Author Archives: Alan Brill

Louis Jacobs: Rabbi Benjamin Elton responds to Harry Freedman

The need to debate the life and legacy of Rabbi Louis Jacobs seems to remain an important part of British institutional life and thought. They seek to replay the events in their minds and ask hypothetical what if’s.  A few weeks ago, I discussed the new book by Harry Freedman Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs. Today, we have a response from Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton

Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton was appointed in June 2015 as the Chief Minister of The Great Synagogue of Sydney, Australia. Born in Manchester, England, Rabbi Elton earned an MA in History at Queens’ College, Cambridge and a PhD in Jewish History at Birkbeck, University of London. He was ordained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) in New York and in addition has Semicha from Rabbi Chaim Rapoport of London. Elton published Britain’s Chief Rabbis and the Religious Character of Anglo-Jewry, 1880–1970 (2014), and has authored articles on Anglo-Jewish and Australian Jewish religious history and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society of London. 

Elton’s response here has several points. The first, and in my mind the strongest, is that while Victorian Anglo Jewry in the first half of the 20th century may have been quite liberal in thought and practice.  Nevertheless, both Chief Rabbi Adler and Chief Rabbi Hertz expected greater adhesion to the tradition in order to be appointed as leader of a congregation. Rabbis Morris Joseph, Joseph Hockman, Herbert Lowe and Joshua Abelson all ran afoul of the Chief Rabbi office.  The records clearly show their censoring and policing of relgious ideas. In this, they followed the Anglican Church model of the era in which the Archbishop keep the clergy within the theological line. So too, did the Chief Rabbi’s office. They may have not had the Jewish Orthodoxy of later decades but they certainly followed general Anglican lines of the role of the chief rabbinate.

Second, Jacobs’ approach to the Bible went beyond earlier British and American Rabbis. Also, a valid point, as I have written

Beyond these points, Elton also draws inferences from the fact his colleagues did not revolt or resignations and that there were no defections within congregations. Elton places much of the continuous support for Jacobs directly at the feet of the persistent encouragement of the Jewish Chronicle. There was also a certain disingenuousness about some of Jacobs’ (or his supporters’) outrage at his treatment. He must have understood why, from an Orthodox perspective, his conversions were not recognised. Finally, Elton offers some observations on Jacob’s personality.

Louis Jacobs: A response to Harry Freedman

Benjamin J. Elton

Louis Jacobs spent his career arguing that intellectual integrity required setting aside cherished myths when they could not be sustained in the face of empirical evidence. Of course, as a scholar who came of age in the 1950s that contention is laced with the heavy modernist idea that ‘truth’ can indeed be established ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. Jacobs stuck to that position from 1957 when he published We Have Reason to Believe, the book that caused the controversy that followed, to his final lengthy statement of his theology Beyond Reasonable Doubt in 1999 and his death in 2006. It is therefore ironic that his own life is the subject of persistent mythology, which refuses to budge in the light of recent research.

Harry Freedman’s new biography of Jacobs, Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs is important and welcome as the first full-length biography of a fascinating twentieth century Anglo-Jewish figure. Not only is it an interesting read, as was the interview with the author by Alan Brill, but it also gives us an opportunity to return to some of the questions thrown up by Jacobs’ life and career, the way Jacobs has been understood, and to reassess those myths.

My response here is to address aspects of Freedman’s valuable book and interview. I focus on three points: (1) whether Jacobs would indeed have thrived under previous Anglo-Jewish rabbinical regimes (as is sometimes claimed); (2) the exact nature of his theological claims (which I think have been downplayed), and (3) why the myths about Jacobs have endured. It concludes with some general thoughts about Jacobs drawn from two decades of studying the man and his work.

I begin with a few words about my connection to Louis Jacobs. Like Jacobs, I am from Manchester and in my teens in the mid to late 1990s I often visited Manchester Central Library, with its strong Jewish studies section. There I picked up Jacobs’ autobiography Helping with Inquiries (1989). This led to my family telling me about our relationship with Jacobs.

My great uncle Cecil had been to Manchester Yeshiva with Jacobs and because Jacobs’ parents were not observant, whereas my great grandparents were, Jacobs spent a lot of time in their home. Later when Jacobs returned to Manchester as Rabbi of the Central Synagogue, family legend has it that my great grandfather counselled Jacobs’ father to curtail his Saturday activities so as not to embarrass his son.

As I read more of Jacobs’ theological works, I wrote to him to ask for a meeting. I was about eighteen at the time. He was generous enough to invite me to his home, offer me a cup of tea and a biscuit. He was helpful, charming, and kind. After I moved to London in 2002, I went to his Talmud class at the New London Synagogue, to experience learning Talmud from this tremendous Talmudic scholar, although I must confess, I was disappointed in them at the time.

In any event, I have always been interested in Jacob’s theology, even when I have disagreed with his theology. Indeed, I have written about some of Jacobs’ English intellectual predecessors.

This blog post responding to Freedman’s book is not concerned with who wrote the Pentateuch, rather it is interested in how that belief has played out in Anglo-Jewish religious life. That was the central issue at stake in the Jacobs’ Affair.

Jacobs was Minister of the New West End Synagogue in 1957 when he argued in, We Have Reason to Believe that the Pentateuch could no longer be regarded as the directly revealed word of God, but a document composed over many years and edited. Nevertheless, Jacobs argued that the Torah remained holy and authoritative. The book did not attract much attention when it was published and Jacobs was appointed Moral Tutor at Jews’ College in 1959, with the hope on the part of Jacobs and his supporters that this would lead to him being appointed Principal. However, Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie refused to make that appointment because of Jacobs’ statements on the origin of the Torah. He also refused to allow Jacobs to return to the New West End as Minister for the same reason. Jacobs’ supporters founded a new synagogue, the New London, and Jacobs served as its Rabbi until his death.

The central contention of one school of writers about Louis Jacobs, which includes (writing in different modes, some more popular and others more scholarly) Harry Freedman and the Jewish Chronicle more broadly, is that Jacobs’ only fault was that he promulgated his ideas in the 1950s when Anglo-Jewry had become more Orthodox. Had he expressed his views before the Second World War, they would have been regarded as uncontroversial.  A second school of writers, claim that this analysis is simply inconsistent with the evidence, as shown by my research and by Elliot Cosgrove’s brilliant unpublished 2008 dissertation. 

The second approach sees him as controversial and that the radical nature of these claims is downplayed. In fact, by any measure, they were controversial. It is essential to understanding Jacobs that he never argued for a half-way-house the way some American Conservative thinkers such as Rabbi Jacob Agus have done, for example that there was an event at Sinai but that the record of it was disrupted in some way. For Jacobs, the conclusions of academic bible scholars were persuasive, which means no Exodus, no Moses, no revelation at Sinai. The entire development of the Hebrew bible has to be understood differently. In Orthodox terms that is undeniably controversial. Cosgrove shows in his dissertation that Jacobs understood at the time that they were controversial, which makes his public, apparent, bemusement itself bemusing.

Jacobs is interesting in Jewish terms not because he accepted the finding of biblical criticism but because he argued that notwithstanding that its historical development, the authority of Torah and halacha was not affected. This is because God guided the process of the developing of the Torah, both written and oral, and endorsed the conclusions after the fact. We should note that this position requires an impressive level of faith. Jacobs possessed profound belief in God and in Judaism as God’s will for the Jewish People.

These ideas, as Jacobs himself identified, were not original to Jacobs. We can find them in Anglo-Jewish thinkers from the 1890s to the 1930s, namely Morris Joseph, Joseph Hockman, Herbert Lowe and Joshua Abelson. As I have shown elsewhere, the first three of these figures were penalised by the British Chief Rabbinate for holding and sharing these views. Joseph was denied the pulpit of the Hampstead Synagogue by Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler in 1892. Adler rebuked and imposed sanctions on Hockman after a sermon he gave in 1910 and Chief Rabbi Hertz eased him out of the ministry of the New West End Synagogue when he was still propounding these views in 1915. Lowe felt Hertz was persecuting him, even though Lowe was an academic at Cambridge University and not a serving synagogue minister, and there was an ill-tempered correspondence between the two men. Joshua Abelson escaped censure, perhaps because he expressed his thought as possibilities not as certainties and he did so in the interregnum between Adler and Hertz. The treatment of Jacobs was entirely consistent with these Anglo-Jewish precedents.

My argument is that it was Jacobs’ very traditionalism which made it difficult for some observers to understand what was going on in the Jacobs’ Affair. Why was a man who was a Talmudic scholar, upheld halacha, and (perhaps more importantly) the customs of the United Synagogue, excluded from the Anglo-Orthodox community? My contention is that the question of the authorship of the Pentateuch was and had always been a red line in Anglo-Jewry. Those who were traditional on that question were acceptable, and those who were not traditional on that question, were not.

Despite claims that Jacobs had widespread support from his colleagues in the United Synagogue rabbinate in the 1950s, even accounting for concerns about livelihoods, there was no revolt, no widespread resignations, no defections by congregations. Other rabbis and ministers (such as Isaac Levy, Isaac Newman, Kopul Rosen and Leslie Hardman) may have liked Jacobs, felt sorry for his predicament, may even have shared some doubts with him. It is also apparent from the accounts of Jews’ College students in the 1950s, such as Stefan Reif, that Jacobs’ views were not popular there and some felt that Jacobs was deliberately provocative, for example by covering his head as infrequently as possible, albeit within an interpretation of the halacha).

This is not to say that Brodie handled the affair well. But we cannot say that Brodie was led the London Beth Din, especially because Brodie refused to allow Jacobs to return to the New West End, against the advice of the London Beth Din. The role of Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky in establishing a harder line in Anglo-Jewry is often highlighted as a factor, but Abramsky had left London in 1953, some four years before Jacobs published We Have Reason to Believe, so he had no direct impact on the Jacobs Affair.

Why does the Jacobs myth continue? Possibly because of the vocal and persistent support of the Jewish Chronicle, which continues to this day, hence their recent serialisation of Freedman’s biography. There was also Jacobs’ repeated claim that he was Orthodox. It is true that weakened in the last decade of his life, but he never fully embraced the Masorti movement, even though he allowed himself to become associated with it. There was also a certain disingenuousness about some of Jacobs’ (or his supporters’) outrage at his treatment. He must have understood why, from an Orthodox perspective, his conversions and weddings were not recognised, and why some thought fit to deny him an aliyah to the Torah. It was unconvincing naiveite for Jacobs to wonder in amazement about how this could be so.

As we consider Jacobs again, now is a good time to make some further observations about his life, career and thought. First, I think he was a man of deep loves and committemnts. As a boy he became infatuated with Torah, from Balkind’s Cheder to Manchester Yeshiva. He loved Talmud from his teens to the end of his life. Whatever else happened he never lost his devotion to the study of rabbinic texts.

His next deep love was with academic Jewish studies. When he went to the University of London (without the filter that Jews’ College would have provided) he was totally convinced by the academic method and the results that it produced in its analysis of the bible. Interestingly Jacobs did not write very much about the bible as a scholar, in the way he wrote about the Talmud or responsa for example, but he was obsessed by the veracity of the documentary hypothesis. Jacobs would approve of a Winston Churchill quote, and here is an opposite one: ‘a fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject’. Jacobs was a fanatic when it came to higher criticism of the bible, and as Freedman observes, Jacobs brought it up repeatedly, even when it was not necessary.

Finally, Jacobs became totally in love with high Anglo-Orthodoxy: the New West End Synagogue, robes, mixed choirs and top hats. He and his supporters recreated it at the New London Synagogue, and it lasted longer there than in almost any United Synagogue. That is interesting in itself because normally scholars have little time for pomp, but Jacobs was dazzled by the congregation at the New West End Synagogue, as he wrote in his autobiography, to see all the lords and knights kneeling at Aleinu on the High Holidays.

Freedman begins his book by recounting Jacobs being voted the greatest British Jew in a Jewish Chronicle poll. That was in 2005, and even sixteen years later, it seems bizarre that he was considered greater that Moses Montefiore, Isaiah Berlin and others.  The contention that Jacobs was the greatest British Jew, has led to a back projection about his standing in the 1950s and early 1960s. He had his yeshiva and kollel background, a reputation as a brilliant young Talmudist (ilui), and his PhD,  but he had published little by 1959, and even less of scholarly weight. It was unfair of Brodie and others to say that Jacobs lacks scholarly qualifications to be Principal of Jews’ College, but it is interesting that Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik did not rate Jacobs highly as a scholar at this stage either.

It is worth trying to reread We Have Reason to Believe (1957). I did so recently in the hope that the chapters about God might be useful, but I did not find it compelling or helpful. That may be why its reception was muted in 1957, but in my Rabbinic opinion, at the very least, it has not aged well. Without the furore it caused, it might never have been republished. Beyond Reasonable Doubt, the 1999 follow-up book is a much better presentation of Jacobs’ ideas, and all the scholarly works of the 1960s to 1990s rightly established Jacobs’ academic reputation beyond question, and earned him honorary degrees and invitations as a visiting scholar at leading institutions. His congregation was very supportive of his academic and international career, although as a ferociously hard worker he did not short change his synagogue either.

A repeated and important question about Jacobs is why he did not leave Britain. He could have saved himself so much trouble and heartache had he become a professor at the JTS. They would have welcomed him with open arms, and he would have been a respected and celebrated part of the JTS community, in practice on the right of the Conservative Movement and in theology more towards its left, but entirely unmolested. Freedman suggests that he was tied by his loyalty to the Anglo-Jewish community, the community that supported him throughout his troubles and to his family. I am not sure this fully answers the problem, especially when the price of staying was continued conflict and tension.

Without casting aspersions, one answer to this conundrum might be that Jacobs, on some level, actually enjoyed the fight. Not all of it, and not all the time, but being a martyr has its benefits, and being an unusual, prominent even notorious figure has its attractions. I have mentioned how he raised the origin of the Pentateuch as often as possible. Freedman describes how he attacked the institution of the British Chief Rabbinate gratuitously in his The Jewish Religion, A Companion.­ In some cases Jacobs obviously stoked or invited personal conflict. For example, in the mid-1990s when Chief Rabbi Sacks called him before Yom Kippur to apologise for a personal attack earlier in the year, Jacobs repeated that conversation the next day in his sermon. He must have known that would perpetuate a conflict that Sacks was trying to resolve.

Often in Jacobs’ writing we find the rather conceited statement ‘all thinking people would agree’ or ‘no sensible person would argue’, implicitly dismissing those who might disagree with him, whereas many very thoughtful and learned people did, honestly, disagree with him. This tendency has continued among his followers, who in 2016 ran an ‘Honest Theology Project’, implying that other approaches are somehow less honest.

In contrast, Jacobs to a somewhat doctrinaire theology, in halachic matters Jacobs did not like to lay down the law, but still complained that Masorti interpreted his decision not to say ‘no’ as a ‘yes’, whereas it was nothing of the sort. He refused to become the ‘Presiding Rabbi’ of British Masorti (of which Freedman was Chief Executive) because he did not want to make rulings. Jacobs is often hailed as the greatest Chief Rabbi Britain never had, but at least one function of a Chief Rabbi is to say ‘no’ when necessary, and Jacobs found that very difficult.

The ways that Jacobs’ approach is now out of fashion covers not just the formality and pomp of the style of synagogue service that Jacobs favoured, but as Brill noted in his introduction to the interview, his whole approach to egalitarianism. In 1988 Jacobs said he regarded ‘the question of women’s [ritual] participation as relatively trivial’ whereas he merely wanted to perpetuate traditional Anglo-Orthodoxy ‘in a non-fundamentalist way’. All Jacobs wanted was a redefinition of Torah Min Hashamayim and for everything else to remain the same.

Since his retirement and death his old synagogue, the New London, has gone another way and become egalitarian under its English-born but JTS-trained rabbi. Across the denominational divide, the growth of Partnership Minyanim and of Orthodox Rabbis performing same sex marriages implies that the cutting edge of Orthodoxy is more interested in practice than in theology, quite the opposite of the position Jacobs staked out for half a century.

Jacobs was undoubtedly an extraordinary figure, and like all such figures, he lives on beyond his death, and as the real man recedes the myth grows. But in deference to his teachings we should constantly reassess those myths, because whatever else may be said about Louis Jacobs, above all he believed in pursuing and stating the truth as it is honestly understood.

Postscript: Unfortunately, in his blog interview, Freedman took a sentence I have written about his non-traditionalism out of context. In doing so he misrepresented my position. Please look at the original (page 269 of my book) to rectify the unfairness of Freedman’s presentation.

Arthur Green- Judaism for the World

The Greek poet Archilochus wrote, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin expands upon this idea to divide writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea and foxes, who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea. Rabbi Professor Arthur Green, better known by his friends as Art, definitely fits into the first category. He has been working though and reworking his insights in version after version until it feels just right. One can start with his early essays of the 1970’s “The Role of Jewish Mysticism in a Contemporary Theology of Judaism,” Shefa Quarterly, (September 1978) and over the decades see each of his theological books as coming back to the same issues, in the same order, each time grappling from a different mood or venue.  In this volume, we see him breaking the pattern, in that he has reached a mountaintop position of making peace with his view of a God filled universe. This new book Judaism for the World: Reflections on God, Life, and Love (Yale UP: 2020) has a heartfelt divine warmth, full of faith and light, not the modernist abyss or struggling of the void of his other works.

I am not sure that Arthur Green needs a biographical introduction, but as a formality. Green is the Irving Brudnick Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Hebrew College and rector of the Rabbinical School, which he founded in 2004. Basically, he is the head of a non-denominational rabbinical school, which has the most students of any liberal rabbinical school, teaching them, davening with them, and offering himself as role model for Jewish spirituality. In this new book Judaism for the World: Reflections on God, Life, and Love (Yale UP: 2020), Art speaks as someone who is now molding others to enter the Rabbinate and Jewish communal life.

The book displays the answers that Art Green finds meaningful after years of calling himself a seeker or a radical. Now, he is the establishment, as the head of one of the America’s rabbinical seminaries offering answers. Beyond that, the book has moved beyond the provincialism of Neo-Hasidism “offering a universal response to the eternal human questions of who we are, why we exist, where we are going, and how to live.” Judaism for the World is a beautiful book giving a direction for finding the divine in life. In many ways, it is the book I would recommend to people as the place where to start with Art Green’s thought.

The book has three parts, homiletically entitled as Soul, Year, and World, corresponding to the Sefer Yetzirah coordinates. The first part, on the inward journey of the soul is where he gives his theological views. We find a presentation of a universal Neo-Hasidism that has moved beyond the Eastern European cultural forms, his views of prayer, love of God, and mitzvot, and excerpts from Green’s forthcoming spiritual commentary on the prayer book. The interview below focuses entirely on the first third of the book. In my opinion, this is where the faith, light, and warmth are located. 

The second part of the book, Year, is a series of essays covering the entire Jewish calendar of holidays. In these, Green reverts to his singsong of his thought process shown in prior books. He starts with the fundamentalism of his teenage years, his leaving it, discovering historic naturalism, in this case Theodore Gaster’s pagan origin of the Jewish holidays, turning to Kabbalah, then Hasidut, then Neo-Hasidut, then moving beyond it to his own contemporary spirituality. He did this at times in the first part also, but overall, the first part gave an impression of Art Green today. Here in section two, however, we must recapitulate his journey as we did in Radical Judaism and his other books. At this point, however, no one thinks Green is 1950’s Orthodoxy, Wissenschaft, or even a literal reading of Hasidism; he does not have to remind us. Green should publish a book just from the material in the first part, without the journey. Just clean pure lines of his current views, which is what I tried to create in this interview.  A book entitled “A Judaism of Love.”

The third part of the book, the largest, does not have the unity of the prior sections, in that it is eleven essays of various strengths. The section opens with two complementary essays on creation theology and the environment. Then, we have several incidental speeches of Green on social issues and American Jewish Life, including one “American Jews after Pittsburgh” and the other an “American Letter to Israel.” These deserve their own discussion on his vision of an ethical liberal Jewish America of values and religiosity, which in his words, runs “countercultural” to political, economic, and ethnic definitions of Judaism.  We are also treated to a twenty-five-page intellectual autobiography, which should be compared to the more direct and detailed sixty-page version that Green gave as testimony to the oral history of the Jewish counter-culture project.

The final essay is a graduation speech to his Rabbinical school (larger incoming class than any other liberal seminary campus), exhorting the new rabbis to have love of God, love of Torah, and love of Israel. It is a speech that should be given to all rabbis. A version of it is available online. This talk shows Arthur Green as a Rabbinic leader and molder of the future of American Jewry.

The rabbi as devotee should begin each day with a prayer of gratitude for the great privilege (and responsibility) of serving as spiritual guide to others. 

Our tradition calls us to a devotional life of great simplicity.  We worship throughout the year by such acts as waving branches, blowing horns, lighting candles, living in huts, eating crackers.  Of course these have to be the right branches, the right horns, the right huts, and the right crackers, each on the proper day of the year.  But they are still acts of utter simplicity, and we must take care that this simplicity not get lost amid the welter of details about how to do them “right.”  They are there to show us how the most ordinary of human deeds may become filled with holiness, invoking God’s presence, causing us to bow down in awe while our hearts fill up with joy.  Openness to this devotional life is essential to the rabbi, as it should be to every Jew, to every human being.

Rabbis are great lovers!  (But I do not recommend that bumper sticker for your synagogue parking lot!)… The Ba ‘al Shem Tov said that his soul had come into the world because of three loves: the love of God, the love of Torah, and the love of all Israel. But the real test of love lies in our ability to generously and unselfishly love people.  Yes, that continues to mean loving Jews in a special way, because that is the community we are here to serve.  There is no being a rabbi without becoming comfortable with that.  We are here to be leaders of the Jewish people.  We are here to stand up for the best of our tradition’s moral teachings, and to guide Jews toward them.  When our community turns away from those values, the failing is ours; we have not succeeded in our role as leaders

For us as Jews, God’s love is manifest in a special way, in the form of teachings.  “You so loved our ancestors,” we say each morning in Ahavah Rabbah, “that You became their Teacher.  Give us that same grace; be our Teacher as well.”  We rabbis, as faithful students of divine teaching, are here to help share it with others, to pass on the teaching – and the love.  God shows us love through the act of teaching.  We spend our lives learning to do the same.  In a sense, love is all we have to offer: our love of God, of Judaism, and of Jews.  The Judaisms motivated by authority, by fear, and by guilt are all gone for most Jews.  All we have is love.  

In sum, this book is an important statement of Green’s theological vision, which at the same time is accessible to the lay reader. Dealing with many themes, the book allows a first time reader of Green to get a solid overview of his thought, his journey, and his personality. As I said above, I would still want a short 65K word book from Green called “A Judaism of Love” with just his current conclusion on divine unity; he would need a strong editor to make it happen.

This interview is part one of two parts. The second part will be on the set of books A New Hasidism discussing his views of Neo-Hasidism, past, present, and future. I will probably give my comments and critiques in a follow-up post.

Rabbi Arthur Green Interview

  1. Can you explain your basic concept of the Oneness of the divine manifest through all things?

From the time I first read (in Hillel Zeitlin) about  a mysterious inner Naught (ayin) that was the substratum of all existence, present  within each extant being, I instinctively knew it to be true.  That is to say that it corresponds to my own inner experience of what reality is, something that has never left me.  If you choose, you may glorify it by such a term as “natural mysticism,” but that feels much too grandiose for me.  I had taken a college course on the pre-Socratics, and had been impressed already then by Thalus’s “All is water.”  When I read just a bit about cosmic origins and the Big Bang, the sense that all matter throughout the universe is “stardust,” all from that same source, moved me deeply. 

The sense that the real work of Judaism, as a spiritual path, was to be “seekers of unity,” dorshey yiḥudekha, immediately linked itself to that sense of discovering and celebrating the underlying oneness of existence.

I believe that there is only One.  Better said: I have glimpses of an inner experience that tells me that there is only One. That One embraces, surrounds, and fills all the infinitely varied forms that existence has taken and ever will take.  We Jews call out that truth twice daily in reciting Shema‘ Yisra’el, “Hear, O Israel.”  “Y-H-W-H is One” means that there is none other. Our daily experience of variety, separate identity, and alienation of self from other renders an incomplete and ultimately misleading picture of reality.

Of course I understood that the personification of that unity, yiḥud, into a God-figure was the work of the collective human mythic imagination, manifest in all its multiple forms.  But is its very animation, the view of that inner One as an active force, also myth?  There I was forced to admit (reading bits of Cassirer, Tillich, Neumann, and others) that the line between the mythic mind and the ancient truth that it seeks to garb in its narrative is quite impossible to draw.  (See #3 below.)

2. Can you explain your ideas of universalizing and de-anthropomorphizing. This is important in that you have moved on from directly accepting Hasidut, even as Neo-hasidut to now a universalizing of the ideas.

From its inception, neo-Hasidism understood the obligation to universalize.  This was present in both of the key founding figures of neo-Hasidism as a religious ideology (as opposed to a literary/artistic trope), Buber and Zeitlin.  It certainly is true of Heschel as well, who (in Zeitlin’s footsteps) is trying to articulate a Jewish phenomenology of what it means to be a religious human being.  I very much stand in their tradition. 

This stands in sharp contrast to the Yitzhak Ginzburgh version of neo-Hasidism, that picks up many of the most awful defensive and chauvinist passages in the Hasidic corpus and extends them into our very different context, where they come out as blatant racism.  Neo-Hasidism, almost by definition, involves selection from within the Hasidic tradition, and the wisdom of that selection process is what makes all the difference.

Regarding de-anthropomorphizing: Living and thinking in our very psychology-soaked era, it was clear to me quite early that all our images of God were human projections.  Discovering that Maimonides already understood this, and that one had to get beyond them in order to establish a pure God-idea (which I then existentially translated into “a true relationship with God”), was liberating to me. 

The little article I did on “The Children in Egypt and the Theophany at the Sea” (1975) was critical in this; there I tried to show that the roots of such an awareness might occasionally be found even in the rabbinic sources.  Once you admit that our images of God depend upon the needs of the hour (“At the sea He appeared to them as a youth; at Sinai as an elder” – בים נראה להם כבחור, בסיני נראה להם כזקן), all the rest follows.The source to which I refer here will be familiar to many readers from its inclusion in the synagogue’s An‘im Zemirot.  Just like the author of that hymn, I have underscored my awareness that this is all “appearance,” I feel free to let my mythic imagination create freely – though I would probably not “re-mythologize” as wildly as he did.

For a long time (some decades, into mid-life), I felt that the projected images were a burden.  In particular, the fixation of Judaism on parental and royal imagery for the divine kept us trapped in an infantile relationship to Y-H-W-H, which I already understood as the breath of all life or the inner spirit of existence itself.  The discovery of that sort of divinity-within-all should be a liberating, exciting, and utterly joyous process/event.  But how can we open ourselves to those emotions, if we are ensconcing that Spirit in the garb of a forbidding, commanding, and guilt-producing father figure?  I look back on my 18 year-old rejection of such a deity as a personal redemption from my own bondage, yetsi’at mitsrayim, and remain ever wary of such religion.

With age, I have becoming more forgiving of the human need to personify, in order to relate in a way that involves heart as well as mind.  I was influenced by my encounter with R. Nahman, who insisted that the spiritual path demands that you burrow through your emotional tangle, in order to uplift and transform that part of you, in contrast to the classic ḤaBaD and Maimonidean position of trying to transcend it and deal directly with the detached contemplative mind. 

I also saw the moral implications of personification (“Just as He is gracious and compassionate, so should you…” etc.) and the need for it in the assertion of Judaism’s core moral claim, that each human being is an image of God.  For that, a degree of personification is required. 

And if one is going to allow for that, do it richly, letting the mythic imagination take its course – as long as you remain aware that that is what you’re doing.  I have found my study of the Zohar tremendously helpful in that.  I can allow the One to manifest as Father and King, as long as it is also manifest as Queen and Mother, as Stream and Lake, as Mountain and Sea, etc. The chapter on the sefirot in my Guide to the Zohar, while written as intellectual history, is also directly tied to my theological project.

The Kabbalist understands the sefirot (read: “symbols”) as a bridge that links and allows for communication between the infinite God and the finite human mind.  So do I.  The seemingly great difference is that they see God as the builder of that bridge, while I think it is a human product.  But when you’re walking across a bridge, the question “Who built this bridge?” is not one you always have to answer.

3. How does divine oneness call us? If God language is personal creation, how to hear the call of the Divine oneness as real?

I do not know a God who speaks in human language.  I recall Heschel, in one of his more Maimonidean moments, saying in class (I am quoting from memory): “What does it mean to say ‘God speaks?’  Does God have a larynx?  Does God have a voice box?”

The essence of revelation, for me, lies in the single word “Where are You?” ayekah, spoken to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, repeated as the “I am,” anokhi, of Sinai.  That word is “spoken,” or “addressed,” to each human being from within, if we open ourselves to hear it.  It is an instinctive call, not unrelated to other instincts, but unique to humans because of the development of the brain, making for the human “soul” as well.  This “voice” says: “Human being! Ben Adam! Who are you?  What are you doing here, for this instant of evolutionary time in which you live?  ‘Whence did you come and where are you going?’  What’s the purpose of it all? Figure it out!”  (For us more complicated and potentially jaded types, that divine command also includes “Defy absurdity!”)

Most human beings spend their lives ignorant of that inner voice, being too busy, struggling for daily bread and psychological survival, to pay it any mind.  Many others live in active flight from it, with its great implied demands.  Religions were created in order to protect us from that voice as well as to make us aware of it, to provide safe and ready-made “answers” to its great question.

All the rest of Torah, both written and oral, ongoing in its evolution to this day, is our Jewish attempt – our version of the great human attempt – to respond to that “Where are you?” and “I am.”

Ah, you will say.  But aren’t you a monist?  Can a monist possibly say that the Torah is human and not divine in origin?  If it is created by the human soul, isn’t that the divine “voice” within the person as well?  How can a monist make such distinctions?

“Yes, you’re right,” I will respond.  There is only One.

4. Can you explain our need for ego transcendence? What is our relationship to the transcendent, awareness-daat?

I remain Heschel’s student, despite my great distance from him on the personhood issue.  Shai Held is right in saying that self-transcendence is a key concept in Heschel, as it is to me. For Heschel, that self-transcendence means submission to the will and moral demand of a personal force.  To me it means submission to a personified oneness and wholeness of Being (Y-H-W-H), of which we are a part.

