Category Archives: theology

Beyond Conservative and Liberal- Simplicity to transform the World

New Book and the author Cardinal George is around NYC this week for talks. He deals with some of the same issues that traditional Jews deal with. How can we get beyond the culture wars of conservative and liberal? How both sides speak of power and decisions from the top, not of character or changing the world. How everything went legalistic in the last few years.  How can we go back to an idea of a simple broad spectrum believer without drowning in nostalgia?

Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, new book The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion and Culture (Crossroad) In essence, George argues that liberals too often function as “chaplains of the status quo,” taking their cues from the prevailing secular mindset, while conservatives often end up in a sectarian dead-end, clinging to a narrow and triumphalistic version of Catholic identity sealed off from the surrounding culture. Chicago’s George says both liberals and conservatives focus too much on bishops.

In fact, George argues that while liberals and conservatives may think of themselves as having little in common, in truth they’re two peas in the same intellectual pod. Both liberals and conservatives, George says, focus far too much on the bishops – how much power they have…George argues for what he calls “simply Catholicism,” meaning a clear  sense of Catholic identity that’s nevertheless open to the world.

On that subject, you write that for modern American culture, everything is tolerated but nothing is forgiven, while for Christianity it’s exactly the reverse – many things aren’t tolerated, but everything can be forgiven. Would you see the explosion of legalism as the index of a culture that doesn’t know how to forgive?

That makes us very legalistic, as I say in the book. Today, you need a lawyer to accompany you at every step of your life, practically. Nothing is done without a lawyer, so we have lawyers in courts, lawyers in the legislature, lawyers in private practice, in corporations, and so on. If you’re not a lawyer, you’re hardly part of public life anymore. That’s right. Punishment has to be legal, and it has to be permanent.

Yet you’re not nostalgic for the pre-conciliar church? Well, no! Not at all.  Life goes on.

I think I’m going to write something about that at some point, about restoring a Catholic way of life that would be marked by certain practices that would instill attitudes. They would not keep us above the fray, because we’re still in it, but it would be a center within [the fray] that would permit people to keep their balance and be neither liberal nor conservative. [The 1950’s]  was very sure of its own identity, it formed us in that, and then it prepared us to go out and transform the world. We forgot that it was supposed to be church/world, that those were the terms that were supposed to be used, not liberal and conservative inside the church.

Read the Rest Here

Avi Sagi, Tradition vs. Traditionalism

More on Avi Sagi,  Tradition vs. Traditionalism

This book presents his take on his four favored thinkers: Leibowitz, Soloveitchik, Goldman, and Hartman. I am not sure how much I agree with any of these readings.

Sagi likes Soloveitchik as confessional, existential, communication, and sensitive to the human plight,it makes for good “thematic halakhah.” but notes that Soloveitchik is not really existentialist and is more Kierkegaard where the natural order is one of alienation serves to drive us to religion. But in Sagi’s harsh reading of Solovetichik, religion is the only true, useful, and acceptable vision of man, a limited relationship to the modern world. Hence a retreat from the modern world, or a least a very rigid hierarchy. Modern man is characterized by alienation, boredom, frustration, and Soloveitchik cannot see the positive in modern secular man.  In Sagi’s opinion, there is openness to the human plight but closure to modern values. (American readers may not be familiar with this Israeli reading)

Sagi likes Leibowitz for his ability to compartmentalize religion from the modern world. For Leibowitz even the fear and trembling associated with relgion, as in Kierkeguard, are not religious but part of ones secular psychology, personal struggles, and inner self. Only faith is faith. He likes the valuing of the Oral Torah over the written Torah, since the written torah is from God and we cannot know its true meaning, but we do know the Oral law since we create it. And our following it for its own sake is faith. No realization of divine ideal through halakhah as in Soloveitchik but pure lishmah, pure obedience. Modern formulation allows the tradition to be kept.

Sagi’s hero is Eliezer Goldman, (student of Soloveitchik, and trained in American jurisprudence turned kibbutznik and Maimonidean- In my time his articles had a cult following). Goldman distinguishes between illusory and non-illusory faith, illusory faith seeks to remake the world according to ones yearnings. In contrast, non-illusory faith accepts the world as it is and there is no escape from reality. There is no certainty of any traditional metaphysical claims. Faith allows one to accept God and revelation; revelation is not a datum of experience but part of the worldview after faith. Revelation is the recognition of the halakhic realm as heteronomous. Commandments have meaning and value but not reasons, causes or factual referents.

All halakhah is grounded in meta-halakhah as its meaning. (Rabbi Wurzburger and Prof Twersky took the concept from Goldman.) Goldman rejects the legal formalism of Kelsen and Hart and stresses instead the worldview of the jurists, the need for juridical autonomy, and values. Values and principles do not rest on facts.  (Today this is closest to what is taught under the broad category of Dworken followers, and has elements of Isaiah Berlin.)  The law needs to be realistic and adapt to changing situations. And just like Maimonides poured “Old wine in new bottles” by reading Torah through Aristotle, we are self- conscious in our need for a new formulation. Like Maimonides, he rejects the view of the hamon am, the ordinary believer, as not true faith. (Somehow Sagi calls this Dwroken-Berlin approach post-modern.)

