Category Archives: jewish thought

Authorship and the Individual

Interesting book review on questions of authorship as applied to Dante. The critical theorists have already shown that medievals treated Aristotelian philosophy the way we treat the rules of physics, not something that needs an author. And they showed how some medieval texts were written with the reader in mind- either as images on the side of the page or only giving allusions and letting the reader apply them on his own. Medievals also wrote as a form of revelation, and treated cosmologies as revelatory and they considered the bearers of the scholarly tradition as possessing an immanent truth. Not everyone who wrote was considered an auctores.

This opens up the question of what rabbinic Jewish author were doing? The Geonim and Nahmanides were writing with the a Divine spirit, or at least legal decisions were guided by the Divine. Some Kabbalistic works are seen as transmitting ancient knowledge or ascribed to older figures. And the Guide for the Perplexed is just that, a guide for the reader. But what were the “authors” of Pirkei deRebbe Eliezer thinking?

To consider the modern issues: Judaism never bought into the idea of the individual author and still has trouble with intellectual property of an author. In many texts, Torah is seen as possessed by the collective or as eternally given. So when a posek writes a teshuvah: Is it his own authorship? Does he write as bearer of a mesorah, like a medieval kabbalist? Is there a revelation granted to the community? We tend to frame these questions using the anachronistic modern contrast of autonomy and authority. We need to ask: what is involved in an act of religious writing? Does one write ex cathedra, with immanent truth, with revelation, or for the reader?

But then it becomes more difficult- what happens when the written opinions of a rabbi are involved in petty squabbles or personal interests or manipulated by politics? Ascoli’s book on Dante asks that question directly – If Dante claimed to write with revelation then how can he till be involved in his petty squabbles? What happens when someone writes with immanent divine truth and also acts as an independent agent?

Albert Russell Ascoli. Dante and the Making of a Modern Author. Cambridge Cambridge University Press, 2008. Reviewed by Jan G. Soffner (Zentrum Cr Literatur- und Kulturforschung) Published on H-Italy (December, 2009)

By Which Authority Did Dante Write?

If one happens to talk by chance about Dante’s fourteenth-century masterpiece _Divine Comedy_, one can observe a strange phenomenon.

Dante seems to misuse God for his political opinions, by letting the divine justice condemn his enemies, and for his personal
pride or arrogance, by having all the best dead poets honor him (see, for instance, Inferno IV, 100-102). Moreover, isn’t it already quite
presumptuous to “know” the divine verdict about everybody who has ever died? All this seems to be even stranger, since this work is
evidently a literary text, not an inspired prophecy like the Revelation. So how could Dante attribute this authority to himself?
And did he attribute this authority to himself after all, or did he “just” write fiction?

This suspicion arose as soon as the _poema sacro–_the “holy poem,” as Dante himself calls it (Paradiso XXV, 1)–was written. Nearly
seven hundred years of “Dantology” (to use Robert Harrison’s brilliantly provocative term)[1] have not convincingly resolved this
doubt. In the fourteenth century cosmological representations in the _Cosmographia_ of BernardusSilvestris (ca. 1084-1178), the _Anticlaudianus_ of Alanus ab Insulis (1120-1202) and the _Tesoretto_ of Brunetto Latini (ca. 1220-94). They read the text either as a spiritual revelation and a dream, despite its literary construction and despite the claim to report a physical journey, or they interpreted it in a “modern” way, that is, as a fictional construction, despite the explicit claims of the _Commedia_to be a revelatory work.

Ascoli also has an excellent knowledge notonly of the works of modern theoretical thinkers such as Hannah
Arendt, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Mary Carruthers about literary authorship and authority, but also of the discursive
figurations of _auctores_ available at Dante’s time. Ascoli starts with an extensive analysis of contemporary concepts of
authorship, and of the manner in which Dante seems to be relating to them as a whole. Ascoli argues that the image of an author stemmed
from the trustworthy _auctoritates_ of the ancient and/or philosophical and theological tradition granting for an immanent
truth to biblical scribes and the true author, who is God. These traditional concepts refer to _auctoritas_ as both an individual and
impersonal power and knowledge. The _auctor_ thereby was not so much a creative agent, but rather a mediating power of knowledge. He was
one worthy of faith and obedience.

Hence Dante, modeled as an individual traveler in the _Divine Comedy_, “comes, paradoxically, to embody the canons of
impersonal authority” (p. 20). On the one hand Dante is thereby traditionalist and conservative, on the other, he is also provided
with the “transgressive desire to appropriate that attribute for himself, for the vernacular, and for ‘modernity'” (p. 20f).

How can a fictional work gain a revelatory truth? Ascoli shows convincingly how Dante assumes the traditional role of an
authoritative author without thereby relating to the pre-existing models of knowledge implied by these kinds of authorship.
The unease of us moderns when confronted with Dante cannot just be about the relation to an ineffable divine Being. Representationalist
modern authors work with a more or less Aristotelian concept of fiction, that is, with a concept of a poetic truth relying on
modeling possibilities and an emotionality that can be addressed playfully and without consequences. However, Dante tells us a
different story

Here is a sample of chapter one of Albert Russell Ascoli. Dante and the Making of a Modern Author.
Can we move beyond the dichotomies of authority/autonomy or submission/freedom and explain the act of religious writing or studying Torah or acting as a rabbi in terms of how they define authorship or role of the self in the process?

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Jewish Sufis in Iran

Siman Tov Melammed: (before 1793- 1823 or 1828, nom de plume Tuvyah)  was an Iranian Jewish rabbi, poet and polemicist. He was the hakham, the spiritual leader of the community of Mashad and had to deal with a variety of religious tension of the era including forced disputations with Shii Imams. In 1839, the entire community was forced to convert to Islam. They lived as relatively secret Jews until the 20th century. Raphael Patai wrote a book on them Jadid al-Islam.

We usually associate Jewish-Sufism with Bahye ibn Pakuda, Avraham ben haRambam, and other Egyptian descendents of Maimonides such as David Maimuni or Joshua Maimuni. (These have been published by Paul Fenton with French translation and have not attained a wide readership.) Melammed’s writings are the tip of a much larger world of Jewish Sufi thought in Persia and Central Asia. Melammed wrote, in Persian, a philosophic and mystical poetic commentary on Maimonides thirteen principles called Hayat al Ruh; a sufi commentary on the Guide for the Perplexed. Within the large treatise, he wrote a poem in praise of Sufis.  Vera Moreen translated selections in 2000, (Queen Esther’s Garden, Yale UP , 2000) Below are 6 stanzas out of 30 (not to run a foul of fair usage laws.).

Melammed praises the Sufis for transcending their physical bodies and the habits of ordinary life to become servants of God. They are radiant and contented from their devotion to God and they lead other back through a straight path to God.

Description of the Pious Sufis Roused from the Sleep of Neglect

Godly and radiant like roses

The Sufis are, the Sufis,

Whose carnal soul is dead,

Doused their desires, the Sufis.

Firmly they grasp the straight path,

Leaders benevolent, guides

Of those who strayed are the Sufis.

Drunk with the cup and soul’s sweets,

With love of seeing the Unseen;

Without reins in both hands are the Sufis.

Dead to the world of the moment,

Alive to the hear after;

Full of merit and kindness are the Sufis.

God’s love is their beloved,

God’s affection their decoration,

And that which veils Him from the Sufis.

The most contented of beggars,

Avoiding rancor and dispute;

Freed from the Day of Punishment are the Sufis.

The issue must have been seriously debated because there is also a poem by an unknown Jacob against Jews becoming Sufis. The poem says to follow Moses, and his father Imran and to avoid the path of the famous Sufi Majnun. One should not relinquish one’s status as the chosen people for a universal faith.

Jacob: Against Sufis

O people of “Imran’s son”

Let not Satan deceive you,

Lest you forfeit religion and faiths;

My life for Moses’ life;

Whoever abandons his faith

Becomes a sage like Majnun,

Roaming about, confused;

My life for Moses’ life.

Bravely he is called a friend.”

But he turns common instead of chosen,

[Now] what religion can he call his own?

My life for Moses’ life.

Michael Fishbane – Sacred attunements – part III

Sacred Attunements chapters 2 and 3 continued from part I here and part II here.

Chapter II – “Jewish theology begins at Sinai, but God was before this event”

Sinai is commitment, creation of scripture, prophecy. Divine presence and efectivity is the horizon. It takes courage to live in the light of the truth of the covenant.We want to enter the language of revelation.

