

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

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

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

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

7)      Is this relativism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10)  What is an ethical interpretation of interreligious pluralism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Torah study

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) How did you personally find Meaning beyond Abstraction?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interfaith Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

10) Why did you visit Al Azhar in Egypt?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We met with some of the professors there.

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

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

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

Integrating Zohar into our Lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi on the Ganges- New Book

My new book arrived on October 31st (Lexington Books). It is an account of my time in India combined with an introduction to Hinduism for Jews. My audience is the Jewish world and I go through many major aspects of Hinduism and explain them in Jewish terms.

One of my major points is that you cannot compare 21st century Judaism to 5th century BCE Hinduism. Contemporary Jews are not practicing sacrifice, fighting molekh or marrying off their minor daughters, rather following a contemporary application. Similarly, American Hindus have define themselves as a theistic worship as embedded in Temples that function as American style social centers with youth groups, social halls, and Sunday school. You have to compare like to like.

A second one of my major points is the vast variety of forms of Hinduism and Hindu thinkers. One cannot make sweeping generalizations about the many religions and denominations that coalesced in the 17th century to be called Hinduism. There are more members of any minor Hindu sect than there are Jews in the world. There are 1.15 Billion Hindus. There are many theologies.

Third, please top judging them without any knowledge or based on 2 lectures in an intro to religion class or a google search. They do not like being judged with Western eyes or by those who make them exotic. Also, please immediately stop assuming they are too simple to understand their own religion.

I did not deal with the halakhic issues, I will leave that to Rabbi Prof Daniel Sperber and others.

I am already working on several other books and applying for grants to write them.

When I posed this a few days ago on Facebook, someone half jokingly and half seriously asked:who is going to do the author interview with me and who will be the respondent?

The book arrived on October 31 and is available via the publisher Lexington Books. I apologize about hard cover price but my contract explicitly stipulated that it goes into paperback in 12 months. There is a 30% off coupon below- valid until 12/31. Unfortunately, Amazon offered 30% off the book back in April when it had no cover, no blurbs, and no description. But Lexington Books is offering a discount. The paperback should be out by December 2020.

Hardback: ISBN 978-1-4985-9708-1    October 2019 Regular price: $95.00/£65.00  After discount: $66.50/£45.50
ebook: ISBN 978-1-4985-9709-8   October 2019 Regular price: $90.00/£60.00  After discount: $63.00/£42.00

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Rabbi on the Ganges: A Jewish-Hindu Encounter is the first work to engage the new terrain of Hindu-Jewish religious encounter.

The book offers understanding into points of contact between the two religions of Hinduism and Judaism. Providing an important comparative account, the work illuminates key ideas and practices within the traditions, surfacing commonalities between the jnana and Torah study, karmakanda and Jewish ritual, and between the different Hindu philosophic schools and Jewish thought and mysticism, along with meditation and the life of prayer and Kabbalah and creating dialogue around ritual, mediation, worship, and dietary restrictions. The goal of the book is not only to unfold the content of these faith traditions but also to create a religious encounter marked by mutual and reciprocal understanding and openness. 

This work is the best comparative analysis ever of Jewish and Hindu philosophy and religious thought. Brill knows his Jewish sources impeccably, and with skilled observations of daily life and engaging dialogues with Hindu thinkers and texts, we accompany him on his journey. This is a groundbreaking dialogue, and through Brill’s appreciative eyes Hindus and Jews will come to understand both the other and themselves in a new way. It has my highest recommendation.
— Nathan Katz, Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Florida International University

The late Swami Dayananda Saraswati declared Hinduism and Judaism to be the two fountainheads of Religion in our world—the one of the Abrahamic traditions and the other of the Dharmic religions. Yet for the most part in the course of history, the two have remained foreign to one another.

In recent times this has changed dramatically, not least of all reflected in the fact that India is frequently the preferred destination of young Israeli Jews. However serious attempts to understand the religious world of the other have been rare. Alan Brill’s book is an impressive pioneering work in this regard and will enable those familiar with Jewish teaching to gain a serious comprehensive understanding of Hindu religious thought, practice, and devotion. Moreover the clarity and insights he provides will enlighten not only Jews, but all those who wish to gain understanding of the rich wisdom and forms of Hindu religious life.
— Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs, AJC

Brill succeeds in juxtaposing a comprehensive introduction to Hindu history, thought, and practice with personal reflections drawn from his experiences in India. A Highly readable contribution to the growing field of Indo-Judaic studies, and an invitation to further Hindu-Jewish dialogue.
— Yudit Kornberg Greenberg, George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Endowed Chair of Religion, Rollins College

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.
— Rabbi Yakov Nagen, senior educator Otniel Yeshiva

Aryeh Kaplan on Evolution- A Missing Chapter of The Handbook of Jewish Thought

In honor of Bereshit, here is Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan on reading Genesis as presenting the truths of 20th century science, as discussing a world 2 billion years old with humans as existing for 25,000 years.

This is part VII in a series on Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan- for biography see Part IPart II, Part III, for Kabbalah see Part IV  Part V  and Part VI Much of the prior biographic discussion has already been incorporated into Wikipedia.

Kaplan (right side) at an NCSY Shabbaton

Aryeh Kaplan’s Handbook of Jewish Thought has become a classic of synthesizing the classic positions of Jewish thought into an order fashion both an introductory guide and simultaneously a reference book

Below is a pdf of a full chapter of Aryeh Kaplan’s Handbook of Jewish Thought left out of the published work because he presents evolution as part of the basic tenets of Judaism. The already typeset chapter has an editor’s note across the top asking if the chapter is “fixable” and “true kosher”? There is also an editor’s note that dates the chapter to 1968 when Kaplan was leading a Conservative congregation in Dover NJ.

The Handbook of Jewish Thought was published in two volumes, the first, containing 13 chapters, appeared in the author’s lifetime in 1979. The second volume edited by Avraham Sutton, was published posthumously in 1992. This volume has 25 chapters. While the first volume had no introduction from the author, the second volume contains the following statement:

The bulk of the present volume is from the author’s original 1967- 1969 manuscript that consisted of 40 chapters. Thirteen of these chapters were prepared for publication by Rabbi  Kaplan himself and published in 1979 as the Handbook of Jewish thought – Volume I. It is clear that the remaining chapters were set aside with the thought of eventually preparing them for publication. Of these remaining chapters, 25 are presented here

Despite the assertion that the first volume was called “volume 1”, no such statement is to be found in the original Handbook of Jewish thought.

Quick arithmetic – 13 (volume 1) and 25 (volume 2) indicates that 2 chapters of the original 40 were suppressed. In the end, they – Moznayim – or the Kaplan family concluded to leave these chapters out of the book.  Generally, the works published by Moznayim are much more circumspect than the audio recording of his lectures. Here is an extreme case.

Moznayim assigned people to edit Kaplan’s writings  or tapes of his lectures who were not there at the lectures or had left for other teachers years before.

I thank Rabbi Ari Kahn for providing access by sending me the pdf of this gem. If someone has the final – 40th chapter – I would love to see it.

Evolution      

Kaplan is explicit in his affirmation of evolution in this piece.

In the first three paragraphs, he states that the creation account in Genesis is not literal and not science but narrated to teach the history of Israel. He believes that new concepts in science are always being discovered beyond the limited science known in the Biblical and rabbinical era.  We are, according to Kaplan, to continuously interpret the Biblical text according to currently available knowledge.

Even though the explicit text is to narrate Israel’s history, nevertheless Kaplan states that the scientific knowledge is hinted at in the Masoretic text through “subtle variations”. In addition, we have traditions that aid in our discovering the scientific truth in the text. Maimonides and other medieval commentators interpreted the text based on Aristotle. Maimonides in his Guide II:29 explains how he would be willing to read texts based on current science. Similarly, Kaplan footnotes Ramchal in his commentary of the Aggadot.

Kaplan considers the creation of the universe as billions of years ago when there was the initial creation as the creation of matter as well as the initial creation of time/space. The creation at the start of Genesis was billions of years ago according to Kaplan, even if the Torah does not explicitly state it.

Kaplan explicitly rejects the 19th century Gosse theory, a theory that the world only appears to be older because God created it that way. Kaplan writes: “God does not mislead humans by making the world appear older.” Many of the members of the Association of Orthodox Scientists of his era did accept Gosse as did the Lubavitcher Rebbe.   

Kaplan defines the creation with the date of 3761 BCE as only the date when Adam (the new being with intelligence) was created. The world itself is billions of years old and various species of men, including Neanderthals and Homo Erectus, pre-date this created Adam.  People generally assume the creation of the world, creation of men, and creation of the intelligent descendants of Adam occurred at the same time; Kaplan differentiates these events.

Neanderthal- Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis

The metaphoric sixth day was only when Adam was created in Divine thought as the plan for creation, not the actual date of his creation- see below on Kaplan’s acknowledging humanoids before Adam. (Berakhot 61b  Eruvin 18a)

Kaplan makes a general statement that the “time of creation is not essential to our thought.” He proves this from a citation in Yehuda Halevi’s  Kuzari,1:60-61”

Al Khazari: Does it not weaken thy belief if thou art told that the Indians have antiquities and buildings which they consider to be millions of years old?” To which the Rabbi in the dialogue answers: “The Rabbi: It would, indeed, weaken my belief had they a fixed form of religion, or a book concerning which a multitude of people held the same opinion, and in which no historical discrepancy could be found. Such a book, however, does not exist.”

Kaplan takes this to mean that Halevi would only be bothered if they had a form of religion accepted by the multitude with discrepancy, but not about the claim concerning civilization and ancient books.

Kaplan states that nature does not change so we accept radioactive dating; the method is valid to establish definitively that the world is billions of years old. In this, he rejects the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s opinion that radioactive dating is not valid because nature changes.  Kaplan has certainty that science works without caveats and if the method of radioactive dating of fossils show that they are millions of years old then they are millions of years old. They are not animals killed in the Biblical flood but creatures who lived billions of years ago.

In footnote number 12, Kaplan states that each of God’s years is 365,242 of ours yielding a world age of two billion years, which is not the current scientific age of 13.8 billions of years.

In contrast, in his later writings and talks, most notably his 1979 essay on evolution, he comes up with a 15 billion year date for the universe based on Isaac the Blind, a date closer to the scientific view. For more on his later calculation, see Ari Kahn, Explorations: In-depth Analysis of the Weekly Parashah Through the Prism of Rabbinic Perspective (Brooklyn: Targum press, 2001).

In this early passage in the Handbook and its notes he does not cite Isaac of Acco. At this point, it seems he did not yet have a copy of Isaac of Acco or he might have had a citation but did not have the full sefer or did not fully study it yet. Isaac’s Sefer Meirat Eynayim was not yet published; it was published in 1974. And Isaac’s important Otzar Hayyim still remains in manuscript. Kaplan write that he obtained the photocopy of the manuscript of Otzar Hayyim in the 1970’s circa 1976. If in 1968 he did not have the manuscript yet, and he only photocopied it after he started publicly teaching Kabbalahthen he might have been relying on an older work of scholarship that cited it. Alternately, he might have been creative enough to develop the Rashi on his own to reach 2 billion. (see footnote 12 below)  

Kaplan explains that God did not really verbalize in the creation of the world, rather God speaks means the impression of will upon matter thereby giving it a new property. God speech involves modulating creation to desired results.  (There is already a sense here of Kaplan’s later focus on mental acts – meditation). Kaplan in his spiritualizing of the text successfully manages to be deeply Maimonidean and Nahmanidean at the same time. He can cite simultaneously Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed on how locutions such as “God spoke”, “God’s mouth” or “God spoke to Moses” are anthropomorphic and not to be taken literally. Simultaneously, Kaplan appeals to Ramban 1:3 in that Divine will impressed upon the primordial matter of hiyuli, God is not literally speaking but engaged in the coming to be of the lower hypostatic element, which in turn will create the world. Kaplan foreshadows his later thought and treats kabbalah in a non-literal manner.

 (In Castilian Kabbalistic language, this would be keter affecting hokhmah. Later Orthodox attempts to harmonize Biblical create and science used Ramban’s concept of primordial matter in a literal manner as an allusion to the Big Bang theory).

Kaplan further spiritualizes the process so the steps of creation did not happen at the stated time, just that the prerequisites for God’s goal was complete even though the actual goal would not manifest until later (15:8)

Kaplan explains the phrase “it was good” to mean the completion of something essential for the evolution of the universe, destruction of prior worlds means evolution to something higher.  The world is evolving to higher stages. The destruction of prior world does not mean there were prior worlds just that lower forms of this world. (15:9) (He cites Maharal Beer Hagolah 39b)

Days of Creation

What was the light created on the first day before the creation of planets? For Kaplan the light on the first day is the electromagnetic force in matter responsible for all chemical and physical properties, without the electromagnetic force the world is chaos and void.  

What was created on the second day? It was when God set the matter of the first day into Euclidean four-dimensional space-time matrix. (15:12).

On the third day, God created the gravitational force. The “gathering of the waters” is not about swamps and sea but the “warping of matter” and the creation of phenomena that follow non-Euclidian geometry. It was also the physio-chemical properties of matter needed for plant life, (15:13)

On the fourth day, God initiated the process by which matter would condense into galaxies, starts and planets,” which is the completion of inorganic matter.

On the fifth day, God started the process by which organic matter and life came to be.

On the important 6th day of creation, God created the evolutionary potential of higher mammals and primitive man. Nothing was actually created on the 6th day, rather the evolutionary potential of the development of higher mammals from lower mammals was designated. After the 6th day, God allows world to develop by itself – without intelligent design- solely through the natural evolution. Just as the geological evolution of crystals grow naturally over millions of years from natural processes, so too the evolution of animals is the same way. The unfolding properties for mammals and eventually man is in the natural order.