‘‘Transcendence’’ in the context of my faith does not refer to a God ‘‘out there’’ or ‘‘over there’’ somewhere beyond the universe, since I do not know the existence of such a ‘‘there.’’ Transcendence means rather that Y-H-W-H—or Being—is so fully present in the here and now of each moment that we could not possibly grasp the profundity of  that  presence. Transcendence thus dwells within immanence.    Transcendence is first and foremost an epistimological truth, as it mostly is for Maimonides.  I make no ontological claim for it.  There is no ultimate duality here, no ‘‘God and world,’’ no ‘‘God, world, and self,’’ but only one Being and its many faces – including our own.

In some part, it was Zalman Schachter who saved Judaism for me, when he said, so simply: “Judaism is a  devotional path,” in his Yiddish original: Yiddishkeyt is a derekh in avoide.  That devotion was precisely what I was looking for: something higher/deeper to which I could dedicate my life.  “I am a servant of the blessed Holy,” ana ‘avda de-kudsha brikh hu, never fails to touch me.

Devotion and service is what it is all about for us ḥasidim and neo-ḥasidim, for us Heschelians and neo-Heschelians.  To say that back in biblical language: “You shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.”  I stand in the awesome presence of the Cosmic One and say to it: “I am here to serve.”  I even feel called upon by the Cosmic One to serve in awe and in love. Avodat ha-shem itself transcends all theological explanations. Note my literal translation of the Zohar line above.  I seek a life of service to “the blessed Holy,” rather than the more conventional “the Holy One, blessed be He” –which then turns out to be yet another version of the Old Fellow in the sky.

This sense of ego-transcendence is tricky, but of special importance, in my sort of religion.  I understand the discovery of Y-H-W-H as a journey inward, rather than upward.  It is in the deepest heart of the person that the One is revealed.  But I am very much aware that this emphasis on inwardness can end up in a solipsism.  Especially in our very self-gratification-oriented culture, this is a constant danger. 

Bookstores too often have a “spirituality and self-help” section.  But “self-help” is the antithesis of what I mean by spirituality!  The journey inward is to take us to a place where the individual ego-self gives way to the cosmic Self that is manifest within each of us.  It forces us to realize the greater truth that the One I discover within is found in all the others as well.  This is how I read “Love your neighbor as yourself; I am Y-H-W-H.”  The demand to love your neighbor comes from your discovery that you are both outward manifestations – I would even say “incarnations” – of the same universal spirit.

5. What is faith? What is the role in faith of being aware and self -articulation to the One?

The distinction between “faith” and “belief” is one I originally learned from reading Buber and Tillich.  Unfortunately, Hebrew lacks a distinction between them; both are rendered by emunah.  In Tormented Master, I already contrasted R. Nahman’s emunah with that of Maimonides.  The RaMBaM meant “credence” in emunah.  “I believe in the following propositions.”  I recognize that “belief” is less certain than “knowledge” that can be rationally demonstrated, but I stand by them anyway.  For R. Nahman, emunah is on the greater, rather than lesser, side of rational knowledge; it is an existential stance, something I can express only with my entire self, and for which I would give my life.  Such faith can never be proven, only witnessed.  The way we live our lives is our testament to that faith.  I have tried.

6. How do we “know God” in prayer.

“Know” doesn’t feel like the right word here.  We pay attention to Y-H-W-H in prayer.  We leave behind the bustle of exterior life and open ourselves to the divine presence that is there within-and-around us always (sovev u-memale), but which we’re usually too preoccupied to notice.  I will repeat here my favorite of the many prayer-insights of Hasidism, one that has stayed with me for a long time.  R. Pinhas of Korzec: “People think you pray to God, but that is not the case.  Rather prayer itself is of the divine essence.”  The words of prayer are the occasion for, the background music to, the opening of the heart. 

Maimonides begins his list of commandments with “knowing God.”  Worship only comes after that.  The Introduction to the Zohar switches the order (if I’m remembering rightly).  Love and awe come first; it is they that lead to da‘at.  The Hasidic Me’or ‘Eynayim, which I have loved, taught, and translated for so many years, makes it clear that from the human point of view, as we ascend the sefirotic ladder, that it is indeed the opening of the heart – especially in prayer – that allows one to come to da‘at, in its full biblical sense.

7. What is your concept of mitzvah, or being commanded by the Oneness of the Divine?

I do believe that there is a divine imperative.  It is completely contained in the word ayekah or anokhi, as discussed above.  That inner voice calls out “Know Me!  Be aware!  See yourself as a tiny link in this great evolutionary journey that I have entered, and do your part!”  A second part of that command is “Share that awareness with others!  Help this awareness to spread through the human community, so that we all discover that we are part of the single Soul!”

We can find nice Jewish language for this (you see how important that quest is for me!) in the Talmudic statement that we only heard two commandments directly from God, mi-pi ha-gevurah, “I am” and “I come to liberate you,” and therefore “Worship nothing else!”  They contain the entire teaching.

All the rest are the great blessing that our tradition, beginning with Moses, created for us, a wonderful set of vessels, kelim, to capture and contain the great light of divine presence.  If you like, you may say that I give precedence to the secondary meaning of mitsvah widely found in Hasidic sources, deriving it from the Aramaic tsavta, “togetherness.”  The mitsvah is a place, moment, occasion, where we have the opportunity to be together with that presence.

Mitsvah is carried out through a process called halakhah, which derives from “walking” and should be understood as a “path,” a way to walk through the world.  I very much regret its transposition into “law.” (Already, in the Septuagint’s rendered of torah, “teaching,” as nomos). Since I do not believe that transgressors of halakhah should be punished, either by God or by man, I cannot think of it as legally binding in the way law is binding. (I refer here to ritual, rather than ethical, obligations).  I understand it as a personal discipline that Jews may choose to take upon themselves to one degree or another, without judgment.  I believe such a discipline is valuable in one’s spiritual path, and I follow a good deal of it, quite happily, but out of loving choice, rather than out of legal obligation.

8. How does divine law become ever fashioned anew?

I understand that fashioning to take place within the ongoing evolutionary process.  This includes cultural and religious, as well as biological, evolution.  As a person who has given much of my life to the handing down of tradition, I hope that my students, and theirs, will receive a Judaism that is richer because of my having been here and added to it for this brief moment of my life.  That is the great privilege of engaging in a living oral tradition, torah shebe-‘al peh

The recognition that 611 of the 613 commandments are of Mosaic  (i.e. human) rather than heavenly origin, implies a chance of fallibility.  Even Moses (or “the biblical authors,” if you prefer) was shaped by the values and attitudes of his day. Because I love the set of tools tradition has given us, I am very loyal to them, and choose to live in accord with patterns they provide.  But there are exceptions to this, when my moral conscience demands.  Thus the Torah’s prescriptions regarding the status of women or with regard to the act of love between two men are no longer in effect in my Torah.  I understand them as reflecting the ethos of the ancient Near Eastern world in which the Torah was created.  So too the awful genocidal writ with regard to the Midianites and all the  prescribed slaughter of the seven Canaanite nations.

You will ask, of course, where this “moral conscience” comes from.  Isn’t it just an introjection of contemporary Western values, which you are then placing on a high pedestal than the Torah?  I reject that argument.  Our sages had a notion that Torah stands on an overriding principle, klal gadol.  Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai debated what it was.  Akiva proposed “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Ben Azzai objected, preferring “On the day God created humans, He fashioned them in the divine image; male and female he created them.” (TY, Nedarim 6:9; I am assuming he intended the full verse.)  In that case, any other mitsvah needs to pass the test offered by the klal gadol.  Does this practice diminish or degrade the divine image of some group of human beings?  If it does, it simply can’t be Torah.  We are forced to reinterpret those verses, just as Jews have always done.  But I emphasize that this principle must be invoked carefully and conservatively, only when I find no moral alternative.

9. How can a liberal Jew bring back parashat ha-ketoret, and kiur, even Orthodox Jews rarely say them?

WHAT???  You mean there are Jews who call themselves “Orthodox” and do not say the ketoret every day?  I’m SHOCKED!  How DARE they call themselves “Orthodox!” Or, in other words: “Orthodox, Schmorthodox.”  That nomenclature means nothing to me.  Each of us Jews is an heir to the entire tradition.  As heirs, yorshim, we have a right to decide what to do with the traditions we have inherited.  Which ones each of us chooses to keep and pass on, and which ones we either cast aside or leave for others, is up to us.  I believe that each of us adults must take responsibility for our own spiritual lives.  I have come to find daily saying the ketoret meaningful.  I have not found meaning in having my clothes checked for Shaatnez.  Yes, I know that the former is only a late-instituted custom, the latter is a Torah-written commandment, mitsvah de-oraita.  So sue me.  Tell me I’m not Orthodox; I’ll agree.  But don’t tell that I shouldn’t be saying parashat ha-ketoret,  (or even Pitum ha-ketoret which I don’t say – at least in a Rosenzweigian “not yet”), or can’t, because I’m not Orthodox.  Sure I can.

10. People who are close to you have noticed that you seem more traditional in the last few years? Any thoughts?

Yes, it’s true.  Somewhere around age 65, I said to myself “It’s time to grow up.  Enough of adolescent rebellion.  You’re too old for that.” The truth is that I was very deeply wounded by my neurotic and somewhat obsessive attraction to Judaism between the ages of 12 and 18.  A kid from an avowedly secular home, I discovered a book called The Code of Jewish Law, Kitsur Shulḥan ‘Arukh, and judged myself by its standards.  It took me a very long time, indeed several decades, to recover.  When I did, I said “But this is the way you want to live, isn’t it?”  That allowed me to become a rather consistently observant Jew, though doing things my own way.

As I age, gratitude grows as an essential part of my devotional life.  I have now just about completed a commentary on the siddur that I have been working on for over twenty years, and am preparing it for publication.  Some readers of Radical Judaism will be surprised by its pious tone, and I believe that has to do with a mellowing that is related to the aging process.

11. This book is divine warmth, full of faith and light, not the abyss and the void  You seem to have much less of Rav Nachman’s empty void and much less doubt. Have you moved more to a personal God filled universe to replace Rav Nachman’s paradox and void?

Yes, that’s very perceptive.  I wrote about R. Nahman in my 30’s, but then I mostly left him behind.  He was just too “Tormented” to serve as a spiritual guide for.  I also felt that he was implicated in what became Breslov, where the claim is that by crying out and reciting the 10 Psalms every day, you could redeem yourself from sin.  That would be attractive to a personality that was obsessed with sin.  I found that there was a sense of “wallowing” in guilt and atonement – despite all the calls for joy and the promises of redemption– that was an essential component of Breslov.  I wanted no part of it.  Instead, I turned to the Me’or ‘Eynayim, and through him back to the BeSHT, for a much healthier and more holistic sort of Jewish spirituality. The turn from the Void to the “God filled universe” as you so aptly put it, is directly a part of that.

12. Many falsely seek to connect your thought to that of Mordecai Kaplan or even to a naturalism without a God. How are you more a student of Heschel than of anyone else?

For those who don’t know, I was a student of Abraham Joshua Heschel, not Mordecai Kaplan.  Despite the significant degree to which I move beyond Heschel, that very much remains the case.  For Kaplan, as I understand him, religion is at its core a social phenomenon, a society’s way of articulating and keeping faith with its highest values.  Despite Mel Scult’s impressive efforts to present the seeker and poet in Kaplan, I think this socio-civilizational approach, with Jewish peoplehood at the center of the circle, is bedrock Kaplan. 

Bedrock Heschel, for me, are the first hundred pages of God in Search of Man, describing religion as being about the inner life, “depth theology,” as he calls it.  Religion, in this case Judaism, exists in order to offer a set of tools for the cultivation of that inwardness, rather than serving primarily as a social phenomenon or a projection of communal values.  The essential way-stations in Heschel’s inward journey, and mine, are wonder and mystery, awe and love. The Jewish people is an entity that shares this ancient legacy of spiritual language, one that both Hasidism, Heschel’s  entry-place to Judaism, and mine, neo-Hasidism, seek to revive. 

I share with Heschel a concern about the secularization of consciousness in our modern and post-modern world, a loss of the sense of mysterious profundity of life, the loss of values like reverence and humility that are inspired by an openness to that profundity.  I rejoice in the fact that the questions Heschel raises there are universal, reaching far beyond Judaism into an examination of what it means to be a religious human being, in the broadest sense.  I also share his assertion that our response to the perception of divine presence in the world has to an activist one, working to create a human society in which the divine image is respected in every human being, and where malkhut Shaddai will be realized in a way that means shedai le-khol beriotav, the more equal sharing of wealth and resources among the needy.  This is ever more true today, as we face the potential devastation of our planet’s natural resources, due to human greed and over-consumption on the part of us privileged ones. Seeing inwardness and the individual’s quest as the core of religion does not lean toward a turning aside from social responsibility and religion’s great power to transform the world for good.  Toward this goal, alliance with other such progressive religious forces in the world is a necessity, and Heschel took a lead in that as well.

Although I, like Heschel, ground my theology in the testimony of inner experience, I diverge from him precisely on our question for today, reformulated as “What do you mean when you say Y-H-W-H?”  I turn to the Hebrew rather than the English term because I have no particular investment in defending use of the word “G-O-D,” deriving as it does from the Anglo-Saxon version of ancient Germanic tongues, stemming from the language of European paganism.  But the shem havayah does have ultimate meaning for me. My theology may rightly be described as a mystical and monistic panentheism.  While committed to many elements of traditional religious language, I am ultimately a monist;  I seek to understand the Jewish faith in one God as pointing beyond itself toward the ultimate oneness of all being. 

 Heschel needs there to be a divine voice that comes from beyond the mystery, a transcendent declaration of love and call to action.  For him, the ultimate needs to be personal, and vice versa.  He needed that because he feared the indifference of an abstract God. For me, it is from within the ‘av he-‘anan, rather than from beyond it, that I feel myself called.  To say it differently, I believe that there is a deep monistic stream within Jewish mystical thought, one that lies hidden behind the face of the religious personalism that had been inherited from earlier eras.  Ours is an age, I believe, when that understanding of Judaism needs to be taken “out of the closet.”

Recently an undergraduate at Yeshiva University mentioned me to one of his teachers there, asking whether he should read me, and was told: “Green is nothing but Kaplan with a Shtreimel.”  I rather enjoyed that. Just the thought of it…  I imagine that characterization goes back to Rabbi Daniel Landes’ somewhat nasty review of my Radical Judaism.

Hillel Zeitlin once argued that Spinoza saw the world as a machine immutably governed by the laws of nature, but the Ba‘al Shem Tov saw this same world as an ongoing work of art, with God as the Artist/Creator ever fashioning it anew. I stand within this tradition of my Hasidic and neo-Hasidic forebears.

Harry Freedman— Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Decades ago, I visited Louis Jacobs in his London home in order to meet him and to ask him if he had any understandings of Rabbi Zadok Hakohen of Lublin to share. Jacobs, wearing a three-piece tweed suit in June, invited me up to his study, offering me a cup of tea in bone china cup with saucer. We had a long conversation on many topics. He had nothing to proffer regarding my queries concerning Rabbi Zadok or about Hasidism. However, he spent much of the time telling me how he does not understand the American Conservative movement allowing women rabbis, or even an egalitarian service. Jacobs had a ready screed about how his wife, Shula would not want to be part of an egalitarian service and he did not see the need for any egalitarian changes. He emphatically emphasized that the important issues were about a reasonable faith and freedom of thought, not egalitarianism, which he called “wooly”. He presented himself as a traditional rabbi, who liked the high church of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy but felt that not enough attention was given to intellectual matters.

I was pleased, therefore, when a biography of Rabbi Louis Jacobs was published last month by Harry Freedman, Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs (Bloomsbury: Continuum, January 2021). Harry Freedman is Britain’s leading author of popular works of Jewish culture and history. His publications include The Talmud: A Biography, & Kabbalah. He has written for the GuardianJewish Chronicle, Jewish Quarterly, and Judaism Today.

The book Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs was well researched and well written. I read the entire book in a single sitting on a long winter Friday night evening. Freedman was given access to the voluminous files, scrapbooks, memorabilia, and newspaper clipping saved by Jacob’s wife Shula. She had attempted to save every program, lecture poster, handout, itinerary, and newspaper mention. In addition, Freedman, a solid researcher did extensive research in archives for letters and memorandum relating to Jacobs. For all this work, Freedman has produced a wonderful biography of Jacobs rich in detail and stories providing the best introduction to Rabbi Jacobs as a Rabbinic figure. No one should write or speak about Jacobs without reading this book first. Even if you think you already know enough about Jacobs, this book gives you the wider angle lens on an important 20th century rabbi.

Freedman presents Jacobs as a young rabbi from Gateshead with great potential who turned down more Eastern European pulpits such as Golders Green for a high church formal synagogue in which he played the role of a traditional Anglo-Jewry rabbi wearing canonicals and officiating over a synagogue with a choir. Here, Louis Jacobs and his wife Shula, became deeply loved by the congregants and in return he loved them. He was an ideal pulpit rabbi dedicated to ministering to his congregation and giving classes on timely issues. Some of these lectures were pushing the limits of conventional United Synagogue Orthodox, especially when they were written up in book form.

Jacobs had a quest for truth, He held traditional attitudes but assumed he had enough intellectual latitude to focus on foundational questions of what can be verified based on 1950’s philosophy as his life’s goal. For example, the 1950’s philosophy of the analytic philosophers, Ayer, Flew, Hick taught that the existence of God cannot be verified. For Jacobs, mysticism, and specific Jewish mysticism, offers an empirical way to ground belief in a theistic God, even if Jacobs himself had no interest in practicing anything associated with Hasidism. (This topic has not been sufficiently discussed in prior scholarship on Jacobs, I may give a talk on it someday).

However, his lectures on the origins of the Bible got Jacobs embroiled in controversy for the rest of his life. Jacobs assumed that being an Orthodox rabbi meant following the Orthodox rite, but it allowed him full intellectual attitude, the way Anglican clergy followed the formal Anglican rite but should have full intellectual latitude. His congregation was a high social class congregation with government officials, financiers, and authors was expected to have latitude and be different than the more working class congregations of Eastern European immigrants in other neighborhoods.

Bear in mind, that at that time in Britain there was never a divide between Orthodox and Conservative movements, and that Jews College had formerly had a graduate of the historical oriented Breslau seminary as its head and that learning in Jews College was generally historical in orientation. United Synagogue observance levels, especially in the wealthier neighborhoods, were similar to 1950’s New York Conservative congregation.

Jacobs’ friend William Frankel, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, suggested to Jacobs that he move from pulpit life to teaching at Jews College, the seminary for British rabbis, as a means of having more intellectual freedom. Life did not go that way. The move generated more controversy and Jacobs could not stay at Jews College, but the United Synagogue under Chief Rabbi Brodie would not let him return to the helm of his prior synagogue. At that point, his congregants broke away and started a new congregation for him, outside of the United Synagogue system, which he presided over for the rest of his career.

Whereas most discussion of the Jacobs controversy globalized the issue into big ideological questions of the entire trajectories of the Orthodox and Conservative movements or big questions about Biblical criticism, this book returns the discussion to a specific man, his teachings, and his relationship to a specific number of colleagues and superiors. Jacobs as man, was a rabbi with a bee in his bonnet about his views of Biblical criticism. One gets to see how Jacobs brought up the topic of Biblical criticism even when teaching Talmud or Hasidut. I was especially struck by his review of Nechama Leibowitz as only good for a devotional study since she does not mention Biblical criticism. On the other hand, his friend Frankel used the power of the paper to float ideas of how Jacobs could spearhead a liberal change to the United Synagogue, especially if he were eventually to become chief rabbi. The contingency of the events comes out in a way prior discussion elides by focusing on big ideological questions.   

Most of the book is dedicated to Jacobs the rabbi. We seen him responding to the events of the day, we see him running adult education programs, we see him on multiple speaking tours to the USA, we see him getting job offers for his works on Talmud and Hasidut from multiple American universities such as Dartmouth and Indian, and we see him giving eulogies, for example for the Beatles manager Brian Epstein with the Beatles and various rock stars in attendance. Unfortunately, we also feel his pain when he is unable to formally officiate at weddings after the controversy. Most of all we see Jacobs as a prolific writer with almost twenty academic books and popular articles every week.  Interestingly, Freedman find a letter where Rabbi Soloveitchik expressed a not very high opinion of Jacobs.

A few caveats on the book. People and places are not introduced for the uninformed reader.  If you do not know who someone is or where a London address is located, you may be a bit disoriented. A reader needs to know about the West End and Golders Green, as well as who William Frankel, Chaim Perl, or Rabbi Dessler are, before reading the book. Epithets needed to be added throughout and even a few short paragraphs of introduction to places, ideas, and people. Topics like Jews College, Anglo-Jewish custom and the United Synagogue needed a few paragraph introductions for those not in the UK. Finally, as a focused biography, Freeman stuck tightly to his subject and did not contextualize Jacobs in his predecessors in Anglo-Jewish life such as Herbert Loewe whom Jacobs quoted approvingly for his definition of Orthodoxy. But do not let these trifles stop you from reading this book.  

The book is worth it just for the archives of ephemera about Jacobs life. But Freedman does not stop at that point, he skillfully wove this material together in a very readable narrative for the lay person. A biography highly recommended for a winter’s evening and for furthering discussion of a controversial figure. A well-done achievement, splendid, bully for Freedman.

I have blogged about Anglo-Jewish tradition, the high church Victorian version of a modernized Orthodoxy. I also a number of years ago gave a talk on the topic at LIMMUD-UK  comparing it to American patterns. See here on Herbert Loewe’s Anglo Orthodoxy, here on Rev Abraham Cohen, editor of the Soncino Bible, here on Isadore Epstein editor of the Soncino Talmud, here on RabbI JH Hertz on the Aggadah, and here on Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits (I wrote this one up as an article). On Louis Jacobs specifically, here are my thoughts whether Jacobs views on the Bible could have been accepted, especially since his views were close to Jacob Agus.


  1. How did you come to this project?

I had known Rabbi Louis Jacobs for almost all of my life. He had grown up alongside my father in Manchester and they and their future wives were active together in Torah v’Avodah, a Mizrachi-sponsored youth movement during the 1930s and 1940s. I became particularly close to Rabbi Jacobs when I was appointed Chief Executive of the Masorti movement in Britain, and I regarded him as my rabbi. He had a captivating combination of profound learning and great personal charm.

I have been friendly with his son Ivor Jacobs for many years and we agreed that as his father’s 100th birthday approached it would be appropriate to publish his biography. My publisher at Bloomsbury, who had previously published Jacobs’s A Jewish Theology, was enthusiastic and the project evolved from there.

2. If Jacobs was never really a candidate for Chief Rabbi, and it was not his aspiration, should we retire the canard that he was the best chief rabbi Britain never had?

One of the favorite themes of the Jewish press in Britain, and a frequent topic of conversation around many Jewish dinner tables, is the question of who would become the next Chief Rabbi. Jacobs wrote prolifically and lectured widely; he was a consummate communicator. Even as a young man he was widely touted as a prospective Chief Rabbi and the assumption that he would be appointed to the post grew as he matured at the New West End. Jacobs however never expressed any ambition to be chief rabbi. He said that if he had wanted the position, he would have been foolish to resign his pulpit at the New West End in order to take an academic post at Jews’ College, the institution that trained Anglo- Orthodox ministers.

Jews’ College had always been seen as a liberal minded institution within orthodoxy, but its use of the term ‘ministers’ rather than ‘rabbis’ indicate its priorities. It was not particularly concerned with Talmudic erudition, its role was to train pastors who would minister to the spiritual needs of a largely unobservant centrist orthodoxy. Jacobs took the Jews’ College post with the ambition of becoming its Principal. He wanted to widen the curriculum to incorporate more intensive Talmudic study as well as a greater awareness among the student body of academic biblical criticism. His ambition was to train a generation of open minded, secularly educated, Talmudically literate scholars who were both ministers and rabbis, who were able, as he was, to excel in both the yeshiva and the academy.

He was held in very high esteem by the Jewish community at large, including several of his rabbinic colleagues, who supported him and spoke up for him when the Jacobs Affair broke out. Even if he did not have an ambition to become Chief Rabbi, the popular assumption – encouraged by the Jewish Chronicle- was that he would be appointed to the post. He was a man of great personal integrity and deep loyalty to British Jewry; had he been approached he would almost certainly have taken the job, even if it were against his better judgement.

Had Jacobs been appointed to the post, his learning and personality would almost certainly have led to become an outstanding Chief Rabbi, one who would have stood up to the encroaching ultra-orthodox influence on centrist United Synagogue orthodoxy. So, it is probably right to describe as the phrase “Best chief rabbi we never had” as correct, even though it was not an appointment he craved.

3. What role did William Frankel play in creating the controversy?

William Frankel, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, felt that British Jewry was being held back by the conservatism of the United Synagogue rabbinate who, since the war, had fallen ever more deeply under the influence of right wing orthodoxy. He wanted to refresh British Jewry, to introduce new ideas and he saw the rabbi of his synagogue, Louis Jacobs as the man to do it.

Frankel used his newspaper to promote Jacobs in the public eye, getting him to write articles, opinion pieces and the anonymous, weekly Ask the Rabbi column. When it the Principal of Jews’ College neared retirement, Frankel led the campaign to have Jacobs appointed. When it became clear that the Chief Rabbi would not countenance Jacobs’s appointment, Frankel agitated strongly in his newspaper and stirred up public sympathy for Jacobs. He did the same when the Chief Rabbi later refused to allow Jacobs to return to his pulpit at the New West End Synagogue.

Frankel aspired to have Jacobs appointed as Chief Rabbi and it is likely that his campaigns were designed with this in mind. It is often conjectured that Frankel manipulated Jacobs, using him as a pawn in his grand strategy for British Jewry, encouraging him neither to back down in his theological views nor to seek a compromise. This view does justice to neither man. Jacobs was uncompromisingly committed to his theological position, he had plenty of opportunity to back down but refused to, because he prioritized truth over politics.

Frankel may have had a vision for British Jewry but his principal objective was to sell newspapers. Promoting Louis Jacobs had to come second to his commercial priorities.

4. When considering Jacob’s life, should we spend less time on the controversy between Jacobs and Rabbi Brodie? Why was he still in controversy until the end of his life?

The controversy established Jacobs in the public mind, but it distracted attention from his principal work which was to pursue his ‘Quest’; the discovery of Truth based on through scholarship and reason. The controversy pigeonholed Jacobs in the popular imagination as a man whose sole agenda was the question of Revelation. It has a place in the history of British Jewry and was important in framing the boundaries of authority in British orthodoxy, but Jacobs’s true legacy is his published oeuvre, not only theology, but also his other specialist subjects, Talmud, Mysticism and Hasidism.

The controversy may have presented as a battle between Jacobs and Brodie, but in practice it was a political struggle over who held authority over British orthodoxy, and the role of the United Synagogue, its Bet Din and Chief Rabbi as arbiters of what and was not permitted. This meant that United Synagogue rulings had to be acceptable to right wing orthodoxy. The United Synagogue was therefore always more severe in its pronouncements than the community expected.

The question played out primarily in the spheres of conversion and marriage. The London Bet Din refused to accept Jacobs’s conversions as valid and for a long time refused to recognize the halachic legitimacy of weddings carried out in his synagogue. This placed Jacobs, in orthodox eyes, on a par with a Reform rabbi, which was a matter of considerable anguish to his congregation who always regarded themselves as an independent orthodox congregation.

These political matters may have died down in time, had Jacobs not been a well-known public figure. The United Synagogue was always on the back foot regarding Jacobs, as far as the rest of the community concerned. Most members of the United synagogue were, at least in those days, only nominally orthodox. They preferred to attend a synagogue with traditional services because it reminded them of their childhood days, they would probably make kiddush on a Friday night, but they were rarely fully shabbat observant or fully kosher.

Jacobs, whose prolific writings appeared frequently in bookshops and in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle seemed to them to be the epitome of a down-to-earth, levelheaded English rabbi. They did not understand why he was outside the tent as far as their own rabbi and the United Synagogue was concerned. They could not understand why, if a future spouse of their one of children needed to convert, the process could not be led by Rabbi Jacobs, and they did not understand why their children’s weddings should not held in the attractive New London Synagogue with its mixed seating (for weddings only) and mixed choir.  

This, together with the continuing objections from Jacobs’s congregation to what they saw as discrimination, had the effect of making the United Synagogue far more critical publicly of Jacobs than they would have been had he just rolled over and gone away. The issue, as far as the United Synagogue rabbinate was concerned was always that of Torah from Heaven, it was Jacobs’s views on this which they presented as unanswerable proof of his illegitimacy. They were not interested in the historical nuances of the question, or whether Jacobs could cite, far better than they could, those significant Talmudic and medieval authorities who seemed to lend some credence to his argument.

The controversy was given fresh wind in the 1990s, after Masorti had been formed.  In October 1991 the President of the United Synagogue initiated a review to outline the organization’s priorities in the years ahead. Known as the Kalms Report, the review identified Masorti as far more successful than the United Synagogue in attracting new members. But it began to show cracks when Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks criticized Masorti as intellectual thieves in an ultra-orthodox newspaper, then telephoned Rabbi Jacobs to say he hadn’t meant him.

The struggle over religious authority persists today in British orthodoxy, but the United Synagogue is less dominant than it was and the community more pluralistic, so the tensions are somewhat eased.

5. It seems he was never really part of the British Masorti movement, is that correct? Why did he want to cling to the Orthodox affiliation? Was Rabbi Sacks correct that he was right wing Conservative? 

The British Masorti movement was founded by people who wanted to see a Conservative movement in Britain. Two of the three the founders, who included his son, were members of Jacobs’s New London Synagogue and it was clear to them that his theology should be that of the movement they hoped to start. They also believed that his theology and teachings should be promulgated more widely within British Jewry. So, it made sense to them that he be encouraged to head up a new Conservative/Masorti movement.

Rabbi Jacobs however was not enamored of the idea. He had grown up in Orthodoxy, been heavily involved with the religious Zionist movement Mizrachi and studied in elite strictly orthodox circles in the Gateshead kollel, alongside such luminaries as Rabbi Dessler. He considered himself to be an Orthodox rabbi and he did not believe that his theological interest in biblical criticism undermined the centrist orthodoxy then prevalent in Britain. His New London synagogue was founded by a breakaway from the orthodox New West End, and he and the congregation were in no doubt that they were an independent Orthodox synagogue. To his mind it was Orthodoxy which had changed, not he.

However, he did feel isolated in British Jewry and he did try to bring other synagogues into the New London orbit; not as a movement but as ‘like-minded’ communities. For a while it looked as if the Singers Hill synagogue in Birmingham and Garnethill synagogue in Glasgow would ally with the New London, but ultimately the membership of both congregations dissented.

