Category Archives: theology

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.)

Best of 2009 – theology

Here are selections from list from a blog of a Protestant theology instructor. I like lists of good books.  I do not know if all the links carried over to this page.
Best theology books of 2009 from Faith and Theology by Ben Myers

Anyone have any recommendations in Jewish thought?

Socrates and the Fat Rabbis – part I

I just received my desk copy of Daniel Boyarin’s new book Socrates and the Fat Rabbis (University of Chicago), I have not read it yet. The book is quite dense and intricate at points so I just did a short first reading, skimming it at points and will read it in detail this week.

The major fact used by the book is that the aggadah in the Bavli was influenced by Roman Satire especially Lucian  with his Menippean satire.

1] I wonder about the upcoming reception of the book. There has been a strong visceral reaction against situating the Talmud within Roman satire. A.A. Halevi, Sha’arei ha-Aggadah (1963) gave parallels between aggadah and Roman satires, but almost no one really picked it up. Already the Soncino Talmud had footnotes to the sources of sugyot in Roman satire, but who quotes those footnotes? In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, many majored in classics and readily saw the parallels.  Is the reluctance because those who study Talmud, even in liberal seminaries, have a theological need to make the Talmud unique?

2] Boyarin discusses those who distance themselves from the exaggerated aggadah by distinguishing between halakhah and aggadah, and he discusses those who want to show the relationship of the two realms of halkhah and aggadah. He mentions the folklorists who remove the stories from their halakhic realm altogether.But he concludes that there are two types of aggadah, the gentle rational aggadah of the Halakhic realm and the wild aggadah. Boyarin references the distinction to Krokhmal. (I heard  similar distinction from Rav Soloveitchik – that we should use the aggadah of the halakhic realm and not any and all texts of aggadah)

3] But Boyarin’s point is that the Talmudic debates are really monovocal, unlike the dialogues of the Platonic dialogues. (Similar ideas were already stated by Louis Jacobs in his Talmudic Argument.)  Boyarin uses Bakhtin’s theories of dialogue and heteroglossia to claim that the halakhah does not consist of debates but is a single voice. But the halakhah together with the agadah, the narratives, and roman satire Aggadah create a rich sense of dialogue in the Talmud in which the aggadah undercuts and reverses the halakhah yet the halakhah retains its supremacy. (I had similar ideas back in 1988 using Bakhtiin and have notes to myself in a jot pad – my focus was distinguishing between the monovocal sugya compared to heteroglossia created by the commentaries- I must find the jot pad in the basement.).

4] Since anyone who has read classics has seen this parallel to Roman materials – what were the first reactions? R. Shmuel David Luzzato wrote that the Talmud is a conversation and that we can reject parts. Krokhmal said “dor dor vedorshav” this was the way the Jewish idea was expressed in that era. They were ahistoric and had roman satire- now we are rational and study history. For Geiger and most critics of the Talmud, it is another reason to reject the entire Talmudic enterprise. Maharetz Hayetz  offers apologetic that they are didactic and do not conflict our modern sense; there is no historic difference from today. Many of them were simply to awaken and arouse the students.RSH Hirsch said aggadot have no tradition and we have to use reason to pick out the real ones. Even Loius Ginzberg claimed to have an intuitive sense of which aggadot are truly rabbinic.

Boyarin claims these ribald carnival aggadot are essential parts for understanding the Talmudic literary structure. This puts him in the same camp as the Maharal, Vilna Gaon and Rav Nahman of Breslov.

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.

Disappointed Belief – more to ponder on post-evangelical and its Jewish parallels.

To help clarify those who thought that the prior post on post-evangelical-here had something to do with post-modern, or Post- Toasties. Let us recap,  the last 30 years witnessed a major upturn in conservative religion, many of the children are moving on to new positions. But they do so as ex-Evangelicals who are no longer believers or observant, they do not become liberals or mainline.

Here we have a recent panel on the topic. Some of the interesting points: They did not portray their religious years as dark or anti-intellectual, but they found that the plausibility structure had broken. I wish the interviewer had spent more time asking specifics on what was no longer tenable. From the full article, one gets a sense that liberal political views rendered one outside the community, as does commitment to being an intellectual and not just educated.

I find it fascinating that their own narratives start with why their parents became Evangelical in the first place. Also that they are left with a moral sense for literature and ideas.  And as the article itself points out they are left disappointed. What will fill that disappointment for them? Their families? SO how does this play out for Judaism?

New York Literati on Growing Up Evangelical by Kiera Feldman

Malcolm Gladwell and James Wood of The New Yorker and Christine Smallwood of The Nation…discussed how their intellectual lives were shaped by their religious backgrounds. Notably, evangelicalism was not portrayed as something one must inevitably cast-off to live a life of the mind; there were no narratives of recovery, of journeys from the darkness of ignorant faith to the light of reason. To varying degrees, all three panelists traced their thinking to their evangelical upbringings—yet not a one of them today is among the believers.
Gladwell described his upbringing in Canada as liberal evangelical (though his parents, brother, and sister-in-law have since become Mennonites). He seemed to understand his religious self in patrilineal terms, focusing on the story of his father’s faith in lieu of his own. We learned that his father, has spent a lifetime trying to reconcile faith and reason. Ultimately, Gladwell didn’t find these efforts “convincing.” Yet he inherited his father’s project. I have remained within the evangelical tradition,”
Wood called for a “disappointed belief,” but stopped short of explaining what, exactly, that might entail.
All three cited its influence on their modes of reading today. Wood described himself as “marked” by the idea of “high stakes” in literature.
What to put in the hole left by the loss of belief? Alas, nothing, said Gladwell. “My life is less full and real as a result,” he said.