(This is a great existential definition sharply removing Sinai from the symbolic and human, but not going as far into the experiential-mystical as Rav Kook. One of the times Fishbane spoke at the local minyan, he discussed Rav Kook and it seemed like he was using the or penimi without the or makif. he shows nice use of Ricouer)

“The decisive turn to Sinai is made by the solitary spirit..” First, we move out of habit into commitment, then attentiveness to encounter. We return to community to formulate a life of justice and righteousness. Our model Moses could endure censural vastness and then return to work in the community unlike Elijah and Job who were lost in silent submission and did not formulate a covenant with God.

Three cords of Torah, Sinai is an ongoing spirit of Jewish living producing the Oral Torah and behind all the Torah is a broader Torah kelulah, a openness to Being. Behind the Torah was Sinai is an even deeper Torah kelulah which pulsates through reality, through Being. (Nice ability to avoid Heschel’s dichotomy of Torah from Sinai and Torah from Heaven).

Texts unfold into life by means of interpretation

Peshat is subjugation of self to text. But there is no one peshat. It is ever constructed in the acts of reading and speaking. Peshat is attentiveness to details of the text.

Derush – contemporary ongoing meanings, relationship words to each other, conjoined words, oral words- this is the oral Torah. Drush gathers textual cations into a vortex of instruction.  It helps us become human and build character. Drush is a serious theological task. Mythic conceptions are not childlike crudities but creative imagination striving to grasp what is sensed.

Remez is finding the supersensual ideas of philosophy in the text. In great hands, like those of Maimonides he returns to the peshat and finds the openings to the higher truths in the text. Remez offer stairwells, or Jacob’s Ladder to high truths.

Sod – revealing and concealing of aspects of divinity. It seeks alignment with the language and energies of discussions of divine structures. We move beyond the text to a meta-communicative level. The eye for symbols, the ear for sounds, and the mouth for the recitation and mindful meditative life-rhythm.

Chapter III “Living within the covenant, we are challenged to actualize the principles of Sinai at every moment, through the bonds we forge with persons and things in the course of life.”

Halakhah is the gesture of the generations – ongoing practices cultivated and inculcated for the various spheres of life.

Fishbane calls God –“the life of all life” from a neoplatonic piyyut of Saadyah. This is his preferred term for God.

The second half of the chapter is on prayer and has lots of insights. Many of the paragraphs are poetic insights strung together. I need to teach it once in the context of other exhortations to prayer (Hirsch, Heschel, Rav Kook, Rebbe Reshab) in order to grasp the finer points.

“The phenomena of prayer responds to the vastness of sounds and sights which surround us in the natural world.”

(Most studies of Jewish prayer have parroted the work of Fredrich Heiler who has two types of prayer- petitionary and mystical. Moshe Greenberg on Biblical Prayer, Heinneman on Rabbinic prayer, Scholem on Kabbalistic prayer, Soloveitchik on Halakhic prayer have all used Heiler’s typology. But most Jewish prayer is actually Adoration, in which we praise to the King. Our prayer gestures are based on adoration to the King, and the Psalms we use are not petition but adoration.) Evelyn Underhill has a great book on Adoration produced almost the same year as Heiler.

Fishbane moves into the world of adoration using Gademer, Rilke, and the Psalms.

He presents four levels, a PARDES of prayer

Peshat- yes it is submission to the text—but also the silence before response, the articulation of human needs,, and a realization of the gaps and gifts of the world.

Derush-meaning in the present.Remez  – higher wisdom and abstractions- he asks: what would they say?

Sod- reaching the unfathomable, toward the Transcendent, toward religious censura

He ends the chapter with a homily explaining gemilut hasadim as radical kindness.

(Great, contemporary Jewry can use a lot more on kindness and gemilut Hasidim)  but then returning to Heidegger and Rosenzweig –we get “”Ultimately, the phenomena of hesed is the practice of death….successively divesting oneself.”

(If one sees oneself in a tight knit community then Miktav  MiEliyahu offers a world of mashbia and mekabel were everyone is always giving and receiving. But if one is an isolated individual then there it is death to give.)

Michael Fishbane – Sacred Attunement – part II

Continued from Part I here:

The book has four short chapters and I will be going through them. The book has an oral quality of a memorized speech, telling what is about to be said, saying it, and them giving a summary. In a single chapter, there are several points where ideas are enumerated as three or four points the way one does in an oral presentation. Some readers that I have spoken with think the book should be shortened for written presentation, but I think it needs to be lengthened to explain the oblique references.

1] Theology is personal and about self concern – bringing the conscious and unconscious together, seeking a living truth. The goal is to bring canonical sources forward for our own lives. Maimonides grasped the totality of Being – he saw the abyss of God between the Bible and Aristotelian thought. He sought to be a philosopher but also a theologian by rereading scripture to overcome abyss in his own life. He created a bridge of interpretation through exegesis, as was done by every generation. Kabbalah works the same way to overcome the abyss through exegesis.  (Fishbane’s history of generations is not Hegel, Dilthy or Foucault- but a very personal reading of Gadamer. Further, he has not absorbed any of the critiques of the rhetoric of temporality from the linguistic turn.)

2] Why is this needed now? And why in this manner? Three points– There is no one single coherent Jewish worldview and to answer the needs of human life we need theology. The danger is that without theology people will seek meaning in ideology.  (what’s hiding in this phrase “ideology”) We have many fundamental texts; no one text supersedes the others. We need grounding in scripture to be Jewish.

Is theology possible? We need the theological manner of seeking mystery. He cites the Romantics that we must begin with the natural attributes, those earthly things closest to us. Those parts of life that are “the given”  the “something more” of “reality disrupted” they are evasive. But for this to be more than human- we need to grasp the “transcendental giving.” The natural brings us to the aesthetic and from there to the theological. (I hear echoes of Gadamer’s aesthetic to the existential to Being). He does not have the sense of death and anxiety of Franz Rosenzweig, Heidegger, or Scholem. His abyss is not evil but the unexamined life.

3] There are three domains of human being. The first is the natural world It is our primary reality and language brings the world to expression.  We live in a primary world of sound and senses and from that we build a worldview. Myth and ritual is grounded in human forms of sound and sense. Successful articulation creates meaning, then we return to the temporal reality. We return to forgetfulness of habit and routine. (Note that unlike Heschel or Art Green, we are not connected in Fishbane’s thought to God in the natural order. While Soloveitchik thinks only halakhah can give us articulation).

The second realm is the “care of the self” where we go beyond the senses to a sense of who we are and personal depth. Many event in our life – Caesural event- like births, death, marriage. Here there is a joining of elemental and the human. It creates a space for contemplation. (This is a point where he seems to be drifting away from the ideas found in prior Jewish texts and developing an aesthetic of Judiasm.)

The third realm is the aesthetic. Music, painting and poetry  help give expression. The world is not ready made and we create it. Fishbane cites Goethe, Rilke, Wallace Stevens, Picasso, Beethoven. Artists prefigure theology as the meeting of the elemental and culture.. Theology is a creative act.

4] Theology is about the person, it transforms perspective with an all encompassing way of life. It is theology because it is toward God, a Jacob’s ladder. Turning to the kabbalist rabbi Azriel of Gerona, Fishbane cites a passage about Eyn the Infinite- the knowledge and the lack of knowledge. The infinite Being offers both a ground of Being and a nought. (Echoes here of the way Heidegarians read Meister Eckhart). But here the nicht is not absolute nothing, rather it is the absence of an articulated theology for our lives. We have mystic language here of God in our life. We read these texts for a sense of how past ages deal with the tension of the elemental, the cultural, and transcendental

Fishbane acknowledges that we do not share Rabbi Azriel’s world view, his metaphysics, or his religion. But we can use him as a source for our lives- to fill the gap of the human, Caesural, and the aesthetic. (In this he is similar to Mark Macintosh and Deny Turner and the other U of Chicago thinkers about mystical texts who formulate a reading of mystical text after the linguistic turn, away from experience and psychology,  towards texts as offering us glimpses of the expression of presence.