So although he did not wish to create a movement he was not dismissive of those who did. When it was apparent that the Masorti movement was to be established (initially known as Masorati), he agreed to act as its spiritual guide. But his mantra was always ‘We are a mood, not a movement.’

It was Frankel who brokered the relationship between Jacobs and Wolfe Kelman, and with JTS more generally. Jacobs became close to the Conservative  movement in the USA, corresponding regularly with Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, and for a while he was in touch with Professor Finkelstein about taking up a position at JTS. I do not believe that he was particularly exercised by working in an academic Conservative institution; His interest was in truth, wherever it resided.

However, Rabbi Sacks’s categorization of Jacobs as right-wing conservative has to be seen in the context of Sacks’s own journey. As a student Sacks had corresponded with Jacobs, and Jacobs always felt that Sacks was sympathetic to his views. But Sacks would not have achieved his ambition of becoming Chief Rabbi and establishing a voice for himself in word Jewry, had he not distanced himself as far as he could from Jacobs.

6. What do you see as the high points of his illustrious career?

He was continually in the public eye, but other than his academic celebrity and publishing record, the three moments that most stand out as high points were those of public recognition:

a) The 1965 invitation from the San Francisco Council of Churches to represent Judaism, in the presence of President Lyndon B. Johnson and U Thant at the 20th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the United Nations.

b) the award of a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) 1990 by the Queen, marked by a ceremony at Buckingham Place.  

c) His victory in the Jewish Chronicle poll to discover the Greatest British Jew- a victory that he found embarrassing.

Jacobs was self-effacing about all these honors, but they demonstrate the extent of his intellectual achievement and his global reputation.

7. What is the tension between the West End Orthodoxy following an Anglo Jewish Tradition and the rest of Orthodoxy, or between minhag Anglia and the new patterns?

Jacobs saw New West End orthodoxy as representing the “Anglo Jewish Tradition”.In the Anglo Jewish Tradition, synagogue services were formal and reminiscent of High Church Anglicanism; top hats, canonicals, a procession of clergy and wardens into synagogue before the Reading of the Law and a recessional at the end of the service, standing on the steps to shake the hands of the congregation as they emerged.

They used Simeon Singer’s Authorized Daily Prayer Book which had a blue cover and red page edges, like the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The synagogues had mixed choirs, public prayers for the restoration of sacrifices were not recited, This tradition was mostly to be found in the cathedral synagogues in the city centers; New West End, Hampstead and the Central in London; Princes Road in Liverpool, Singers Hill in Birmingham, Garnethill in Glasgow. The tradition was less prevalent in the poorer areas, where the congregations remained closer Eastern European traditions, but even there, there are echoes of it could be found.

Minhag Anglia is the modern incarnation of this tradition, as reflected in the Sacks-Koren machzorim. It is not a rite that would have been recognized at the New West End. Referring to their tradition using a Hebrew name would have been anathema to the New West End

Theology rarely played a part in British Jewry, but middle of the road orthodoxy, whether or not it considered itself part of the Anglo Jewish Tradition, tended to the ‘progressive conservatism’ of Chief Rabbi Hertz. Hertz had been the first rabbi to graduate from JTS, shortly after the institution’s founding, and although he defended the literal account of Revelation, there was very little visible difference between early 20th century American Conservatism and British, United Synagogue orthodoxy.

This changed after World War II, with the arrival of rabbis from Europe. The more hardline Dayan Chanoch Abramsky was appointed by the barely observant President of the United Synagogue to the London Bet Din, in order to act as a foil to the autocratic Chief Rabbi Hertz. His appointment changed the character of British orthodoxy. United Synagogue orthodoxy became less compromising in terms of Jewish law, but by ditching canonicals, top hats and Anglican-inspired formality, it appeared to be more modern. By the time of the Jacobs Affair the old Anglo Jewish Tradition was on the wane, Louis Jacobs’s New London Synagogue was possibly the only place to retain it. British Jews, who saw the modernization of the services as a positive step, and appeared oblivious to the more rigorous application Jewish law did not seem to mind.

8. Where do you differ from prior discussions of Jacobs? 

My book is concentrates Jacobs’s biography without any attempt to analyze his theology or subject his thought to critique. It is intended as a biography, telling his life story, not an academic study. Louis Jacobs wrote an autobiography but it is necessarily subjective and only covers his life until the 1980s.

In contrast, an unpublished PhD thesis, presented an intellectual biography of Louis Jacobs illustrated how his theology reflected his life story is academically rigorous, but is not aimed at the popular market. Another scholar, has a forthcoming book in which she examines his theology as a potential model for the evolving shape of British Jewry. I think that it may be somewhat over-optimistic to wonder whether a scholar born more than a century earlier will have significant influence on future generations. Those scholars who have worked on Jacobs have tended to emphasize theology over biography. I broadly share their views on Jacobs, although I tend to attribute a more conservative bias to Jacobs’s approach than they do; I believe that his adherence to the old pre-war ‘Anglo-Jewish tradition’ shows that he was no radical.

Not every scholar has been rigorous in their treatment of Jacobs. Some have been influenced by those with a religiously partisan agenda. One, speaking of former British Chief rabbis, falsely claimed that “Hertz and Brodie were traditional, Jacobs was not.”(!) My book clearly situates him as within a more traditional Anglo Jewish Tradition. 

9. What was his contribution to the modern study of Talmud?

Louis Jacobs was among the first generation of scholars who took an academic interest in the compilation, structure and editing of the Talmud. He had completed his PhD thesis on the economic life of Jews in Babylon, based on information he gleaned form the Talmud. He had a masterly command of Talmud and was able to recall almost any passage and could not only quote it verbatim but identify which page it was on and where it fell on the page.

Many of his early academic articles were on Talmud logic and argument. He explained to his readers how Talmudic logic operated by expressed the Talmudic debate in the form of numbered syllogisms, showing how the argument progressed.

Jacobs maintained that the Talmud was a literary composition. In his books Rabbinic Thought in the Talmud, and The Talmudic Argument he identified the techniques and conventions that its editors used to draw together material originating in various places and times into a work of unitary appearance. In his book Teyku he identified all the Talmudic discussions that concluded with the word teyku, over three hundred in total,  indicating that the problem under discussion was incapable of resolution, showing that in most cases they followed a literary pattern and suggested possible explanations of the phenomenon.

In the field of halakha, Jewish law, his best known work in this field is Tree of Life in which he provided case studies showing the flexibility of Jewish Law. He maintained that Jewish Law was dynamic, evolving over time in response to changing circumstances. He concluded the book with a chapter entitled Towards a Non-Fundamentalist Halakha in which he argued that Jewish Law was sufficiently flexible and creative to withstand the challenges of Higher Biblical Criticism.

10. Can you discuss his interest in mysticism?

He took a very strong interest in kabbalah and mysticism, particularly Chabad mysticism, and he does  seem to regard it as an essential component of the religious quest, although ancillary to the mainstream Jewish tradition. This I think is because he regarded reason, rather than mysticism, as the path to Truth. When speaking of the Talmud he would however say that behind every rigorous halakhist stands an imaginative aggadist, indicating that he recognized the importance of speculation, or at least the creative imagination, in shaping tradition, and it is possible that in the quietness of his own mind he might have contemplated mystical ideas. But as far as I am aware he never communicated such private thoughts openly.

Miri-Freud Kandel holds that Jacobs’s works on Hasidism- she has in mind Seeker of Unity on the life of R. Aaron of Starosselje- provide an entry point into understanding the role of Hasidism in constructing Jacobs’s theology, and help explain how Jacobs theology can be applied today. R. Aaron’s panentheism, she maintains, enables us to understand the limit of what we can truly understand from our human perspective and emphasizes the purpose of the journey towards truth, which Jacobs refers to as his Quest. 

Jacobs was a polymath, he was interested in every field of thought. His granddaughter relates how he learnt calculus just so that he could discuss her schoolwork with her.

11. Any thoughts on his 50 years of interest in Buddhism- including discussing Maharishi and inviting the Dalai Lama- but usually concluding in a somewhat critical way toward it?

Jacobs took an interest all religions and all aspects of Judaism, but there is nothing that either in his published work, or from the conversations I have had with his family in regard to this question, that indicates a greater interest in Buddhism. From what I understand for the family he invited the Dalai Lama at the request of some in his congregation.

He wrote an article about Transcendental Meditation after conducting the Memorial Service for Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, after the event brough him into contact with the guru’s prominent follower. He concluded that article with the words: Only a bigot would suggest that we have nothing to learn from Eastern serenity … For all that, it is Judaism and those influenced by her which have heard the cry of the poor and the distressed. Both Buddha and Moses cannot remain at ease in the king’s palace when suffering humanity groans outside its doors, but when Moses leaves it is to go out to his brethren.

12. My take away from reading your book was that his congregants deeply loved him and he loved them. Can you describe this relationship? 

Jacob’s appointment to the New West End Synagogue was the first time he had ministered to a cultured, wealthy, religiously middle-of -the-road community, other than a very short period at Munks in Golders Green, The New West End was very different both from the working-class Manchester he had had grown up in and the strictly orthodox world where Jacob’s had studied. It included several distinguished businessmen, professionals and diplomats. The congregation were culturally erudite, and their self-image was that of the British upper classes. For Louis and Shula Jacobs it felt like social advancement and they enjoyed it.

His congregation was drawn to him because he was young and enthusiastic, with young children and a wife who could make friends with anyone. Their previous rabbi had been very personable but was older, had been in post for some time, and Jacobs represented a breath of fresh air. He introduced study programs, brought fresh faces into the congregation and had the ability of talking seriously and informatively about Judaism at their level, rather than speaking over their heads.

The defining point in the relationship came when the Jacobs Affair broke out and he was not allowed to return to the New West End. Few in the congregation appreciated all the theological nuances but they saw themselves as thoroughly British and therefore duty bound to support an underdog. They were the old-money of the English community, their families had been running Anglo Jewry since the 19th century, and the United Synagogue that was thwarting them was led by nouveau-riche upstarts, self-made businessmen who had muscled their way into communal leadership but had none of the refinement which the old families believed they had.  The New West End community saw themselves as paternalistically supporting a bright and charismatic young man whose career was being impeded by people not born to communal leadership.

Jacobs was deeply touched by the support the congregation showed him when they resigned en-masse to set up the New London. He and the congregation became allies in a battle that was attracting considerable media interest and in which they all felt emotionally invested.

The relationship revolved around Louis and Shula Jacobs’s charisma and a deep personal interest in the congregation that made them all feel as if they were friends. They all called him Louis to his face, which may have seemed disrespectful to their rabbi but was indicative of the closeness they felt for him. Toward the end of his life, when the Jewish Chronicle ran its competition to find the Greatest British Jew, the congregation made sure that they sent in enough votes between them for him to win. It embarrassed him, but secretly he was touched.

13. Why did he never take any of the academic positions offered him, especially after his several American tours?

Jacobs heart was in the synagogue not the academy. He preferred to teach Judaism in a religious environment, a rabbinic college or a synagogue, rather than in a secular university. Had he been appointed Principal of Jews’ College and able to train a new generation of open-minded British rabbis, he would have had the best of both worlds. But that was not to be.

Louis Jacobs was an English Jew; it was part of his DNA. It is one of the reasons why he was so wedded to the Anglo Jewish Tradition, and why he never used the term minhag Anglia. Although there were periods in his career when it looked as if Britain held out no hope for him, he was reluctant to leave the country, for America or anywhere else, if he could possibly find a way of remaining.

There were also practical impediments to his leaving the country. He was an only child and felt a responsibility to his parents. His wife Shula felt similarly about her family. Her moth lived with them. When Jacobs’s mother died and his father was left alone he became even more determined to stay. And his children also resisted the possibility of a move, they were growing up as teenagers in London in the 1960s, nowhere else in the world held out the same appeal at that time.

If he had gone to America he would have worked in the Conservative movement. And although he was comfortable with Conservative theology, the day to day social issues that the American rabbinate dealt with were not those that interested him. He saw no reason for the relaxation of Jewish law that the Conservative movement was currently engaged in, e.g. granting permission to drive on Shabbat as long as it was only to synagogue. In Britain congregants had been driving to synagogue for years and parking around the corner, knowing that nobody would say a word. He very much preferred the understated British fudge when it came to matters of observance, to the American preference for openness and clarity.

The Idols of ISIS: From Assyria to the Internet – Interview with Aaron Tugendhaft

A major contemporary rabbi in Israel known for his Neo-Chassidus recounts how he once asked his teacher to go to ancient idolatrous places, meaning the archeological remains of Phoenician and Canaanite worship, in the land of Israel to destroy them. He asked if they could “go in the quiet of the night to destroy them.”  His teacher answered him that “everything will be revealed, and it therefor cause retaliation and endangering lives.”  But nevertheless, “we should share in the pain of the shekhinah who agonizes of the idolatry in the land, especially the Churches on Mt Zion.” And “our way to wage war is only a spiritual war” What motivates these rabbis to go beyond Jewish law and seek a purity over the past? What are the value of these sites as cultural heritage? And what vision of the polis are they seeking to create?

To help up conceptualize these questions we turn to a great new book by Aaron Tugendhaft, The Idols of ISIS: From Assyria to the Internet (University of Chicago Press, 2020). Tugendhaft teaches at Bard College Berlin. He received his PhD from the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University in 2012 and also holds degrees in Art History and Social Thought from the University of Chicago. In 2013, he received the Jonas Greenfield Prize for Younger Semitists from the American Oriental Society. He is the editor, with Josh Ellenbogen, of Idol Anxiety (Stanford 2011) and the author of Baal and the Politics of Poetry (Routledge 2018). His work moves between his PhD in Assyriology to his background in political theory and religious studies.

Tugendhaft’s book The Idols of ISIS: From Assyria to the Internet explores the political power of images and the significance of their destruction. In short, the book is smart, sharp, astute, and sophisticated. It is really just a 100-page essay leaving the reader wanting more or to spend the rest of the evening debating the application of the ideas in the book. The author had a very sharp insight and then rather than spend several years developing a full book, he wrote a three-chapter essay with insight for readers in religion, art, politics, Islam, history, and media studies. Idols of Isis is a deeply humanistic work asking the basic questions about the human condition.

The start of the book was the author watching ISIS destroy the Assyrian statues in the National Archeology Museum. They claimed the statues were idolatry while other saw them as universal cultural heritage or a Iraqi cultural heritage. 

Isis destroying Assyrian statues

This contemporary image brought to his mind the similar image from the reign of Sargon II of the destruction by three men of the rival kingdom’s images. This led to considerations of the political role of idols and the need to publicize their destruction. It also brought to mind that museums are not neutral spaces but political statements. Assuming that the public form is never without images, the question is why video their destruction? and why attack images in a Museum?

Destruction of statues in reign of Sargon II

The book has three chapters: Idols, Museums and Video

Idols, the first chapter, situates images, idols, and stories in the medieval thought of Al Farabi who understood that society must have images and stories so that the laws would be followed. Hence, the successful prophet knew how to use his imagination to create appropriate stories. (Maimonides follows Farabi’s thought and affirms the same ideas about prophecy and Moses’ leadership.) As much as Farabi (and Maimonides) want to escape representation, it is nevertheless essential to create the virtuous society. What is note worthy here is the use of Farabi rather than a modern theorist to explain idols. The chapter also discusses the thought of Sayyid Qutb, the ideology for the extreme Islamist groups who declared the USA and the Western world as idolatrous similar to the idols of the pre-Islamic ignorance, thereby conflating the past with the contemporary. There is a tension between Farabi’s concessions to the human need for images and those who aim to achieve purity for their visions of society.

Museums, the second chapter discusses how they are representative of who we want to be. Are the statues idols or cultural heritage?  However, all heritage is political. Are ancient pieces of art part of universal cultural heritage or national heritage. ISIS framed the destruction of the statues as idols but the real idol being destroyed was the Western universal heritage of art. Westerners saw the museum as cultural heritage. It includes discussion of the debate in Iraq of seeing themselves as Arabic or as a continuation of the Assyrians. Similar debates go on in many countries. Are Confederate statues heritage or idols of a past age needing to be removed?  (Are excavations of Canaanite sites part of Israeli heritage or against it? The state of Israel decided that they were heritage.)  

Mural showing Saddam Hussain’s embrace of the ancient Assyrian heritage

Video, the third chapter discusses how ISIS posting a video of the destruction is a replacement of the secular heritage by this new image that of an ISIS video. The ISIS video was meant to evoke rage and sharpen sides.  

The chapter also compared these images to video games. It creatively returns to Farabi by comparing his concept of how the image creates the common life of the polis with how modern social media technology creates individual experiences. Still following Farabi’s thought, the book states that political images should be investigated in how they arose, what did they choose, and what did they leave out. What does it say about our needs?

Idols of Isis is an engaging piece of cultural criticism, a passionate meditation on the tension between those seeking ideological purity in society and those seeking what he calls pluralistic grey zones of public discourse. If all this was not interesting enough,  the book has an undercurrent about Tugendhaft’s own family background as a Jewish Iraqi family who fled the June 1941 outbreak of mob violence against Baghdad Jewry known as the Farhud (Farhud is an Arabic term best translated as “pogrom” or “violent dispossession”) showing how Iraq went from a cosmopolitan country to one under ISIS concerned with purity.

  1. What is the drive to destroy idols?

The Hebrew prophets refer to idols as the work of human hands. Underlying the drive to destroy idols is an anxiety about that which we as human beings have brought into being. Specifically, anxiety about their authority.

Idolatry, that is, submission to idols, treats things that arose through our own power as if they had power over us. The desire to destroy idols is linked to a desire to escape responsibility for the authority that guides the way we live. True authority, according to this way of thinking, must come from somewhere beyond the human. It must be unsullied by all the imperfections that we rightly recognize as attending what humans have made. So, the drive to destroy idols is connected to the dream of living in a world without those imperfections always complicating the decisions we make and the actions we take. It’s, therefore, intimately linked to a desire to escape politics—by which I mean, that all too human method of taking collective responsibility for how we choose to live together. Like idols, politics is the work of human hands.

2. Why make a video of the destruction of idols?

Because you want your new image to rest authority from the destroyed image. There’s actually a long tradition of making images of image destruction.

Note that the new image is no less a work of human hands than the one shown being destroyed. And like the image being destroyed, the new one also makes claims about what we should value and how we should live. In this sense, the new image is no less an “idol” than the old ones shown being destroyed.

It might be helpful here to think of an idol not as a particular kind of image distinct from others, but as a way of experiencing an image. When the humanly made character of an image becomes problematic for us, when we experience anxiety over the authority that image exerts, then it has become an idol for us. The term “idol” can also be used as a reproach against others; by labeling certain images as idols, one group can try to generate anxiety in another group about the authority of the images that that second group had accepted unproblematically until then.

In the case of the Islamic State video from the Mosul Museum, one could plausibly argue that those being accused of idolatry weren’t really the ancient Assyrians but rather those of us today who instill a certain authority in images by putting them in museums and giving them the status of heritage. We might rightly be anxious about the ways such images assert power over us. The video of their destruction might get us to experience them as problematic in a way that we hadn’t before. Simply removing the images without recording that removal for people to see wouldn’t have the same effect; it’s the image of their destruction that challenges their authority. The new image is necessary for this change of perception to take place.

That said, an image of image destruction might not change people’s minds so much as further entrench them in their prejudices and presuppositions. We might double down on the images we adore when we experience them as under attack. That was certainly the case with the ISIS video. Heritage organizations around the world immediately condemned the Islamic State for not abiding by the cosmopolitan norms that images placed in museums are meant to cultivate in us.

It is important to stress that the new image is just as able as the old one to succumb to the anxiety that it is an idol.  Images depicting the destruction of idols may give the impression that false images are being eradicated, while in fact they are being replaced by new images that are equally false.

3. How is the story of Abraham/Ibrahim smashing the idols a political story?

The Quran recounts a story about how Ibrahim as a youth smashed the idols that were worshiped in his hometown. A similar story can be found in the Jewish Midrash (though not in the Torah).

The Mosul Museum video quotes a line from the Quranic story, implying that ISIS is continuing the work that Ibrahim began. Like many Jews who received a religious upbringing, I’ve been familiar with the story since childhood. But it was only after I saw it referenced in the ISIS video that I began to give it some thought. The more I thought about it, the more complex the story became.

In both Arabic and Hebrew, the core meaning of the verb usually translated as “worship” when associated with the divine is simply “serve.” The conventional translation risks losing the word’s political connotations. When Ibrahim/Abraham objects to his neighbors’ serving images rather than God, he is raising a question about where political authority should lie—whether with human beings and their manmade images or with a transcendent God who created the world and all mankind. Medieval elaborations of the Quranic story make the political implications explicit by associating the offensive images with the legendary king Nimrud. In the medieval imagination, Nimrud’s kingdom stood for the great Mesopotamian civilizations of the pre-Islamic past. By challenging the authority of Nimrud’s images—that is, the images by which Nimrud established his authority—Ibrahim is making a political statement, not just a theological one. He is calling for regime change.

It’s worth noting that the story in the Quran uses the words commonly translated as “image” and “idol” interchangeably. That is, to Ibrahim’s way of thinking there is no difference between them. All images are false and so subordinating oneself to any image constitutes idolatry. The young reformer doesn’t seem to want to replace Nimrud’s images with better images or truer images (whatever this might mean); he claims that the only legitimate regime is a regime without images. The people must serve God directly, without any mediation. I think the townsfolk are rightly skeptical of Ibrahim’s radical idea. There’s a certain conservative wisdom in their reply that they were simply serving the images as their ancestors had done.

4. How does Farabi understand the relationship among images, politics, and prophecy? How do images provide us with a “second nature”?

In order to get a tighter grip on what’s at stake in the idea of a “regime without images,” I turned to the political writings of the 10th century Baghdadi philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi. (In a letter to his Hebrew translator Ibn Tibbon, Maimonides once compared all of Farabi’s works to “fine flour.”) Developing insights that are already present in Plato, Farabi argued that political life is impossible without images and that human happiness is impossible without political life. So, if we want to be happy, we need to keep images around.

All political communities, Farabi argues, need laws that regulate the behaviors and desires of individuals so that they can live together successfully. These laws impinge upon our individual freedom and natural inclinations. (If we naturally wanted to do what the law wants us to do, there would be no need for the law.) And so, it is necessary to make the law seem desirable so that people will want to obey it. Images, for Farabi, are what make this possible. They give people a common orientation and a set of shared ideals that allow individuals to think of themselves as part of a greater community. When most successful, these images produce a kind of “second nature” thanks to which we no longer experience the law as an impingement upon our freedom.

The prophet is the figure, according to Farabi, who can successfully generate images for a political community. Farabi’s prophet combines extraordinary intellect with a vivid imaginative faculty. Thanks to this imaginative faculty (we might call such a person “creative”) the prophet is able to provide the people with images that move them, images that inspire their longings in specific ways and give them a collective sense of belonging. Today, we might look to Hollywood as a major producer of such moving images.

Prophetic images in Farabi’s sense need not be limited to visual images. They might include anything that plays on our imagination to create commitment to the law. The category certainly includes stories. In fact, I’d suggest that the story of Ibrahim/Abraham smashing the idols is a prophetic image that has allowed people to imagine themselves as part of a community that shuns images. It’s proven to be a particularly moving image. After all, it has provided countless people with a sense of identity and common purpose for well over a thousand years.

5. Are all images equal?

All images are incomplete. That doesn’t make them all equal. Some are better than others.

Farabi’s prophet isn’t just creative, he’s also really smart. He knows what images are best for his people and offers them those. They are “best” in two senses. First, they lead us towards happiness. We can easily be moved by images that incite factionalism, for instance, but these are unlikely to produce the flourishing political life on which our happiness depends. Second, Farabi understands that images that might work well for one group of people may not be suitable for another, depending on geographical location, past history, and other factors that render groups different from one another. So images also need to be judged based on their appropriateness to a particular group and its needs at a particular time.

Farabi envisions a hierarchical situation where an idealized prophet provides images for a receptive community. Can Farabi’s idea of prophetic images fit with modern commitments to democracy and popular sovereignty? There is good reason to be cautious here, as we risk turning a blind eye to some of Farabi’s deepest political insights. Nonetheless, it’s important to think about how Farabi’s insight that politics needs images might apply when we don’t have access to an all-knowing prophet to tell us which images we should adopt.

6. What is the role of judgement?

As I’ve said, all images are incomplete. Therefore, it’s never a matter of adopting the perfect image. There simply are no perfect images. By emphasizing one thing, something else is necessarily left out. There is always a particular perspective involved. A fully inclusive image, were it to exist, would be like the imperial map that Jorge Luis Borges describes in his one-paragraph story On Exactitude in Science, “whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” Such an image would be utterly useless. So we have to choose between imperfect options. It’s here that I’ve found Hannah Arendt’s writings about political judgment to be useful.

In a democracy, it is up to us to decide which images we want to live with. We get to judge which images are better for us than others. At least to a certain extent, because we never get to judge free of the influence of images. Any commitment we might have to a democratic way of life, for instance, itself belongs to a “second nature” that we’ve acquired from the images working on us from childhood. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem.

I take issue with early American president John Quincy Adams’ statement (which I chose as one of two epigraphs to my book) that “democracy has no monuments” and that “it’s very essence is iconoclastic.” This is deceptive. Commitment to democratic ways of doing things doesn’t arise naturally; it must be cultivated in our souls through images, not merely rational argument. Any political community whose “essence” was iconoclastic couldn’t survive. So, again, it’s never really a question of living without false images, but of choosing which ones seem best for us given a particular circumstance.

Politics is that process of negotiating the relative merits of these different alternatives. It takes place in a space where people argue over better and worse options, each necessarily imperfect. Such a space for politics doesn’t arise naturally and it doesn’t sustain itself without constant care and cultivation. A deep impulse in us may desire to circumvent the hard work and imperfect results of political negotiation and compromise. We might yearn for more solid certainty that our way of doing things is the right way.

Around the time that ISIS released the Mosul Museum video, its online magazine Dabiq featured an article titled “The Extinction of the Grayzone.” It described the group’s intention of dividing the world into two, clearly demarcated groups: the camp of faith and the camp of apostasy. They wanted to eradicate any middle ground where people could have legitimate doubts and disagreements about what’s right and what’s wrong. In other words, they wanted to do away with the messy realm of politics.

This desire to live “beyond the political” is by no means unique to ISIS or so-called radical Islam. If we consider just the past hundred years, there have been numerous attempts to identify an absolute standard that would make politics superfluous. National Socialists deferred to Race, Marxists to History, and libertarians to the Market. Some today hold out similar hopes for the Algorithm.

It’s worth adding that not everyone would accept this vision of politics that I borrow from Arendt. Some might insist, rather, that politics is about forming powerful factions—each seeking to force an issue in its own favor. It’s not about coexisting but about beating the other guy. Carl Schmitt’s definition of the political as that which distinguishes friend from enemy comes to mind. What makes someone an enemy? Must friends agree? How much disagreement can exist before a group of friends breaks apart into enemies? At a time when factionalism in politics seems to be on the rise, often together with purity tests to determine loyalty, these are serious questions that deserve serious consideration. I hope that my work can at least help people see the stakes involved.

7. Was the smashing of the statues by ISIS a removal of idols or of art? What’s significant about the video having been filmed in a museum?

As I’ve already mentioned, an idol is not so much a particular kind of object but rather an object experienced in a particular way. An ISIS spokesman in the video states that the objects that they destroyed were idols. Interestingly, the flurry of international condemnations of the video rarely talked of art. Rather, the word of choice was “heritage.”  

Concern over the preservation of cultural heritage can be traced back to the French Revolution. Responding to the iconoclastic fury that was overtaking France, the clergyman and revolutionary leader Abbé Grégoire gave a series of speeches in the National Convention advocating for the protection of what he considered France’s patrimony—a patrimony that belonged to the people even if the objects that constituted that patrimony were made at a time when the people didn’t hold power. The cleric turned the biblical parodies of idolaters on their head, declaring that it was now the iconoclast who displayed their ignorance by treating a sculpture as a dumb piece of stone rather than a piece of “marble that breathes.” Grégoire famously coined the term “vandalism,” whereby he linked the destruction of cultural heritage to the Vandals—one of the so-called barbarian tribes that brought down the Roman Empire. He was also instrumental in having churches throughout France converted into museums to house the objects that were now considered heritage.

It’s worth thinking about not only what’s at stake in calling the destroyed objects heritage rather than idols, but also why heritage rather than art. When ancient Near Eastern sculpture was first displayed in the British Museum in the 19th century, Sir Richard Westmacott, a professor of sculpture and museum trustee was asked what he thought; he replied, “It is very bad art.” Perhaps some of that initial opinion remains.

More likely, the inclination to refer to the objects as heritage rather than art reflects a reigning democratic impulse that considers art too elevated a term. If so, then the assumption would be that art is too elitist to expect everyone to care about, but people who don’t care about their heritage can rightly be declared barbaric. The civilization vs. barbarism binary returned with a vengeance in the wake of the Islamic State’s videos. If the goal of the videos was to polarize the world into two camps, they were working.

8. Can you talk about your own connection to Iraq and the Farhud? Do you still feel a connection?

My grandfather was born in Baghdad in 1910, eleven years before the establishment of the modern state of Iraq. He belonged to a Jewish community that had called the banks of the Tigris home since antiquity. I never got to know him, though, because he died when I was very young. This project was in part a way for me to learn more about my own heritage.

Thanks to the work of scholars like Orit Bashkin and memoires like Sasson Somekh’s haunting Baghdad, Yesterday, I was able to gain some access to the world in which my grandfather came of age. Baghdad in the early 20th century was known for its bookstalls and literary cafés. It was a city animated with intellectual fervor focused on founding a new nation. Iraqi Jews participated alongside Iraqis of other religions—or of no religion, as there were quite a few Marxists in the mix.

But things weren’t entirely rosy. Anti-Jewish sentiment grew in the 1930s, culminating in the Farhud of 1941—a pro-Axis pogrom that left nearly two hundred Jews dead and precipitated my family’s departure from Iraq. My grandfather first moved to Tehran (where my mother was born), then to Tel Aviv, and finally New York (where I was born). He was living in Washington, DC, and working for the United Jewish Appeal when he died in 1982.

Though I never got to talk with my grandfather, I did get to read his books. When my parents cleared out his apartment after he dies, they moved his library into our house. It mainly consisted of books about Middle Eastern history and politics. Years later, as a teenager, I became interested in reading about history—these were the books I began with.