Modern Orthodoxy- Modern meant Moral Self-transformation

Ever wonder about the nebulousness of the term Modern Orthodox? Or why no one seems to be able to move the term or the ideology forward? There is a new book by Webb Keane called Christian Moderns, featured at the Immanent Frame, that may offer some tools for thought. (I ask in advance for people not to leave in the comments the usual homiletical pabulum defining Modern Orthodoxy fit only for day school mission statements.)

Webb does not define modern in a temporal sense, rather modernity is a moral issue of self transformation. One wants to raise oneself to a new stage of autonomy, freedom, and liberation from false beliefs.  Think of modernity as a form of ethical training to think a new way. One labeled those who accept different positions as lacking rationality. Modernity, as a Protestant virtue, also implies the lack of materiality, physicality, and externalization. But if one is not striving for self-transformation then one cannot call oneself modern.

This moralization of history—a largely tacit set of expectations about what a modern, progressive person, subject, and citizen, should be…I do not try to define modernity as an objective aspect of a period of history, but rather as a feature of people’s historical consciousness. Enlightenment thought about morality, autonomy, and freedom, which became central to later secular institutions and habits.

They are asking things like: Are we there yet? How do we get there? What will it cost us? How can we get out of it? Why are others not as modern as we are? Are they going to drag us back?

Modernity is a story of human liberation from a host of false beliefs and fetishisms that undermine freedom. Conversely, those people who seem to persist in displacing their own agency onto such rules, traditions, or fetishes (including sacred texts) are out of step with the times. They are morally and politically troubling anachronisms, pre-moderns or anti-moderns.

A great deal of contemporary academic and political work tends to presuppose the moral narrative of modernity. Arguments about agency, rationality, or freedom, for instance, are often tacitly informed by the assumption that self-transformation is not only a central aspect of historical progress, but also a good that exceeds local systems of value.

Those people who reject the claims of modern agency—those non-moderns who defer to (excessively material) gods, scriptures, or traditions, for example—are subject to accusations of “fetishism.” To accuse people of fetishism is to indict them for misunderstanding their own capacities.

Now to return to the Jewish community, those authors who used the term in the 1950’s and 1960’s specifically showed their modernity by their use of Kantian philosophy and existentialism. These philosophic movements stressed autonomy, freedom, and  responsibility. This helps explain their avoidance of the myriad of other viable theological partners that did not emphasize the modernist ethos. They wanted to remove the physicality of the mizvot and say that what counts if the fulfillment in the heart.

But what about now? What happens when people are not striving for self-transformation to autonomy anymore? This is where Webb may be the most handy. If one is Modern Orthodox and does not have a moral issue of transformation then one has no way to describe oneself.

One approach is to define oneself in the negative by saying that one is not one of those “non-modern” groups. But that may not be empirical about the negated group or even about one’s own group.  The Conservative movement has a similar problem In their period of triumphalism they were embracing the modern world and could say that Orthodoxy was not embracing the modern world. Now, they simple say they are the only ones making a hybrid of modernity and tradition.

A second approach is to define oneself as rational, but that falters because rationality is not defined, as Steve Nadler pointed out on Angel. And is hard to define in the age after modernity, unless one is using Habermas, Taylor et al. More importantly, rationality is no longer seen as a moral issue of transformation.  If being modern is a simply quality that one has naturally  then one is not modern. According to Webb, one would need to work to be modern, at least as much as one works to keep up with computer/web literacy.

A different point is that many of those who want to call themselves modern Orthodox stress how they are open, sensitive, or dealing with the needs of the people. This is a definition, but leaves the problem of gaining any traction in rhetoric or ideology. Open orthodoxy has a self-definition is that open and sensitive but that has nothing to do with modern. To be modern is to speak of autonomy and freedom. They are not looking to start accusing people of fetishism.

The new open Orthodoxies are not modern but have developed a new ethos. But they have not found a means of articulation.

For example, Rick Warren offers the language of the purpose driven life; the virtue is to build a meaningful life. Here is not medieval, but now lives in the post-secular post-modern world and functions with a new ethical scale of self-transformation based on meaning in a suburban life.  Open modern Orthodox, in contrast, keep calling themselves modern as if that is to have a resonance. And their rhetoric is off, since they keep citing as their exemplars 1960’s Orthodox about autonomy, when they are striving for inclusivism (feminism, GLBT rights, acknowledgment of handicaps and psychological difficulties).

I found that similar comments to mine about Rick Warren were made in a later post to Webb, “After Purification” by Philip Gorski. Engaged Yeshivish and Kiruv has much in common with Pentacostalism and are better are playing the inclusivism card.

But this process of purification is necessarily incomplete. Humans, after all, are social and physical creatures. Thus,  processes of purification inevitably give rise to new forms of hybridity—in this case, to new texts, rituals, incantations and so on, either directly, in the form of routinized religious practices or, indirectly, in the form of heterodox religious movements, such as Pentecostalism. Gorski notes that much of the critique of the modern position has been from those returning to the classical tradition.

For MacIntyre, Hauerwas, Elshtain, Milbank and Taylor critique modern liberal secularism not from without, but from within, by drawing variously on Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas.

Does this mean that prophetic critique is the only possible form that a critique of secularism can take? That one must be a theist to be a critic in our secular age?  By no means.  Political philosophers such as…Michael Sandel, amongst others, have elaborated a powerful neo-republican critique of modern liberalism Even Jürgen Habermas, that icon of Euro-American enlightenment, has recently urged his partisans to recognize the untapped “semantic potentials” and “moral resources” still contained within religious languages and communities

Do those who formulate other position offer any alternate to modernity? Centrist Orthodoxy offers a relinquishment of autonomy and the promise of living an idealized halakhic existence Mekhon Hartman offer the modernist vision of autonomy and freedom. What do those who want something else offer? In the 1950’s, there were many rhetorical devices that made people in the Levitttowns think they were into freedom,autonomy, and rationality. But there seems to be a gnawing sense that the idealized halakhah does not not correspond to otherwise observant suburban family life.