5] The goal is to move from the general to the Jewish. Theology is not doctrine but the point of experience and the text meeting. (He has moved beyond the earlier existential thinkers where experience was the only thing that counted, but he has not moved into he post-liberal realm of only text.- echoes of Buber as exegete). . The world is mute and it needs to be redeemed through our theology. There is a correlation of man and God ( there are echoes here of Herman Cohen and Soloveitchik but without as solid a correlation; at least in this first chapter it seems more human than correlation.). We need to reawaken people to grasp the fragments; their soul are at stake.

6] Four things make the theology Jewish. (1) It is a particular cultural form using Jewish texts(2)It uses Jewish conceptions of God- hence it works within the Jewish hermeneutical horizons (3) It is performance- it creates ritual practice. (4)It is transformative- giving ideals.

7] My first take – he understands emotions and human experience by his sequence of Jewish texts. But if I want to understand the depth and absence in himan existance do I turn to the halakhot of morning or to Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking? If I want to understand love and relationships do I turn to the Talmud? Fishbane in later chapters will focus on the importance of Kabbalah and hasidut but I an not certain that they are better for the care of the self. If I am depressed, I am not sure that R.Azriel’s discussion of Ayin- non-being offers words of expression.

On the other hand, the book is not seriously touched by the principles of the linguistic turn, in which current thinkers see emotions and the human experience as created and constructed as parts of culture. The experience is constructed and inseparable from the expression. Here the experience seeks expression in the theology.

The book has 4 chapters- the other three will be posted in the future.

Islam as the relgion of Hesed

Dr Avraham Elqayam is head of the Shlomo Moussaieff Center for Kabbalah Research and professor of Kabbalah at Bar Ilan University. A number of years ago he wrote an article in the journal of the Torah veAvodah movement called “The Religion of Mercy: Encounters with Islam” Deot 19, (2004) 6-8 (It is a late night freehand translation). I am not sure of his current opinion but it is a very interesting three page article. He does not draw broader implications than those presented here.

In the article, he discusses the clash of civilization that puts Jews on the side of Western civilization. He demurs:

But are Jews part of the flesh of the flesh of Western Civilization? I am astonished! My family lived under the Muslim world in Spain and afterward in a small community in Gaza City. They lived submersed in the midst the Arabic Muslim civilization.

On the identification of Judaism and the West:

The question is – do we have to continue in this direction until we reach opposition or do we need to go in another direction? The Torah recounts how Isaac and Ishmael went together to bury Abraham. It is valid to ask on the role of Yishmael in the Jewish spiritual tradition. Our modern philosophers, especially [Franz] Rosenzweig betrayed us. I will turn, therefore, from the world of philosophy to the world of mysticism and Kabbalah. Perhaps there we will find a path and a direction.

Elqayam finds three approaches in Jewish mysticism to Islam. Kabbalah, Jewish Sufism, and Sabbatianism.

In Kabbalah- the world is all symbolic of the divine realm, therefore

When you contemplate about Islam, think about Ishmael in the parashah [Hayai Sarah] Ask what is being symbolized, what is the allusion in the world of divinity. It is surprising to reveal that the Spanish kabbalists saw the essence of Islam as connected to the power of the sefirah hesed. Abraham our patriarch represented hesed and Ishmael comes from Abraham, therefore Islam represents hesed.

In its inwardness, Islam is a religion of hesed  This is the self-consciousness of the Muslims themselves. Muslims are called in Arabic a religion of tolerance. This opinion appears in the writings of Yosef Gikitilla….The destiny of the Islamic nation amidst the humanity is to represent Divine hesed.”

Rabbi Abraham Maimoni was influenced by the Sufi mystical schools. He quoted the learning of Sufis, and praised their use of music, body posture, and prostrations.

Rabbi Abraham Maimuni saw Sufism as a form of meta-religion that bridged between Islamic spirituality and prophetic spirituality. His intention was understandably to imitate the prophets and not the Muslims, except according to his opinion, only the Muslims preserved the path of prophecy. We have seen in him the spiritual possibility within Judaism that preserves the Jewish identity but which expresses the spiritual world of Islam- the Jew lived in the culture of Islam, drawing leaven from the Muslim world yet making a synthesis between the worlds as a Jew.

Shabbatai Zevi converted to Islam and his followers created a synthesis that mixed both religions, they were Muslims who also kept Jewish practices including the Jewish holidays. [He gives several examples of the syncretism]

He conlcudes:

We need to reconnect the fine threads and the gleanings– that bring us to our brothers Ishmael, that are almost lost to us. It is possible that the time has already passed but we are required at least to try. It is incumbent upon us to begin afresh to build a spiritual bridge between Judaism and Islam, to this I desire.

Rabbi Hirschenson’s Malki Bakodesh

I was given a copy of the 2006 reprint of Rabbi Hayyim Hirschenson’s Malki baKodesh on my last journey. I have read the older Hebrew edition. But as I pack for the next journey, I took it out to read for Shabbat.and looked at the new edition, He writes as 1929 Zionist. who attended the early Zionist congresses and wants to deal with the political problems that will arrive. He wants to assure that Religious Jews would not require a king and would not require the institution of sacrifices. He wants to allow people on to the Temple mount but as house of prayer for all people. It is permitted to join the Jewish legion even if it is a non-obligatory war- yet was are not in a messianic age. Finally, he accepts the concept of a high court of appeals- something that Rav Kook vehemently objected to its institution.Along the way and unlike most Rabbinic works are discussions of Horace Kalen, Louis Brandeis, and Jabotinsky. He supports the creation of legal boards and mishpat ivri to avoid Rabbinic courts. And finds the Balfour declaration a major event that should reorient Judaism. No law of the Torah can be against true civilization

In the original 1929 edition there was already an English preface which encouraged the role of the populous, and the need to make sure the halakhah does not perish. ” They deal with considerations of primary importance for every Jew who is interested in the organic continuation of Jewish life in the line of historical development of Jewish teaching on the basis of Halacha.” The editor of the new edition notes the influence of Abraham Lincoln’s  “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”.

He is anti Kingship based on the Abrabanel. And his approach seems to solve problems by making things problematic. The Bavli says this but the midreshei halakhah say other things and our questions cannot be answered so we can have a removal of a Rabbinic category. So unlike Maimonides who creates an ideal messianic halakhah- Hirschenson shows there is no ideal and there the laws are inoperative. He also used the technical questions of the Vilna Gaon, R. Akiva Eier and the Torah Temimah, to remove closure. As a said in my YUTorah class on Hirschenson- he is not just creating liberal position but works through Horayot and Sanhedrin and undoing them. Unlike others who try and make him Maimonidean, philosophic, or intellectual modernist. He is more historic oriented, a strong defense of popularism, and is more about removal of law than the construction of new law. (cf, the volume’s introduction that compares him to David Hartman).

A few theological points:

He writes that he was witness to WWI and the slaughter of the Armenians and decides that there is a need to write a new Zohar style apocalypse, like the Nistarot of Rabbi Shimon or Zohar Shemot 6-7, which he wrote and called “Tikkune Hamalkhut”

He wrote and analysis of Spinoza’s ethics and what we can learn from it in Spinoza’s work,  contained in his Musagei Shav veha-Emet. He can use Spinoza because he is not trying to create rationality, rather he is seeking to create opening for a broader life, like Rabbi Reines.

Coincidently, I had Hirschenson’s hagadah at hand, literally, someone recently sent me a copy.

Here are a few ideas from it:

“Maimonides did not intend that there would be only 13 principles of faith; there are many other principles in the Torah. Maimonides needed to explain only those principles that the masses would not understand because of their philosophic depth… There are many halakhot that are also principles such as those of “kill and do not violate.” And in the case of the Hagadah, the wicked son writes himself out of Judaism.

He translates “pereshut- zu derekh eretz” as one of the class system, perishut means class and the Jews who were originally upper class were treated as lower class and that is a major afflication.

The hagadah states that Jews are free in many countries due to minority rights but they are not spiritually free yet because are feeling the oppression of the majority culture and therefore do not have love of Torah and fear of heaven.  He also notes that until he cme to the US, he never knew why both phrases are needed and now he sees that one can have a sense of heaven and be totally removed from [the laws of] Shabbat and Torah.

Angel’s Maimonides – rationality and social order

Steve Nadler gives a favorable review to Marc Angel’s  Maimonides, Spinoza and Us: Toward an Intellectually Vibrant Judaism. Nadler, nevertheless places his critiques between the lines. Nadler supports Spinoza’s concept of rationality in which we live rational human beings.  Angel wants Judaism without superstition. But is a lack of superstition the same as rationality?