So, yes, I do feel a connection to Iraq. That said, I often also feel like I’m not supposed to identify as Iraqi because I’m Jewish and a (critical) supporter of the State of Israel. I’d like to be able to claim all of these things, with the attendant tensions. Identity politics often seems to impose neatly defined categories that don’t correspond to an individual’s complex lived reality—another way of eradicating the grayzone. My identity is messy. And yet, at the same time, I also want to recognize that neither I nor my family have suffered personally from the war and destruction that has been brought on Iraq in recent years, which circumscribes how much I’d feel comfortable speaking “as an Iraqi” today.

9. How does this research grow from your book on the political role of the poetry about Baal?

Both books deal with the relationship between politics and products of human creativity. The Idols of ISIS focuses on visual images, whereas Baal and the Politics of Poetry is about a mythological poem. In my earlier book, I tried to think about how a poem might help its audience think critically about the political world around them. I did so by considering the thirteenth-century BC Ugaritic poem of Baal alongside the many political and diplomatic texts that have been recovered from the same period. I tried to show that someone who was familiar with the political norms of the day would have found the depiction of the gods to be quite strange—in many they echo the actions of earthly kings, but in ways that reveal things about the workings of politics that are normally kept hidden here on earth. The poem, I argued, helped its audience break through their political “second nature” (I didn’t use such Farabian terminology, but it fits) in order to be able to reflect on the norms that governed their world. So if The Idols of ISIS is concerned with images that generate political norms that hold a community together, the Baal book focused instead on how a poem can serve to provoke reflection on those norms. One might think of this as the difference between prophetic images and Socratic images—i.e., ones meant to operate like a gadfly that stings us out of our stupor and gets us to think. I do treat Socrates briefly in the coda to the ISIS book.

10. How do your interests in art history, political philosophy, and Assyriology come together in this project?

The project started when I recognized a parallel between one moment in the Mosul Museum video and a section of an ancient relief sculpture from Sargon II’s palace at Khorsabad. Both show three men with sledgehammers smashing the sculpture of a king. The resemblance is truly uncanny.

I was familiar with the Assyrian image because I had chosen it for the cover of my book Idol Anxiety, an anthology of essays that I edited with the art historian Josh Ellenbogen. (Incidentally, the introduction that we wrote for that volume provides a fuller account of the notion of anxiety that I discussed earlier.) Beyond this resemblance between two images, the video brought together themes that I had been thinking about for year: idolatry, the ancient Near East and its modern reception, the politics of images. I had gotten my BA in art history, but then spent time studying phenomenology at the Sorbonne and religious studies at Hebrew University before beginning a doctoral program in the Committee on Social Thought, where I mainly focused on political theory, and eventually completing a PhD in ancient Near Eastern studies at NYU. Suddenly, all those years spent studying various disciplines started to make sense. I felt like the video was calling out to me to write something. So I did.

11. How and why did Saddam Hussein draw connections to ancient Mesopotamian antiquities?

Back in the 1920s, Gertrude Bell and Sati al-Husri disagreed about the role Mesopotamian antiquities should play in constituting the identity of the nascent Iraqi state. Bell believed that Iraq’s ancient past should be harnessed to generate a sense of national identity; as the country’s first director of antiquities, she built the National Museum in Baghdad to showcase these national treasures.

By contrast, al-Husri, a childhood friend of King Faysal who became the country’s first director general of education, thought Bell’s plans worked against his own pan-Arabism. By emphasizing a past that was unique to Iraqis, he thought, Bell’s museum undermined their Arab identity and their connections to Arabs beyond Iraq’s recently-demarcated borders. He refused to include trips to Bell’s museum in the Iraqi school curriculum. And when al-Husri took over as director of antiquities after Bell’s death, he redirected funds and energy towards establishing the Museum of Arab Antiquities.

Future leaders of Iraq, however, like Abdul Karim Kassem and Saddam Hussein, tended to favor Bell’s perspective—they made extensive use of Iraq’s pre-Islamic past in their attempts to construct a modern identity. While many who have prioritized Islam have taken issue with both Bell’s antiquities and al-Husri’s Arab nationalism.

Saddam Hussein was particularly active in producing images that linked him to Iraq’s ancient past. When he wanted to be seen as leader of the Palestinian cause, he took on the guise of Nebuchadnezzar—the Babylonian king who sacked Jerusalem. During the Iran-Iraq War, he associated himself with ancient kings who withstood the Elamites. One image shows Saddam receiving Iraq’s heritage (in the form of a palm sapling) from an ancient Assyrian deity. Details emphasize the continuity of Iraq’s culture, from cuneiform antiquity through medieval Islam to today.

When I began this project, I was living in Chicago, which hosts a large Iraqi expat community. I asked the owner of a grocery shop where I regularly went to stock up on date syrup and foul what he thought about the destruction of antiquities that ISIS was then regularly perpetuating. He wasn’t particularly bothered by it, he said. As one of the many school children bused to Babylon and other ancient sights during the Saddam era, he considered all that stuff to be the propaganda of a tyrannical regime.

I mention all this because I think it is helpful to keep in mind how complex and contested our relationship to the past can be. And these are only the broad strokes; far more tensions can be found as one looks more closely at the details. I doubt that there is a right answer to which past someone should connect with and which past they should shun. There are always going to be tradeoffs. I do think it’s possible to become self-aware, at least to a certain extent, about why one might embrace one option rather than another. But it is foolish to expect people to live without such ways of rooting themselves.

As a teacher, I believe that it’s my job to help students see beyond the confines of the prophetic images with which they were raised, as well as those that they may have adopted more recently. Unsettling self-certainty is probably a good thing and I certainly try to provoke it in my students. But I’m also aware of its limitations. Even within the relatively narrow demographic represented in my classroom, I regularly experience a wide range of reactions to my prodding—from students who thrive on having their self-certainty challenged to those who instinctively dig-in or aren’t even able to register that what they take for granted is being called into question. This makes me skeptical of a cosmopolitanism that requires all people to overcome their particular prophetic images. I think it is the job of liberal education to help each student reflect on their commitments and assumptions. That alone can be powerful. But it shouldn’t be confused with ushering us into a promised land without prejudice, without the rootedness that comes from partiality. That’s just another utopian fantasy of a world beyond politics.

12. There is a Haredi Neo-Chassidic rabbi in Israel who preaches that if not for the government, we should destroy the remnants of the Canaanite and Phoenician idolatry found in heritage sites and in museums? What do you make of that?

I think he should read my book. He might actually find it surprising. I’d be happy to send him a copy.

Orthodox Judaism and the Politics of Religion – Daniel Mahla

In 2020, Haredim and Relgious Zionists seem worlds apart. One side following its Rabbinical leadership and living a life of learning Torah, while the other side accepts its Rabbinical leadership but also finds serving in the army and engaging in building the land as prime relgious directives. They represent two very different visions of Orthodox Judaism. Yet, both sides engage in politics, both sides claim to be the Orthodox voice in Israeli politics, seeking to maximize their role in the government with its financial motivations. One side says they will not join a collision unless there is completely no draft for Haredim and the other side says they wont join unless the Haredim are drafted. The big change now is that in the last decades Religious Zionists were having 3-6 children, while the hareidim are having 8-12 children and will soon be a solid 20% of the Israeli population. How did these two groups come to be from the undifferentiated traditional rabbinic world of Eastern Europe circa 1900?

To answer this question, we now have Daniel Mahla’s Orthodox Judaism and the Politics of Religion: From Prewar Europe to the State of Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2020). Mahla teaches at the Historisches Seminar der LMU- Jüdische Geschichte und Kultur, and the coordinator for the Center for Israeli Studies at Munich University. His PhD is from Columbia University. Before coming to Columbia, Daniel did a master’s degree in History, Political Science, and Jewish Studies at Humboldt and Freie Universities in Berlin. This book needs to be read by anyone interested in the history of Orthodoxy. It is an excellent piece of scholarship. The research into primary sources is remarkable in showing how political issues around Zionism separated the two groups.

The book shows how at the turn of the twentieth century in 1902 there was originally a single entity of Orthodoxy, which by 1953 separated into two distinct groups. Mahla’s method is one that will add to a reader’s knowledge, even if well versed in the topic. Mahla does a diplomatic political history, the way one would be a history of the NAFTA treaty or of US-China relations done through the statements of the embassy personnel and diplomats.  Most of us tell the story of the divide in ideological terms, through theology, ideology, and rabbinic leaders. Instead, Mahla tells the story through functionaries, party officials, conferences, requests from the Zionist Organizations, and political differences. He downplays the role actual rabbinic leaders played and instead showed how party official created two distinct groups.

Mahla shows that neither side started with a clear ideology.  The life in Eastern Europe was breaking down, the shtetl faced extreme poverty, the Russian revolution, WWI, and a breakdown of the institutions. Jewish Education was in shambles. The new Jewish urban centers witnessed breakdown of traditional patterns. The secular parties- Bund, citizen’s rights, communist, Zionist- all full ideological agenda to save Jewish life. According to Mahla, the relgious parties had no clear-cut ideologies to start but they worked it out as they founded schools, rabbinical seminaries, social facilities, youth movements, newspapers, libraries, as well as other associations.

Some rabbinical leaders, the Relgious Zionists, thought a major change was needed, others, the Agudah, thought the older models still worked. Some rabbinical leaders thought that Zionism was the answer and to see Jews as a national people, while others, the Agudah, saw Jews primarily as a religion. But both eventually had to turn to the Zionist organization for visa to move to British mandate Palestine, as well as funding.

The Relgious Zionists saw themselves as the true Zionists. The Haredim according to Mahla were not anti-Zionist but counter-Zionists. Mahla credits the Agudath Yisrael president Jacob Rosenheim with creating a counter-movement to Zionism. Both groups saw the other relgious group as a bigger threat than the secular Zionist. It was a fight over who can speak for Judaism and Orthodoxy. Over time, the multitude of institutions of Europe and then mandate Palestine were supported by one or the other organization, they had separate schools, separate yeshivot and even separate printing of relgious books. People were ideologically one or the other, a card-carrying member of one or the other.

On the practical level, they differed over giving women the right to vote in the new Yishuv. The Agudah was adamantly against giving women the right to vote, while Relgious Zionist went along with the Zionists on women’s suffrage in a modern state, even though Rabbi Kook forbid it. They differed on partition and compromise with the Arab population. The agudah was willing to partition the land and make political compromises, while the Relgious Zionists wanted a greater Israel entirely for the Jews as part of a messianic vision.

The two groups worked together in 1948 as a unity party to ensure that the new state would keep shabbat and the dietary laws. But both sides new it was a temporary pragmatic truce.

Mahla ends his book with a final divide in 1953, when Relgious Zionist men were proud to serve in the army and Agudah obtained a exemption from the army for the few hundred studying in Yeshiva. But the divide was widened over the issue of women in the army. The state wanted to draft all women, the Relgious Zionists accepted a compromise of national service for women in lieu of army service, while the Hazon Ish  adamantly, said no to even national service for women. Mahla ends with a coda jumping seventy years to Naftali Bennet and other Religious Zionist leaders fighting with Haredim.

My favorite part was when he shows how an encyclopedia of relgious Zionist leaders made everyone a follower of Torah combined with secular knowledge, while the Agudah book made every party functionary into a gadol in Torah.

The book has a unique approach, almost dramatic, of framing everything as a public battle of these two groups in which they are the only two protagonists. It is like watching Chaim Grade’s “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner” in which a still Orthodox musarnik argues with a secular friend. Here we have the two protagonists Relgious Zionism in a fifty year debate with the Agudah, going back and forth. The secular Zionists and the immense number of those who built the Yishuv, later becoming the leaders of the early Israeli government become a faceless entity of “the Zionist Organization.” And both protagonists are painted as relatively unified in their approaches, rather than having enormous differences among themselves.

And as mentioned at the start, this book avoids discussion of all ideology or great rabbis. The book avoids the material that most of us focus on: Rabbi Isaac Breuer, Rabbi Fishman-Maimon, Rabbi Herzog, the Hazon Ish, Rabbi Ozer Grodinzki, Rabbi Reines, and Shmuel Hayyim Landau. It is a political-diplomatic history. One that all who work in this area will gain from immensely from his research in primary documents and learn many of subtleties of the coming to be of the two contemporary Orthodox parties.

From my perspective, the divisions were not total in 1953. in the 1980’s and 1990’s Rav Shakh’s made the kollel model universal and more importantly spoke against seeking against any grey areas. As I was reading this book, Peter Lintl of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, just posted a forty-page report dated December 2020 on contemporary Haredim, which is worth reading and downloading the pdf for its wealth of facts and statistics.  “The Haredim as a Challenge for the Jewish State: The Culture War over Israel’s Identity”

  1. Did Mizrachists and Agudists have formulated ideology and new worldviews?

The two movements and their struggles have often been depicted in the light of their theological and ideological differences concerning Zionism.

In this ideological approach, religious Zionists wholeheartedly committed themselves to settling Palestine, most traditionalist authorities rejected these attempts out of hand. The Orthodox establishment’s initial, instinctive opposition to Zionism soon evolved into a full-fledged and prolonged ideological struggle over issues like the meaning of Jewish existence and the role of human agency in the messiah’s coming.

Yet as Orthodox Jews, both movements were reluctant to formulate an ideological platform that seemed novel or revolutionary. This was true even for Mizrahi. More than one and a half decades after its creation, one of its foremost rabbinic leaders, Rabbi Moses Avigdor Amiel lamented in 1919: “There is no unique spirit of Mizrahi that unites us into one entity.” As late as the 1930s major Mizrahi leaders complained about the failure of their movement to formulate a clear religious-Zionist ideology and group identification.

One could hardly speak of “Mizrahism” in the way members of the Jewish workers movement identified with their Bundist family (misphokhe). In Agudah, distrust of new ideologies and group formations ran even deeper.

Thus, instead of focusing on their ideological debates, my book analyses their social and political activities. Both movements created a wide net of institutions and organizations. They founded schools, rabbinical seminaries, social facilities, youth movements, various types of associations, newspapers, libraries, as well as other associations and facilities. The two respective movements forged all-encompassing microcosms that facilitated loyalty and fostered group identification through the shaping of interpretative patterns, moral standards, and emotional ties.

This is at the same time an argument for the significance of the two movements. A large part of the research literature focuses on the rabbinic leadership. Yet while towering figures like the Hazon Ish undoubtedly played an important role in formulating Orthodox responses to Zionism, the two major social movements constituted important frameworks that helped organizing and structuring Orthodox society and eventually dividing it into two well-defined camps.

2. How do both movements react to the breakdown of the Kehillah?

Both movements deplored the breakdown of the Jewish community structures (kehillot) during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the concurrent danger to Jewish traditional communities and religious life. Both advocated for strengthening the kehillot. At the same time, Mizrahists and Agudists developed very different approaches for doing so.

Agudists advocated for keeping traditional institutions and organizations. They claimed to merely rebuild the traditional structures, while at the same time strengthening religious authority at the expense of lay leadership and the gave more authority to the local rabbi. Mizrahists, on the other hand, wanted to modernize the communities and strengthen the influence of bureaucratic elites and the administration.

3. What was the chief difference of Mizrachi and Agudah at the start?

As Zionists, Mizrahists embraced modern Jewish nationalism and hoped that Zionism would help lead to the return of secular activists to religious lifestyles. They promoted the cooperation with secularists in the movement.

Yet at the same time they acknowledged the danger of secularism to religious Jewry and over the years had many conflicts with their secularist partners in the Zionist movement. The most important of these conflicts was the question of the creation of a modern (secular) Hebrew culture. Mizrahists agitated against Zionist support for such a culture. Once the Zionist movement decided to support secular cultural institutions in Palestine, Mizrahists invested in their own cultural and educational institutions which essentially led to the emergence of distinct secular and religious frameworks.

Agudah on the other hand, rejected modern Jewish nationalism and tried to counter it by strengthening and forging traditionalist institutions and frameworks. Part of Agudists’ efforts was to shield traditionalist communities from secular influences by creating strong barriers and borders.

Many Agudists welcomed Zionist efforts to unite Jewry on an international (or rather national-Jewish) level. Yet they strongly resisted the strong secular outlook of the movement and the idea of a secular political leadership.

However, the growing influence of the Zionist movement and its hegemonic position in the Jewish communities in Palestine increased the willingness among Agudists to cooperate with the Zionists especially during the 1930s and 1940s. Yet this increasing cooperation at the same time stressed the necessity to shield their communities from secular influence. In my book I describe this pragmatic mode of cooperation as “cooperation on the basis of separation.”

In this context it is important to point out that both movements struggled with the definition of Judaism as either “religion” or “nation,” concepts that had developed in a Christian context. Both movements perceived Judaism to be both religion and nation. Yet they weighed the two loyalties differently. For Agudists, religious affiliations carried the most weight. For Mizrahists, on the other hand, nationalist loyalties were of primary importance and they were willing to subordinate religious affiliations (if not at all costs).

4. How was Agudah a counter movement to Zionism?

Historians usually conceptualized  Agudah as anti-Zionist movement that coped with the nationalist challenges by developing an “ideology of seclusion”. While it is true that Agudists tried to protect religious communities by shielding them from secular influences, I argue that we can understand the aims of these leaders better as counter-movement to Zionism.

Orthodox entrepreneurs established their own institutions and frameworks. Agudath Yisrael gathered such activities under its wings. The aim of the movement was to offer an Orthodox alternative to modern nationalist group formations. Agudath Yisrael, as its later president Jacob Rosenheim argued in 1911, was to become “a counter-movement to Zionism.”

Mizrahi, in its role as an Orthodox movement, posed a great challenge to the endeavor of establishing Agudath Yisrael as the sole political representative of Orthodox Judaism and for that reason the two movements became involved in protracted struggles.

5. If they were not explicitly Zionist, then why did they expect things from the Zionist Organization (ZO) such immigration permits? Is that not asking for things from the Zionist Organization and then spitting in the face of the Zionist Organization or pretending that it does not exist?

When the British Mandate was established after World War I, and with increasingly dire economic perspectives and rising antisemitism in Europe, Palestine became an important center of Jewish life and attracted more and more Jewish immigrants.

Agudists reacted to such developments by creating a local branch in the traditionalist, non-Zionist centers of Jewish life, in particular in Jerusalem. With increasing immigration to British Mandate Palestine during the 1920s and 1930s, more and more traditionalists arrived, strengthening these settlements. During the 1920s, Agudists established their movement as the political representative of these traditionalist settlements, including the Old Yishuv.

As such, they tried to challenge what they perceived to be a Zionist monopoly on the representation of Jewish interests in the area. Immigration certificates, for example, were given to the Zionist dominated Jewish Agency, which distributed them through the different political movements. Agudists, who did not participate in the political structures of the New Yishuv, argued that it was wrong to give preference to Zionist immigrants and successfully demanded immigration certificates for their own adherents. In this context, it is also important to point out that many of the new traditionalist immigrants arriving during the 1930s did in fact join the official Jewish community, thereby blurring the boundaries between New Yishuv and traditionalist settlements, and pushing the latter to enhance their cooperation with the former.

6. How did these movements address the issue of education in the crumbling communities?

Religious Zionists attempted to modernize and professionalize the Jewish communities. Moreover, they lobbied for a more expansive bailiwick, including the power to directly tax members. Stressing the need for centralization, Mizrahi officials advocated for all religious services, not least kosher slaughter, and facilities, like synagogues and Talmud halls, to be placed under the community’s ambit.

Non-Zionist Orthodox leaders were deeply suspicious of these sorts of centralization and democratization initiatives. In 1919, Haim Ozer Grodzinski, the leading Eastern European spiritual authority, declared on the pages of the Agudah newspaper Der Yud that it was not the kehillah’s job “to create new [structures], but to put traditional religious affairs in order.” That said, he shared quite a few of Mizrahi’s concerns, for example, he proposed the introduction of communal membership fees. In general, Agudists preferred strengthening traditionalist institutions and by enhancing the influence and power of the local rabbinic authority (mara de-atra).

Both movements sought to strengthen education by building up new schools and institutions under their purview. Mizrahists supported the introduction of secular topics that was to help religious Jews with coping with their environments. In particular, they aimed at modernizing rabbinic ordination and for that purpose established their own rabbinic seminary in Warsaw in 1920. This institution, the Tachkemoni Yeshiva, was designed to produce a new kind of leader, who as its founder Rabbi Isaac Nissenbaum hoped, would not only tend to their congregants’ spiritual needs but represent them before non-Jewish bodies. “Today a rabbi cannot be one-dimensional,” a 1921 article in the Mizrahi press read; “he must be both the religious as well as national leader of his community.”

Agudists mocked Tachkemoni-trained rabbis for having immersed themselves in profane, rather than sacred, works. They dubbed the seminary a “rabbi factory” that manufactured “leaders on assembly lines” for global export, and claimed that traditional yidishkayt (Jewishness) was foreign to the Tachkemoni “boors.” While deeply critical of introducing secular studies into Jewish male education, they created their own seminaries, such as the Hahmei Lublin Yeshiva in Poland, and politically took the innovative Beit Yaakov schools under their wing.

7. How do the two groups differ over the role of the rabbinate in Jewish life?

Mizrahists tried to establish themselves as a new elite of religious politicians. They were proud that many of their leaders were steeped in religious knowledge. But as their own authority rested on their social and political activism, they were deeply suspicious of the clerical elite and many wanted to confine the rabbis’ authority to the ritual realm of the synagogue.

Agudists, on the other hand, saw religious authority challenged by the Zionist movement, both secular and religious. To counter such challenges, they granted their rabbinical elite unprecedented authority over decisions concerning not only ritual matters but also public and national policies. To this end, they established a Council of Torah Sages that was to direct the party politicians, and to take all important policy decisions.

Such ideas of absolute spiritual authority were of course not unique to Orthodox Judaism, but can be found e.g. in the notion of papal infallibility or the Iranian revolution of 1979. The Council of Torah Sages came nowhere near the power of the repressive state apparatus of Ruhollah Khomeini. Yet the council was an important symbol distinguishing Agudah from its secular and religious-Zionist opponents, helping the movement to establish itself among traditionalist Jews.

8. How did each of them portray their member leaders? On some level, why did Mizrachi make everyone educated and Agudah make everyone a gadol?

Mizrahists depicted their movement and leaders as the perfect synthesis of Orthodox Judaism and Zionist activism. In 1909, one activist opined that his movement incorporated “the spiritual-religious foundation of extremist Orthodoxy – which is passive from a national standpoint – with the national-political principles of secular Zionism – which is passive from a Jewish standpoint – into a single bloc of active Judaism.”  This combination of observance of Orthodox Judaism with Zionist activism posed a serious threat to Agudah.

In response, Agudists depicted themselves as strictly following the rabbinic elite’s directives. What is more, Agudist held that religious sages were not compelled to disclose the textual sources of their rulings, in stark contrast to traditional Jewish modes of decision making. That deprived opponents of the opportunity to challenge respective rulings, thereby constituting a particularly valuable defense against critique from within Orthodox circles. Adherence to such absolute rabbinic authority became a significant identity marker of ultra-Orthodox Jews. It effectively divided not only the two political movements but played an essential role in the creation of two distinct socio-cultural milieus.

9. What were the women’s issues that they differed on and which did they agree about?

Agudists wanted to confine the public sphere strictly to men and excluded women from any leadership positions. As Orthodox Jews, Mizrahists were also highly critical towards the idea of female participation in political activism, but at the same time barring women from political enterprise seemed ill-suited for a nationalist movement.

This issue was urgent in Palestine during the late 1910s and early 1920s, where Jews debated the participation of women in the emerging communal structures. Traditionalist Orthodoxy was firmly opposed to female participation in communal elections as either voters or representatives and used the issue to separate their communities from the Zionist frameworks.

Religious Zionist, on the other hand, found themselves between a rock and a hard place because for secular Zionists by this point the right of women to take part in politics was already beyond dispute

Religious Zionists vacillated over this issue for several years, until it decided in favor of female enfranchisement, concurrently disregarding a directive of the most important religious Zionist authority, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who already declared his opposition to such enfranchisement in September 1919. In this vein, the issue of women political participation became a further marker between the two movements and their communities. 

10. How did they differ over equal rights for the local Palestinians? Did they differ on other issues relating to the Arabs?

During the 1920s and parts of the 1930s, Agudists were opposed to the idea of a Jewish nation state and preferred Jews to live as a protected minority in an Arab empire. With the deterioration of Jewish life in Europe during the 1930s, and its utter destruction during the 1940s, Agudists accepted the fact that a Jewish state would eventually be established. However, they strictly separated such an entity from any messianic hopes. This, ironically, made it much easier for them to reach political and territorial compromise. When the British proposed the partition of Palestine in the mid-1930s, Agudists were willing to accept.

A statement of one of the most important Agudah leaders in Palestine, Moses Blau, in his debate with Zionist representatives illuminates this pragmatism. When asked by the Zionist leader Menahem Ussishkin about the eschatological significance of the Zionist movement, he responded: “Do you really believe that the national movement has any connection to our future redemption? The Land of Israel is, to date, an Arab country, and when we have the opportunity to receive political equality – if only the Arabs shall agree – then we have to welcome this [political parity] with open arms.” Any further goals, he argued, should be left to the Messiah.

Among Mizrahists, on the other hand, political hawks with uncompromising stances towards Palestinian Arabs, gained the upper hand. While there were moderates, such as the first Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Avigdor Amiel, who preached tolerance towards the non-Jewish local population, these lost influence with the increasingly violent conflict with the Arab population during the late 1920s and 1930s. “Whoever governs the land, it is ours and will be ours,” wrote the movement’s imminent political leaders, Rabbi Yehuda Maimon, in a fiercely nationalist response to Arab riots that broke out in August of 1929 and left hundreds of Jews dead and wounded. When the British attempted to partition the land in 1937, Mizrahists were among the strictest opponents demanding that greater Israel is to be entirely part of a Jewish state. In discussions with the British, Maimon claimed that Jews were divinely forbidden to grant other nations a share in the land.

Asked about the idea of a state with political parity between Jews and Arabs, Maimon pronounced “As a religious Jew, I can by no means agree on giving Arabs political equality.” Turning the question of partition into a religious issue made it extremely difficult for religious Zionist to compromise. Only after the calamities of the Second World War and the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust, did they consent to partition in order to create a Jewish state.

11. How did they compete over yeshiva funding in 1940?

In early 1940s, the two movements founded umbrella organizations for religious academies in Palestine through which funds were distributed to these institutions. Every academy seeking financial support had to align itself with one of the organizations, and thus the split between the two camps became entrenched and institutionalized in the world of higher religious education.

The case of yeshiva funding illustrates the fact that two movements not only acted as political stakeholders, but created many social and educational institutions and frameworks that helped the formation of two distinct socio-cultural milieus. Establishing a wide range of schools, rabbinical seminaries, social facilities, youth movements, cultural associations, newspapers, libraries, and many additional organizations and establishments, they created distinct microcosms that helped to establish loyalties and maintain identification and thus shaped interpretative patterns, moral standards, and emotional ties.

In Europe, Agudists and Mizrahists competed with a wide range of both religious and secular institutions and protagonists. The Nazi genocide brutally destroyed this diversity. In Palestine, on the other hand, both movements respectively established themselves as the exclusive political representatives of religious Jewry, thereby essentially dividing Orthodox Jews into two camps. In the Jewish settlements in Palestine, political parties were key players, for in the absence of a state, resources were allocated via their institutions.

12. Why did they comprise in 1944 and why did they create a united religious front in 1948?

With the British proposal to partition Palestine in 1937, the creation of a Jewish state seemed to be more and more within reach.

Both movements were anxious about religious life in a secular state. In order to safeguard religious lifestyles and institutions in a future state, they came together in the late 1930’s to discuss Orthodox cooperation. While high-ranking party politicians of both sides convened in Paris in 1938 and in London in 1939, they failed to secure cooperation. Yet leaders from both sides continued to meet over the next years and in these discussions agreed on basic Orthodox demands regarding the emerging state structures.

In November 1948, the different Orthodox parties formed the “United Religious Front,” a political alliance to safeguard religious interests in the new state. This front, however, did not signify the political and ideological convergence of Agudah’s positions with basic religious-Zionist tenets, as some scholars argue. It was a “marriage of convenience”, as one activist put it, with the limited aim to safeguard basic religious rights. Once those rights were secured, the two camps  parted ways.

13 Why was the issue over drafting women important and why do you use it as a way to frame the book at the beginning and ending?

During the early years of Israeli statehood, its political representative fiercely debated the issue of a mandatory military service for Jewish women. Due to the fragile political situation, a strong army was vital to the survival of the state. What is more, secular Zionists saw in a mandatory military service an important contribution of both men and women to the welfare of the state and thus an important aspect of gender equality.

On the other hand, for religious leaders of both groups, the idea of young women serving in the army next to their male peers was anathema. A rare unity prevailed among Zionist and non-Zionist rabbinic authorities, who all declared that female military service was prohibited according to Jewish religious law (halakhah).

In the following years, a compromise was reached between secular politicians and their religious-Zionist peers. A specially appointed commission proposed exempting religiously observant women from the draft, if they serve in civil institutions instead.

While religious Zionists embraced this compromise, ultra-Orthodox leaders fumed against a mandatory civil service for religious women, and in the ultra- Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem, angry masses took to the streets to demonstrate. Ultra-Orthodox politicians left the governing coalition of (over?) this issue, never to return. Religious-Zionists on the other hand, stayed in the coalition and supported the passing of this legislation. The issue and the fierce debates surrounding it symbolized the final parting of ways of the two movements.

During the 1950s, Orthodox Jews differed not only in their political affiliations, but these distinctions denoted that the groups differed in their attitudes toward halakhah, as well as in their social norms and behaviors.

The highest ultra-Orthodox rabbinic authority of the period, the Hazon Ish, decreed a “prohibition by halakhah to vote for the law of conscripting girls to a civil service.” The refusal of religious Zionist politicians to accept his ruling brought the fundamental differences of the two communities and their leaders to the fore.

The refusal of ultra-Orthodox leaders to accept any compromise on this issue, on the other hand, helped fostering clear boundaries between their own communities and their Israeli surroundings (ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students had been already exempted from military service by an agreement between Agudat Yisrael and Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion). In contrast, religious Zionists integrated into Israeli society, serving in the army shoulder to shoulder with their secular peers. At the same time, exempting religious girls from military service while having them serve in civil institutions helped Orthodox leaders to preserve their distinct milieu within the Zionist-Israeli society.

A second cornerstone of these new milieus that was forged during these same years was the formation of three distinct Jewish educational streams (in addition to an Arab one): a secular one, a national-religious system and an independent ultra-Orthodox system under the auspice of Agudat Yisrael.     