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.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe on Transcendental Meditation

Back in July 1979,  a rabbi sitting outside on a porch in the Catskils, with a friend or older bachur, he was listening to the Fabrengen. I was called over to listen to it because the Rebbe was speaking about Transcendental Meditation, he assumed that I would be interested.  I was not particularly enthralled since all I heard was “avodah zarah,”  “idols, incense and gurus” “worship of the sun and moon,” “it is OK for doctors to teach.” At the time, I felt that it did not reach the issues and was too removed, too Biblical, and was not really showing understanding.  Beyond that he treated TM as a pathology to be dealt with by physicians. He did not want any connection of meditation to Kabbalah.  Yet, for some reason I still remember the event, the cloudy evening, and my reaction, especially my disappointing mulling it over for some time that evening.

Yesterday, someone sent me a question on Yoga and Judaism, and after an initial email the response reminded me of the Rebbe’s sicha.

So here an audio- video of the original.

The Rebbe compares TM to the avodah zarah of the sun and the moon. The Rebbe does not address other religions but deals with the issue as part of the problem of cults. He wants the creation of something new called “Jewish meditation” to wean people away from TM. It should be seen as a medical problem and should only be taught by someone who  knows the laws of avodah zarah. It is interesting that the Rebbe is careful not to call all of it “ruah tumah” or “klipot nogah.” Rather, the problem is the incense, bowing, and the false gods or treating the guru as a deity. The patriarch Abraham is portrayed as engaged in solitude, yet the Rebbe does not want this new invention of Jewish meditation connected to Kabbalah, it should be done clinically by physicians.

Here are selections from the translation.

There in an issue, which is connected with the physical and psychological health of many Jews, that demands attention. It is quite possible that these words will have no effect. Nevertheless, the health of a Jew is such an important matter, that efforts should be made even when there is not a sure chance of success.

This issue is the idea of meditation. Meditation has its roots in the very beginning of the Jewish heritage. The Torah commentaries explain that Avraham and the other patriarchs chose to be shepherds so that they could spend their time in solitude.

The sun, the moon, and the stars are necessary for life of earth. They bring about manifold goodness. However, they also have been worshipped as false gods. One might ask (as the Talmud asks): “Since they have been worshipped as false gods, shouldn’t they be destroyed? However, should G-d destroy the world because of the foolishness of the idol-worshipers?” The same concept applies in regard to meditation. Though essentially good, meditation can also be destructive. There are those who have connected meditation to actually bowing down to an idol or a man and worshipping it or him, bringing incense before them etc.

The cults have spread throughout the U.S. and throughout Israel as well.

They have called it by a refined name “transcendental meditation” i.e. something above limits, above our bounded intellects. However, they have also incorporated into the procedures the bringing of incense and other practices that are clearly “Avodah Zorah,” the worship of false gods.

Since we are living within the darkness of Golus, many Jewish youth have fallen into this snare. Before they became involved with this cult, they were troubled and disturbed. The cult was able to relate to them and bring them peace of mind. However, their meditation is connected with Avodah Zorah, burning incense and bowing to a Guru, etc. Since the aspects of idol worship are not publicized, there are those who have not raised their voices in protest. They don’t know if such a protest would be successful and since no one has asked them, why should they enter a questionable situation.

Two conditions must be taken into consideration: 1) meditation should only be used by those who need it. A healthy person doesn’t need meditation. On the contrary, if he begins to meditate he will hurt his psychological health. The only meditation that all should carry out is one which is part of one’s service to G-d, for the Shulchan Aruch states that before each prayer one must meditate on “the greatness of G-d and the humble state of man.” However, that meditation is done with a fixed time and a fixed intent. Its goal is not to calm one’s nerves. 2) The meditation must be based on a Kosher idea or a Torah concept e.g. Shema Yisroel, the meanings of the prayers. Thus, this will bring one to an awareness of the greatness of G-d and the humble nature of man.

Also, since as in all treatments, the healer gains a certain amount of control over his patient, we must take care that the professional who is leading the meditation have a clear and well defined knowledge of what is permitted according to the Shulchan Aruch, what leads to Avodah Zorah, etc.

Even in Yerushalayim, the holy city, such a center has been established. I, myself, received a brochure from such an institution. It was professionally produced, containing pictures and a description of how in Yerushalayim, a center for meditation has been set up. They purchase American addresses, and send them this brochure. It makes a powerful impression and arouses curiosity. Thus, we can see how serious the situation is.

In view of this situation, psychologists, psychoanalysts, etc. have a holy duty to advance their knowledge of meditation, and work to develop a Kosher program. Furthermore, since we live in a country in which publicity plays a large role, efforts must be made to publicize the treatment in the broadest means possible.

Furthermore, this treatment should not be connected with any side issues. There are those who maintain that meditation must be connected with the secrets of Torah. Meditation on the secrets of Torah is very important, particularly in the present age when the Wellsprings of Chassidus must be spread outwards. However, the subject at hand is different. There are Jews who are involved in “Avodah Zorah,” worship of false gods, who must be saved. This is the first priority. If one begins by teaching the secrets of Torah, it is extremely likely that the majority of them will not respond. Even the few who might show an interest should be separated from “Avodah Zorah” first.

We cannot sit and wait practically until someone asks to be helped. We have to approach those who are afflicted and speak their language, without mixing in any other Mitzvos. Our object should be merely the Mitzvah of healing their troubled psyches.

Each one of us knows such a doctor. We can interest a doctor in such activities, and he will find a way to attract those who have fallen into these snares.

