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Interview with Dror Bondi – Heschel’s Torah min Ha-Shamayim

“Everything depends on mazal, even the Torah Scroll in the Ark” (Zohar 3, 134a). Rabbi Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel’s great work Torah Min Hashamayim B’aspaklaria Shel Hadorot – Torah from Heaven in the Reflection of the Generations suffered from a lack of mazal. Only the first two volumes of the three-volume set were published. The third volume, however, appeared only in fragmentary forms and even then, with incomplete editing.  We must thank Dror Bondi, Heschel’s Hebrew translator, for publishing as complete a text of the third volume as possible. Bondi did amazing work by knocking on doors hunting for pieces of the manuscript, by perusing leads of potential copies, and through much archival work.  The work certainly suffered a lack of mazal but it also suffered from disrespectful neglect and tampering. Thankfully, in this interview Bondi names the guilty and then moves us to share his vision of how Heschel changed his life.

Dr. Dror Bondi has a doctorate in Jewish Thought from Bar-Ilan University. He lectures at Machon Kerem of the David Yellin College of Education. In 2012 he translated the first Hebrew collection of Heschel’s articles. He also translated into Hebrew Man’s Quest of God,  The Shabbat and Heschel’s Yiddish book, Kotzk. His own book Ayeca? about Heschel thought earned him Shalem Prize 2006. In 2017 he published the booklet God, Democracy and Humanism in the Thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel (by The Israel Democracy Institute). His new edition of Torah Min HaShamayim, based on newly discovered manuscripts which were never published, won HaPais Prize 2019. He lives in the Urban-Kibbutz Beit Yisrael in Jerusalem, a community of religious and non-religious who unite together in social and spiritual activism. Bondi’s work on Torah Min HaShamayim creates a beautifully edited edition of a classic of modern Jewish thought, which will be destined to many reprints. And likely, to have changed the mazal of this work for good.  

From the new edition, we see the development of Torah Min HaShamayim as a book. There was the idea for book two on revelation, then a turn to book one to describe Rabbinic thought, and finally a conclusion in book number three of the application of the first two books to our own age. Heschel understood Rabbinic texts as theological and as understood by their later developments in Jewish thought through Maimonides and Kabbalah up to Hatam Sofer and R. Zadok Hakohen. In many ways Heschel has provided    an    annotated    Norton’s    Anthology    of    Rabbinic Revelatory Thought  in  Judaism as well as instructions for the application of those texts.

The first part uses Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann’s dichotomy between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva. Many think  that  Heschel  always  favors  one  side  or  the  other;  in  fact,  in  each  chapter  he  seems  to  seek  an  approach  that  works  today. R.  Ishmael  as  a  defender  of  poetic  experience,  rational  cognition,  and  confronting  the  needs  of  the  hour.  Rabbi Akiva as the mystic, kabbalist, and idealist.   

R.   Akiva’s   conception   turned   towards   the   personal  God,  the  Holy  One,  blessed  be  He  who  “participated  in  the  pain  of  his  creature”;  in  contrast,  R.  Ishmael  surrendered  before  a  God  of  judgment,  mercy,  and  power . Regarding the relationship of heaven and earth, Heschel    presents    two    chapters    on    the    typological    attitudes    toward    the    shekhinah as God’s presence. For R. Akiva, the shekhinah is located spatially, in the west, in the Temple, as in  Ezekiel’s  vision.  This  approach,  in  turn,  generated later kavod theories and Kabbalah. R. Ishmael    senses    God    everywhere    in    the    temporal world,  as  in  Maimonidean  cognition  or  Hasidism.  One notices  the  similarity  to  Moshe   Idel’s   categories   of   theosophic   and   ecstatic. But, Heschel’s categories do not all line up; his two poles are floating. This first section contains Heschel’s  views  on  Judaism including God,  mizvot, prayer, ethics, and symbolism. Just the fist book alone would generate a full symposium

The second part of the book discusses Heschel’s view of revelation as a tension of the more textual Rabbi Yishmael and the more experiential Rabbi Akiva. We need to study the text in a rational manner, but Heschel also claims  that: “You  cannot  grasp  the  matter  of  the  “Torah  from  Heaven”  unless  you  feel  the  heaven  in  the  Torah.” You cannot be rational without the experiential sense of God’s wonderous “Whoever    denies    the    wondrous has  no  share  in  this  world;  how  much  more  so  can  such  a  person have  no  dealing  with  heavenly  matters.  If this  event  is  like  an  everyday  occurrence,  given    to    accurate    apprehension    and    description,  then  it  is  no  prophecy.  And if  the  prophetic  encounter  is  sublime  and  awesome,  without  parallel  in  the  world,  then it is clear that no description will do it justice, and silence becomes it.”

Heschel argues that  one  needs  to  experience  a  feeling of the Torah from heaven:  if one does not, one  should  not  be  teaching  or  studying  these  matters.  He declares  passionately  that  Judaism  is  not   limited to the   rational   non-experiential   approach   of   historians  and  talmudists. As Heschel already wrote in a 1933 poem, “Let it be clear: enthusiasm or mockery!”   One   needs   to   take   up   the   prophetic   banner   of   renewal,   the   poetic,   the   kabbalistic   or   the   Maimonidean,   or   one   must   openly     reject     Heschel’s     approach.     Heschel     demands   the  reader  to  not  limit  him  for  the  demands  of  those  who  do  not  hear  the  voice  of  God.

When the English translation of the book, Heavenly Torah, came out I gave a multi-week class in Manhattan on the work and wrote a long review article on it.(And see my post about the important review by Gedaliah Haber about the significant changes between the Hebrew and English editions.) I hope to find a venue for a slow and intensive reading of the new third part. I have not yet had a chance to go through Bondi’s reconstruction in detail.  

In main contours, the third part of the book, the one newly published by Bondi, deals with the daily life of living a life responsive to God. He deal with ethics, halakha, supererogatory acts, humra and kula, multiple opinions, intentional sin for a higher purpose, Kavod habriot (human dignity). In general, the question of how can we hear God’s voice today and submit to it. For  Heschel,  accepting  only  the  halakhah is  a  non-normative  position. Halakhah deals  with  matters  that  are  quantifiable;  aggadah speaks of matters of conscience and how to apply the halakhah in real life.

Heschel accepts the position of the Hatam   Sofer,   who   taught   that   there   is   no   certainty   in   halakhah,   for   “even   a   halakhic   ruling that appears to us to be firm and correct may  not  be  so  according  to  ultimate  truth”. For Hatam Sofer,  the  Torah  is  above  any  text;     aggadic     statements     such     as     “no     innovations  in  the  Torah”  (hadash  asur  min  ha-torah)   are   valued   over   halakhic   reasoning.   Heschel uses this fluidity to prove the need to look toward  the  ultimately  inaccessible  divine  Torah, wonder, fear of heaven, and conscience,  rather  than  knowing  Torah  only  by  means of juridical decisions. As Bondi wrote in the interview: “Modern Jewish movements try to change Halakhah in order to adjust it to modern values, but Heschel asks a Hasidic question: how does it reflect the divine concern.”

Bondi did a wonderful job of providing indexes to Biblical, Rabbinic, and Kabbalistic Hasidic works used by Heschel making the volume even easier to use as a reference for Rabbinic thought. However, the volumes lacks indices to exegetical and halakhic works cited. Hence, there is no way find the pages that Heschel cites the Hatam Sofer, the Kli Yakar or even Rashi.  This should not take away from the volume and it can easily be corrected for future editions.  The kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero defined mazal as a spiritual conduit for the flow of divine beneficence. We need to thank Bondi who was able to channel the flow of divine beneficence and thereby changed the mazal and the reception of this major work from neglect to widespread distribution.  He did a fine job.

  1. What is the story of the manuscript of the third part of Torah min Ha-Shamayim?

When I worked on my Ph.D. Dissertation, Heschel’s Hermeneutics, which includes a chapter about Torah min Ha-Shamayim (henceforth TMH), I felt that its third volume – published posthumously almost twenty years after Heschel’s death –  is simply not reflective of him.

Indeed, the chief English translator of this work, Rabbi Gordon Tucker (together with Leonard Levin), already wrote in his introduction that he found problems in it and that he looked for the manuscript but could not find it. Thanks God, during the last eleven years I discovered  many pieces of this manuscript proving that the third volume was incomplete and even misleading.

Here are the parts of the puzzle:

(1) My friend Bini Meir shared with me a treasure. He found in an Israeli archive a collection of Heschel’s letters to Abraham Meir Habermann (an Israeli friend which helped him to print volumes I-II in an Israeli printing house), in which he describes in detail his plan for the first half of volume III. I was shocked to read there that Heschel refers to a written Epilogue as well as to titles of chapters and semi-chapters which were never published. Two of these semi-chapters were published by Heschel himself as articles in HaDoar, but what happened to the rest?

(2) I discovered that during these twenty years the manuscript was being moved between several editors: Prof. David Weiss-Halivni received the original from Heschel’s wife, Sylvia who gave him all what she found, but she missed the Table of Contents and more. Halivni gave it to his student Rabbi David Feldman, who did not finish his work and brought it back to Sylvia; she asked Prof. Shamma Friedman to finish the work and gave him a copy of the original; Friedman gave it to Israel Hazani, who gave it to Prof. Adiel Schremer (who was then a MA student).

I called or wrote to all of them, asking if they know where the manuscript is, and why parts of the work were not published. All of them have nothing to tell me about the place of the manuscript (Schremer told me about the bad condition of the messy copy that he saw), except Rabbi Feldman who wrote to me: “I returned the manuscript to Dr. Heschel for publication, with the exception of perhaps one folder“!!!

Feldman didn’t reply to my further questions (i.e. what did he mean by the words “to Dr. Heschel”, while he gave it to Sylvia). After two months I sent an American friend to knock on his door, and I was shocked to discover that Feldman simply gave him a manuscript of 120 pages, much of it in Heschel’s own handwriting, which he kept at his home almost 40 years. These pages include more than two chapters about the issue of “Sin for the Sake of Heaven” (especially on intermarriage, and with a lot of radical Hasidic sources). We can only guess why Feldman did not give these sections back to Sylvia, but they were the most radical sections.

(3) However, these pages include only part of the chapters which were mentioned in the letters, thus I continued in my search. I found a copy of a copy of more than 500 pages at the home of Rabbi Tamar Kolberg (then, the reform Rabbi of Ra’anana), who was permitted to photocopy it (for her MA thesis) by Shamma Friedman, at the time he had it, at the end of the eighties. This part of the manuscript also includes some material (i.e. a third of a chapter) that were never published. It seems that the volume’s last editors missed it because of the bad condition of the copy they got.

Moreover, one of the errors was an addition to the volume of a marginal note by David Weiss Halivni about Heschel’s interpretation. The editors thought it were Heschel’s words, and made it part of the book. When I showed it to Halivni, he could not believe that such an editorial error could be made in modern times, since he is a scholar who researched such errors in the Talmud!

(4) In the Appendix of my dissertation I examined all these materials, but I understood there are still missing sections.

I continue my search and I discovered that Byron Sherwin published an English translation of a chapter, which supposed to be part of the third volume. I asked Sherwin about it and he replied: “Yes, you are correct that the essay… was originally written by Heschel to appear in volume III”. Sherwin wrote to me that it was to be “a ‘summary, synthesizing’ chapter of the three volumes… Heschel gave me a photostat of a file containing this essay. The file was in a file cabinet along with the mss. of vol III”. Sherwin added that when vol III was published, he did not understand why this chapter was absent. He always wondered what happened to the file and why this essay in Hebrew was never found. I did not understand why Sherwin wondered quietly without corresponding to the editors (or later to Gordon Tucker) to let them know that he had a missing chapter.

(5) Finally, when the Heschel Archive at Duke University was opened (thanks to Susannah Heschel’s support, I was privileged to be one of the first visitors there), I found there almost all the rest of the pieces. The most important piece is the original Table of Contents (very different from the Table of Contents of the previous edition), which gave me the confidence that I figured out the entire puzzle. I also found there drafts of an introduction for volume III, as well as other two chapters (which I cannot explain how they was missed by the previous editors).

Interesting enough is the fact that even though Rabbi Feldman brought back to Sylvia almost all the manuscript, and she gave Shamma Friedman only a copy, I found at Duke only half of the original. In other words, half of the new edition was fixed only due to the copy of the copy, which was found at Rabbi Tamar Kolberg’s home! But where is the rest of the original?

Unfortunately, in my research at Duke I also discovered that R. Feldman made changes in the parts of the original which he brought back to Sylvia, thus I can’t guarantee that I succeeded to recover all Heschel’s authentic intention (and, of course, Heschel himself died before he finished his work). I added to the new edition a record of all my decisions, thus the readers can judge by themselves.

2. What new material is there in Hebrew part III that never came out?

The main materials which never came out are (in their order in the book):

(1) Half of the last chapter of volume II, with the ironic name “Lost Books”, most of it was published by Heschel in HaDoar and the rest was found at Duke.

(2) A chapter about “Views about Prophecy in the Middle Ages” (I added these two materials as appendixes of volume II).

(3) I created from drafts a semi Introduction for volume III.

(4) The first chapter of volume III, “Discussions about belief” (only its first part was published by Heschel in HaDoar).

(5) A third of the chapter “A Sage is Greater than a Prophet” (its other parts were mixed in the previous edition, but not in the right order).

(6) More than two chapters about “Sin for the Sake of Heaven”.

(7) The “summery” chapter which was translated into English and published by Sherwin, but was excluded from the English translation of Tucker.

(8) Many small additions and corrections as well as a rearrangement of the general order, and the correct title for that volume, “Epilogue”.

3. What conclusion can we draw from this new Part III?

The main contribution comes from the very original order. In the mess of the previous edition, one simply could not understand what Heschel was trying to say. For example, Heschel’s scholars debate his preference for R. Akiva or R. Yishmael, the two sages which were presented by him in the first two volumes. Now it is clear that he calls for a polarity between these two perspectives, as well as between their understandings of the belief of Heavenly Torah.

Volume III intended to be Heschel’s Psak (Halakhic decision) about this issue for our time. He wanted to call upon us to accept the humanistic reading of the text of the Torah, namely the Biblical Criticism (in the way of R. Yishmael) together with the deep faith that the Torah is Divine Revelation (in the way of R. Akiva). Indeed, He already wrote about his concept of polarity in this belief in his other writings but not in such depth and detail.

Moreover, I believe that this polarity is also the secret of Heschel’s methodology in volumes I-II, which was criticized by the philological-historical Talmud scholars. For example, Prof. Urbach in the introduction to his book The Sages (1969), castigated TMH as not based on the philological-historical approach. Most of Heschel’s defenders (i.e. Gordon Tucker) explained that Heschel indeed has never intended to engage in historical research, but only in his own Midrash, in order to put his philosophy in the ancient sources. However, as I explained in my epilogue to the new edition, Heschel did intend to offer his own method to gain a deep understanding of the Sages.

4. How would you explain the method of Heschel?

To understand Heschel’s methodology in TMH, one has to see it in the wider context of his last decade. Most of Heschel’s works in that time were dedicated to interpretation – The Prophets (1962),  TMH (1962-1965) of the sages and Kotzk and A Passion for Truth (which he submitted to publish in 1972) of Hasidic rabbis – instead of his own philosophy, Indeed, in the forties he has already published academic articles about Jewish figures, but his last decade’s works reflect an independent methodology, on which he wrote in all these works.

Heschel’s introduction to The Prophets focuses on the development of his methodology, from his dissertation (published as Die Prophetie in 1936) where he uses phenomenology, but when he came to translate it into English, he felt that he must develop a new way. Instead of using the phenomenological Epoché process of setting aside any judgement, he tries to combine it with an engaged response to the prophets.

Heschel’s Yiddish work, Kotzk, suffered from a very similar critique which was directed to TMH. The philological-historical scholars (i.e. Yaakov Levinger) claimed that Heschel’s work about the Kotzker is bad scholarship. However, Heschel explains there that he uses the unique Hasidic way of “standing before the author”, which was based upon the saying of R. Gidel (Yerushalmi Kidushin 19b:1): “one who teaches a statement in the name of its author should envision the author (Ba’al HaShmuah) as though the author is standing right there”, an inter-subjective response  with the author.

Vol. III of TMH clarifies Heschel’s polarity between phenomenology and this Hasidic way of learning. Just like the polarity between R. Akiva and R. Yishmael so is the polarity between these two methods. The phenomenological is the critical pole, requiring sensitive listening to the text (like R. Yishmael), but one should combine it with the intersubjective pole, with attentiveness to the author (like R. Akiva).

5. Did you update the editions of the Rabbinic texts used?

No, I didn’t. Heschel’s interpretations based upon the sources he had, sometimes, apparently, which he quoted by memory with mistakes. I found at Duke a list of corrections (maybe of Heschel’s student?) for the first two volumes, and I corrected them in the new edition. However, I didn’t correct other mistakes, when I feel that it might harm Heschel’s interpretation.

6. Any insight into Heschel’s Hebrew?

In my previous work I choose to translate Heschel’s English into contemporary Hebrew, which is quite different from his own Rabbinic Hebrew, especially in TMH. I decided to do it in order to bring Heschel to the Israelis of today, as Heschel addressed to the English readers of his days.

During my translation work I was astonished to discover how the Modern Hebrew is a secular-national language which cannot adequately translate Heschel’s English. I.e. there is no good translation for Awe. The biblical term Yirah, which is good translation of Awe, means for the most of the Israelis today only fear. Here is all the tragedy of Zionism in one word. Another example: it is very difficult to translate the word “religious” for Israelis. In Israel the immediate meaning of this word is Orthodox, Halakhic person, while Heschel meant much deeper and universal meaning.

TMH is a work that Heschel choose to write in Rabbinic Hebrew, and the result is fascinating. His language echoes the language of his sources, in a very similar way in which his Yiddish work, Kotzk, echoes the language of the Kotzker.

7. Do you think that Heschel could be accepted in Israeli university departments of Jewish studies? Do you think that he could be accepted in yeshivot?

I deeply hope so. In the academy today, there is new openness, paradoxically due to the post-modern understanding which is breaking the hegemony of the philological-historical approach. If we can use Foucault in order to understand Jewish sources, why not Heschel?

Moreover, I believe that this method can have a unique contribution to the understanding of texts of revelation or of interpretation of revelation. This is a way in which one relates to the polarity of Revelation-Text, to its divine Author as well as its humanistic writer. And especially, this is the only way to read Heschel, if one wants to understand him in his own way.

Of course, we will continue to use all the other wonderful methods, ancient, modern and post-modern. However, if we don’t want to forget that we are dealing with texts of Revelation, at least as its authors experience them, we have to remember that all those methods are only the critical pole. Our deepest challenge remains to meet the living author, as the writers of these texts understood them.

 In the Yeshivot there is still a commitment to the Litvak way of learning, which paradoxically reflects the Western way of thinking. Cheftza and Gavra, the famous terms of the Brisker method, are none but other names to the western dichotomy of Object and Subject. Heschel tries to renew the forgotten Hasidic way, the dialogical way of response to the author, which can be described by the two other terms – Duchra and Nukvah, the positive-active divine masculine and the negative-passive feminine of the Kabbalah (of course, we need adaptions to our new understandings of gender).

In some Israeli Hesder Yeshivot which have real openness to Hasidism, Heschel has already started to be part of the theological discussion. Now, I believe, with the new edition of TMH, he is going to get into their way of Talmud learning.

8. What did you learn about Heschel from this process?

I encountered him much more personally, especially in his loneliness. Indeed, I had already met him in his writings. I have never read someone who so deeply present in his words. But during this research I have encountered him in the depths of his own personal situation, as reflected in his letters and manuscripts, which shows his personal difficulties.

The manuscripts reveal that Heschel’s first intention was to publish a small book about the belief of heavenly Torah, but his manuscript was rejected by an Israeli publishing house (even though Buber recommended them to publish). Heschel even promised the publisher a follow-up book about the Besht (never published), but he was rejected.

However, due to this delay, Heschel discovered the whole dispute between R. Yishmael and R. Akiva, which was not part of the original book. Meanwhile, he found a British publishing house (Soncino Press) which agreed to print it by an Israeli printing house (Refael Chaim Cohen), but then Heschel discovered that they simply could not work together. He called Habermann for help, but his friend did not succeed. Paradoxically, all these problems let Heschel add more and more to the original book, until he decided to split it into two volumes, and then into three. I read Heschel’s words to Habermann – “Would you say that there is no end to author suffering?… I have no words and I have great sorrow” – Through these letters, I met Heschel more personally than ever.

When I went to Duke, I found there not only the missing pieces of the manuscript, but also personal materials which shed light about Heschel life. In fact, this archive demands an entirely new biography, as well as to publish a book of Heschel’s correspondences.

For me, it was shock to discover how deep was his Mesirut Nefesh – he simply gave his life in order to save the soul of Judaism, as well as for saving the Western world from its own racism etc. – but almost no one understood him.

9. How do you see the role of halakhah in Heschel’s thought?

Heschel’s understanding of halakhah is Hasidic, in the original sense of the term, as a devotional way of life. For him, there are two independent poles: Halakhah (Jewish law), and Aggadah, (Jewish thought and devotion), only the combination of these two poles creates the complete Torah. Moreover, above the Torah, stands God (who is not a Jewish man!). God’s relationship with human beings opens us to a dialogical co-existence with Him and between fellow humanity.

There is no identity between God and Halakhah, and that’s why there are situations of “sin for the sake of heaven” (i.e. intermarriage, in which we feel the contradiction between Halakhah, the Jewish law, to love, the divine presence).  Litvaks think that Halakhah is the only way to God, but Heschel tell us that Agadah is the way of God to us! Of course, we need both of them, like body and soul, but when one realizes that there is no identity between God and Halakhah, one starts asking questions about the gaps between them: to what extent does Halakhah today still reflect God’s care for us and demand from us? Modern Jewish movements try to change Halakhah in order to adjust it to modern values, but Heschel asks a Hasidic question: how does it reflect the divine concern.

10. What are the problems of the English edition of  Torah min Hashamayim?

The English translation of TMH is an unbelievable work, I simply cannot imagine how difficult a project it was. However, I must say, the English translators decided to omit many passages from their translation, maybe because they felt it was too long and too complicated. For example, they did not translate half of the introduction for volume II and they omitted a whole semi-chapter from the chapter about Deuteronomy. Moreover, they made changes in the order of the work. For example, they changed the place of chapter 30 of volume II (in their order).Gordon Tucker’s short introduction to every chapter are very helpful, but I made my own introductions for the new edition – and I hope that “these and these are the words of the living God”.

11. Why were you attracted to Heschel’s thought?

I grew up in Shavei Shomron, one of the first settlements, in a very ideological right wing family. The name of this settlement means Samaria Returnees, which echoes “Shavei Zion”, the Zion Returnees from Babylon after 538 BCE. Thus, I was guided by the vision that I am part of the greatest redemption; a vision that I am part of the group leading the Zionist movement to the renewal capital of the ten tribes, to greater Israel. We didn’t hate the Arabs; they simply were part of the landscape. The first Intifada was not easy for us, but the stones and the Molotov bottles only deepen our ideological commitment. Why was my sister’s friend murdered by stones? As a kid, the only reason that I found is that we are part of the greatest mission: the apex of the Zionist movement (which itself is the elite of the Jewish people, who are the pinnacle of humanity).

That’s why the peace process led by PM Rabin, was so hard for the young man I was. Rabin called us the peace enemies. He broke our messianic visions, as well as the illusion that we are the heralds of all Israelis. I was only eighteen when Rabin was assassinated, but I was not surprised; he was our Antichrist. But I was deeply shocked to understand that my land-centeric Judaism murdered my ethnocentric Zionism, that I have to choose between the two sides of my right-wing Torah: the Holy land and the Holy people – and my Holy Tablets were broken.

 I had just started studying in a Hesder Yeshiva, but this background made my Yeshiva years a long journey for healing. In spite of all the deep Jewish learning I was privileged to receive it did not succeeded to fix my broken tablets. I even tried to learn a year with Rabbi Shagar, but his postmodernity only further tore my Jewish map into pieces; I did not experience his mystic solution.

 Deeply desperate, I became an insurance salesman in our family business. Fortunately, it was too boring for me, thus I went to learn one day a week in the MA program in Jewish Philosophy at Bar-Ilan University. Prof. Ephraim Meir fascinated me with Buber and Levinas, and encouraged me to write a MA thesis about Heschel. I came to Heschel without expectations, after my first reading in the course he sounded to me much less sophisticated than other modern Jewish philosophers.

And then, suddenly, he made me feel my own radical amazement. For an instance, his perspective opened my mind, surprising me with another point of view about my Jewish map.  I felt as if he tells me: “my friend, you know why you could not find your way though you deeply know the Jewish map? Because you look at it from the opposite direction! Your national and Orthodox perspectives are idolatrous; they made you look at the Holy Tablets as an idol, which had to be broke. Don’t look for fixing anymore; Get thee to an alternative perspective, unto a land that I will shew thee. I was attracted to Heschel because he showed me God’s Second Tablets.