14. In the end, could a united Orthodox party have been created at any point?

Much of the scholarship on Orthodox Jewish politics perceives the non-cooperation of the two movements during the interwar period as “lost opportunity” and puts the blame on Agudath Yisrael, claiming that its leaders were not able to overcome ideological and political barriers.

Rather than asking about lost opportunities, my book shifts the focus to the political dynamics between the two movements and carefully situates calls for cooperation and actual negotiations in their concrete historical context.

It is true that we can find quite a few calls for cooperation in the religious Zionist press and from individual Mizrahi leaders. Yet many of such press releases served the purpose of mobilizing adherents and convincing the Jewish masses that  Agudah was passive and neglected its duties towards religious Jewry. A typical example is a newspaper article of the Polish Mizrahi leader Joshua Heshel Farbstein from November 1919, in which he bemoaned the schism that was hindering Polish Orthodoxy and advocated for cooperation in its stead. But rather than offering practical steps in that direction, he went on to attack his political opponents for monopolizing the Orthodox political sphere and predicted their demise. His article as well as his conclusion that “the future of religious Jewry in Poland and Lithuania belongs to Mizrahi” hardly make a convincing argument for fruitful cooperation.

To be sure, Agudists employed similar tactics. The point here is not to put the blame on Mizrahi instead. Rather, I argue that we have to pay close attention to differing political interests and strategies, instead of taking such statements at face value. Both sides employed similar tactics.

Part of the challenge for historians is the fact that due to the two movements’ different approaches to social and political activism, Mizrahists produced many more historical sources than  Agudists did and their archives today are more accessible. This creates an archival imbalance that we have to take into accou

15. Did the movement change in their ideologies during the 50 years from 1902-1953 covered in your book? Or was it really a fait accomplice in 1902 that took time to be articulated?

My book argues that this intra-religious competition was an important factor in facilitating observant Jewry’s transition to the age of the nation state. Their competition helped both sides to develop and strengthen their respective organizations and outlooks, and contributed to the formation not only of two distinct political camps, but of two very different socio-cultural milieus.

These developments were far from a forgone conclusion when the religious Zionist movement was founded in 1902. Looking at these dynamics we can detect several important turning points.

The emergence of Agudath Yisrael ten years later was a first important step towards the formation of two political camps, which not only provided non-Zionist Orthodoxy with an organizational framework, but at the same time helped Mizrahists to develop and sharpen their own positions. 

During the next decade, leaders from both sides occasionally reached out to the other side. Interestingly, calls for cooperation and actual negotiations during this period were frequently accompanied by statements that such cooperation would eventually cause the other side to dissolve and to join the own movement. Leaders from both sides of the aisle showed themselves convinced that their own movement was the sole legitimate representative of Orthodox Jewry and would prevail.

A few years after World War One, these attempts stopped. For the next decade and a half, both movements focused on their own consolidation. Political rivalries and mutual attacks in the press helped both sides to hone their platforms and outlooks. When the political leadership met again in 1938-39, not only the social and political context had changed drastically, but the movements themselves and their dynamics greatly differed from the early 1920s. Although they remained fierce opponents, each side was forced to acknowledge that the other would neither join its own ranks nor simply dissolve. The negotiations in Paris & London themselves constituted indirect recognition of the fact that each side represented a distinct part of Orthodox Jews.

Both sides also had gradually reached the understanding that the terms of their political rivalries would change drastically with the founding of a state. Therefore, even after the collapse of the negotiations in 1938-1939, several leaders kept meeting and prepared the way for the cooperation in the framework of the United Religious Front during the first years of the state. The disbandment of this political alliance and the final parting of ways in the context of the debates about a civil service for religious women highlighted not only the deep rifts between these two political camps, but the emergence of two distinct Orthodox societies.

A further aspect impacting the development of the two movements was their separate relationship with the Zionist Organization. From early on, Mizrahist had called on their Orthodox brethren to support and joint the Zionist movement. Yet when Agudists and the Zionist Organization started negotiating the terms of cooperation in the mid-1920s and gradually reached an understanding during the 1930s and 1940s, Mizrahists were among the fiercest opponents of such rapprochement. Direct negotiations between Agudah and the Zionist Organization jeopardized Mizrahi’s position as it highlighted an alternative approach of Orthodox-Zionist cooperation. The existence of Mizrahi, on the other hand, helped the general Zionists in their claim to represent the whole Jewish people, and not only its secular parts, and undermined Agudist attempts to establish their movement as the exclusive representative of Orthodox Jewry.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l and Globalization

In the late 1990’s and the early 2000’s, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks as Chief Rabbi was invited to world forums on economics, the environment, education, interfaith and globalization. These conferences were meetings of world thought leaders seeking to give direction to political leadership. At the time, Sacks was a master of the form advocating in his speeches for a moral climate to be created because free markets are not moral, and the goal of profits does not lead to responsibility or human dignity. In 2003, he penned an article “Global Covenant: A Jewish Perspective on Globalization,” in John H. Dunning, Making Globalization Good: The Moral Challenges of Global Capitalism (OUP, 2003) which contains a summary of his many speeches from this era, a good article to use as an overview of his general philosophy of this era. 

Before turning to the article, let us start with a few basics on Rabbi Sacks’ thought. At university, Sacks read liberal moral philosophy-Mill, Hobbs, Hume, Locke, Whitehead, and Isaiah Berlin- writing his dissertation on Jewish moral thinking, eventually reworked into parts of his later books such as To Heal a Fractured World. In the 1980’s, he was deeply influenced by the communitarianism of Michael Waltzer, Michael Sandel, Alister Macintyre, and Charles Taylor. These thinkers, seeing the problems of individualism and the lack of clear moral directives for society saw the answer in a return to the structures of the Bible, religion, community, and the social realm. None of them advocated a return to a fundamentalist religion or even necessary to organized religion, rather they held that without a social group and sacred texts, one had no moral force to reign in liberal atrophy and anomie.

In the 1990’s, Sacks himself wrote about the breakdown of family, schools, morals, and society He advocated the need for all us to be a good covenant that would teach us responsibility and caring. Not just the Jewish covenant, but any good covenant. For example, he was the only Jewish advocate for the UK retaining the Anglican church as the official church of the UK because it was a good covenant to breed responsibility and a just society. Sacks himself was the product of a proper Anglican secondary school. Instead, the UK dropped the established church. Sacks was also against multi-culturalism because we need a standard culture in order to assume moral responsibility.       

In the 1998-2002 era, the issues were globalization and capitalism. Samuel Huntington believed in a clash of civilizations, while Sacks followed Thomas Freidman (The Lexus and the Olive Tree) and Benjamin Barber (Jihad vsMcWorld) who believed in the power of the market to temper the clash. On the issue of capitalism, Sacks used the critics of unchecked capitalism such as Naomi Klein (No Logo), George Soros (Open Society), Michael Waltzer (many works) and Zygmunt Bauman (Globalization). In many of his positions, Sacks was close to his contemporary Prime Minister Tony Blair, who converted to Catholicism upon leaving office and set up an organization for solving global problems as part of an interfaith program.

One of Sack’s major contributions to Jewish ethics is the extension of local ethics to the global level. I can talk about the mizvah not to waste things (bal tashit) but personal action alone will not save the world until one directly addresses the structural changes and governmental regulations needed to save the environment. On many issues, he was the first Orthodox rabbi to make a leap to a global imperative.

In the blog post below, I will deal with this one article. I am not giving an overview of his entire thought. I am not covering his early writing as a teacher, his many books, or his thoughts on Jewish identity, or his apologetics for religion, or his recent books on the Torah parasha. They each deserve their own treatment. This article does not convey the full range of Sack’s thought. But it does deal with an aspect shown more at the international forums than in the Jewish community. When I had the privilege to meet with him in his office, I was invited as an international interfaith speaker, not as an educator.

I have selected paragraphs from the article and added brief commentary before the quotes. I lectured on this topic many years ago when the article first appeared. Spelling have been changed to American from British to please my online programs.

Global Covenant: A Jewish Perspective on Globalization

Sacks connects contemporary issues to Biblical stories, which he will describe later in the article, as a means of addressing issues with narrative that dramatizes the contemporary issues. In this case, he uses the Phoenicians to address globalization.

International  commerce, practiced extensively by the Phoenicians, goes back almost to the dawn of civilization.

There  are many positive changes of globalization but there are many negative ones as well, especially the poverty and disruption left in its wake.

But there are changes in degree which become changes in kind. The sheer speed and extent of advances in modern communications technology have altered conditions of existence for many, perhaps most, of the world’s six billion inhabitants. The power of instantaneous global communication, the sheer volume of international monetary  movements, the  internationalization  of processes and products, and the ease with which jobs can be switched from country to country have meant that our interconnectedness has become more immediate, vivid, and consequential than ever before.

But globalization also carries effects that are perceived as deeply threatening, especially to traditional cultures. Jobs become vulnerable. Whole economies are destabilized. Inequalities within and between nations grow larger, not smaller. One- fifth of the world’s population subsists on less than a dollar a day. Throughout Africa and parts of Asia, poverty, disease, and hunger are rife. Developing countries find themselves vulnerable as never before to sudden economic downturns, currency fluctuations, and shifts in production, leaving behind them vast swathes of unemployment.

Religions teaches us to look beyond the tribe and nation toward a universal God of justice, righteousness, peace, and human dignity. Judaism is one of those universal voices.

Francis Fukuyama (1999: 231–45) points out, it was religion that first taught human beings to look beyond the city-state, the tribe, and the nation to humanity as a whole. The world faiths are global phenomena whose reach is broader and in some respects deeper than that of the nation state.

Judaism is one of those voices. The prophets of ancient Israel were the first to think globally, to conceive of a God transcending place and national boundaries and of humanity as a single moral community linked by a covenant of mutual responsibility (the covenant with Noah after the Flood). Equally, they were the first to conceive of society as a place where ‘justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a never ending stream’ and of a future in which war had been abolished and peoples lived together in peace. Those insights remain valid today.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all endow life with human dignity, All three give us freedom, volition and choice to make the world a better place, to dream and hope for a better tomorrow. The religions teach us a moral view so that we use technology and globalization for good and not for bad. (He never directly addresses the parts of religion, especially his Judaism, that do not use religion to increase human dignity).

Our hopes are not mere dreams, nor are our ideals illusions. Something at the core of being responds to us as persons, inviting us to exercise our freedom by shaping families, communities and societies in such a way as to honor the image of God that is mankind, investing each human life with  ultimate  dignity. This view, shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, sees choice, agency, and moral responsibility at the heart of the human project. We are not powerless in the face of fate. Every technological advance can be used for good or evil. There is nothing inevitably benign or malign in our increasing powers. It depends on the use we make of them… Our aim must be to maximize human dignity and hand on to future generations a more gracious, less capricious world.

In an age of globalization, we care more about the creation and patenting of ideas, rather than production. Intellectual skills count more than modes of production, hence education is a fundamental human right in order to compete in the new global economy.

The labor content  of manufactured goods continues to fall. Huge profits go to those who have ideas. To an ever-increasing degree, multinational enterprises (MNEs) are outsourcing production and peripheral services and becoming, instead, owners of concepts: brands, logos, images, and designs (Klein 2001). In such an age, immense advantage accrues to those with intellectual and creative skills. Education, not merely basic but extended, becomes a necessity, even a fundamental  human  right. Investment in education is the most important way in which a society offers its children a future.

God made humans in His image of creativity and as His partner in creation. This is achieved through education. Just as education in Judaism in both the Biblical and rabbinic worlds meant a greater democratization of knowledge, so too the personal computer and internet lead to greater democratization of knowledge. Just as Judaism made education a primary duty, our primary duty in an age of globalization is to ensure an education for all and that everyone on earth have access to information, knowledge, and skills. (Note that he footnotes to Bill Clinton and George Soros)

By making mankind in His image, the creative God endowed humanity with creativity, giving us the mandate to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ and inviting us to become, in the rabbinic phrase, ‘God’s partners in the work of creation’. Specifically—following through the possibilities raised by the invention  of the alphabet—Judaism made education  a primary religious duty.

As with the invention of the alphabet and printing, so with the personal computer  and the Internet: what makes them  so significant an  enhancement  of  human  possibilities is their contribution to the democratization of knowledge, and thus ultimately of dignity and power (Friedman 2000).

Education is still far too unevenly distributed. A hundred million children worldwide do not  go to school. There are twenty-three countries—mostly in Africa, but they include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Haiti—in which half or more of the adult population are illiterate. In thirty-five countries— including Algeria, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Laos, Morocco, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia—half or more women cannot read or write.

The first and most potent global intervention, therefore, is to ensure that every child has access to information, knowledge, and skills. The model here is the Bolsa-Escola scheme in Brazil that provides subsidies to poor families provided that their children attend school regularly. School participation  in Brazil has risen, as a result, to 97 per cent of the child population  (Soros 2002: 37, 84; Clinton 2001).


Modernity valued progress over anything else. But this lead to an impoverished social world of our family community, voluntary organizations, neighborhood groups, and religious congregations. They are the places where we operate based not on profit and utility but on love, loyalty, faithfulness, mutuality, and a sense of shared belonging. These are the places where we learn about responsibility and morals. These are our covenantal relationships. This is his communitarianism. Notice he uses the term covenant to mean communities of responsibility, not revelation or covenant with God. His book Politics of Hope was 1999, where he first presented his communitarian views.

One of the dominant metaphors of modernity has been the idea of competition as the driving force of progress… What we and others have argued is that this is an impoverished view of our social ecology. It omits ‘third sector’ institutions like the family, the community, voluntary organizations, neighborhood groups, and religious congregations which have in common that they are larger than the individual but smaller than the state. Their significance, and it is immense, is that they are where we learn the habits of co-operation, whether we describe it as reciprocal altruism or social capital or trust. Families and communities are not arenas of competition. To use the vocabulary, I developed in The Politics of Hope, they are places where relationships are covenantal, not contractual. They are based not on transactions of power or exchange, but  on love, loyalty, faithfulness, mutuality, and a sense of shared belonging. They are less about the ‘I’ than about the ‘We’ in which my ‘I’ becomes articulate, as a child of this family, that history, this place, that set of ideals.

Sack uses the critiques of society by Schumpter, Putnam, and Walzer showing that social bonds have broken down and we are now in Putnam’s phrase “bowling alone” instead of building community and civil organizations. We no longer feel bound to build democratic union with a large number of others in our fragmented multi-cultural world. Bear in mind that Walzer is a progressive social democrat, not a conservative. Sack answers that Judaism has always valued family, synagogue, and school and not individualism or state-building and political power..

It  was Joseph Schumpeter, in  Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy,  who pointed out that market based-capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction. It ‘creates a critical frame of mind which, after having destroyed the moral authority  of  so many  other  institutions,  in  the  end  turns  against its own’ (Schumpeter 1947: 143). The combined power of the state and the market causes third  sector institutions  to atrophy. Marriage and the family become fragile. Communities disintegrate. Attendance at places of worship declines. Voluntary groups become more fragmented and ephemeral. We prefer, in Robert Putnam’s phrase, to go ‘bowling alone’. The result is that it becomes ‘very difficult for any individual to find any stable communal support, very difficult for any community to count on the responsible participation of its individual members’. This, argues Michael Walzer, ‘works against commitment to the larger democratic union and also against the solidarity of all cultural groups that constitute our multi-culturalism’ (Walzer 1992:11–12).

The Judaic emphasis on third sector institutions hardly needs spelling out. For two millennia, without a home, sovereignty, or power, Jews and Judaism survived and flourished on the basis of three foundations: the family, the synagogue, and the school.

The modern West is too individualistic but some developing countries are too centralized which also works against the building of covenantal associations.

To be sure, the problem does not arise in the same way throughout the world. In some societies, most notably the liberal democracies of the West, individualism may have gone too far. In others—those that have not yet, or only recently, become democratized—it may not have gone far enough. Excessive centralization inhibits the growth of civil associations, just as excessive commercialization erodes them (Soros 2000).


Sacks defines tzedakah as social justice. He thinks the Biblical concept of tzedakah means the removal of barrios to human dignity, which includes the removal of poverty, tyranny, structural economic and social deprivation, lack of public facilities and intolerance. Sacks fined the definition of Amartya Sen valuable to define tzedakah, but Sen is a committed secularist who wants to solve the problems through dedicated government amelioration, while Sacks thinks we need a covenant to be responsibility to make these changes through government.  The entire message to remember that you were slaves in Egypt and not to oppress the widow, orphan and stranger was in order to create a society with poverty, persecution, and enslavement, a society unlike the oppressive slave owning society of Egypt.

What tzedakah signifies, therefore, is what is often called ‘social justice’, meaning that no one should be without the basic requirements of existence, and that those who have more than they need must share some of that surplus with those who have less. The view articulated in the Hebrew Bible has close affinities with Amartya Sen’s concept of ‘development as freedom’ meaning that freedom is not simply the absence of coercion but also the removal of barriers to the exercise of human dignity: ‘poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states’ (Sen 1999: 3)… The society with which the Israelites were charged with creating was one that would stand at the opposite extreme to what they experienced in Egypt: poverty, persecution, and enslavement.

Now to his strong statements about markets and morals, based on several prior essays he had written on the topic. The market is unfair and unequitable and will never fulfill the Torah requirement of tzedakah defined as social justice. The Bible assumes that we need a equitable distribution of wealth, possibility, and economic freedom. Sacks is therefore against the economic policies of Reagan and Thatcher which created greater inequalities removed many of the social safety nets. (Even though Chief Rabbi Jacobovits supported Thatcherism in his From Doom to Hope: A Jewish view of “Faith in the City” ) He is also against the outsourcing of production to developing countries here there are slave wages, child labor, and unsanitary conditions.

A free society cannot be built on mishpat, the rule of law, alone. It requires also tzedakah, a  just  distribution  of  resources. What  is clear—indeed taken  for granted by the Bible—is that an equitable distribution will not emerge naturally from the free working of the market alone.

Tzedakah is a concept for our time. The retreat from a welfare state and the financial deregulation and monetarist policies set in motion  by Reagonomics and Thatcherism have led to increased inequalities in both the United States and Britain.

Meanwhile, third world workers producing  the  goods  the  multinationals  sell do  so  often  under Dickensian conditions  involving child labor, unsanitary  factories, and  less- than-subsistence wages. As George Soros notes, ‘Markets are good at creating wealth but are not designed to take care of other social needs’ (Soros 2002).

Sacks acknowledges the critique by conservatives of the welfare state that it has the potential to lead to dependency, the opposite of human dignity. But he notes that Maimonides already taught that the highest form of tzedakah is to make someone self-sufficient. Despite this hierarchy of types of tzedakah, there are sometimes inequities so great that the only solution is periodic redistribution. 

One of the most profound insights of tzedakah legislation is its emphasis on human dignity and independence. Millennia ago, Jewish law wrestled with the fact that domestic welfare, like foreign aid, can aggravate the very problem it is intended to solve. Welfare creates dependency and thus reinforces, rather than breaks, the cycle of deprivation. Tzedakah therefore, though it includes direct material assistance (food, clothing, shelter, and medical aid), emphasizes the kind of aid that creates independence, as in Moses Maimonides’ famous ruling:

The highest degree, exceeded by none, is that of the person who assists a poor person by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment—in a word by putting him where he can dispense with other people’s aid… (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor 10: 7). The supreme form of tzedakah is therefore one that allows the individual to become independent of other people’s aid.

The Bible is acutely aware that the workings of the free market can create, over time, inequalities so great as to amount to dependency and which can only be removed by periodic redistribution.

Sacks categorically concludes on the need for advanced economies to help eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, ensure universal education, combat treatable disease, reduce infant mortality, improve work conditions, and reconstruct failing economies. Sacks does not care if it is justified as compassion, social justice, or human solidarity. One should compare Sacks to a similar conclusion by Michael Walzer, writing as a Jewish thinker, who extends Maimonides’ laws of tzedakah to global tzedakah to eradicate poverty but is exacting to justify it specifically as tzedakah. See Michael Walzer, “On Humanitarianism: Is Helping Others Charity, or Duty, or Both?” (2011)

There can be no doubt that some of the economic surplus of the advanced economies of the world should be invested in developing countries to help eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, ensure universal education, combat treatable disease, reduce infant mortality, improve work conditions, and reconstruct failing economies. As with tzedakah, the aim should be to restore dignity and independence to nations as well as individuals. Whether this is done in the name of compassion, social justice, or human solidarity it has now become a compelling imperative. The globalization of communications, trade, and culture globalizes human responsibility likewise. The freedom of the few must not be purchased at the price of the enslavement of the many to poverty, ignorance, and disease.


On questions of the environment, Sacks criticizes modernity’s faith in open ended progress with limits and responsibilities.  The covenantal approach means that we need to assume stewardship for the environment. He appeals to the relgious literature of all faiths to help us. On the environment, he is reading the works on economics and globalization, not environmental theology.

Legislation governing the conduct of war forbade needless destruction of fruit-bearing trees, a principle expanded in rabbinic law to cover the entire range of wasteful consumption and environmental pollution… The human  covenant therefore signifies that we are, collectively, the guardians of the natural universe for the sake of future generations.

The sense of limits is one of the hardest for a civilization to sustain. Each in turn has been captivated by the idea that it alone was immune to the laws of growth and decline, that it could consume resources indefinitely, pursuing present advantage without thought of future depletion. Few have committed this error more consciously than the age we call ‘modernity’, with its belief that rationality, science, and technology would create open-ended progress toward unlimited abundance. In the words of Christopher Lasch, ‘Progressive optimism rests, at bottom, on a denial of the natural limits on human power and freedom, and it cannot survive for very long in a world in which an awareness of those limits has become inescapable’ (Lasch 1991: 530). Many of the world’s great faiths contain teachings of great wisdom on environmental ethics.


On the religions of the world, he already wrote an entire book called Dignity of Difference. The 1st edition of the book became the gold standard in interfaith and is still used by Muslim, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and others around the globe in Indonesia, Singapore, India, UAE, and across Europe. Quotes from the book are used in statements made at conferences and in interfaith motivational posters. This very morning, I saw a Muslim friend of mine in Singapore posting a quote from Sack’s book.

Sack’s position is that there is one universal God but each religion is it own particular covenant with God. Each religion, as a religion, has its own narratives and moral resources to bring us to God and to moral responsibility.

This essay, written a year after the publication of the book, and after the edition was censored to produce a second edition. The change made below from the first edition was that in the first edition it said that God sends prophets to all people to give them their own religion, and below it says that “Mankind  has spoken to God in many languages, through  many faiths.” He changed it from a divine plan to a natural quality of humanity. Paradoxically, it made his thought more naturalistic and liberal, in that, religions are more human than divine. He retained in this essay the idea that religions are not truth claims but stories of each religion’s self-understanding of their relationship with God.

There are no easy answers to this dilemma but there is an instructive precedent. Judaism is that rarest of phenomena: a particularist monotheism. The God of Abraham, according to the Hebrew Bible, is the God of all humanity, but the faith of Abraham is not the faith of all humanity. So strange is this idea that it was not taken on by the two daughter monotheisms  to which Judaism gave rise, Christianity and Islam. These faiths are both universalist monotheisms, holding that since there is only one God, there is only one true religion, one path to salvation, to which ideally all mankind will be converted. Judaism believes otherwise: that there are many ways to serve God and that one does not have to be Jewish to do so. ‘The righteous of the nations of the world [i.e. non-Jews] have a share in the world to come’ (Tosefta, Sanhedrin 13).

Mankind  has spoken to God in many languages, through  many faiths. No language need threaten the others; none should supersede the other. Religious truth is not solely ontological (a matter of what is) but covenantal (a relationship between a specific group and God). Ontologies conflict, covenants do not.


Sacks is aware that many see religion as part of the problem. But he is adamant that religion as a moral covenant can give us a sense of responsibility. Civilizations must care for the poor, weak, and powerless. They must increase human dignity. This moral responsibility can be done by secular humanists and religious zealots who have denied it. But Sacks argues that for most of us, religion gives us our moorings. In none of his books does he directly address the large part of Orthodoxy that would not agree with his rejection of fundamentalism or his definition of Jewish moral responsibility.

The wisdom of the world’s religions may seem at best irrelevant, at worst dangerous, to a world driven by economic forces. In the West, especially Western Europe, society has become secularized. In the Middle East and parts of Asia it has witnessed a growth of fundamentalism that threatens economic development and political freedom alike. Whatever therefore the prospects for the future, religion seems part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Our  own view is that  civilizations survive not  by strength but  by how they respond to the weak; not by wealth but by the care they show for the poor; not by power but by their concern for the powerless. The ironic yet utterly humane lesson of history is that what renders a culture invulnerable is the compassion it shows to the vulnerable. The ultimate value we should be concerned to maximize is human dignity—the dignity of all human beings, equally, as children of the creative, redeeming God.

Is this a ‘religious’ insight? Yes and no. There have been secular humanists who have affirmed it; there have been religious zealots who have denied it.

Sacks concludes his essay with his definition of religion as giving us meaning. Sacks has always been deeply influenced by Victor Frankl and the importance of meaning in our lives. Religions form communities and tell narratives and perform rituals that dramatize the narrative. These give us as humans continuity with the past and a future oriented sense of meaning. Notice the absence of God, revelation, holiness, experience, or mysticism in his definition. (This definition is important also for his view of Judaism, which I may show in a follow up post.) 

We are also, uniquely, the meaning-seeking animal. We seek to understand our place in the universe. We want to know where we have come from, where we are going to, and of what narrative we are a part. We form families, communities, and societies. We tell stories, some of which have the status of sacred texts. We perform rituals that dramatize the structure of reality. We have languages, cultures, moralities, and faiths. These things are essential to our sense of continuity with the past and responsibility to the future.

Finally, Sacks advocates creating a global covenant to work for human rights, human dignity, and the common good.  He does not want a political entity such as the United Nations, but a covenantal agreement. But if you read the original documents around the forming of the UN such as those which supported The Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Rene Cassin, Jacques Maritain, and Elanor Roosevelt, one finds a similar vision.  

What we need now is not a contract bringing into being a global political structure, but rather a covenant framing our shared vision for the future of humanity.

That is at least a starting point for a global covenant in which the nations of the world collectively express their commitment not only to human rights but also to human responsibilities, and not merely a political, but also an economic, environmental, moral, and cultural conception of the common good, constructed on the twin foundations of shared humanity and respect for diversity.

Coda- This week Chief Rabbi Mirvis issued a statement that we cannot sit idly at persecution, we are “compelled to speak out” on the plight of China’s Uighur. Mirivis wants Jews to actively take up the cause and be involved. In contrast, Chief Rabbi Sacks did not pick up any political causes to get personally involved with.  He never exhorted his followers to put his ideas into practice through speaking out and protest. And this American election season, he advocated to not get involved in a partisan political opinion.

Zalman Newfield Interview – Degrees of Separation

In 1867, Isaac Joel Linetsky published his best selling Yiddish novel The Polish Lad. The book is a semi-autobiographic account of Linetsky’s rejection of his Hasidic upbringing and community. Linetsky’s protagonist left because he was disgusted by the Hasidic community’s closed ways, lack of morals, misogyny,  pettiness, and ignorance. However, the lad lacks the skills needed to survive in the outside world. He did not have language skills, secular education, or even the ability to dress, eat, or make conversation. The latter half of the book narrates his inability to make a living or find his way until a kind-hearted Reform rabbi has pity on him and helps him. This depiction of the lad is, in many ways, a typical description of what is now colloquially called the off derech-OTD (derech means path or way of life). This lad typifies how a hasid who grew up in a sheltered sectarian community and leaves it to enter the wider world despite lacking the requisite skills and education has to struggle to form a new identify.

Linetsky was not alone. At the end of the 19th century the majority of Polish-Russian village youth left the path and became secular believers in the many new movements- socialism, communism, Bund, civil rights party, Zionism- that were going to change Polish Jewish life. They moved to the cities such as Lublin, Lodz, Bialystok, or Odessa to seek their new lives. Some showed up at the Warsaw address of the famed Yiddish author I. L Peretz still wearing their long Hasidic garb but grasping a manuscript in hand telling him they wanted to be an author so they could tell their story.

In the last twenty years, there has been a bevy of similar cases of those leaving contemporary Hasidic communities and wanting to write about their stories. A significant group of those who left became authors writing at first hesitant blog posts, followed by memoirs and books. But do these novels contain an accurate sociological depiction of those who leave? To find out, Schneur Zalman Newfield, who is himself an Ex-Lubavitcher, one who left the path of Chabad, wrote his dissertation on the topic.    

Dr. Schneur Zalman Newfield is an assistant professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Newfield received his MA & PhD in Sociology from New York University and a BA from Brooklyn College, CUNY. Prior to attaining his academic position, he taught sociology courses for two years in six New Jersey state prisons through Rutgers University-Newark’s New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) program. He has a reflection of his prison teaching experience- here. Newfield’s wrote a book on those who leave the Hasidic path today Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism (Temple University Press, April 2020).

Leaving religion is not new. Secular ages and periods of religious recession have always been with us going back to the Roman Empire and ancient India. Most of Eastern European Jewry left the path in the early 20th century. The United States has been having religious recessions and inflations approximately every 35 years. In the 21st century, many American Evangelical Christians and Mormons are leaving their paths, which the American anthropologist James Bielo called deconverting. This follows a period of rapid religious revival in the 1990’s. This back and forth of pendulum of religious revival and recession is not new.

However, when an Evangelical forgoes the closed Christian culture, he or she speaks English as a native tongue and usually has received enough education to function in today’s world. Exceptions tend to be the segregated old-world Amish and those whose parents kept them away from education like the family depicted in the 2018 bestseller Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. When an early 20th century Hasid left to become a socialist, they usually still existed an all Yiddish world. But the contemporary ex-Hasid does not have the language skills or education that makes the transition easy. This is what Newfield studied, the transition from Hasid to ex-Hasid and the process of forming a new identity. They are like the Polish lad in Linetsky novel, having to completely change their identity.

(Modern Orthodox who graduate from a day school and then give up their religion in college already have full language and cultural skills, have full TV and pop-culture values, and do not have to be taught the basics of secular society or obtain a GED. Therefore, they should not be compared to the OTD who need to entirely form a new identity.)

Unlike the contemporary literary memoirs of ex-hasidim that generally present a complete break with their past, portraying those who leave as not going back and certainly not going back and forth or being indecisive or creating a new hybrid identity. The thesis of Newfield’s book, based on extensive interviews and collecting a statistically meaningful number of cases, is that many do create hybrid identities and do go back and forth. They want to maintain ties with family, friends, and accustomed aspects of their lives. People Newfield interviewed exhibited a range of degrees to which they have successfully moved beyond their religious upbringing and managed to create a new lifestyle and mode of being in the world.