In all the other exiles, the redemption did not involve the entire Jewish people. However, the Messianic redemption will reach every Jew. The prophet Isaiah (27:12) declares: “You will be collected one by one” from even the furthest extremes of Golus. These efforts to draw Jews away from the Golus of “Avodah Zorah” will help hasten the fulfillment of the prophecy. The Talmud states that all the appointed times for Moshiach’s coming have passed, and everything depends on Teshuvah. When the Jewish people do Teshuvah, they will immediately be redeemed.

In 1979, The Rebbe had a yehidus with a couple from Australia, where he said the same thing.

Already in the prior year in 1978, the Rebbe turned to a doctor to help him with this request to develop meditation without idolatry. It gets reprinted around the web as if the Rebbe was answering a question from the doctor rather, in fact, the Rebbe was seeking out the doctor. Notice the Rebbe’s citation of  the Federal Court case.and his assumption that much of this is already part of medical practice. I did include parts that are similar to the Sicha- full version here, and here. We can see the Rebbe’s thought in formation

By the Grace of G-d Teveth, 5738
In as much as these movements involve certain rites and rituals, they have been rightly regarded by Rabbinic authorities as cults bordering on, and in some respects actual, Avodah Zarah (idolatry). Accordingly Rabbinic authorities everywhere, and particularly in Eretz Yisroel, ruled that these cults come under all the strictures associated with Avodah Zarah, so that also their appurtenances come under strict prohibition.

Moreover, the United States Federal Court also ruled recently that such movements, by virtue of embracing such rites and rituals, must be classifies as cultic and religious movements. (Of. Malnak V. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, U.S.D.C. of N.J. 76-341, esp. pp. 36-50, 78)On the other hand, certain aspects of the said movements, which are entirely irrelevant to religious worship or practices, have a therapeutic value, particularly in the area of relieving mental stress.

It follows that if these therapeutic methods – insofar as they are utterly devoid of any ritual implications – would be adopted by doctors specializing in the field of mental illness, it would have two-pronged salutary effect: Firstly, in the view of the fact that these methods are therapeutically effective, while there are, regretfully, many who could benefit from such treatment, this is a matter of healing of the highest order, since it has to do with mental illness. It would, therefore, be very wrong to deny such treatment to those who need it, when it could be given by a practicing doctor.

Secondly, and this too is not less important, since there are many Jewish sufferers who continue to avail themselves of these methods though the said cults despite the Rabbinic prohibition, it can be assumed with certainty that many of them, if not all, who are drawn to these cults by the promise of mental relief, would prefer to receive the same treatment from the medical profession – if they had a choice of getting it the kosher way. It would thus be possible to save many Jews from getting involved with the said cults.

It is also known, though not widely, that there are individual doctors who practice the same or similar methods at T.M. and the like. However, it seems that these methods occupy a secondary or subordinate role in their procedures. More importantly, there is almost a complete lack of publicity regarding the application of these methods by doctors, and since the main practice of these doctors is linked with the conventional neurological and psychiatric approach, it is generally assumed that whatever success they achieve is not connected with results obtained from methods relating to T.M. and the like; results which the cults acclaim with such fanfare.

In light of the above, it is suggested and strongly urged that:

Appropriate action be undertaken to enlist the cooperation of a group of doctors specializing in neurology and psychiatry who would research the said methods with a view to perfecting them and adopting them in their practice on a wider scale.

All due publicity be given about the availability of such methods from practicing doctors.

This should be done most expeditiously, without waiting for this vital information to be disseminated through medical journals, where research and findings usually take a long time before they come to the attention of practicing physicians. This would all the sooner counteract the untold harm done to so many Jews who are attracted daily to the said cults, as mentioned in the opening paragraph.

In conclusion: This memo is intended for all Rabbis, doctors, and layman who are in a position to advance the cause espoused herein, the importance of which needs no further elaboration.

Is there a Post-Orthodox Judaism that Corresponds to Post Evangelical?

Many of those who were raised as Evangelical in the recent Great Awakening of Religion are not returning to the Evangelical Faith of their parents. Statistics vary from 25%-80%. The Great return to religion is winding down.  Those raised with an intense Evangelical faith don’t naturally blend back into  mainline liberal Churches. They are specifically ex-evangelicals who have adapted liberal position.

So too in American Judaism, despite the triumphalism of orthodoxy Judiasm in the last quarter century and phony online statistics – Orthodoxy is witnessing similar phenomena.  We also have a large number of people who are ex-Orthodox, not believing in what they were taught, and adopting liberal positions but that does not mean they are comfortable with liberal Judiasm. Read the following and ask yourself: how many of them also apply to someone distancing him/herself from his/her Orthodox upbringing? How many are being argued on the Jewish blogs?

Post-evangelicalism is a term used to describe former adherents of Evangelicalism. includes a variety of people who have distanced themselves from mainstream evangelical Christianity for theological, political, or cultural reasons. Most who describe themselves as post-evangelical are still adherents of the Christian faith in some form.

Post-evangelical critiques of the evangelical church concern include but are not limited to:

  • Individualism and lack of theological depth
  • Anti-intellectualism
  • Narrow or excessively partisan political views
  • Lack of engagement in art, media, and society
  • Materialism and consumerism
  • Insensitivity toward homosexuals

Christianity Today explains that post-evangelicals have become willingly disassociated with the mainstream evangelical belief system over difficulties with any combination of at least the following issues:

1. Questions over Biblical innerrancy. Questions may relate to the Biblical record of history, contradictions between scientific and scriptural explanations of the nature of the Universe and humanity (e.g., the origin of the Universe, homosexuality) or the discrepancies in descriptions of the personality of God in the different books of the Bible. Shrouding these issues, are are how the cultural understandings and lingustical limitations of the written word have influenced the way Scripture has been recorded and handed down throughout the ages.