“Rambam and Spinoza both located superstition in the realm of ignorance and irrational fear…. Rational people will learn to overcome the tendency toward superstition and will root their lives in reason and in an intellectual love of God.”

On this I am overwhelmed by .the simplicity of the definition of rationality. Much of the philosophy of the 1970’s and 1980s discussed rationality. Winch said that it is all contextual, and after some great volumes by Bryan Wilson and then Hollis & Lucas we conclude with Taylor’s defense of universal rationality but as within a given system. In that middle period we had many such as Douglas and Turner who said that the term is only in reference to one’s system- it reveals how one defined one’s social order.

Treating Maimonides as rejecting superstition is following the minimal Maimonideans somewhere between the Rashba’s rejection of kaparot and the Meiri rejecting non- philosophic agadot. It is not the Maimonides of the philosophers- it is not Gersonides, Falquera, or Narboni. It is not even the Maimonideanism of Radak who discusses how he studies the natural order on Shabbat. Maiimonides is here for the broad community- no superstition but not the Maimonides of those who read.  There is no offering of a new Guide of the Perplexed that combines the philosophy of our age and Judaism .

Nadler concludes:

But the success of Angel’s project depends on how well he manages tensions that will be apparent to contemporary rationalist critics of religious belief. For example, while decrying attempts to import superstitious elements into Jewish practice (talismans, prayer for hire, etc.), he suggests that (according to Maimonides) the harm they bring includes the loss of one’s portion in the world to come. And Angel himself apparently believes in the efficacy of prayer, because “God is always present and listening everywhere.” These and other elements of even an “intellectually vibrant” Judaism will strike nonbelievers as no less superstitious than red strings and amulets.

Eliezer Goldman, following Weber, had already written that Maimonides is rational not in the modern sense but in the sense of having a fixed goal and system and then working within it. The rejection of superstition seems to define a current social order. Maimonides would actually reject  “God is always present and listening everywhere” in its modern American usage. In the Guide it is defined in more naturalistic terms.

We can use a good discussion of how these beliefs  connect to modern scientific worldview. The 1970’s rationality debate used as their example the Azande of Africa who followed the natural order but also resorted to witchcraft to provide meaning, telos, and remove contingency. The natural and the religious may be on two separate planes. In this case, Maimonides describes a theoretical sabian magic and then uses as a yardstick and rubric to explain how one should relate to the commandments without magical idolatry. In the modern case, we want a rational Orthodoxy, so we project  a lack of rationality onto others, henceforth called superstition, and if we don’t violate our own definition then willy-nilly, we are rational.

Maybe we can be more like the Azande and accept have both the natural order and witchcraft? or more like Spinoza and have rational educated lives and have religion as its own realm? or we can be like Maimonides himself who had an esoteric Torah for the philosophers and the fighting of superstition for the masses and that philosophy that should not be brought to the masses?. And what of symbolist approaches such as Ricoeur?

How can there be a faith-based sectarian religion that is informed by rational thinking, one that avoids the Scylla of irrational faith and the Charybdis of rational unbelief?

This seems like a false dichotomy and does not correspond to the fragmented, multiple realms of our lives.  Nor does it correspond to context of rationality. My question is: how does this dichotomy portray a very specific social order of what is in and what is out. Do we all really color just within the printed lines of a coloring book?

Maimonides believed the ancient prophets to be morally and intellectually gifted individuals — much like philosophers, except with greater imaginative powers.

Is this a potential definition of prophecy as a acquired perfection? Does this require a philosophic reading of the Bible? And wouldn’t this negate the vibrant literary reading that people are giving to the Bible? The Bible should only be understood by gifted individuals like the prophets. Should we create a prophetic Orthodoxy teaching people to attain these levels? And as Feyerabend ended his classic work Against Method – – If a non system allowed Rabbi Akiva to gain knowledge of the heikhalot- who  re we to try and impose a rational system?

Lord Jonathan Sacks on the Siddur

1] When I think of certain prayer books commentaries, I sometimes think of them with a few words. Hirsch – moral aspiration, Birnbaum – historical anti-Semitism Artscroll – Hashem centered,   Rebbe – attachment to God

For Sacks, the words are hope, faith, and dignity.

Full disclosure – I received a copy from the publisher after my last post on the idea of witness in his thought. In short, my reaction is that his books are generally well crafted and delivered publicly, but here we have short comments not fully explained or justified.

2]  Collective Prayer

His message throughout the siddur is collective faith, we join with others. Prayer concerns the past and future of the community, the people Israel. The prayer is adoration and praise for God – our highest aspirations for the Jewish people. He favors Yehudah Halevi– prayer shows a God of history and human events. We learn from prayer the need to maintain faith, hope, dignity, and pride.

What is prayer? Prayer changes us – it is self-fulfillment He opens the book with a definition that prayer is conversation with God and never actually uses that definition in the book. From his commentary, prayer is listening and shaping oneself from the liturgy. Symbols need meditations therefore many do the yehi ratzon (cf. Hirsch).

His commentary is not very spiritual, emotional, or experiential, despite his use of these words. For example, he states the repetition of the amidah is the peak of religious experience because it contains the kedushah which was based on prophetic and mystic visions. Liturgy is not experience or experiential. Nor will one find much solace or human struggle in the prayer book.

Like the commentaries on Book of Common Prayer – he offers Biblical teachings applied in everyday life. The book is not very Rabbinic.

The commentary on the weekday shaharit is on the history of the liturgy and on the Shabbat shaharit is more theological.

3] Justice

His vision is that prayer will teach us personal and social responsibilitie. There is a cosmic moral standard of justice  God’s eternal values for the affairs of humankind-are justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, freedom to captives, and hope to those at the margins of society.” Korban (sacrifice) is the pledging of ourselves to do his will. Peace the ultimate hope of monotheism. [Wow – this is nice universalism and good ethical monotheism- will it mold Orthodoxy?]

He writes: We believe that “The world is the product of single will , not the blind clash of conflicting elements”.[what of divine mandated clashes and exclusivism?]

He writes “Havdalah means making distinctions”, “to make order out of chaos, God wants us to be creative.” That is great homiletic but will it encourage the production of what the wider world calls creativity?

4] Revelation

Sacks writes that in contrast to the universal demands on Jews, Revelation is particular – it is our covenant of love with God – a relationship.Torah is our written constitution, collective memory, and record of covenant- not just sacred literature The message, however, of revelation is the universal justice, compassion, inalienable rights for the downtrodden.[This is the point were I find this commentary as selected quotes from his books on global ethics. Nothing is substantiated or justified here but they are justified in the books.In addition, the books come from speeches delivered in public to answer a need. These comments have no criteria for their inclusion.]

5] Christian locutions

a) Sacks writes that Resurrection is hope “ Jews kept hope alive, hope kept the Jewish people alive.”We have a divine promise and hope defeats tragedy

This is one of my pet peeve – tikvah and spes are not the same even if both translated as hope.

The former word tikvah is restoration –

[There is a debate of Radak and Ramban is if has the same meaning as kav – to make a line.]

Nahmanides says that just as a blueprint has lines drawn so too our tikvah for the national redemption is already drawn. Christian meaning of spes is of unseen things, the future, as part of the supernatural virtues of faith hope, and charity. For Christians hope is a virtue, for Jews, God (or Torah) has kept up Jewish hope for the redemption. One hopes in God, one does not hope as a virtue.

Sacks uses the word in several places in the Christian sense  and even has locutions like faith, hope, and dignity – cf the Christian faith, hope and charity

The use of the word hope in this sense is also used often in Shakespeare

b) On page 146 – he writes we are your witnesses, the bearers of your name. (Jews don’t use it like this)- see my prior post

c) He uses the phrase “free air of hope” – page 152 coined by the Irish theologian George Tyrrell (1861 – 1909).

6] He views religious language as metaphor

In many places he has a variant of the following: God is unknowable and belong words – the goal is to get behind words.

7] As a book

Well…A large number of quotes are quite cryptic – he likes good phrases better than good comments. Many times one cannot make out what it means. The full ideas in other books are here reduced to bon mots. Comments sometimes say “it may be” “may reflect” – so the effect is a more of a homily than a commentary.