Man, known to paleontologists as later stages of homo sapiens, already had mental and physical capabilities about 25,000 years ago according to Kaplan’s scheme. (In 1979, he extends this to 100,000 years ago).

However, it was only 6000 years that man was given a divine soul. This was a new level of wisdom and inventiveness to allow for cultural evolution through invention, metallurgy, animal husbandry, ship sailing (15:22). Actual paleontologists place this Chalcolithic period, the period of new wisdom, as between 11,000 to 6000 years ago. Kaplan acknowledges that species change and that even man evolves as shown by his vestigial tail.

Hence, the seven days of creation are as follows:

Day 1 Electromagnetic force

Day 2 4-D space/time matrix

Day 3 Warping of matter, beyond Euclidian space

Day 4 Inorganic matter

Day 5 Organic matter and life

Day 6 Evolutionary potential of higher mammals and primitive man.

Kaplan explains his own method of not treating the words literally, rather as allegories for scientific principles. Water, sky, and light are all allegorical terms for the unfolding of the scientific cosmos because the scientific terms were unknown in ancient times. (15:10) As he wrote earlier in the chapter, according to Maimonides the words used as not intrinsic but subject to interpretation and according to Nahmanides, these terms refer to divine unfolding of the cosmos not physical objects.

In many ways, Kaplan approach to science is similar to Nahmanides’ concept of remez, in which scientific concepts are alluded to in the Torah. Both Kaplan and Nahmanides read the allusions in the Torah to science, psychology, and powers of the soul.

Nahmanides in his introduction to the Torah wrote: “God informed Moses first of the manner of the creation of heaven and earth and all their hosts… together with an account of the four forces in the lower world, minerals, vegetation, animal, and the rational soul. With regard to all of these matters Moses our teacher was apprised, and all of it was written in the Torah, explicitly or by implication.” (For more about Nahmanides, see Oded, Yisraeli, The Kabbalistic Remez and Its Status in Naḥmanides’ Commentary on the Torah. The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy. 24. (2016)1-30)

Miriam Feldmann Kaye Responds to the Responses

Welcome back after the holidays. Before the holidays, we discussed the new book by Miriam Feldmann Kaye and had three responses from Levi Morrow, Zohar Atkins, and Claire R. Sufrin.

The interview with Miriam Feldmann-Kaye- here, the first response was by Levi Morrow- here, the second was by Zohar Atkins- here and the third was by Claire R. Sufrin-here.In her final word to response, Feldmann Kaye seeks to disaffirm and negate their specific comments.

At the end of her response, Feldmann Kaye positively affirms that we are called again to respond to the “plentiful array of intersections beyond postmodern thinking and Jewish philosophy. Profound responses to these deeply philosophical questions, are well on their way, and many more rest on the horizon.” Personally, I look forward to these imminent profound responses.

Miriam Feldmann Kaye – Response

Thank you to Prof. Brill for hosting some of the critical questions of our times. This blog pioneers contemporary Jewish thought, encouraging new Jewish philosophical and literary knowledge and engagement. The nature of this particular conversation reflects a heated discussion of the array of intersections beyond postmodern thinking and Jewish philosophy. These responses partially epitomise the ambivalence towards the term ‘postmodernism’. Although, expressions of this stance deserve to be addressed with a deeper, content-based, and respectful nature, of critique. 

What is apparent in this discussion typifies religious approaches towards cutting-edge theology. In a positive sense, it also exemplifies engagement with these ideas. The particular focus here is on my book, and an analysis of the theologies of Rav Shagar (Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg) and Professor Tamar Ross, but it is about a far broader picture of engagement with postmodern thinking, drawing on the wealth of writings of other Jewish thinkers. It is about the ability of Jewish thinking to cope with, or amalgamate, ideas from contemporary philosophy.

Before I address each response, there are two points which I stated in the interview, that I will emphasise to avoid some of the apparent confusion:

  1. It is not my purpose to champion or to defend postmodernism. This seems to be an important point to state, and to set aside some confusion. This allows us, or should have allowed us, to go beyond the debate of who is for and against; who agrees and who disagrees; who affiliates and who does not. The book addresses the ways in which, and the extents to which, ideas in postmodern discourse, are integrated into new thinking on contemporary Jewish philosophy. This includes discussions of the limitations of postmodern discourse in propounding a robust Jewish theology for today’s age.
  2. I continue to take care not to class any of the numerous thinkers I deal with, as proponents of ’postmodernism’’. Throughout the book, I analyse Prof Ross’ and Rav Shagar’s ambivalence towards issues that postmodernism raises. This is not a simple zero sum game and needs to be addressed in accordance to these fine distinctions.

Connected or unconnected to this, the first two presented responses potentially discard a great opportunity for a public conversation on the deeper issues at stake.

The first response, written by Levi Morrow, would have had many of his issues answered in the previous interview, which it seems was only partially related to, as illustrated in the following ways:

Morrow critiques what is plainly a philosophical analysis of Rav Shagar, stating that “there is something fundamentally strange about trying to identify Rav Shagar with a given philosophical stream”.

However, this is precisely the way in which Jewish philosophy has functioned and flourished for centuries: Philo and his integration of Platonic and Socratic philosophy; Rambam’s engagement with Aristotle; Maimon and Mendelssohn’s engagement with Enlightenment ideas; Rosenzweig, Buber and Levinas’ engagement with phenomenology and existentialism.

The consideration of future Jewish thought becomes the natural task – and the consideration of Rav Shagar and Prof Ross as amongst these thinkers, brings to the fore the issues of today – including Hasidut, neo-pragmatism, Kabbalah, phenomenology, semiotics and late twentieth-century hermeneutical trends. This is hardly ‘’strange’’.

What is strange is that he states that my book, which deals with philosophical elements of Rav Shagar’s philosophy presents a “depiction of Rav Shagar [which] cannot serve to introduce new readers to his theology’’. It in fact does provide readers with philosophical insights into the thought of Rav Shagar. This simplification seems to be based on a mistaken understanding of the book as an introduction to Rav Shagar’s life.

Rav Shagar is indeed recognised for his total commitment to and deep engagement with the national-religious Yeshiva world, from Kerem B’Yavneh, Mekor Haim, to Bet Morasha, to Siach as his intellectual ‘’home’’. His writing is steeped in Torah learning, and, as his works are published, presents an ever-developing search for the mystical interpretations of religious-Zionism of Rav Kook.

At the same time, Rav Shagar was also a Jewish theologian, and I invite others to recognize him as such. His home bookshelf attests to his readings of Wittgenstein, Althusser and others, alongside R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady. In his later years, he was comparing the thought of Rebbe Nahman of Bratzlav with Derrida, Barthes and Lyotard. And so, I re-state that Rav Shagar was a theologian addressing postmodern thought at the same time as his immersion in the Yeshiva world – the same way in which philosophers over the course of Jewish history have also been. 

This encounter between both worlds is an important part of this discourse in its entirety. In this case, I analyse Rav Shagar’s Lamdanut through the lens of phenomenology. Another example is that his interpretations of Hasidut, are analysed within the framework of the philosophy of language.

Neither Morrow, nor Atkins give hardly a mention to Prof. Ross, who is critical to the discussion, at the very least in the way that Rav Shagar’s thinking is framed. Readers might have expected at least one informed comment of Prof. Ross as unique in her synthesised works on Rambam, and Rav Kook which simultaneously address the meaning of religious language, and its epistemological significance. Neither of the first two respondents take this crucial comparative element into account – which ultimately suggests a misunderstanding of the thematic nature of the book.  

Unfortunately, Morrow’s response descends into nit-picking. He finds certain footnotes – of which there are hundreds in the book – to be ‘’unhelpful’’ and another as ‘’frustrating’’ and another as ‘’insane’’. In addition to this sort of language, he writes about the book as “misleading’’, and certain paragraphs which are apparently ‘’lacking’’, and ‘’absent’’.

His list of referencing publication dates is weakened by his statement that my dissertation was, over a period of time, ‘’converted by the publisher’’. Is he unaware, or taking away from the fact that I wrote the book? The content and style of this critique could be understood as begging the question as to what is really bothering him about the book. 

However, he completes his response by lauding my ‘’visionary theology’’. He writes that this work is ‘’excellent’’ and ‘’constructive’’ which is ‘’deeply in tune with both Jewish mysticism and the power of religious language’’. He also recommends that book ‘’call[s] for us to do much the same’’. Given his erudite readings and initial work of the translations of Rav Shagar’s work, one might have expected him to offer a more respectful response.

The second response was written by Atkins. In his comments he seems to be missing elements of the subject that were explicated in the book, and the interview, which I’ve re-stated above.

Atkins’ response begins with what seems to be a description of postmodernism which he implies forms the main argument of both my interview and book.  He then begins to critique postmodernism, and it becomes apparent, that he is offering a metaphor for an engagement with postmodernism, namely my own, with this sceptical critique. He blurs the boundaries between his criticism of postmodernism and between my writing, wherein it is implicit that the two are inseparable.

Atkins considers my use of philosophers – including Derrida, Lacan, Irigaray – as superficial ‘’name-dropping’’ and ‘’miming authority’’ – comparing it to the listing of names of women objectified in a degrading gangster sexualised rap song. This inappropriate comparison raises the question as to what he is really suggesting? Is the problem that philosophers are listed together as representative of philosophical movements? Or is he offering a critique of postmodern literature? Or is he critiquing the ongoing misogyny in popular culture, and beyond? This would have been an interesting, albeit, misplaced debate had it not been for the derogatory tone – which continues far beyond this paragraph. His response was then unsurprisingly censored by Prof Brill himself.  

In a continued reading of his piece, he repeatedly implies that I am out to ‘’defend’’ postmodernism. One example of this is his critique of Derrida for whom, he writes, “performance is the point, that there is nothing besides the rhetoric”. Again, it is probably based on the presumption that the book is putting forward an unapologetic defence of postmodernism.

He further states that I am the ‘’expositor’’ of Prof. Ross and Rav Shagar. This is mistaken, in the same way that a scholar of Rambam is not necessarily a logician, and a researcher of Kierkegaard is not necessarily a Christian existentialist. In addition to this, unexplained responses to a multifaceted discipline are rife: “a tease’’ – with no explanation as to what this means here; “none of the views espoused by Feldmann Kaye…”; and, ‘’none reflect a deep phenomenological experience’’. These are simplifications of a far more complex discourse.

His call for a methodological deconstruction of postmodernism itself is engaging. I might too have taken interest in his discussion on Heidegger and Derrida, had he not made repeated generalisations of my interview, making the starting point of the discussion difficult to ascertain.

However, with all of this, he is “grateful to Miriam Feldmann Kaye for introducing the question of postmodernism into the contemporary discussion of Jewish thought and theology”.

In the meantime, since publication, both respondents have sent me private apologies.

The third response was written by Claire R. Sufrin. It was, relatively, a more thoughtful and engaging response – not just because it came across in a respectful manner but because she offers important reflections. I note that she hadn’t read my book though she does have the decency to say so.

In response to Sufrin’s point on Prof. Ross as a forerunner in the religious feminist movement, please see the introduction to my book where I determine her ground-breaking work on feminism to be a case in point of her broader concerns in philosophy of epistemology and revelation.

The question of how new the subject, can first be answered of postmodernism as a movement itself. In its various formations, it can be said to go back to the mid-twentieth century, alongside, or offshoots of, and manifestations of, contemporaneous trends. This is because postmodernism constitutes a discursive model of engagement, way beyond  philosophy and religion.

Postmodern discourse is now appropriated in the fields of law, architecture, literature and Political studies (even within Israel).  These fields engage with the questions of how far postmodern discourse serves to reframe the very questions asked in these fields of study. Some of the central perspectives offered by postmodernism comprise issues such as non-binary and beyond binary theories of post-structuralism, post-colonialism, aesthetics, gender theory as well as meta-ethics. In the realm of religion, ‘postmodern theology’ has been developed by Christian theologians for the last two decades.  

In the introduction to my book, I suggest that the subject be approached thematically, rather than by addressing totalised chronological movements of ‘’modernism’’ and ‘’postmodernism’’. What can be said though, is that we are at the transition between modern and postmodern thought, reflecting the changes in the trends with which we are surrounded.

I am however intrigued by Sufrin’s question as to why the book is referred to as new. I can think of at least ten thinkers, some based in Israel and some based outside of Israel, who deal with aspects of postmodernism, who include Kepnes, Handelman, Wolfson, Govrin and Ofrat. In addition to these thinkers, we also now witness postmodern Jewish exegetical approaches to other aspects of scholarship, such as of rabbinic literature, feminism, and so on.

As a whole, we witness a glimpse into different approaches towards postmodern ideas. We are called again to respond to the issues to hand, and to join the substantive, heated discussion, about how Jewish thinkers respond to the critical issues of our times – and to the plentiful array of intersections beyond postmodern thinking and Jewish philosophy. Profound responses to these deeply philosophical questions, are well on their way, and many more rest on the horizon.

Claire E. Sufrin responds to Miriam Feldman Kaye

This is the third response to the interview with Miriam Feldmann-Kaye- here, the first response was by Levi Morrow- here, the second was by Zohar Atkins- here. I was expected direct engagement with the book; the conversation about the book is important to have. If you read it and have a knowledgeable response then please PM me.

Claire E. Sufrin is Associate Professor of Instruction and Assistant Director of Jewish Studies at the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies. Her research and teaching interests include modern Jewish thought, religion and literature, and American Judaism.