2 The moral failure of prominent evangelical leaders. Such failure has cast doubt over the entire evangelical movement.

3  Many post-evangelicals have come of age during times of increasing multi-cultural awareness in Western society. They are presented with the educational lessons of the validity of all cultures and necessity for a pluralistic world-view.

Publications identifying as post-evangelical include the blog Internet Monk

Now that was fun. How many sounded familiar? Any to add in the Jewish case? Do you think they have played themselves out in the same way in the Jewish community?

h/t –Here  is a recent blog post from the blog InternetMonk on the topic.

Update- please see this blog’s continued discussion on post-evangelical here. This one is important for the discussion of post-orthodox, and further discussion here on post-Orthodox, <a
And on the idea of labels and  “post” see here
And here on some of the changes within the evangelicals that may play itself out among Jews.

Update Dec 2012- After three years, the concept of a post-Orthodox moment still seems valid. Here are some later posts on the same topic.
A continuation of this post defining post-Orthodox- here,
A 2011 update on erosion- here,
the history of the term- here.

Copyright © 2009 · All Rights Reserved

Spirituality at B’nai Jeshurun

There is a new study from Synagogue 3000— The New Jewish Spirituality and Prayer: Take BJ, For Instance  Ayala Fader & Mark Kligman S3K Synagogue Studies Institute. This one looks at the success of BJ in NYC. I have picked out the theological sections.  BJ preaches a spirituality of finding God in one’s own life through an emotional religious experience. Their deity is a therapeutic deism with psychological elements- it seems the true fulfillment of Arthur Green’s theology in Seek My Face, Speak My Name: A Contemporary Jewish Theology (1992) or the undated pop version Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow (2002).

Central to BJ is the claim by members and rabbis alike that in order to experience God, individuals must “let go”  of rationalism and the intellect. The goal is to access an emotional part of the self which opens the individual to experience the “energy” of God, something which is found within each person. When it comes to prayer, comprehension of Hebrew (loshn kodesh), Jewish ritual or traditional Jewish music is less important than kavanah (“sincere intention”). By privileg­ing kavanah, the emphasis of prayer shifts from “obligation” (the mitzvah) to what congregants describe as the “freedom” to choose those aspects of Judaism that best speak to each individual’s experience of God.

[The] aim is to have religious practice create opportunities for what they call “spiritual experi­ence,” meaning the experience of God; but God must be re-concep­tualized in order to be relevant in the contemporary world. Marcelo explains: “We have to change the paradigm from the idea of God to the experience of God.” The paradigm for today’s Jews requires what the rabbis describe as a “God of love.” Jews today, suggest the rabbis, need a “reason of love” or they will abandon God. [Their ] “God of love” is not necessarily a supernatural figure. As an entity found inside the self, God is, in effect, human.

To find God, each person must search inside the self. This concept of God echoes humanistic beliefs, but is clearly distinct from secularism. The rabbis elaborate a post- rationalistic God, located in the emotional interior of each individual, not the intellect. The point of the commandments (mitzvot), claim the rabbis, is not to force us to “give up things” but to “open us up and purify us for God.” Jew­ish ritual practice, particularly prayer, is an individual choice one makes in order to experience the divine.

Self-exploration is often expressed in therapeutic language, but with the goal of personal transcen­dence. When there is closeness to, and individual experience of, God, an individual can become more holy in the sense of ascending to a higher level of humanity. As the rabbinic intern said: “It’s not separating the two, God and psychology. We’re not going to pass it over to the therapists…it’s about finding out where God is in your life… It’s about how you can grow holy in this thing… It’s co-opting psychology and lacing it in spiritual terms.”

Now the contextualization in studies on Spirituality and Evangelical Churches. It confirms that much of the Neo-Hasidism of liberal Jews shares much in style with Conservative Evangelicals.

Embodied religious practice comes also through the use in services of practices from a range of minority religions. A number of people talked about the use of “breath” and meditation techniques. Others adopt meta­phors of “healing and wholeness” drawn from therapeutic contexts. This kind of combinative religious practice is a com­mon feature of New Age spirituality (Rothenberg and Vallely, 2008). Individualized picking and choosing from world religions in order to satisfy personal needs is a feature of postmodern religiosity, a “tradition” favored by Jewish baby boomers (Cohen and Eisen, 2000). But at BJ, combinative religious practice is institutionalized, not left to individual personal spiritual journeys; it is part and parcel of the synagogue, modeled publicly by authoritative spiritual leaders, and framed as the revitalization of Juda­ism’s authentic and shared religious heritage.

BJ shares many goals and practices with North Ameri­can megachurches and evangelical seeker churches. These churches focus on Christian spirituality in large settings where members can be part of a growing, successful and innovative ministry (Thumma and Travis, 2007:158). Like so many at BJ also, evangelical seekers, predominant­ly baby boomers, decidedly depart from the denomina­tion of their upbringing, searching out religious fulfill­ment through individual choice and a therapeutic ethos with an anti-institutional bias (Sargeant, 2000:163-4).

However, BJ has a distinctive definition of what indi­vidual fulfillment means. Seeker churches satisfy thera­peutic concerns for self-fulfillment through an evangelical understanding of Christ’s salvation (Sargeant, 2000). At BJ, individuals encounter God through individualized and, often, embodied expression of affect. Concep­tions of God, too, differ of course. Anthropologist Tanya Luhrman’s description of a “new paradigm” church (2004), for example, describes how congregants learn to conceptualize Jesus as a “buddy.” BJ members, by con­trast, find God inside themselves. However, God only enters the emotional, non-rational, vulnerable aspect of the self.

Regardless, what makes BJ seem modern to so many is the way that the traditional liturgy is made to engage modern forms of self-construction, including introspection, self-cultivation, and personal freedom as the path to happiness.