Sometimes he cites his sources – in one case there are three cited names in a single  passage—and then there are many pages without a single citation. Yet, in his other works he cites the author of the interpretation. It seems arbitrary.

8] Sources and comparisons

a) On the topic of liturgy and spontaneity, he surprisingly does not use the usually rabbinic passages on keva and kavvanah but discusses the topic through passages the in Bible. Source seems to be an unnamed book on the Bible or early Rabbinics.

b) He cites historical material from a much much earlier decade with any new insight- he does not references to Yakovson (Jacobson), Abrahams, Elbogen or other works that he relies on.

c) Conspicuous in its absence is the Lubavitcher Rebbe since Sacks relied heavily on the Rebbe in earlier works and adapted a volume of the Rebbe on parashah. But Sacks makes prayer thankfulness and adoration – and does not follow the Rebbe that prayer is connection to God.

d) Sacks noticeably quotes Rav Soloveitchik in his introduction, as if to claim continuity or authenticity, but does not follow his approach to prayer in the commentary.For Soloveitchik, Prayer is the personal existential cry in which there is personal redemption through the tefilot and more importantly, the Torah give us words that raise us above our natural inarticulate grunts of animals.

e) Isaiah Berlin on negative freedom and positive freedom – is unattributed here, and presented as Hazal. In addition, he states that Jews as eternal from Tolstoy (in an earlier work he credited the citation to Hertz quoting Tolstoy) This quote of Tolstoy is also in Isaiah Berlin.But quoting that Jews are eternal from Tolstoy—and not from Krokhmal, Kook, Rosenzweig or Reines—reduced it to a bon mot.

f) In Alenu, he explains “leTaken Olam bemalkhut Shadai” as Lurianic tikkun – is it from Elliott Dorff in My People’s Prayer Book?

9] The sections in the introduction on study, mysticism, and history was less than adequate and quite vague. The section on mysticism could be from more than half a century ago. It has a tone of “Mysticism devalues world”

He takes Kabbalat Shabbat from Elbogen recognized by Elbogen’s its mistaken reliance on Solomon Schechter.  And one is not inspired to confidence when he writes that the source of Ushpezin is a nebulous “Jewish mystical tradition.”

10]  Now what of his frequent citation of Franz Rosenzweig on creation, revelation, redemption? I don’t get this one.

This triad is originally from Hermann Cohen where the triad is a divine meaning to creation in the natural order, the revelation of ethics in the human mind, and human work to make the world a better place. (One finds this Cohen triad occasionally in Rav Soloveitchik;s homilies.)

For Rosenzweig, it is God presence as meaning that negates nihilism, revelation is human love for God, and the liturgical fulfillment of eternity. Prayer along with poetry and love are means to let us be existentially human. For Gershom Scholem, it is a creation of emanation and tzimtzum, revelation of creativity and antinomianism, and redemption through apocalyptic change.

But for Sacks, it is God in nature, God revealed in Torah and prayer, and our redemption in history and life. Where is this mild version from and why bother linking it to Rosenzweig? I have not checked yet, but Netiv Binah by Jacobson and Taamei Hamizvot by Heinneman both combine Hirsch and Rosenzweig into a milder form.

Yet the way Sacks frames the triad it can just as well be Albo’s God, Revelation, and Reward or Cordovero’s God, Torah and Israel. There is a triad in Rabbinic thought and liturgy and in the Rabbinic reading of the Bible which has been formulated different ways in different eras. (see Max Kadushin’s Organic Thinking on this thinking in triads) I am not sure why Sacks attributed his reading to Rosenzweig when Albo or Cordovero would have better served his needs.

But then I found on the web a position similar to Sacks—“Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe explained that mans’ relationship with G-d is three-dimensional; we know Him through His creation, His revelation at Sinai, and His promise of redemption.” Did both Sacks and Wolbe take it from Jacobson or Heinneman? Or another secondary source produced by German Jewry? Hmm..

In short, I like the Orthodox universalism, but will stick to reading his longer works,

Was the Zohar ever a book?

Daniel Abrams, “The Invention of the Zohar as a Book” Kabbalah 19 (2009) 7-142

I just finished a very long (135 pages) rambling article by Daniel Abrams with many topics and looks to be the core of a forthcoming book. The article is a seminal one for Abram’s approach and the vast literature review of the field that it contains will make it required reading in the field.

The Zohar was neither written, nor edited, nor distributed as a book by the various figures who produced the various literary units which were later known by the name Zohar. (10)

The Zohar is not a Book – Nor does it have an author (105)

I have tried to express my theoretical discomfort, indeed a perceived dissonance, concerning published methodologies for evaluating the literary quality and forms of the texts known by the name Zohar. (127)

No satisfactory evidence has yet been offered in the relevant scholarship proving that the zoharic writings were intentionally composed, edited, or copied as a book. Not only can ‘the’ Book of the Zohar not be restored to its full form, but there was no single original moment that is recoverable amidst the disparate writings and unstable text(s). (142)

Abrams claims the  idea of the Zohar as a preexisting book was created in the 16th century by the printers- before that point there were only various unconnected manuscripts of esotericism. The production of the Zohar as ideas, texts, and isolated units, has little to do with consumption of the product as a book. He notes that books of esotericism had continuous reworkings.  Then in  the 16th century there arose the idea of a single book, The Zohar.

He spends much of the article reviewing statements of what this work is, from the 13th century to the 16th century printers to 20th century  and then all 20th and 21st century academic studies on what they thought about the nature of the Zohar as a book and whether they imagined that there was such an original lost book to be recovered

Abrams rejects Scholem’s theory of a single author and he rejects Yehuda Liebes’ theory of circle of Zohar authors- hug haZohar. The Zohar contains variety of styles and diverse literature, hence Abrams is sympathetic to Moshe Idel’s reclamation of the theory of Moses Gaster, who considered the work a collection of diverse sources.

He accepts parts of Ronit Meroz’s articles that claim that the texts of the Zohar originated between the  11-14th centuries. But he demurs from her suggestion that there are 14th century imitators of the Zohar’s style Abrams asks: Who says there was ever a fixed thing called the Zohar to imitate?And form criticism does not work if you do not know that the text existed as we have it in these earlier centuries.

With a bit of overkill, he cites Walter Benjamin that in an age of reproduction the book is different than in the era of production. (He does not know Stephen Greenblatt on how a printed book can have ever more aura). He uses Foucault’s “What is an Author” mentioning that author is a constructed idea. But he does not mention that in the middle ages philosophy was authorless while science had an author. Now, in the modern era, we treat science as authorless and give philosophy an author. Abrams does not state why he should think esotericsm should be different than philosophy. He might have been between off citing the shelf of books on authorship in medieval literature- Foucualt may not be proving his point. He has a nice use of Brian Stock on textual communities that have an interplay of textuality and orality.

Abrams suggests that the field needs to go back to manuscripts and first edoitions, and especially colophons  – every text must be treated in its context of production of the manuscript.

He notes:  Danny Matt is creating a synthetic text that does not correspond to any text out there.  Meroz is creating a synoptic edition but that already assumes a whole to be recreated or an original text to retrieve Abrams compares the Zohar to Rabbinic works. Zohar is like the tannaic collections that existed before the Bavli was edited.

He is glad to substantiate Meroz’s finding that some of the texts of the Zohar were originally circulating in Hebrew and then later editors translated them into Aramaic because they thought they were returning the text to its original language of Rashbi which was lost.

He is perturbed by the new book on the Zohar by Melila Heller-Eshed. There is no proof for a hevraya around the Rashbi nor is there any proof that the texts joined as the Zohar have anything in common in the original formation. Abrams is against the literary and thematic studies produced by the students of Yehudah Liebes. (I have a forthcoming review of Melila Heller-Eshed’s book)

Finally Abrams notes the phenomena of hyper-animation of the text where there is an assumed personal authorship. He notes that this started in the 16th century with the poem to Bar Yohai and continues with Liebes’ poem to Rashbi and the invocationof the spirit of Rashbi By Heller-Eshed. He asks rhetorically why doesn’t anyone ask for the spirit of the author of Sefer Yetzirah to descend on them?