Sagi presents Hartman as a modernist in that he is in dialogue with the tradition and questions it.  He quotes Hartman as saying that Jewish thinkers know their period or text, while Jewish philosophers also seek to dialogue the Jewish thought with the present and other cultures. For Hartman, Maimonides as hero of integration and synthesis. Hartman chooses to develop his thought from Halakhah and Hazal over the Bible because the Bible is too theocentric. Halakhah is better for an anthropocentric philosophy. Hartman offers a Torah of pluralism of human construction, answers to human needs, a rejection of the theocentric,  and a rejection of terms like “alienation” as vestiges of older European thought. Hartman offers a halakhic hope for the state of Israel and the messiah, which is this-worldly, conservative and realistic—unlike the utopia, apocalyptic and unrealistic hope of others.

As a side story, Sagi has a great chapter of the coming to be of Leibowitz’s compartmentalized view. It all started with a forgotten 1952 article by Ernst Simon “Are we still Jews?”  The article discussed the views of his friends and colleagues in the “Bahad”- German religious kibbutz movement. He wrote that they are all Catholic in that they want an all encompassing view of Torah. Simon argued that a Protestant approach would allow for recognizing the secular state, and offers freedom for religious Jews to restore a meaningful existence for ourselves. In the article, he discusses his friend, the Bnai Akiva leader Leibowitz  who thought that we need to change the halakhah radically for the new state  to be all encompassing. Simon compares him to a reverse of Neturei Karta who want everything as it was. Leibowitz changes his view to agree with Simon and goes further using dialectic theology. The state and all of life is secular except for religion itself, all religion is a personal decision. Leibowitz even renames his  1943 essay from “Educating toward a Torah State” to “Education towards Torah in a Modern Society.”Rabbi Moshe Zvei Neriah also responded in 1952 to Simon and wrote that the secular state is a problem to our religious vision. Therefore must give religious meaning to the state

Gadamer on Orthodoxy: Tradition as self-identity

Avi Sagi,  Tradition vs. Traditionalism (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008) $69 short paperback!

The book deals with a pluralistic halakhic approach and was combined together in the Hebrew edition with the book that I discussed below.- here. In English, it is two separate books. I will comment on the book itself next week. However, the book has a short first chapter, newly written after the rest of the essays in the book, that approaches the question of pluralism from the perspective of Gadamer.

He asks: How can the modern Jew appropriate the tradition?

Sagi answers it using his new found readings in currently read books that are beyond his training in analytic philo and existentialism.

His basic answer is that now we can appropriate the tradition in an open ended way based on Gadamer, no more alienation from religion due to modernity or lack of freedom in halakhah. We just read it with open horizons.

I am not sure if he intends to be liberal or conservative and he certainly does not deal with questions of rabbinic and communal authority. It is an existential appropriation of the tradition. I am not sure what I gain here over Franz Rosenzweig.

On Tradition: He has a nice use of Zygmunt Bauman to show the paradox, in which once one speaks of a tradition then the speaker is no longer part of the tradition. Tradition lies in tacit acceptance without justification Bauman claims that the use of the concept tradition is more about the present and future than the past. Speaking of tradition is itself about renewal or the conscious identification with something and ascribing of new meaning. (As a side point, Bauman is essential for most topics these days- why is he taking so long to be integrated into American thought?)

Tradition has 4 parts according to John Thompson- hermeneutical, normative, legitimacy, and identity and all have been broken. (I am not so certain- most people have taken these upon themselves in his/her period of emergent adulthood. And in the post Evangelical age they have all returned.)

Sagi quotes Gadamer’s rejection of Schleiermacher approvingly that we cannot attain the original meaning, therefore it is personal appropriation as something new. Tradition is one of self identity through appropriating ones tradition as one’s own.

I don’t think Sagi gets the radical openness of Heidegger horizons (Compare Fishbane who does get Heidegger)nor the Ricoeur tensions of scholarship, personal, narrative, and revelation.)

Returning to his existentialist favorites, Sagi quotes Kierkegaard one can return on the personal level, to community and to one’s imagines inner home.  But, he writes that after Bauman and Gadamer- we don’t return to the actual past but stand in tradition.

He thinks that his approach overcomes the alienation that Peter Berger circa 1972 describes of having no return to the past after modernity. [Does Sagi know that by 1995 Berger rejected this sharp dichotomy and his students, like Christian Smith, are some of the leading researchers into Evangelicalism as a contemporary movement? What of Jose Casanova and Charles Taylor et al?]

Now that we have re-appropriated tradition, we can see that Traditions undergo change – even revolutionary ones.  [his proof is Halbertal on tannaic exegesis]. (Don’t I have this from the 1830’s already with Friedrich Carl von Savigny and Schleirmacher? Isn’t this just positive-historical without the philological certainty?

Sagi advocates a post-traditionalism in which tradition is dynamic and changes and is captured in dialogue. We enter into the tradition in dialogue with self, past, community, and a fusion of horizons. No return to the texts themselves. [He seems to conflate hermeneutics of retrieval of scholarship with hermeneutic of personal meaning]Modern Jews can return though a Gadamer tradition, which according to Sagi overcomes modern alienation, allows freedom, and creates choice—a Kierkegaardian freedom to recognize limits and given situation.

So bye bye Wittgenstein closed language- Hello Gadamer.

But wait, he concludes his essay with the question: Don’t religious and secular receive the tradition differently.  Are they even sharing the same tradition? Yes, there is a Wittgenstein family resemblance that holds it together. Therefore, we do nothave to worry about different horizons.