Newfield divides his interviewees into three categories: trapped, hybrid, and disconnected, those who cannot form a new identity, those who combine aspects of both their new and their former lives, and those who completely sever connection with the past. But Newfield shows that even the latter category still struggle with their attraction to the old ways. These people may experience intense and unhealthy preoccupation with their upbringing.  Newfield’s data places most people in the middle category.  Newfield credits successful adjustment to being able to move beyond black and white thinking.

The most interesting parts of the book are those on the descriptions by ex-Hasidim of the fear of leaving, how leaving is treated as a pathology, and how one of the biggest shifts of thinking required is to stop denigrating non-Jews, goyim, and secular society as worthless, immoral, and valueless. He also discusses the various habits and traits that Ex-Hasidim retain after the formation of a new identity, such as right-wing values, anti-feminism, or shukling. He also deals with their anti-intellectualism and their need to acquire the basics of secular studies.  

The book is a very quick read and a solid sociology monograph to earn an academic position. Newfield should be commended for a fine first monograph, but it does not push far enough or hard enough. Essentials in the process of forming a new identity which I would want to know about include discussion of the changes in sartorial choices, eating, and leisure habits, finding a job, and how they became educated. The book points out how they had to become less demonizing of gentiles. But does that apply to only white gentiles? How about black and Hispanic gentiles? How about Christians who self-identify as Evangelical?  

Personally, I would have also wanted a frame analysis of an event with ex-Hasidim showing the hybridity of their choices. I would have also liked a greater sensitivity to socio-economic concerns in the viable options in forming a new identity. From where I sit in the township of Modern Orthodoxy, they cannot easily transition to Modern Orthodoxy or most Liberal Jewish communities because of the need for an upper middle-class income as well as having the worldview and class distinctions that maintain it. The book also does not directly address the issues of pain and psychic rupture from the transition.

The biggest question that the book consciously avoids is: why now? What are the social and historic factors that are leading to the current defection? For that, we need another book. The data would not be personal narratives but a social history of the last seventy years of how Hasidism was rebuilt in Brooklyn after WWII. That generation of immigrants adjusted to the new country by learning to be highly adaptive and pragmatic. How did they produce grandchildren without those skills that felt compelled to leave? How many of those who leave had parents and grandparents whose decisions played a role?

Finally, there is the rise of the Modern Hasidic, Hasidim who are in commerce, real estate, or have even gotten psychology degrees. Many of them stay in the community but are now more exposed to broader ideas, western culture, and their liberal Jewish co-workers. Are those who leave part of a broader phenomena of modernizing Hasidim or are they something completely separate? I hope that Newfield or another scholar devotes themselves to this topic

  1. How is this book autobiographical?

I was raised in the Lubavitch Hasidic community and exited it in my early twenties, so in a sense my research on people leaving their Hasidic upbringing is autobiographical. At the same time, I’ve worked very hard to separate my own personal experiences and emotions from those of the people I interviewed for my study.

For a long time, I’ve wondered who is best suited to study religious communities, those who were raised in them or those who come to it from the outside. Eventually I realized that there is no such thing as a completely “objective” scholar and that everyone brings their own biases, experiences, and concerns to their research. The most any scholar can do is to be honest about their background and orientation and to try to approach their work with an open mind. I have tried to live up to this standard. Studying others who left Hasidic communities has certainly opened my eyes to the many different kinds of exiters and to the realization that there are many particular circumstances that can shape people’s exit process and their feelings about it after the fact. I’m still figuring out the details of my next research project, but it will certainly explore some facet of ultra-Orthodox communities.           

2. Why is this topic an important topic?

There are several reasons why the study of ultra-Orthodox exiters is of interest. For one thing, according to some studies there are currently as many as ten thousand exiters from Orthodox Judaism throughout the world, with a majority living in the US but substantial minorities living in Israel and parts of Europe. That is not an insignificant number. In addition, there is some reason to believe that the rate of exit has increased in the past decade and it may continue to go up even higher in the foreseeable future, potentially brining into question the entire ultra-Orthodox way of life. 

Certainly, there are many examples—from public pronouncements by ultra-Orthodox leaders and articles in ultra-Orthodox publications—that these communities themselves view this issue as a major problem.  For example, Reb Aaron Teitelbaum, one of the spiritual leaders of the Satmar Hasidic community, in a tearful Yom Kippur speech in 2013 lamented the “lost neshumas,” the lost souls, who are leaving his community.  Similarly, thirty-three prominent Lubavitch rabbis from around the world issued a public statement proposing that community members get married earlier to ensure that members stay faithful to the community.  These statements illustrate that both communities are well aware of the fact that members are exiting and are trying to respond to this situation as they see fit.

From a sociological perspective, in addition to the inherent interest in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish case, there are broader insights this case illuminates that helps us understand all kinds of experiences of “exit” or radical personal transformation. This study is about the process of resocialization from a total institution and there are many other kinds of exiting from other total institutions.  For example, the experiences of immigrants, divorcees, and people leaving prison.  In all these cases people need to learn the new rules of their new society or circumstances, need to develop a new set of norms and behaviors, and they need to determine what parts of their previous selves they want to hold onto and what parts they want to let go.   

I should mention that there are many similarities among the experiences of those exiting ultra-Orthodox Judaism and those exiting other strict religions. One possible significant difference has to do with how the former religion is perceived by mainstream society. So, for example, if someone exits fundamentalist Islam, given the widespread Islamophobia in America, they may face greater scrutiny and suspicion than someone exiting ultra-Orthodox Judaism.  This suspicion may make it more difficult for them to speak openly about their upbringing and make it more difficult for them to develop new social contacts and fully integrate into the broader society.    

3. What does it mean to exit the Ultra-Orthodox world?

Scholars have used various terms to describe people leaving a religion. Some of these terms are value-laden such as “apostasy” or “heresy,” which tend to have negative connotations. Others terms also have other shortcomings. For example, the term “deconversion” implies that leaving a religion is the reverse of joining one, but that misses the mark since leaving a lifestyle one was born into and lived for decades tends to be much more gradual and less linear than the process of conversion.  One of the most popular phrases within the American Orthodox Jewish community to describe people leaving is “to go off the derech,” off the path, often referred to by community members as going OTD (off the derech).  This expression is certainly not neutral, since it assumes that there is a single “path” and that those who deviate from it are off that path, and negatively judges those who do so.

Among some Hasidim (notably Lubavitchers) they often describe exit-ers as “going frai;” the word “frai” is a Yiddish word derived from German, meaning “free.”  This phrase may sound less judgmental, or possibly even value-neutral, until the true meaning of the word “free” in this context is understood.  “Free” is not associated with a “free spirit” or “free as a bird,” but rather someone who is free from “the yoke of the sovereignty of Heaven” (ol malchus shamayim).  The person exiting is viewed as devoid of the constraining force of Jewish law and tradition and is as depraved as an animal wholly at the mercy of its natural passions.  I try not to use these phrases in my scholarship. Instead I use the term “exiting” because it is value neutral, and it leaves open the question of when they exited and whether they exited completely.

4. Is there any typology that can be made of those who leave?

The people I interviewed exhibited a range of degrees to which they have successfully moved beyond their religious upbringing and managed to create a new lifestyle and mode of being in the world. I divide the interviewees into three categories: trapped, hybrid, and disconnected.

Exiters who are “trapped” feel they are stuck, living in a no-man’s-land, as it were, uncomfortable and constantly struggling with the norms that they find in the outside world.

Exiters who are “hybrids” adopt new norms from the outside world while simultaneously incorporating a limited amount of their former community’s norms into their new lives.

Exiters who are “disconnected” appear on the surface to have replaced all of the norms of their former community with new ones, without any carry overs. Upon closer analysis, however, they still struggle with their attraction to the old ways. These people may experience intense and unhealthy preoccupation with their upbringing.  I would say that the majority of exiters would fall into the hybrid category, with only a small, but tragic, number of exiters comprising the trapped and disconnected categories. 

It is difficult to say exactly why some exiters thrive post exit while others falter. It does seem that an ability to transcend the rigid mindset of ultra-Orthodoxy that sees everything in black and white terms (for example, either God wrote the Torah and every word must be followed punctiliously or it was written by humans and is of no lasting import) is key to being able to adapt to mainstream secular society.    

5. How do Hasidim denigrate Goyim? How do they imagine Goyim live?

In Hasidic communities there is a tendency to view non-Jews, as “goyim,” as lower than and less than Jews.  The Hasidim tend to view non-Jews as less intellectual, less spiritual, and less moral than Jews.  Hasidim also tend to view non-Jews as more enslaved to their animal instincts and less capable than Jews of using their free will to make moral decisions.  As one of my Hasidic male interviewees told me, “I was taught that non-Jews have no choice, they have no free will.  My teachers went so far as to say that non-Jews were robots.” Along similar lines, a Hasidic woman told me, “I was taught that non-Jews are unclean….[Non-Jews] weren’t portrayed as caring, loving, family-minded people like us.  We live for our families, for our kids, we love our kids.  They don’t love their kids, they hurt their kids all the time.  There is so much abuse going on” in the goyish world.

One of the reasons why it is possible for the Hasidic community to promote such negative stereotypes of non-Jews is because there is very little genuine familiarity between the Hasidim and non-Jews. Hasidim tend to shop in Jewish own stores, go to Jewish (although largely non-Hasidic) doctors and dentists, patronize Jewish-own car services, and when they do interact with non-Jews such interactions tend to be brief and superficial.  What is more, when they do occasionally see non-Jewish strangers in their neighborhoods or in the news acting immorally, they use this as evidence that the Hasidic negative preconceptions of non-Jews are correct.  It is a kind of confirmation bias.  Overcoming this negative attitude towards non-Jews is certainly one of the major hurdles exiters must overcome.     

6. How is exiting prevented? What is the role of fear?

For people contemplating exiting their community, fear plays a huge role. Hasidim tend to know very little about the outside secular world; therefore they are understandably terrified about surviving on their own on the outside without the supports they can often expect to receive from their community were they to remain inside. Because of this fear, most people who think about exiting tend to decide not to go through with it. 

For those who decide to exit anyway, their Hasidic communities have various ways to try to prevent it.  Among the Lubavitch and Satmar communities I studied, I found that these communities tended to denigrate those who exited and claim that there were no “legitimate” reasons for exit. All those who exited were viewed as doing so in order to satiate their lusts.

Among the Satmar community, but not the Lubavitch one, it was common for the religious schools to expel children whose parents deviated religiously. This was a major weapon against those starting to deviate religiously since all the neighborhood Hasidic schools were in alliance, and if a child were expelled from one school another school in the area would not accept that child. This meant that if the parents still wanted their children to attend a religious school, they would need to move to a new neighborhood with a different school system. So, expelling a child from a school was a way to force a religiously deviating family to move.

Of course, for those parents who were farther along in their process of exiting and no longer wanted their children to attend a religious school, the Satmar community had another weapon at its disposal. It would forcefully inset itself in the child custody hearings to ensure that the parent who remained in the community retained full custody of the children.  The community would arrange to have former friends and neighbors of the exiter come to court and testify that the exiter was not a fit parent.  The community also raised money to cover legal costs and other expenses to assist the parent remaining in the community.  The threat of an exiter potentially losing all contact with his or her children is very real and is a major disincentive for would-be exiters to exit.      

7. How and why does the community pathologize exiting?

Hasidic communities pathologize exiting by arguing that those who exit are mentally ill (meshuga).  They maintain this position for several reasons. For one thing such a position attempts to remove from public discourse any legitimacy from the motives or actions of exiters.  That is, it implies that there is no legitimate reason for exiting, these exiters are simply out of their mind.  It also acts as a deterrence to others who might be thinking about exiting.  How many people are going to decide to exit when they know that their own family and friends will go around saying that they suffered from a mental illness. 

It is also possible that these communities maintain that exiters have a mental illness out of a genuine bafflement at the choices exiters make.  That is, these communities cannot fathom how someone in their right mind who knows so much about the Hasidic way of life could choose to live in violation of its norms—it must be that person is crazy!     

8. How does your research show that ex-Hasidim do not cut off ties with the past including family and ways of life?

My research found that the majority of exiters continue to maintain at least some connection with their families post exit. There was range in terms of how connected exiters were to their families post exit. Some exiters only called their families before major Jewish holidays and endured awkward conversations, some visited a few times a year and suffered through stilted conversations, and others continued to enjoy regular loving—although still complicated—meaningful family contact.   This finding is significant because there is a general perception among some scholars and the public that once people exit from the Hasidic community they are completed cut off from their families.  Some outsiders even believe that Hasidic families sit shiva for the exit-er, as if the person had actually died.  Of the seventy-four exiters I interviewed, I only confirmed one case where parents sat shiva, and that case had two distinct characteristics: The exiter not only stopped being Orthodox but also married a non-Jewish women (which was uncommon among the majority of exiters) and the leader of the exiter’s community had a personal antagonism against the exiters.  This antagonism grew out of the fact that the exiter had publicized sexual abuse inside his community of origin. 

I should mention that the image that emerges from memoirs written by those who exit the ultra-Orthodox community may conflict with my findings. These memoirists may give the impression of being completely cut off post exit. Assuming the veracity of their claims, there is a simple explanation for the discrepancies. Specifically, these personal memoirs may represent the narratives of a marginal group who are indeed so disconnected from their family and community that they feel free to write about it and tell the whole world their personal story.  However, for the majority of ultra-Orthodox exiters who still connections with their family or community have they are loath to publicly discuss their disagreements with the community for fear of causing offense and jeopardizing those relationships. 

9. How do they retain and give up many habits after exiting?

My research also found that exiters continue to hold on to aspects of their upbringing as well, what scholars call “role residuals.”  Examples of this include the way that some exiters continue to maintain the socially conservative attitudes from their upbringing regarding race and gender.

Other exiters continue to hold onto some of the bodily behaviors that were instilled in them growing up such as swaying (shuckling) while reading a book, even though now the book they are reading is not a “sacred” text.  It must be stressed that these role residuals are not simply things that exiters choose to hold on to because they enjoy or appreciate them. Instead, these are more like habits that they are either unaware of or unable to jettison even if they want to.  The presence of these role residuals is significant because it highlights how much of an effect the  upbringing has them, even if (or especially when!) we are unaware of it.      

One pattern to emerge in terms of which habits exiters maintained from their upbringing and which they discarded, was that habits that were not supported by the outside world (such as the denigration of non-Jews) were much less likely to be maintained.

On the other hand, habits that found support from at least some segment of the broader public (such as conservative attitudes towards race and gender) were more likely to be maintained. That is, it is possible for exiters to tune into conservative talk radio and hear people promoting reactionary views on race and gender. Therefore, it is possible for exiters to feel like these views are not simply “Hasidic” and should be maintained. But it is extremely unlikely for exiters to find non-Orthodox Jews (let alone non-Jews) who would agree that none-Jews are less than full human beings. Therefore, it is very unlikely that exiters will maintain the kind of anti-goy attitudes from their upbringing. 

10. How is Hasidism anti-intellectual?  Do Ex-Hasidim often substitute Dawkins and Hitchens for Torah, trading a religious fundamentalism for an atheist fundamentalism?

Hasidic communities tend to be anti-intellectual in several ways. For one thing, they tend to disparage secular knowledge as “foreign knowledge” (chochmas chitzonim) and limit or entirely prevent members from learning in school even such basic subjects as English reading and writing and rudimentary mathematics.  This not only limits members knowledge of these specific secular subjects but also limits the imagination and exploration regarding the physical universe and the outside world in general.  This general pattern exists within both the Lubavitch and Satmar communities.      

Hasidic communities also tend to place strict ideological boundaries around the religious subjects that they teach in their schools.  So, for example, students in yeshiva will be discouraged from asking the “wrong” kind of questions when studying the Bible or the Talmud, such as questions that challenge God’s omniscience or the wisdom of particular legal rulings of the sages.

When people leave their Hasidic upbringing, they often reject its theological foundations. Approximately 16 percent of the exiters I interviewed become atheists, the rest were agnostics or maintained some form of belief in god. Many of these atheist exiters are attracted to the “four horsemen” of New Atheism (Hitchins, Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett) and embrace these authors simplistic critique of religion as based primarily on theological beliefs which they reject as superstitious. Atheist exiters sometimes also embrace the Islamophobia rampant among the New Atheists.

11. What do the gender attitudes remain after exiting?

About a third of the exiters I interviewed expressed conservative gender attitudes. That is, they said that men and women were fundamentally different and that there were certain types of jobs, specifically being a rabbi, which were better suited to men than women.  Interestingly, these were the same views as those of people inside the Hasidic community.  I think one reason these views of gender remain with exiters is that they are supported by socially conservative voices in the broader society. This support reinforces these views among exiters and allows them to feel like this is not one of the things that are unique to the Hasidic community and therefore should be rejected. It is also possible that since views about gender are related in their minds to embodied differences, this embodied aspect may naturalize these views and make them less susceptible to change.    

12. What is your method? How do you differ from others?

My main research method is to use in depth interviews. This is a significant methodological difference between my study and most other studies on ultra-Orthodox Jews, which tend to use ethnographies and participant observations.    

I wanted a method that would allow me to have extended conversations with exiters in order to find out exactly what they were thinking and how they made sense of their own experiences and transformations.  I’m not aware of any other contemporary study of ultra-Orthodoxy based primarily on in-depth interviews.

My interviews tended to last about two and a half hours and I tried as much as possible to let the interviewees describe their own experiences in a way that made sense to them without superimposing my own sociological issues and concerns on their narratives. Once I finished conducting interviews, I pored over their transcripts and searched for emergent patterns. 

I’ve learned so much from the many insightful ethnographic works on Orthodoxy.  One book in particular that inspired me was Ayala Fader’s Mitzvah Girls. Although our methods differ, I greatly appreciated how serious Fader took her subject and how she wasn’t afraid to describe honestly what she observed, even if it made for occasionally uncomfortable reading, such as when she described the anti-goy messages rampant in the Hasidic girls schools she observed.   

13. What did they become religiously after exiting?

Out of the seventy-four people I interviewed, only eight could be classified now as Modern Orthodox and only five actively embraced some form of liberal Judaism.  The rest tended to create their own amalgam of Jewish rituals and practices as they saw fit.  As one exiter I interviewed put it, “For some weird reason when it comes to Hanukah and the menorah, there was one year I was like “Ok let’s just do this,” but this year I didn’t light it once.  I mean I wouldn’t not light it. I’ve come to the point that I could enjoy those things. But I don’t of my own volition do anything religious.” 

As a sociologist nothing would please me more than being able to identify a clear pattern to explain why particular exiters ended up in particular places religiously, but I could not find such a pattern.  For people raised ultra-Orthodox and socialized to believe that conforming to Orthodox religious standards is the highest ideal and that Judaism is an all or nothing proposition, it is extremely difficult for exiters to develop their own sense of Jewishness and to feel confident to embrace some aspects of Judaism while disengaging from others.  Being able to improvise in this way is an expression of religious open-mindedness and creatively not typically associated with ultra-Orthodoxy.  

14. You seem to trust the narratives, as a sociologist should not you question them more?

Although my research is based on interviews with exiters, and although I take what exiters tell me seriously, I do not accept it uncritically as fact.  That is, throughout my work I make it clear that I do not view what exiters tell me as the causal reason for their exit as a straightforward fact. Rather I analyze what exiters tell me in order to understand how they make sense of their experiences.  So, when exiters tell me that they left their community for intellectual or social reasons, rather than assuming that these explanations are the causal reasons for their behavior, I look at these explanations as narratives that invite scholarly interpretation.  And it is as “narratives” that I present them in my scholarship.  Analyzing exiter narratives in this way allowed me to discover not only that there were differences among exiters in terms of how they explained their motivations for exiting—some giving primacy to intellectual critiques of religious texts and their communities and others giving primacy to feelings of alienation and disconnect with their upbringing—I also discovered that there was intense competition between these two groups and mutual recriminations against each other. 

Those who gave intellectual narratives argued that if one does not leave for intellectual reasons, they are not real exiters.  They claimed that if the exiters do not have “real” problems with their community, as soon as they realize how hard it is to start over in mainstream society, they will come running back to the community to be readmitted.  Conversely, those who consider their reasons for leaving to be emotional or social, often ridicule the “intellectuals” for their self-deception.  They say things like: “These people think that they are so smart and so much better than the rest of us. Really, they left for the same reasons that we left but they don’t want to admit it, so they protect themselves by claiming intellectual reasons.”

15. I encounter Hasidim who are in commerce, real estate, or even gotten psychology degrees. Many of them stay in the community but are now more exposed to broader ideas, western culture, and their liberal Jewish co-workers. How do you see them changing? Is it in continuity with the OTD? Many of the things you noted also apply to these “Modern Hasidic”?

This might get me into trouble with my fellow sociologists, but in general I try to avoid grand schemas or systems of classification as much as possible.  My study explores the lives of those raised in the Hasidic community who decide to exit it. There are certainly many other members of ultra-Orthodoxy who are exposed to the secular world to some degree or other and who change some aspects of their thinking or behavior while remaining in their community of origin.  These people are sometimes referred to as “Modern Hasidic.”  These people are certainly interesting and should be studied, but this would be a very different kind of study.    

Talli Rosenbaum responds to Monologues from the Makom

Here is a response to our interview from last week Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity  (Ben Yehuda Press, 2020) by Rivka Cohen, Sara Rozner Lawrence, Sarah Ricklan, Rebecca Zimilover, and Naima Hirsch. Let me know if anyone else has a different response they want to write up.

Talli Y. Rosenbaum is an individual and couple therapist and is certified as a sex therapist and certified sex therapy supervisor. She cohosts the Intimate Judaism podcast and is co-author with David Ribner of  “I am For My Beloved: A Guide to Enhanced Intimacy for Married Couples.”  Rosenbaum earned a masters in Clinical Sociology and Counseling and a certificate in Mental Health Studies from the University of North Texas in Neve Yerushalayim.  She holds a BA in Physical Therapy from Northwestern University.

Response of Talli Rosenbaum

I am honored to have been invited to respond to this blog interview with some of the authors and editors of the recently published,  Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity  (Ben Yehuda Press, 2020) by Rivka Cohen, Sara Rozner Lawrence, Sarah Ricklan, Rebecca Zimilover, and Naima Hirsch.

I was aware of the book’s publication, and had planned to purchase and read it, but had not yet done so. This invitation provided both the impetus and the opportunity to read, reflect, and respond. My short response, upon which I will expand, is this: anyone involved in the Orthodox Jewish community and women’s spiritual physical, mental, and sexual development, from clergy, educators, Kallah instructors, to mental health professionals (including sex therapists who may think they have had heard it all) should read this book. In fact, if you are a woman and Orthodox, this book is likely to have meaning and relevance to you.

Reading through the volume’s entries confirmed for me why I had procrastinated. I thought that reading it would probably feel like work and indeed, it did.  As an individual and couple’s therapist and a sex therapist working primarily in the Orthodox community, the concepts and conflicts that are highlighted in this book are familiar: how body image is affected by strict and often shaming messages around tzniut (modesty), the impact of feelings of guilt regarding fantasy, sexual arousal,  masturbation, “breaking negiah” (engaging in physical contact with the opposite sex), and the cognitive dissonance associated with the radical shift from the expectation of no physical touch before marriage to wedding night intercourse.

Women in my therapy practice report feeling very alone with their confusion around sexuality and as noted by the book’s editors, this is because sex is not talked about.  “The more I talked to my friends about sex, the more I realized that almost everyone had felt lonely or uncertain because of their sexuality at some point in their lives.” (Sara Lawrence Rozner, introduction). The interview and the book’s content deal candidly with these topics, normalizing for so many women that the experiences they have struggled with are shared by so many others.  The personal stories also underscore the specific struggles of modern Orthodox Jewish female millennials navigating the integration of their traditional Jewish beliefs with their more progressive values.

 In the interview, the editors are asked how the book relates to identity formation. One essay, in which the writer describes that sexually related content presented in the college orientation or discussed in classrooms felt irrelevant to her as an unmarried Orthodox Jewish woman, deals with this very subject. The belief that sexual education does not apply to religious youth and the reluctance to offer such discussion in schools is often based on fears that doing so implies tolerance of sexual activity.  Unfortunately, as discussed in my blog article “Too much information or not enough: Addressing adolescent female sexuality in Orthodox Jewish girls”, this  prevents access to fundamentally important information about LGBTQ identity, reproductive health, and, most importantly, autonomy and consent . It also leaves curious young people vulnerable to easily accessible but unreliable, unrealistic and potentially harmful sources, such as pornography. Rather than experience a conflict of identity between the spiritual and the sexual, values based sexual education provides the opportunity to strengthen and integrate religious and sexual identities, as noted in the article:

Adolescents steeped in religious teachings yet exposed to popular culture receive divergent and confusing messages about sex. If they are not processed and balanced with a values based sexual education, the information they do receive is likely at best to be incorrect, and at worst, harmful.  Sexual education should not be viewed, however, as a necessary evil required in order to contend with today’s cultural realities. Sexual education in the adolescent years is crucial in preparing individuals for a sexual relationship in marriage and includes elements that do not require experiencing sexual activity. This includes self and  body-awareness, positive self and body image, and development of the capacity for intimacy and expressions of love. The development of a sexual sense of self is integral to ability to enjoy sexual relations in marriage.

One of the most salient take-home messages gleaned from the experience of the book’s contributors, and to which I can attest based on years of clinical experience working with Orthodox individuals, is this: framing the laws of yichud and shmirat negiah as providing sexually protective boundaries is potentially harmful. Without an appreciation of sexual agency, autonomy, and consent, a woman who decides to engage in physical touch, as many women will, may not feel sufficiently entitled to boundaries such as ‘this doesn’t actually feel good to me, please stop” or even “this feels good, but I am not ready to go this far.’ The opposite of “shomer” is not “hefker.”

The themes, the content, the pain, and the confusion of juggling the dissonant parts of the sexual self, innocence and guilt, ignorance and curiosity, are laid bare for the reader with content and language familiar to me from my therapy room.

In fact, in Professor Brill’s interview, he notes, “I was deeply struck by the tension of those pieces that were healthy and moving forward and those that were confessions of unresolved trauma and pain.”To this, editor Sarah Ricklan responds thoughtfully, “Some of the writers have emerged from their struggles stronger or at least wiser…. But on the flip side, many of the pieces express a devastating amount of pain — pain that is not fully resolved even if, in some cases, less acute.” This honest response appears to recognize the impact of exposing such deeply private and vulnerable thoughts, feelings and experiences. Some writers may have achieved closure with their entries, but others may have just begun to open painful wounds.

This is the most compelling reason that mental health professionals, and in particular sexual health professionals, should read these narratives. This book provides first-person accounts of the extent to which the lack of sex-positive sexuality education and sexually shaming messages can affect healthy sexual development, positive self-image, and sexual functioning.  These are messages about which I have been writing for years.  In fact, I suggested in a rather glib but popular blog post published in May 2014, entitled Ten Tips for Raising Sexually Healthy Orthodox Daughters,  that while modesty in dress and behavior are legitimate values, they should not be taught in ways that shame, blame, objectify, or instill fear regarding male lust.  I suggested ways to promote the appreciation of sensual pleasure, facilitate a positive body image, talk directly about sex, genitalia, and menstruation, provide modeling for healthy sexuality and affection, and to encourage assertiveness. For example:Encourage your daughters to “tell me what you want, what you really, really want”: To enjoy sex, one needs to be able to say things like “this feels good” or “this is uncomfortable”. If girls do not learn the language of asking for or anticipating that their needs be met, they will have a hard time experiencing pleasure.

 I also discussed not relying on halachic boundaries alone in lieu of personal autonomy and consent. “Not being shomer” does not imply consent. Choosing to engage in physical touch still must involve enthusiastic consent and the entitlement to change one’s mind and to establish chosen boundaries. So too, the “harchakot” which refer to prohibited activity between a married couple during a woman’s menstruation until immersion, should not be framed as “protective”:However, you wish to explain the “harchakot” let’s not attribute them to the need to make boundaries. That makes the perceived force of touch as turning immediately to sexual intercourse into something scary and uncontrollable and can create anxiety in many young women, particularly as they return home from the mikvah.

But talking to girls and young women is not enough. In my follow-up blog post, Ten Tips for Raising Sexually Healthy Orthodox Sons, I related to the formation of healthy sexuality in boys and young men, also through their contact with young women. For example, “Don’t tell your son that by touching a girl, he is disrespecting her. This sends the message that a girl who engages in touch, with agency and mutual consent, is not deserving of respect. Rather, explain that if he doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, pushes her into doing things with which she is uncomfortable, or takes advantage of her simply for his own gratification, that is disrespectful.”

Monologues from the Makom highlight inherent conflicts between sexual and religious identity. I am acutely aware of these conflicts for women as well as men, at least in the demographic of people who end up in my office. Guilt-inducing messages about masturbation being tantamount to murder can create existential feelings of shame. (see my blog post The M word, an addendum to raising sexually healthy Orthodox sons). Messages that a wife who may not be in the mood for sex must agree to intercourse if otherwise the husband might spill seed attribute unfair responsibility to women and sabotage their personal autonomy and right to say no to sex. (See my post “I am his vessel”: Influence of male ejaculatory restrictions on women’s sexual autonomy in Orthodox Jewish marriages.) Teaching modesty as a way to protect boys from their own animalistic urges creates fear of male lust (not to mention sabotages young men’s belief in their own ability to self-regulate). Comparing a woman to a tomato that no one wants after it has been touched devalues women and creates feelings of objectification. Monologues from the Makom is a positive step in raising awareness and moving towards change, as well as breaking stigmas and taboos regarding sexuality and Judaism.

I am also attempting to raise awareness through the Intimate Judaism podcast, which I co-host with Rabbi Scott Kahn. The podcast addresses intimacy and healthy sexuality in the context of Jewish family life, navigating topics such as shmirat negia, masturbation, Taharat Hamishpacha, gender identity and sexual orientation, infidelity, pornography, and sexuality throughout the lifecycle.  More discussions, books, podcasts, and sex-education initiatives that promote healthy sexual development within a Jewish values-based perspective are necessary and welcome.