A Tiny but Articulate Minority -The Thought of Rabbi Walter Wurzburger

I have been asked by several people  for a copy of my article on Rabbi Walter Wurzburger’s thought- A Tiny but Articulate Minority TRADITION 41:2 (2008). So here it is below. Wurzburger  formulated an existential and Kantian defense of Orthodoxy against historicism.  In his time, congregations in Queens and Long Island, with YU rabbi were still called Orthodox. Yeshivish Jews were called Ultra-Orthodox. The term modern Orthodox  (small m) was a term only for the rabbinical intellectuals who embraced modernism, by their own count – a few score at best. In the late 1970’s the term was applied to a not very clearly defined sociological group of those who have more modern congregation, graduates of day schools, and orthodox summer camps. By the 1990’s  there was a serious mess of terminology.

Rabbi Wurzburger saw a need to affirm a modern philosophic Orthodoxy. He was active in interfaith work and was committed to an ethical Judiasm that aspires to answer to higher “covenantal imperatives,” greater than a formalist reading of the legal canon.

I wrote a long article but think someone out there should use my article to write for him an appropriate wikipedia article.

Here it is:  A Tiny but Articulate Minority- The Thought of Rabbi Walter Wurzbuger by Alan Brill

Novak- Natural Law in Judiasm part 1

Natural Law in Judaism – David Novak (Cambridge UP). Here we go again with another volume.

This book, except for a few slips and snipes, is not directly against liberals. Rather it presents Novaks view of Judaism.

Chapter One – Jews were outside public sphere in middle ages and did not know how to enter. We need natural law based on God’s wisdom to engage public life.

Chapter Two – The Bible is filled with stories showing the pre-existence of morality. They prove natural law. Novak does not really entertain that they might be intuitionism like Saadyah Nahmanides, and Rav Kook, or virtues and phronesis like Maimonides, or cultivated conscience like R. Israel of Salant.

Chapter Three – Jewish ethics are based on natural law. Novak assumes that we are darshinan taama dekra (expose reasons for the scriptural law),  we work on reasons for the commandments, and that the Talmudic discussions on rational commandments were actually derived by reason. The Noahide law shows that natural law undergirds the Talmud. He also assumes that the Meiri’s category of “people of relgion” to be the Noahide laws and that the Meiri is the best explanation for the Talmudic law. He assumes the natural law, which preexists the halakhah, includes the principles of avoiding desecration of the name, human dignity, and misleading someone in business.

Chapter Four – Maimonides showed the rational structure to the law and its teleology in accordance with nature.

Chapter Five is the core argument of the book. Albo brought the term natural law into Judaism but it was always there.We receive norms from God on the right way to act. We avoid the two incorrect positions – it is incorrect to act from autonomy and it is is incorrect to think we have to wait for Divine commands. God gave us the basic principles as norms know through natural law. The Talmud is a record of the Jewish understanding of what natural law requires.

Novak rejects legal formalism and is happy  that his approach rejects the approach of the legal formalist Hans Kelsen. Unlike formalism- Novaks law corresponds to a divine reality, is given to humans to make the world a better place and shows the primacy of God’s wisdom in our world. Our major activity in maintaining the world through Torah is the development of the rational laws through philosophic activity. Jewish law, philosophy, and theology all merge in our quest to apply the natural law to the world’s problems.

He pushes Maimonides slightly on the side because he is too Platonic and based on an ideal nature. Now we are post Cassier and Habermas and knowledge is for human construction and to serve human interests.

Novak quotes Etienne Gilson on the need for revelation and to see divine wisdom in our world. Rav Lichtenstein quotes the same idea from Gilson But for Rav Lichtenstein, the Divine wisdom is the Talmud as know through the books in the Beit Midrash; the halakhah in is playing out by the hakhamim is Divine wisdom. For Novak, the divine wisdom is the Jewish natural law, the norms given by God and know as the basis of the Bible and as the principles on which the Talmud is based. The divine wisdom is in our rationally understanding these norms of natural law and philosophically applying them.

Novak does explicitly rejects Rabbi JD Bleich  who equates halakhah and ethics. Novak argues that ethical principles inform the law and one cannot decide the law without philosophic principles.

Novak avoids the presentation of Maimonides as done by David Hartman and Isadore Twersky where Maimonides combines halakhah with philosophic quest. In contract, Novak presents Maimonides as working for natural law philosophic principles to derive Jewish law.

Chapter Six – Noahide Laws The Noahide laws are not just something before Judaism or of a lower status but they are the basic principles of morality for Jews too. Moral by definition mean the Noahide laws. The image of God means that people can make more of themselves than they can from a natural state.

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Etienne Gilson

Avot, Ibn Ezra, and Being a Mentch

This year Haaretz did not translate their 2009 Rosh Hashanah Jewish culture supplement with its book reviews. The Hebrew edition had some interesting articles, including one by Etkes and a funky one by Haviva Pedaya. But this week they did translate their November 2009 literary supplement. There was a certain gentleness to all their choices. Here are three of the reviews.

The first review is on the new edition of Pirkei Avot that has been a runaway bestseller this Fall. It reminds us of the Israeli project of creating a Jewish cultural heritage, when the books by Dvir and Bialek Presses: Sefer HaAgadah, Sefer HaZemanin on the holidays, Mishnat HaZohar Sifrei Dorot, were on every shelf. They let the Jewish reader approach the Jewish classics outside of yeshiva, orthodoxy, and authority, the way we approach penguin paperback classics. So it is nice to know that the Pirkei Avot is a best seller. Dinur, creator of the Israeli educational curriculum, Beit Hatefuzot, and Yad VaShem, created the older edition. The review has a nice sense of the role of Avot and rabbinic literature on our proverbs and wisdom.

The art of succinct statements By Zvia Walden

Pirkei Avot: Perush Yisraeli Hadash , edited and annotated by Avigdor Shinan Yedioth Ahronoth Books and the Avi Chai Foundation,

“A fundamental challenge facing our generation — living in a country that also happens to be our ances­tral homeland — is figuring out the proper ways to preserve the spiritual and moral image of the individual and society in Israel.” Does this not sound very contemporary and disturbingly relevant? Yet these words were written in 1972 by Prof. Ben-Zion Dinur, who served as Israel’s third minister of education (1951-1955 ) and who initiated the draft­ing of the Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Law in 1953, which officially established Yad Vashem. That same year, Dinur was also responsible for the law that established public education in Israel, in the wake of which the various ideological streams were united into a single school system.

Dinur made the preceding observation in the introduction to his annotated and explicated edition of Tractate Avot of the Mishna, that is, Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers ). He noted that he had begun work on the edition back in 1917-18, when he was teaching at the Tarbut teachers training college in Kiev. He continued his efforts when he served as a lecturer at the Hebrew teachers seminar in Jerusalem (today the David Yellin Teachers College). Which is to say that Israel once had a liberal-minded education minis­ter, one who had actually taught (for years ) in teachers training schools. He diligently prepared his commentaries from a his­torical perspective, because he believed that knowledge of their context was crucial for under­standing their content. Imagine if we had cabinet ministers like that today.

Shinan’s new commentary on Pirkei Avot has featured prom­inently on the Israeli bestseller lists for weeks.

How can one explain the suc­cess of a volume such as Shinan’s? Is it due to the ever-growing thirst to “preserve the spiritual and moral image of the individual and society in Israel,” as Dinur had it? Or is it due to the acces­sible writing style of the editor, a professor of Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University? Or, per­haps native Hebrew speakers are attracted to this edition because Shinan chose to devote much at­tention to the Hebrew text and to connecting the tractate to names, places and landscapes in Israel, while sufficing with only a brief survey of Pirkei Avot’s tradi­tional commentators?

Phrases from Pirkei Avot have penetrated deep into modern Hebrew, even if many of those doing the quoting are unaware of where they first appeared.. Many Hebrew speakers in Israel might quote the phrase, “Love work, and hate lordship,” but few know its continuation, “and make not thyself known to the government” (chapter 1:10 )

The late Levi Eshkol be­longed to the generation that was familiar with the phrase, “The ledger is open and the hand is writing,” but many of the Young Turks working at the Finance Ministry today, who may well believe that “the workmen are sluggish,” have no idea that “the master of the house is urgent” (2:18). We are part of a generation that has become cut off from its cultural roots; we must carry out the difficult work to amend the situation.

The second book reviewed is the Yesod Mora, a perennial Jewish classic on the need to have a broad education and the nature of mizvot. The book has fallen out of fashion in our era. Science, linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy were integrated into Torah. Ibn Ezra rejects the number 613 for the mizvot. He also criticizes the various Biblical and Talmudic scholars of his era for a too provincial education and worldview. Hananel Mack offers us the hypothetical of conjuring up the book that Ibn Ezra would write against the scholars of 2009.