I must note that there are 6-7 of you out there that have been sending me  long comments and questions by email and not posting. If you want to discuss my rambling then post it.

Why Are Americans So Religious?

Why Are Americans So Religious?

Ross Douthat 07 Jun 2007 12:05 pm

My own preferred explanation – which is doubtless a small part of the pantomime – is theological rather than sociological: Christianity has thrived in the United States by adapting its theology to the habits and mores of the American people, in a way that religion in Europe hasn’t managed to do. America is an Emersonian country, and its religious innovators have invented an Emersonian form of Christianity – which some might suggest isn’t Christianity at all, of course – that’s nicely tailored to the broader culture in which it swims. Call it gnosticism, or Moral Therapeutic Deism, or just plain Americanism – it means Elaine Pagels and Karen Armstrong for highbrow audiences and T.D. Jakes and Joyce Meyer for the masses, and it works.

If Christianity in America meant the Christianity of Benedict XVI – or even the Christianity of C.S. Lewis, for that matter – I bet that about 15 percent of the country would be practicing believers. But you don’t get Benedict or even Lewis from most pulpits; you get socially-conservative Emersonianism in Red America and socially-liberal Emersonianism in Blue America. This wouldn’t fly in the European cultural context, but maybe there’s a form of organized religion that would – its theology just hasn’t been invented yet.

I came across this old post of Douthat, an evangelical turned traditional Catholic, who is now a columnist for the NYT, in the process of trying to add context to the Douthat review of Karen Armstrong’s new Book in Sunday’s book review.  Douthat assumes that American’s are religious because they do not deal with Benedict and Soloveitchik. Or for that matter even C S Lewis would hinder to faith.

One of the comments wrote: ” This insight is both horrifying (I am Christian of the Benedict XVI varietal) and true. I think you have struck a wide vein here.” So are all those who debate Rabbis Soloveitchik and Lichtenstein, Heschel, Hirschenson, and Kook really just unrelated to American Orthodox Judiasm which is also Therapeutic Deism?

Douthat writes about Armstrong, a nun turned toward moral and liberal monotheism:

The time, in other words, is ripe for a book like “The Case for God,” which wraps a rebuke to the more militant sort of atheism in an engaging survey of Western religious thought. Karen Armstrong, a former nun turned prolific popular historian, wants to rescue the idea of God from its cultured despisers and its more literal-minded adherents alike.

Both modern believers and modern atheists, Armstrong contends, have come to understand religion primarily as a set of propositions to be assented to, or a catalog of specific facts about the nature of God, the world and human life. But this approach to piety would be foreign to many premodern religious thinkers, including the greatest minds of the Christian past, from the early Fathers of the Church to medieval eminences like Thomas Aquinas.

These and other thinkers, she writes, understood faith primarily as a practice, rather than as a system — not as “something that people thought but something they did.” Their God was not a being to be defined or a proposition to be tested, but an ultimate reality to be approached through myth, ritual and “apophatic” theology, which practices “a deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred” and emphasizes what we can’t know about the divine. And their religion was a set of skills, rather than a list of unalterable teachings — a “knack,” as the Taoists have it, for navigating the mysteries of human existence.

For Armstrong, religion is not prepositional but a practice and God is an unknown. Douthat summerizes this position as follows.

This is an eloquent case for the ancient roots of the liberal approach to faith, and my summary does not do justice to its subtleties… The casual reader, however, would be forgiven for thinking that the leading lights of premodern Christianity were essentially liberal Episcopalians avant la lettre.

Douthat concludes

It’s possible to gain some sort of “knack” for a religion without believing that all its dogmas are literally true… Not every churchgoer will share Flannery O’Connor’s opinion that if the Eucharist is “a symbol, to hell with it.” But the Catholic faith has endured for 2,000 years because of Flannery O’Connors, not Karen Armstrongs.This explains why liberal religion tends to be parasitic on more dogmatic forms of faith, which create and sustain the practices that the liberal believer picks and chooses from, reads symbolically and reinterprets for a more enlightened age.

So how to react to the debate? Those who like theology such as  Commonweal write

The problem isn’t literalism (conservatism) vs. symbolism (liberalism). Moreover, the question of which is prior — dogma or practice — involves a sort of futile chicken and egg regression… I would say to both Armstrong and Douthat that the real divide is between abstraction and presence. Christianity has survived for 2000 years because people have continued to encounter a presence in their midst (primarily through an encounter with human beings in whom this presence is felt rather than through dogma or practice per se). They experience this presence as a fact, something concrete–Christ. But at the same time they perceive that this concrete particularity reveals a mystery, which cannot be reduced to abstraction. (O’Connor, by the way, understood this is a more nuanced way than Douthat seems to realize.) Problems arise when the encounter is forgotten and the presence is lost, when all that is left are fragments, abstractions, mere discourse (i.e., conservatism and liberalism).

I kinda like this approach, but it seems that the blogs side with Douthat in order to reject liberal religion and make it a choice of literalism or secularism. I am left wondering – Is this really the American theological landscape? Can I discuss Fishbane and Benedict?

Elie Wiesel’s Rashi

I used to receive many phone calls from people looking for the source of some of Elie Wiesel’s Hasidic stories. Usually the source was Dostoevsky, Camus or some other French existentialist authors. I was also asked: “where does the Baal Shem Tov tell us to always remember the past?” The answer is that the Besht said to “always remember God”, in all your ways think of God. This becomes shortened to “Always remember” and then translated as always remember the past. I am working on an academic article on the: topic.