Interview with Clémence Boulouque Another Modernity: Elia Benamozegh’s Jewish Universalism

Italian Jewish culture was unique for its openness to the broader society and its distinctly Italian character. They lived with a deep integration into Italian life including both low and high cultures. Prof. Cecil Roth termed it assimilation, and most will call it acculturation. The historian David Malkiel captured the hybridity well in academic language when he described Italian Jewish life as “heterocultural, exemplifying the dialectical character of the Jewish -Christian cultural encounter, in which the Jews assiduously cultivated their own tradition as they intensively and fruitfully engaged the culture of the surrounding majority.” This openness led Rabbi Abraham Berliner to teach a course at Hildesheimer’s Berlin Rabbinical Seminary on Italian Jewry as a role model for modern observant Jews.

One of the 19th centuries shining stars of this approach was Rabbi Elia Benamozegh of Livorno (1823-1900) whose many writings show a different form of Jewish modernity than that of the German Enlightenment. Benamozegh was an Italian Sephardic Orthodox rabbi, highly respected in his day as one of Italy’s most eminent Jewish scholars. He served for half a century as rabbi of the important Jewish community of Livorno. Rabbi Dr. Jose Faur wanted to claim Benamozegh as a paradigm the Italian Sephardic approach of a Sephardi modernity, an alternate modernity consisting of a rabbinic humanism combining Judaism with the best of culture. But, as Berliner noted Benamozegh was born under an unlucky star, having less success than he deserved.

To help the reputation of Benamozegh, we have a new book by Clémence Boulouque Another Modernity: Elia Benamozegh’s Jewish Universalism (Stanford University Press, 2020).  Boulouque is the Carl and Bernice Witten Assistant Professor in Jewish and Israel studies at Columbia University. More interesting, is that she had a first career as a journalist, literary critique and TV producer in France. Hence, her course listings include religion and film as well as religion and the arts. Boulouque is a graduate of the Institute of Political Sciences in Paris, she holds a B.A. in art history and a post M.A. degree in comparative literature, and she was a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University in the master’s program of the School of International Affairs with a concentration on the Middle East. She received her PhD in Jewish Studies and History from New York University in 2014.

Another Modernity is a rich study of the life and thought of Elia Benamozegh, specifically focusing on situating Benamozegh as a modern and specifically as an alternate approach to modernity than the Ashkenazi paths of Germany or Russia. Much of the trajectory and organization of the book is from her comparison and contrast of Benamozegh to others as a means of showing this alternate modernity. Part of the point is to show that a Moroccan born Kabbalist has what to say to European modernists.  Boulouque situates Benamozegh in the modernism of the port Jews of Livorno, hence it is not just any Sephardic modernist or any Italian Jew but a specific kind, a port Jew who lived in a more open and flexible way than Jews in Italian ghettos.

Benamozegh was a publisher, communal rabbi, seminary professor, and author of many works including a commentary on targum, two  defenses of kabbalah, a commentary of Psalms, more than one introduction to Judaism, a presentation and defense of the oral law, and a presentation of the metaphysics of Judaism. These works are more traditional, less universal, and tend to attract the attention of Israeli scholars who want to downplay his universalism.  Benamozaeh presented Judaism as the religion of the future, a polyphonic capacious Judaism, which he calls Hebraism, that includes the full range of Jewish works including kabbalah.

His Hebrew work that attracts the most attention is his Em la-Mikra commentary on the Pentateuch,. The former was a unique commentary incorporating the archeology, comparative religion, study of mythology, and philology of the early 19th century.  Nevertheless, this unique work has yet to be fully studied for its exegesis. No other rabbinic work has turned to comparative religion, rather than history. Benamozegh see parallels between the Biblical stories and the narratives of other religions. For example, in  his  commentary  on  Genesis  23:6    he  compares  Joseph  to  the  Egyptian God Serapis

What people usually do discuss is that this work was banned by the Iraqi rabbinate who could not accept his modernism. Yaron Harel, a historian of Iraqi and Syrian Jewry, has shown that the Aleppo rabbis banned it because of the worries about rise of Reforming tendencies in those countries. (It is an urban legend that Sephardic Jews did not have reforming movements.) He also wrote Ya’aneh be-Esh a rejection of the practice of Italian Jews cremation (see here where this blog discussed it.)

Benamozegh is most famous in the wider world for his French works placing him in the orbit of French Jewish thought, (which we discussed here in an interview with Sarah Hammerschlag). His two most famous French works, His comparison of Jewish and Christian morals, “Morale Juive et Morale Chrétienne.

And his “Israël et l’Humanité” (Israel and Humanity), discussion of universal religion and the roles of and relationships between Judaism, Christianity, 1914 (posthumous, edited by Aimé Pallière [fr]). The work is constructed of selections from a 1900 manuscript. Various claims are made about the relationship of the manuscript and the published edited book. But it is in many ways the first modern Jewish theology of other religions. For Benamozegh, polytheism, Christianity, and religion in general all hold sparks of the divine, which the other traditions fail to interpret properly. For  Benamozegh,  divine attributes  transcend a given religion, so that the same attribute can  be identified  with pagan  gods  or with  YHWH,  the  Jewish  god.  On the other hand, God is so great that Jew and polytheist perceives a different attribute of God; each religion or people perceives their own attributes pointing to the one God. Benamozegh imbibed heavily from Vico and the post-Schelling idealism of von Hartmann, Vincenzo Gioberti, and even Feuerbach.

Benamozegh remade Christianity to have an obscured Jewish heart, rather than the German Ashkenazim such as Geiger who had polemic against Christianity. He finds a place for world religions in God’s plan and places Judaism at the top of the religions the same way that the Neo-Hindu modernist Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan finds a place for all religions but place Advanta Vedanta Hinduism as the highest form of religion.

Clémence Boulouque’s book is a fine book returning Benamozegh to a place of honor in Jewish modernity and even to French Jewish modernity. From the interview one can see Bouluque’s depth and wide ranging knowledge of European culture. The book deserves a place next to Allesandro Guetta’s Philosophy and Kabbalah: Elijah Benamozegh and the Reconciliation of Western Thought and Esotericism (SUNY, 2009). However, we still lack a comprehensive volume that brings together the full range of Benamozegh’s life and thought.

  1. How does Benamozegh fit with your own Moroccan background or personal connection to an Italian-French-Morrocan Sephardi Jewry.

I first came across the work of Benamozegh after 9/11 as I was exploring the works of thinkers who strove to offer narratives of religious coexistence in times of crisis or divisiveness. Even if one may argue that his endeavors are an instance of noble failure, I still feel drawn to such efforts and to the lessons we can learn from them. I also soon realized that I had a personal connection to this Italian thinker of Moroccan descent: I was born in France but spent a significant amount of time in Italy as a child and it felt like my second country. On my father’s side, our family roots are in Morocco as well as Algeria and Turkey if we go further back in time. So, I do feel a sort of bond with Benamozegh, the languages he wrote in and the worlds he lived in.

2) How is Benamozegh a different form of modernity or as your title says Another Modernity?

 Benamozegh’s understanding of, and agenda for, modernity, is idiosyncratic. It was dictated by a sense of urgency and a call for religious unity:  in his view, both secularism and reactionary impulses within religious institutions were perilous for society as a whole.

While the most trodden path for thinkers of the Jewish enlightenment or advocates of Jewish assimilation was to prove the worthiness of Judaism through its rationalism, Benamozegh rejected the binaries of religion vs reason which he saw as insufficient categories and a key reason for the religious and political crisis of the Western world. In order to go beyond the dichotomies, Benamozegh sought to apply kabbalistic concepts, derived from the tradition but refashioned in a a modernist discourse, to contemporary debates about religion in his time. He turned these concepts such as the coincidence of opposites, into a stock of tools relevant to religious coexistence. By the same token, he emphasized the Jewish capacity to solve the quandaries of his time – and of humankind – by highlighting its humanitarian nature and its universalism through particularism, in a paradoxical synthesis that foreshadows Levinas philosophy.

Benamozegh’s analysis of the concept of modernity intuited – and rejected – what has become the classical framework by which tradition and modernity are distinct categories. Indeed, Benamozegh claimed that the harmonious dialogue between faith and science originated from within tradition understood as the locus of progressive revelation –a concept central in Kabbalah and from which progress could derive.

Jurgen Habermas in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity offers a relevant frame of analysis for his work when he discusses the imperative for modernity to find normativity, i.e.  the standards by which one evaluates permissible and desirable behaviors, within itself lest individuals will experience alienation; in fact Benamozegh framed religion as a place where normativity, is both internal (when it resembles natural law, and thus derived from one’s reason or mind),and external (determined by divine revelation)– something he found in Kabbalah and in the Noahide laws.

Finally, in his work as a publisher of Hebrew books, mostly geared toward the Middle-East and North Africa, Benamozegh promoted a vision of Oriental Judaism that decentered an Aufklärung/Europe-centered narrative of modernity, and certainly contributes to what Shmuel Eisenstadt called “multiple modernities”

All of his propositions and his self-assertive tone make Benamozegh the advocate of a multi-facetted modernity that was unique in his time and is still relevant today in times of renewed clash between science and faith, and divisive identity politics where particularistic agendas lead to divisiveness and seem to undermine the very possibility of unity or coexistence.

3) What was his Moroccan-Sephardi-Italian education? Did not Jose Faur come to similar conclusions about Benamozegh in his articles?

The importance of Benamozegh’s Italian (more specifically Livornese) and Moroccan roots and education, his intellectual and religious genealogies, cannot be overstated. The rabbi was born in the Tuscan port city of Livorno, Italy, to parents of Moroccan descent.

In many ways, Benamozegh is emblematic of the figure of the Port Jew proposed by David Sorkin and expanded by Lois Dubin; his openness toward other religions arguably stems from his Livornese Jewish milieu: it did shape Benamozegh’s understanding of unity through diversity. The tight commercial networks that connected Livorno and Morocco were paralleled by a circulation of knowledge and rabbinical personnel – of which Benamozegh’s uncle, the Kabbalist Yehuda Coriat – active in Gibraltar, Mogador and Livorno, serves as a perfect example.

Having lost his father at a young age, Benamozegh was raised by Coriat who took over the boy’s religious education in which Kabbalah, and the Zohar especially played a central role, as it did in traditional Moroccan households.

Aware of the discredit of Kabbalah in Western Europe, Benamozegh never ceased to defend it, calling it “our theosophy,” thus insisting on the scientific approach of the divine and not on magic or contemplative practices. He also rejected the notion of an antinomian nature of Kabbalah which he saw as a corruption of its true nature, for which he blamed the Hasidim, and pitted obscurantist practices in Eastern Europe against an Oriental Jewish Enlightenment. This is the sort of openness that he promoted in his activity as a printer where he strove to counter the discourse of contempt toward the Orient in his time.

Benamozegh stands for what the late Jose Faur described as a religious humanism,” in Sephardic thought, noting the influence of the 18th century Italian philosopher Vico on Benamozegh and other Sephardim. Vico’s emphasis on the need to understand religion neither as eternal truth nor in a literalist manner as very conservative communities would admonish, while resisting their wholesale rejection because of their irrationalism as the enlightenment would have it, struck a chord with these thinkers. Like Vico, whom he references, Benamozegh envisioned religious texts as instances of humanity’s confronting nature, creation, and the sublime- and as stages of what he called progressive revelation.

In addition to Vico’s influence, the role of his Italian identity is also noteworthy – he came of age at the time of the Risorgimento, and he saw the Italian struggle for independence as a way for Jews to show their Italian patriotism. During these years, he gave impassionate speeches where he articulated his key axiom:  the more Jewish, the more Italian, and vice versa – the more national, the more universal, which he foreshadows his later credo whereby the more particular, the more universal a religion can be . Yet, the Risorgimento also tells a story of shattered hopes for a more tolerant religion, which Benamozegh experienced first-hand in the Peninsula when the Papacy took an aggressive reactionary turn against which the rabbi fought throughout his life.

Benamozegh stood at many crossroads and this multi-layered Sephardi Italian identity deeply shaped his worldview.

4) What does he mean by the Hebraism?

Hebraism captures Benamozegh’s expansive understanding of Judaism in which both the Talmud and Kabbalah had a central role to play, alongside midrash, philosophy and poetry. The term could be a faulty translation of the Italian word for Judaism, “Ebraismo,” but when Benamozegh wrote in French, his use of Hébraïsme was deliberate. This is no accident that he turned to this expression which, alongside other alternative terms for Judaism such as “Israélitisme,” took hold in the 19th century in order to emphasize the moral aspect of Judaism, especially in its prophetic and ethical message, and to break away from a conception of Judaism that was viewed as narrowly legalistic or ethnocentric. His purpose in using the term was certainly to highlight the worthiness of Judaism.

But the term had an additional distinct resonance for Benamozegh who was versed in Christian theology: it is reminiscent of the fourth century Christian polemicist, Eusebius, who in his Evangelical Preparation called “Hebraism” the universal, acceptable, non-nationalistic aspect of Judaism. Evidently, the purpose of Eusebius was not to defend the Jews but to show that the Greeks had stolen from Hebraism aspects that could be universal and that these aspects were a preparation for the truth of the Christian scriptures—all of which the Jews, paradoxically and ironically, refused to acknowledge. This claim of Eusebius is crucial because this is exactly the point that Benamozegh wants to emphasize to his interlocutors: the religious core constituted by Judaism, which was picked up by later religions and somehow distorted along the way by Christianity. Religious differences come from a misrepresentation that needs to be addressed and this is this core that humanity should return to – or at least be aware of. Benamozegh’s use of Hebraism showcased a typical strategy of his: he reappropriating Christian terms or concepts and using them in a Jewish key.

5) What is the importance of the layers of human voices that make traditional Judaism more universal than Reform Judaism?

Benamozegh repeatedly emphasized the importance of deliberation within the Talmudic tradition and he even saw these deliberations as foreshadowing Kant’s concept of practical reason – which is one of the tenets of universalism. Because the Reform movement severed ties with the Talmud, it divested itself of the layers of tradition, and of richness of minority opinions that were kept for the benefit of future generations. Benamozegh also compared Reform Judaism to Karaism – the Jewish movement that originated in Baghdad in the eight century, grounded its observance in the Pentateuch alone, in a stern way – and  he claimed that such a movement could only lack unity and carry the danger of individualism since true pluralism could only be found in the polyphony of deliberation.

Additionally, in his Kabbalistic references, Benamozegh rekindled the notion of encrypted layers of meaning so central to medieval Jewish thought and used it in a modernist key by addressing multiple readerships- Jews and non-Jews- on their own terms: he thus turned his own writings into a multilingual, multilayered, polyphonic body of work.

6) How does he make the Noahite laws into a universal religion?  

The Noahide laws – the seven edicts that bear on all of humankind and offer salvation for all – play a major role in Benamozegh’s system; he viewed them as evidence of Judaism’s true universalism : “If Judaism had been only a purely national religion, it could not have given birth to two religions with truly universal aspirations,”  he wrote. This universalism is superior to that of Christianity’s whose salvation is predicated on the acceptance of the messiahship of Jesus.

Unlike Mendelssohn who identified the Noahide laws as natural law, Benamozegh insisted on the fact that they should be accepted as an aspect of the monotheistic revelation. Noahism is thus a continuum between reason and revelation, autonomy and heteronomy, it quietly offers a middle way and caters to the need for metaphysics that, Benamozegh claimed, constitutes a defining feature of humanity and should not be taken away by modernity. Thus spreading the teachings of the Noahide laws in an effort to foster religious unity across nations was paramount to him.

Benamozegh set out to demonstrate that God’s law ought to be immutable and to establish that the Mosaic laws did not supersede Noahism, the previous code, but complemented it- and Christianity, as an expression of Noahism, should be returned to his root in order to enable religious coexistence.

Another crucial aspect is that the Noahide laws made Judaism immune to one of his key criticisms of Christianity which led to the theology of supersession—the Christian theological concept according to which Jesus’ New Covenant superseded the old one, meant exclusively for the Jews. The Jewish-non-Jewish binary was thus softened: there were two modalities of a covenant – a covenantal pluralism.   

7) According to Benamozegh, how do Judaism and Christianity compare?

According to Benamozegh, it is Judaism and not Christianity that should be understood as being the true universal religion and the seed for that religious unit because it contains the seeds of all other religions. A metaphor of choice is that of the sun and the rays which Rosenzweig also used.

While he never ceased to acknowledge the beauty and the role of Christianity, the tone of some of his writings could be occasionally scathing. For instance, in Jewish and Christian Ethics, he lamented that Christianity prided itself on its ethical teachings when they derived them from Judaism, and rhetorical questions such as “Is there no exaggeration in the praise Christianity lavishes upon itself?” abound. Additionally, Benamozegh endeavored to demonstrate the Jewish origin of the Christian dogma and more specifically the Kabbalistic origins of Christianity – he viewed the trinity as a misunderstanding of Kabbalistic concepts wrongfully disseminated by apostles who were not ready nor sophisticated enough to be initiated in the mysteries of Kabbalah.

In order for Christianity to reform itself, in a move urgently needed for the future of religion in general, it needed to return to its Noahic origins and acknowledge its deep connection to Judaism so that Christianity could properly embrace modernity, as deployed and defined anew by Benamozegh, instead of becoming a reactionary force likely to further alienate believers from religion and would result in deepening the social and moral crisis of his time.

8) What role does his thought play in that of Orthodox right-wing Zionists? Why do they say Pallière was not faithful to Benamozegh’s work? 

Benamozegh was eager to rewrite the narrative of inclusion and exclusion in Judaism and Christianity from an Orthodox perspective and the laws were a perfect tool, but in doing so, he turned a blind eye to the limitations of the Noahide laws, – and this is one of the key criticisms of scholars who shows how this renewed articulation of Jewish difference of the Noahide laws is pivotal in contemporary movements such as Lubavitch, but remains highly problematic. The inclusivity arguably hierarchical nature may indeed bespeak minimal universalism.

As Benamozegh hoped, Kabbalah has indeed become an instrument of political engagement—albeit sometimes at odds with what Benamozegh seemingly envisioned: its radical use among fringe groups of the settler movements in the West Bank testifies to limits or ambiguities in the inclusive interpretation of an ethnocentric tradition. The figure of Adam that he used in order to demonstrate the common origin of humanity appeared in Lurianic kabbalah and has been used by rightwing thinkers according to whom Adam does not stand for humankind but for Israel only – an aspect that Benamozegh silenced but that fueled the notion that his was in reality a sort of qualified universalism: the same system of ontological differences based on Kabbalah is present in Rav Kook’s complex universalistic worldview, which have inspired Israel’s religious far right.

Ethnocentric tensions also remain since it is incumbent on Israel to carry out this universalist mission, especially in messianic times. Some of his texts display a strong messianism in which the messianic times will usher in an era in which differences are subsumed into a return to unity and the original Jewish faith. So isn’t it misleading to talk about Benamozegh’s universalism?

This is what suggest the critiques leveled at Aimé Pallière who edited Benamozegh’s Israel and Humanity. Pallière, his Christian disciple (who wanted to convert but was dissuaded by Benamozegh who asked him to be an advocate of Noahism instead), was asked by Benamozegh’s son to take care of this edition, and he frequently consulted with a Livornese rabbi. The magnum opus, which appeared posthumously, based on a manuscript written directly in French has generated heated controversies over the Rabbi’s authentic legacy. Scholars have disagreed about the content of this 1900-page work, claiming it had been rewritten by Pallière who fabricated a universalism that was absent from the original – and that response also raises the question of how a non-Jew could be familiar with the Jewish tradition, and especially its esoteric/secret aspects. I do believe that Benamozegh’s universalism is not a construct and that its tensions are part of his theological and philosophical construct – a dynamism born out of frictions and the coincidence of opposites.

9) What is his idea of universal psyche? How does Kabbalah and myth fit in?

Benamozegh’s efforts to draw on nascent theories of the unconscious, which he also defined as a “confused perception of the wider field of shared consciousness,” were part of his broader undertaking: showing that “Hebraism,” to use his category, had anticipated scientific discoveries, and notably the science of the mind. In 1877, he closed his 250-page Theology (Teologia) with a credo where he affirmed that the unconscious predated its emergence in the 19th century:  “I believe that man does not have conscience of himself, that it is more than what he knows to be, and thus I believe that the philosophy of the unconscious which makes speak of itself so much, not only with Hartmann but before, has a lot of truth to it in that sense.” In 1897, three years before his death, Benamozegh wrote in a small volume entitled Dio (God): “I have long been at work on perfecting my theory of concentric consciousnesses that culminate in God, the consciousness of consciousnesses as the first protological principle of the universe, in the place of intelligence, will, etc… Now that the Unconscious is playing an increasingly important role, we may allow that it is the sense or the awareness of the greater field of shared consciousness; it has at least been proved that we do not have total consciousness of ourselves and that our consciousness has no insurmountable boundaries.”

Kabbalah mirrored the quandaries of the modern mind: just like the unconscious, it allowed for contradictory truths which Lacan defined as a key feature of the unconscious, and which explains his attraction for Benamozegh’s work. Additionally, Benamozegh highlighted the power of myth in Kabbalah with its figures such as Adam. These archetypes will later influence Jungian psychology, which Benamozegh foreshadowed by insisting on myth as a universal expression of the human psyche and as a language shared by humanity. Yet a significant distinction remains. In Benamozegh’s construct, the study of psyche and the unconscious are not the ultimate goal: they are primarily worth studying because they constitute a tool to explore the revelation of God himself in and as the human mind.

10) How does he allow foreign religious elements to play a role in Judaism?

Benamozegh argued that, in Kabbalah, the Jewish tradition had a hermeneutical device perfectly suited for bringing the different faiths together – for understanding otherness in general. He called it was a “connecting shape” (“forme mitoyenne”), which also meant the possibility for proximity but involved a risk of friction: “There can be no hostility where there is no contact.” Kabbalah, he claimed, had fallen in disfavor among Jews precisely due to its proximity with Christianity.

The central concept in Benamozegh’s theology of otherness is berur, choice, separation and elevation. In Luria’s cosmology, the world is the result of God’s contraction, his light pours into vessels which cracked as a result of its intensity and the sparks are trapped in the world. It is incumbent on human beings to reunite them with God and to elevate them, as part of the tikkun (reparation). Benamozegh transposed the concept from transcendent to immanent categories, and cosmological to intellectual categories, whereby berur becomes an act of discernment. In his understanding, one has to extract truth and merits from all traditions – just as God shaped his creation and this world from previous ones. As a result, religious pluralism is a form of imitatio dei, the highest ethical call for humans.

It is worth noting that this old kabbalistic motif, as it appears in sixteenth-century Lurianic sources, is arguably ethnocentric– as it is meant to shed the impurity of the non-Jews – and yet, Benamozegh reframed the concept so that it constitutes the locus of interfaith encounters and a cosmogonic basis for the Maimonidean ideal of accepting the truth from any source.

It is through the coincidence of opposites and the variations on the notion of elevation (illuy and berur) and clarification that Benamozegh was able to provide a new framework, serving as a hyphen between faiths and as a path defying the traditional divide between secular and sacred worldviews. The Kabbalistic concept of coincidence of opposites which first appeared in the 13th century writings of Azriel of Gerona  posits that, because the source of all things is one and divine, opposites should be emphasized and elevated and no one is better equipped for this task than the Kabbalists.

11) What is his idea of poligonismo? How does it relate to the religious unity of mankind?

Probably borrowing from the Italian Catholic thinker Gioberti who exerted a great influence over him, Benamozegh used this rare term “polygonism” (which doesn’t even have an entry in the dictionary!) to describe the multiple pathways of the divine plan toward unity. “Alongside polyglottism, which deals with the extrinsic shape, we will place polygonism too, which regards, so to speak, the intrinsic form, the religious idea, whether it addresses one intelligence or the other, in order to make itself accessible.”

The term means that only God is complete and humanity can only have access to fragments of truth, and in multiple languages. Benamozegh often described the importance of multilingualism as a part of revelation – in seventy languages and seventy nations of the globe – so that each could be addressed in their own terms, according to their own capacity. Indeed, in his view, each language is a repository of culture (and here Benamozegh is indebted to Vico’s philosophy) and each worldview is couched in a specific language, which acquires a metaphysical nature. Polyglottism and polygonism are fragments of truths and a reflection of the multiple ways to access God.

12) How does he find polytheism as serving God?

 Benamozegh claimed that “The notion of false gods is not the language of the Bible.” and pushed against such a translation, asserting that the accurate rendition would be “unworthy of worship” and not “false, based on his reading of the book of Hosea 1:9.  And even such deities provide an opportunity to refine people’s religion and make it worthy of worship as it leads to a greater understanding of the divine.

An interesting way to drive this point home is the unexpected treatment of Egypt. Traditionally, Egypt is the evil place of the “mixed multitude,” the “erev rav” (see Exodus 12:38) that left with the Hebrews, was the cause for worshipping the golden calf, and whose influence was cited by the rabbis at every negative juncture of Jewish history. Yet, Benamozegh claims: It is just a mistaken understanding of the role played by the parts in the whole: “Kabbalism regards the long sojourn of the Hebrews in Egypt as a way used by the Divine Providence to restore to the religion of Israel- to incorporate in it through a selective process – all that was good and true in Egyptian religion.” Here, a pivotal concept is the “iron crucible,” an alchemical metaphor for the sojourn in Egypt, where identities mixed and where the Jewish religion was refined through its contact with paganism, and is thus viewed as positive theological experiment.

13) What is his concept of a relational dependence of other religions with Judaism?

Benamozegh articulated a notion of interdependence that should replace tolerance and he uses a few operative concepts in order to promote his views and compares religions to a family or an organism. For instance, if religions are equated with the children in a family, Judaism would thus be the priestly religion because it is the oldest monotheism and traditionally the eldest child in a family was dedicated to priesthood: he thus equates Judaism with priesthood (thus also tacitly drawing on the  theological notion of a nation of priests, found priestly mission to the nations) but he hasten to add: “ what greater absurdity by the way than priests without laity?”. He couched these views on interdependence in a scientific language and described society as a large organism:   mutually interdependent parts that maintain various vital processes. He took that organic metaphor to describe “humanity or the world of nations,” or “the civil world of the nations”= whereby every nation has a role, with Israel – the eldest – being the priestly one, in a well-known trope of mission to the world. One can grasp one of the tensions in  Benamozegh’s system here; even if this construct conveys a sense of hierarchy it also expresses a singular born out of a plural, a universalism born out of differences and an interdependence, which is more lasting than toleration.

Benamozegh’s contribution is to demonstrate in Judaism the relation between particularism and universalism-  “a particularism that conditions universality,” in the words Levinas’ who articulated the same thought in his essay “A religion for adults.” Although Levinas would have likely objected to the metaphors of organs and body parts since these seem very functionalist and have articulated this interconnection based on the responsibility toward the other, irreducible to rationality or vitalism (which ewere especially fraught references in the wake of Nazism), but what Benamozegh sought to convey, steeped as he was in a language of positivism, was that the interconnectedness, and the indispensable nature of all nations and facets of humanity.

14)   What were the biggest insights from looking at the full manuscript of Benamozegh, which removed passages taught the most?

Until now, however, no close reading and comparison of Benamozegh’s manuscript to the one published by Pallière in 1914 had been done. Such a comparison constitutes a critical part of my book as I gained access to the 1900-page text, certainly not the first draft but an intermediary stage, which resides in the archive of the Jewish community in Livorno.

The close reading and the analysis of the text has enabled me to shed new light on Benamozegh’s thought and probe the deep influence of the Christian thinker Gioberti. While his ideas, and his faulty French based on Italian , the urge to compress many ideas into one sentence, the subsequent run-on sentences, called for extensive edits, Pallière did not “Christianize” the texts. Many of the mentions of Jewish universalism were actually  present early on in Benamozegh’s earlier work, and especially in his 1885 introduction to this opus magnum in which he claimed that the notion of common humanity made Judaism all the more relevant for his time because it never ceased to talk to “humanity about humanity.”

15) Why was his Biblical commentary put in Herem?

Benamozegh’s five volumes commentary came out between 1862 and 1865: it included non-Jewish material as well  thinkers such as Spinoza and Voltaire and comparisons between Greek and rabbinical sources.

A few years later, the Aleppo rabbis put the book in herem, thus condemning it to be banned and burned. The rationale for this very rare act of censorship was twofold – first, Benamozegh’s claim that the use of external (non-Jewish) texts could advance knowledge of the Torah and second, that comparisons between the Torah and pagan mythologies – and Christian scriptures – were acceptable.  

The measure appears all the harsher given that the commentary accompanied the text of the Torah itself, and thus burning the book meant burning the sacred text, which is proscribed unless the commentary is written by a heretic  (See Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah)

Yaron Harel has shed light on this internal dynamic in the Aleppo community that led to this episode: in spite of Benamzoegh’s reputation for orthodoxy, the rabbis felt compelled to reject his “Westernized” treatment of the Bible to better combat a budding reform community in their midst. Following this humiliating episode Benamozegh wrote a long defense in the newspaper Ha Levanon where he claimed to be only following in the Jewish tradition but  – except for a long responsum on cremation  (which he opposed because it is against Orthodox Judaism but nevertheless stressed that, should this act be performed, it was a duty to bury the ashes)- he never wrote in Hebrew again, and turned to Italian and French in an effort to expand his readership and offer a vibrant defense of Judaism geared toward Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike. 

Monologues from the Makom –Interview with the Editors

In 1996, Eve Ensler broke ground with a play called The Vagina Monologues, consisting of a series of episodic narratives. Based on over 200 interviews Ensler conducted with women, the play addressed women’s sexuality and the social stigma creating a new conversation about and with women. The play explores consensual and nonconsensual sexual experiences, body image, genital mutilation, direct and indirect encounters with reproduction, vaginal care, menstrual periods, sex work, and several other topics through the eyes of women with various ages, races, sexualities, and other differences.  Critics consider the work as one the most important pieces of political theater of the last decades.  In 2018, The New York Times stated “No recent hour of theater has had a greater impact worldwide”

Every year, the play is performed on hundreds of college campuses. Inspired by The Vagina Monologues, many colleges have gone on to develop their own version based on the life experiences of its students. Performances at colleges are always different, not always pre-written, and feature actors writing their own monologues. The Cardinal Newman Society has criticized the performance of the play on Catholic college campuses. Yet, in 2011 ten of the fourteen Catholic universities hosting the Monologues were Jesuit institutions. What would the Monologues look like if performed on a Modern Orthodox campus?

The answer is in the recently published Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity  (Ben Yehuda Press, 2020) by Rivka Cohen, Sara Rozner Lawrence, Sarah Ricklan, Rebecca Zimilover, and Naima Hirsch. The book has received a nice amount of media attention and follow-up sessions on zoom. See the wonderful JTA interview that was subsequently translated into Hebrew, the well written review in New York Gal, and the appreciate review in Stern College’s Jewish Observer. One reviewer called the Monologues from the Makom The Vagina Monologues Frummed Out.