Thirteen gates to infinity By Hananel Mack

Yesod Mora Abraham Ibn Ezra, edited by Uriel Simon Bar-Ilan University Press (Hebrew ), 272 pages, NIS 115

One of Ibn Ezra’s late works is “Yesod Mora Vesod Hatorah” (“Foundation of Awe and the Secret of the Torah” ), commonly called by the first two words of its name, a book dedicated to examining the essence of the commandments and their place in religious thought and at the foundation of Jewish belief.

According to the editor, Prof. Uriel Simon, an expert in research of the Bible and its com­mentaries, particularly the works of Ibn Ezra: ” His thinking is disjointed and jumpy, his arguments emotional, argumentative and associative, and his phrasing too abbrevi­ated, tending toward suggestion.”

According to him, a wise per­son’s approach to the holy writings and to religious philosophy requires a broad edu­cation encompassing all the branches of science, and must reject narrow-minded expertise in specific fields at the expense of others. This cosmopolitan position pre­vents those who do not share the breadth of Ibn Ezra’s perspective from properly understanding his writings, particularly those pertaining to philosophy and sci­ence.

According to Simon, “The first chapter is dedicated to a detailed proof of the re­ligious need for multidisciplinary educa­tion.” Toward that end, Ibn Ezra describes four types of “learned men of Israel” who specialize in narrow and defined fields of Torah and wisdom study but are unable to see the whole ensemble, and for whom, for this reason, even their fields of specializa­tion are found wanting.

Most of the remaining chapters deal with the Jewish religious mitzvot and their place in the system of belief and knowledge. Unlike other medieval books on the commandments, such as those of Rabbis Saadia Gaon, Maimonides and Nachmanides, here there is no discussion of halakha — religious law — and its minu­tiae; rather, the discussion is entirely on a theoretical level. Chapter two deals with the numbering of the commandments, wherein the scholar presents and criti­cizes the systems of several earlier “com­mandment-counters.”

Especially interesting is the status of the number 613, the traditional total number of all the commandments. The source of that enumeration is the homi­letical sermon of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Shamlai…Unlike many other homiletical sermons, this one was accepted with great serious­ness, although there were some who saw in Shamlai’s words a tale not to be taken too seriously; Ibn Ezra belonged to the lat­ter.

The afterword added to the new edition deals with the text’s polemical side. Simon draws to­gether the main points of criticism, some of it bitter, leveled by Ibn Ezra against the majority of learned scholars in Israel and Christian Europe, and to a lesser extent also those in Spain, for their tendency to over-specialization and for their lack of systematic education in the sciences.

Contemporary readers are invited to imagine the criticism, tongue-lashing and overt disdain that would have been elicit­ed from Ibn Ezra had he foreseen current trends in the world of Torah and yeshiva study.

Finally, an interview with Michael Wex, author of “Born to Kvetch.” “Just Say Nu,” and this fall “How to Be a Mentsh (and Not a Shmuck ) (Harper, 224 pages, $24 ). Wex discusses how Yiddish culture valued character, being a mentch, and being.ehrliche.  They use to say frumkeit is for the galah, a yid is ehrliche. And a litvish lamdan was called a “tzelemer kop.” Wax points out the role of Pirkei Avot, that the average Jew was not learned and to avoid khnoykishkay.

Questions & Answers: A conversation with Michael Wex

Judaism is all about refinement of character and becoming a better person; if performing ritual or ceremonial com­mandments or studying all day is not mak­ing you a better person, then there’s some­thing wrong with the way you’re doing it. And we’ve got a couple of thousand years of popular ethical manuals, starting with Pirkei Avot, to help show average people the right way to do things.

Post-Holocaust we’ve been given a rosy picture of pre-Hitler life in Europe, in which every Jew was a talmid haham [learned person]. That just wasn’t the case. People stammered out the prayers, but didn’t necessarily know that they meant. Much of the joke with Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye is that he’s always mistranslating biblical verses and rabbinic sayings, and people still argue about whether or not he — Tevye, I mean — was supposed to be doing so on purpose. What you got as a sort of counterbalance to the traditional exaltation of scholarship, was this idea that character is as important as anything else. This is re­ally just an idea that was re-expressed, that regained prominence, in early Hasidism. I talk a little about earlier instances of it, and the way people looked at things. In part it’s the idea about having the basic Jewish common sense to know when something of anything is too much. You look at some­thing like the story in the Talmud about the destruction of Jerusalem, about Kamtso and Bar Kamtso. Ultimately it turned on a piece of khnoykishkayt [hypocritical sanc­timoniousness], about being punctilious about the wrong things at the wrong time.

Lord Jonathan Sacks on the concept of Witness-Updated

Lord Jonathan Sacks has a style that addresses his Anglican listeners and at the same time addresses his Jewish audience.

Jews generally speak of Torah, avodah, gemilat hasadim; or God, Revelation and olam haba;  or God, Torah, and Israel; and now creation-revelation-redemption. All sets point back to Torah.

Christians use the words witness, mission, covenant, proclamation- all about good news to be brought to the world.   “witness.” in their reading of Israel’s covenant history: means the proclamation and exchange of views held with conviction.

Jonathan Sacks has discussed “witness” as a theological concept in almost all of his books.

In his 1992 Crisis and Covenant, he writes,  “An early rabbinic commentary put the point audaciously: ‘ “You are My witnesses, says the Lord, and I am God” (Isaiah 43:12)” (28) In this work he uses the word the way Emil Fackenhim does, we as witnesses to the destruction of our people in the holocaust and now we give witness by the survival of the Jewish people. Our news to the world is the survival of the Jewish people.

In 1997, he writes “Somehow the Jewish people would be the people in whose daily lives the will of G-d, and in whose collective history the presence of G-d would be particularly evident.  You could look at Jews and see G-d.  In that magnificent phrase in Isaiah: “you are my witnesses, Isaiah 43:10, says G-d and so it happened.” Jews are witnesses to God’s existence.”  This is a Jewish version of the Christian doctrine of the witness; Jews point to God and the original revelation to humanity.

But Jews usually assume the verse talks to Jews about their own redemption   As examples, Rashi explains the witness as Abraham and Jacob testifying to their promise for Israel’s redemption and Radak explains that the prophet testifies that just as Sanherib was destroyed so too all of Israel’s enemies will vanish and Israel will be redeemed. Or the use of it for the haftarah of Bereshit is that just as God created the world he is true to his promise to redeem Israel.

A decade later in his Dignity of Difference, Sacks writes “ But from here on he will focus on one family, and eventually one people, to be his witnesses and bearers of his covenant.”(52) The argument is that undifferentiated pluralism leads to totalitarianism, but God chose a single people, the Jews, to teach the world that each people is unique and that there is a pluralism of diversity of different peoples. But the locution is more Christian, Jews are to witness and bear the covenant of Gods’ designs.

None of the Jewish commentators ad loc interpret it in that direction

In his Heal a Fractured World, he writes that we witness to Godnot by seeking to convert those of another faith, but simply by reaching out to embrace the image of God in another human being, by seeing the image of God in another human being (47) We have Levinas adapted as an answer to the Christians who seek to convert those of another faith.

Finally, in his recent siddurThe Jewish people … have … been singled out for the most exalted mission ever entrusted to mankind: to be witnesses, in ourselves, to something beyond ourselves: to be God’s “signal of transcendence” in a world in which his presence is often hidden (Siddur p. xxiv).

Jews have Mission to mankind for the presence of God. Hmm… I did a quick online check of the 19 letters to see if Hirsch used it that way, and from my quick check of 19 Letters- Rabbi Hirsch limits witness- Edut to contexts of duty and service of mankind toward God. God is know through the natural order, duty is the Jewish message. I need to check other works of Hirsch and Hertz. But here in Sack’s prayer book the very knowledge of God is the Jewish mission. Is this more Anglican or Jewish?


I checked the commentary of Dr Mendel Hirsch on the Haftarot (called by most people as the commentary of the father) on the relevant verses in Isaiah. Dr. Hirsch comments that only man has will to act on a higher calling of righteousness. Only through zedek will people realize the nature of reality consisting of freedom from  material slavery in order to live in happiness and freedom. We are a light to the nations when there will be righteousness in the governments. The concept of witness is that the proof of every historical fact rests , on people who were there, on tradition The Jewish people have witnessesed the rise and fall of the nations around them. You were all at the going out from Egypt, which proves a world of providential care. You are witness to your revelation becuase you saw God’s hand in history.