But now we have a new book from Wiesel Rashi, basically on on how Rashi survived the Holocaust. The answer is that he provides memory, wrote literature, provided solidarity, and offered hope. Once again Camus is offered as the Jewish tradition. For some reason, it bothers me less when done to Hasidic tales than when done to Rashi.

Most mid twentieth century scholars wanting to fit the models of Henri Pirenne on medieval cities, and depicted Rashi’s life as building community and democracy through self reliance and pragmatism. Here for Wiesel, Rashi bleeds history and suffering. Rashi is celebration of commentary, a celebration of memory, and of brotherhood too

Memory in Rashi is usually that one has to keep a memory of ones sins before one memory is sin, or one has to remember the mighty hand of God. Wiesel offers us the memory of his own study of Rashi from his youth where there used to be solidarity in the heder.

In chapter one, we have stories of Rashi’s life interspersed with Wiesel’s nostalgia and memories of his own childhood.  We have legends and miracle tales of Rashi, with the message that the actual events do not matter, only the legends.

In Wiesels’ hands, Rashi, which was taught in cheder as reading the Rashi and then teitch into Yiddish, taught him how to craft literature.

He [Rashi] said to me, as if confidentially: look, my child; fear nothing, everything must be grasped and conveyed with simplicity. Strange words stand in the way like obstacles? Start all over again with me. It happened to me too. I started all over again. You just have to break through the shell of a word, a sentence, an expression. Everything is inside them. Everything is waiting for you.

Chapter 2 offers selections from Rashi’s Biblical commentary. In the chapter, we are told that he stove for truth and reaching for the exact meaning of the verse (I can except that), but also examples of where Rashi must have let his inability to face evil directly to overcome his approach.

Chapter 3 on Israel, the people and the land shows that Rashi’s moral dualism of Esau and goyim as bad and Jews as good shows that he understood Camus’ idea of solidarity.

Chapter 4  is on sadness and memory, where Rashi confronts the fear and hope of the Crusader period. It does not matter to Wiesel that almost all Rashi scholars do not see any influence of the crusades on his commentaries, only on his elegies.

To hedge his bets and to foreshadow contemporary politics of existential fear of Iran, we are reminded that when Rashi lived the crusaders were fighting the Shiites “where suicidal and murderous fanaticism is still alive today.”Crusaders and Shiites glorified death , while Rashi remains a celebration of human life. Or as Wiesel closed his recent speech at Buchenwald condemning Iran

A great man, Camus, wrote at the end of his marvelous novel, The Plague: “After all,” he said, “after the tragedy, never the rest…there is more in the human being to celebrate than to denigrate.”

As his own explanation of the volume: “This book, therefore, is a story for present and future exiles, but also a moving prayer in their memory to bring them closer to redemption.”

As the wrong complaint to end with, there is an old joke about two elderly Jews discussing a restaurant, one says “the food was terrible and OY! there was so little of it. The book is very short, at best the length of a single chapter in most of this other books. In seems he just added a little verbal padding to his Rashi chapter from a prior book to earn his Nextbook money.

So I will end with noting that the ever clueless Adam Kirsch used his review of Wiesel’s Rashi to discuss if Jews such as Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe are such good literary critics due to the culture of commentary created by Rashi.

(If any journal or newspaper wants an edited and more book review version of this, then let me know. I also have many more sedate paragraphs which I left out.)

Update The Forward also disliked the book: Rashi, Wiesel: Why, Why, Why?

Names for new Heresies

A free tip for heresy hunters
from An und für sich by Adam Kotsko
Many conservative Christians are eager to point out heresies, but they are at a severe disadvantage compared to previous generations. Simply put, modern heresies don’t have the same imposing names as the old ones. Indeed, often they don’t have names at all — other than “women getting all uppity and using feminine terms for God.” The gap between that and “Nestorianism” or “monothelitism” is palpable.

Fortunately, I’m here to help. I’ve coined one term and independently discovered another to help provide my conservative brethren with the high-grade vocabulary arsenal they need:

  • Hermaphrotheism: using both masculine and feminine imagery to refer to God
  • Gynotheism: using feminine imagery to refer to God
  • Does anyone have some good names that Jewish conservatives can use to name alleged Jewish heresies? (TBD prize for the winner) In fact, what are the Jewish heresies? Not supporting AIPAC? Not accepting 1980’s Holocaust theology? Referring to God in any way other than as a placeholder?

    Update: This post is receiving more hits than almost any other post but I have not received a corresponding number of named heresies.

    A Post-Secular Jewish Dharma Bum

    I have a review in this week’s Forward. My original title was the one on this blog post.

    Everything Is God: The Path of Nondual Judaism By Jay Michaelson

    Jay Michaelson is well known to readers of the Forward for his column, “The Polymath,” a title well chosen to mitigate the frequent changes in his byline, which varied from dot-com software designer, to doctoral student in Jewish mysticism, to lawyer, to environmentalist, to poet, to GBLT activist. As one of the founders of the journal Zeek, Michaelson was one of the instrumental creators of the new Jewish culture — the hip mixture of ironic and post-ironic aesthetic gestures — which moved Jewish culture beyond baby boomer concerns. Michaelson’s theology is as diverse as his former bylines and reflects the same shift to the values of the new Jewish culture.