Sufrin thinks that we still need to confront Lyotard because he was observing something he observed. Her comments focus in several ways on why the Orthodox focus on “pluralism of multiple religious faiths” and not “the plurality within Judaism and Jewish thought” In addition, why describe Feldmann Kaye as the first when there are antecedents? Finally, is the definition of postmodernism used by Feldmann-Kaye focused on an Israeli Orthodox definition. Sufrin’s substantive comment on the treatment of Tamar Ross is the role of legal theorist Robert Cover for Ross, rather than postmodernism.

Claire E. Sufrin – Response

I want to start by thanking Professor Brill for inviting me to comment on his conversation with Miriam Feldmann Kaye. His invitation and then even more so the record of the Feldmann Kaye-Brill conversation led me to order a copy of her book and to wait for it with anticipation. (It is not yet in my university’s library system.) Alas, I am still waiting at the mailbox, and the original deadline I agreed upon with Brill has come and gone. So I offer what follows below with the caveat that I am responding to the interview as well as to the comments offered by my colleagues but that I have not yet read Feldmann Kaye’s book. As a result, I intend my contribution to this forum not to be a review of Feldmann Kaye’s work so much as a list of ideas and questions that I will bring to her text when it does finally arrive.

Postmodernism

I agree that with Zohar Atkins that the term post-modernism is inherently slippery. Especially if it refers to a “mood” rather than a distinct movement. I appreciate the genealogy Atkins has constructed of skepticism and other distinguishing characteristics of post-modernism.

He is certainly right that Lyotard’s claim that post-modernity is the end of grand-narratives is itself a grand narrative. But I don’t think that that structural problem should distract us from Lyotard’s claim. We need to read Lyotard as responding to and trying to describe a change he was seeing in the world around him. This is true even if he was himself still struggling to leave a modernist paradigm behind him.

Yet, Post-modernism was a small blip on the screen of modernity, rather than a new screen altogether. My way of measuring this is inelegant but still must reflect something: when I was an undergraduate in the late 90s, the term post-modernism was everywhere. One of my friends joked at one point that she needed to take a course on the western classics in her senior year, given all the time she’d spent deconstructing those classics in every other class up until then. And yet, when I survey the undergraduates I teach, they rarely have heard the term post-modernism or the name Derrida.

Postmodernism and Judaism

What about post-modernism makes it threatening to Judaism? If Lyotard’s definition is right—and I generally think that it is and find it useful in my research and teaching—then postmodernism is threatening because Judaism is built on a grand narrative. That’s easy enough. But which sort of pluralism (another word for “no grand narrative is allowed to reign supreme”) is more threatening—the pluralism of multiple religious faiths? Or the plurality within Judaism and Jewish thought?

Another point that may or may not be related: why do the other blog posts treat Feldmann Kaye as the first Jewish thinker to wrestle with post-modernity when the subtitle of Eugene Borowitz’s Renewing the Covenant (published in 1991) is “A Theology for the Postmodern Jew.” Surely there are other examples as well. [siteowner note- think of Marc Alain Ouaknin & Michal Govrin as Orthodox examples of postmodernists]

Borowitz, of course, wrote as a liberal Jew, a leading figure in the Reform Movement. Does Feldmann Kaye acknowledge his book? Can post-modernism be a starting point for conversation between liberal and traditional Jewish theologians? If not, why is Wittgenstein a more comfortable conversation partner than Borowitz?

If Levi Morrow is right and the “postmodernism” that Feldmann Kaye has in mind is liberal individualism (something I’d suggest we should associate with modernism, not post-modernism) and “what comes after and/or attacks the ideas of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook.” This is a definition specific to a community within Orthodoxy.

If Morrow is right, there are a few questions I’d like ask: first and foremost, what is the audience of this book? If it is other Orthodox figures—perhaps Ross herself or followers of the now-deceased Shagar—then to interrogate her use of the term “postmodernism” seems to miss the point.

Tamar Ross and Postmodernism

Unlike the other reviewers, I know Tamar Ross’s work fairly well and I have a deep appreciation for what she tries to do in Expanding the Palace of Torah, even as I am not sure she is entirely successful.

To me, the heart of Ross’s work is not her use of Wittgenstein or others I might label “postmodern.” Rather, the importance of her work lies in two other places.

One is her claim that revelation is continually unfolding, a claim she bases on her reading of Rav Kook and prior Kabbalists and Hasidic thinkers.

The other important aspect of her work is her engagement with feminism, with other feminist Jewish theologians such as Judith Plaskow and Rachel Adler, and with Robert Cover’s legal theory. (Disclosure: I’ve written about Cover as a source of feminist theology elsewhere.) There is a real struggle in this book to find a way for feminism and Orthodoxy to somehow make sense together. Like Adler, Ross takes feminist Jewish theology to the next level of complexity and intellectual integrity, beyond earlier works by Judith Plaskow and Blu Greenberg, which were more focused on disrupting the status quo and highlighting the exclusion of women from Jewish history, thought, and community (if not more).

Is Ross postmodern? It’s not a term I would have applied to her; if Morrow is correct about the definition that Feldmann Kaye is assuming, then it applies to her insofar as she is an interpreter of Kook. But what does that get us? Perhaps Feldman Kaye’s book is best understood as a book about Kook’s legacy; but that does not appear from the interview to be the way in which she understands it. I look forward to reading the text and deciding for myself. I am grateful already to Feldmann Kaye, however, for engaging with Ross and giving her work the attention it deserves. To all those who have participated in the formal conversation on this blog and in other fora such as Brill’s facebook page by saying “I have not read Ross but…” I hope that this will lead you to pick up her book and take its claims quite seriously.

Zohar Atkins responds to Miriam Feldmann-Kaye

This is the second response the interview with Miriam Feldmann-Kaye- here, the first response was by Levi Morrow- here.

Rabbi Dr. Zohar Atkins (here and here) is the founder of Etz Hasadeh and a Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He holds a DPhil in Theology from Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and semikha from JTS. He is the author of a philosophic work An Ethical and Theological Appropriation of Heidegger’s Critique of Modernity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and a book of poetry Nineveh (Carcanet, 2019). He is the author of a weekly d’var Torah newsletter: tinyletter.com/etzhasadeh

His organization Etz Hasadeh  is both an emergent community oriented around the existential study of Jewish texts, philosophy, and poetry, and a lab for rethinking the field of Jewish education writ large. We promote the development of personalized, psychologically inflected, existential meaning-making skills. Etz Hasadeh offers an intervention in the way Tanakah and Rabbinic literature are taught and studied, clearing the way for a ​poetic ​approach to learning that empowers students to engage ancient images and ideas as metaphors for the challenges of contemporary life.

In this response essay, Zohar Atkins has several points. First, and easiest to grasp, is that the term postmodernism is difficult to define and may ultimately be more of a mood than a theory. Second, and more substantively, Torah is about continuity, tradition, mesorah, and grounded readings, not skepticism and the limits of knowledge. Therefore, to Atkin’s ear much of the discussion of consensus, self-acceptance, and progressive revelation sound like 19th century opinions of the followers of Zechariah Frankel.

Third, postmodernism is clearly not Existentialism, and Franz Rosenzweig already rejected the early 20th century idea of living “as if” as inauthentic. Fourth, he finds problems with Feldmann-Kaye’s use of Heidegger who rejected humanism and instead sought an opening to truth, an unconcealing of Being allowing us to think.  

Atkins does try to explain the use of postmodernism as a way of saying “God wants us to be incapable of finding God. Postmodernism is just another name for Galut Edom, the Roman Exile.” Yet, he concludes that: “these flights of poetic fancy are not postmodern, they are fundamentalist, mythic.” For Atkins, postmodernism has to treat every myth as an idol. Atkins defines the task of the contemporary religious philosopher to live “shuttling back and forth” with “an agon with myth for philosophy and an agon with philosophy for myth. Postmodern theology, thus, is a relishing of myth and a relishing of demythologization, yet it is an endeavor that, to me, seems like it can only be idiosyncratic, and a source of great dissonance.”

Finally, Atkins considers thinking “a form of avodah, is a holy, religious task” in which engagement with postmodern thought is necessary. He appreciated the “effort to amplify and beatify Torah (yagdil Torah v’adir),” by placing “it in conversation with the wisdom and insights of other traditions,” in this case postmodernism.  He is deeply committed to the horizons of our lived Torah. For him, “Torah should speak to everything we know, love, and experience.”

Concerning Postmodernism and Jewish Thought-Zohar Atkins

Defining Postmodernism

Postmodernism is notoriously—though perhaps appropriately—difficult to define.
Is it a school of thought? A literary style propounded by a set of thinkers, writers, artists (often French)? A worldview rooted in skepticism so radical it always becomes its own object of critique? An aesthetic that fuses avant-garde and pop, a la Andy Warhol, Frank O’Hara, John Cage, and Lady Gaga? A historical epoch dating to 1968? A fancy or pretentious synonym for contemporary? A way of saying modernism mamash  (really modernism)? 


If postmodernism is defined as an aversion to fixed labels and determinacy, is there any purchase to the term—l’shitato—according to its own standards, or is it a self-cancelling term, like a witness who comes before a court and says, “I am an unreliable witness”? Perhaps it is impossible to write about postmodernism; “one cannot look upon its face and live.”


If I were postmodern, I cannot be said to have an identity; rather identity is something I perform. There is no self, just presentation. To be a subject is to be a prisoner of the social order; my name-dropping does not actually refer to thinkers out there in the world, but only to the act of citation itself, a gesture, a miming of authority. In this sense, the string of proper names, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, is no different than those found in, say, a song with many names in the lyrics.

One reason for the confusion is that one of postmodernism’s chief proponents, Jean Francois Lyotard, defined (paradoxically) the postmodern condition as the end of “grand narratives.” Yet in so doing, Lyotard set up his own grand narrative, in which modernism was said to be naive and postmodernism was presented as the end of history. In this way, postmodernism’s self-representation is no different than the bombastic pronouncements of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra or Hegel’s Absolute Spirit; I suppose the main difference is the way in which these earlier iterations still aspired at some ideal, whereas postmodernism aspired to pursue with one hand what it took away with the other.

If Derrida has become a poster child for postmodernism, then perhaps what distinguishes postmodern thought from its critical antecedents is less its content than its mood, the mood of disenchantment, levity, comedy, neurosis, anti-messianism; or as Derrida put it “messianism without messianicity.”

Postmodernism and Judaism 

When Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai asked the Roman Emperor Vespasian for a yeshiva in Yavneh (Gittin 56b) he exchanged politically doomed Temple-based Judaism for a new paradigm of Jewish life. Sometimes postmodernism is presented in this way.

Yet if rabbinic Judaism saw itself as continuous with its historical past, and still, at times, looked nostalgically to the figure of the Temple in its fantasies, postmodernists emphasized and venerated rupture, as implied in their prefix “post-”. Never mind that the slogan of literary modernism was “make it new” (Ezra Pound, translating an ancient Confucian sage); never mind that montage and irony and indeterminacy and ambiguity were already important conceits before postmodernism became a cultural shibboleth. Never mind that skepticism is an ancient tradition, that subjectivism took off with Descartes, that pragmatism was a Neo-Kantian idea already popularized by William James in the 19th century, or that the so-called “linguistic turn” can be traced to Wittgenstein, a modernist, if not earlier to Herder, Schlegel, and the romantic movement?

The ubiquity and unclarity of the term postmodern means that it often does more harm than help when appended to another term such as “Jewish thought” or “Jewish theology.” Does postmodern Jewish thought mean thought that is influenced by postmodern thinkers, thought that simply occurs in a historic period known as postmodern, or thought that is treated by critics as having the worst signature features of postmodern writing, namely, convolution, sophistry, relativism, a “retreat from judgment” (Arendt), etc.? The term is so contested that it is probably better just to say what one means than make appeal to this proper name; though one thing shared by postmoderns through their debt to Quintillian, Schlegel, and Kierkegaard, is that it is impossible to say what one means; to think we can is to commit the “intentional fallacy.” “There is nothing outside the text” (Derrida).

Even here, though, postmodern analysis proves no different than its modernist antecedents; for whether the analysis is structuralist or post-structuralist, Freudian or Foucauldian, the point is that the interpreter, and not the text itself, holds the key to its interpretation. In some ways this posture is quite compatible with a certain understanding of oral Torah, whereby the meaning of the written Torah falls to the rabbis rather than, say, the karaites, historians, or philologists. At the same time, the sages of the Talmud still sought to ground their arguments in a reading of verses from the Written Torah, and subsequently, in the precedent readings of earlier sages.

I am not an expert in the thought of Tamar Ross or Rav Shagar, yet I am a great admirer of anyone who, in an effort to amplify and beatify Torah (yagdil Torah v’adir), places it in conversation with the wisdom and insights of other traditions; Torah should speak to everything we know, love, and experience. And even if Western thought is a kind of Exile, we should take comfort in knowing that “the divine presence goes into Exile with us.” Whether Ross, Shagar, and their expositor, Miriam Feldmann Kaye, succeed or fail, we should applaud their effort at kiddush hashem, of sanctifying (the Jewish) God. They follow the example of Maimonides, who said that if Aristotle’s thought were true, the Torah would have to be read in light of Aristotelian philosophy, and whose thought was, for a time, accused of being heretical until it became a dominant school of Jewish thought. 

The irony and self-contradiction of a postmodern Torah, however, is the way in which it challenges the commonsense view of truth. How can the critique of truth itself be true? What is meant by “truth”?