Full Article Here

Does this sound familiar?“Catholicism lite,” against “Taliban Catholicism”

We tend to think that our divisions in the Jewish community are internally generated, rather than reflective of the divisive culture wars of the last 20 years. The article is on the extremes in the community. If you substitute “orthodox-lite” and “Taliban-orthodox” would it change the meaning? And if the trend readers are correct,  much of the ideological driven angst will dissipate with the new generation.

Recently John Allen published a column regarding young Catholics. Here is some of what Allen wrote and some comments from the Commonweal journal blog:

This new generation seems ideally positioned to address the lamentable tendency in American Catholic life to drive a wedge between the church’s pro-life message and its peace-and-justice commitments. More generally, they can help us find the sane middle between two extremes: What George Weigel correctly calls “Catholicism lite,” meaning a form of the faith sold out to secularism; and what I’ve termed “Taliban Catholicism,” meaning an angry expression of Catholicism that knows only how to excoriate and condemn. Both are real dangers, and the next generation seems well-equipped to steer a middle course, embracing a robust sense of Catholic identity without carrying a chip on their shoulder.

“Why would I want to join a bunch of people who seem bummed out about the church?” one asked. “What’s the attraction in that?”

Yet they were equally emphatic that their choice should not be read in terms of left/right dynamics, as if they were choosing a side. In fact, many said their politics don’t really conform to any ideological formation, and in any event they said they resent being boxed into categories they find artificial and restrictive.

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.

David Novak- The Jewish Social Contract- Part I

I will be working through several of David Novak’s volumes. I will return to Fishbane afterwards.

David Novak- The Jewish Social Contract, Princeton UP 2005

The book asks the good question:
“How can a traditional Jew actively and intelligently participate in my democratic polities?”

I will divide his position into units. For the full answer to his good question, wait until the next post on Novak.

1] To provide a Jewish social theory he will use “Theological retrieval, philosophic imagination, and political prudence.” Theological retrieval “searches the classical Jewish literary sources for guidance, and in which historical description is always part of the essential normative thrust.” Anytime Jews need to act beyond the four cubits of halakhah “philosophical imagination must be employed since here speech and action need to be justified to more universal criteria.” We need to find enough democracy in the Jewish tradition and not just a form of superficial apologetics for some current ethnic agenda.”

2] Novak’s imagination envisions that the definition of human nature, human rights, and human society are not natural but God given. We enter social contract not as isolated but from community. We accept the Biblical covenants – the Noahite covenant and the Sinai covnant – both are unconditional and interminable.

3] Novak uses “the law of the kingdom is law” “dina demalkhuta dina” to say we need to crate a civil society, as a social contract.

The very creation of a secular realm was a chance for many cultures to participate. (In this he seems to use Charles Taylor, who is only briefly cited later) Religious liberty was not for tolerance and to keep it out of the public sphere, but to allow us to have our individual covenants. (He explains the establishment cause based on Hutchenson not Jefferson, and freedom of religion as a Baptist not as Locke and Hobbes)We accept civil society and civil society in order to respect our covenantal community.
Novak is against Rawls, we do not approach things based on fairness and rationality.
(He blames the naked public sphere entirely on the Spinoza tradition, rather than the private religion of Jonathan Edwards and the Protestant America.). Novak claims that civil society is made up of many religious groups and the founding fathers of America planned it that way. (not empirically or historically true for the US). Civil religion is from Rousseau and is against traditional faiths and their authority, Novak cites Richard Neuhaus as his source.

He thinks that religious people can argue better in a democracy for cultural autonomy than liberals.
He thinks that religious people will show more respect for other faiths than liberals since every religion knows it is in its best interest to not abuse its self-interested or totalizing demands.

4] Novak does not think he is creating a synthesis of social theory and Torah, there is no confrontation. Social theory is Torah with philosophic imagination.
Jews were multicultural in antiquity since they had to get along with Assyrians and others.
And from the Bible to today Jews are multicultural. Even Haredim choose to be a minority in a multicultural Israel because they know that if they claim hegemony over the secular it will destroy the social contact of Israel !!!

5] All of humanity is in the “Image of God”– defined as “a relational capacity for what pertains between God and all humans.” He bases this on Hermann Cohen and Psalms.
Judaism is a universal religion. Multiculturalism of Judaism is based on interreligious respect, and the respect for everyone’s image of God. As a contrast, Jonathan Sacks places the emphasis on Babel-there are no universals, all knowledge is limited. God chose one family, the Jews, to show that we need to celebrate diversity of families and religions. For Novak, we have a universal to follow and to argue for within the public sphere. For Sacks, absolute religions are the enemy of religion and public life. For Novak, liberalism that does not start with an absolute divine covenant does not allow a public sphere. For Novak, Jewish secularists are poor advocates of Jewish national claims on world!!! We need those with a covenantal certainty. It seems Novak has never heard of secular Zionism or any of many public advocates of Judaism.

6] The Bible shows us that we can only talk to covenantal partners who fear God. We can work with Malkizedek and not the king of Sodom. We can only make work with those who have the moral prerequisites. Therefore, Shimon and Levi could kill the men of Shechem since they are not moral, so we cannot enter into covenant with them. Does Novak notice what he is saying when he justifies killing them because we deem them immoral?

Covenant is n affirmation of creation for humans to make world inhabitable.. He cites as his proof Nahmanides’ introduction to the Torah – berit = bara – make the world inhabitable. But the original of Nahmanides was a praise of the mystery of God’s miraculous powers of creation. Novak transfers these powers man. Hermann Cohen’s universalism and man’s powers presented as Nahmanides.