12. Will Heschel be attractive to young Israeli Jews?

One of the main problems of Zionism, the revolution which states that Judaism is an ethnic phenomenon, is that it made Jewish thought an unnecessary part of the Jewish national culture. The new state of the ethnic Jews creates a lot of important novelists, which describe the Israeli experience, the Israeliyut, but there is no word in Israel for Jewishness (and the term Yiddishkeit here means the primitive costumes of diaspora Jews). There are very few Israeli Jewish thinkers, most of them comes from non-Israeli diaspora backgrounds.

Heschel’s project tries to suggest Judaism as a human alternative to the ethnocentrism. Zionism understands Judaism as another national culture (like Russian or German culture), and Orthodoxy understands Judaism as a particular religion (like Christianity or Islam), Heschel understands Judaism as a unique universal contribution to humanity. The Sabbath‘s subtitle is: Its Meaning for Modern Man (namely, Human Being); not for Modern Jew.

Heschel is attractive to young Israeli Jews who look for a change. More and more young Israelis, seculars as well as religious, suffer from the famous dichotomy of the Jewish vs. democratic state. Why does our Jewish identity have to contradict our democratic values? Many young Israelis come back from India with a spiritual thirst, but they feel that the Jewish sources, in their Israeli interpretation, demand them to pay with their democratic values. Heschel offers them an alternative.

For Heschel, Judaism is not an identity – an answer to the questions what is your ethnicity or your religion?  Rather, it is a response to an intimate question of God. The creator of every human being in His image calls us and we respond to Him. God is not a Jewish concept, a part of the Jewish identity, and Judaism is not only an effort for a surviving of a nation or a culture. First and foremost it is a dialogical respond to the universal God, a self-transcendence of a nation, dedicated to Tikkun Olam. For Heschel, this relationship is not an exclusive to Jews, but a model for all humanity and all nations of how to understand their identity as a response to God.

13. Why is it important that Heschel chose time over space?

For Heschel, one of the deepest contributions of Judaism is its unique understanding of time. He claims that in our western civilization we tend to appreciate time only when we move in space or earn space. The Sabbath is the deep alternative: though there is no moving and there is no money, we experience the holiness of Time. Heschel explains that the secret of the Sabbath is the intersubjective moment between God’s revelation and one’s response. Such a moment is a sacred time, without dependence on space. When you respond to God’s concern, you open your mind to His perspective: instead of being a subject who objectifies all around you as a mere space, you experience a sacred time with all the creatures and a sacred solidarity with all the people.

 Heschel saw the failure of the western objectification in the racism in Europe and America. Moreover, he was afraid that if the Jews will establish another European national state, it might be another state of objectified space rather than a universal contribution of dialogical Time. In this sense, his Sabbath, published in 1951, is a Jewish alternative to the western Zionism.

However, since 1957, and especially after 1967, Heschel started thinking about an alternative Spiritual-Zionism. In his book Israel: An Echo of Eternity (1969) he developed a dialogical understanding of space. A place in which dialogical moments of time are not alien. The place in which our parents fell in love is deeply meaningful for us. If one comes to such a place with open heart, the place becomes a dwelling place for time (the love of our parents inspires us there). Then, instead of objectification of this place, one will hope to make it a place of love, of equality and peace. Heschel called Israel to remember that the Holy Land is not a place to be objectified. Open your hearts to the moments between God and Isaiah or Jeremiah, and to the true meaning of the temple. Then you will experience the land as a demand for a state of encounter with the divine, and for solidarity between human beings.

My book Rabbi on the Ganges -paperback

The paperback edition of my book Rabbi on the Ganges: A Jewish-Hindu Encounter (Lexington Books) came out two weeks ago. Now is the time to buy it for yourself or as a gift. It will interest all those who want to know about the Jewish-Hindu Encounter including the Hin-Jews, Bu-Jews, and the Jewish Yoga practitioners that you know in your life. You can read it over the holidays. Or buy it now and bring it with you when you plan on hiking in India.

Rabbi on the Ganges: A Jewish-Hindu Encounter as described by Rabbi Yakov Nagen, Otniel Yeshiva

Rabbi, professor, traveler, storyteller, spiritual seeker, all of these roles have woven together to enable an outstanding achievement: Alan Brill’s Rabbi on the Ganges. This book serves both as an introduction to Hinduism and also as a comparative study of Hinduism and Judaism. Brill has an ability to sift between the essential and the trivial that allows this introduction to be significant and meaningful, exploring the history of Hinduism and its variety of denominations and philosophies.

Despite the enormous amount of information, the book doesn’t feel dense but rather very readable. In terms of the comparison to Judaism, there are insights both relating to the rituals and practices of these religions but also the deep spiritual teaching. Brill also shows parallel developments in both religions, such as regarding the status of women and responses to modernity.

One of the most significant messages of the book is showing how the contemporary Jewish view of Hinduism is based on a Hinduism of antiquity rather than the Hinduism of today. For me, this book has been transformative, and I believe that it will form a basis for a fruitful relationship between Judaism and Hinduism.

You can read a review here in Chava Bahle, The Journal of Interreligious Studies 30 (August 2020)

Jewish anxiety about the allure of the so-called “Eastern” religions reached a fever pitch in the 1960s and 1970s, when American ashrams and meditation centers were filled disproportionally with Jews as both adherents and teachers. (I myself was sent hurriedly to our rabbi’s esteemed wife, who  had  learned  about  cult  “deprogramming.”  My  misstep?  Having  read  and  praised Bhagavad Gita: As It Is, a gift to my twelve-year-old self from Hare Krishnas at the local shopping mall.) Brill’s serious, respectful treatment of the Jewish-Hindu encounter in Rabbi on the Gangesprovides much needed breathing room for Jewish lay readers to think about Hinduism with a respected Modern Orthodox Jewish writer who clearly cherishes his experience

And for those who prefer podcasts for their reviews, here is a podcast at New Books in Religion with Raj Balkaran

Amazon – Rabbi on the Ganges

Lexingtom Books – Rabbi on the Ganges

Indiebound – Rabbi on the Ganges

Interview with Raphael Shuchat on R. Hayyim’s of Volozhin’s Conversations

Mitnagged Spirituality may sound incongruous to many, may be even an oxymoron. Modern American Jewish studies focuses almost predominantly on Hasidut and Neo-Hasidut, but strikingly less so on Lithuanian Jewish spirituality.  However, there have been over 25 years of conferences on the thought of the Vilna Gaon and his followers, mainly at Bar Ilan University. Little of this material has become integrated into English language studies of modernity.

Over the course of the last generation the writings of the circle of the Vilna Gaon and his students have been explicated by Idel, Etkes, Liebes, Shuchat, Baumgarten, Brill, Waks, Avivi, and others. New manuscripts are being edited and new connections to the history of Jewish thought are being worked out. Idel showed the influence of Abulafia on some of the Gaon’s students, Liebes showed the influence of Sabbatian writings, Eliezer Baumgarten has given us some of the best explications of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin’s Nefesh HaHayyim, as well as fine explications of Rabbi Isaac Haver, Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Naftali Hertz Halevi, and Shlomo Elyashiv. I have written on the use of philosophic terms, prayer, and suffering. In fact, our last conference was in January 2020, right before COVID.

Moshe Idel in one of his recent books devoted a chapter to Lithuanian Kabbalah claiming that it should be added to our roster of major trends in Jewish Mysticism, a major trend which Gershom Scholem ignored. Raphael Shuchat’s edited DAAT volume (2015) on Lithuanian Kabbalah is a good place to start.  Raphael Shuchat’s recent book Rav Hayyim Volozhin’s Conversations with Students of the Yeshiva [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Idra Publications, 2021) contributes to the ever-growing roster of new works.

Rabbi Dr. Raphael Shuchat who has an MA from Hebrew University and a PhD from Bar Ilan has been working for his entire career on the Vilna Gaon and his disciples. His dissertation turned into book on the Vilna Gaon’s concepts of redemption received the Minister of Education’s Prize in 1997, He edited, together with Moshe Hallamish, a volume of the papers of one of the Gra conferences in 2003. He teaches Jewish Philosophy at the School for Basic Jewish Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

Rabbi Dr.Raphael Shuchat received a major grant from the Israel Science Foundation to publish some of the manuscripts of this circle which still needed to be published. His work, together with Dr. Eliezer Baumgarten,  on Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin’s hanhagot, his pietistic statements, is discussed below. He is also working on new edition of the Gaon’s commentary on Shir Hashirim based on 6 mss., together with Dr. Roi Goldshmidt.

R. Hayyim Volozhin’s Conversations with Students of the Yeshiva (Tel Aviv: Idra Publications, 2021)

Shuchat’s new Hebrew volume R. Hayyim Volozhin’s Conversations is not about new ideas, rather it is the needed journeyman’s work for a field. Zev Gries worked on the hanhagot (pious directives) of early Hasidism in 1979 and published in the 1980’s. The publishing of the manuscripts of R. Hayyim’s hanhagot and a comparison of the recensions was desperately needed. For those who ae familiar with the published Maaseh Rav on the pietistic practices of this circle, this book will be a pleasant update, if not then this will be a technical and possibly tedious. For those new to the topic, start with reading of R. Hayyim’s Nefesh Hahayim, recently translated into English

Turning to content, one of the best new nuggets in this book is that the Vilna Gaon said to learn Zohar for one hour a day after the morning prayers. But that this directive was edited out from the printed editions.  And we know from other sources that R. Hayyim advocated the basic study of Zohar and Shaarei Orah of R. Yosef Gikatilla, as well as the summery of Cordovero’s Pardes Rimonim- Assis Rimonim by R. Shmuel Gallico,

We also find out that there were students with a hassidic devotion in the Volozhin yeshiva and R. Hayyim even had a grandson, Shlomo Eliyahu Ben Yosef Rabinovich, who was so inclined. 

We also see a focus on discerning from where do magical and clairvoyant powers used by Rabbis come from. It seems the Vilna Gaon relegated Hasidic powers to the demonic side, while claiming their own powers including exorcism as from the magical power of Torah and the performance of yihudim. Shuchat does not address the undercurrent of Western European mesmerism that was part of early 19th century Lithuanian Jewry.  

My favorite tidbit is that R. Hayyim claimed to have a method of divination through studying Torah with enthusiasm and when one reaches certain level of lishmah (lishmah here defined as a moment of enthusiastic oneness or ecstasy- it does not mean for its own intellectual sake) at that moment, they should think of the topic they seek guidance in and make a request whether to do or not, and whatever comes into their mind at that moment,  this is what they should do. The Goral HaGra- the Vilna Gaon’s method of prognosis of the future is a piece of 20th century pseudepigrapha, but these concerns go back to the Vilna Gaon himself.

Finally, one of the pious directives that interests me, is that one manuscript exhorts the reader to visualize every letter and word of prayer as one says them, one visualizes while praying similar to the directive of Rabbi Hayyim’s student Zundel of Salant in his prayer directives. And one of the recensions exhorts one only to visualize the divine names. Neither visualization practice became part of the later image of Mitnaggdim.

Dr. Raphael Shuchat speaks about the Vilna Gaon
  1. What are the hanhagot literature of R. Hayyim?

The hanhagot (ethical behavior) literature of R. Hayyim referred to as the ‘sheiltot‘, meaning, questions, posed by students of the Volozhin yeshiva to him. The sheiltot are similar to the hanhagot literature of other Eastern European Rabbis of the time, especially among the hassidim, but differ in that they discusses halakhic issues and well as issues from Jewish thought and kabbalah.  These hanhagot were circulating among the students of the Volozhin yeshiva in the last years of Rav Hayyim’s life before any of his printed works were known.

The importance of the sheiltot is that they give us a portal into R. Hayyim’s view of Judaism. The questions are in every aspect of Jewish life. Therefore it differs from posthumous Nefesh Hahayyim, his main work, which was intended as a Rabbinic-Kabbalistic world view of Judaism as an alternative to the Hassidic View.

2. What is Keter Rosh?

Keter Rosh, already printed in 1914, was the first published and the best-known collection of the sheiltot questions and came out in many editions. It contains many of the questions in the other collections but not all of them. However, it also was heavily edited sometimes changing the meaning of the answer.  The book claims that the sheiltot were written down by R. Asher HaCohen Ashkenazi, while he attended the Volozhin yeshiva in 1819. Keter Rosh was published in 1914 by R. Shlomo Ashkenazi the grandson of R. Asher Askenazi and the nephew of R. Eliyahu Landau. However, other collections of sheiltot, like the Podro manuscript, contain sheiltot not found in Keter Rosh.

Keter Rosh was not the first published collection of Sheiltot of Rav Hayyim. The first is found in Shaarei Rahamim 1871, and an additional collection is contained in Hanhagot Yesharot 1893 and then again in a collection referred to as Orhot Hayyim in 1896 published by R. Eliyahu Landau together with Tosefet Maaseh Rav. The manuscript was the aforementioned text written by R. Asher Ashkenazi and was the basis of Keter Rosh.

In my book, I back to the sources and look at five manuscripts that were the basis of these printed editions and some that were not published. The manuscripts are ascribed to various authors including R. Yisrael of Shklov, which is unlikely, since he had left to Israel already by 1809. The printed editions give the feeling that the sheiltot are mostly concerning halakhah however these manuscripts demonstrate that at least half of them are in matters of hashkafah (Jewish thought).

3. What were the new revelations discovered in these conversations – sheiltot?

We learn that R. Hayyim first met the Gaon at the age of 19, or that in the latter years of his life he has a special room designated for meditating (heder Hitbodedut). Maybe the most interesting quote is found in the Podro collection where R. Hayyim says: “The Gra said that the main effort of man must be concerning transgressions between man and man in all their details”.

There are also interesting sources concerning the hassidim. In Nefesh Hahayyim R. Hayyim never mentioned the hassidim by name, but in the sheiltot he (or the student) refers to them as the “kat” (group or cult) or the ‘known’ ones.

The sheiltot point out ideological disagreements with hassidism but R. Hayyim was tolerant towards them in day to day life permitting students with a hassidic inclination to study at the yeshiva. We discover that he had a grandson who became a hassid and how he told him to keep the halakhot of the Talmud and not to speak about the Gaon.

The most obvious questions in the collection concern torah study, especially R. Hayyim’s rejection of Pilpul (casuistry)  and how he saw the study of Talmud “aliba dehilkheta”, to understand the practical halakhic outcome. However, R. Hayyim does make it an imperative to study all of the Bible, Hebrew grammar from Sefer Hamaslul, midrash, agaddah, musar (for non scholars), and Zohar.

The material shows that R. Hayyim frequently warned against ecstatic experiences and revelations referring to them as coming from the other side (impurity or demons).    He also brings many statements and stories in the name of the Vilna Gaon in this context. All this is congruent with R. Hayyim’s introduction to the Gaon’s commentary on Sifra diTzniuta, where he portrays the Gaon as being against personal revelations outside of Torah. It is of interest for researchers to note that R. Hayyim is the only student of the Gaon to speak of this problem concerning revelations and ecstatic experiences.

4. Why were these hanhagot not published before?

Most of these sheiltot were published at one time or another as I mentioned before. However, they were appended to existing books almost as an afterthought and the origin was not explained clearly so they were not taken seriously. When we examine the manuscripts; one is in the handwriting of R. Yosef Zundel of Salant, a close student of R. Hayyim, whose student R. Yisrael of Salant founded the Musar Movement in Lithuania. Another ms. is in the handwriting of R. Shmuel Moltzen who published the book Even Shleimah, a popular collection of the Vilna Gaon’s ideas.

5. What is the role of Torah and Torah Lishmah in his R. Hayyim’s path?

Torah study and particularly torah lishmah, in its purist state as a mystical connection for R. Hayyim is the basis of all human spirituality as shown in the entire fourth part of Nefesh Hahayyim.

The sheiltot discuss Torah study in a very practical way since it is instructional for the students. The goal of Talmud study to derive the practical halakhah and to understand how it arises from the theoretical discussion. “People says that studying poskim with out the Gemara is like [eating] fish without pepper whereas Our Rabbi said it’s like pepper without the fish”(sheiltot).  

However, he interprets this in a mystical way, in that the study of Torah is an act of connecting to the Divine will which is a way of clinging to God (devekut). As R. Hayyim says in his commentary to Pirkei Avot , Ruah Hayyim, “The act of studying Torah is the main goal and the knowledge gained is secondary”.

In the sheiltot it says: “Our Rabbi said: the Zohar writes that one who merits a halakha inherits one world, refers to any law.” The idea of inheriting a world refers to attaining a certain spiritual ability and clarity as the Torah is the Divine logos for mankind.

R. Hayyim claims that divination is only possible, or allowed, if it’s done while studying Torah lishmah, as it says in the sheiltot:

{indent} “[Our Rabbi] revealed a secret to me: To take advice from the Torah [as a way of divination]: when one has studied with enthusiasm until they feel that they have studied to a certain level of lishmah, at that moment, they should think of a request whether to do or not, and whatever comes into their mind at that moment,  this is what they should do, for this is advice from the Torah”.

This can only be understood if we realize that for R. Hayyim the act of Torah study as a form of Torah lishmah is a form of unio mystico in which human knowledge and Divine knowledge can touch, even for a moment.  

6. What should be the curriculum?

 R. Hayyim told his students to study grammar and Zohar but no official time slots were allotted for this in the yeshiva. We know of scholars who studied kabbalah privately with R. Hayyim.  Concerning kabbalah it says in the Yosef Zundel ms.: “To learn Zohar and Shaarei Orah [by R. Joseph Gikkatila- 13th century] in order to understand the connotations [kinuyim] in the Zohar… and the summary of  Pardes Rimonim [referring to Asis Rimonim by R. Menahem Azariah of Fano] is good to study”. R. Hayyim is following the Gaon who in the original version of Masseh Rav written by R. Yassakhar Ber in paragraph 60 [which was censored in most editions of Maaseh Rav afterwards] it says to learn Zohar for one hour a day after the morning prayers. 

In the sheiltot it says: “It is good to learn the book maslul”. This book is on Hebrew grammar and refers to the book written by Hayyim ben Naftali Hertz Keslin published in Hamburg in 1788.

7. What were the spiritual powers of the Gra?

 In most of R. Hayyim’s introductions to the Gaon’s works he refrains from mentioning any special spiritual abilities of the Gaon except his knowledge of and devotion to Torah study. However, in his later introduction to Sifra diTzniuta he mentions that the Gaon attempted to produce a Golem, had angelic maggidim appear to him to teach him torah (which he refused) and had a revelation of Elijah the prophet. This, it appears, was a change in tactic, from hiding the Gaon’s spiritual side in order not to lend support to Hassidism, to describing the Gaon as one of great spiritual exponents, who downplayed these abilities in order to study torah.

The sheiltot are of this second opinion and reflects R.  Hayyim’s position in the last years of his life. It is interesting to compare this to  R. Menahem Mendel of Shklov’s introduction to Pirkei Avot, in which he describes the Gaon as having astonishing spiritual powers.

The question of whether this is an agenda oriented description or not. R. Hayyim in general does not shy away in the sheiltot from describing the Gaon’s abilities even as an exorcist  or a controller of demons, but claims that all this was secondary to Torah study and for the Gaon this was meaningless as an end in itself.

8. What is R. Hayyim’s method of prayer? How does prayer relate to Torah?

In the sheiltot, as in Nefesh Hahayim, the main purpose of prayer is adoration and not supplication. The purpose of adoration is a connection in which the human being can strengthen the spiritual side of reality therefore rectifying the world by adding holiness to the cosmic balance.

In Nefesh Ha-hayyim, R. Hayyim seems to downplay the intent of the tefilla by emphasizing the reciting of the letters of the tefilla, however in the sheiltot the intent is considered central and the pronunciation of the words as secondary. I think it has to do with R. Hayyim’s different audiences. Nefesh Ha-hayyim is addressing people who are spiritually developed, whereas the sheiltot are addressing students of the yeshiva.

Another interesting notion is that R. Hayyim told R. Yisrael of Shklov that when praying with the Sephardim, (in the land of Israel), not to deviate from their customs.   

Even prayer receives its potency through one’s spiritual level attained while studying Torah.  

 R. Hayyim writes in Nefesh HaHayyim: “The essence of prayer depends entirely on Torah study, and without it, prayer is not heard, heaven forbid, as it is written, ‘He who turns a deaf ear to instruction – his prayer is an abomination (Prov. 28:9)”.

Nevertheless, for R. Hayyim, Torah study itself as a way to achieve devekut (clinging to God): “When engaged in study and contemplation of the Torah, there is certainly no need to pay any thought to devekut, for by study and contemplation alone he cleaves to God’s will and His  word, and God is one with His will and His word”.

In addition, “[R. Hayyim] said that he would give all [the merit] of his prayers for one new halakhic novelae [hidush] from the gemarah”. For this act of discovering new ideas from the Torah is connecting to the Divine will.

9. What was the polemic against Hasidic Rebbes who claimed prognostic powers?

These manuscripts reject Hassidic Rebbes’ abilities to know the future or esoteric knowledge.

I will offer two short examples. Not only is the sheiltot literature the only place where the word Hassidim is mentioned in connection to R. Hayyim, but there are two unusual statements: One, concerning the Hassidic Rebbes and one concerning the Baal Shem tov: “I heard one [person] say to the Gra [the Vilna Gaon] that the Rebbes of the Hassidim know nothing without deception. The Gra answered: No. There are things [techniques] they practice and through them they know some things in the near future and some mysterious ideas (see Nahmanides, Exodus. 17, 7)”.

In this quote, the anonymous person claims that all the Rebbes are charlatans but the Gra counters and claims they are using known techniques to reach hidden knowledge, of which the Gra disapproves. The addition in brackets was probably added by the writer or copier and it refers to Nahmanides’ claim that one can receive secret knowledge from the “other side” , meaning the side of impurity, through various techniques.

The second quote can be found in the R. Yosef Zundel manuscript: ” My teacher [R. Hayyim]  said that everything the Besht knew was through nocturnal divination by way of dreams [sheelat Halom]. [However] the Gra of blessed memory, had an ascent of soul without the use of Divine names [yihudim], just naturally”. The contrast here is to demonstrate the level of the man of Torah who is naturally spiritual and therefore, can certainly gain insights from the upper worlds, however the Hassidim need to use techniques to reach these levels due to their inferior spiritual abilities).

10. What was the rejection of the Hasdic concept of Intentional Sin for the Sake of Heaven?

Performing a sin for heaven’s sake (aveirah lishmah), is mentioned in the Talmud as a legitimate action in special circumstances. The Talmud goes as far as to say: “Greater is a sin for heaven’s sake [lishmah] than a transgression not for heaven’s sake” (b. Nazir 23B). Early Hassidic leaders used this idea to justify bending certain rabbinic based halakhot, such as praying the daily prayers in their specific time frame. These thinkers saw the importance of the right mind set and preparation as overriding the time factor.

R. Hayyim claims that the idea of aveirah lishah for Jews was only allowed before the Torah was given. In the sheiltot it says: “aveirah lishmah: this was allowed only before the giving of the Torah [therefore Jacob married two sisters] . The ‘known’ ones,[i.e. the hassidim] say that anything can be included in aveirah lishmah. However if that were true, why would we need the 613 commandments, whatever we know to be lishmah we would do and what not we would not do? But in truth, after the giving of the Torah we cannot dislodge from the Torah and the mitzvot or the words of the Sages. we cannot rely upon the ideas of our evil inclination…

[Aveirah lishmah] refers to before the giving of the Torah, or for a non-Jew even today. They can worship God in any way they see fit as long as it is for His sake and they must keep the seven Noahide laws. But the people  of Israel were given the Torah which puts boundaries and limitations on our actions”.

11. Why were the minhagim based on the Zohar debated and why did the Gra choose to get involved?

The Gaon and R. Hayyim opposed basing Jewish law on the Zohar. R. Hayyim, in the name of the Gaon, claims that those who thought that there are conflicts between halakha and the Zohar either misunderstood the halakha or the Zohar: “I heard from him [R. Hayyim] that the Gra said that the Zohar is never contrary to the Gemara, only there are those who do not know the meaning of the Zohar or of the Gemara and therefore they say that there is a difference of opinion” (sheiltot).  It is interesting to note that when R. Hayyim takes on major argument  he always bring quotes from the Gaon to strengthen his position.

I will bring just one example:

[indent] “Our Rabbi asked the Gra (of blessed memory) about wearing the tefillin of Rabbenu Tam. This is what Rabbi Hayyim said: Regarding a person who does not go four cubit without tefillin, you don’t put on tefillin according to Rabbenu Tam so as not to remove the Rashi tefillin, But what about me, [R. Hayyim, who does not wear tefillin all day?].What is wrong with me [R. Hayyim] putting on tefillin of Rabbenu Tam to satisfy all the opinions?

[The Gaon] answered: If you want to satisfy all the opinions you must put on 24 pairs of tefillin. He [R. Hayyim] was astonished and wondered what the 24 options were. [The Gaon] answered: Go and check. He checked and found them……

Our Rabbi, [R. Hayyim] said [to the Gaon]: But the holy Zohar states that tefillin of Rabbenu Tam are of the world to come and the Arizal states clearly to put them on?