Reading Feldmann Kaye’s interview, my impression is that she/Ross regards postmodernism in a positive light as the doctrine that truth is decided through intersubjective agreement. To me, though, that’s not postmodernism at all, but positivism, and I don’t see how it’s much different than the historicist view established by the Conservative movement in the 19th century. Perhaps the fundamental claim that revelation is ongoing, is culturally rooted, is emergent, is not different in kind, but only in degree, from the ideas of Zechariah Frankel. Majority rules is not postmodern, its just liberal. Minhag yisrael halachah hi (the customs of Israel are legally binding)—is no different than Vox populi Vox Dei or Rousseau’s theory of the general will. We find the norm of law by consensus in the Talmud; but law is not truth; and saying there are many truths a la postmodernism is different than saying we can’t know the one truth; the former is an ontological claim, while the later is an epistemological one.

For non-specialists for whom the above sounds rather dense, let’s just put it this way, Franz Rosenzweig criticizes the view that truth is decided by human will as “as if thinking,” a form of theological hedging whereby the non-believer says that the only way to live a good life is to act as if God exists. If postmodern Jewish theology is “as if” thinking, is Pascal’s wager 2.0, I find it weak. If postmodern theology just means existentialist religiosity, it’s both hardly new, and hardly radical. Kierkegaard and Rebbe Nachman share the view that one cannot have certain knowledge of anything, yet this self-skepticism becomes a tool for motivating a leap of faith that, unsurprisingly, is outwardly quite submissive to dogma and the protocols of religious observance. The only thing that distinguishes a religious existentialist and a regular eved hashem is the existentialist’s emphasis on interiority.

Non-Foundationalism 

Feldmann Kaye invokes non-foundationalism as a hallmark of both postmodern thought and postmodern Jewish thought, yet ends up defining it in a foundationalist way as the agreement of people on what the truth is. 

For Heidegger, truth is “unconcealment,” not social reality, which he sometimes derides as “hearsay” in Being and Time, nor is truth some kind of individual experience a la the romantics. Meanwhile, for Nietzsche, truth is perspectival, yet it is the task of strong artists and thinkers to will their truth into existence by exercising a will to power; consensus is for the herd of half-dead unoriginals who are still too bound up with “slave morality,” whether they be religious fundamentalists or bourgeois secularists (or, as we now see in our day, bourgeois, religious fundamentalists). Heidegger is a non-foundationalist insofar as he rejects systematic thought based on first principles, yet the reason for this rejection is not because he is skeptic, but because he believes foundationalism is ontologically impoverished, does not enable us to properly think, and therefore, flourish. 

If non-foundationalism means we keep the Torah “simply because” we are thrown into a heritage, rather than because we have good rational reasons and justifications that can withstand critical (Western) enquiry, this is a kind of honest, modest, and yet Rube-Goldbergish way of utilizing academic thinkers to basically follow in the footsteps of Rebbe Nachman’s simpleton (see the story “chacham and tam”). It’s good therapy for people who are born into a thick knowledge of and commitment to Jewish life, but it is unlikely to win any one over; perhaps this is its virtue—it’s anti-patronizing, nice, polite pc liberalism. I happen to be a slave to God and you happen not to be, but, hey, these are both just lifestyles we inherited from our families. 

If you believe that God revealed everything to Moses, all the oral law, and all the principles for expounding it, it is very difficult to make sense of the story in Menachot 29b in which Moses sits, confused, in the back of R. Akiva’s classroom. If Rabbi Akiva is so great, Moses asks, why wasn’t the Torah given to him? “Be quiet. Such did it come to me.” 

One might be tempted to ask, similarly, why God did not reveal postmodern thought to Moses; why did God wait for our generation to reveal postmodern philosophy? To ask such a question, though, is to go crazy, for it is the kind of question that postmodern thought forbids asking with a straight face (it is somehow less absurd to ask why God waited to reveal relativity theory to Einstein). 

On the other hand, if we translate it into metaphysical terms, we can say that God wants us to be incapable of finding God. Postmodernism is just another name for Galut Edom, the Roman Exile. But these flights of poetic fancy are not postmodern, they are fundamentalist, mythic. Postmodernism is monotheistic insofar as it treats every myth as an idol, even the myths of Sinai and the myths of an unbroken mesorah. My shuttling back and forth represents not postmodern theology, but an agon with myth for philosophy and an agon with philosophy for myth. Philosophy sought to defang myth; religion is the submission to it. To be a religious philosopher is to defang and submit at once, to make a myth of defanging while defanging it. Postmodern theology, thus, is a relishing of myth and a relishing of demythologization, yet it is an endeavor that, to me, seems like it can only be idiosyncratic, and a source of great dissonance. If I were an amora, I would suggest that this dissonance is divinely prescribed, that philosophy corresponds to the first set of (broken) tablets and myth to the second (whole) set, both of which were kept in the ark together. And if I were an amora (playing Abaye to my own Rava) I would counter, and say the first set refers to myth while the second set refers to philosophy. Teiku.

Use of Heidegger and Derrida in the Interview 

Feldmann Kaye’s invocation of Heidegger is a tease; little besides the name Heidegger is given to us that suggests what a Heideggerian approach to revelation could involve, but even if there were, it is arguable whether Heidegger can be called postmodern. He is certainly viewed that way, negatively by Allan Bloom and positively by Richard Rorty. I have no doubt that Heidegger has much to contribute to contemporary Jewish life and thought, but none of the views espoused by Feldmann Kaye in the name of Shagar and Ross fit Heidegger’s thought too well, and none reflect a deep phenomenological influence; the value of cultural particularism is not unique to Heidegger and Heidegger would have eviscerated terms like “culture” and “experience” as remaining caught in a retrograde metaphysics of “humanism.”

When you compare Derrida to Heidegger, besides the linguistic and political differences, you find a tonal difference. Heidegger’s mood is heroic, tragic, messianic; Derrida’s is playful, jestful, cerebral. Heidegger and Derrida are both gnomic writers; yet one senses with Heidegger that he has something serious to say; with Derrida, one senses that the performance is the point, that there is nothing besides the rhetoric. In Heidegger, rhetoric serves the purpose of thought. In Derrida, one feels, there is nothing besides rhetoric. Derrida scholars can disagree; Heidegger reads as a reluctant spiritual Master, as a thinker. Derrida reads as a comedian, as Aristophanes to Heidegger’s Socrates, which isn’t to say Derrida isn’t serious or that there isn’t a seriousness to his jocularity, or that he doesn’t have something to say. Still, one never feels levity reading terms like Seinsfrage, GeworfenheitErschlossenheitdie Frage nach dem Technik; meanwhile, Derrida’s essays seem haughtily pitched to deflate everything of its gravity, as if any form of seriousness were somehow in danger of becoming an instrument of fascism. One can certainly make the argument that Heidegger is postmodern or else presages postmodern thought, yet his aesthetic—even when playful, even when self-questioning—has a devotional quality to it. We should consider whether postmodern Jewish thought and life require us to be jesters in the Derridean mold or pietist in the Heideggerian one. In the end, the issue of postmodernism might be one of tone and aesthetics more than content (after all, postmodernism can also be framed as a privileging of form and frame over content, e.g., “the medium is the message.”)

Conclusion 

For those of us who aspire to think, who believe it is of the utmost import, and who, as Jews, or as religious folk, believe that thinking is a form of avodah, is a holy, religious task, engagement with postmodern thought is necessary. It may be necessary even as a Jacob’s ladder we climb and then kick away. I don’t believe postmodern thought often succeeds in “thinking,” yet I believe it helps us spot the ways in which we are not yet thinking, and this humility is needed today, not just for ethical and political reasons, but also for spiritual ones. To know that one is not yet thinking, is this not the awe of heaven?

I am grateful to Miriam Feldmann Kaye for introducing the question of postmodernism into the contemporary discussion of Jewish thought and theology, not because I believe postmodernism can save Jewish life or thought (I’m not sure any doctrine, even an anti-doctrinaire one could do this), but because the question of how to live a sincere, elevated, responsible, pious Jewish life that is critical, self-critical, and open-minded, is upon us.

Levi Morrow- Response to Miriam Feldmann-Kaye’s use of Rav Shagar

This is the first in a sequence of responses to the interview with Miriam Feldmann-Kaye about her book Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age. The second response is by Zohar Atkins- here.

The review deals with Feldmann-Kaye’s use of the writings of Rav Shagar. Morrow is pursuing a graduate degree on the writings of Rav Shagar so he has the passion of a graduate student in his vigorous comments. He rejects the ridged division of Rav Shagar into periods (such as “traditional,” “existentialist,” and “postmodern,”  Yet he still works with the division to note that an early homily based on the Maharal should not be used as postmodern, and to note that Rav Shagar has explicit Existential essays in the spirit of Sartre. Morrow points out how the book needed to update its 2002 references since the majority of the writing were published since that date. Finally, Morrow returns us the Israeli sociological meaning of postmodern as post Rav Kook’s religious national project in order to point out that Rav Shagar himself remained in the Yeshiva, taught Torah and was not aiming to be a postmodern, even when he read those works.

Levi Morrow is a Masters student at Tel Aviv University, and is writing his thesis on Rav Shagar and Franz Rosenzweig. He has translated a forthcoming book of Rav Shagar’s holiday derashot, as well as many of the teachings and poems of Rav Shagar’s friend and colleague Rav Menachem Froman. Levi teaches Jewish Philosophy in Jerusalem, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.

A Postmodern Theology from the Writings of Rav Shagar?

Dr. Miriam Feldmann Kaye’s Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age focuses primarily on Rav Shagar and Dr. Tamar Ross. Is it meant to introduce their respective theologies to the reader as examples of postmodern Jewish theology? Or is it meant to use them as resources for the author and readers’ own theologies? A close reading of the book indicates that the latter is more correct, that constructive theology takes precedence to historical scholarship.

Understanding Rav Shagar’s Context

I can’t speak to the depiction of Ross’s theology, but the depiction of Rav Shagar cannot serve to introduce new readers to his theology. The focus on Postmodernism renders it at best partial, and in some cases actually misleading in understanding the thought of Rav Shagar. A few examples will suffice.

In discussing the idea of cultural particularism and the historical conditioning of the subject, Feldmann Kaye quotes from Shagar’s Panekha Avakesh, a collection of derashot on the parashah from when he was interim Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat Hakotel in 1982-83. Feldmann Kaye states:

Shagar’s conception of cultural particularism relies on a forceful alienation and negation of the self, which leads to an all-encompassing awareness of the influence of one’s surroundings. He acknowledges the strong parallels between postmodernism and hasidic introspection… With the self utterly nullified, the individual is no longer subject to delusions. She can look into herself as if she were a perfect limpid vessel and finally appreciate who she is and, indeed, the extent to which her identity and character are the result of a host of conditioning factors. (JTPA, 34; emphasis added)

However, the text she references doesn’t mention Postmodernism or Hasidism, and misses the source of the self-negation in the writings of the Maharal. Rav Shagar stresses the importance of negating the active, egoistic self, as well as purifying the self from urges and desires, in favor of a return to the “source” and “root” of the person, which enables recognition of divine truth (Panekha Avakesh, 62-63). There are many types of self-negation, and in some places Rav Shagar does connect it to the historical conditioning of individual identity and character (see, for example, Luhot U’shivrei Luhot, 52). Here, however, he’s talking about a pious duty to cleanse the self of desires and of ego in order to connect to a person’s divine source and gain a divine understanding of truth.

 I’m not of the opinion that his thought can be neatly divided into periods (such as “traditional,” “existentialist,” and “postmodern,” as I’ve heard suggested), but there’s clearly some truth to it. His early texts (and Panekha Avakesh is the earliest of his published teachings!) simply don’t reflect postmodern themes and ideas, which would make some sense as he doesn’t seem to have read them yet. Some of the same concerns may exist throughout, but the changing forms these concerns take is important. Rav Shagar talks about negation of the self, bittul, from his earliest texts to his latest. In the former, this means humility, purification of the self, and connection to the source. In the latter, it means recognizing the divine nature of the self exactly as it is (Luhot U’shivrei Luhot, 419).

Sartre and Existentialism

Another example of the value of a closer reading arises in a discussion of freedom. Feldmann Kaye discusses an essay called “Freedom and Holiness” from the book Kelim Shevurim (a lightly edited version appears in the later Luhot U’shivrei Luhot, and it was translated into English in Faith Shattered and Restored), and remarks that

Shagar guides his readers away from the existentialist idea of freedom as individual autonomy. He takes Jean-Paul Sartre to task by arguing that his understanding of the concept leads inevitably to nihilism or fatalism… Shagar takes exception to Sartre’s understanding of the self. The latter lays the burden of freedom on the individual, placing on her shoulders the onus to choose her own essence and thereby devise the ‘project’ that is her existence. Sartre saw the self as the sole arbiter of values. Shagar, however, criticizes such a conception of freedom on the basis that it leads to anarchy, and proposes instead to shift the burden for formulating truth claims onto the community… he qualifies his own version as ‘mystical freedom,’ that is, an inspired freedom derived from ‘the unity of the human and the divine’ which enables the community of Israel to shape its own set of truths ex nihilo (or in mystical terms as yesh me’ayin). (JTPA, 40-41)

The problem here is that Rav Shagar is actually aiming at a version of freedom closer to Sartre than to any other thinker he mentions, a “Sartre Plus” model rather than a rejection of Sartre (this is eminently clear from the essay, but also from similar texts such as Passover derashot on freedom in Zeman Shel Herut, 163-168, 169-178, and an essay on the self in Nahalekh Baragesh, 139-146). In the essay, Rav Shagar catalogues models of freedom, including that of the Tanakh, the Rambam, Rav Kook, and Sartre. Of all of them, Sartre is the only one who believes that freedom means the ability to create values, and this is what Rav Shagar wants to embrace.