7] Novak boldly states “Jewish and Christian ideas of human nature and community, which are most often identical” He thinks this is true even in medieval Europe.
Novak states that Jews lived in medieval Europe with integrity by knowing they shared values with the Christians. They had a social contract with medieval Christians based on trust His proof:
Tosafot states that a Jew can accept an oath from a Christian even though, the latter associates (shituf ) something else mentions with God. For Novak, this shows, that Jews share with Christians trust and social contract. They are not idolatrous, rather they are answerable to the same God so it is a social contract. Novak pictures the tosafot as conceiving the relationship as follows: “I have good reason to believe you will not change your word to me, I can trust you because of your Christian faithfulness. And Christians believe in God’s faithful covenant. I trust you because of your belief in God. This is unlike modern atheists and secularists whom we cannot truly trust.

I am not sure what to make of this. It is not halakhic – juridical reasoning from Shulkhan Arukh. It is not historic reasoning even though he cites Jacob Katz. (Katz saw the medieval situation as without trust and commonality, only exclusivism. These tosafot statements were only ad-hoc leniencies without theological power.)
This is Novak’s “theological imagination” using the tradition, having fidelity to halakhah but not to halakhic reasoning.

8] The bible is covenantal and rabbinical thought is all contractual. Rabbinic law is justified by Scripture and debated by scripture. – (All texts for Novak seem sibah ledavar velo siman ladavar). Rabbinic statements are mainly left as stalemate, continuous arguments. It is all open interpretation. (cf new book by Boyarin- I will get to later this season)Rabbinic law is contractual since it gives reasons (Novak assumes darshinan taama dekra) and since law can be repealed by a greater beth din

9] Babylonians were secular and not idolatrous> hence we respect their civil society. Novak uses “the law of the kingdom is law” “dina demalkhuta dina”  to say we need to crate a civil society, as a social contract.Rashba and Ran – right of kings to create secular law but since  we are not really into kings – today it means social contract.          [he damns with slight praise Lorberbaum on Ran, and his edited with Waltzer The Jewish Political Tradition. For Lorberbaum , Halbertal, Waltzer – these medieval texts show an opening to create a secular realm,  without the interference of Judaism and rabbis. A realm consisting of  kings, prime ministers, laity, populous] For Novak, these texts point to natural law and covenant Abarbanel’s critique of kingship is taken as the Jewish norm, cf rambam

10] Moses Mendelssohn  taught that religion is private and to be keep out of the social contract. There should be tolerance for religion. The secular state should tolerate religion because one’s transcendental warrant for one’s religion comes prior to the liberal state. One’s religion is one’s public persona. The secular state is a place to encourage multiple religions. The state is multicultural recognition of diverse religions.  Our Covenantal duties are stronger than Mendelssohn’s duties of conscience. Novak concludes that Mendelsohnn was wrong. We do not start as individuals and follow reason and conscience but we start as a covenantal community, which knows that the Noahite Laws are the natural law for society.  Mendelsohn not enough to bring religion into public sphere.

Novak does not seem to get that Mendelssohn had a very real fear of herem, seruv, beis din control of society and economics, rabbinical pronouncements on society, heresy trials, and an autonomous kehilah. Novak assumes that Mendelssohn’s rabbinical establishment would write op-eds and First Things articles, rather than put each other in herem.

To be continued and edited tomorrow night.
Galleys of my Book One are due tomorrow.

Towards Jewish-Muslim Dialogue by Trude Weiss-Rosmarin

Trude Weiss-Rosmarin (1908 – 1989) was a Orthodox Jewish-German-American writer, scholar, and feminist activist. She co-founded, with her husband, the School of the Jewish Woman in New York in 1933, and in 1939 founded the Jewish Spectator, a quarterly magazine, which she edited for 50 years. She was an influential critic of the Christian- Jewish dialogue. She was also a critic of Rabbi Steven Riskin’s first years at LSS, which she perceived as modernizing away from traditional synagogue practice.

One of her little discussed books is Towards Jewish-Muslim Dialogue (Sept 1967), written right after the Six Day War. The journal Tradition accepted that the victory was God’s hand in history, but we should avoid open messianism. In contrast, Weiss- Rosmarin was cautioning that victory does not occur on the battlefield but in the winning of the peace afterwards.

She affirmed that Israel is a successor to the ancient Jewish states in the Middle East, but bemoans how it is presenting itself as an outpost of the West. She considers as proof of this Western exclusivism the attitude of the European born elite toward the immigrants from Arab countries, treating them as the “second Israel” and judging them by Western mores. Israelis have to become integrated into the Arabic middle Eastern society around them.

A product of Europe and its civilization, Zionism was caught up in the notion of the superiority of Western, i.e., European civilization. This notion caused the Zionists – ad Jews as a whole – to look down upon the Arabs and their ancient culture in the manner the British looked down upon “colonials.” The Jews came to Palestine with the determination to make the country an outpost of Western civilization and to “civilize the Arab nations.” The unequivocal cultural identification of the Yishuv with the West and the failure to support Arab nationalism in its post-war struggles with the Allies disabused the Arabs of the hope, expressed by Feisal, that the “Jewish cousins” were cousins by Arab definition. (6-7)

If Zionist movement and Jews generally had been more humble in their encounter with Muslim civilization (and the “Second Israel”) and if they had not come to Palestine waving the flag of “Western civilization,” Israel might well have benefited from Arab tolerance and humaneness.(9)

If henceforth Jews will assign to Jewish-Muslim dialogue the importance that is its due, the Arabs, in whose nationalism religion is as important as it is in Jewish nationalism, will eventually-and perhaps sooner than cold-headed realists will dare expect-rediscover that the Jews are their cousins, descendants of Abraham’s eldest son, Ishmael, who was Isaac’s brother. (44)

If the young State of Israel is to survive and prosper it must become integrated into the Arab world and be accepted by its neighbors. The crucial challenge confronting Israel is how to conclude an alliance of peace with the Arab nations. We believe that with a complete reorientation, especially a muting of the insistent harping on the theme of “Israel is an outpost of Western civilization” the Arab nations would accept Israel on the basis of the kinship which unites Jews and Arabs. (40-41)

Weiss-Rosmarin advocates the return and revival of Hebrew and Israel to its Near-Eastern roots. A complete reorientation to see Judiasm as part of the Arab world.