He [the Gaon] answered:  I am scrupulous about the world to come. Those who are, let them put on tefillin of Rabbenu Tam. However, this is not the real meaning of the Zohar. After hearing this from the Gaon, from that day on, our rabbi did not put on Rabbenu Tam tefillin”. (Podro 72)

12. What have you found new in the Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) commentary?

The Gaon’s commentary  on Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) was first published in Mikhtav Eliyahu (Prague 1811) however is was a small part of the commentary. The entire work was published in Warsaw 5602 (1842) by Zeev ben Isaac Israel as two commentaries- nigleh and nistar (revealed and hidden). The publisher claims that he copied the work from a manuscript owned by the Gaon’s grandson, possibly R. Yakov Moshe of Slonim. It is clear R. Yisrael Shklov’s Introduction to Peat HaShulkan that the Gaon wrote a full commentary on Shir Hashirim. However, It is unclear if the Gaon wrote the commentary himself or if R. Menahem Mendel wrote it on his behalf as a scribe. The latter seems more probable.

The work was published again in Warsaw in 5647 (1886) by Shmuel Luria in a different format. The two commentaries were united into one but an additional kabbalistic commentary was added to the simple commentary in chapters one and two. In addition to this, the publisher added the commentary of R. Avraham, the son of the Gaon, at the end of the book as well as the Rokeah’s commentary to the song of songs. This edition was reprinted again in its entirety in Jerusalem in 1895 by R. Naftali Hertz Halevi in his Siddur Hagra and again in Jerusalem in 1982.

In the aforementioned Warsaw 1886 edition, one commentary is referred to as the commentary according to the simple meaning (Al pi Ha-nigle) and one referred to as the mystical or kabbalistic commentary (Al pi ha-Nistar). My new edition of Shir Hashirim contains both commentaries in their entirety. For the first commentary we have three manuscripts and for the second, which is slightly more kabbalistic in orientation we have six manuscripts. One in the handwriting of R. Yosef Ziundel of Salant and one that seems to have been copied during the Gaon’s lifetime.

13. I know that you have done extensive research on the Vilna Gaon’s understanding of messianism and the quest to settle in the land of Israel.

There is limited material concerning R. Hayyim and messianism or the aliyah to Israel of the Students of the Gra. Howver, we do have testimonies concerning his involvement in helping to raise funds for this aliyah in 1808.  R. Yisrael of Shklov describes R. Hayyim as the person discussed their potential aliyah with. R. Hayyim obviously supported this endeavor. We also have sources that R. Hayyim was in charge of the local fund for the prushim in Israel and made sure that scholars and non-scholars alike benefited from the fund.

The Gaon on Tikunei Zohar writes that his generation is Ikvot Meshicha, (the foot prints of the messianic period). In a unique quote found in the sheiltot (149) and in the R. Yosef Zundel manuscript, we find a similar statement by R. Hayyim:

“I heard from our Rabbi on the verse: ‘She fell and will not arise again the daughter of Israel’ [Amos 5,2] our Sages taught the meaning: ‘ She fell, and will not[fall again], arise O daughter of Israel’ [Berachot 4b]. He said that the daughter of Israel is referred to as falling like the falling sukkah of David. Meaning, every day she is falling for every day is more cursed than the previous one, therefore, she falls until she reaches the lowest level and cannot fall anymore. And Now we have already reached [the point]’ Arise o daughter of Israel”.

14. Do you allow the possibility that some of the presentations of the Vilna Gaon or of R Hayyim are hagiography?

It is possible that the stories alluding to R. Hayyim’s spiritual abilities were dramatized. It’s also possible that some of the stories about the Gaon were dramatized but there is no other source with which to corroborate them.

Heidegger and His Jewish Reception- Interview with Daniel M. Herskowitz

The themes of Existentialism are well known in Western society at this point. These include lived experience, anxiety, choice, authenticity, being-unto-death, temporality, and mindfulness. But at one point, they were not the language of pop-psych books and shallow clergy sermons. They were the serious turn of 1920’s modern philosophy away from the rationality and grand scale questions towards asking the basic phenomenology of our lives and how we are finite fallible being faced with our own deaths. The leading figure in this turn to the human condition was Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), who started teaching in 1923 at Marburg and then in Freiburg after 1927. He placed Being and temporality at the center of his thought. Many of the future greats in 20th century thought were his students and reacted to his thought. This list includes Rudolf Bultmann, Nicolai Hartmann, Paul Tillich, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Leo Strauss, and Hans Jonas. His ideas were the overwhelming intellectual force in German philosophy of the 1930’s.

Not just major philosophers, but also theologians, psychologists and religious thinkers turned to his Heidegger’s thought. His ideas traveled to France where they were adapted and developed by major thinkers such as Sartre. Part of this existential movement was a return to Kierkegaard (d.1855), an introspective Danish thinker who lived a century prior, in order to mine his brooding for ideas about the human condition of death, anxiety, sin, and fallenness. Heidegger even learned Danish in order to better understand Kierkegaard.

How was this Heidegger moment received in the Jewish community? Daniel Herskowitz, answers the question in his great new book Heidegger and His Jewish Reception (Cambridge UP, 2020). The book is a rock-solid overview on how Jewish thought received, processed, and grappled with Heidegger’s thought. This is the book that most professors of Jewish thought spent the last half year reading, taking notes, and working into our future class lectures. Herskowitz’s book is a serious work of intellectual history, which will be required reading for graduate programs and advance courses in Jewish thought, and it is a book that will generate hundreds of graduate papers. The book already won the Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Young Scholars Award for Scholarly Excellence in Research of the Jewish Experience, and it is worthy of many other awards.

Daniel Herskowitz received his BA The Open University of Israel; MA Hebrew University of Jerusalem; DPhil Oxford: Research Fellow, OCHJS; Stipendiary Career Research Fellow in Jewish Studies, Wolfson College, and now he was awarded the prestigious British Academy fellowship which he will take at Oxford.

Herskowitz demonstrates the tension of attraction and repulsion to Heidegger’s thought among Jewish thinkers. Many of whom used Heidegger’s thought to diagnose the problems of modernity or to formulate their own Jewish solutions. Everyone who knows modern Jewish thought can speak of a generic concept of Jewish existentialism or label someone a Jewish existentialist, but Herskowitz reorients us to seeing the entire period framed as Jewish reactions to Heidegger.

Much of Herskowitz’s book Heidegger and His Jewish Reception deals with the major philosophers who are Jewish such as Karl Lowith and Leo Strauss. I assumed that most general philosophic book reviews will focus on the general thesis of the book and on the major philosophers. Therefore, I decided to focus this interview on the relationship of Heidegger to the Rabbinic world. I specifically asked about the relationship of Heideggerian thought to Rabbis Altmann, Soloveitchik, Hutner, and Heschel, as well as the religious usages by Schoeps, Buber, and Levinas. Much of this interview is not limited to the book but is found in specific Herskowitz’s journal articles on Rabbi Hutner, Soloveitchik, Heschel, and Wyschogrod.

I must note before going further, that there is no need to create any bube mayse that Rabbi Soloveitchik was in Heidegger’s Marburg classes or that he must have attended the Davos conference making it seem that Heidegger’s works in the 1930’s were obscure or only know by the few. They were known in all major universities, and Soloveitchik’s friend Altmann was doing his degree on Heidegger’s thought.

In this interview we see how Martin Buber’s criticized Heidegger’s philosophy as holding dangerous ideas compared to his own dialogical and prophetic account of human existence. Yet, Buber was one with Heidegger’s critique of modern life as being consumed by a technological approach toward the world.

Alexander Altmann claims that Heidegger’s ideas of Being and Time could be applied to Torah, halakhah, and Jewish peoplehood. More interesting, is that both Altmann and Soloveitchik identified with the volkish elements in Heidegger’s thought.  Jews find Jewish destiny over fate through Torah and Jewish peoplehood, in the same way Heidegger thought that he would find his destiny in the Nazi party. Herskowitz shows that many of the elements in Soloveitchik’s thought that we associate with Kierkegaard may actually be parallel or from Heidegger.

Heschel completely rejected Heidegger as pagan and in contrasts with the Biblical view. Levinas also rejects Heidegger as pagan compared to the Jewish ethical approach, being is evil and the goal is to be otherwise than being. The demand of the face of the stranger breaks any wallowing in Being.

Rabbi Hutner surprisingly followed Heidegger the closest by finding true authenticity in experiencing the angst from death and through finding the eschatological horizon of life after death. However, the Torah exhorts us to find authentic life in the individual observance of the commandments as the ticket to resurrection.

Hans-Joachim Schoeps and Michael Wyschogrod both thought Jews should affirm a Karl Barth position to escape from  a sinful, godless existence, to an authentic Jewish existence attuned to divine revelation.

Herskowitz’s next project is to read the works of Cohen, Rosenzweig, Buber, and Levinas in light of developments in Protestant thinking and specifically in light of a move ‘back to Luther’ that was set in motion at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. It analyses their negotiation between commitment to Jewish sources and Lutheran structural assumptions and explores how they polemicise against Christianity while sharing with it a common inheritance. This study confirms that just as there is a medieval tradition of Jewish Aristotelianism, so there is a modern tradition of Jewish Lutheranism.

I look forward to that work on Jewish Lutheranism especially after this major work reframing the history of twentieth century Jewish thought. The weakness of this volume was the same as its strength, that the book remained focused on the level of intellectual history without any serious presentation of Heidegger’s philosophy or ideas. Even this interview is much more of a documentary record, done exceptionally well, than a grappling with Dasein. A reader unfamiliar with Heidegger’s philosophy, not counting in any way having read articles debating and castigating his Nazi affiliation, should read one of the many introductory volumes to Heidegger’s thought written in the last quarter century before tackling the book.

  1. Why was Heidegger important?

Heidegger emerged on the philosophical scene in Germany in the years between the wars, a period that was as politically shaky as it was intellectually productive. During that time there was a general attempt to develop new ways to think about some fundamental philosophical and religious questions. These including new ways of thinking about human existence, the human-divine relationship, politics, law, and more. For many, the most pressing issues were related to the individual’s subjectivity, concrete temporal existence, decision, and authenticity. This more existential sensitivity implied not only a rejection of the supremacy of reason, but also an aversion to the abstractions of metaphysics. Heidegger’s 1927 work Sein und Zeit [Being and Time], with its penetrating analysis of historical human existence in the world and its ‘jargon of authenticity’ turned him almost overnight to a central spokesperson for this philosophical perspective.

2. What was the Jewish Reception of Heidegger’s thought?

If much of medieval Jewish philosophy is rightfully perceived as operating under Aristotle’s domineering shadow, determined by its concepts, possibilities, and boundaries, and the same is true with respect to nineteenth century Jewish thought and Kant, then the previous century might be termed the ‘Heidegger century’ in Jewish European thought.

Now, this general perspective was shared by many young Jewish thinkers were tried to reimagine and reformulate Jewishness along these lines, and many saw Heidegger as a thought-provoking and challenging thinker to think along with – and against. We find, therefore, that Heidegger’s philosophy loomed large for the long list of thinkers for whom this period was formative, like Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Gershom Scholem, Hannah Arendt, Max Brod, Margarete Susman, Leo Strauss, Hans Jonas, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Emmanuel Levinas, and many more (including thinkers of a later generation, such as Emil Fackenheim and Michael and Edith Wyschogrod).

Leo Strauss spoke for many when he said of his early student years in Germany during this time: “Nothing affected us as profoundly in the years in which our minds took their lasting directions as the thought of Heidegger. While everyone else in the younger generation who had ears to hear was either completely overwhelmed by Heidegger, or else, having been almost completely overwhelmed by him, engaged in well-intentioned but ineffective rearguard actions against him,” (An Unspoken Prologue,” 450).

Of course, Heidegger’s support of Hitler, made public in 1933 – for which he refused to express remorse publicly – together with the conviction that his politics derived from his philosophy, made the Jewish engagement with his thinking extremely fraught and painful. But what is striking is that Heidegger managed to regain his preeminent philosophical status after World War II and the Holocaust, in both the general and Jewish world of thought. It is fascinating to see how Buber, Strauss, Levinas, and many others continued to seek out Heidegger’s post-war published work and to respond to it in their own writings. It was not, then, only Heidegger’s early, more existentially leaning philosophy that proved so fertilizing for Jewish thought, but his later reflections on language, poetry, the gods, and technology were as well.  

Heidegger fomented twentieth century European Jewish thought in a profound, indelible way, unmatched by any other thinker. The list of Jewish thinkers who found Heidegger’s philosophy meriting serious and repeated consideration makes it difficult to argue otherwise. But this ‘consideration’ came in the form of a wide range of intellectual exchanges, such as identification, incorporation, negotiation, critique, and rejection.

3. Can you briefly discuss some of the ways Martin Buber responded to Heidegger?

Buber had a decades-long fascination and confrontation with Heidegger. A friend of Buber, Werner Kraft, recorded an impression he had during a conversation with Buber, where Buber criticized Heidegger: “Buber then said: ‘Heidegger’s central idea is false,’ but I have the impression that he […] cannot free himself from Heidegger.”

A common way of framing Buber’s critical engagement with Heidegger is as following. Buber accused him of presenting a picture of human existence that was essentially self-contained and that cannot truly account for or encounter the ‘You’, the other who is not the self – be it the fellow human or the ‘eternal You,’ God. In Buber’s terminology, Heidegger’s version of selfhood is ‘monological’. As an alternative, Buber put forth his ‘dialogical’ account of human existence, where that which is most meaningful takes place in the ‘between’ and the self is fully constituted only in and through the encounter with the other.

This presentation is not incorrect, but I think it is just one facet of a far more extensive confrontation of Buber with Heidegger.  Ultimately, we see that Buber’s critical engagement with Heidegger did not simply focus on Heidegger’s notion of selfhood but targeted his whole understanding of how we humans inhabit the world.

Buber saw Heidegger’s philosophy as holding dangerous existential, theological, moral and political ramifications, and opposing it was of utmost importance. As part of this confrontation, Buber accused Heidegger of ‘magic’, that is, of advancing a coercive and utilitarian approach toward the world and claimed his philosophy led to Nazism and to nihilism. Buber also tries to appropriate the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, who Heidegger considered the German poet, for his own dialogical thought.

Yet Buber still held Heidegger in the highest esteem, claiming he was on par with thinkers such as Kant and Hegel, but also Buber developed his alternative to Heidegger on the basis of assumptions and concerns which he shared with Heidegger.

Both Buber and Heidegger believed that modern life was being consumed by a technological approach toward the world and that this generated an impoverished way of living. In this context, Heidegger speaks of the need to cultivate a certain closeness and attuned to the world, a way of living that is not coercive toward what ‘is’ but gratuitous and responsive. He calls this ‘dwelling poetically.’

Buber moves in a parallel direction while seeking to counter Heidegger. He advocates as a Jewish-dialogical alternative that I call ‘dwelling prophetically’, a faithful openness to the intimate encounter with the plenitude and presence of God and of the other person. For Buber, the model for this kind of dialogical existence was the biblical prophets.

4. How does Alexander Altman use Heidegger in his theology?

Altmann’s early reading of Heidegger during the 1930s is one of the most interesting and surprising Jewish engagements with the philosopher. It takes place before Heidegger’s affiliation with Hitler became known, and therefore demonstrates both how original Jewish thought was conducted through the conceptual frameworks that were found compelling at the time and how, perhaps, Jewish encounters with Heidegger could have looked like had the political and moral factor not made it inevitably fraught.

For example, in one essay Altmann develops the claim that Judaism is based on two fundamental and particularistic notions, the understanding of revelation as halakha and the Jewish peoplehood. To ground the latter point, he turns to section 74 of Being and Time, where Heidegger outlines how the authentic existence of the individual partakes in the wider context of a community and generation. As part of this outline, Heidegger employs a number of charged volkish terms to describe the communal aspect of authenticity, like ‘volk,’ ‘community’, ‘struggle’, ‘fate’, ‘destiny’, ‘heritage’, and others.

Notably, Altmann claims that Heidegger’s terms could be perfectly applied to Jewish existence: Volk is the Jewish peoplehood, their ‘heritage’ is the Torah and the halakha, and their ‘destiny’ is to live out the word of God in their historical existence. Only as a member of a wider historical community, bound by tradition and driven by a task, can the Jewish person attain authenticity.

Altmann’s reading of Heidegger in this essay is noteworthy for at least two reasons: first, it runs against a common interpretation that saw Heidegger’s philosophy as conceptually linked to Christianity. For Altmann, Heidegger’s volkism made his philosophy more appropriate to Jews than to Christians, because Jews are an organic Volk while Christians are a Church, a theological construct. Second, Altmann identified with the volkish elements in Heidegger’s thought, the very elements that led Heidegger to a political party driven by hatred towards Jews and that engendered a philosophical scheme that excluded Jews.

5. How does Heschel’s “Who is Man” respond to Heidegger?

Heschel’s Who is Man? should be read as an attempt to counter the theological surge of interest in Heidegger’s philosophy that took place in the United States at the end of the 1950s and through the 1960s. Heschel poses a confrontation between his own biblical Jewish theology and what he considers Heidegger’s paganism. His basic premises is this: any framework that denies the essential link between humans and an ineffable God, the personal, compassionate, and demanding biblical God, is ultimately nihilistic and tied to paganism. In Heschel’s understanding, such paganism and nihilism is exhibited in Heidegger’s fixation with being and his godless analysis of human existence.

Heschel claimed that without the reference to God, Heidegger cannot offer a compelling account of authenticity or a moral benchmark to evaluate action. In his understanding, the human according to Heidegger’s godless framework can only ‘be’, not ‘live’ as a moral creature. Heidegger suffers from what Heschel termed ‘the ontocentric predicament’ – prioritizing a de-personalized ‘being’ that cannot account for the true humanity of humans, the moral charge of their existence, or the created nature of the world.

In a handwritten note I found in Heschel’s archive in Duke University Library, Heschel wrote in relation to Heidegger: “The issue is not being itself, for being itself is the invention of metaphysicians. Being in the world as expressing man’s existence confines man and limits the problem. The true issue is being with God.”

Heidegger manifested for Heschel what he saw as the religious and moral bankruptcy of modern secularism and some of the profound flaws of western philosophy. Heidegger confirmed Heschel’s belief that what the world needed most was the biblical God whose pathos and care towards humans grants value and meaning to their lives and enables the moral work toward redemption.

It should be noted that Heschel’s analysis of Heidegger is based on various misrepresentations of Heidegger’s view. In fact, there are some important issues in which both thinkers share a common approach, and some of the ‘biblical’ alternatives Heschel offers in contrast to Heidegger’s philosophy resemble Heidegger’s real position. Nevertheless, his critical engagement with Heidegger teaches us a lot about how Heschel understood the challenges of the spiritual world around him.

6. How does Rav Hutner use Heidegger in one of his essays.

Rav Hutner drew on a plethora of sources – Jewish and others – in his writings. From early on he was occupied with issues concerning existence, authenticity, freedom, temporality, and selfhood, and in his writings, there are various intersections with the existentialist perspective that rose to prominence in the early decades of the twentieth century.

For example, as part of his attempt to come to terms with the question the meaning of life in light of the looming fact of death, Hutner appropriated – and also adapted in an original way – the Heideggerian notion of ‘being-toward-death’ in order to develop a Jewish existential comportment toward life after death, ‘being-toward -resurrection’.

Hutner believed, with Heidegger, that authentic existence is drawn from a certain comportment toward death and the future. But in contrast to Heidegger, for whom death sealed the horizon of existence, Hutner claimed that true authenticity is gained by experiencing the angst from death and by overcoming it, and by comporting oneself toward beyond death, toward resurrection and eternity. For Hutner, the horizon of death is critical for authenticity and a real source of existential angst, but when understood properly, it itself opens a further horizon, the eschatological horizon of life after death.

What is interesting in Hutner’s notion of ‘being toward resurrection’ is not only the usage of Heidegger for the sake of Orthodox Jewish thinking, but its individualized and existential application: ‘Resurrection’ confirms the possibility of an authentic and meaningful life in the face of death. In this way Hutner binds authenticity in the face of death and commitment to traditional Judaism, because observance of the commandments is the ‘ticket’ to resurrection and is therefore a religious mean and end for the Jewish seeking authenticity.

7. How do Rabbi Soloveitchik and Heidegger use Kierkegaard’s idea of the moment?

Both Soloveitchik and Heidegger (as well as many other thinkers) draw on Soren Kierkegaard’s notion of ‘the moment’ (or ‘blink of an eye’). I don’t think Soloveitchik used Heidegger. Some scholars made the Soloveitchik-Heidegger connection on this issue but I think it is a parallel through Kierkegaard.

For Kierkegaard, the ‘moment’ is a religious and existential event of self-transformation that takes place in an elevated instance, touched by eternity. The ‘moment’ is based on a conception of time that is different than the common, every day one. It does not perceive time as a succession of present moments, in which ‘eternity’ would mean the passing of an infinite number of these ‘now’ moments.

Rather, time is approached from a more existential and experiential perspective, and the ‘moment’ is the intersection between a moment in time and eternity. Here time is measured by quality, so to speak, rather than quantity, and eternity is time in its fullness, a moment of wholeness and completeness that encompasses past, present, and future.

Soloveitchik in Halakhic Man models his account of repentance on this Kierkegaardian notion. For Soloveitchik, repentance is an event that takes place in the transient present moment, but is elevated to a moment of temporal fullness. It grants a defining overview on one’s life from which one’s past is revisited from the point of view of the present, taking in view the future – and the eschatological future. This conception of time is at the basis of Soloveitchik’s account of repentance because it is what allows past sins to be completely erased, as if they had never occurred in the first place, rather than acts of transgression that are simply atoned for.

Heidegger, too, utilizes Kierkegaard’s notion. In Being and Time he speaks of an ‘Augenblick’ (German rendering of the Danish Øieblik), an elevated ‘moment’ of authenticity which likewise encompasses what Heidegger calls the ‘ecstatic’ and future-oriented temporality of human existence. For Heidegger, however, the ‘moment’ is not a moment of fusion with eternity and it does not describe the event of repentance, but a moment of existential resoluteness in which the fullness of time makes present the finitude of the individual’s time and accounts for her anticipated death.

8. How does Rabbi Soloveitchik use Volkish ideas similar to Heidegger?

Volkish thinking has many connotations and variations, making it difficult to outline a clear-cut definition of what the volk is. In general, the volk refers to a primordial and close-knit communal body – something like a live organism – that is founded on a common language, tradition, custom, religion, land, and also blood. The volk is said to have a spiritual, even metaphysical vocation, usually referred to as its ‘destiny’ or ‘fate’, which it must struggle to actualize over against those who seek to hamper it. The volk was often thought about through a distinction that was introduced in a different context by the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft, that is, between an organic and reciprocally-connected community, the volk, and a selfish and utilitarian (modern) society.

Now, many of these features appear in Soloveitchik’s writings when he refers to the Jewish people or Knesset Israel. He speaks of Israel as a trans-generational organism, a living whole, a metaphysical entity for which the individual should sacrifice herself. Perhaps Soloveitchik’s most famous usage of volkish vocabulary and ideas can be found in his The Lonely Man of Faith (1965), where he speaks of two kinds of communities, the natural community and the community of the covenant, which are described exactly as a Gesellschaft and a Gemeinschaft – the former, a utilitarian coordination, the latter, an existential companionship.

In a different work Soloveitchik distinguishes between two ways the individual can approach suffering: ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’. The former characterizes pure factual existence lacking direction and meaning, the latter is active, imbued with meaning and direction. This distinction can apply nationally or communally as well: a community can be a ‘Covenant of Fate’ or a ‘Covenant of Destiny’.

This volkish terminology is a point of contact between Soloveitchik and Heidegger, because Heidegger, too, made use of the volkism in his own highly abstract and idiosyncratic way. He similarly spoke of the ‘fate’, ‘destiny’, and ‘heritage’ of a community that seeks to actualize its historical mission. For him, of course, the volk was the German volk, and its destiny pertained to spearheading a new openness to the holiness of being. His volkish impulse let him to the Nazi party, but it is also the reason he ultimately became disillusioned by it and distanced himself from it.

That Heidegger and Soloveitchik both made use of volkish ideology and vocabulary in their respective writings – albeit in different ways, with different referents, and for different ends – is but one demonstration of how important strands of twentieth century Jewish thought shared a common conceptual horizon with the German philosopher. While they were often fervently critical of his thought, they also shared some important assumptions and theoretical frameworks with him. This makes Heidegger’s Jewish reception a more complicated matter than simply one of ‘critique’ or ‘rejection.’

9. How does early Levinas deal with Heidegger?

Levinas’s relationship with Heidegger is extremely complicated. There is no question he admired Heidegger’s philosophical genius and his own thinking can be fully understood only with the backdrop of Heidegger. At the same time, Levinas identified a direct link between Heidegger’s philosophy and his shameful politics. In fact, he claimed that Heidegger embodied a violent and totalitarian impulse that was fundamental to western thought.

Therefore, while it is certainly true that Levinas’s thought is a forceful attempt to counter Heidegger’s philosophy and propose an alternative to it, this alternative is itself importantly marked by Heidegger’s own intellectual interventions. In one of the many fascinating interviews Levinas gave toward the end of his life, he was asked if it is correct to say that he “went through Heidegger, beyond Heidegger, by means of Heidegger.” Levinas’s answer was this: “always with pain and suffering. But I cannot deny it. Mont Blanc is Mont Blanc.”