    In this new book, “Everything Is God: The Path of Nondual Judaism,” Michaelson’s regular stream of post-secular book reviews provided the framework to work out his own popular theology, and the book reflects that history, capturing his spiritual insights in edgy 1,000-word bursts.

    Skipping to the ending

    Nevertheless, Michaelson does not start his reader on the long journey of transformation, nor does the book speak from a point of nonduality, as the Hasidic or Eastern religious works do. Instead, we listen to his breakneck embrace of the nondual world: Talking breathlessly about meditation, creating myriad perspectives on oneness and meeting everyone there is to meet upon the path.

    The book reminds me most of the 1960s wandering independent polymath Alan Watts — an earlier articulate proponent of Asian philosophies of nonduality. Watts scandalized his straight-laced Western audience by preaching an eclectic nonduality outside of organized religion; however, Watts is more famous for antagonizing the world’s leading Zen teachers by claiming that Zen has little to do with sitting but is in fact a path of nonduality justifying “sheer caprice in art, literature, and life” — a spirituality offering a radical new worldview articulated in jazz rhythms rather than in the contemplative flavor of Zen. Like Watts, Michaelson sometimes makes grand pronouncements based entirely on his own experience.

    Read the entire review here

    Here was my original penultimate paragraph that was removed to keep to the word count and to remain focused on the book under review.

    As I once waited backstage, before appearing on a Jewish cable TV show to discuss Judaism and Buddhism, a senior Orthodox rabbi from a staid upper crust synagogue, seeking to make conversation on my topic, confided to me how he read Alan Watts as a youth and gained many lessons that stuck with him through out life. The Rabbi never again dabbled in any other Asian thought or non-dualistic thinking, but the brief exposure to Watt’s Beat-Zen offered many lifelong tools for thought.

    Most of the book is available online as articles at Zeek, The Forward, Jewcy, Reality Sandwitch.

    Walmart, Love and Universal Ethics

    Pope Benedict of the Week

    David Nirenberg a Jewish professor of (Jewish) history and social thought at the University of Chicago offers a review in the TNR of Benedict’s recent encyclical “Caritas in Veritate: On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth.” He likes the message of love over market values, but asks: Why does it have to be framed as Catholic and not universal?

    Benedict’s teaching differs from that of his predecessors in at least two important ways. The first is evident in the key term in his analysis: “love,” rather than “justice,” “natural law,” or “human reason,” the terms that were favored by some of his predecessors

    As Wal-Mart shoppers, for example, we must divide our attention between 1) a self-interest in the lowest possible price for whatever object we desire; and 2) the needs of that object’s producers, of the environment in and from which it was made, and of the moral and fiscal balance of global trade (hence “consumers should be continually educated regarding their daily role, which can be exercised with respect for moral principles without diminishing the intrinsic economic rationality of the act of purchasing”); and 3) an openness to the loving “spirit of the gift.” Benedict is not simply suggesting a moral yardstick for the marketplace. He is claiming that every commercial exchange needs to become a loving act modeled on the gratuitous gift of Jesus Christ.

    And only Catholicism, Benedict tells us, can achieve the universal fraternity necessary for authentic community: “Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity.

    The problem is that Benedict is claiming to offer general answers to global questions that affect people of every faith (and sometimes of no faith), while at the same time insisting that the only possible answer to those questions is Catholicism. Such a suggestion might be a plausible prescription for global peace and development in a Catholic world, but the world is not Catholic.

    In a de-secularizing age, and with our faith in self-interest shaken by economic crisis, we should want to draw on the wisdom in that ocean of thought. But if those teachings are to contribute to global “unity and peace,” they will have to be taught in a way that seeks to transcend the boundaries of the traditions that produced them. This does not mean, as Benedict fears, that Christianity (or any other religion) must become “more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance,” or that “there would no longer be any real place for God in the world.” Values are not a zero-sum game. God’s place in the world is not lost when one religion tries to translate some of its truths into helpful good sentiments for those of other or no faith

    Full review

    To which Michael Sean Winters replies at NCR and at his blog at America that he likes the perspective of the historian but disagrees with the need for universalism

    his article is so refreshing and so frustrating. On the one hand, he understands that the advent of capitalism and its values represented a “reversal of a millennial moral consensus”

    If Nirenberg truly believes that Benedict’s vision is narrowed by his insistence on truth to the point of preventing dialogue, why write a review of the encyclical? Nirenberg’s effort disproves his own claim.

    Who is correct?

    I think A Jewish Call For Social Justice by Shmuly Yanklowitz is closer to David Nirenberg in that he discusses social justice without any claims of truth or higher values. But is Jewish pragmatism enough? Is Winters correct that David Nirenberg, and most Jews, are more utilitarian than principled?

    John T. Elson, Editor Who Asked ‘Is God Dead?’ at Time, Dies at 78

    Elson died last week and this is a good vantage point to look at the changes of religion in the last half century.  Even though many proclaimed the end of God in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, God returned with a vengeance to show his public face in the public sphere in the 1980’s and 1990’s. But the story is not so simple:

    The New York Times Obit notes that the cover of Time magazine posed a question: “Is God dead?” But “the article’s actual headline was ‘Toward a Hidden God,’ and it was a scholarly, careful look at how secularism, urbanism, and all the other ‘isms were changing people’s ideas about God.” “Secularization, science, urbanization — all have made it comparatively easy for the modern man to ask where God is and hard for the man of faith to give a convincing answer, even to himself,” Mr. Elson wrote.