Hmm..Hirsch does not seem like Sacks. I will check the essays if I get a chance.

The Angel of History: Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Scholem

Good review in Notre Dame Philosophic Review. It shows how we currently read these thinkers and the importance of Rosenzweig for that generation. The book focuses on how they all reject the linear approach to progress-redemption.
It is interesting to note how Benjamin calls all human acts for redemption as “theurgy” I always wondered where Moshe Idel got the phrase since his was not a big Iamblichus reader. And important for the literature of Scholem, Idel and onto Halbertal, Benjamin calls the chain of interpretation “a weak messianic force.”
Here are selections from the review.
Stéphane Mosès, The Angel of History: Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Scholem, Barbara Harshav (tr.), Stanford UP, 2009, Reviewed by Eric Jacobson, Roehampton University

Stéphane Mosès’s The Angel of History is a classic in modern Jewish philosophy

The Angel of History is one of the few studies in twentieth century Jewish thought and philosophy to draw out a common tradition and render the comparative notions of temporality and causation accessible. This comparison is achieved by coalescing all three thinkers around a bifurcated notion of history: one that makes its appearance in worldly affairs, guided by the hand of the conquerors, and another based on an indelible thread that links this generation to a history to come. All three partook of this view to varying degrees and its final resolution in a Messianic redemption.

Since the first publication of this pioneering study in 1992, it is surprising to note how much has changed in the scholarship on Franz Rosenzweig, Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem. For one, it is no longer common to place Benjamin under the lens of Marxism. Equally, Rosenzweig is more commonly viewed in the light of Levinas , Expressionism and Heidegger today than in the shadow of Martin Buber. But perhaps even more, our picture of Scholem has considerably changed with the ongoing scholarship of the Kabbalah.

An exchange of letters from 1921 establishes the influence of The Star of Redemption on Benjamin and Scholem. There is evidence to suggest that Benjamin shapes his early Messianism in relation to The Star. Scholem’s debt to Rosenzweig is evident in many places, not least in a 1930 lecture delivered in Rosenzweig’s memory.

A common approach to history, which Mosès understands as a revolt against the idea of progress, a history leading to greater forms of reason that finds an epiphany in Hegel. As he remarks: “Past suffering is not abolished even by a triumphant future, which claims to give them meaning, and more than thwarted hopes are refuted by the failures that seem to sanction them” (11).

Mosès speaks of a model in Benjamin’s thought which is anti-sequential, exemplified by the conclusions to the Origins of German Tragic Drama that “a work of art can never be deduced from those that precede it”. There is no history that follows unwaveringly from one advancing moment to the next, and no experience that is reducible to mere sequence, generalization, even totalization. Rather than a progression, history lies below layers of stratification (85). Redemption at any moment meant for Benjamin the search for a historical site between the incessant return of the unremarkable and an infinitely new that anticipates a complete and final end. Redemption was on no absolute course, symbolized by the last line of his On the Concept of History, which understands the immediacy of redemption as the door through which the Messiah may enter at any time.

In the early years, he was indeed attracted to the systematic nature of The Star of Redemption, yet he would ultimately follow a course that was intrinsically methodical. He sought to avoid any theurgical impulse, favoring notions such as the “unintentional” of human acts which advances redemption without active causation. In the later years, the tightrope is spanned across the interpretation of history, where each generation participates in a “weak messianic force” through the act of interpretation
Full Review Here

Can Kabbalah be translated into a modern idiom?

I found an interesting article written for  the BBC from a transpersonal psychologist in England The essence of Jewish meditation By Professor Les Lancaster The very nice and sensitive essay shows the problems in trying to translate Kabbalah on meditation in modern terms.

It lets me ask about the process of presenting Jewish kavvanot to a modern audience.

The basic worldview for the kabbalist is the sefirotic chart, arranged as concentric circles, a Jacob’s ladder or chain of being, expressed with medieval philosophic language.  A kabbalist’s view of God and the world was arranged in nestled chains, God emanates into the world. This cosmology of chains is not just a points on a cord, but vast realms, lights, and colors, a realm to transverse, a way of marking off distance. This cosmology was accepted as based on the Jewish tradition, the experiential truth of the method, and as part of accepting the theology of the Kabbalah.  This worldview, for them, was as corrigible as a map. Meaning that unlike a dream where no incorrect dream, Kabbalah is a vision correctable based on the writings and visions of others. For the kabbalists the kabbalistic worldview is objective, subject to correct and incorrect turns, and offers a reproducible mental world. One chooses one path, one worldview, and follows it. The traditional meditator does not credit the human mind or imagination with these depths, rather he starts with a map obtained through the study of Kabbalah.

But I am trying to pin down how we get from my description of the past to the following:

What is Jewish meditation?

It involves shifting the centre of gravity of the mind away from the sense of ‘I’ which normally dominates our goals. Like all meditative practices, Jewish mystical techniques are directed towards enhancing this second form of thinking. At the same time, these practices cultivate an awareness of the divine presence in all things.
The objective of meditation is to engage with these deeper currents.

One of the major texts of Kabbalah, the 12th-century Bahir, writes that the biblical prophet Habakkuk ‘understood God’s thought.’ It tells us:
“Just as human thought has no end, for even a mere mortal can think and descend to the end of the world, so too the ear also has no end and is not satiated.”
Jewish mystical practices enable us to use thought to ‘descend to the end of the world’, that is, to plumb the depths where mind and physical reality are no longer separate.

The goals of Jewish meditation
-heighten one’s understanding of the Torah
-develop an understanding of ritual and other religious observances
-give direction to prayer
-increase one’s awareness of others’ needs

One of the oldest texts that describes Jewish meditation practices is the Sefer Yetsirah. Consider the following extract:
“Ten dimensions of nothingness. Their measure is ten to which there is no end.
A depth of beginning, a depth of end; a depth of good, a depth of evil; a depth of above, a depth of below; a depth of east, a depth of west; a depth of north, a depth of south.
The unified Master – God faithful King – rules over all of them, from His holy dwelling place, until eternity of eternities.”
The meditation based on this passage entails consciously building up a deep sense of your place in relation to the dimensions.

The meditation continues with the first of the six directions of space. What is immediately above you? Air… the ceiling… other rooms… the roof… birds… sky… vastness of space… the infinite that cannot be formed in the mind…
It is as if you generate a beam of light from within that is gradually extended further and further whilst, at the same time, maintaining your awareness of the centre, the heart as the source of light… And then continue into the remaining directions. You may glimpse your inner core suspended at the heart of a web of infinite interconnections.

We have the idea of limitless expanse, which was originally sefirot, treated as the depths of the mind. I understand the need for the psychology. Yet what happens to the Neoplatonic depth? Identifying mind and physical reality has a bit of a countercultural sound to it. Gone is the need to go through an ascent to reach God either by chambers, cosmos, worlds, souls. The author, similar to the popular pamphlets issued by the school of the Magid of Mezerich pushed away the meditation of the Kabblah. Early Hasidism thought that though emotional enthusiasm one could ascend through all the worlds, sefirot, and chambers. Here entering the depth of one’s mind has the same effect.

I get confused by the goals. Does it help by giving one esoteric knowledge? Does it mean viewing one’s mitzvot and prayer as taking place in the kabbalistic cosmology?  And why claim it will make one more sensitive to the needs of others. At least, Buddhists will distinguish between jhana (knowledge) and metta (love-kindness). Here it seems everything is blurred.

In his use of Sefer Yetzirah, we have the conversion of a scientific-cosmological text into a meditation on space. Deep of divinity becomes depth of the soul.In this modern version, one looks into the inner core of the self, the heart, and the limits of the ordinary mind. One is not told about the traditional phrases “fixed order of lights” “the infinity of God” or the need to identify with the Divine will.”

I find much of our presentations of Kabbalah on the popular level to be modern psychology. I do think we need to use modern psychology and not medieval psychology, but what are the boundaries for a successful translation? Many of the popular Orthodox presentations are straight pop-psych and new age. What is the limit in modernizing the medieval?

Hat tip: Solitude– it cites the full version. For the original BBC- here