In several of his early writings, Levinas explores two ways of being in the world. One he terms ‘being pagan’, featured by a sense of confidence, enrootedness, and sufficiency in an impenetrable totality of the world that lacks the possibility of transcendence. He associates this mode of existence with the world of Heidegger’s philosophy, in which everything is consumed by the immanence of ‘being’. For Levinas, mere ‘being’ is always the site of evil, power, and idolatry, and Heidegger’s biography confirms this.

Levinas terms the second way of being in the world and the alternative to the first, ‘being Jewish’. This existential modality is a universal category and not exclusive to any certain people or religion. It is marked by a sense of uprootedness, estrangement, and insecurity because it is a way of existing in a world touched by transcendence, a totality punctured by otherness. ‘Being Jewish’ means being unheimlich in a world called into question and called to action by transcendence, which Levinas called ‘creation.’ At the same time, and consequently, it is the existential mode in which morality, peace, and religiosity are accessible. In his early writings, then, Levinas follows Heidegger in developing a distinctive way of experiencing being, but he does so in order to formulate an alternative to Heidegger.

10. How does later Levinas deal with Heidegger?

In my reading of Levinas, his later, more mature works continue to develop this initial opposition between Heideggerian paganism and ‘being Jewish’, but he does this in what is, on the face of it, a more explicitly philosophical context, and the opposition is reformulated as the distinction between violent ontology and what Levinas calls ‘ethics.’

In the later writings the ethical impulse of otherness and transcendence is dramatically more pronounced (though it was already present earlier). Levinas claims that the experience governing the encounter with the Other, who interrupts the totality of being, is that of fundamental separation, holiness, and above all, demand. The self’s sense of rootedness in the world is interrupted and revamped from without by the call of the Other demanding to respect its otherness.

There are, of course, many developments and shifts between Levinas’s early and later writings, but I see a clear and instructive line of continuity between them. Levinas’s mature thinking develops his earlier reflections on the axis of the pagan Heideggerian mode of being and the Jewish mode of being. This is confirmed by the fact that there is a strong correspondence between what we find in his philosophical works and what we find in his analysis of Jewish texts. For example, in a parallel manner to his philosophical claims, Levinas describes Judaism as pre-eminently focused on the responsibility for the other. Similarly, in his essay “A Religion for Adults,” found in the collection of Jewish themed essays Difficult Freedom, Levinas proclaims that “Judaism teaches us a real transcendence.”

11. How does Hans-Joachim Schoeps use Heidegger in his theology?

Schoeps was an idiosyncratic thinker who believed that the analysis of human existence offered by Heidegger in Being and Time was an apt description of the contemporary Jewish person: secular, absorbed in immanence, and lacked a ‘consciousness of God’. The average contemporary Jew existed in a state of sin and alientation from God, and the existential analysis developed by Heidegger described precisely that deprived state of existence.

In his early constructive theology, Schoeps encouraged his fellow Jews to overcome their ‘Heideggerian’ state of secular existence and to return to a Jewish life of obedience based on the ever-present event of the Word of God. Oddly enough, Schoeps believed that Karl Barth, the Swiss Protestant theologian, offered the most appropriate framework for authentic Jewish theology and existence.

In effect, what Schoeps was doing was imploring his fellow Jews to turn from Heidegger to Barth, that is, from a sinful, godless existence, to an authentic Jewish existence attuned to divine revelation.

Another Jewish Barthian, Michael Wyschogrod, makes a closely related argument. In his Body of Faith he presents Heidegger as the epitome of western philosophical ontology but also the philosopher who demonstrates best the shortcomings of this way of thinking. As an alternative, Wyschogrod offers his account of biblical Judaism that takes its lead from Barth. (I have an article on Wyschogrod, Heidegger, and Barth coming out soon in JSQ.)

12. Why is there a debate on the relationship of Franz Rosenzweig to Heidegger?

In one of the last pieces that he wrote before his untimely death, “Exchanged Fronts”, Rosenzweig discussed the encounter between Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer that had just taken place in Davos, which was seen as staging the confrontation between the representative of the ‘new’ philosophical perspective (Heidegger) and the representative of the ‘old’ philosophical perspective (Cassirer).

In this piece, Rosenzweig expressed much enthusiasm about Heidegger’s philosophical perspective. He associated his own thinking, which he termed ‘New Thinking’, with Heidegger’s, claiming that both sprang from the actual, temporal existence of the human being and rejected the abstractions of idealism and metaphysics. Rosenzweig even suggested that not Cassirer but himself and Heidegger represented the real heirs of Hermann Cohen, the great Jewish neo-Kantian thinker whose project was generally continued by Cassirer.

In general, there is a question about just how familiarized Rosenzweig actually was with Heidegger’s philosophy and his positioning of Heidegger as the heir of Cohen is contentious.

Rosenzweig’s open association with Heidegger caused much discomfort, especially after 1933, when many wished to disassociate Rosenzweig, who had quickly cultivated a heliographic status in the Jewish imagination, from Heidegger, the Nazi collaborator. And throughout the twentieth century there are various attempts to demonstrate that despite Rosenzweig’s own assessment, a closer analysis suggests that his thought actually differed significantly from Heidegger’s on a number of important issues.

The most extensive argument in this regard was made by Karl Löwith, a former student (turned critic) of Heidegger’s and a central figure in shaping the philosopher’s twentieth century reception. In an essay “M. Heidegger and F. Rosenzweig or Temporality and Eternity”, Löwith sets out to show that while there are some analogous moments in Heidegger and Rosenzweig, they are in fact profoundly different. The distinguishing factor, Löwith maintains, is that Heidegger’s is a philosophy of radical immanence and temporality, while Rosenzweig’s philosophy, which begins with temporal existence, is ultimately geared toward transcendence and eternity.

Löwith’s essay was published in 1942 and for a long it was taken as the final word on the matter. In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the Rosenzweig-Heidegger connection – I have counted over 30 titles on the topic published in the last decade or so –  and while there is nothing particularly new in the juxtaposition itself, it seems that now the tendency is to acknowledge their shared conceptual horizons rather than to emphasize their differences.

13. Why did some Jews associate Heidegger’s thought with Christianity?

Heidegger had a Christian upbringing and some of his early original philosophical writings dealt with classical Christian theological texts. He soon distanced himself from his Christian rearing and in his 1927 book Being and Time he sought to develop a philosophical scheme that was not beholden to metaphysical and Christian assumptions about what it means to be human. In this sense, his philosophy is decidedly non-Christian, and at times even anti-Christian.

The trouble is that some of the basic categories that Heidegger puts forth in his early analysis of human existence seem to be of discernible Christian origin. Among the notions that bear the stamp of Christianity are ‘guilt’, ‘fallenness’, ‘call’, ‘revelation’, ‘being toward death’, but there are many more. It is clear that in Heidegger’s philosophy they do not refer to traditional Christian content and they are employed in a clearly non-theological context. But many readers, and many Jewish readers, saw this as proof that a number of Heidegger’s basic categories have Christian roots, and that even if they were ontological and philosophical, they still preserved something of their Christian origin and continued to carry Christian resonances.

This interpretation was widespread, and it included the likes of Edmund Husserl, Ernst Cassirer, Karl Löwith, Rudolf Bultmann, Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber, Leo Strauss, Max Scheler, Gunther Anders, and Susan and Jacob Taubes, to name only a few. According to it, Heidegger claimed to be offering a neutral and formal account of human existence as such, but he was in fact caught up in Christian assumptions about what it means to be human and ended up outlining a secularized Christian conception of human existence.

This was one of the reasons evoked by Jewish thinkers to make the point that Heidegger’s philosophy was ill-suited for Jewish thought. Insofar as his understanding of human existence bore an inherent Christian charge, it could not be applied to the specific case of Jewish existence.

Interview with James Diamond- Jewish Theology Unbound

Existential questions are the big questions about the human condition: love, death, freedom, evil, suffering, and suicide. These questions were treated by existentialists as an end unto themselves.  As Paul Tillich write: “only the philosophical question is perennial, not the answers” (The Dynamics of Faith, 94). In a similar vein, Elie Wiesel wrote “every question possessed a power that did not lie in the answer.” (Night). James Diamond in his new book seeks to create a Jewish theology of questions from the text of Maimonides.

James A. Diamond holds the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo. He earned an LLB from Osgoode Hall Law School; an LLM in International Legal Studies at New York University School of Law, and, while practicing civil litigation, an M.A. and Ph.D. in Medieval Jewish Thought from the University of Toronto.  He is a known historian of Maimonides’ ideas, having penned three books about Maimonides: Maimonides and the Hermeneutics of Concealment, and Converts, Heretics, and Lepers: Maimonides and the Outsider, Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon and a fourth Reinventing Maimonides in Contemporary Jewish Thought (together with Menachem Kellner). In his recent monograph, Jewish Theology Unbound (Oxford University Press, 2018), Diamond turns from his training as a scholar of medieval thought to attempt to write his own theology. (The volume was reviewed elsewhere by Sam Brody in greater detail).

Diamond comes out swinging, knocking down his envisioned opposition of a Christian theology with its detrimental systematic skill in defining doctrines, creating precise categories, sharpening the mind, and tied to the doctrine of the church. In contrast, Diamond considers Jewish theology as unbound, free to engage in modern existential rabbinic midrash in which modern Jewish existentialists as Diamond can use Rabbinic midrash as a model for vital and creative thought based on a weave of ciphers and cross-references to its biblical antecedents. He boldly declares to his envisioned opponent that Judaism is not just rigid halakhah, rather unbound midrashic thinking.

Diamond, declares that the Aristotelian student begins in wonder at the order and purposefulness of nature, while the Jewish midrashic approach is about the goodness and justice of the world from the imbalance of their own personal suffering. The true path of an existential theology of questioning is through Jewish texts. Wonder motivates philosophical questioning in Athens and “pain, despair, anxiety, and frustration” motivates Hebraic theology.  

Diamond writing style is to continue to write scholastic monograph chapters about Maimonides thought. However, rather than sticking to the historical reading of Maimonides, he argues that the core of Maimonides’s thought is not his Aristotelian or scholastic thought. Rather, Maimonides at core is his biblical and midrashic horizons of asking the existential questions, by reinterpreting the Bible and midrash in new philosophic ways, innovating while remaining anchored in tradition. Maimonides is reread as an existentialist akin to the thought of Buber, Rosenzweig, Heschel, and Fackenheim.

Most notably, Diamond returns the understanding of God to its midrashic roots, as a Being in flux that is growing, learning, and craving relationships with human beings. Akin to Heschel’s Most Moved Mover, Diamond argues for a dynamic God that is the foundation of a moral human life. Diamond does all this while ostensibly still writing what seems a Maimonidean monograph.

For Diamond, God as a Being in flux is in fact is the exemplar of questioning, challenging human beings to think more deeply and ethically. Adam’s primal sin was failing to question. The existential nature of the Biblical narrative is shown in Rebecca questioning her existence during the pain of her pregnancy; Isaac questioning why Jacob is disguised as Esau; Jacob questioning why he was deceived by Laban; Joseph questioning what is the true cause of his journey to Egypt; Moses’s question about being a leader; and Job questioning why he was born, given all the suffering he experienced. These readings open up a realm for asking a kashya (a question) and finding a teretz (a homiletic answer) in the conversation of the tradition texts.

Diamond uses Maimonides as scaffolding on which to rework the foundation of the building through citation of dozens of Biblical verses and selected midrashim showing a dynamic ethical divine. In each case, gutting the Aristotelian scholastic Maimonides and offering the gentrified renovations of Rashi, Zohar, Nahmanides, Netziv, Meshekh Hokhmah, or Malbim. He then installs in the structure the modern Jewish existentialists as truer to this midrashic worldview. In many cases, his relationship to older rationalist ideas were like repainting without stripping; the original ideas still texture his new readings.

For example, the chapter on angels is a response to the modern Orthodox critiques of angels is  tour de force of demythologization showing that angels are a way of expressing human freedom and ethical perfection. Biblical angels to represent a higher moral truth standing in opposition to the character’s personal agenda. Yet, he remains on his Maimonidean base.

Diamond uses the Maimonides scaffold to discuss many issues including suicide, martyrdom, and slavery. He examines each occurrence of the word “slave,” in the Bible arguing that a close analysis of the development of the term in the Bible highlights that “the very first norm of Judaism, or what has become caricaturized as the religion of law, is itself the mandate to liberate” (p. 197). He claims that Judaism is about existential freedom, hence it cannot sanction slavery  even if it seems to mandate it. God even intends for human beings to experience freedom from God as a form of imitatio dei. A biblical legacy of freedom as human empowerment.

In his analysis of Midrashic material, Diamond builds on the work of his teacher, Emil Fackenheim, whom he cites as describing midrash as “for all its deceptively simple story form, [a] profound and sophisticated theology.” He speaks of midrash without considering Boyarin, Kugel, David Stern, Halbertal, Fishbane or Dov Weiss. Midrash in the volume is the demythologized text freely draped in the hands of the existential interpreter.

The heavy reliance on Emil Fackenheim is taken as a given in the book, as if most of his readers understand midrash, philosophy, or the meaning of the land of Israel primarily through Fackenheim. For me, it seriously got in the way of appreciating Diamond. Of the dozens of books on Jewish theology that I have discussed on this blog, not one made Fackenheim a primary datum of contemporary thinking. And certainly, Fackenheim’s post-Holocaust categorical of collective response and his romanticism of rebirth is foreign to the broad spectrum of Israeli thinkers.

The final chapter on the Holocaust looks at the Esh Kodesh of Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira (1889-1943), his sermons written in the very midst of the Warsaw Ghetto. Diamond finds Shapira exemplifying the midrashic existential method, and how he foreshadows Fackenheim’s response to the Holocaust by defiantly recording his sermons for posterity as flying in the face of logic. Shapira here “prospectively adumbrates Fackenheim’s own post-Holocaust views on Israel and Zionism,” since the establishment of the modern Jewish state, too, flies in the face of all logic and inspires a miraculous sense of astonishment.

I asked Jim Diamond: what is your next book going to be? He replied: Something along the lines of  A Loving, Angry, Regretful GodTaking Divine Emotions Seriously. From my perspective, as someone with a tireless interest in Jewish theology. I recommend jettisoning the academic Maimonidean monograph scaffolding. Either write a popular book on the divine emotions using personal readings of midrash & traditional exegetes for Maggid/Koren Press or write a theology book looks at antecedents in Heschel, Wyschogrod, Hartshorne, Jurgen Moltmann and others. Interrogate the ideas of divine passability, dipolar divine affect, and embodied emotions. Define ideas, creating precise categories, and ask how your ideas relate to the body of Jewish texts and its doctrines.

In sum, Jewish Theology Unbound was a interesting and creative work, worth reading and discussing. I enjoyed reading the volume because it provided much food for thought and exceptionally good material for homiletics. Diamond warns us of the “ethical gravity of avoiding reflection.” I am always in favor of reflection, and the creation of good Jewish theology. I especially look forward to the follow-up volume and development of these ideas.

  1. How are you “unbinding” Jewish thinking?

Jewish theology is unbound compared to the doctrinal and systematic approach to theology largely identified with Christianity. For example, Paul Tillich, in his classic work on Systematic Theology, understands theology as driven by an overarching doctrinal norm that has both a formal and material component—the formal is the authorized teachings of the Church and the material is Jesus as the Christ.

Rabbinic Judaism, in contrast, lacks the formal component and has lacked it for its entire duration since the destruction of the Temple in the first century. Considering that the introduction of doctrine was as late as the twelfth century by Maimonides, it lacks the material component as well. The voluminous corpus of the rabbinic genre known as midrash and aggadah involves not just halakhah, but also a prolific repository of unrefined philosophical theology encompassing narrative, allegory, and a deeply intimate exegetical engagement with every syllable of the biblical text. Though unbounded the philosophical theology that inheres in rabbinic midrash is at the very least, of equal profundity and complexity of bound doctrinal theology. One needs only to be attuned to its manner and style of communication, consisting of an unrelenting intricate weave of ciphers and cross-references to its biblical antecedents, to hear a literal barrage of philosophical theology.

In a sense, what this book traces is one strong dimension of Jewish theology that paradoxically grants, even demands, freedom from God. I stress that my book is only one dimension, being fully cognizant of others. Jewish “unbounded” theology conveys a sense of vitality and creativity in the practice of theology that is anything but passive, slavish, and legalistic.

The classical rabbis of the first centuries of the Common Era appropriated for themselves extensive liberty in interpreting God’s revelatory word as expressed in the Hebrew Bible. The interpretative strategies they applied to the imposing Voice of revelation, paradoxically carved out an independent space for human freedom while, at the same time, constituted a supreme mode of fealty to God. Human beings, adept at listening to God’s recorded words, can exercise their own freedom to determine the precise contours of thaose original words. God Himself, in rabbinic theology, cedes His supreme binding authority to the unbounded realm of reasoned debate within the rabbinic academy.

2. How were you influenced by Emil Fackenheim?

Fackenheim was and remains a major influence for me first and foremost because I was privileged to have been introduced by him to the world of philosophy in general and Jewish philosophy in particular when I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto many years ago. It was Fackenheim as well who first familiarized me with those major Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century including Buber, Heschel, Rosenzweig, Soloveitchik, and Cohen, the other philosophers/theologians who would dominate my thinking. He constructed a seductive bridge between general philosophy and Jewish thought- the titles of his chapters in his book Encounters Between Judaism and Modern Philosophy, say it all: Moses and the Hegelians, Abraham and the Kantians, Elijah and the Empiricists.

It is ironic that, coming from the yeshiva world, it was a Reform Rabbi teaching in a secular university philosophy department who familiarized  me with a  multi-dimensional Rambam, not only  of the pioneering legal code, Mishneh Torah, but  also Maimonides of the Guide of the Perplexed.

I then began to revere Maimonides as the model for authentic Jewish thought which is not exhausted by law alone or theology alone, but rather best formulated as an amalgam of the two. Particularly formative in the endeavor of philosophical theology is Fackenheim’s assertion about midrash: “for all its deceptively simple story form, it is profound and sophisticated theology.”  Most importantly is his very potent notion of “mad midrash” which is formative for me and all those who wish to take midrash seriously especially in a post Holocaust age. The following encapsulates what he means by that: “Midrashic madness is the Word spoken in the anti-world which ought not to be but is. The existence points to acts to restore a world which ought to be but is not…Without this madness a Jew cannot do—with God or without him—what a Voice from Sinai bids him to do: choose life.” (The Jewish Return into History: Reflections in the Age of Auschwitz and A New Jerusalem, p.269).

Fackenheim should draw far more attention than he does firstly because he notably mounted one of the most serious responses to the shattering philosophical challenges posed by the Holocaust for Jewish thought, and indeed for thought in general. His famous understanding of it as a kind of new revelation, a “commanding Voice of Auschwitz,” promulgating a 614th commandment which translates into the negative commandment not to allow the Nazis a “posthumous victory” is an assertion buttressed by profound philosophical deliberations (Kenneth Green’s latest book on Fackenheim clearly argues this).  And secondly, he demonstrated how the rabbinic tradition offers philosophically sophisticated responses to what he considered formidable challenges to Jewish religious existence posed by modern philosophy. His thought offers one of the most sophisticated rebuttals to Hegel’s relegation of Judaism to a curious anachronism and to Kant’s recommendation of expediting Judaism’s demise by euthanasia.  

3. Which other theologians influenced you?

Those other philosopher/theologians such as Buber, Rosenzweig, and Heschel that I mentioned, have also influenced my thought primarily in the way they understood God in terms of relationship and encounters in one form or another.

For example, I have moved away from understanding biblical anthropomorphisms metaphorically or allegorically that drain them of any characteristic we would consider alive in the Maimonidean sense, toward what Franz Rosenzweig considered the function of all biblical anthropomorphisms as “assertions about meetings between God and man.”

That is augmented by Heschel who considers biblical reports of divine responses, as disclosures not of His Being but of relationship between God and humanity. I follow this line of thinking through Jewish Theology Unbound, especially the very suggestive corollary of this approach which views encounters between human beings and God as shot through with reciprocity, as indeed any relationship must be in order to qualify as such. Accordingly, there is a mutuality in all encounters where, as Heschel states, “an intention of man toward God produces a counteracting intention of God toward man.”

4. Why is questioning important? How do we know?

To be human is to be an inquiring and inquisitive being. Adam’s non-response to God’s primary question sets the stage, not only for the moral failures to which humankind is prone, but for the monumental recurring failure of human beings to reflect, investigate, and search for meaning. The case of Adam is a primary example of my approach toward questioning who is the subject of  the very first question posed by God to human beings, when God searching for Adam after his disobedient eating of the tree of good and bad, asks “Where are you?” (ayekah) I cannot accept this confrontation as a simple game of hide and seek where God has counted blindfolded up to ten and then looks for Adam’s hideout. If that is truly the case, this narrative, along with many others read along the same lines, from a philosophical perspective, or indeed from any serious literary perspective,  might as well be excised and trashed.  

Aristotle famously asserted, “It is through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize, wondering in the first place at obvious perplexities, and then by gradual progression raising question about the greater matters too, for example, about the origin of the universe.” Wondering and perplexity always engender questions which provoke reasoned thought.

I view much of the Bible as serious thought wrapped in myth, narrative, and law. One literary dimension that reflects this is questions raised by both human beings and God.  I thus examine a series of critical   questions in the Bible as expressions of  Aristotle’s ‘wonder’ that act as precipitators of philosophical theology. In fact many of those questions already anticipate positions formulated in modern Jewish thought. Why not go to the source, the very foundational canon of Jewish thought, to see what these questions address and how they were answered?

Returning to Adam,  there is also a layer of Rabbinic midrash that can never be ignored when probing the Bible on the meaning of questions, and indeed  for Jewish thought altogether. It suggests a new vocalization of the one-word question “a’yekah?” to read “eichah?” The midrash transforms the word that indicates God’s search for humanity’s whereabouts (“a’yekah”) into the first word of the Book of Lamentations, eichah, translated as “alas.”

Adam’s primeval sin portends the destruction of the Temple, and the alienation of heaven from earth, since the nexus that bound them was destroyed.  It suggestively evokes  lament, sorrowfulness, and a disappointment with Adam’s attempt to hide from God’s presence. The question in its original context of “where” is meant to provoke the very first serious human consideration regarding the existential consequences of choices made. Its treatment in midrash expresses the damage that has been inflicted on the relationship between Adam and God intended to further motivate a serious response that might reconcile them.

The very enterprise of responding, of Adam contemplating his place in the world, would have, at the same time, been a source of comfort for God. Even answering God’s question with another question would have qualified as an earnest response and would have also expressed relationship.

Adam fails existentially. First, he hides and avoids encounter, shirking his ethical responsibility of meeting the Other—in this instance literally the face of God. Secondly, he circumvents the question philosophically. By hiding, but then responding from a place of hiddenness, the Bible intimates that one can avoid the divine presence, but cannot ignore the question, cannot escape reflection, and still maintain one’s humanity. It is the oral equivalent of his hiding and compounds the transgression with the failure to take responsibility for it.

5. How is God a Being in flux? A God of Becoming?

This question is truly foundational and I examine it through the most important dialogue between God and Moses, in his request for a disclosure of God’s name and God’s response of ehyeh asher ehyeh  in Exodus 3. What kind of Being does God self-identify with this “name”?

Here I veer away from Maimonides’ rationalism of an immutable and unresponsive being that transcends time and place  toward what I believe is a more viable Jewish  philosophical theology for the modern age and one more in sync with the  vast swath of biblical and rabbinic thought including the kabbalistic tradition.  

  YHWH, the name based on “ehyeh asher ehyeh”, the root of which is simply “to be”, conveys a relational being, a “God of becoming,” an elusive being, continually shaped and reshaped by the respective partners with whom it establishes relationship. In fact, a partial appearance of YHVH, such as YH, indicates for the Rabbis a “partial” God whose imperfect state of brokenness, alienation, and even exile, especially in the face of substantive evil in the world, can only be remedied by the restorative acts of human beings.

Many  in the English-speaking world might be superficially familiar with this existential notion of God as a result of Rabbi J.H. Hertz’s commentary on Exod. 3:14, which until recently, was the standard edition of the Pentateuch used in most traditional and Modern Orthodox congregations. Hertz states that the name “must not be understood in the philosophical sense of mere ‘being’, but as active manifestation of the Divine existence.”

A major traditional commentator of the modern period who preserves both dimensions of God, of  a rationalist truth of ‘being” and  of a relational existence of “becoming” is the 19th century exegete, Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser (d. 1879), known as Malbim. He offers an astute explanation of God’s declaration about his name’s temporal permanence by  dividing the verse integral to the disclosure of ehyeh as a name, “This is my name for all time (le’olam) And this is my memorial for successive generations (le’dor dor)” (3:15), into two distinct ways of perceiving historical time: “‘le’olam’ expresses time that is continuous and indivisible, while ‘dor dor’ expresses time that is periodic, segmented according to each generation.” 

Malbim reinterprets what is ostensibly an emphatic avowal of divine durability as a proclamation of two different dimensions to the human encounter with God.  Each result in different human perceptions of God. By distinguishing between the two different senses of temporality conveyed by the terms “forever (le’olam)” and “every generation (dor dor),” the phrase conveys two facets of God’s being, one immutable and permanent and the other relational and persistently in flux. Although he then relates each temporal plane to the names Elohim and YHVH respectively, his core argument is exquisitely apropos the thrust of my account of YHWH.   It connotes the Being of becoming on the one hand, while  satisfying the theological need of the people for a more stable concept of God tied to a transmitted tradition on the other which could also accommodate a rationalist Maimonidean constructed God.