    Quotes from the original Tine magazine article: Friday, Oct. 22, 1965 Theology: The God Is Dead Movement

    They say that it is no longer possible to think about or believe in a transcendent God who acts in human history,

    Buddhism & Blake. There is a strong streak of mysticism… whose eclectic theology borrows from such diverse sources as Buddhism and William Blake

    Paul van Buren is an advocate of linguistic analysis, which attempts to clarify language by examining the way words are used and denies the objective truth of statements that cannot be verified empirically.

    //

    Harvard’s Harvey Cox… whose book The Secular City concludes with the idea that Christianity may have to stop talking about God for a while, complains about the writers’ imprecise language. “Is it the loss of the experience of God, the loss of the existence of God in Christianity, or the lack of adequate language to express God today?” he asks.

    Yet we indeed do have a more hidden limited deity.  Eliezer Berkovits is the author to be credited for the idea that we no longer have direct contact with a theistic God and now we follow halakhah without a direct presence. His lines about halakhah as substituting for a living presence are now associated with almost any modern pan-halachic approach.  But Berkovits was the one to respond to the hidden God by saying we now have halakhah.

    Mysticism and Kabblah which were not in vouge in the first half of the twentieth century are useful in diverse ways. We have the symbolic realm of the Kabbalah to deflect from a personal deity onto more benign, God is sefirot. Even those who read Ramhal to be Haredi have deflected their God away from a person to a closed mechanism of sefirot and inner divine drive. We also have the spirituality version of Kabbalah and Neo-hasidism where God is functional to provide human happiness and religious experience. We also now have the Elie Wiesel Hasidic deity whom humans argue with. We have the tzimzum deity whom we can no longer know through doctrine.

    And finally we have a variety of Jewish based kitchen deities, where one prays for everyday miracles, prosperity, and that the kugel comes out OK There is one recent semi-yeshivish popular book on Jewish prayer that encourages one to pray for one’s daily concerns. Even as God has come back in the public sphere, the deity is more therapeutic than theistic.

    Levinas and Nostra Aetate

    In one of the lesser know pieces by Emmanuel Levinas, he helped prepare in 1965 a three page Jewish version of Nosta Aetate for the French Orthodox rabbinate. The document was never formally issued becuase there was too much dissent.  It has many similarities to Levinas’ own essays where he proposes the idea that all righteous Christians are really to be included in Israel; It is  a concept  of anonymous Jews, similar to Rahner’s Anonymous Christians.

    Report of the Commission of experts named by the Chief Rabbi of France and including Mr. Lévinas, Mr. Touati and Mr. Vaida.

    Its main headings are the following:

    1. The rejection of Christianity could have been avoided

    2. The Christians are not idolaters ; they adore the God who created the world and they have a certain number of beliefs in common with the Jews

    3. Eternal Salvation for Christians

    The term « Israel » in the sentence, « All Israel has a part in the ‘olam ha-ba’ means the righteous from all the nations », unless they impute iniquity to God (‘Aqedat Yitshaq, Shemini, gateway 60).

    4. Israel must be inspired by Christians and by Muslims, etc.

    5. Christianity and Islam contributed towards the improvement of humanity

    6. Christianity and Islam clear the way for the Messiah

    After 45 years, it remains a fascinating document.

    Intersecting Pathways

    Marc Krell, Intersecting Pathways, Modern Jewish Theologians in Conversation with Christianity, Oxford 2003

    Krell seeks to examine the Jewish-Christian interaction by focusing on Hans Joachim Schoeps, Franz Rosenzweig, Richard Rubenstein and Yitz Greenberg. His introduction cites among others Steve Wasserstrom, Boyarin, and the cultural theory of Katheryn Tanner to go beyond the essentialist category of influence.  The book is filled with quotes of prior scholar and is rather associative. Krell’s method if applied to my blog would cull the quotes from Pope Benedict to characterize my thought.

    However, it is nice to have some more Hans Joachim Schoeps, an important 20th century thinker in English. Schoeps used existential and dialectic themes to study the Jewish Christian relationship and he may be the source for the understanding of Rosenzweig as seeing the two faiths as two paths. Schoeps was the advocate of Jewish-Christian dialogue that assumes we can understand each others faith. When Soloveitchik and Walter Wurzburger argued against dialogue, Schoeps’ position was the one rejected.

    As an interesting point, .Schoeps wrote that Revelation in Judaism offers redemption from sin and the experience of mercy. Alexander Altmann argued the orthodox position that revelation is separate from redemption.

    I am less certain; while Shavuot is clearly separate than Yom Kippur, but many locate their redemption in the past. They assume that their conversion to the acceptance of the halakhah, as either BT or moment of maturation has redeemed them from their prior existence. Or that their acceptance of the system has put them on the path of mercy and the world to come. Unlike Altmann’s position, we do not see a Jewish urgency for redemption and the world to come. Many act as if one gets the world-to-come upon buying a house in an orthodox neighborhood; they seem to think that they cannot lose redemption. And Soloveitchik has, similar to Schoeps, a “redemptive sacrificial act” that redeems us from our material existence.

    Revelation as Reconciliation

    Pope Benedict of the week,

    They just published his 1955 thesis on 13th century ramifications of Bonaventure on history. In Ratzinger’s reading the age of the spirit is not heretical and apocalyptic nor spiritualized. The age  is one of a fulfillment of spirit in reconciliation and peace. The thesis was semi-rejected since in the mid twentieth century mystics were seen as outside the mainstream.