Rav Shagar’s problem with Sartre is that Sartre, he says, thinks human creations can never be meaningful because they can never transcend their creator and gain a sense of absoluteness, meaning that a person can never commit to values that she herself created. He solves this by paradoxically identifying human creation with divine revelation. After a person creates their own values, they should paradoxically see them as divine values to which they must commit. Living a life of “covenant” (“berit”), Rav Shagar says, means seeing our freely-made choices as inevitabilities, like a person seeing their freely-chosen spouse as the only person they could possibly have married. This is Rav Shagar’s “Sartre-Plus” model of freedom.

Moreover, the emphasis on community that Feldmann Kaye sees in the essay is almost entirely lacking. The discussion of the concept of freedom in Tanakh mentions that the “subject” with whose freedom Tanakh is concerned is the nation, not the individual, and I can see Feldmann Kaye could construe that toward a postmodern cultural particularism. However, that concept is nowhere to be found in the section on “mystical freedom,” or the passages on Rambam or Rav Kook, for that matter. The emphasis is on the individual and her ability to make creative choices, and the essay concludes with a discussion of how modern man (ha’adam ha’akhshavi, which if I would most accurately translate as “the contemporary individual,” but that begs my conclusion) possesses an image of God on the level of ayin, nothingness, a liberating non-essentialism that allows them the ability to create ex nihilo.

Updating the References

On a more technical note, I want to briefly address the issue of references. JTPA is a revised version of Feldmann Kaye’s 2012 PhD dissertation, and it has been excellently converted by the publisher into a more popularly accessible book. One area that did not receive enough attention in the intervening years, however, was the references to Rav Shagar’s writings. Many volumes of his writings have been published since then, and referencing (nevermind quoting) them would certainly have enriched the book, but they are almost entirely absent (with the exception of She’erit Ha’emunah). Just to give one example, her discussions of both cultural particularlism and linguistic determinism would be greatly enhanced by Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah derashah “Religious Life in the Modern Age,” Faith Shattered and Restored,” 41-65, published in Hebrew as “Halakhah, Halikhah, Ve’emunah,” Le’ha’ir Et HaPetahim, 158-186.

Additionally, many of the references may have made sense in 2012, but the publishing since then has made them confusing. For example, there are references to “Broken Vessels, vol. 2,” a non-existent second volume of Kelim Shevurim. For someone well versed in the editors’ footnotes to Rav Shagar’s writings from before it was published in 2013, this is clearly Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, which the editors sometimes referenced as a forthcoming, expanded, second edition of Kelim Shevurim. However, for anyone not so versed, the reference is unhelpful (this also means that the correct pagination could have been tracked down, and wasn’t). Similarly, there is the essay “My Faith” which has been published twice, in Hebrew and English (Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, 407-426; Faith Shattered and Restored, 21-39), but which in 2012 was an unpublished file available only to those in the know. Feldmann Kaye’s reference to the text demonstrates just how thorough her PhD was, but the lack of an updated reference, referring to either of the essay’s two versions, is frustrating.

Is Rav Shagar a Postmodern?

By way of conclusion, I would return to more substantive issues Is Rav Shagar a Postmodernist, or a thinker who deals with Postmodernity? ( cf. JTPA, 35) He is certainly the latter; perhaps he is sometimes the former, but he is also so much more than that. It is a shame that so much of the discussion about him revolves solely around his interest in Postmodernism. He was a constructive theologian as a Rosh Yeshiva, deeply in tune with the cultural and religious shifts his community was undergoing, and he marshalled the best of the Jewish tradition and his readings of non-Jewish philosophy to respond appropriately.

As with the first example in this review based on the Maharal, there are of  many more postmodern counterexamples from Rav Shagar’s writings. In one text, he explicitly denies the ability of a person to create ex nihilo, instead celebrating the bricolage of creating something new out of something else (See She’erit Ha’emunah, 24). But that itself is exactly the point. There is so much in the writings of Rav Shagar, which are quite rich and full of theological explorations, that make it reductionist to consider them only from a postmodern perspective. Rav Shagar was a born-and-raised Kookian Religious Zionist, a Post-Kookian Religious Zionist, a brilliant talmudist, a driving force in Religious Zionism’s Hasidic revolution, an existentialist, and yes, a postmodernist as well. Appreciating all of the different voices that emerge from his writings requires care and precision, something I find somewhat lacking in Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age.

Furthermore, the matter of Postmodernism quickly becomes a question of what we, and Rav Shagar, mean by it. Tomer Persico and Alan Brill have  shown how Religious Zionist opponents of “Postmodernism” and Rav Shagar himself define postmodernism as liberal individualism. For all of them, “Postmodernism” is what comes after and/or attacks the ideas of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, a category that can include a lot more than what people typically call “Postmodernism” such as Buber, Sartre, and Rav Nachman.

It’s not incidental that Rav Shagar’s “postmodernism” is shaped by his Jewish theological context. He spent his whole life in the yeshivah system, never attending university, and was not shy about his unfaithful, ahistorical readings of secular philosophical texts: “We aren’t committed to ‘scientific,’ faithful-to-the-original, readings of Western or Eastern philosophy” (Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, 132-133).

On some level, there’s something fundamentally strange about trying to identify Rav Shagar with a given philosophical stream, while he was so self-conscious and explicit about appropriating a variety of such streams for his own theological ends. Understanding Rav Shagar requires paying close attention not to his affiliations but to his appropriations, the way his readings of non-Jewish texts constructively shape both those texts and his understanding of Judaism, “the external light and the internal vessel.”(ibid.).

JTPA is an excellent constructive work, one that attempts to delineate specifically postmodern issues for theology, and then proposes methods for dealing with them through readings of Rav Shagar and Dr. Ross. Feldmann Kaye’s call for a “visionary theology,” one deeply in tune with both Jewish mysticism and the power of religious language, is a call for us to do much the same.

Interview with Miriam Feldmann Kaye – Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age

Anthony Giddens, the world-renowned sociologist divides Western modernity into three periods, the enlightenment, modernism, and late modernity. The Enlightenment as the first form of modernity, characterized by the 18th and 19th centuries’ attempt to turn towards literacy, reason, science, and autonomy, as well as the fight against the old regime and traditionalism. Modernism, the second form of modernity, is the enthusiastic embrace of the late 19th and early 20th centuries’ turn to urbanization, individuality, and new understandings of humanity and society. The goal was to cultivate a religion that grapples with modernist challenges and accounts for individuality. Modernist expert knowledge— such as science or the university— during this period was authoritative. Late modernity, the third form of modernity, was a loss of trust in the expert authority of modernity, which resulted in the emergence of multiple forms of authority while also embracing the new materialism and post-secularism. We are in the later age. Some who emphasize philosophy and theory call this period last period postmodernism, a period that sees the limits of modernism. and its universal visions.

Among those using this philosophic language is the recent book by Miriam Feldmann Kaye, Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age ( Liverpool University Press in association with  Library of Jewish Civilization, 2019), a short but smart book encouraging us to simultaneously expand our horizons and those of contemporary Jewish theology. Miriam Feldmann Kaye, a recipient of the Cambridge Theological Studies Prize, holds a BA from Cambridge University, MA from the University of London, and PhD in Jewish History from Haifa University.  She is currently a Teaching Fellow at Bar Ilan University. She recently completed a Lady Davis Post-Doctoral Fellowship, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She also teaches in the MA program for Jewish Education at the School of Education, the Hebrew University. She is Founding Director of the Israel branch of the Faith and Belief Forum (formerly the Three Faiths Forum).

Feldmann Kaye’s book seeks to make philosophy and theological meaning from the writings of Rabbi Shagar and Prof Tamar Ross. She seeks to rescue them from sociological explanations grounded in changes in Israeli culture, and instead, sees them as directions for Jewish thought in the post-modern age, postmodern in the broad sense of general philosophic trend after modernity.  

The blog hosted a number of responses to the interview with Miriam Feldmann-Kaye. The first is by Levi Morrow on her use of Rav Shagar- here The second response is by Zohar Atkins on her postmodernism -here.

[For interested in Tamar Ross’ ideas see my interview here (also here and here), for those interested in Rav Shagar, I have 19 posts- see here and here for the end of my many posts and here and here that directly relate to his postmodernism. For those who want the sociological approach to these thinkers, see my review of Smadar Cherlow’s book here.]

Feldmann Kaye’s method is to first present the theological tenor of the current age, followed by showing how Rabbi Shagar and Prof Ross fit into this age, then to give examples and directions for expanding these ideas.  Feldmann Kaye is comfortable contextualizing her subjects in postmodern thinkers even if the subjects themselves have not read them.  If Wittgenstein is important in the 21st century, and her two thinkers fit into this trend of Wittgenstein, then she can offer other thinkers and ideas – such as by Paul Ricoeur, W. V. O. Quine, or Martin Heidegger- to amplify and develop the idea.  This method would be akin to discussing the Existential Age of Buber, Sartre and Camus, then showing that Heschel and Soloveitchik should be contextualized as Existentialists, and concluding with ideas from Tillich, Maritain, or Rahner.

All her discussion points to Feldmann Kaye’s own “visionary theology” bursting out between the lines of the book never articulated, even with my coaxing for this interview. She has sympathy for the post-secular 21st century ideas of Richard Kearney’s anantheism and Jean Luc Marion’s saturated event. She wants to open up to a theology “which does not rely on an ultimate and singular truth, but posits instead that the notion of a multiplicity of truths.” For Feldmann-Kaye “The implications are twofold: firstly, since faith does not lend itself to scientific verification, it becomes difficult to justify a preference for one’s own world view or way of life. Second, if such truths are perceived as culturally particular social constructs, their prime function is limited to defining communal boundaries.”  I heard part of it at the World Congress of Jewish Studies in 2017.  I hope to hear more.

The book focuses on three specific themes in their thought, (1) Cultural Particularism, (2) Language, and (3) Revelation.

In 1979, Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, a work acknowledging that the era of modernism and existentialism had ended. In its place, Lyotard offered skepticism about universalizing theories and a rejection of universals and metanarratives. Feldmann Kaye relies heavily on this seminal work to define the philosophic climate of our era.

The first, cultural particularism is Feldmann Kaye’s way of saying that there are only local religious truths; no longer do thinkers have to respond to modernist universals of authority and knowledge. Rav Shagar has an approach of being at home in the study hall and one finds one’s truth in the study hall, while Prof Ross has an approach of working within the particularistic canon of Kabbalah, Hasidut, and Rav Kook. Feldmann Kaye does not discuss the biographic element that Rav Shagar and Tamar Ross were friends and talked to each about theology. Nor does it discuss their specific personal uses of Hasidut, Rather, her book discusses the relationship of kabbalah and postmodernism in the thought of Sanford Drob and the role of truth in Heidegger.

The concept Feldmann Kaye focusses on is that of language and especially of Lyotard’s reading of Wittgenstein. Lyotard (mis)used Wittgenstein’s phrase “private language” to mean that there are no longer universal truths. She shows how Rav Shagar and Prof. Ross each have a sense of a private language and she discusses parallels in Richard Rorty, Jean Baudrillard, more Heidegger.  I wish she had been more analytic here since Wittgenstein is subject to many interpretations by theologians. Evangelical and Fundamentalists read Wittgenstein as interpreted by the scholar DZ Phillips as a fideism, a dogmatic private language in which the gospels are a private language not subject to any alien methods. In contrast, the scholar Norman Malcolm reads Wittgenstein as only allowing an act of faith since we cannot have any certain knowledge. But I believe Prof Ross is closer to a third reading, in which language is the rules of a game or the grammar.

Finally, Feldmann Kaye’s third topic is revelation based on these ideas of truth and language. She shows that Prof Ross accepts an idea of progressive revelation, a metaphysical idea of the unfolding of the truth, which she based on Kabbalah and Hasidut. But rather than discuss the Ross’ feminist application of this view of revelation, Feldmann Kaye opens up the discussion to Paul Ricoeur’s theory of interpretation. Rav Shagar uses the language of the study hall and treats the ongoing creativity of the Torah scholar in what he calls lamdanut as revelation.  

There will be posted a few responses to this interview in order to generate some discussion. I will return with some clarifications and some of my own views on the topics after the responses. We should thank Miriam Feldmann Kaye for opening this discussion with her smart book Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age about the importance of contemporary thought for Jewish thology. In the meantime, this is a good chance to read, if you have never read it, Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition a dated period piece and then jump to the 21st century by reading Richard Kearney’s Anatheism: Returning to God After God  (2011) to get a sense of how the secular ideas of postmodernism are used by 21st century religious theologians including Miriam Feldmann Kaye.

  1. Are you actually discussing postmodernism?

The thinkers I deal with Rabbi Shagar and Tamar Ross grapple with late 20th century modernist thought continuing to read current thought through to the current era. Rabbi Shagar joins several Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century who engaged with the existentialist movement, Ross with analytic engagement. Both of them grapple with Rav Kook, joining the ranks of some of the most significant theologians in contemporary times.

It would be reductionist to call them ‘postmodern thinkers’. I have clarified this important point – that the majority of thinkers I deal with, reject the term “postmodern”, and especially the label of “postmodern thinker”, and I have tried to respect this throughout. They are not just postmodern thinkers, but rather, draw on a breadth and a depth of contemporary philosophical movements.

In fact, I am not dependent on the term ‘postmodernism’ and would not have been opposed to using in the title the term “twenty-first century Jewish philosophy”, or even more specifically, contemporary. In the way in which I have used it, postmodernism refers to the temporal era of the end of the 20th and start of the 21st century A period after modernity – literally post-modern- in which we see the limits of modernity. In its most basic sense, postmodernism embodies a critique of different elements of modernity.

Having said that, taking sensitivities into account, I am not afraid of the term postmodern, and neither to use the word relativism, and believe that these words and concepts must challenge and draw us in as much as they repel us.

I do not think that postmodernism immediately signals relativism – it is important and preferable to separate between the two, and challenge the ambivalence towards the term. In the more lenient use of the word ‘postmodern’ in this book, I draw attention to what is meant by using this frame of Jewish thinkers who engage with postmodern philosophy.