Thus I lean toward Rashi’s understanding for whom the divine name reflects what we all detect in names we are familiar with- “’I will be with them during this period of suffering as “I will be’ with them in future times of oppression.” . It characterizes a God that is relational, responsive, interventionist, and capable of being affected by human beings. The encounter and dialogue, between Moses and God, out of which the name emerges is the moment that transformatively envisages all future divine-human encounters.

In sum, I follow this understanding of the name echoed in modern Jewish thought by Buber, Rosenzweig and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel captured this nicely when he admonished  a conference of Jewish educators ,those most responsible for the perpetuation of Jewish thought to the next generation of potential scholars, theologians, philosophers, and halakhic authorities: “the God of Israel is a name, not a notion…don’t teach notions of God, teach the name of God.”  

6. How do we use God’s name for the mundane?

Once again, when addressing Jewish theology, as opposed to purely biblical, there must be a turn to the rabbinic tradition, in this case the halakhic one.

The final Mishnah of the first tractate called “Blessings”, takes strident liberties with the ultimate religious taboo of pronouncing the sacred Divine name. That Mishnah explains as follows: “They made an enactment that people should greet each other with the Name [of God]” This rabbinic enactment released God’s Name  from the  very strictest of constraints that normally kept it off limits in order to facilitate human dialogue and, in another rabbinic source, is a rabbinic initiative to which God Himself assents! 

A rabbinic enactment mandating the use of Gods’ ineffable name for the ‘mundane’ is a daring desacralization of Judaism’s most sacred object. It is an instance where theology assumes a concrete expression in halakhah, in an extreme formulation of the rabbinic legislative authority, or freedom I mentioned earlier,  that extends beyond that of the divine Lawgiver Himself.

The name YHVH, as I explained previously in this interview, represents a God of true relationship grounded in reciprocity and mutuality. In this relationship, each partner in it is open, not simply to the love of the other, but to the shaping, perfecting, and knowledge of the other. The classical Rabbis then appropriated the name YHVH to form an integral part of the common salutation, a mundane act, though one which grounds all authentic relationships between human beings, whose crux is dialogue and reciprocity.

Thus, God assents to the rabbinic enactment, because it is a concretization of the priority of the horizontal (between human beings, ben adam le’havero) over the vertical (between human beings and God, ben adam le’maqom) relationship, one of the core principles of Jewish law.  Thus God approves His sacred name’s exploitation for advancing the ethical principles and the humanness it represents. The Name informs human relationships in their incipient stage of the everyday salutation.

The classic mishnaic commentator, Obadiah Bartenura (15th century Italy), anticipating people’s unease with this ruling, rationalizes the enactment precisely by elevating relationship and common human decency to a cardinal value, since “pronouncing the Name for the sake of human dignity does not offend God’s honor.”

7. How is Maimonides’s philosophic biblical and midrashic hermeneutic the core of his theology?

This relates also to the book I collaborated on with Menachem Kellner. What Maimonides does that is pioneering is to structure his thought along an inextricable link between philosophy, law, and narrative.

The Mishneh Torah’s structure from start to finish shows this. The work commences with the “foundation of all foundations and the pillar of all sciences,” which is to know that there is a Prime Existent. Embedded within those first four Hebrew words that launch the Code’s substantive law, by applying the rabbinic wordplay strategy of “notarikon,” is the Tetragrammaton, YHVH, a divine epithet that captures the divine essence “clearly and unequivocally.” The Mishneh Torah concludes with a utopian vision when the entire world will participate in this foundational activity to know God, a uniquely Maimonidean construct of the messianic period.

Thus, the Mishneh Torah, and all its legal minutiae, is bracketed by an ideal that anchors its presentation of law in a narrative that maps the course of human history all the way to its definitive unfolding. All law looks back at its origins in knowledge, is grounded in it, and promotes it, while at the same time looking forward to a future when, as a carrier of this knowledge, a global community of knowers will crystallize, where the ultimate object of that knowing is whatever the divine cognomen YHVH signifies.

Correspondingly, the philosophical discourse of the Guide begins with a close reading of a biblical narrative that launches human history. Adam’s disobedience to a commandment, consists of an intellectual decline and distraction away from truth or God, the ultimate object of knowledge, and concludes with a way of life that is informed by the attainment of all that can be known of that object, by “assimilation to His actions.” The result is a thoroughly pious and moral life that “always has in view loving kindness, righteousness, and judgment,” thereby conjuring up the Jewish life of law and mitzvot.

8. What do angels mean?

 What can mythic creatures, whose very mention causes the modern intellectual sensibility to cringe, teach us in the twenty-first century?

In response, I draw on the idea of angels as bridging the human and divine realms, straddling both. Their role is to offer human beings a glimpse, however partial, of what God sees.

I combine critical insights from both Maimonides  and his theological opponent, Nahmanides, to assign angels a sublime role within a coherent philosophical theology.

Nahmanides considers divine “seeing”, repeatedly recorded during the first week of creation, as what establishes creation’s permanence, a stabilizing facet identified by the “good” (tov) that He daily views in that primordial week.

Maimonides, on the other hand, considers that “good” to signify the inherent cohesiveness of all of creation as an integrated whole composed of parts that are mutually connected. Each angelic encounter then is an epistemological & revelatory moment that resonates with these metaphysical aspects of the divine vantage point, reminding humanity that its knowledge is always partial and deceptive.

9. Can you apply this a specific case such as the book of Joshua?

Since what I believe I do best is the actual practice of philosophical theology here is an example of what I mean.

Immediately preceding Israel’s first major battle for the settlement of Canaan, Joshua experiences a cryptic encounter with an angel. Joshua “lifts his eyes” and sees a being “with a drawn sword in his hand” (Josh. 5:13), a posture whose intent he cannot quite gauge as one of either hostility or friendly alliance. Joshua’s query, therefore, addresses this ambiguity, wondering whether “you belong to us or to our enemies,” (Josh.  5:13). The response from this angelic being is simply, “No, I am the captain of the Lord’s host; now I have come” (Josh _5:14), which seems to reject both alternatives posed by Joshua, while offering a third not contemplated by his original inquiry. When observed from a stance of pure self-interest, which assesses everything in utilitarian terms of loss or gain, the sight of an armed and battle-ready “man” allows for only two possibilities. Either that “man” is ready to advance in aid of or, alternatively, impede one’s strategic interests.

Joshua’s question belies a third alternative to which he is apparently oblivious, and of which he is apprised by the angel. The angel’s response, identifying itself as allied neither with Joshua nor his enemies, but as a representative of God, is followed by a directive to Joshua to remove his shoes, “for the place where you stand is holy” (Josh. 5:15).

It is no wonder as well that the angel here echoes the precise instruction addressed to Moses at the burning bush, to remove his shoes, which launches Moses’ political career. Moses’ journey, charted along a Maimonidean trajectory, is both a philosophical and political one, inaugurated at the bush, and culminating in his vision of God’s goodness.

The angel’s stance thus is a universal one, protective of the creation as a whole, or that which transcends the narrow human interests of gain or loss and demands its consideration when confronting any challenge. This angelic encounter is intended to inform the military campaign that Joshua is about to embark on with the ethics of interconnectedness that complements, or, at times, overrides, any purely geopolitical agenda, by metaphysical and ethical considerations. Joshua’s own leadership, then, must also be grounded in what has been transformed for him from a simple battlefield to “holy” ground.

And, as always with Jewish theology, the picture is never even close to complete without its rabbinic overlay. The angel attunes Joshua to more fluid notions of temporality, which both collapse and transcend linear time, pointing toward a metaphysical plane that lies beyond the apparent. The midrashic catapulting of Joshua beyond historical time accentuates the metaphysics of perception already latent in the biblical narrative. This new cognition now accompanies Joshua, particularly when facing Israel’s most challenging existential struggle to ensure its future survival as a sovereign nation. How exquisitely philosophical does an angelic encounter become!

10. What is new in your Holocaust theology that was not already said by Fackenheim or the literature about the Piaseczna Rebbe?

In this book what I try to do to is to deepen our appreciation of both Fackenheim and R. Shapira, the Piaseczna Rebbe, by placing them in a kind of dialogue with each other. Some four decades after the end of the Shoah, toward the end of Fackenheim’s struggle to offer a semblance of coherence in an age when some claimed the Shoah marked the death of civilization, he expressed the impossibility of completing his own philosophical project without R. Shapira’s sermons.  

Thus, Fackenheim’s ‘caesura’ or rupture the Shoah causes to philosophical thought I claim must forever be understood in the shadow of R. Shapira’s own crisis where the long continuum of rabbinic thought seemed to have been shattered as well.

R. Shapira struggled with his own and his nation’s suffering, as his appended letter to his sermons that were buried in the Ghetto attests, engulfed by misery “as deep as the great abyss (tehom) and as high as the heaven of heavens.” The agony these sermons “bleed” forms  the meeting ground of the unbridgeable distance between a divine vista and a human void.

Adumbrating Fackenheim, the suffering of the Shoah, presents a novum for Shapira. Though he perseveres, at times there are glimpses of his exhaustion when he cannot find the language within his vast rabbinic repository adequate enough to meet the crisis at hand. At a certain point he himself lapsed into silence and could no longer offer his community any response that might comfort or alleviate its pain.

Shapira’s ongoing delivery of these sermons must also be acknowledged as a form of resistance equally as powerful as the armed uprising. The sermons are a testament to what Fackenheim terms, “the humanly impossible” resistance that “mends” the philosophical “paralysis” posed by the inconceivable proportions of the crime perpetrated. 

 Shapira’s resistance in both his life and thought, undertaken at the mind’s and body’s excruciating limits, provides a modicum of “philosophically intelligiblity,” to the radical evil posed by the Shoah  since “no deeper or more ultimate grasp is possible for philosophical thought that comes, or ever will come, after the event.”

Shapira’s resistance rises to an “ontological ultimacy,” whose legacy “for our thought now is an ontological category.” If the “unprecedented, abiding horror” of the novum of Nazi logic is opposed by the novum of the equally “unprecedented, abiding wonder,” of resistance to it, then Shapira’s sermons exquisitely capture that wonder. If philosophical theology begins in wonder and the Hebrew scripture, as I explained earlier on the issue of questioning, also begins in wonder then, after the Shoah, it must aldso begin in R. Shapira’s sermons from the years of rage.

11. What is the relationship of Rabbi Kalonomous Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczna Rebbe and Maimonides? Are you giving a post-Shoah reading to Maimonides?

What I present is not a ‘post-Shoah’ reading of Maimonides. In fact, it is not my reading of Maimonides at all but rather a reading of an extraordinary rabbinic appropriation of Maimonides’ thought to deal with the evils of the Shoah.

Nevertheless, it is a significant question indeed since Maimonides is not just another influence but rather is the influence who  looms over all Jewish thought in all its forms as a canonical figure, as I tried to demonstrate in my book Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon, and my collaborative book with Menachem Kellner.

However, what is particularly significant in R. Shapira’s case is that Maimonides is not simply an influence, but provides a supremely Aristotelian notion which R. Shapira, a Hasidic Rebbe, radically adapts in the struggle with the challenges posed by radical evil and suffering to traditional tenets of divine justice and providence.

Maimonides shows up shockingly then, not simply in theoretical places where by all reasoned accounts he should not, but also the concrete historical place and time, in this case the Shoah and the Ghetto, where one would have thought the due date on Maimonidean philosophy, and particularly his rationalization of evil in the world along with his one to one ratio between providence and intellect, had long expired.

In short, R. Shapira enlists what has usually been considered a supremely rationalist conception of God and man, namely Maimonides’ Aristotelian conception of God as thought thinking itself to somehow wrest spiritual meaning from the experience of extreme and incomprehensible suffering. According to R. Shapira for divine knowledge to enter and suffuse the world, human thought must abandon its own self. Suffering provokes an epistemological rupture, which vacates the human mind of its usual modes of knowing, leading to a paradigm shift which allows God to merge with the human mind unimpeded by the ego that obstructs it. The human intellect, and its confidence in its own ability to make sense of the world, must in fact be abandoned, to gain access to the divine mind, in order to make sense of what is an insurmountably senseless world.! Paradoxically, the very constriction of knowledge by the despotic subjection of Israel to suffering contributes to the redemption of knowledge by its very inhibition of the normal modes of reason.

There are far broader ramifications to this epistemological shift that extends beyond the individual to the world as a whole.

There is also a radical transformation of Maimonidean epistemology to a Hasidic one. R. Shapira sees the steady cumulative merging of individual consciousness with divine consciousness as progressively leading toward the messianic age. At that point all minds will meld globally with the divine, as envisioned by Isaiah’when the whole world will be replete with knowledge of God’ (11:9). That same verse typifies Maimonides’ messianic vision. However, for Maimonides, it is God as an object of intellectual quest and contemplation that Isaiah anticipates will be the shared enterprise of all humanity. R. Shapira thus desperately attempts to wrest meaning from what by all accounts seems senseless suffering by viewing it as an instrument of messianic achievement, gradually chipping away the normal instruments of human cognition to make way for the divine mind to suffuse the world.

Maimonides the Universalist – Interview with Menachem Keller and David Gillis

Can one construct an Orthodox Judaism that does not create an intrinsic distinction between Jew and non-Jew? Can one envision an Orthodox Judaism that focuses on knowledge of God and the imitation of God aided by the Aristotelian concepts of intellectual and moral virtue? Can one make the other commandments subservient to universal ones? This is the goal of the recent book Maimonides the Universalist: The Ethical Horizons of the Mishneh Torah (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2020) by Menachem Keller and David Gillis who use Maimonides as their ideal vision of Judaism.

This review is basically on the single book Maimonides the Universalist: The Ethical Horizons of the Mishneh Torah (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2020) by Menachem Keller and David Gillis, but also its intersection with David Gillis Reading Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2014)  and Menachem Kellner and James Diamond, Reinventing Maimonides in Contemporary Jewish Thought (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2019).

Menachem Kellner is the Chair of the Philosophy and Jewish Thought Department at Shalem College. His prior position was at the University of Haifa for 33 years. He is the author of over 25 books and was interviewed twice before on this blog. Kellner’s basic focus in most of his books is how to have an ethical and rational Maimonides, which is part Hermann Cohen’s Maimonides via Steven Schwatzchild (Kellner’s doctorate advisor) and part a spiritualized and carefully selected selection of Maimonides’s ideas that fights the battles against the farshtunken and perverse thinkers that Kellner openly disapproves of their thought including: Ultra-Orthodoxy, Kabbalists,  and those who think Jews are superior to gentiles.

David Gillis, a student of Kellner’s, who did not chose academia as a profession, wrote a very nice book back a number of years ago called Reading Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2014). In that work, Gillis shows how the organization of the laws in the entire Mishneh Torah is shaped by the medieval cosmology at the start of the Principles of the Torah.(yesodei hatorah) This book on universalism has a fine summery of Gillis’ thesis, useful for showing how the keeping of the law is in accord with the rational structure of the cosmos.

The third book of that intersects here, Menachem Kellner and James Diamond, Reinventing Maimonides in Contemporary Jewish Thought (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2019) where the Kellner sections show how much the Ultra-Orthodox approach and even the world of Rabbi Soloveitchik deviate from Kellner’s ideal Maimonides.

In this book, Maimonides the Universalist the authors focus on the closing statements of each of the 14 books of Maimonides Mishneh Torah where Maimonides always gives a philosophic exhortation and universal rational for the laws of that section. They claim that these statements are the key to understanding Maimonides. They perform a close reading and fine-tuned analysis of these statements to construct a universal Maimonides, one that thinks anyone philosophic and ethical is performing God’s will. They are especially interested in showing that this even applies to mizvot that are seemingly not universal such as circumcision, purim, or tefillin. Their readings are sensitive, careful, and thoughtful.

Universalism is the main rubric of the book, but along the way we get the best exposition of the role of philosophy in the specifics of the Mishneh Torah, better than found in any other scholarly book. Most of topics presented by Prof Isadore Twersky in his magisterial Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (1982) are given a fresh turn in this book, presented as crystal-clear arguments. An important topic such as the reasons for the commandments in Maimonides thought as the naturalistic perfection of the body and soul, as providing ethical, intellectual, and social organization is detailed with exact quotes. It also gained the cosmic element from Gillis’ work. We also see the importance of science in Maimonides as the true object of study.  Finally, the analytic presentation of Maimonides view of the messianic age is rich, detailed, and superb.

Yet, the authors themselves are aware of an implicit tension in their approach. Maimonides did not care about or refer to non-Jews in his thinking. In their reading, Maimonides was never thinking goyim; they were never on his mind. Maimonides, in this reading, remains provincial and parochial. According to Maimonides, Aristotle could merit the world to come as a rational and moral person. Since Aristotle, could do this even though he was not a Jew then Maimonides can be labeled as universalist. Personally, I find it a funny use of the word universal. It is what Michael Waltzer calls a “low flying universalism” rather than one that makes demands to go out of one’s comfort zone.

Nevertheless, this book belongs in the hands of anyone who teaches the philosophic halakhah of Maimonides, anyone who teaches topics such as slavery, ethics, or messianism in Maimonidean philosophic law. This book should be a valuable part of the essential library of the High School rabbi or pulpit rabbi looking to give a universalist defense of Judaism. The authors of this book have a sharp eye and acute ear for parallels between passages and echoes to discussions elsewhere in the text.  As a literary reading of Maimonides the book is without equal.

But at this point, I part company with this book and most books of Kellner. Kellner is highly selective in his reading of Maimonides avoiding the Aristotelian, Platonic, skeptical, mystical, illuminationist, and pietistic elements of the great rationalist’s thought. Kellner champions a Maimonides of his own modern design, at points slipping into Hermann Cohen, Buber, or Steven S. Schwarzschild.

I find it anachronistic to appeal to Maimonides’ use of 12th century science as a model for a 21st century universalism for modern Orthodoxy without further comment. If your book is prescriptive, then we should be looking for our universal worldview at the 21st century options such as transhumanism, the Anthropocene, RNA vaccine production, or the genome project. Or are we limited to thinking Maimonides advocated meteorology as did the medieval ibn Tibbons.

After I finished the interview, I asked Menachem Kellner some of my issues with his approach and he graciously responded. First, I asked him about his creating Maimonidean halakhah as an ideal type that never actually existed. His Maimonides is idiosyncratic and does not actually reflect Maimonidean reception or with any halakhic approach. To which he answered: “And Rav Soloveitchik’s view of halakhah is not an ideal type? There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of poskim are not Maimonideans in the sense that Rambam would have wanted them to be. It would be foolish to deny that… Poskim do not evaluate halakhah based on the universalism of yesodei hatorah. They do not see such evaluations as part of halakhic thinking.”

Beyond that, this reading of Maimonides is very similar to many a Salafi Islamic rational thinker for whom Salafi/Wahabi Islam is rational and universal because knowledge of God and ethics are universal. Anyone can be Muslim. The presentation of Maimonides is very similar to the universalism in Islamic dawa found in the articles from Al-Azhar University in Cairo. I have met many an Islamic scholar for whom Islam is the universal truth for everyone to accept without limits based on tribe or people. To which Kellner answered: “And therefore? What’s the problem? Personally, I think that Rambam would be committed to a view articulated by my late teacher, Steven Schwarzchild, according to which there can “Jewish Non-Jews.” I doubt very much that Rambam the historical figure would have said such a thing, but were the implications of his positions pointed out to him, he might very well have agreed.”

The book is written as a Modern Orthodox book whose major function is to reject Haredi positions. Ultimately, I felt the book was heroically going through an already open door. I am not sure that most people need this book to not consider an intrinsic distinction between Jew and non-Jew. And most do not see the return to medieval Aristotelianism and a Neo-Maimonideanism position as thoughtfully pursuing science or philosophy. A medieval rational universalism is rather ethnic and provincial in focus. But we do need this book to continue refining our understanding of Maimonides and in that it has nicely covered new ground.

Interview with Kellner and Gillis

  1. What is new in this book Maimonides the Universalist? 

Maimonides the Universalist  is the first systematic, full-length study of an intriguing literary feature of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, namely the endings of each of its fourteen books, where the discussion goes beyond halakhah proper in a peroration that is often impassioned, even lyrical. If Judaism can be considered to have a universal pole and a particularist pole, we find that these endings have a universal polarity. 

Much of Menachem Kellner’s writing has focused on the combination of halakhah, Aristotelian science, history, and messianism in Maimonidean thought leading to an understanding of his consistent universalism, his rejection of claims (held before him by Halevi, and after him by Kabbalah and kabbalistically inflected Judaism) to the effect that there is some sort of ontological/metaphysical/inherent distinction between Jews as such and non-Jews as such. Human beings —all human beings— are truly and fully created in the image of God.

David Gillis in his Reading Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (2015), shows that while the major content of the Mishneh Torah is the commandments, the book has a universal philosophical message expressed in its structure.

Kellner’s studies have demonstrated that halakhah is a tool, not an end in and of itself for Rambam, and that the Mishneh Torah should therefore be understood as a tool the purpose of which is better expressed in the closing statements of many sections.

2. What does universalism mean? Why is it important?

We do not attempt a universal definition of universalism, as it were. We talk about it in a Jewish context. In that context, it means that there is no inherent difference between Jews and non-Jews, and that the same concept of human perfection applies to Jews as to all human beings.

We do not regard Maimonidean universalism as transcending Judaism. Rambam establishes as commandments of the Torah the knowledge of God and the imitation of God. He illuminates these commandments with the aid of Aristotelian concepts of intellectual and moral virtue, and regards them as imperatives for any thinking person, but they nevertheless remain the essence of the Torah as far as he is concerned, and he makes the other commandments, down to the most particularist of them, serve these primary, universal ones. Universalism thus does not transcend the Torah; it is the Torah properly understood.

Lest it be thought that we personally want to live in Rambam’s world, let us make clear that we understand that Rambam might be one of the open society’s enemies criticized by Karl Popper, and that his vision of liberty is not the one that Isaiah Berlin and we prefer .Rambam, was convinced that truth is one, objective, and unchanging.  If virtue is knowledge, then ignorance of the truth is immoral and also a form of mental  illness.

3. How is circumcision, a sign of particularity, a universal image in Maimonides? How is Abraham universal?

Abraham is one of Rambam’s two great heroes – the other being Moses.  In Rambam’s portrayal of him at the beginning of “Laws of Idolatry,” Abraham is the re-discoverer of monotheism after humankind’s lapse into idolatry. The emphasis is on his intellectual journey rather than on his role as the progenitor of the Jewish people. Out of a superabundant love of God, he sought to bring others to recognition of the truth, by means of persuasion and personal example, and he gathered around him a large community of believers.

The main custodians of the truth, however, were Abraham’s descendants, and when they relapsed into idolatry, they were rescued from it by Moses, through the Torah. The Torah communicates as tradition, and embodies in ritual, the truths that Abraham discovered. Its ultimate aim, however, is to prepare its adherents to work out these truths for themselves, to recapitulate Abraham’s experience. So Moses transmitted a particular law to a particular people, but the example that it champions is the universal one of Abraham.

This is seen consistently on the frequent occasions in the Mishneh Torah that Rambam mentions Abraham and Moses together. Abraham is presented as the personification of an idea that Moses formalizes as law. For example, towards the end of “Laws of Repentance,” Rambam describes Abraham as exemplifying the rapturous love of God to the exclusion of all other concerns, and then states the Mosaic commandment “and thou shalt love the Lord thy God.”

Circumcision exists on both the universal, Abrahamic plane and the particular, Mosaic plane. In Rambam’s view, as expressed in the reasons provided for circumcision in the Guide of the Perplexed, it was practiced by Abraham and his followers as a means of restraining disruptive sexual desire and promoting social solidarity, and as sign of belief in the one God.  It was instituted as a binding law by Moses, not Abraham, and as such it could certainly be taken as a badge of tribal belonging, but its ultimate aim is the recapture of the universal Abrahamic ideal.

4. Would that mean that most Islamic rational thought that traces the religion to Abraham be rational?

Clearly not everything traced to Abraham is universal. Circumcision is enjoined upon his descendants (including those descended from his second wife, Keturah), but not upon moral monotheists outside of the orbit of Judaism and Islam who follow the Seven Noachide commandments on the basis of rational considerations (who are called wise in “Laws of Kings”, 8:11, even if they are not allowed residence in a Maimonidean Jewish state, since they do not accept the Torah, the constitution of such a state).

To the extent that Islamic rational thought is true, then, yes, it is universal. Rambam insisted that Islam is thoroughly monotheist, which means that its conception of God is both rational and universal.

5. How are Purim and Hanukah seen as universal?

Rambam takes two festivals which are clearly associated with Jewish– Gentile warfare and makes their ultimate message one of peace among all human beings. Through a conjunction with the laws of Sotah and of Shabbat candles, Rambam indicates that the meaning of both Hanukah and Purim is to be found in a messianic future of peace among all nations. He ignores the bellicose nature of the special prayer added to the liturgy on these holidays (al ha-nissim), and focuses on the message of universal peace. This is similar to the way in which he takes the figure of Elijah, a prophet presented in the Bible as unrelentingly vengeful (recall in particular his encounter with the prophets of Ba’al in 1 Kings 18), and makes him a messianic harbinger of universal peace.