    The innovation of the thesis is similar to a thesis on Torat Azilut and Tikkune Zohar, which would reject Gershon Scholem and replace it with a fulfillment scheme. In Benedict’s approach, Tikkune  Zohar does not contain the seeds of antinomianism and transvaluation of Rabbinic categories as explained by Scholem, rather a proto-version of Rav Kook’s evolutionary vision of Orot Hakodesh. Such a Jewish application would use Zohar to move discussion of revelation in Judaism away from texts and toward the historical effect on the Jewish people and the Jewish embracing of the world.

    Ratzinger dug deep in his research. And he discovered that in Bonaventure, there is a strong connection with the vision of Joachim of Fiore, the Franciscan who had prophesied the imminent advent of a third age after those of the Father and the Son, an age of the Spirit, with a renewed and entirely “spiritual” Church, poor, reconciled with Greeks and Jews, in a world restored to peace.

    One of the examiners, professor Michael Schmaus, didn’t like the thesis. But Ratzinger avoided rejection by representing only the second part of his text, which had not received any objections.

    If neo-Scholastic theology essentially understood Revelation as the divine transmission of mysteries, which remain inaccessible to the human mind, today Revelation is considered as God’s manifestation of himself in an historical action.

    article

    Many Jewish theories of revelation are historic, not scholastic, ranging from Eliezer Berkovits to Avigdor Miller and Jon Levenson. There seems to be something useful here to create a more externally focused view of revelation. Kook and Berkovits connect revelation to Zionism. How about repair, expansion, or completion?

    Sacred Attunments —part 1

    Prof Michael Fishbane spoke in our minyan one of the mornings of Rosh Hashanah.

    Fishbane’s talk was based on his book Sacred Attunements, which came out one year ago.

    He opened with the idea that we are awakened from below through the significant events of our lives.

    Then the talk had three parts.

    The need to find our sense of self, our groundedness.

    The need to hear the call of the moment and the uniqueness of the mitzvah we are called to do.

    The need to develop a God consciousness in our lives.

    The conclusion was the idea that in Hasidic thought the Shofar is God speaking through us.

    I read Fishbane’s book a year ago which was billed as the first major theological work in a generation. In the year, it has not generated much review except for pre-publication review by David Novak in First Things, which focused on Novak’s pet themes “why didn’t he engage Christianity and particularism more?” What not more the pure monotheism of Herman Cohen and how to avoid polytheism?” And to his chagrin Novak had to conclude that Fishbane is about God-Talk and awakening people to theology.

    Since God talk and theology is my thing. I may write a review and this may help determine if I do.

    As some first thoughts:

    1] Fishbane seems to return the technical Kabbalah to Buber and Heschel. He assumes that his reader/listener knows the terms awakening from below (itaruta delitata) inner light (or penimi), Pardes, devekut, hokhmah, binah. He assumes that the current cannon includes required academic courses in an intro to the Zohar and an intro to Hasidut.

    2] The minyan has gotten used to his talks. But the first times he spoke the questions afterwards reflected a more Lutheran inspired modern Orthodoxy. “We confront God and then recoil.” “We follow the law and do not have God directly in our lives”.We cannot trust the self”  “The experience of God can only be know though the normative law.“ Fishbane is comfortable with direct God talk and as a once born optimist he does not have the dark side of the twice born.

    3] He assumes that everyone is looking to get in touch with themselves. Most people are not. He also assumes that his audience is transparent and psychologically aware in their religious lives. For Fishbane, the problem is habit not lack of reflection, denial, or placing the onus on the community.

    4]  Fishbane calls Halacha as “the gestures of the generations,”  and thinks we need to avoid “spiritual plagiarism.”

    He develops Scholem’s idea of Torah as organism into Torah kelulah: God’s ongoing presence. We have an opening to receive God’s word in everything if we are “attuned” to it.  The fullness of Torah Kelulah is unsayable.  What he calls the “Torah Kelulah” is a caesural opening in which God’s creative power issues forth into a manifest universe that includes a system of natural law and the moral reality of human existence. It is the “kiss of divine truth on the vastness of world-being.”

    The Written Torah. Scripture. Is the “unsayable.”.
    Torah she-be’al peh: the Oral Torah. This is the ongoing expression and development of the Written Torah  Religious life is not prayer or interpersonal relations as it was for Heschel and Buber, but religious life is in Torah study as reflected, imbibed, and present in the self. This process includes interiorization, centering, and silence

    This seems to be a Heidegger influenced view of revelation. (It needs to be compared to Rahner’s mystical use of Heidegger.) Heidegger wites:

    [T]o exist as Da-sein means to hold open a domain through its capacity to receive-perceive the significance of things that are given to it and that address it by virtue of its own “clearing”. Zollikon Seminars, 4/H4.

    One of Fishbane’s students has already used a pre-publication draft to apply the theory “to Jewish education, particularly with respect to the characterization, development, and reinforcement of theological dispositions.” Daniel Marom Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 74, Issue s1 2008 , pages 29 – 51 I have not read the article yet.

    A pluralist, demythologized and this-worldly halakhah

    Jewish Religion after Theology by Avi Sagi Academic Studies Press 2009

    Many of the works of Israeli thinkers of the last few decades are coming out in translation. Avi Sagi of Bar-Ilan and Shalom Hartman Institute seems to be collecting all his articles into books.