2. Is ambivalence towards Postmodernism justified?

I want to address the ambivalence towards the term postmodern. Postmodernism is a contentious word which is easily associated, by some, with a nihilistic relativism. The outlooks it espouses indeed reflect a breakdown of ultimate truths and values.

I actually identify with the hesitation surrounding the term, and have sought to break down the fear in a way that theologians have done for centuries with surrounding cultural movements which have seemed, and which have been, strongly at odds, with the worldview that one seeks to maintain.

This is why I decided to change the title of the book, initially, “Jewish Theology in a Postmodern Age”, to “Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age”. This change frames the purpose of the book – Jewish theology engages with its contemporaneous philosophical trends, and the volume addresses profound development of what will, in my view, become an immersion in the areas of intellectual creativity that the postmodern age has begun to offer. It must be understood as an enigma which demands our attention and as a challenge to thought, rather than a corrosive problem which must be destroyed.

The change in the book was made to highlight the distinctions between postmodern philosophy and Jewish thought, and to reflect the nature of the book which is a philosophical quest to understand the parameters of a new conversation.

In light of this, theology takes an active role engaging in that conversation where postmodernism as a worldview might be constructive, as well as destructive, to contemporary Jewish philosophical debate.

I made clear in the outset of the book, that my aim has not been to defend postmodernism – rather, to examine its various themes, as a negotiation with diverse elements of Jewish thought in the twenty-first century. This means leveraging what philosophy of religion became towards the end of the twentieth century – existentialist, dialogical, pragmatic, and following how these ideas develop into the new century. In this sense the main question becomes whether and how Jewish thought which can function and be compelling, in today’s world.

This change reflects my approach towards the thinkers I deal with: their engagement with issues of the day, does not necessarily class them as postmodern thinkers. Rather, I have written about their thinking as addressing certain issues that postmodern philosophy raises, and the acute questions it raises.

3. Why is it important to approach Rabbi Shagar’s and Tamar Ross’ thought from a philosophical viewpoint?

One of the main characteristics of the book, has been to set aside sociological analyses of both Shagar and Ross. My own academic training has been in the field of philosophy of religion.

This forms the backdrop for my intense engagement with Shagar and Ross. It is the lens through which I examine numerous texts. I probe their thinking, asking the critical questions of contemporary times, from a Jewish perspective. I specifically analyse Shagar’s later engagement with non-Jewish continental philosophers, even if he did not read them, which is so important, in my view, for understanding the true contribution he makes to contemporary Jewish thought. I am interested in the epistemological and linguistic contributions that Ross makes to Jewish philosophy, seeing feminism as a case in point, rather than as the central objective.

In Israel, some of the discussion around the yeshiva world of Shagar is associated with New Age and the pop-Hasidut of contemporary “spirituality”. Much continues to be written on this topic. Suffice it to say, there is more than meets the eye to this neo-Hasidic thinking, which actually calls for an understanding of the roles of Hasidut and Kabbalah in postmodern theology.

4. What are Rabbi Shagar’s and Prof Tamar Ross’s main contributions?

Ross and Shagar are engaging in an original dialogue about culture, language, revelation.

They both demand a revision of the concept of Torah and revelation for a postmodern age. Shagar and Ross are two of the first thinkers to reconceptualise revelation on terms which do not get caught in the issues of modernity.  Although in the book I deal with their thinking in parallel, I draw points of reference for comparison and contrast.

The book shows how this dialogue is representative of the sort of discussion seeking to engage which strands of contemporary philosophy will be most accepted in contemporary Jewish thought. In this way, we are offered an unusual insight into how they firstly recognise, and secondly handle postmodern ideas. This forms the basis for an analytical consideration of how internal Jewish theological ideas are interpreted in this age.

5. What is Cultural Particularism?

The book is split into three main conceptual sections: cultural particularism, language and revelation.

“Cultural particularism’” is a central feature of postmodernism.I use this term to refer to the position which states that our understanding and interaction with the world is contingent upon culture.

According to radical interpretations of cultural particularism, the category of objectivity is limited altogether, and only multiple different perspectives based on local perceptions and interpretations, each anchored in a specific cultural context, hold water.

Furthermore, in these interpretations the notion of objectivity is a figment of our philosophical imagination, itself conceived through the lenses of our respective cultures.

In my book, I analyse the impact of this contentious theory specifically in the realm of religion. Firstly, postmodern theology regards religion as a particularistic endeavour, fundamentally rooted in cultural idiosyncrasies. As a result, it downplays the modernist quest for universal truth and objectivity outside one’s culture. Secondly, truth claims no longer purport to represent absolute, universal, and justifiable statements about the world. A radical postmodernist world view conceives of an individual’s values and beliefs as a drop in an ocean of culturally-accepted norms.

This shift in thinking carries far-reaching implications in the domain of Jewish theology. Currently, most Jewish religious responses to the challenge of cultural particularism have come, perhaps inevitably, from a generation of thinkers who have found themselves in a transitional period between modernity and postmodernism. Even though philosophically they accept the notion of multiple truths, they still dread the ethical and practical implications of relativism.

6. How does Rav Shagar deal with Cultural Particularism?

In discussing their treatment of the problem of multiple truths and relativism, I show how their arguments facilitate the acceptance of a multiplicity of truth-claims. Nevertheless, I underscore a persistent refusal on their behalf to what they view to be a ‘collapse’ into a relativism according to which one’s own faith holds nothing truer than that of others.

Shagar appropriates cultural particularism by rendering truth subject to a cultural context. He rejects the idea of a fixed, monolithic truth as little more than an artificial, human construct.The way he envisions the community ‘playing’ a sophisticated language game allows for a degree of freedom and human creativity rarely observed in traditional circles.

Cultural particularism, the deconstruction of the universal, of the monolithic, is linked to Shagar’s notion of Beit’iut  -“home-ness” shorashiut – “rootedness”. The philosophical ‘home’ is the starting point of theology, rather than an empirically decided universal standpoint. Beitiut is an example that Shagar uses for cultural particularism. Religious meaning is where the home is. The starting point for ‘doing’ philosophy is not a neutral or objective standpoint – rather it begins and necessarily must remain, in the particularist context called ‘home’.

In Shagar’s discussion on Shabbat and the Hindu ritual of Samadhi, he draws comparisons between the spirituality of these two states of existence. The home is the contextual and therefore conceptual starting point, which I delineate as cultural particularism.

Given the role of immersion in contextual community, often described as a socially constructed community, collective discourses are what inform practice and conversation around its meaning. The individual does not operate in a theological vacuum, as he or she did prior to these times, even in times where existentialism was most prominent in religious discourse – wherein the personal experience affected and was effected by one’s own religious experience – the ennui or malaise of the age.

7. How does Prof Tamar Ross deal with Cultural Particularism?

Tamar Ross views local religious truths as valuable precisely because they are relative to a particular group. She uses this relativism to put forward a non-empirical, kabbalistic, metaphysical truth, and in so doing, endeavours to redeem relativism from its negative connotations. She affirms the relative nature of each religion, and claims that such a conception of religious truth permeates the history of Jewish thought

 Ross, like Shagar, dismisses the self as the frame of reference for determining reality. She reaches this conclusion by exploring the implications of a Kookian, Hasidic conception of the divine as a singular unity, which converge with the postmodern breakdown of subjective and objective.

Having internalized the epistemological uncertainty characteristic of the postmodern critique.

Ross seeks to establish a sound ground for religious knowledge. She turns for that reason to non-foundationalism, a contemporary epistemological position that justifies truth-claims not on the basis of their purported grounding in some neutral or objective source of knowledge, but on the degree to which they cohere with other beliefs and opinions. This attitude she contrasts favourably against any sort of radical postmodern relativism, which turns the rejection of absolute truth into nihilism and anarchy on the simplistic assessment that all truth-claims are of equal value. Instead of establishing the truth-value of a proposition against the background of an objective, metaphysical source, non-foundationalists rely on intersubjective agreement within the wider community

Ross similarly takes Kook’s innovative and non-traditional theology as an inspiring model. She describes him as ‘wise to be suspicious of all claims to absolute truth, or to any direct and perfect correspondence between our perceptions and ontological reality’. Indeed, she identifies with his scepticism and notes that such a feeling ultimately leads to ‘a fundamental shift in the expectations surrounding traditional theological claims’.

However, for her, cultural particularism, does justify one’s ability to posit a belief of ‘truth’, without believing that this constitutes the only truth. From an analytic philosophy perspective if a truth is subjective, then it is not Truth.

From the perspective of continental thought, it is evident that this misses the point. It is perspectival. This forms the demand for postmodern deconstruction of the notion of Truth altogether, linking to the ‘inter-subjectivity’ of Heidegger amongst others.

8. Is Cultural Particularism relativism?

There is a question asked of Shagar: if cultural particularism defines the starting point, the all-pervasive contextualisation of language and culture have the potential to relativize values as a whole.

We find a response to this question in Ross’ discussion of the self through Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam- even if it was not used by Shagar or Ross. Analytic (behaviouralist or neopragmatic) theories of language, propounded by Rorty, Putnam and Quine, is the idea that language it holds meaning insofar as it means something to the one who uses or understands that language. In other words, a metaphysical being or essence is not assumed when using such language. How is this constructive in philosophy of religion? Because the distinctions between language as ‘true’ or ‘false’ need not bother us so much anymore. Philosophy has moved on from these questions, and this gives us the opportunity to reconsider a Jewish theory of language. I have said many times, that this is not necessarily a new idea, but the response to it, in the relevant discourse, is highly original. 

For Ross, this reading deepens the question as to how mysticism should be understood. If not given to neo Hasidic spirituality, how should mysticism be interpreted on the philosophical level? Empirically or allegorically? In response to the theory of cultural particularism and relativism, she responds by questioning the role that truth claims play, rather than their supposed abstract metaphysical essence.  

Shagar addressed the issue through an interpretation of Slavoj Zizek’s reading of Jacques Lacan, and the idea of chosenness. Shagar provides us with a unique reading of this sort of discourse, interspersed with interpretations of Hasidut, and its relevance to this new thinking. 

Ultimately Shagar bequeaths to us a “hierarchy of truth”, rather than an acceptance of the zero sum game that some modern vs. postmodern debates seem to embody.

I critique all these responses concerning the limitations as to how far Jewish thinkers can go in cultural particularism without falling into relativism. I end this section with a broader observation that the deconstruction of universalism, plays an ethical role in its breakdown of the fallacious belief in ‘one truth fits all’.

9. How do both thinkers deal with language in a postmodern age?

If language cannot describe anything beyond itself, how can any statement be true? Do beliefs serve any purpose if they do not express something true about the world? According to postmodern theory, each culturally particular community functions according to its own semantic and linguistic system, similar to Martin Heidegger’s “intra-worldly” and Ross’ “inter-subjectivity”.

For Tamar Ross, certain aspects of this new postmodern philosophy of religion become fundamental in examining what we mean when we use theological language. To give three examples, Francois Lyotard claimed that meaning is contingent on its context. For Rorty, language serves the claim of different collectives, and in this sense is functional. Jurgen Habermas and others view this in a constructive way – how does meaning arise in a particular cultural context?

Wittgenstein’s theory of the “language game” is utilised at various points in constructing postmodern positions, by Shagar and Ross.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of ”language games” is often held up as his flagship contribution to the philosophy of language. However, his idea of ‘Forms of Life’ is critical in studying a contemporary Jewish consideration of religious language. It is in fact far more telling of the nature of religion today, and how language functions as a theological tool in our communities.

Thus, the role of Wittgensteinian thought must be reconsidered. It is at this point where the role of language comes in. Ross in a way, clears the path for what Shagar means when he speaks of revelation.

10. Does Language affect Reality?

Before the advent of postmodernism, philosophers generally viewed language as concordant with reality. In other words, they assumed that the words, phrases, and sentences we use correspond to the objects in the world that we purport to describe. This assumption that a ‘signifier’ (most notably, in speech) necessarily relates to a specific ‘signified’ is known as ‘correspondence theory’. Philosophers of language, in turn, seek to investigate the nature of this relation. They consider, among other questions, whether and how language reflects reality. This is known as ‘the problem of language’.

For Shagar, language illustrates, and manifests itself through, reality. It is the nature of reality, which changes, together with that of language. According to Jean Baudrillard, the very nature of reality alters according to the cultural-linguistic turn. I discuss his theory of semiotics as coinciding with theological interpretations of reality.

Shagar wrote about Baudrillard, combining his thinking on the nature of reality with mysticism. This led Shagar to an analysis of the role of mystical language as descriptive of reality, without having to be understood as empirically historic. Semiotics is the study of signs. It relies on the fact that our understanding of society comes through ‘signification’ (signs) which are referred to by language and in the media, but that do not exist in and of themselves. Hence language and cultural rituals symbolize, but do not embody, reality.

Today’s world is full of ‘signs’. Although we may not be fully aware of them, these signs surround us, and effectively build up what Baudrillard terms a simulated ‘hyper-reality’. Facebook and Twitter, for example, create an artificial, simulated social existence. Virtual exchanges on the cyberspace—on our smartphones and computers—allow individuals to bypass reality. It is crucial to recognize that a simulated reality is not a false reality. It means that we are aware of the factors that make our reality what it is. Shagar turns to Baudrillard to reconfigure the role of language in postmodern religion. His position is original on two accounts: it acknowledges the problem of language, and in response, re-envisages it as a network of signs that help the religious community generate its own simulated reality.To him, the language of the community serves to engender, rather than merely refer to, the religious values of its adherents.