6. How does Mishneh Torah set out a hierarchy of commandments to reflect the structure of the hierarchal universe?

In the Mishneh Torah, Rambam establishes a hierarchy of the commandments.  He configured the Mishneh Torah as a microcosm, its structure reflecting the hierarchical universe in which he thought he lived (See David Gillis’s book Reading Maimonides Mishneh Torah). In Rambam’s picture of the universe there are ten orders of angels that produce and control the spheres containing the stars and planets; and four elements of terrestrial matter. Correspondingly, the Mishneh Torah comprises ten books on the heavenly-oriented commandments between human beings and God, and four on the earthbound social commandments.

The angels and spheres, as intelligent beings, are superior to the four elements, while they themselves exist in a hierarchy according to the level of knowledge of God that each possesses. The arrangement of the commandments in the Mishneh Torah reflects this cosmic hierarchy. The first ten books are ordered in accordance with the degree to which they deal directly with the knowledge of God, the Book of Knowledge unsurprisingly coming first, while this intellectual aspiration is nobler than the material concerns of the commandments in the last four books that regulate the social order.    

7. How is the rejection of slavery at the end of the laws of slaves universal? How would you define or characterize the ethic outside of halakhah shown in that law?

In our reading, what is interesting about the ethic shown at the end of “Laws of Slaves,” namely that a non-Jewish slave must be treated with the utmost consideration despite a Torah provision that implies otherwise, is that it is an ethic within halakhah. This is contrary to the consensus approach to the passage in question, which is that it is an example of lifnim mishurat hadin, of supererogatory behavior (which may or may not be an ethic outside of halakhah, but that is a whole other controversy).

We see Rambam as being much bolder than the consensus would have it. As we have mentioned, he determines that there is a positive commandment to imitate God, one of the 613 commandments. This, in the Mishneh Torah at least, means the cultivation of inward character traits that reflect the attributes of God’s actions in the world as enumerated in Exodus 34: 6: merciful, gracious, long-suffering, and so on. These traits are universal not only in the sense that they represent an ideal to which all people ought to aspire, but also in the sense that they are indivisible, and should therefore find universal expression in one’s dealings with any human being.

Hence for halakhah to permit demeaning treatment of a non-Jewish slave amounts to a contradiction within with the ideal of cultivating character traits. Rambam however has a graduated approach to fulfilment of the commandments.

The hierarchical structure discussed in the last question holds the answer, in that, Maimonides prioritizes the universalist commandment to imitate God found in book 1 over the provision allowing discrimination against a non-Jewish slave found in book 12.

Allied to the notion of prioritization is the notion of accommodation, that the Torah is adapted to actual social conditions. This is most famously seen in Rambam’s explanation of sacrifices as a concession to conventions of worship prevalent at the time the Torah was given. The late R. Nachum Rabinovitch suggested that the discriminatory provisions in “Laws of Slaves” could be seen as a somewhat similar accommodation to social and economic reality.

Faithful as he was to the sources of halakhah, Rambam records these provisions, but at the same time, in impassioned rhetoric, he calls for them not to be taken as signifying Jewish supremacy or as cues for cruelty, and appeals instead for humanity and recognition of essential equality, culminating in citation of the verse “And His mercy is over all His works” (which we adopt as the motto of our book).

He does so, we argue, not from a perspective outside of halakhah, but from a rigorously constructed scale of value within halakhah in which the ethical imperative overrides, even if it cannot cancel, the provisions in question.  This allows Rambam to espouse the universal while accommodating the particular, which we regard as not the least of his extraordinary achievements.

8. What is the highest form of Torah study for Maimonides?

In order to fulfill the commandment of loving God with all one’s heart and soul, “one must, therefore, be single-minded in studying and reflecting on the disciplines and sciences that give him such knowledge of his Master as humans can understand and apprehend,” (“Laws of Repentance”, 10: 6).

Thus chapters 2-4 of the Mishneh Torah’s opening section “Laws of the Foundations of the Torah” provide a summary of medieval science. Rambam identifies this science with pardes. In “Laws of Torah Study”, the third section of the Mishneh Torah’s first book, he includes pardes in the most advanced stage of the Torah curriculum. Thus the highest form of Torah study for Rambam is the science and philosophy discovered by Abraham, which formed part of an elite rabbinic tradition that was lost (Guide i. 71), and that Rambam sought to restore with help from Aristotle and his followers..

9. At several points in the book, you say Maimonides was oblivious to non-Jews. Why did Maimonides take this approach? Why reject the universalism that includes non-Jews of Shem Tov on III:51?

It seems that the simplest answer to the question is the Mishneh Torah is a work of halakhah addressed to people who are commanded to obey the Torah’s commandments in this world, i.e., Jews.

Rambam certainly thought that non-Jews could achieve a share in the world to come (to the extent that he thought anyone could, a debated subject in academic circles, which we will not address here). Both Abraham and Aristotle were non-Jews. As to Abraham, we assume that no one reading this will deny his place in the world come; as to Aristotle, Rambam wrote to Shmuel ibn Tibbon that Aristotle achieved the highest level of perfection open to human beings just short of prophecy. This is not something Rambam said about Hazal, and if he thought that they could reach a share in the world to come, it would be hard for him to deny such a share to Aristotle.

Shem Tov on Guide iii.51 thought that Rambam taught there that non-Jewish physicists were closer to God than non-physicist rabbis. That is likely Rambam’s position (assuming the physicists in question were moral human beings) but it is not, we think, what Rambam was talking about there in iii.51.

10. How do the commandments serve the purpose of holiness?

It is easy to show that Rambam’s view of the commandments do not reflect antecedent ontological distinctions in the universe. As we have outlined, we do see the arrangement of the commandments in the Mishneh Torah as analogous to the structure of the cosmos, but there is no actual connection between the commandments and cosmic reality.

Tum’ah (ritual impurity), for example, is defined entirely by halakhah. If one could invent a tum’ahmometer, as it were, it would indicate nothing when passed over something defined by halakhah as tame.

What, then, is their function? Rambam rules in the introduction to his Book of the Commandments that general imperatives in the Torah such as “be holy” do not count as independent commandments for the purposes of listing the canonical total of 613. Rather, “be holy” amounts to saying “keep all the commandments.” We may conclude that the telos of the commandments is holiness.

What does Rambam mean by “holiness”? Jews were not given the commandments because they are holy, nor were they made holy by having been given the commandments. Rather, they become holy when they fulfil the commandments. This does not mean that as one fulfils commandments one’s ontological status changes from profane to holy; rather, it means that “holiness” is the way in which Rambam’s Torah characterizes obedience to the commandments.

Holiness for Rambam thus means the outcome of a kind of behavior. It is nothing that can be said to exist in and of itself, it is not some sort of superadded essence, it is nothing ontological. It is rather a name given to certain extremely important and highly valued types of behavior, and, by extension, to persons, places, times, and objects. It is, and this is a point that must be emphasized, something that is not given, but must be earned. Holiness is not an inheritable status.

The hierarchy of the first ten books of the Mishneh Torah referred to earlier can be described as a hierarchy of holiness. It ascends from the external holiness of place in the books dealing with the Temple (books eight, nine and ten) to the ultimate domain of holiness, the intellect, which is the domain of the commandments in the first book, the Book of Knowledge. It means a turning away from the material desires and bodily appetites towards the apprehension of God. This is the process that the prophet, the highest rank of human being, is described as undergoing in “Laws of the Foundations of the Torah,” 7: 1, sanctifying himself through detachment from temporal concerns,  detaching himself from temporal concerns and perfecting his knowledge of God’s “wisdom”, i.e. the laws of nature, until eventually “the holy spirit rests upon him.”

For a greater details see our discussion of the remarkable passage that ends the Book of Agriculture in “Laws of the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee,” 13: 13

11. How is Rav Soloveitchik’s thought an opposite of Maimonides?

Soloveitchik revered Rambam, but the rational approach to the reasons for the commandments expounded in the Guide of the Perplexed disappointed him. It failed to match his sense of the grandeur of halakhah as an autonomous system, a way of comprehending the world at least on a par with natural science, but proudly separate from it, standing in no need of justifying itself before any philosophical tribunal.

In part three of the Guide, Rambam first posits the universal rational goals of the welfare of the body and the welfare of the soul, and then proceeds to demonstrate how each of the commandments promotes their attainment. Soloveitchik felt that such an approach could not possibly motivate religious observance or satisfy a religious sensibility. But in the Mishneh Torah, he found, the point of departure is halakhah itself, halakhah unbound. The justification for halakhah in that work lies in the inner world, the “subjective correlative” as he describes it in The Halakhic Mind, that observance of halakhah brings about. This, he felt, reflects the authentic Jewish experience.

Simply reading the opening paragraphs of the Mishneh Torah is enough to shake Soloveitchik’s view of the halakhah. Rambam begins with certain axioms concerning the philosophical idea of a “First Existence,” before announcing that this First Existence is the God of the world (note not the God of Israel) and making the first citation of a commandment in the Mishneh Torah, “I am the Lord thy God.”

Just as in the Guide, the commandment is related to an antecedent philosophical principle. Similarly, in the second section of the Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Moral Qualities,” Rambam first discusses the Aristotelian idea of moral virtue as cultivation of the mean between extremes of temperament, and then declares that the commandment “And you shall walk in His ways” refers to this idea. The commandments of the knowledge and imitation of God are thus based on philosophical premises. Maimonides sees the rest of the commandments as supportive of these primary ones. This entails that, ultimately, they are all philosophically motivated.

At the same time, we believe that Soloveitchik’s idea of subjective correlative does come into play in the Mishneh Torah.

For Rambam, most strangely to us, moral psychology and cosmology are formally similar. The microcosmic form of the Mishneh Torah outlined earlier implies that observance and study of halakhah perfects human beings by shaping their minds and mores according to the perfect form and functioning of what he saw as a living, intelligent cosmos. In other words, the “subjective correlative” is the human microcosm, and the object with which it correlates, or ought to correlate, is the macrocosm, the created universe as understood by science.

This confirms the tendency identified above in the opening of its first two sections: the Mishneh Torah in its entirety is served by and serves the very science and philosophy from which Soloveitchik thought it had declared independence. It does not promote the formation of an autonomous halakhic world view.

12. What is Maimonides’ view of the Messiah?

Rambam’s naturalist and universalist vision of the messianic era challenges Jews to make the world messiah-worthy.  The peak of messianism for Rambam is thus to bring all human beings to the point where they abandon idolatry (and all that idolatry stands for, namely, brutality and stupidity) and embrace monotheism.

So far as we know, our book contains the first complete presentation of all of Rambam’s messianic texts in English.

The key passage reads as follows:

“The Sages and Prophets did not long for the days of the messiah that they might exercise dominion over the world, or rule over the nations, or be exalted by the peoples, and not in order to eat and drink and rejoice, but so that they be free to devote themselves to the Torah and its wisdom, with no one to oppress or disturb them, and thus be worthy of life in the world to come, as we explained in “Laws of Repentance.” Then there will be neither famine nor war, neither jealousy nor strife. Good things will be abundant, and delicacies as common as dust. The one preoccupation of the whole world will be only to know [lada’at] the Lord. Hence [Israel] will be very wise, knowing [yodim] things now unknown and will apprehend knowledge [da’at] of their Creator to the utmost capacity of the human mind, as it is written: “For the land shall be full (ki malah ha’arets) of the knowledge [de’ah] of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” [Isa. 11: 9].”

Who “will apprehend knowledge [da’at] of their Creator to the utmost capacity of the human mind?” Printed editions have for generations written that it will be “Israel.” However, that word is not found in the best manuscripts. Is it Israel, as the printed editions have it, or all human beings as the best manuscripts seem to teach? In our book, we prove (at least to our satisfaction) that the manuscripts are correct and that the addition of the word “Israel” here is an attempt, conscious or not, to restrict the fullest possible knowledge of God to Jews only, and not to all human beings.

Rambam’s understanding of world history is that it is not God’s original intention to choose the Jews. As Rambam explains in Laws of Idolatry ch. 1, Abraham chose God, not the other way round. Had the first individual to discover God through rational means after humanity had degenerated into paganism been a Navajo philosopher, then the Torah would have been written in the Navajo language, its narratives would have reflected the history of the Navajo people, and its commandments would have sought to purify, sanctify, and exalt the Navajo way of life. But the Torah in its innermost essence would not be different; it would teach the same truths it teaches today, only clothed differently.

Rambam’s messianic universalism is also an outgrowth of his understanding of the nature of humanity. In this Jews and non-Jews are precisely alike, created in the image of God. Only those who actualize their intellectual potential can be said to have realized the image of God potentially in them.

However, such actualization is very hard work and can only be achieved by highly disciplined individuals living lives of self-restraint. It is in this sense that Rambam (and other medieval philosophers, Jews, Muslims, and Christians, working in the Aristotelian tradition) was convinced that a morally dissolute person could not possibly be a philosopher. In the perfected messianic world, all peoples will be able to realize the faith of Abraham.

In Kellner’s next book (We are Not Alone: A Maimonidean Theology of the Other – Academic Studies Press, 2021) it is shown that Rambam’s messianism allows us to live in hope and therefore work for a better future: what is, is not what must be.

Nathaniel Berman responds to Alexander Kaye on Legal Pluralism & Legal Centrism

Professor Nathaniel Berman offers us a response to Alexander Kaye’s discussion of Chief Rabbi Hertzog focusing on the legal theory behind the interview; topics beyond my competence.  First, he points out how legal pluralism has not gone away even in countries such as France. Two, religious and corporate arbitration is a form of legal pluralism. Three, the legal structure of the West Bank is certainly legal pluralism. Finally, and most importantly, Berman look at the case of legal pluralism or legal centrism in Turkey, a case that he teaches in his courses in international law. The case of Turkey was litigated and then adjudicated by the European Court of Human Rights providing a rich background for this discussion. Berman ties this back to Rabbi Hertzog at the end.

Professor Nathaniel Berman is Professor of International Law at Brown University. He is the  Rahel Varnhagen Professor of International Affairs, Law, and Modern Culture in Brown University’s Religious Studies Department. A graduate of Yale College, Harvard Law School. He also has a PhD in Jewish Studies from University College London on  Divine and Demonic in the Poetic Mythology of the Zohar: the “Other Side” of Kabbalah, which we featured in a blog interview here.  

“Centralism” vs. “Pluralism”? The Quest for Justice in a Fragmented Society

Alexander Kaye’s thought-provoking interview with Alan Brill, based on Kaye’s The Invention of Jewish Theocracy: The Struggle for Legal Authority in Modern Israel (OUP, 2020), provides much-needed historical context for the  social, political, and legal fragmentation currently besetting Israel. In this comment, I seek to widen the frame of the discussion, in relation to both Israeli and international law. I take as my guiding thread the legal-theoretical dichotomy that Kaye uses to structure his discussion of Relgious Zionist debates on halakha in a Jewish State: “centralism” vs. “pluralism,” the latter term resonating with the current fragmentation. I will put this discussion in dialogue with a crucial decision of the European Court of Human Rights, Refah Partisi v. Turkey (2001), which explicitly confronted the “centralism vs. pluralism” issue in a religious context.

Kaye’s book highlights the thought of Yitzhak Herzog, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi whose term (1936-1959) spanned the Mandatory and Independence periods. Kaye presents Herzog as a strong advocate of the notion that only one legal system should govern any given polity – “legal centralism” — and that halakha should be that system in a Jewish State. Kaye contrasts Herzog’s position with those of others, such as Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who favored a legal “pluralism,” specifically, concurrent secular and halakhic systems.

Kaye interestingly characterizes Rabbi Herzog’s halakhic-centralism, contrary to what one might otherwise think, as distinctively “modern.” Halakhic-centralism would be the Jewish version of the centralization of power in the modern nation-state. By contrast, Kaye asserts (contra Herzog), Jews have historically mostly lived with legal pluralism, governed by halakhic, feudal, and a variety of governmental legal regimes. Kaye also provocatively argues that Herzog’s insistence on legal centralism provides a link between an older liberal Orthodoxy and today’s extremist right-wing ideologists of a “halakhic State.”

One may complicate Kaye’s frame from a number of perspectives. First, “centralism” and “pluralism” are ideal types, rather than descriptions of specific historical realities. No sovereign, modern or pre-modern, has tolerated an unbridled “pluralism.” Even sovereigns that have permitted, or encouraged, a degree of legal autonomy for ethnic or religious communities placed limits on that autonomy, particularly when perceived as materially or symbolically threatening sovereign authority. Conversely, a thoroughgoing “centralism” was always more of an ideology than a reality, an ideology only maintained through carving out certain realms, sometimes vast realms, as outside “normal law.”

Consider France. An assault on the legal pluralism of the ancien régime, with its overlapping and conflicting jurisdictions, played a key role in the ideology of the French Revolution. Pre-revolutionary France’s various legal orders differed by region, “estate” (nobility, clergy, commoners), religion, and even guild. Revolutionary ideology, culminating in the Napoleonic Code, preached the elimination of all intermediary legal collectivities between the individual and the State. Nevertheless, post-revolutionary France had no compunctions about ruling the populations of its far-flung empire under radically different legal systems than prevailed in the metropole – under such regimes as the infamous “Native Codes” (Codes de l’indigénat). Indeed, within French colonies themselves, European settlers lived under different rules than the “natives” – a situation described by French jurists as “legal dualism.”

In today’s Israel, a complex form of  overlapping “legal dualisms” prevail on the West Bank. Jewish settlers are generally governed by Israeli civil and criminal law, except for certain domains governed by military authority, such as land use and planning. (For example, the West Bank’s Ariel University was established by the order of Major General Nitzan Alon, the Head of the IDF’s Central Command.) Palestinians in “Area C” are generally governed by pre-occupation (i.e., Jordanian) law – but are nonetheless tried in Israeli military courts for offenses involving security and public order. A complex body of “conflicts of law” jurisprudence has arisen to deal with mixed Jewish/Palestinian cases. Palestinians in areas under Palestinian Authority control are generally subject to that Authority’s law, though they are also subject to arrest and trial by the Israeli military. If this “pluralist” regime were converted to “centralism,” it would entail one legal regime from the River to the Sea, applying equally to all – in short, that “State of all its citizens” anathema to the vast majority of Jewish Israelis.

Legal centralism has also been substantially attenuated even within the metropoles of advanced Western and Westernized countries. Such countries have long permitted, indeed encouraged, wide latitude to a variety of kinds of legal pluralism – in the guise of “private,” contractual arrangements. For example, powerful corporations have wide rule-making authority within their enterprises, which often affects the lives of their thousands or tens of thousands of employees far more than State law. Moreover, pervasively used arbitration agreements allow private actors, again often large corporations, to “contract out” of state law and set the procedural and substantive rules under which they settle their disputes. Judicial review of both kinds of such pervasive “private” rulemaking and adjudication tends to be rather minimal.

One kind of arbitration agreement, religious arbitration, is particularly relevant to Kaye’s work. Under such agreements, parties agree to submit their disputes to religious courts – again, “contracting out” of state law. As with corporate arbitration, judicial review tends to be minimal. Such agreements are quite common in countries like the US. In Israel, religious adjudication, both through State rabbinical courts (mostly used by the “national-religious” people) and private rabbinical courts (mostly used by Haredim) handle much of dispute resolution, even beyond “personal status” issues such as marriage and divorce.

How should one judge the implications for justice of the putative pluralism/centralism divide? It is my contention that one cannot do so in the abstract, particularly when divorced from the context of power. For example, Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog would have extended his halakhic centralism even to non-Jews living in the Jewish State. In his responRabbi sum on this theme written just before Israeli independence, Herzog envisioned three classes of residents of the Jewish State: 1) Jews, as defined by Orthodox halakha; 2) “resident-strangers” (ger toshav), a complex legal category that entails acceptance of the “seven Noahide laws”; and 3) simple non-Jews, particularly those halakha considers “idol-worshipers.” The second category of people would enjoy most, but not all, rights of Jews; the third category would enjoy fewer rights. To be sure, and I will return to this theme, Herzog sought to minimize these inequalities, declaring (in his pre-State responsum) that the international community would not tolerate glaring discrimination.

Without going into the intricate complexities of Rabbi Herzog’s tripartite schema, we can see that justice concerns are quite distinct from the pluralism/centralism schema. If one belongs to an ethnic or religious minority, one may well benefit from legal pluralism, preferring the legal system of one’s own group rather than submitting to the majority group’s system. And then again, one may not. Even if one may be the object of ethnic or religious discrimination by the majority, one may fare better under the majority’s legal system due to other kinds of discrimination in one’s “own” group, say on the basis of sex, gender-identity, or sexual orientation. One cannot predict in the abstract how the centralism/pluralism divide would affect justice.  

The European Court of Human Rights 2001 decision in Refah Partisi v. Turkey amplifies, at times unwittingly, our understanding of these issues. In 1998, the Turkish Constitutional Court had ordered the dissolution of the Islamist Welfare Party (Refah Partisi). The Court declared that the Party had engaged in a variety of activities designed to undermine the secular nature of the Turkish State. The Turkish Constitution at that time explicitly established Turkey as a secular State. It also outlawed action designed to cause the “legal order of the State to be based on religious precepts.” The Welfare Party’s alleged anti-secular activities included calls for the violent overthrow of the secular Turkish State and support for international terrorist groups. For our purposes, though, the crucial charge concerned the Party’s plan to replace secular Turkish law with religious law. This proposal would have meant the application of Sharia to the 95% of the population who are Muslims. Other communities would have been governed by their own religious law.

The Welfare Party provided both liberal and theocratic defenses for this plan, all of which are directly relevant here. In the former vein, it argued that it was merely advocating legal pluralism. Drawing on the analogy of corporate arbitration clauses, it declared that “the plurality of legal systems which it proposed was actually intended to promote the freedom to enter into contracts.” Drawing on the rhetoric of individual liberty, one of its leaders declared: “The citizen must be able to choose for himself which legal system is most appropriate for him.”

In a social-historical vein, the same leader declared: “In our history there have been various religious movements. Everyone lived according to the legal rules of his own organisation, and so everyone lived in peace.” Drawing on the language of civil liberties, he declared: “The right to choose one’s own legal system is an integral part of the freedom of religion.” Evoking the key terms we have been exploring here, he concluded: “We shall free the administration from centralism,” describing the latter as a “repressive State.”

In other pronouncements, however, Welfare Party leaders made clear the theocratic ideology behind their proposal. In 1994, one declared: “The question Allah will ask you is this: ‘Why, in the time of the blasphemous regime, did you not work for the construction of an Islamic State?’”. He also declared that the faithful should “call to account those who turn their backs on the precepts of the Koran and those who deprive Allah’s messenger of his jurisdiction.” He concluded: “The condition to be met before prayer is the islamisation of power.”

All of this rhetoric, both pluralist-liberal and centralist-theocratic, should sound familiar, mutatis mutandis, from debates about the role of halakha in Israel. The Turkish context also amplifies the shortcomings of the “centralism vs. pluralism” frame in the quest for justice. In particular, it highlights the indeterminacy of this frame in the abstract. Was the Welfare Party an advocate of a live-and-let-live pluralism, as it claimed, or was this pluralism a mask for a centralist theocracy? Only a consideration of concrete power dynamics could resolve this puzzle.  

The European Court of Human Rights upheld the dissolution of the Welfare Party. At first glance, this dissolution seemed to violate basic civil liberties, such as the freedoms of religion, free expression, association, and so on. However, the European Convention on Human Rights allows such infringements when they pursue “legitimate ends,” are not disproportionate to those ends, and are “necessary in a democratic society” – requirements with close parallels in American constitutional jurisprudence. In upholding the dissolution, the Court declared that a “plurality of legal systems” based on religious affiliation is incompatible with the basic principles of the European human rights system. Such a pluralism “would undeniably infringe the principle of non-discrimination between individuals,” one of the “fundamental principles of democracy.” (In American terms, one would say that the proposed legal pluralism would infringe the principle of the “equal protection of the laws.”)

Perhaps aware that this unequivocal affirmation of legal centralism was incompatible with pervasive practices in most Western countries, the Court went on to give two further justifications, both related to power considerations. First, it highlighted the facts that 95% of Turkish citizens are of Muslim heritage and that Turkey had a history (in Ottoman times) of theocratic government. These facts made it very plausible that the “pluralism” advocated by the Welfare Party could soon tip into a theocratic centralism. A “pluralism” in which one community possesses such a dominant position could only be nominal, at best.

Second, the Court cited two sets of features of Sharia that it declared incompatible with justice. It noted substantive rules incompatible with the European Convention, such as capital and corporal punishment and the treatment of women. At a more general level, it declared that Sharia reflects “dogmas and divine rules laid down by religion,” is therefore “stable and invariable,” and is thus incompatible with “pluralism in the political sphere or the constant evolution of public freedoms.” (Note the very different usage of the term “pluralism” here).

To be sure, experts in Islamic law may well reject the Court’s characterizations here – particularly its assertions about the lack of an evolutionary potential in Islamic jurisprudence. The Court’s pronouncements do not seem to have been based on any serious research or consultation with a range of Sharia scholars. For our purposes, it is nonetheless instructive that the Court seems to have felt that its condemnation of “legal pluralism” was insufficient to decide the case.