    Sagi’s book is an attempt to use the answers to the questions of 1970’s to answer the questions of the 1990’s.If a generation ago we asked how can there be religion after analytic philosophy showed that there is no proof for God and the problems of science and evil for the religion, Sagi is now asking how can we create pluralism and liberalism from these same orthodox resources..

    In short, he wants to use the thought of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Eliezer Goldman, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and David Hartman to create a this-worldly, pluralistic religion, without theology. In actuality, the book assumes the reader has read 2 or 3 works by Leibowitz already and the other thinkers are used to fill in gaps in Leibowitz.

    He wants to expand Leibowitz’s Kantian certainties to now embrace the social, moral and intellectual pluralism of  the 1990’s, as defined by philosophers like John Kekes.

    His answer is a form of treating halakhah as a fixed set of rules, a closed language similar to Wittgenstein. Personally, I have met many young rabbis who devote themselves to halakhah but have a smattering of philosophy, who take a similar Wittgenstein approach. Sagi works out many of the details.

    He compares Leibowitz to the this-worldly approach of Camus, not to actually show parallels rather to show by theme and variations the possibility of using Leibowitz for a here-and-now religion.

    The historical narratives are only needed as part of the rules of the game. As Leibowitz taught, Bible, Jewish History, and historical events are only important to the extent they play a role in halakhah. Translation of any religious term into external reality is a form of idolatry, directing one’s faith to an object instead of to God.

    In fact, the whole purpose of faith for Leibowitz is to fight idolatry, against superstition, magical thinking, nationalism, and history. Our God is transcendent- any connection of the Jewish God to this world is seen as pagan or worse. Religion is to show obedience to the halakhah.

    Sagi is most creative in moving Leibowitz from his Barthian treatments of halakhah as outside the natural order to a Rudolph Bultmann demytholization. Sagi is against the reification of Torah as myth and magic.

    For Sagi, Goldman shows how to still work for bettering the world, Soloveitchik applies this to the question of theodicy, and Hartman to building a pluralistic society.

    We have a pluralistic, demythologized, and this-worldly orthodoxy.

    This work shows a side of Israeli Religious-Zionist thought as taught on Kibbutz Hadati or Bar Ilan that does not always get translated. Personally, it is not my cup of tea. I prefer high theology. But the book offers an American community a discussion of the role of belief, scientific truth, halakhah without theology, and pluralism that it currently lacks.

    However, it assumes that one has basically found one’s answers in Leibowitz. On the more empirical note, to view Orthodoxy as a fight against magical thinking is a bit counter experience. In addition, there has been a turn to spirituality in these same institutions. Finally,  in a post Hermeneutic age – the abstractions of Kant, Camus, Barth, and Bultmann have given way to greater discussion of texts and culture. Since Sagi was recently made the chair of hermenutics and culture, we will see if his thought responds accordingly.

    Orthodox heilsgechichte

    This weekend, I read a work on modern Jewish thought that considered the only Orthodox heilsgechichte as that of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum. The author, writing in 2006, could not name any other Orthodox theory of history.

    Actually, by definition most Orthodoxies must have a heilsgechichte to avoid secular causality and historicism. Therefore all of these authors will engage in the general outline of schoolbook history to produce a theology.Heilsgeschichte is German for “Salvation History.” The term is used for theological writing that is committed to two things: the affirmation of God’s suprahistorical activity in history and the need to critically reconstruct these events through the sources. In these approaches, the historical writings of Nahmanides, the Vilna Gaon, and Maharal are drafted into new contexts, to explain modern data.

    About a decade ago a former colleague of mine asked about Orthodoxy and historicism and I gave a quick list of about eighteen  20th century orthodox theologies of history including:

    Rabbi Isaac Breuer and Yeshaya Leibowitz who said that Judaism was ahistoric. This one is not popular anymore because it requires one to take refuge in philosophy. Now people need a theology of history. Especially since historical thinking was so important for modern thinking that it had to be subsumed, integrated and then overcome with a relgious theology against historicism.

    As against secular history:Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman turned  Graetz on its head and making Torah study the causality for Graetz’s lachrymose history. Rav Shlomo Wolbe wrote a triumphalistic anti-Zionist vision of the end of modernity as shown by the baalei teshuvah. He includes quotes from several modern historians including Scholem.

    As a messianic vision: Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook and the age of redemption and ingathering of the exiles. Rabbi Amital’s accounting for setbacks in the redemptive process. Rabbi Kasher (as probably author of Kol Hator), redemption through natural means.

    On the Holocaust: Rabbi Teichtel’s blame of the Holocaust on the anti-Zionists. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Kol Dodi Dofek, with its references to Secretary of State Dulles and recent American history.

    Chabad: Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak’s messianism, and his version of Dubnow’s history of the common folk. He also has a history of the hidden saints. Rabbi M M Schneerson’s account of the fall of the Soviet Union and the post-historic messianic age.

    Centrism:Treating Jewish history as history of the mesorah. (This one needs its own discussion because it accepts facts but without historicism.)

    Even a figure as progressive as Rabbi Cherlow gave a paper at an academic conference on halakhah and ideology on the need for a theology of history. Cherlow wanted the academics to produce the chronology and raw facts, while rabbis will provide the meaning in history and evaluate the value of the data. Needless to say, it provoked reaction.