If there is to be “dialogue” between Israel ad the Arab countries, Israel will have to project a new image of herself-the image of a Semitic brother-state in the midst of Semitic brother-states. Instead of proclaiming itself “the outpost of Western civilization,” Israel should emphasize that Hebrew is a Semitic language and a sister-language of Arabic. The setting of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud is not Europe but the Near East-its deserts and its fruitful regions. The biblical ideal of feminine beauty is not the Western dream. It is “the dark and comely beloved” of “Song of Songs,” who is swarthy as “the tents of Kedar” and –as Arab tents are to this day.(10)

Our prayers for the end of Exile and for the Return plead: “Renew our days as of old.” The renewal in the State of Israel should be a renewal of Jewishness in the traditional pattern of Hebrew civilization which was born, matured and produced its choicest fruit in the Middle East among kindred Semitic neighbors with kindred mores and, after the birth of Islam (622) in cross-fertilization and symbiosis with a kindred religious civilization. (11)

She cites the works of the Jewish Islamisists on the Judeo-Islamic similarities and synthesis. We lived together for more than a millennium. Islam is monotheism and law. We both have oral traditions and diverse schools of legal reasoning. But she adds her own observations on the similarities of the modern trajectories. We have the same problems of Madrasas and Yeshivot wanting to keep modernity and secular education out. Judaism and Islam both had secular nationalisms rise up to create modern states. She even paints a picture of common suffering.

The identity of Jewish and Muslim fate and suffering at the hands of Christians, during the Crusades and in Spain, has not received sufficient attention. It was a period of shared agony and confrontation with a common enemy. This deserves to be better known by Jews and Muslims. The shared fate of oppression and persecution under “Christianity triumphant” is a strong bond of Jewish-Muslim brotherhood. (30-31)

As practical steps, she calls for (1) American Jewish organizations to foster Jewish Muslim dialogue.(2) Jewish institutes of higher learning, especially the seminaries, should introduce courses on Islam and Arabic culture.  (The way Ignatz Goldziher and Jacob Barth, both observant Jews, taught respectively at the Budapest and Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminaries.) (3) Jewish Institutions should assign priority to hosting Muslim lecturers, the way they host Christian lecturers. (4) There should be adult education courses fostering Jewish Muslim dialogue. [42-43]

This was in 1967.

Update- Here is the full text from The Jewish Spectator

Trude Weiss-Rosmarin – Toward Jewish-Muslim Dialogue

Two views of Fackenheim and related approaches

I wanted a more critical approach to Fackenheim than found in the works of Michael Morgan so I turned to David Patterson, Emil Fackenheim Syracuse UP 2008. The book won the 2008 National Jewish Book Award in the category of Modern Jewish Thought, so I assumed it would be more critical.For Patterson, Fackenheim represents a Jewish thinker who affirms the centrality of Torah, yet does not despair of philosophy the way Levinas and Soloveitchik despair. Fackenheim has the tikkun for the darkness at the heart of man as told by Joseph Conrad or Primo Levi. The height of the book for me was when Patterson used the thought of the kabbalist Yitzhak Ginzburgh to explain Hannah Arendt, that too much ego leads to absolute evil.

A different approach is offered by Konstanty Gebert. An observant Polish Jew who was instrumental as an educator and journalist in Solidarity. He now edits Midrasz, a Polish-Jewish monthly.  Interview with him

He wrote an article “Forgetting Amalek” in Responsibility in Crisis, editor David William Cohen & Michael Kennedy 183-201

Gebert writes that the Torah teaches us to wipe out the memory of Amalek but to always remember their treachery – there is a tension of memory/oblivion

Emil Fackenheim offers the 614th commandment. For Gebert, that is like the situation described by Gregory Bateson, a double bind that produces pathological disassociation or a catch -22. If the Shoah makes one turn away from religion then the 614th commandment to not give Hitler a posthumous victory by turning away. It means that one is either not true to one’s self or is helping the holocaust. One cannot turn away and if one accepts the call of the Holocaust one disassociates from oneself.

He ponders if Amalek in the Torah, as pure evil, is a construct based on their trauma and not on actual knowledge of Amalakites.  Hating Amalek was an easy thing in their post traumatic stage and the inherited trauma of their immediate descendents.

But, the Babylonians mixed all the tribes in the area through forced relocations. This nullified the commandment to eliminate the Amalek, because at that point the Amalek ceased to exist as a tribe.

Gebert thinks that the university today has a responsibility to help prevent the creation of new Amalek images. We need to separate historic understanding from justifying. We need free debate and intellectual liberty.

Now Amalek’s children themselves need to condemn the evil and work together with the children of victims. We need to remember the evil of Amalek, but the only way to truly wipe out Amalek is through reconciliation. Children of Amalek will come to naught if not helped by the children of the victims.

As a comparison, Avi Sagi sought to justify the Biblical prohibition and explain the moral problem now that we have modern morals, many commentaries on Joshua and Samuel also resort to justification and limiting, but not to reconciliation or the role of the university.  The Punishment of Amalek in Jewish Tradition: Coping with the Moral Problem, Avi Sagi, Harvard Theological Review Vol.87, No.3 (1994)

Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman taught that we have to turn to simcha to overcome the inner darkness. Then we have to return to Torah in a more open way. Reb Shlomo text.

In contrast, the Haredi world, based on a teshuvah of Rabbi Menashe Klein, overcomes the Holocaust by creating a saving remnant of true Jews. They focus only on the true Haredi Jews and limit the validity of conversions including Emil Fackenheim’s son.