For all the countless differences between Israel and Turkey, one could easily draw parallels between the arguments in the Refah Partisi case and those concerning a potential “halakhic State” in Israel. Let us assume that a hypothetical halakhic State would be nominally one of legal-pluralism, rather than Herzog’s halakhic-centralism – allowing each religious community to be governed under its own religious law, rather than having Jewish law imposed upon all. The proponents of such a State might well give an array of liberal arguments akin to those of the Turkish Welfare Party. Yet, the fact that approximately 80% of Israeli citizens are Jewish means that halakha would have power far beyond that in a truly pluralist system. The fact that Israel is now defined firmly as a “Jewish State” by the “Nation-State Law” could only reinforce this power. Moreover, the fact that millions of non-citizen Palestinians are currently under direct or indirect control of the Israeli military would further render such pluralism illusory.

Other justice issues are just as troubling. The question of equality on the basis of gender and sexuality would be acute in all the religious legal systems that would be likely to replace the secular legal system. Moreover, the injustice of imposing religious law on secular members of both Jewish and Arab society would be glaring in Israel, as in Turkey. Finally, the existence of multiple Jewish, Muslim, and Christian denominations would require an arbitrary act of power to determine which had authority — unavoidable if the entire system would not break down into a plethora of legal regimes.

I conclude with a striking feature of Rabbi Herzog’s pre-independence responsum to which I alluded above, its relation to international law. As noted by Kaye, Herzog thought that, although legal evolution was commendable, “Jewish religion and law exhibited the most advanced and civilized aspects of any culture” – and that any developments in halakha should come from its internal logic and not from external influences. This feature has something in common with the stasis the European Court attributed to Sharia. Halakhic evolution in accordance with developing international law or morality would, for Herzog, seem to be anathema.

Strikingly, however, as I have noted, rabbi Herzog did express concern with the legal and moral standards of the international community in his pre-State responsum. In particular, he declared that international non-discrimination standards should influence halakhic development in certain areas – for example concerning land sales to non-Jews. “Insistence on discrimination” in these matters, he wrote, could “endanger our chances to secure a Jewish State or cause its subsequent destruction.”

Of course, the compatibility of halakha with international law was never the subject of international judicial scrutiny, as Sharia was in the case of Turkey. However, the ringing affirmation of basic principles of non-discrimination in Israel’s Declaration of Independence was clearly written against the background of similarly worded principles in roughly contemporaneous international documents.

Although I have taught international law for more than 30 years, I do not have the disciplinary hubris to think that it will provide the real-world key to healing Israel’s fragmentation. The recent “Nation-State Law” clearly signals a move in the opposite direction. Nonetheless, there is growing international legal scrutiny of events in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, highlighted by the recent ICC decision. May international law yet play some role in providing a way out of fragmentation, as it did in Rabbi Herzog’s thinking – and as it did, however briefly, in relation to theocracy in Turkey? The jury is still out.

Rabbi Shagar on Politics and Messianism- Beriti Shalom- My Covenant of Peace

Last summer, Rav Shagar’s collected writings on politics were published. I devoured it immediately, and I taught some of it in my Shabbat afternoon class last summer. The book is called My Covenant of Peace: Right and Left, War and Peace (Yediot Aharonot : 2020). In many ways, it is one of the best books of edited essays of Rav Shagar in that the pieces were left as he wrote them from 1983 to 2007 and arranged in chronological order. Most of his other writings the editors combined over twenty years of classes and notes into single essays on a topic, thereby obscuring his intellectual development. Here we see the specific issue that drove him to speak in each year. In addition, this book deals with the existential issues in less abstract terms and in more basic existential political terms.  This week, when the holidays of Iyar occur, is a good time to post.  

This is our 20th post on Rav Shagar,  for #19 and #18 on Hanukkah see here and  here, Other entry points are herehere. herehere, and here.).

Rabbi Shagar fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, where his tank took a direct hit at the very start of fierce tank battles of Golan Heights in which two of his comrades who were with him were killed instantly; he was wounded and badly burnt. This event, along with the subsequent Israeli political trajectory of events from the withdrawal from Sinai  to the disengagement from Gaza, elicited within Rabbi Shagar a sense that the Religious Zionist narrative of messianic redemption through return to the land was broken. The first part of this book contains Rav Shagar’s direct and visceral reacting to breakdown the Merkaz Harav messianism letting his reader share his pain and confusion without an intellectualization in Lyotard terminology. The last essays written at the time of the 2005 disengagement already have his signature constructions of postmodern theory to explain Zionism.

In the book, we see how Rav Shagar had deep sympathy and identity for the contradictory Israel opinions. He expresses how the anti-Zionist Haredi are correct, the liberal Tel Aviv peace activist is correct, and the messianic settler Zionist is correct. They all have arguments from logic and from Torah, but more than that they all speak to a visceral truth that are contradictory and conflicting. This book will make less sense for an American Zionist of AIPAC, blue & white cupcakes, and support for Israel as a pareve tenet of Jewish identity. He feels the passion of these extremes.

Rabbi Shagar sees his own postmodern views as the next step in the process of Zionism. Rav Kook was the era of the messiah of Joseph; however, we presently live in an era of the messiah of David, where we transition from state building to personal growth and universalism. The new era of Zionism will be the development of Israeli democracy and will include a multiculturalism and multi-national democracy as the next stage in the redemptive process that reflects the Hasidic consciousness of containing plurality and divisions (He explains himself in his essay “On That Day” in a different volume). Or as he describes it here, a schizophrenic combination of the Haredi, liberal, and settler positions, and as a utopian revolution that we cannot grasp. Rabbi Shagar sees his utopia as “a world of beyond, which cannot be described in human language.” Therefore, he understands prior centuries of Jewish apocalyptic literature, which were “full of wondrous, mysterious visions of the figure of the Messiah, of redemption, and of the End” as the only means to convey the messianism that is desired but not realized.

The translations were all done freehand during the summer, they should be checked and edited before any use. Levi Morrow, in turn sent me some of his summertime translations. I have much more translated that I used in teaching, but I chose a number of pieces to give a sense of his thought. The book is full of ideas so do not take the few passages here as the final word on his politics. In each passage below, the opening paragraph contains my words and the rest is Rabbi Shagar.

  1. This first piece from “On the Lebanese War Sivan 1983” shows his sense of the transience of life before death on the battlefield. The essay is somewhat eulogistic reflections on the deaths of some of his students. Notice in this early essay how his thinking is personal and direct.

In war, a person stands on the core of his life before the equalizer and the true. The counterfeit needs to be expunged because answers will not help here. Where will each one stand in his last moments when he is required to return the deposit to His Creator?  On this the Rabbis said: “Remember the day of your death” Furthermore, then a person must continue and ask: If so, —why me?

Life is beautiful. Against death we feel the beauty even more – the love between people, friendship, children, even the value to just stroll and assess the air under these skies. The grass near the tanks and the green soot, very green beside the horror. Nearby stand the divine, the living, and the observers. And the person who survives from the fire wonders and does his calculations.

A strong desire grasps a person to bow with blessing before God at that very place. To cry out to heaven: Why this horror?! Why can’t it be different? And an even more depressing question: Why does he worry about these matters only in the shadow of war? Why is it only in suffering does he learn the way to his creator? (39)

2) This piece is from 1987 during the First Intifada. He is reacting to the lawlessness of the Jewish Underground, thinking that the senseless violence could have been prevented. In late 1976, the Israeli settlers movement, Gush Emunim, attempted to establish a settlement at the Ottoman train station of Sebastia by squatting and ignoring the law. The Israeli government did not approve but nevertheless create the settlement of Elon Moreh nearby. Already in 1987, he thinks neither left nor right have the solution.

There is a direct line that connect the Sebastia train station to the Jewish Underground. It is impossible to hide from this. If people can create their own law and transgress on the state law in the case of the  Sebastia train station, then why will they not permit to themselves and act similarly to terrorize the innocent as the Underground did?… But we must look at the other side of the coin. If Gush Emunim, had asked permission from the government to settle, it would not have worked at all.  

Is there a solution concerning the return of the territories? Menachem Begin is correct. If we return the territories, Katushas will fall on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. But the left is also correct, it is impossible for one nation to subjugate another.

With the help of the heart profound in practicality and imagination we have to search for a solution that the intellect cannot find. We have nothing but a struggle in moments and privately to attempt to reach a collective point that includes the right and the left.  (51, 54)

  • 3) Adar II – 1992. Here he ponders the meaning of the state and messianism, seeing three positions, the Haredi, the Zionist, and the Utopian. For the Haredim, the messiah will come in God’s time, in the meantime we learn Torah. For the Zionism, we live in history and political activism. The leader could be secular and even a false messiah or a half redemption is meaningful. The third approach, the Utopian, which he considers his own is to value the Haredi study of Torah as the meaning of our lives, and to appreciate the return to Zion by secular means, but ultimately love of God transcends the national struggle We need a utopian stage of universal moral, an elevated humanity, a revelation of God in our human contingency. A true messianic Zionism will be “a philosophic life and love of God to turn to be the inheritance of all the world.” We have a universalist Maimonides meeting Frans Rosenzweig and then becoming the meaning of Zionism

According to the Haredi view of the messiah, it does not require any activism to realize it… According to the view an eternal Torah, there is no meaning in an attempt to fulfill messianism in a historic manner…A Jew is a Jew of the study hall, of Torah, of prayer, but not of the army and politics.

Activism depends on a historical view of the messiah as derived by a Zionist messiah, not a Haredi one.  The messiah is not a transcendental cause that comes external to history and changes it. But exists as part of the historic process, and we are called to act in it.

Zionism of the messiah image is 1) a natural and realism as in the image of Bar Kochba who stands as proof of it. 2) A tautology of the rubric of the Messiah to open a door to understand the immanent history of it. The success of the messiah is tested in its correspondence to concrete historic circumstances in which it is active and not in compliance to specific requirements 3) The relation to the false messiah- even Christianity- as steps on the messianic path. From this, even non-relgious leaders can advance the redemption 4) partial messiah” weren’t they the kings of the house of David  who were fit? The difference between them and the messiah is relative. Not absolute. There is a legitimate possibility for the existence of a partial Jewish kingship, even if not the messiah.  

First, we speak of the negation of extreme trends in religious Zionism which accept the redemption as necessary process, without any possibility of retreat. According to them, messianism is the faith necessary to create the political course of the state, even if it appears against the immediate state.  I see in this position forcing with a strong arm the [messianic] vision on history and to [thereby] force the end. These that force the end, are those of whom Maimonides feared. [A false] spiritual militancy that accepts that if we decide with determination that the Messiah will come, he will certainly come.

Our critical question: Do we act based on the fact that we decided that the messiah is coming, or do we act because we think a given action is right, worthy to be done?

It is understood that my statement does not mean my break from that vision. It is not an announcement that the faith and historic rights are not an active force and active cause in the process of history, But they depend on their innerness of the law and of the process, which can never jump outside their skin

Three approaches – the Haredi, the Zionist, and the Utopian are the three stages of the redemption itself. 

The eternity of the Torah pushed forth and elevates the religious consciousness, an elevation that is itself a redemption.  The messiah of the exile awakens and opens our Zionism, and from there the journey continues to the universal purpose of history sealed in peace, with love and fear, which is the knowledge of God. We are not talking about a return to what was, rather a progression to what is yet to be, speedily in our days. This evolution does not mean the nullification of the central values of the prior approaches. The eternity of the halakhah, which stands in the center of the Haredi approach is not negated in the framework of the Zionist approach. 

[In this new Utopian age] Only love of God is important, the national struggle becomes unimportant, the breaking of the circle of Torah and Mitzvot into love of God. A shift from “you chose us” to universalism Beyond the restorative messiah which maintain existence to a utopian messianism which breaks it to greet a religious existence and an elevated humanity. An absolute revelation in existence and history support an absolute meaning in human contingency.  (not a return to the transcendent but built on the historic and immanent)

The utopian places before us the religious purpose of Maimonides: A philosophic life and love of God to turn to be the inheritance of all the world. (438-458)

  • 4) Sivan 2005 before the disengagement from Gaza where he uses postmodern theory to make sense of the contradictions of a retreating messianism as shown by the return of land. Rav Shagar surprisingly quotes Zizek on political messianism as dangerous totalitarianism. Rather, he prefers a Walter Benjamin revolutionary utopianism. The prophets taught the messianic age is accessible, but For Rabbi Shagar, it remains a desire, an ideal, a vision. Messianisim is an apocalyptic against the realism of history and law.

I will give an example to the required change in Messianism, a term badmouthed in our day. The religious right or Gush Emunim, which is guilted by certain thinkers for its messianism [Amos Oz 1986].

One thinker,[Zizek] wrote that radical evil ({Political term Totalitarianism) appears when religious faith or reason (or democracy itself) positioned in modalities of future present. In other words, it is dangerous when messianism becomes a political argument, as an animating force of actual politics 

As it is expressed well by the modern thinker Walter Benjamin, the Messianic promise will be understood as a revolutionary act and not a process as the Enlightenment thinks because it is not capable to produce something new, only  to return the past and return on itself.  Or as Zizek wrote: It is impossible to conclude the phenomena of the messianic age with an objective analysis of a historic process. The messianic age, in the end, is the permeation of the subject that cannot contract into the objective historic process. At every moment, to tremble with a messianic turn, time becomes compressed…

The big innovation of messianism that the great prophets preached with such passion is rooted specifically that gap is not absolute. The messiah who is coming will bridge between the subjectivity and the objectivity.  Messianism delights and excites us. Obligating us to continue to give spirit to the explanations of faith. This messianism is therefore revolutionary, that is to say, denial, which is the place where the subjective will meets with historic laws.

The gap is between a transcendental belief and actual belief, rather between a messianism in the present and a messianism of one who is coming… One should be warned against a utopia lacking a utopian spirit just like mysticism without the spirit of mysticism turned the esoteric into the revealed. Messianism is not a political argument, it should be a spirit that prevents the political, the vision remains in its base. Always not present, rather a future to which we seek and yearn for. But since it is a vision, it is not physically present, we know well to consider the logic of existence and to know the gap between ideal and reality.

Is the messianic revolution, called the rebellion of the subject with the laws of history and [a rebellion] with law in general. Does this create a justification for protest against the disengagement? (133-134)

  • 5) More on the Disengagement. In this he criticizes those who lack doubt. The true believer without doubt is dangerous. God is not a fact, but an existential belief or as he terms it- we live in a world of tzimzum. To harness non-belief in the service of belief is the estate of Ayin, which he explains in other essays is a postmodern Neo-Hasidic belief in God as mystical Nothingness.

My impression of some of the young people opposing the Disengagement is that—in contrast to their thoroughly ideological rabbis—they are driven by authentic faith, and this itself is what makes them so dangerous.

What makes the religious terrorist dangerous is that he lacks a lack of faith—he lacks doubt. This lack is what enables him to murder. Paradoxically, lacking faith protects a person from transgression. The faithless ideologue, in contrast, is plagued by a hole that he attempts to overcome through ideology, and that is what makes him dangerous. In general, however, he will not go too far, and will find formulations and justifications (even ideological ones) to prevent himself from transgressing.

We must thus open up to the lack of faith—to the ability to cast doubt—to the ironic, distanced gaze. Is such a gaze opposed to the fear of heaven? Not necessarily. In a certain situation, it itself is the fear of heaven, or at least, it enables a powerful possibility for the fear of heaven.

God is not a fact. He exists without existence. This is the secret of the tzimtzum, which is also the source of lack of faith, as Rebbe Nahman teaches. The internal logic is simple: God is not a fact, so how is it possible to believe in him? How can you believe in not-a-fact? How?

The answer is that you must conscript the lack of faith in service of the cause. Believe without believe just as God exists without existence. Paradoxically, “not believing” in this sense can only function in tandem with “believing,” without which it would become simple negation—nothingness, simple absence, rather than absence that exists. This is the revelation of the Ayin. (139-140)

  • 6) 2005, as part of the talk above on the disengagement If you are wondering how he can be a Haredi, messianic settler, utopian universalist at the same time, he answers that our goal is not synthesis or a coherent form of thinking. Rather, we have to learn to live with a schizophrenic diffuse form of thinking, reminiscent of Deleuze. We live in a permanent world of the aporia of not being able to put everything together. We accept ourselves and our diverse intentions.

We must not attempt to unify opposites and construct a coherent way of thinking; we must specifically construct the possibility of multiple ways of thinking, a schizophrenic way of thinking, but without sliding into cynical reason.

Faith, on the bottom line, will be infinite, the very saying yes in and of itself. Derridean faith. Pure form… Paradoxically, this faith gives nothing, because it affirms everything—but affirming everything means denying everything.

The final conclusion will therefore be accepting yourself. This is the tsimtsum. But it might also mean accepting yourself as schizophrenic. (153-154)

  • 7) 2005, as part of the talk above on the disengagement.  Rabbi Shagar advocated the separation of religion and state. The state law should not be halakhah and he is against relgious coercion. But the last line is the crucial one, the relgious person needs the separation in his/her mind.  

Many rabbis—not just Haredi rabbis, Religious Zionist rabbis too—are coming around to the idea that we need to separate religion and state. Religion itself will emerge better for it. Identifying halakhah with state law creates ethical problems of religious coercion for religious people as well. This is something that anchoring halakhah in the community avoids. The modern idea of the state does not allow for this sort of law-making. This conflict, of course, makes itself known not just in religious-secular relations, but also in the mind of the religious person himself (153)

  • 8) 1992 lecture to Kibbutz Hadati on “War as a mizvah”. One has to distinguish between eternal mizvot and responding to temporal contingent events in history.

This is part of a much broader conception—appearing throughout Rambam’s writings—which I cannot lay out here. This distinction is not simple, nor is it accepted by most of the religious community today—they identify religious value exclusively with “mitsvah”—but in my opinion this distinction is of the utmost importance. (345)

War belongs to the realm of politics, not to the realm of mitsvah. This is not to say that politics is not the will of God, or that politics should not be organized according to halakhah. It’s just that we cannot contain politics and war within the category of “mitsvah.” In my opinion, Rambam sensed that it was dangerous to include war in the category of “mitsvah.” A mitsvah is rigid, transcendent, eternal, supernatural, unchanging, and stands outside of ongoing history.

Not so matters of the king, which are entirely historical. For example, the whole point of “the King’s justice” is to fill gaps (lacunae) which the halakhic law of the Torah did not explicitly address. This is connected to the temporality of his role. (347)

  • 9) From a 1991 course on messianism at Maaleh. On the need to create a Torah political thinking. However, Rabbi Shagar is not looking for the halakhic questions.  

My aim here today is not purely Torah-focused or academic—it is explicitly social and political. As a Religious Zionist, I believe that the Torah is a Torah of life and it is not in heaven, so it must necessarily also generate political thinking. Then, and only then, does it attain its real meaning. The mussar masters said that a person must ponder each page of Talmud that he learns and attempt to determine how what he learned could guide his actions in his practical life. This idea is not simply an ethical exhortation, intended to get a person to apply what he learned—it shapes the very understanding of Torah itself. The question of practical application gives an absolutely different meaning to theoretical thinking, and only after they have stood the test of practical application does ideas have any real meaning. (435)

  1. 10) From a 1991 course on messianism at Maaleh, After the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 CE, the Rabbis instituted a variety of practices as a remembrance of the Temple. Most interpret these practices as indicating memory. Rabbi Shagar, in great creativity, explains the remembrance as both a remnant nagging at us by its absence and as our desire for a receding object that has not arrived.
  2. 10) Rabbi Shagar following Maimonides acknowledges that calculating the end does not produce certain knowledge, yet he disagrees with Maimonides and encourage the flights of imaginative magical mystical visions of the messianic age. Anything thought about in rational bourgeois terms by definition cannot be salvation from our banal corrupt world. We need utopian ideals. This ties in with his giving great importance to the magical tales of Rav Nachman,  wild folktales, and science fiction

R. Yohanan Ben Zakai, of course, wanted both to enable a way of life in the absence of the Temple, and also to shape this way of life as “a reminder of the Temple.” This has two meanings: It’s not just eternalizing the past, but the reminding itself is a manner of existing. Thus, existence in the present is none other than a reminder, the present is a thin embodiment of the past, and is necessarily deficient. The present is thus also oriented toward a future that has not yet arrived. (418)

Calculating the End is a mystery. The World to Come is a world of beyond, which cannot be described in human language. The only thing that can contain the utopian world is liberation from this corrupt, banal world by means of the sense of wonder contained in the world of mystery. Thus, apocalyptic literature is full of wondrous, mysterious visions of the figure of the Messiah, of redemption, and of the End. (426)

11) 2001 – Given in a Gush Etzion public dialogue as a response to Rav Medan. An aphorism against ideology or fixed external doctrines.

From an existential perspective, ideology is a graven image. As an absolute thought, it is automatically a fetishistic object. Spirituality reveals itself in existence, not in thought, and faith is not about declarations of faith which could become externalized, thereby lacking any internal substance. (111)

Copyright- Alan Brill & Levi Morrow

Interview with Alexander Kaye- The Invention of Jewish Theocracy

A few months ago, I had an interview with Daniel Mahla about his book showing the history of the 20th century creation of a divide between Agudah Orthodoxy and Relgious Zionism leading the separate political-relgious camps in Israel today. At the time, I had expected this interview with Kaye to be posted immediately afterwards. Alexander Kaye work offers an insight into the next question of the divisions with Relgious Zionism, especially between those who want a theocracy, those who give the secular state relgious value, and those who want to use Jewish sources for a secular state. This is especially important in that one of the current 2021 Relgious Zionist political parties wants in the name of Torah to reject gender equality and roll back protections on women.

Alexander Kaye is the Helen Stoll Assistant Professor of Israel Studies, and Assistant Professor in the Department of Near East and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. He  received a Ph.D. in Jewish history from Columbia University, and a B.A. and M.Phil. from the University of Cambridge. He is ordained as a rabbi from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, and served as Assistant Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York. Kaye with David N. Myers, co-edited The Faith of Fallen Jews, a collection of works by the late Prof. Yosef H. Yerushalmi. His first book, the one discussed below is The Invention of Jewish Theocracy: The Struggle for Legal Authority in Modern Israel (OUP, 2020)

Alexander Kaye’s doctoral dissertation was on the “The Legal Philosophies of Religious Zionism 1937-1967” (2013) opened with two superb chapter on the ideas of law and halakhah in the Relgious Kibbutz movement. He discussed Moshe Unna, Simcha Friedman, Eliezer Rosenthal, among others. Kaye showed the divergent views ranging from following a spirit of the law, even if it violates the current practice, to a legal positivism. The chapter discusses the important legal topics of Grundnorms, spirit of the law, Hans Kelsen’s view of law, as well as the training of Kibbutz thinkers in German law schools. The following two chapters of the dissertation were on Rabbi Hertzog’s approach and the final two chapters on those who differed with Hertzog. This book places the middle two chapters of the dissertation on Hertzog front and center, while jettisoning the wonderful opening chapters.

This book is about how the moderate Chief Rabbi Herzog was in favor of making Jewish law the law of the land. Kaye frames this in several ways.

First, that there are two conceptions of the law in a state- legal pluralism and legal centralism. In legal pluralism, there can be multiple sources of law, relgious, local, and national. In legal centrism, the only law is the one approved by a single national source. As a resource for the legal pluralist position, the 14th century Rabbinic scholar Rabbenu Nissim (Ra”n) postulated a legal pluralism between rabbinical law and the Rabbinic concept of the King whose operates outside of the law. Kaye shows how many contemporary Rabbis such Rabbi Shlomo Gorontchik, (under his new name Goren, became a Chief Rabbi of Israel) used Rabbenu Nissim to create legal pluralism, but Herzog did not.

Second, Kaye shows how Hertzog was influenced by European ideas, especially the case of Ireland, where they created a single legal system influenced by Catholic values instead of two separate realms. Kaye’s point in this book about Herzog is to show that the tension between secular politics and religious law is an issue shared by many modern states. He also shows how even those who argued for theocracy such as Hertzog could base themselves on European models of modernization. Kaye argues that that religious politics in Israel is part of the largely secular history of European nationalism.

Finally, Kaye also shows how these theocratic issues are build into the intellectual foundations of the state and are not just reactions to the 1967 war.

Along the way, we hear about other approaches, such as that of Rabbi Shaul Israeli who granted legal status to the Knesset and secular law, but as a way of preserving an ideal for relgious law. We also hear about Mishpat Ivri that wanted to use Jewish texts and values to create a secular law in Israel.

In all the relgious approaches to the state, whether legal pluralist or legal centrism, these modern rabbis had to be creative with the halakhah which was formed in diaspora and never had to face actual cases of governance. They all had to either change or adapt the law on some level to accommodate modern realities or they had to keep the halakhah basically as it is but to change the law’s attitude toward secular legal institutions. They all made a working acceptance of the state’s law’s, nevertheless, a majority of Israeli rabbinical scholars still frown on becoming an attorney to work in Israel courts because the halakhah mandates resolving cases in halakhaic courts and not secular non-Torah courts.

The book focuses on the influence of European models on Rabbi Herzog, as a way to understand the genesis of his ideas. However, for the 21st century many of the cases in Islamic lands where there is tension between a secular legal system and Islamic law may be closer. So too Myanmar, a country that developed a Buddhist legal system and now has issues as a non-democratic ethnic Buddhism.