The way Shagar is able to accommodate these positions is by relying on the Jewish mystical tradition. He employs concepts drawn most notably from Lurianic kabbalah and Bratslav hasidism to draw out a theological discourse that comprises both postmodern linguistic elements and traditional ones.

Through Ross we arrive at a fascinating, and distinct treatment of the language in her interest in the structures and types of language available to us. For her, the metaphor is instrumental in opening a world of reality which might lend themselves to, as she says, “direct intimations of the Divine”,

 For Jacques Derrida, we find that metaphors can express truths with more power than any literal statement. For language is poetic, and imaginative, rather than literal. So, literal statements about empirical facts on which religious claims might be made, are in fact, lacking in their potential for describing a reality far beyond what is imaginable, and therefore more fitting to the sort of dialogue that we have. The purposes of language in the realm of theology, are less to describe factual events, and more to create and sustain a phenomenologically compelling image of the world as it is true to us. In this sense, we move further away from the language game as a problem for theology.

11. How do the chapters on culture and language lead to a new approach to revelation?

The first two chapters bring together a new approach to Torah min Hashamayim ‘ (loosely ‘translated’ as Torah from Heaven) wherein the ‘text’ responds to the issues raised in the two previous chapters. Torah min hashamayim (Torah from Heaven) is released from modern ongoing debates of science vs religion. Denominations as being formed around responses to these questions. Certain Jewish communities, particular in the diaspora, retain this question as the overall arbiter of what is meant by Jewish thought. Moreover, it is applied to aspects of Jewish practice.

Ross’ epistemology is her idea of cumulative revelation – where Torah min Hashamayim is understood as a perpetually unfolding reality, manifesting itself in the lives of those who live by it. Shagar’s position is not dissimilar – but expressed in a more yeshiva-style way, wherein truths and meaning in Torah are unravelled through Lamdanut  – ultimately a theory of interpretation and hermeneutics. Torah inherently refers to and embodies continual revelation. For both, Torah min Hashamayim is a continual, ongoing, dynamic process, accompanied by upholders of the faith via halakhic debate and praxis, and engagement with textual exegesis and its intersections with the ruach – spirit – of the world around us. The will of God is continually discovered in each generation. Neither position is necessarily ‘postmodern’ but it is expressed in language of the cultural-linguistic turn. So, the “life of the text” as Mikhail Bakhtin argues, presents a solicitation of the text within and outside of a language game, reaching out beyond this world to an unspeakable reality – necessarily undetermined (“deferred” according to Derrida) in postmodern theory.

The book compares Tamar Ross to Paul Ricoeur’s understanding of the “conflict of interpretations” and its meaning in a textually generative community. Linguistic interpretative techniques are esoteric in their nature, pulled out of a static existenceand given a life of their own, in a dynamic, living process. Similarly, for Shagar, Lamdanut, does not constitute a language game, but a reaching out for a reality, generating its genuineness as a phenomenological community. Lamdanut and biblical and Talmudic interpretation, represents a grappling with the text which fits with the notion of postmodern hermeneutic activity as part of the continuing manifestation of oral Torah. It is here that Covenant becomes the immense and intense engagement in this process, in its various manifestations.

12. How is phenomenology important to this thinking about revelation?

The phenomenological movement of the 1920’s sought to explore the philosophical articulation of human experience. Edmund Husserl, and later, Martin Heidegger, put forward the claim that experience happens with human existence, rather than as separate from it. Whilst it was others who were to apply this to religion, it has come to provide a different and more useful way of considering religious language and the experience around linguistic dialogue. Experience is a key component of how religious meaning and truth are understood. Religious phenomena include the sense of the miraculous, the encounter with a striking text, or the sensation of transcendence at a holy site. It is the community as phenomenological discourse, which accepts upon itself the ultimate link to and connection with Torah.

Revelation as “perpetual revelation” is a development on the acceptance of the ideas of cultural particularism and language. Revelation and the language through which it is understood and experienced, depend on the nature of reality.

Torah min Hashamayim becomes the primary cultural particularist, linguistic conduit, for religious experience, rather one that works against it. Study is itself done through language and Torah is transmitted from Moses to Sinai in our very textual and dialogic activity. This is one of the main points that we arrive at in postmodern Jewish theology.

 And it is this that I have termed Visionary Theology – an embryonic model for Jewish thought today.

The methodology reflects the objective, which is to weave together postmodern and Jewish thinking side by side, rather than as conflicting opposites.  I place Jean-Francois Lyotard and Michel Foucault alongside Jewish thinkers in speaking about the first step of my claim – cultural particularism. Much of contemporary Christian post-metaphysical theology deals similar themes, such as that of Jean-Luc Marion and Richard Kearney – an area of theology which I continue to research.

I have put forward the case for their opening up to a Visionary Theology which does not rely on an ultimate and singular truth, but posits instead that the notion of a multiplicity of truths as compatible with Judaism.

The implications are twofold: firstly, since faith does not lend itself to scientific verification, it becomes difficult to justify a preference for one’s own world view or way of life. Second, if such truths are perceived as culturally particular social constructs, their prime function is limited to defining communal boundaries.

Teaching in Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia or How I spent my Summer Vacation

This past summer I taught a graduate course in comparative mysticism at University Gadjah Mada in their Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies in Yogyakarta, on the island of Java in Indonesia. In addition, and maybe more significantly, I spoke at a variety of Islamic colleges (& Christian and Hindu colleges). Indonesia is the 4th largest country in the world and it is the largest Islamic country in the world. 

The goal was to bring them a knowledge of Judaism in order to clear up misconceptions and to foster a more receptive attitude to Judaism. I was sponsored by Gadjah Mada University and by the AJC-API (American Jewish Committee -Asia Pacific Institute) for the University teaching and sponsored by Gadjah Mada University and the regional Islamic colleges for my important travel to give talks.

University Gadjah Mada is the major center for the study of religion in Indonesia and is the feeder school producing the faculty of the Indonesian Islamic colleges. I stayed in a lovley guest house a mile from the university and walked to work each day down the main shopping avenue.

In my class, I covered contemporary approaches to mysticism such as Michel de Certeau, Jeffrey Kripal, and Amy Hollywood, then the theory was applied to mystical texts from the Christian, Islamic and Jewish traditions.  I taught a course in mysticism since it complements the Indonesia emphasis on mysticism as a main rubric for self-understanding of their own religion and as an easy way to introduce Judaism into the curriculum since I spent about 40% of the classes discussing Judaism. I was specifically brought to introduce the Judaism into this major graduate program of religion, which because of its status as a feeder school producing MA’s and Phd’s who go into administration and teaching in Islamic colleges.

Indonesia is predominately an easy-going hybrid Islam oriented more toward local traditions of the arts and devotion than law. By their own estimates, no more than 25% of my classroom prayed daily, let alone five times a day. They said it was between them and God. They said they all fasted during Ramadan but did not go to prayers.

They like Sufism but are not into Sufi saints or graves. They read the Sufi mystics Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra about the “unity of being” (waḥdat al-wujūd) in which all of creation is a manifestation of the divine. But they also accepted as meaningful to their Indonesia Islam the universal Sufism of the West, including Inayat Khan, Idries Shah and Robert Frager. This acceptance of western universal Sufism by Indonesian is similar to going to Monsey NY and finding the Chassidim reading Buber.

My syllabus included the Jewish Sufism of Bahye, Ovadiah ben Avraham ben Maimonies, Isaac of Acco, and Eliyahu deVidas as a bridge topic to show a Judaism that was similar to their Islam before I turned to the Zohar and Hasidism. We also covered Christian Kabbalah as a hybrid form of Kabbalah because their own conceptions of religion are about hybridity.

Indonesia was founded on the motto of “unity in diversity” and has Pancasila as an official ideology in which one must accept one God, revelation through a prophet and scripture. The government has determined that the six official religions that follow this are Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. It is a world where Muslim acknowledge Hindus and Buddhists as having one God and where conversely Hindus and Buddhists see themselves as having one God, revelation, and scripture.

Pancasila was legally mandated from the founding of the state until 20 years ago. Now, it is still accepted but has many interpretations and variants. How much it is social policy as opposed to theology is debated; one finds explanations of this as a policy of social cohesion and for others it is a liberal and tolerant reading of Islamic theology. The country uses the phrase “God almighty” in official events to refer to all six religions.

The Islamic focus on tawhid- divine unity remains in place but also includes the other religions. Tribal religion is treated as culture and folkways- not as theology or religion- so those practices can be integrated into any of the six. The tribes were basically made to pick one of the faith for their identity cards, Depending on the region they chose Christian, Muslim, or Hindu. 

Jews are not included in this list anymore since there are not many Jews in Indonesia. They were briefly included at the founding of the state before they emigrated to Australia and the U.S. There is a trend of recent conversions to Judaism clustered in several cities, which deserves its own discussion. (In the meantime, read the two articles here and here)

There are also Muslim who study Hebrew and Jewish books as Judeophiles. Many of the latter reached out to me before I arrived when they read the announcement of my arriving.

My own host professor at the university and co-instructor is one of these Judeophiles. He is Christian, teaches Judaism, and has been on The Brandeis Schusterman program for Israel studies. He even translated Heschel’s The Sabbath into Indonesian and could not find a publisher because there was no market.

However as I write this, I note that Americans tend to know little about Indonesia and few college students study Indonesian. Sufism is a good way to introduce Indonesian Islam before I speak directly about the Islamic colleges.

Indonesian Sufism

The East Java city of Kediri is on the site of an 8th century Hindu city and is now an Islamic factory town, known as the headquarters of the leading brand of Indonesian cigarettes, mainly clove cigarettes. When I visited Kediri to speak in an Islamic college, my hosts graciously took me to the shrine of Sufi Sheykh Sulaiman Al-Wasil Syamsudin. The shrine is downtown right near the bus station and main hotel owned by the cigarette company.


In the 12th century, Sheykh Al-Wasil Syamsudin brought Sufism and Islamic teaching to Kediri in East Java from Persia. His Sufism included astrology and fortune-telling. In the 16th century, a Chinese Buddhist style enclosure was built around his tomb with Hindu and Buddhist temple ornamentation. The shire has an actual inscription about his work in old Javanese. The tomb is in the middle of a small graveyard. Around the graveyard is a mosque, community cemetery and concessions for Islamic ritual objects.

When I visited at ten PM there were only two men reciting Quran as a remembrance of God near the tomb and another two or three women behind a curtain. There is no set ritual to be done there. Outside the shrine, there were a few tables with literature from the various local Sufi organizations who venerate the shrine. Finally, as in Turkey, there were shops for sweetened Turkish style coffee in glasses.

Around the shrine, one sees items of the broader syncretic faith of Java. These include a mural of the Chinese goddess of the sea on the wall of one of the shrine’s building, Javanese Gamelan instruments, holy water for ritual in the Hindu style., and a “Cambodian tree” as a place to pray for marriage (like Amukah in the Galilee). This syncretism is characteristic of traditional Javanese Islam; one that does not worry about purity, legalism, or other faiths. This syncretism was important for me to see with my own eyes.

Clifford Geertz, the important anthropologist, considering true Islam as centered on law (fiqh) based on his knowledge of Islam in Morocco, and therefore saw Javanese Islam as an Islamic veneer over Javanese traditional religion. More recent scholars such as Mark Woodward reverses it and makes Islam as the primary religious category, which uses the local cultural blend of a Hindu-Buddhist-animist practices as ways to be Muslim.

Sufism is an alternate fundamental mode of Islam that is alternative to the version we know based on law. This is the primary mode of Islam in the Islam of Kediri. The Quran and Hadith are read in Sufi terms. It is strictly Muslim, in that, Muslims use Islamic prayer modes and chant Quran, Javanese Hindus and Christians do not. But Islam is embedded in Javanese culture. For greater detail, consult the experts on Indonesian Islam who have produced a vast secondary literature.

This Sufi Islam that accepts the practices of the local Javanese culture is rather mellow, pluralistic, irenic, and accepting of its cultural setting. In addition, Java also has many nominal Muslims, without Islamic practice or knowledge. I will talk more about it when I discusses the colleges that I visited and people I had personal discussion with about Islam. But it is important to note how mellow is their tradition flavor of Islam. One of my colleagues at the University, recently wrote a paper showing how Islam is compatible with animism. A paper that is border line between empirical observation and creating a progressive 21st century Islamic political theology that embraces tribal religions.

Since I taught mysticism, I found out quickly from both my classroom students, and subsequently from readings, that Indonesian Sufism and mysticism to them is not the sublime unitive mystical experience of William James or an inner meaning as described by the classic books on Arabic and Persian Sufism. Rather they used the word mysticism for any religious experience or connection to religious or ritual forces. The terms in Indonesia are kebatinan, which in class they used for any religious experience and kepercayaan for relgious faith.

Ritual done by Sufis is seen as having powers and blessings. And Sufi leaders, for their followers, have supernatural powers. People want the blessing (Karamat) and become Sufis. For Geertz, this was a native Javanese animism with an Islamic veneer and for current trends it is clearly Islamic Sufism making use of local language and practices.

There are many Sufi groups in the city of Kediri. The major groups recruit the male adolescents at the Islamic boarding schools and are traditional quoting Al Ghazali and requiring the following of Islamic precepts. However, there are others ranging from those that include women and children, to those that recruit through social media for outreach, and there are those that primarily cater to addicts and criminals. Some allow non-Muslims to attend. Some of them only meet at the shrine and not in a mosque because the nominal Muslims do not feel comfortable in the normative in the Mosque.

In general, the Sufi directive is that everything one does should be for God, “Le- allah” and one should think of god in all you do. Similar to the parallel concepts in Hasidut and Neo-Hasidut. According to the books about Kediri Sufism, even for the traditional groups, they assume if something is not forbidden in the Quran then it is permitted.