The volume is a collection of 32 individual narratives by Jewish women on a mission to break the taboo surrounding female sexuality in their religious communities. Featuring a mix of poetry  and prose, all the pieces in the book are personal, raw, and enrapturing. They capture the that conversations about female sexuality have happened in Orthodox communities. Inside, dozens of stories, poems and musings — some anonymous — grapple with those conversations and their effects on women.

Makom is a Hebrew word that literally means place, but is also the common euphemism for vagina throughout the Talmud and rabbinic literature. The authors wished to reclaim the very word the Rabbinic sages used to sanitize the mention of our sexual organs.

The project is the brainchild of Sara Rozner Lawrence.  Rozner was a freshman at Stern College for women when she attended a production of The Vagina Monologues. Rozner found that though she related to many parts of the show, it did not fully speak to her experience as an Orthodox Jewish woman, she sought a place where her own identity would be represented. She also knew her friends would not be comfortable at the original The Vagina Monologues. The book grew out of three evening of personal narrative, none of them held on the actual campus of Stern College. The first one, held in a friend’s apartment, surprised her by having sixty people show up. The next two had many more show up at the auditorium venue.  

Sara Rozner Lawrence recounts in the book’s introduction “that she went to a pretty mainstream Modern Orthodox school and sex was just something that was never considered safe to touch. My mom assumed wrongly that I was getting the information at school and I wasn’t, and I graduated knowing basically nothing. Monologues from the Makom was born from a backdrop of silence.” Rozner narrates how, when she  “was a young girl growing up in the Orthodox Jewish community, sex was not something we talked about. While there were vague references to the shadowy world of “relations,” they were always accompanied with warnings and shaming terms so that we would know it was wrong. The well-intentioned educators in my all-girls schools made their best efforts to instill in us both a sense that our bodies were holy and that they were dangerous, a source of inadvertent temptation for men.”

Rozner describes how “silence and secrecy about sex breed shame. When something as developmentally central as sexuality is ignored by parents and educators, many children naturally come to the conclusion that there must be something wrong and shameful and embarrassing about it. Rozner, who is now a Clinical Psychology doctoral student, emphatically states that “many young adults in our community are left with a lingering sense of guilt about their sexuality even as they attempt to enter into fulfilling sexual relationships.”

The book is groundbreaking and will serve as a historic marker for a new generation of Modern Orthodox leaders. In order not to be mansplaining to anyone, I will let the editors speak for themselves. I would also appreciate women who have different views to write a response to be posted in future weeks.

Of the five editors, Rozner already gave her views in the book’s introduction. Below is an interview with three of the other editors. The three editors, Sarah J. Ricklan, Naima Hirsch, and Rivka Cohen answered my questions. Each editor contributes her own personal perspective. Their personal differences in content and style are consistent throughout.  

Sarah J. Ricklan is a third year medical student at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Her academic interests and research include human evolution, women’s health, and access to healthcare. 

Naima Hirsch is a student at Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox institution to ordain women as clergy. She serves on the leadership team of the Beis Community in Washington Heights.

Rivka Cohen is the Director of Partnerships and Strategic Development at Lissan, a nonprofit that promotes equality in East and West Jerusalem through language education.

1)     What are young Orthodox women doing reading Eve Ensler?

Rivka Cohen: I attended The Vagina Monologues during my sophomore year of college. While I grew up with many feminist values, it was not until I started college that I started associating with the label. By the time I learned about The Vagina Monologues during my second year of college, I had already become comfortable with identifying myself as a feminist, and understood that the The Vagina Monologues held an important place in the feminist movement. Many of my feminist friends were attending the play, and some were even performing in it. I felt a curiosity, and perhaps even an obligation to attend. 

More importantly, the group that performed The Vagina Monologues hosted a number of events during Vagina Week, the week leading up to the performance. Just a year and a half prior, I had chosen not to attend any of the sex-related sessions at orientation, because I thought that they did not apply to me. However, during Vagina Week, a sexologist came to speak, and as a 21-year-old struggling with the religious norm of not touching men (shmirat negiah), I felt like it was time to push my intellectual boundaries, learn more about sexuality, and explore my own. I remember feeling torn between the secular feminist culture that told me that I should be completely sexually liberated, and my conservative Orthodox culture that told me that I should be completely sexually repressed. However, I am very grateful for the opportunity that The Vagina Monologues offered me to think more deeply about my sexuality, which felt like a turning point for me.

Sarah J. Ricklan: I think some people are drawn initially to Eve Ensler’s work because of its place in the feminist movement and the initiatives that have grown out of The Vagina Monologues; her play highlights the multifaceted experience of womanhood across cultures. This play was the launching point for Monologues from the Makom events – which later gave rise to the book – because Ensler’s monologues, though broad ranging, do not perfectly capture the observant female experience. Perhaps one reason the Monologues from the Makom events were so appealing to young observant women is that, in watching or reading Ensler’s play, they realize just how much of their own experience is not captured.

For example, Ensler gives the female body – its actual body parts – a brash, explicit, unapologetic voice. Several of the women in this book do not feel the level of comfort, ownership, and understanding of one’s body that is required to write in that way. The first piece in this book, “Subjectivity,” discusses the alienation one woman feels from her own body, saying “…of course, it’s the soul that’s important/ But it’s my body that has me HERE/ And I’m living within the walls of a stranger’s home” (p. 1).

2)     This book is written as 32 first-person accounts. Why is first person narrative effective?

SJR: The role of narrative is critical. Within the framework of Jewish feminist thought, Judith Plaskow argues that narrative can be a way to reclaim Jewish women’s history. She argues that we need to focus on Jewish women’s stories in Jewish texts and history, to the point of even coming up with our own exegetical stories, or ‘midrashim,’ that reflect the female role. In this vein, in using narrative, the writers in this book claim their position within Jewish lived practice. The narrative brings their voices into practices and spaces that were not previously performed or occupied by women, or not previously spoken about in women’s voices.

But it’s not just about claiming a place within the community. The descriptions women use in this piece are vivid and at times incredibly painful to read. Narrative and storytelling, then, serve as media for descriptive writing that forces the reader to consider the emotional toll these experiences within the community have had. We are forced to question the systems we’ve created that can produce these experiences. 

Naima Hirsch: In her introduction to the book, Sara Rozner Lawrence writes about her concerns before the first Monologues from the Makom event: “I thought that at most 20 people would come and that I would have to beg my friends to share monologues” (xiv). After the performance where over 60 women attended and 17 women performed, “at least a dozen women approached [Rozner Lawrence]…to tell [her] that they had deeply needed this gathering, that it had spoken to the discomfort and shame that they were still grappling with” (xv). Coming together to hear individual stories about sexuality, gender, and body image helped women feel that they weren’t alone in their shame, nor do they have to suffer through it alone.

3) How does this book relate to #Metoo and consent?

SJR: We were already working on the book when the #MeToo movement became a larger part of societal conversation. We thought this was a critical moment of reckoning, so we decided to put out another call for submissions that dealt with themes relating to #MeToo and consent. In the final product, several pieces discuss rape and sexual assault within the community. 

Strikingly, several pieces talk about assault within Orthodox institutions — and argue that these institutions did not equip them with the tools they needed. In the piece “It’s Different Than the Movies,” the author talks about an early Modern Orthodox high school relationship that ended with a sexual encounter that was not consensual. As the author reflects on the experience, she notes that she “…didn’t learn the word consent until college” (p. 31) and “…”wish[es] [her] high school feared less about students having sex, and more about students being abused” (p. 31). In another piece, “Shame,” the author talks about how she blamed herself for a sexual assault at an Orthodox summer camp and how this experience affected her future relationships.

RC: I would like to add that this book also includes positive accounts of consent. Notably, in the piece “Love on the Brain,” the author offers a beautiful and poetic account of her first kiss, including the dialogue that transpired between her and her partner. She recounts how he asked her “Are you okay?” and “You have to tell me if anything makes you uncomfortable or if you want to stop. Promise?” (p. 83) giving us a positive example of what healthy consent and respecting boundaries can look like.

4)  The tensions around first kisses, first awakening of sexuality, first period, are all part of general American life. Why bother to bring in Judaism or Orthodoxy? 

SJR: This book is different from prior narrative works about growing into one’s female sexuality because it presents experiences of both being observant and being a woman; growing up female while growing up observant creates a new dimension of experience. 

For example, girls are encouraged to be “good girls”, which means they should be sexually conservative, avoid having sex young, and avoid having multiple sex partners. Observant Jews are given religious laws related to dress and modesty, as well as laws restricting touch between girls and boys. An observant woman who breaks the “rules” experiences sexual guilt for not being a “good girl” in combination with deep religious guilt. But these guilts are not merely additive – they produce a crisis that seems to exceed each individual “guilt”.  

The intersection of these two teachings is expressed well in the piece in our volume “I am.” The author writes, “This body,/ I was taught,/ Is holy, is sacred, belongs to God./ Keep it covered/ To protect my dignity” (p. 5). The author’s dignity – her status as a “good girl” – is contingent upon the modesty dictated by her religion. But preserving her “dignity” not only preserves the author’s social reputation — it also preserves her holiness. So when the author breaks the rules of modest dress, she feels “no longer holy” (p. 5) and engages in a harmful sexual relationship. As the author heals from this sexual wound, she must reclaim not just her sense of self-worth, but also her sense of holiness. 

NH: The tensions and expectations surrounding first kisses, sexual awakenings, and first periods have only relatively recently become part of general American life. It is because of young adult writers like Judy Blume that all of these tensions are common topics and themes in books, TV shows, and movies. Blume’s bestselling books Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970); Deenie (1973); and Forever (1975) and their frank portrayals of puberty, female masturbation, and sex brought the tensions teenaged girls were (and still are) experiencing into the public discourse, and gave Western media more tropes for their media set in middle and high schools.

There’s the ever-present cheerleader versus band geek dichotomy; the parties; the middle school dances and homecoming games. What does it mean to be a “good girl?” Does enjoying sex make you a slut? What’s the value in waiting until prom to lose your virginity? Everyone else has had their first kiss, so you might as well “get it over with…” You don’t want the other girls to see you change in the locker room because you’re still wearing a training bra, so you change in the bathroom stall and wait for them all to leave…

While many of those tensions and questions are present in Jewish culture, we have a different set of tropes that sometimes bring up different issues. For a number of reasons, environments like summer camp and youth groups become hypersexualized places where preteens and teenagers explore their sexuality, often in unhealthy ways. While camp is often a place for such experimentation, the subconscious messaging around Jewish continuity both at camp and in youth groups, especially outside of Orthodoxy, creates an even more hypersexualized environment. Additionally, the concept of a “nice Jewish boy” and “nice Jewish girl” (or NJB or NJG, as shortened on dating apps like JSwipe) become stereotypes and fetishizations; making even Judaism itself sexual.

This is often more fraught within Orthodoxy, because of the tension surrounding not being part of general American life that Orthodox Jews struggle with daily. We’re instructed not to be like average American teenagers: not to have sex or anything close to it, and to get married and have kids young. But we still exist in the world of general American life. We still watch the same movies and have the same bodies and desires. We still have friends who are boys (at least in the Modern Orthodox world), and we still struggle how to navigate the awkward situations when we start having feelings for those friends, or when they start having feelings for us.

There’s a lot of shame and stigma in the Orthodox world around these issues used to create silence and enforce complacency and conformity. But as the daughters of women who grew up reading Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, we can see how speaking up and writing about our experiences can be empowering. By creating ways to own our narratives, we can truly appreciate the universal experiences contained therein.

5)     How do you envision a sex positive approach in Modern Orthodox day schools and summer camps?

NH: Sex positivity begins with teaching consent from a young age. Toddlers and preschoolers need to be taught that when their friend tells them not to, they need to stop touching them, no matter what. Similarly, boundaries need to be honored and respected from a young age. If a preschooler is being tickled, and they say “no more!”, the adult tickling them needs to stop right away, whether or not the child is laughing. Additionally, kids need to know the proper names for all body parts from a young age. By using euphemisms to talk about penises or vaginas, kids will sense that their genitalia are something to be ashamed about.

SJR: I don’t think that sex positivity is the goal. Instead, I think reducing shame and alienation from one’s body and sexuality should be the goal. “The Girl Who Loved Masturbating/My Complicated Relationship with Masturbation” describes the problem of shame surrounding sexuality. In this story, the author talks about the first time she experienced an orgasm through masturbation and the shame she felt surrounding this pleasure. She says she “… quickly began to hate [herself] for having dirty thoughts” (p. 25). She expresses the “relief” (p. 26) she felt when she learned that sexual pleasure within marriage was encouraged — finally, a sense of sex positivity. 

As this story suggests, waiting until marriage to acknowledge sexuality can create feelings of self-loathing and guilt. Eliminating the taboo of pleasure does not necessarily mean encouraging sex in day schools and camps. Instead, it allows young people to understand their bodies in appropriate, healthy, and safe ways. Critically, within the framework of Jewish institutions, consent must be a focus. Even if things like consent are not taught from a young age, they should be taught in high school. 

RC: I think that we need to change the way we teach such topics as not touching members of a different sex (shmirat negiah), masturbation, and modesty (tzniut).

The often-all-or-nothing approach to shmirat negiah is unsustainable, in my opinion. The concept was codified for a society and dating scene that is far removed from our current reality. And when teenagers or even adults inevitably “break shomer,” they are not given the tools to set healthy boundaries for themselves and others. I think that tying the concept of shmirat negiah to consent, rather than “saving oneself for marriage,” is a much healthier approach. I would like to see religious education emphasizing the value of having ownership over one’s own body and setting healthy boundaries for different types of relationships, rather than shaming all physical contact that happens outside of marriage. 

I also believe that we need to do away with the outright shaming of masturbation. For women, this issue is even easier to navigate halakhically, and girls should know that masturbation is normal, healthy, and nothing to be ashamed of. They should be taught about their basic anatomy, even as it pertains to pleasure and not just reproduction. No girl should leave high school without knowing where her clitoris is, or which hole is which.

6)  Is this even feasible, since Orthodox institutions by their nature are socially conservative and not sex positive (at best neutral)?  

NH: I think it depends how we define sex positive. Right now, as I see it, Orthodox institutions (such as day schools and summer camps) are in active denial about the urgent need for sex education. I do think that schools need to teach about consent, boundaries, and healthy relationships. They need to acknowledge that their students will be sexually active in some way or another, not shame them for that, and make sure that there are resources available to keep their students medically and emotionally safe. I certainly do not think day schools should provide condoms, but I do think that they should teach about different forms of contraception.

SJR: I think it is also important for Orthodox institutions to realize just how harmful some conservative messages can be. In “Consent,” the author describes her abstinence education in school. She was told that “A diamond is most safe when it remains under key,/ Candy most desired when it is still in the wrapper” (p. 38). In the end, these lessons make the author create a distorted image of her own body. She writes the following about this distortion: “when I close my eyes, my body is finite/ it is a countable number of pieces I give away, in mouths and hands/ until I am left with nothing/ it has never belonged to me” (p. 39). The author’s abstinence education has not made her feel safe and in control of her body. Instead, she feels her body is not even her own — it belongs to whichever men she chooses (illicitly) to give it to. Even in socially conservative institutions, we should recognize that this result is tragic.

7) How do you envision modesty (tzniut) if one is sex positive?

SJR: I think we need to reframe the modesty (tzniut) discussion, especially in the context of the Jewish day school dress code. The dress code debate is an old one, but it’s worth seriously considering the messages we send about the female body when we enforce dress codes that are so different between boys and girls. I think this could be a chance to discuss professionalism — in all its complicated nuances — with young adults. What do we expect a Jewish day school student to look like? Why do we expect that? Disentangling tzniut and sexuality or sexualization is incredibly difficult, but it might help to start by being honest with ourselves and with our students about what these sorts of messages convey. 

NH: Tzniut and sex positivity don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but they can be. I think we have to acknowledge that for some people, being sex positive means not dressing in a traditionally modest (tzanua) way. There are also different ways to measure tzniut – I don’t think that a woman who wears pants or even shorts is automatically not tzanua. It’s about the context in which one wears those clothing items, and the genre of those items, for lack of a better term. There’s a difference between basketball shorts worn to run errands and tight shorts worn to attract attention, and similarly with dresses and skirts. There’s a fashion rule about wearing the clothing instead of letting the clothing wear you – and I think that applies here. Clothing is meant to be a way of expressing ourselves; our tastes and identities, not our bodies. 

SJR: I think when we discuss tzniut, even if we don’t veer towards sex positivity, we can eliminate the shame and alienation that often results. This is articulated well in the poem “I have been trying to write this all week.” The author, when discussing her decision to dress according to the halakhic rules of modesty (tzniut), expresses frustration that these rules have caused girls to feel shame about their bodies. She writes that these rules “…teach young girls that they are something to hide/ That their bodies are ugly/ That even their voices are promiscuous/ That they should not be heard, but not seen either” (p. 11). As it stands in many Modern Orthodox institutions, girls learn to develop bodily shame that can and should be avoided — without necessarily being sex positive as such. 

RC: Tzniut should not be about saving your body for your husband, nor should dressing “less tznius-ly” be about attracting others’ attention. I would like to see a sex positive culture that encourages girls and women to know and love their bodies, and to dress like they know and love their bodies – feeling comfortable in their skin and clothes for their own sake, and no one else’s.

We need to reevaluate how we teach the values of tzniut, taking care that we do not enter the realms of body shaming or slut shaming. I would like to see religious education emphasize knowing and loving our bodies and wearing attire that is both appropriate to specific settings and makes us feel comfortable. I find that the specific lines drawn for dress codes can often disadvantage bigger or more developed girls, and we need to be careful that we are treating everyone fairly and with respect, even if they have different body types. Additionally, I do not think it is that difficult to set dress codes in co-ed settings that fit both boys and girls (covering shoulders, shorts to your knees, etc.) I believe that having one set of rules for all can help minimize the shame that girls are often made to feel when they are given a special set of rules purely around their bodies.

Additionally, regarding summer camps, I think it is important to note that parents should be held accountable for the clothing with which they send their children to camp. I have encountered multiple girls who come to camp with clothing that does not fit the dress code, and therefore need to change their outfits almost every day. It is unfair of parents to send their child to camp with clothing that does not fit the rules, and we need to take care not to shame or blame the child, but to address the parents more clearly on this issue.

Addressing sexuality in summer camps is a critical issue. Camps are often ripe with bullying, shaming, sexual tension, and peers educating their peers. Moreover, children are supervised by teenagers, who are often in the process of their own budding sexuality and are not equipped with the tools to handle conversations about sexuality with their campers. In recent years, I am happy to note that there has been increased emphasis on sexual harassment prevention at camps, but I think we need to go beyond that. I strongly believe that pre-camp staff training should include conversations about sexuality, how to engage with your campers in a healthy way when they talk about sexual activity, and how to pay attention to potential bullying and shaming that may be happening specifically around sex. When I was a camp counselor, I was not given the tools to facilitate these conversations with my campers when they inevitably arose.

8) How does the book pay attention to an embodied female body?

SJR: Understanding female embodiment involves examining how the physical female body affects women’s experiences. Some pieces describe female embodiment of male religious settings. In “The Lady in Lime-Green,” the author describes the “stares” (p. 58) she endured for wearing a kippah as a woman. In “Bound,” the author describes the difference in physicality between her and her male counterparts as she is not expected to wrap tefillin. She writes that her arms are “smooth, unbound” (p. 63). When excluded from participating in Simchat Torah, the author of “Invisibility” describes feeling her lack of embodiment in the synagogue service, writing that, “…here in this balcony, in these most sacred moments, [she doesn’t] inhabit a body as [she] and the women around [her] participate in nothing at all” (p. 15). Participation requires embodiment — and in some religious spaces, there is no room for the female body. Women are left to either give female physicality to male rituals or not exist in those spaces at all. 

Some pieces describe what it is like to encounter another female body in a sexual way. In “An Empty Place,” the author describes her first sexual experience with another woman. She describes “…something thrilling about two of the same mold swaying with open-mouthed wonder at the majestic beauty of their own self-sufficiency” (p. 20). Her appreciation and reflection on the sexual female body — represented by both her own and her partner’s bodies, and their interaction — allows her to better understand how female bodies navigate their worlds. 

But such an acknowledgement of the sexual female body can be dangerous. In “Lucy, I Love You,” the author describes seeking out and enjoying pornography to satisfy her sexual desire for other women. She thinks about the actress’s “glorious body” (p. 23), but at the same time, she knows she “…cannot acknowledge the basic and simple joy, the beautiful life-affirming pleasure of exchanging caresses with [her] female lovers because to do that would be instant social death” (p. 23). As she discovers her appreciation for the female body, she realizes she must keep this desire quiet or sacrifice the life she has built. 

10)  How does your book relate to self-judging and identity formation?

SJR: Women in this book reflect upon how they formed their identity — how they came to be themselves. In doing so, their judgments about themselves often seem negative or ambivalent until they are able to reconcile conflicting thoughts and emotions. For example, many pieces in the book discuss sexual identity development. As sexuality and gender clash with other parts of their identities, particularly those dictated by their communities, some authors feel shame and negative self-regard.

RC: As I wrote in my own piece, “Touching Boy,” after touching my first boyfriend for the first time, “I still considered myself shomer negiah. The shame would be too much to bear otherwise. Being shomer negiah defined me.” (p. 80) Not touching men (shmirat negiah) had been a core element of my identity in unhealthy way, and when I didn’t uphold the expectations that I had for myself or felt pressured to uphold by the Orthodox community, I developed an extreme case of cognitive dissonance — telling myself I was keeping the rules even when I wasn’t — so that I did not have to deal with negative self-judgment or come to terms with my sexuality in a healthy manner.

Many other pieces in the book also relate to questioning and coming to terms with one’s own identity. In particular, two of the pieces that discuss menstruation contain such questions with a clear tie between menstruation and identity. 

The book also delves into identity-formation as it relates to how others perceive us. In “Synonyms,” the author grapples with how others view her identity as a woman in religious spaces: “I will never understand why my gender is a controversy/ Why my identity is a question/ Why the way I was born is unfortunate.” (p. 70).

11)  How does the book deal with an open discussion of menstruation? What is new here, haven’t there been 40 years of young adult books and after school specials on the topic?

SJR: Simone de Beauvoir famously argues that women experience shame as they enter puberty and begin menstruating. Fortunately, in general American culture, more open discussion of menstruation is on the rise. But the discussion surrounding menstruation in this book reflects the ways in which various aspects of observant life complicate the way women view their own menstruation — and suggests that a general American discussion of menstruation is simply not good enough. 

One major example of this phenomenon relates to laws of family purity (taharat hamishpaha). In “Welcome to Womanhood,” the author, noting that her “femininity and [her] Jewish identity were entangled” (p. 46), tells the reader that, “The crimson clots named [her] ‘woman;’/ [Her] religion named them ‘dirty.’” (p. 46).  A similar sentiment is expressed in my own contribution, “Private Places,” where I, upon preparing for ritual immersion for the first time, “felt that resentment, that sharp, debilitating sting that comes with realizing what womanhood in my world seemed to mean” (p. 103). Given the significance of menstrual periods in Jewish observance and the invasive ritual needed to purify oneself from one’s periods, it seems impossible that a woman would not feel shame and bodily alienation — and this cannot be alleviated by the general American discourse. 

But it’s important to note that some of the stories about menstruation do not feel unique to Judaism. In “Built-up Bravery,” one woman talks about the abnormal pain she felt during her periods. In “First Period,” the author discusses how she lost her period during her long-term eating disorder, and regaining her period allowed her to think about her sexual orientation.

Maybe these pieces show that the general American messaging surrounding menstruation has not seeped into observant life. More likely, however, it shows that observant women, too, still deal with shame and fear about our periods. We can’t shunt our communal responsibility to discuss these topics over to mainstream media — our girls deserve a chance to have their own conversation, even if their perspectives are not uniquely influenced by their religion. 

12)  I was deeply struck by the tension of those pieces that were healthy and moving forward and those that were confessions of unresolved trauma and pain. Any thoughts?  

RC: Some of our authors have expressed that being part of this book has acted as part of their healing process. Many have found writing about their experiences to be therapeutic and pushing themselves to publish their work – even anonymously – was an act of bravery that has helped them to heal.

Moreover, many authors were nervous in the lead up to publication of the book, but once they read the book in its entirety, they felt more seen and heard than ever. These brave women bared their souls on these pages, and in doing so, created a conversation between one another in the book without ever having met. These women have described a kinship with one another, feeling held up by the other pieces in the book and knowing that they are not alone.

SJR: The tension between these two types of pieces is deeply troubling to me. Clearly, some of the writers have emerged from their struggles stronger or at least wiser. In these cases, the conflicts they faced regarding sexuality served as a constructive force in their lives and their development. But on the flip side, many of the pieces express a devastating amount of pain — pain that is not fully resolved even if, in some cases, less acute. 

Many of the writers who seem to have moved forward talk about how much therapy, friends, and people outside the community have helped them emerge from their struggle. But those with unresolved pain seem very much alone, their pain hidden from view. I think there is a deep loneliness expressed in the pieces with unresolved pain. 

I think that, within the observant community, and particularly in Modern Orthodox intellectual circles, we romanticize the personal, private struggle — the internal tension. We emphasize the value of constructive tension in our religious and personal growth. We learn about Rav Soloveitchik’s “dialectical tension” and the superior religious and moral life that emerges from independently struggling with conflicting ideas. And it’s true — struggle and tension can produce deep thought that can shape our personalities and beliefs. 

But such tension about shame, abuse, and consent come at great psychological cost, especially when encountered alone. We should certainly work to reduce the sources of pain in our communities through a more robust discussion about sexuality and consent, for example. But if we cannot or are unwilling to completely eliminate the sources of tension, then we need to make sure our young people do not feel alone. Lonely struggle, as we have seen, is dangerous. 

13)      Are you not just an example of Modern Orthodoxy arriving at the same place that liberal Jewish feminists were at 30-40 years ago?

NH: While Modern Orthodoxy is only now beginning to acknowledge the marginalized voices of our communities as they are (namely women and LGBTQ people) and to have honest conversations about the challenges they face, I would not say the situations are the same. Yes, we have a lot of catching up to do in terms of empowering marginalized voices, but because the project of Orthodoxy is to live according to traditional Jewish law, the halakha; the results we are seeking are quite different. It is a more delicate balance to find a place of empowerment within a system of religious observance that is definitionally unequal – how far do we want to push the envelope?

I’ve always understood Orthodox feminism to be more like the liberal feminism of Gloria Steinem and Betty Freidan than the radical feminism of Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt. Whereas Steinem and Freidan tried to work towards equality from within preexisting socioeconomic systems, Firestone and Koedt felt the solution to sexism could only come from a total revolution against what they saw as an intentionally patriarchal society. Similarly, Orthodox feminism has to work within the traditional halakhic framework from the inside out to make space for women’s voices to be heard and valued as opposed to tearing down and redefining the whole system from the outside.

SJR: There are absolutely similarities between the desires expressed by the women in this book and the desires voiced by liberal Jewish feminists decades ago. This is most notable in the pieces about ritual and prayer — women who authored pieces in our book express a desire to belong, ritually, within the community in a way that I think echoes the cries for inclusion that even Modern Orthodox feminists (and not only liberal Jewish feminists) had decades ago. The fact that we are still hearing these voices, though, should be troubling. As far as observant feminism has come, women are still fundamentally excluded in many ways.

RC: I do not think that this book is exclusively about the Modern Orthodox experience; some of our authors do not define themselves as Orthodox. Women from more liberal streams of Judaism will also see themselves in this book. We are all grappling with many of these issues – especially around sexuality and consent. Perhaps the Orthodox community is further behind than others, but we all have work to do.

14)  Is this book a way station out of Orthodoxy for some of you? Rachel Adler sounded like this as a young Orthodox feminist in the 1970’s and then rejected the entire system.

SJR: This book is not a way out of observant Judaism,although it is a fair critique. Several pieces do note the kinds of problems feminists like Rachel Adler identify — the masculine language in prayer (p. 15, 68) and the patriarchal emphasis in scripture (p. 64, 66).

But I do not think this kind of thinking seeks to reject the system. To the contrary, I think the book shows a deep amount of love and respect for the observance system, to the point of wanting more than anything to be included. In “The Lady in Lime Green,” the author describes how her outward religious observance of wearing a kippah, though considered inappropriate for a woman, expresses her commitment to halakhic life. Other authors express appreciation of tefillin as a way to express religious commitments and struggles. The author of “Synonyms” describes that she wishes she could, as a woman, dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah. 

This yearning desire to be embraced by Orthodoxy is seen vividly in “Invisibility.” The author, when a teacher suggests that she leave Orthodoxy, finds herself in crisis. The pain the author pens as she describes being kept on the outside is heartbreaking. These women do not want to reject the system. They want their place within the system. This book tells the community — in the most poignant language — just how tragic it is to reject committed, devoted coreligionists. 

RC: In all honesty, this book definitely is a reflection of many women’s struggles with Orthodox Judaism. Not all of the authors define themselves as Orthodox, even if they were raised in Orthodox communities and are still observant. Many of us are still finding our communities and identities. I think especially for those of us who are single, there is a struggle to maintain the delicate balance of sex positivity, or even feminism, and Orthodoxy. The Orthodox community does not carve out a clear space for “older” single women in many ways, and it is difficult to balance competing values of halakha, feminism, and just being human. However, everyone who had a hand in making this book happen cares deeply about furthering these conversations within the observant Jewish community because we love and care about it and want to make it a better place.

Fall 2020 CTU -Shapiro Lecture- A Jewish View of Contemporary Ideas of the Trinity

What better way to take your mind off of the elections. I promise not to mention or even allude to the elections. Monday night, November 2nd. I will be speaking on the topic A Jewish View of Contemporary Ideas of the Trinity – it is 7:00 PM CST and 8:00 PM Eastern Time

The link to register is at

Interview with Prof. Sarah Hammerschlag on Modern French Jewish Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Why was Sylvain Levi included?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 What was Helen Cixous’ view of her Judaism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Ariel Evan Mayse on Speaking Infinities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. What is the thesis of your new book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. How does Wittgenstein help in understanding the Maggid?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. What is divine vitality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13. How does this connect to an environmental ethic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Elinatan Kupferberg responds to Prof Aaron Koller on the Akadah

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Kupferberg divided his essay into four parts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Elinatan Kupferberg responds to Prof Aaron Koller

Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 Years of the Blog

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