They do not relate to stringency of later generations. Most of the Sufi groups care little about later Arabic fatwas or later fiqh. I received similar answers from the Muslim graduate students in my classroom or local Muslims in Jogja (Yogyakarta). If you asked them about how they relate to anti-Christian (or Jewish or Hindu) writings of the medieval ibn Taymiyyah (or other conservative Islamic thinkers), they answered that it is not Hadith and does not apply to them or that they are not Salafi so he does not matter.

Finally, I wanted to take my entire University class to a Sufi dhikr or visit a tarikah since as a group of university liberals they had never been. They may have personal theologies based on Ibn Arabi or Mulla Sadra, but no actual pietistic practice or exposure. But my hectic lecturing schedule outside of the university precluded the visit. Next time.

Islamic Colleges

Besides teaching graduate school at the university, I traveled to speak about Judaism in several Islamic colleges around the country. The goal was to give them familiarity with Judaism.

Many Indonesian attend religious colleges- Christian, Hindu or Islamic- funded by the state and subject to state supervision. They are generally BA institutions; students go to the secular universities for graduate school. The Islamic colleges teach Islam in a college social-science style. They have a mandatory freshman course in Islamic religion and culture. The rest of the courses are part of the various majors. A history major can take history of Islam, a sociology major can take a course on Islamic sociology, an education major can take courses on Islamic education. Even a college that has a major in Islamic law, offers courses of a historic-social nature such as “Rise of the Salafi in the Modern Era.” The overall approach to their Islam is to rely on the Indonesian tolerant culturally embedded form and to study in a historic manner.

In some ways, one can compare their Islam to ideas of a tolerant “Catholic Israel” historic form of Judaism with deep respect for folkways and using their own clear thinking about the classic texts over the stringent interpretations made in later centuries. The heads of these Islamic colleges ideally have graduate degrees from places like the center of religious studies at the secular Gadjah Mada University where I taught. These deans, and department heads have the responsibility for the formation of a tolerant Islam in their institutions.

In each Islamic college, I began my talk by introducing myself and my religious background as a Jewish American, a rabbi, and a professor. And in each place, I created opening connection by recounting how the medieval Fatimid traders who originally brought Islam to Indonesia included Jews among the traders. We have responsa from the Cairo Genizah permitting wives back home in Egypt to remarry after Indonesian shipwrecks. Indonesians understood these as analogous to the similar fatwa permitting remarriage for the Muslim traders. But they also understood that Jews were on the Fatimid trading ships as part of what Marshall Hodgson called the Islamic Caliphate; the Jews were part of the diversity of Islamic Egypt in many ways similar to my culturally belonging to the US.

The first part of the talk was an introduction to Judaism as similar in structure to Islam in unity of God, prayer, and the other pillars of Islam. I also showed similarity in dietary practices, circumcision, and other rituals. Then, I repeated those ideas in a historic manner mentioning Talmud, hadith, kalam, Maimonides, shaariah, fatwas, responsa and Jewish sufis.

Then, I gave a brief overview of Jews under medieval Islam, both symbiosis and tension. I included famous contrasts such as the high that Shmuel Hanagid reached and then the pogrom against his son. I continued the history briefly survey the decline of the Jewish-Muslim relationship under colonialism and the rise of nationalism. I transitioned to contemporary interfaith efforts of Muslim organizations as well as very briefly mentioning the basic terms of 21st century interfaith and intercommunal relations.

Finally, I concluded with the story of one of my current Muslim Seton Hall students. He came to the program wanting to know about interfaith and Christianity, and through the course of his study decided that he wants to become a professor of Judaism in a Muslim country. He is currently working on a PhD on medieval Jewish texts. I concluded with his story as an exhortation for them to encounter Jews and study Judaism.

The students ostensibly know English as part of their HS and college education, but in all the school I used a translator stopping after every idea. In the first school, the translator only helped with some words and summarized a few ideas. By the last school, I sat with the translator the night before and went over the entire talk.

The content of the talk was not original. It included the texts from the two chapters on Islam from my book Judaism and World Religions, articles and handouts from Rabbi Prof Reuven Firestone, and speeches from Rabbi David Rosen. For the first talk, not knowing what the students would be interested in discussing in the questions and answers, I brought lots of pages with me. A whole stack. For the next talk, I just brought the script of the talk.

The reaction was better than anyone expected. I was told to anticipate 30-50 students showing up in each school. Instead I had attendance numbers like 200 in Manado and 160 in Kediri. They were excited beforehand and afterwards to meet a Jewish scholar. There was sincere appreciation for opening new vistas. After one of the times that I spoke, a female student came up to me saying: “You give really good dawah,” using the Arabic phrase for outreach or calling to God.

They had never heard any of this material before. They did not really know the basics of Judaism, the history of Jews under Islam, or met a Jew. In some ways, and I don’t say this to flatter myself, it was like Swami Vivekananda speaking at the Parliament of World Religions (1893) to introduce Hinduism, when his audience knew nothing about Hinduism, or at best, just knew it as paganism. I do not know the stereotypes that they had before the lecture since there was no before the lecture survey and Jews are not a big topic for discussion.

I was repeatedly warned to prepare for abrasive questions from the students about Palestine/Israel. In each case I was told to brace myself. But these questions never came. Maybe they were just polite. Maybe I seemed more of a cleric than a politician, the same way one would not ask a Swami from the Vedanta society about Indian national politics. I assume that I was perceived as more religious knowledge so no political questions. Or maybe they themselves do not associate their Islamic practice in anyway with the politics of Arabia, Pakistan and Syria, or even their own governments actions to suppress rebellions. Alternately as one Christian pastor involved in seminary education told me “Israel is a Christian country” and he did not understand the existence of post-Jesus Jews.

Instead, I was asked by the students in each school about the normal concerns of contemporary college students. The questions of the students were: Judaism and LGBT, Judaism and feminism or woman’s rights, is internet good for religion, and what is the role of the internet in fostering peace or violence. They did ask about overcoming social media hatred about Middle East conflicts. They also asked about Jewish dietary laws and the exact times of Jewish prayer. They wanted PowerPoint images of Jewish ritual objects, tallit, tfillin, head coverings, synagogues, Jews from different lands. I regret not having prepared such a display.

They had little interest in the theological questions of Moses vs Mohamed, or the nature of Jewish scripture, or even Quranic passages. They already have a basic respect and tolerance for other faiths as part of their curriculum.


Since the Indonesian constitution states that “the nation is based upon belief in one supreme God.” The first tenet of the country’s national ideology, Pancasila, declares a required belief in one God, revelation and scripture, which is fulfilled by accepting Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Confucianism. There would be an automatic sense that we all worship one God and one sticks to one’s tradition. This basic equivalence of faiths as political theology allows them to easily add Judaism to their accepted religions. They have all studied this in high school as part of civics or civil religion.

The Islamic colleges seek to go beyond the mandated course and offer a required course in world religions as part of their goal of creating a tolerant Islam. They actively dismiss the hardline exclusive readings of Islam produced in other countries. So, my audiences knew something about Judaism from the chapters in introductions to world religions books of Huston Smith and Ninian Smart. Those 1960’s classics present Judaism as essentialized, without medieval history, and as a religion outside politics. They have the other world faiths discussed in Ninian Smart in Indonesia, so I was the novelty of meeting a believer in faith they never met before.

There are few books in Indonesian exclusively on Judaism, some of the few books available are Abba Eban, My People and a work by a Dutch Christian. This Fall 2019, one of the Islamic colleges will be introducing a new course focusing on Judaism. I have a copy of the textbook that the teacher produced; it builds on the categories of Ninian Smart. I also met students who are studying Hebrew and came to the event in t-shirts embossed with Shalom in Hebrew.

After each talk, I would be surrounded by dozens of students wanting to take a selfie with me. Indonesia is a very big Instagram country. There are hundreds of pictures on Instagram of me with young female in a jilbab (Indonesian name for hijab) students. The jilbabs are an interested facet of Indonesian Islamic life. They were generally not worn in the 1980’s and returned in the 21st century as part of the self-identity of the younger generation. The head covering by the young generation absolutely drives crazy many of the baby boomer age Muslims who feel their children are getting too religious. Yet, this young generation is more educated, open, and tolerant.

There is a vast literature on how the young feel the jilbab is essential to their Islam and how at the same time they are more likely than the previous generation to write dissertations on eco-feminism or greater feminist rights. Part of the current acceptance of the jilbab is that they are now in bright colors, vivid patterns and serve as bold fashion accessories. More than half of my graduate classroom was female. From what I hear, that is a major change from 15 years ago.

On the other hand, most of these same women wanted to shake my hand and then put their arm around me for the selfie. I asked many of them: Is touching a member of the opposite sex permitted. I have been in other Muslim counties where it clearly was not permitted, even in non-Salafi ones. Each woman gave the same basic answer. “We are not Salafi” so we touch. Salafi functions as a pejorative in the language of the college students for those too strict in the law or those who invoke a fatwa made in the Arab lands. They have their own identity as traditional Indonesian Muslims.

There are 100’s of these selfies with students on Instagram

What about Salafi Islam? Isn’t it taking over?

Some of my readers may remember that Bali was bombed in 2002 by Jemaah Islamiyah, a violent Islamist group.  But the government has been banning, imprisoning, and expelling radical Islamic forces. Those convicted in relation to the bombings were sentenced to death.

On the other hand, the NYT considers the younger generation of feminists and phd students who wear a jilbob as a right-wing turn. However, it is a truism around the world that the younger generation of Orthodox of any faith who are more educated than their parents have a greater return to textual practice as part a transition from traditionalism to a text-based religion. And Indonesia has had religious parties that have wanted more Islam in the country since it founding 1945, but they want an Indonesia Islam.

Recently, there was a wonderful article by Muhammad Sani Umar &  Mark Woodward, “The Izala effect: unintended consequences of Salafi radicalism in Indonesia and Nigeria” in Contemporary Islam. In the article they “argue that the Salafi religious and cultural agendas are incompatible with Islam as understood by a vast majority of Muslims in these regions.” They see the extreme Islam as inauthentic compared to their version. The Salafi seek to ban the cultural Sufi world of poetry, music, performance and that drives the Indonesian to totally reject the Salafi.  The Salafi want to introduce Arabic culture and people are proud of their Indonesian culture, so the Salafi are obviously false. They show that Indonesians associate all forms of Salafi- Wahhabism with violence and terrorism.

To return the opening discussion of how does Indonesian Islam accept Hinduism and Confucianism as a unified monotheistic God of tawhid. Indonesians study the Sufi mystics Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra who are monists and  define tawhid as the “unity of being” (waḥdat al-wujūd) that denies an ontological distinction between Allah and creation because all of it pre-existed in the mind of Allah prior to the moment of creation. All of creation is a manifestation of the divine; we experience the divine in all things. Since  Salafis reject these propositions, then from an Indonesian perspective they do not have the proper Islamic worldview. 

My students certainly had these mystical perspectives and their parents certainly went to Sufi shrines. Hence, they are compelled to reject Salafis. Arabic beards and robes do not make the Muslim, rather the unity of God in the heart.

Plato, in the Republic wrote “when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.” Here the converse is true. The Indonesian commitment to Gamelan music and ritual performances  means the extremism is not accepted. I am not an ethnomusicologist and did not pay the same attention to music as to religion. However, gamelan music is taught to children. People told me that their relatives taught it to them as children or they went to Sunday school for gamelan music.  One Sunday morning, standing before an open-side building design, I watched such a class for 30 kids. I even met some American ex-pats who were sending their girl – age six to the Sunday gamelan class. People shows off to me that they could play. But outside of the classes or special festivals and events, I heard little of it on any island. Even the masjid in Kediri had a set up for playing gamelan music in the mosque.

Nevertheless, yes, 2019 Indonesia is stricter than 1999 Indonesia. Alcohol and porn are banned on Java as an act of upholding Islamic values- but that does not mean they want other aspects of the law or the undoing of religious diversity.

Do not confuse Java with Aech on the northern tip of Sumatra, which follows Sharia. I did not visit it and it functions, in many ways, as its own region. I also was not in Papua or the Maluku islands.

In addition, do not confuse Islamic popularism in politics with Islam as a religion. Indonesia has its share of Islamic versions of Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, and Bezalel Smotrich, below the threshold but making lots of noise. But they are not Bnai Brak Haredim, so too the Islamic popularists are not Haredim.

For example, there is preacher at as a masjid on/near the campus of University Gadjah Mada who advocates an ethno-national Islam of wanting to exclude Christians and Hindus from teaching and living together, but it has little connection to Islamic observance or knowledge of Islam. The same ethno-nationals may not pray Islamic prayers or follow Islamic law. It mainly attracts the formerly secular and those in the natural sciences. The strictly observant Muslims are products of Islamic boarding schools and are more politically tolerant than these ethno-nationals. The University’s administration counters the ethno-national Islam by giving greater voice to the graduates of the Islamic boarding school system who can read Arabic and know the Islamic religion.

Finally, seventeen years ago in 2002, was the last time the university had a visiting professor of Judaism, Rebecca T. Alpert of Temple U. In her own account of her time in Indonesia, she remarked how people thought she was crazy to go to a Muslim country. Now, it is common to meet fellow ex-pat Jews in Dubai, in Turkey, and elsewhere. Also she notes how she learned of how the Biblical stories are portrayed in the Quran in this visit. Now there are Jewish professors of Islam and Christianity as well as Muslim and Christian professors of Judaism. The age of globalization creates a field of greater travel for interfaith work, and in the 21st century there is greater Jewish-Islamic encounter and knowledge of one another. My trip did not have the surprise element but is all part of today’s interfaith work.