My bigger take away from the book as a scholar of religion and not of law is the role that these visions of Jewish politics have in creating ideological religions which operate on the realm of ideals and not on the realm of law. For example, the Israeli political party that wants to roll back rights and protections for women offered by the secular government but they do not want to remove the very non-halakhic process of election as members of a parliament. So too ideas of Christian nationalism in the USA or Poland or Islamic, Hindu, or Buddhism visions of theocracies motivate people to act in the public sphere and create a political theology, even if not actually directly changing the legal system. Kaye sees the issue and therefore ends both his book and the interview on people like Bezalel Smotrich who while far from a rabbinic scholar in any way wants a theocracy. Kaye reminds us of the difficulty of separating the civil democratic and human forms of theocracy of a Chief Rabbi Hertzog from the vulgar popular versions of a Bezalel Smotrich.

The book is an important and well researched work, which should be read by all those interested in contemporary forms of Jewish Orthodoxy or the role of Orthodoxy in Israel. The book relies on letters and communications beside the printed materials. It will frame any further discussions on these topics. But I wish there had been a chapter on how these ideas played themselves out in Hertzog’s smaller halakhic decisions of political import such as his allowing fingerprints as evidence, his vision of the chief rabbinate in the 1950’s or his allowing the state to build churches.

 For those who want to read a different article by Alexander Kaye, there is available online “Or la-goyim”: From Diaspora theology to Zionist dogma” Journal of Israeli History  (Volume 38, 2020, which traces how the idea of “light unto the nations” went from a slogan rejected by the early Zionists rejected the slogan as a weak diaspora slogan of the Reform and Orthodox movements to a Ben Gurion slogan that still influences the current hasbara (public relations) industry. The article has some choice vignettes

Chief Rabbi Hertzog

Interview with Alexander Kaye on The Invention of Jewish Theocracy

  1. What is legal pluralism and legal centrism?

Legal pluralism refers to the idea that there can be more than one source of law in a given society. In contrast, legal centralism posits that there is only one source of law, almost always the state.

For legal centralists, any law, no matter if it is “do not murder,” or “use alternate side parking during a snowstorm,” has authority only because it is ultimately authorized by the state, or authorized by a law or regulatory body, which itself is authorized by the state. This has been a common way of thinking about law since the rise of states in the Early Modern period, and their subsequent bureaucratization, and centralization of power.

For most of history, in most societies, though, people accepted that law came from more than one source. In medieval Europe, for example, there were the laws of the king, of the church, of guilds, of local councils, of the army, of universities, and so on. Each of these sources of law had their own institutions, which often clashed with each other. There was also a fealty to “natural law,” the principles of morality that, it was felt, needed no legal body to grant them authority.

2. What is Jewish legal pluralism?

Jews have had a pluralistic approach to law for more or less all of their history. Of course, almost all Jews historically considered themselves bound by halakha, but they considered other sources of law as authoritative also. The Bible itself (1 Sam. 8) refers to the “law of the king” (mishpat ha-melekh), which seems to override other elements of Biblical law in cases where the two conflict. (There is a rabbinic disagreement about whether the king has the right to impose law on his people, or not, but both sides to the dispute agree that the law of the king is binding post facto.)

The Talmudic principle of “the law of the land is the law” (dina de-malkhuta dina) is another example of Jewish recognition of the authority of law which is distinct from halakha.

The Talmud, and medieval Jewish communities in its wake, also empowered town councils and guilds to impose regulations about wages, prices and the like. Indeed, the medieval Jewish community (the kehilla) frequently had courts run by Jewish lay-leaders, as well as halakhic courts run by rabbis. This state of affairs was accepted by major Jewish thinkers, albeit to different degrees.

3. Why did Rabbi Goren favor legal pluralism?

In 1948, Rabbi Shlomo Gorontchik, who decades later, under his new name Goren, became a Chief Rabbi of Israel,proposed a legally pluralistic system for Israel that would have two court hierarchies – one secular, one rabbinic – which would run in parallel to each other, each according to its own laws and regulations.

Gorontchik believed that this kind of legal pluralism would allow Orthodox Jews to live exclusively within the rabbinical court system, even for civil matters, while others could choose a secular court system if they wanted to do so. He thought that his proposal might convince the secular Jewish majority to endorse the authority of Jewish courts. For Gorontchik, this proposal also had the advantage of shielding the Orthodox rabbinate from pressure to make changes to keep up with a modern egalitarian ethos; the rabbis could carry on as they always had done, because the more democratically inclined could always make use of the parallel secular legal system.

Legal pluralists such as Gorontchik relied on classical Jewish thinkers like Nissim of Gerona, the Ran. The Ran was a 14th century rabbi who wrote at length about the reason that both halakha and civil law was needed to govern Jewish life.

Several religious Zionists, especially before 1948, thought that legal pluralism would be a good way for them to have their cake and eat it too – to design a state that was bound to be democratic, and to give equal rights to all people irrespective of gender or religious community, while still having a central role for halakha in that design.

4. Why did Chief Rabbi Herzog oppose legal pluralism?

By contrast, Herzog opposed legal pluralism with all his heart. He wanted the entire State of Israel to be run exclusively by halakha. He set up committees to write halakhic law books in a modern format, which he wanted to become Israel’s official law. He envisaged the use of these halakhic law books even by judges with no rabbinic training whatsoever. For Herzog, the idea that Israel would exist as a Jewish state but be governed by a law other than halakha was anathema.

In developing this position, Herzog creatively (and probably consciously) reinterpreted classical Jewish texts, and rewrote aspects of Jewish history, to argue that Jewish communities had always been governed exclusively by halakha. Of course, this was not the case.

As I mentioned above, Jewish communities had lay courts alongside rabbinical leaders, and lay legislation alongside rabbinical law. To argue otherwise, Herzog had to take issue not only with his contemporaries like Gorontchik, but also to reinterpret, or simply argue against, the Ran.

Herzog was not alone in his campaign against legal pluralism. He had the partnership of Meir Berlin, the most senior religious Zionist rabbi, and many other collaborators. Together, their authority and the force of their personalities made the desire for exclusive halakhic law in Israel into a central plank of religious Zionist thought for decades.

5. Herzog seems to both open to the wider world as a modern rabbi and at the same time he seems quite traditionalist and conservative. How does he balance the two sides?

Herzog was the beneficiary of secular learning. He had a PhD from the Sorbonne. He read Greek and Latin sources in the original and made no secret of it. In fact, he talked about his knowledge of those sources as a way of adding to his credentials on talking about the value of halakha. And, he had a principled support for the Zionist movement and the government of the State of Israel.

One of the ironies of Herzog’s position is that it took a great deal of innovation and creativity, to be as conservative as he came across. I have already mentioned his reinterpretations of pre-modern Jewish history when it came to the question of legal pluralism. But it goes beyond that. He had a deep desire to have halakha accepted by all Jews. In pursuit of that end, he did his utmost to present halakhic positions that he felt would be more palatable to modern secular Jews. For example, he wrote an entire treatise that tried to make Jewish inheritance law more egalitarian – to allow for equal inheritance of sons and daughters. It is partly for this reason that his candidacy for the chief rabbinate was opposed by more conservative rabbis of the Yishuv.

Having said all that, there is no question that Herzog was a fierce apologist for Orthodox Judaism. He believed in halakha as a religious obligation, and also believed that it was the best law for the Jewish people. His defense of tradition was only reinforced by the Shoah. He was heavily involved in attempts to rescue Jewish refugees. He saw the world of Torah learning devastated and wanted to protect what remained.

6. How was a rejection of legal pluralism an influence of modern legal thinking?

Since the Early Modern period, but especially since the 19th century, European states set about unifying their disorganized and labyrinthine pluralistic legal cultures into a single legal hierarchy under the authority of the state. This effort was the subject of legal reforms in Germany, Britain, France, and elsewhere. The legal pluralism of the middle ages was seen as backward, and was replaced by the centralist models all over Europe. Herzog was influenced by these changes in modern jurisprudence. Even as he argued for the superiority of Jewish law, which he saw as divine and perfect, he felt the need to show that it measured up to the new standards of legal centralism that had become the hallmark of modern law. This produced the ironic position that in championing halakha in Israel against the importation of a modern European style of law, Herzog was at the same time emulating modern European law in its devotion to exclusive and centralized law.

He was uncompromising in wanting halakha to be the law of Israel. But one of the main arguments of my book is that, structurally speaking, wanting religious ideas to dominate a polity is not obviously different from wanting secular ideas to dominate a polity.

7. What was Herzog’s reception of the evolutionary approaches?

In Herzog’s day, European scholars were applying Darwin’s evolutionary theory to all kinds of other areas outside biology, such as social and cultural developments. Herzog acknowledged that certain aspects of one culture may be more advanced than those of another. He argued, though, that Jewish religion and law exhibited the most advanced and civilized aspects of any culture. In order to show that Judaism met or exceeded the supposedly more evolved morality of the “Western world” (i.e. the classical and Christian traditions), even by standards set by modern Christian thinkers, Herzog sometimes had to read his own tradition very creatively. As an example, Jewish law had been criticized in that early sources talk about every small town of only 120 inhabitants having its own court of 23 judges, capable of presiding over capital cases.

 Some legal historians, like Asher Gulak, observed that it was highly unlikely that there would be 23 trained judges among 120 inhabitants. This could only mean, therefore, that the “judges” were some kind of local elders, who were empowered to put people to death for capital crimes. This was exactly the kind of “tribal” behavior that seemed to demonstrate that halakha fell short of more evolved legal standards.

In order to defend Jewish law according to modern models, Herzog reinterpreted the text. He asserted (against most classical interpretations, including that of Maimonides,) that small towns did not need to have courts, but they were permitted to have them, as long as the judges were in fact suitably knowledgeable and trained. This is one of many similar examples by which Herzog employed creative readings to paint Jewish law in its best light to modern critics.

8.  Why was Herzog opposed to Mishpat Ivri?

The Mishpat Ivri movement was a group of legal scholars, who formed an association in Moscow in 1918, and attracted others to their ranks over the years. They were Jewish jurists who studied Jewish law with modern academic tools. Like Herzog, they were great champions of Jewish law. They thought it to be the equal of other legal systems – especially Roman law – that were lauded by European jurists. Asher Gulak’s monumental Foundations of Hebrew Law was a classic example of their work. It organized Jewish law according to the categories of Roman law, as well as modern law, and included a lot of historical and comparative material.

Herzog had a deep appreciation for the learning of the Mishpat Ivri scholars, but he also took issue with them on some fundamental matters. Unlike Herzog, most Mishpat Ivri scholars saw Jewish law as a work of human genius, not as divine law. They were interested in applying that law to the State of Israel, but were more than ready to discard parts of halakha they found outdated, and supplement it when they saw fit. Herzog was totally opposed to this attitude. He allowed for developments to halakha only in terms of its own internal logic, not merely by personal choice.

Herzog also thought Mishpat Ivri scholars had an “inferiority complex” because so much of their work was involved with comparing Jewish law to other bodies of law. The work of Asher Gulak, which compares talmudic and Roman law is a prime example. This is somewhat ironic because Herzog also compared halakha, (though always favorably,) to other systems.  

9. How was Isaac Herzog influenced from his Irish background and friendships?

Herzog was in Ireland during some of the most intense and violent years of the campaign for Irish independence from Britain. He was Chief Rabbi of Ireland for much of that time, and was friendly with Éamon de Valera, the Prime Minister of the Irish Free State. He saw a close analogy between the Irish and Zionist causes. Like many Zionists and Irish Republicans, he considered each movement to be a righteous fight for independence against the British. He never openly endorsed Irish violence, but he did demonstrate understanding of those who used violent resistance in that context.

Beyond the general affinities between the Republican and Zionist cases, Herzog was inspired by his experience in Ireland in more specific ways. When Ireland became a fully independent Republic in 1939, it became a democratic state which had the deep imprint of Catholicism in its laws, its constitution, and its culture. The constitution incorporated Catholic doctrine in its preamble and in its main body (particularly regarding marriage and the family,) and also in more subtle uses of language. Samuel Moyn has shown that the term “dignity” was used in the Irish constitution as a kind of code for religious values.

Herzog believed that this was one example of how it should be possible to have a modern democratic Israel that is subject to religious law.

10. Why did Israel not create a constitution? Were there attempts?

Firstly, and surprisingly, there is actually a debate about whether Israel has a constitution or not. Aharon Barak, the extremely independent Supreme Court Justice, believed that Israel’s “Basic Laws” are in fact a constitution; others think they do not yet have that designation. But either way, it is certainly the case that the requirement laid down in Israel’s Declaration of Independence for a constitution to be ratified by October 1948 was not upheld; it was replaced by the so-called “Harari Compromise,” which allowed a constitution to be written piecemeal.

It is commonly believed that the reason such a compromise was necessary was that religious parties objected to the writing of a constitution because the Jewish people already have a “constitution” in the Torah. This is an oversimplification. It is true that some religious parties objected to a constitution on something like these grounds, but many did not. Even if they had all objected, they would not have been powerful enough alone to block it. In addition, the religious objections to a constitution were equally an objection to a secular Israeli law per se.

Herzog wanted all the law books of Israel to be derived from halakha, not the constitution alone. In fact, Israel’s secular leadership was probably far more influential in blocking the constitution. Ben-Gurion in particular was more of a republican than a democrat (in the terminology of political philosophy, not of today’s American political parties). Scholars like Nir Kedar have pointed out that he was concerned that focusing too much on the constitution would risk stressing delicate coalitions, and that strong constitutional rights for individuals might impede his political philosophy, which was based on the importance of the nation and the state, rather than individual rights.

11. What is the problem of halakhah for a secular state? Besides the testimony of women and gentiles as well as having a secular supreme court as an appellate court, what are the other problems?

There are all kinds of challenges for anyone trying to implement halakha as the law of the state. There are certainly the issues of discrimination between men and women, and between Jews and non-Jews, to which you refer. There are questions of whether and how it can be justified to apply some areas of halakha (eg in civil law) and not others (eg dietary laws.)

There are also all kinds of areas about which halakha has never been called upon to address, such as issues of the technology and infrastructure of running a state. And there is a more fundamental issue, which is that halakha has never been applied to a state before; it has been the law of dispersed communities of Jews. Unlike the laws of modern states, it has not been applied on a territorial basis, (i.e. to everyone living within certain borders, irrespective of the religious differences between them,) but to Jews, wherever they happen to live. Furthermore, halakha has always been localized, with diverse communities having their own rabbis and their own rulings.

The Orthodox rabbinic authorities I write about in my book devote huge energies to addressing these problems. These include people like Herzog, Bar-Ilan, and their collaborators. They also include the next generation of rabbis, like Shaul Yisraeli, who addressed the same questions after the State of Israel was already in existence. They wrote for journals like Ha-Torah Veha-Medinah (Torah and State), a later version of the same journal, Tehumin (Domains), and countless other forums, producing articles and rabbinic rulings, and creating institutions to address these questions.

Their task was made even harder by their fear of appearing to be “like the Reform” – that is, they did not want other Orthodox Jews to think that they were departing from the legitimate chain of tradition in the way they believed Reform thinkers had done. Nonetheless, they scour the halakhic corpus for usable precedent, read sources creatively, and come up with inventive interpretations. And still, as one of the sources I found put it, the rabbis involved in this endeavor sometimes felt like it was “creating something out of nothing” (yesh me-ayin).

12. What happened to your dissertation on legal theory in Religious Zionism? Why did you switch to writing on Herzog?

Thanks for asking! A good amount of the research I did for my dissertation found its way into this book, but I felt that there was a broader story that needed telling about Herzog’s school of thought. I wanted to show how influential the position of “halakhic centralism” became to the rabbinical leaders of the religious Zionist community, how it came to shape things that are going on inside that community, and how it continues to influence Israeli society in very fundamental ways.

There was also another line of thinking that I wanted to develop, which is how that story helps us understand more about other fields of scholarship, in particular the relationship between law, religion, and politics, and the role of imperialism and colonialism in fashioning the legal imaginations of nationalist movements, and the states they produce.

One of the parts of my dissertation that did not make it into the book is my work on the religious kibbutz movement. I find that movement fascinating, especially in its legal creativity. I have written a few pieces elsewhere on that subject; it continues to draw my attention and I hope to continue my work in that area. Other religious Zionists had commitments to halakha and to Zionism. The religious kibbutzim had a third commitment – to socialism. Their intellectual and spiritual work is a fascinating attempt to bring those three commitments together, reading socialist values into religious texts.

The members of the religious kibbutzim also had to meld halakha into a form amenable to their communalist lifestyle. They were revolutionaries, of a kind. They felt that the “diasporic” Jewish ways of life of their ancestors was lacking because it was not, in their view, an organic way of living. They noted that their parents and grandparents could carry out their halakhic lives only with the help of loopholes and the cooperation of the Gentiles among whom they lived. (Getting a non-Jew to light a fire on the Sabbath is a classic example of this.) They felt that living a socialist life in the Jewish homeland would get back to the way Jewish life was meant to be lived. They were reluctant to accept the loopholes and workarounds that other Orthodox Jews employed to adapt halakhic agricultural rules (about the sabbatical year,) and some of their thinkers iconoclastically suggested revising elements of halakha on the grounds that they now lived in a “new regime”, free of private property. (In practice, most of the religious kibbutz community continued to keep to the letter of the law, even as they sometimes chafed against it.)

They also acted with real independence as a community. They felt themselves to be a bridge between secular and Orthodox Jews, making connections with each group, but they forged their own way where necessary. A good example of this arose over the question of whether women should be drafted into the Israeli army. The Orthodox community was unified in their opposition to this policy, but the religious kibbutz movement stood alone in agreeing with the secular labor Zionist position on the matter. They argued it was a question of national policy, not of halakha per se, and that rabbis had no special authority to speak on the matter. That delimitation of rabbinic authority and the sharp distinction between religious and political authority was unusual in the Orthodox community.

A number of kibbutz intellectuals stood out for their philosophical acuity and their independence on matters of political and religious philosophy. I am particularly interested in Eliezer Goldman. He was born in the USA and immigrated to Palestine as a young man. He received a PhD in philosophy and wrote broadly about ethics, jurisprudence and other issues, all while continuing to work on the kibbutz. He and many of his colleagues were also associated with the political left in Israel. After Israel’s conquest of the occupied territories in 1967, many Orthodox Israelis were swept up in a religious euphoria that placed religious, even mystical importance on this territory. Goldman and others connected to the kibbutz movement remained skeptical of this position for many years.

13. What was the position of Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli? How did he create legal pluralism by an innovative approach of identifying the Knesset with a king.

Yisraeli wanted to justify the legitimacy of the State of Israel and its political institutions. This was not taken for granted. Other religious Zionist leaders clearly stated that the Knesset, and certainly the secular courts, are inherently suspect because they are not halakhic institutions. Yisraeli was ecumenical enough to publish some of these dissenting opinions in a journal that he edited.

Yisraeli thought that the Knesset and the courts had to be legitimate. On the other hand, he explicitly stated that for the Jewish state, halakha is the only legitimate source of law. This created a tension, for which his solution was to articulate a new category of norms, (we might call it “regulations” or “policy,” as opposed to “law,”) distinct from halakha. His precedent for this was the Biblical king, which he mapped onto Israel’s democratic legislature in ways that were sometimes forced but were essentially an elaboration on the existence of non-halakhic norms in Jewish history.

In this sense, he has something in common with the position of legal pluralism. Where he differs from the pluralist position, though, is that he was extremely clear in distinguishing the Knesset’s legislation from “law,” a category he reserved for halakha alone. Yisraeli’s writings are somewhat ambiguous in their definitions of these different kinds of norms, but basically he authorized the non-rabbinic institutions to establish rules regarding policy issues that, he determined, don’t need deep legal wisdom, and are just a kind of social management. This might include things like tax regulations, or foreign policy. Real “law,” though, like criminal law, he considered beyond the authority of secular institutions.

Yisraeli was inventive, relatively moderate, and interested in building coalitions and helping the state to succeed, but even he was fundamentally supportive of a halakhic state. The same balance and moderation, as well as the same goal in spreading the realm of halakha, can be seen in the writings and institutions of some of his students, who are still involved in convincing the people of Israel to accept halakha as their national law. As an example, the Eretz Hemdah Institute in Jerusalem, founded under Yisraeli’s auspices, has established a network of rabbinical courts for civil matters, and encourages people to use them instead of the state’s secular civil courts. They point out that pursuing cases in their rabbinical system can be quicker and cheaper than it might be in the civil courts, but they are also motivated by the aspiration to apply halakha to all areas of modern life.

14. What was the setback and then failure of the idea of a halakhic state?

The desires of the religious Zionist leadership for the state to be governed by halakha, or at least for halakha to have a major role in the Israeli legal system, did not materialize.

True, the rabbinical courts maintained control over personal status law, but this was more or less a continuation of how things had been under the British, and the Ottomans before them. The legal system of the State of Israel was squarely a secular affair, drawn in structure and substance from Ottoman and British law and, increasingly over the subsequent decades, from the civil law traditions of Europe.

The leaders of the Zionist movement, who were almost all what we would today call secular Jews, had no interest whatsoever in entertaining the proposals of Herzog and his colleagues. This was a source of deep discontent for them; they regarded it as an assault against God. They had to decide how to respond to this failure. The strategy – explicitly formulated by Herzog in a speech to the Mizrachi movement – was to appear to accept the situation, while fighting for whatever they could achieve within the system, but never to give up on the goal of ultimately achieving a halakhic state. I think the Mizrachi movement has by and large kept to this strategy over the years.

15. How does Religious Zionism contribute to the discussion of the relationship of religion and state?

On the one hand, religious Zionists, by definition, are committed to the combination of religion and politics. They believe that the Torah and Jewish nationalism go hand in hand; they attribute religious significance to the Jewish nation-state, and they want that partnership to be reflected in the laws and policies of the State of Israel. They are generally opposed, almost by definition, to the idea of the “secular state.” On the other hand, religious Zionism is also an example of how we should not think of “religious” and “secular” as discrete categories, and how it makes little sense to divide people up into those who champion one of these categories over the other. In fact, as I mentioned above, the ideology of religious Zionism was based heavily on modern political and legal philosophy, which came out of the “secular” world that they claimed to be opposing.

16. Are Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburgh or Bezaelel Smotrich a continuity of Herzog in the desire for a Torah state?

One of the challenges in historical analysis is to identify continuity within change as well as change within continuity. There are certainly huge differences between Herzog and the large variety of religious Zionist operating today.

I question whether Ginzburgh should even be identified as a religious Zionist, even though he is an inspiration for many who do identify themselves in that way. He draws on kabbalah in a way that Herzog never did.  Smotrich is tainted with a kind of bigotry that Herzog never displayed. Both men are also deeply uncompromising. Ginzburgh in particular would rather tear down the state as it currently exists than concede anything to it. Both men – like many religious Zionist leaders today – also have a fixation on Israeli control over Occupied Territories. By contrast, Herzog was a more nuanced and balanced thinker. He believed firmly in the importance of the halakhic state, but he also cared about national unity, and recognized the legitimate concerns of people very different from himself. He was also prepared to negotiate and compromise politically. It is difficult to know what Herzog would have said about the territories, as he died in 1959, before the 1967 war. It seems to me, though, that like many religious Zionist leaders of his generation, he was more interested in the character of the Jewish state, and its religious and moral standing, than the question of territory per se.

Having said all that, there is a point of continuity that I think should not be overlooked, and that is the position that, as a matter of principle, that the law of Israel should be halakha. This is important to note because it pushes back against a common conception of religious Zionism in the early years of the state. Many Israelis, liberals in particular, wistfully remember the religious Zionism of the 1950s and ’60s as a movement that was moderate, compromising, and pragmatic.

They typically see the 1967 war, and the subsequent rise of Gush Emunim as a watershed moment that transformed religious Zionism. This picture has a lot of truth to it. There is no question that 1967 and its aftermath had profound effects on religious Zionism, as it did on the rest of Israeli society. But focusing too much on the change obscures the fact that earlier religious Zionists still had a deep theological attachment to the idea of the halakhic state.

That ideology was modulated by a greater tendency to moderation and compromise, which is generally, unfortunately, less common among religious Zionist leaders today. Nonetheless, I think that Herzog’s persistent belief that bringing secular law to Israel was like “divorcing the Torah” became imprinted on the character of the mainstream religious Zionist movement. With the rise of Gush Emunim – along with other political and social changes in Israeli society such as the decline of Labor Zionism – the theocratic urge, less tempered by the values of moderation and unity, became more pronounced.

Rabbi Shai Held Responds to Rabbi Art Green

Rabbi Prof. Art Green wrote in the first part of my interview with him that his thought remains a student of Heschel, despite his great distance from him on the personhood of God. Green wrote: “Shai Held is right in saying that self-transcendence is a key concept in Heschel, as it is to me. For Heschel, that self-transcendence means submission to the will and moral demand of a personal force.  To me it means submission to a personified oneness and wholeness of Being (Y-H-W-H), of which we are a part.” Green clearly acknowledges that he is different than Rabbi Shai Held’s presentation of Heschel. (Question #4)

However, for Green, ‘Transcendence’ in the context of his faith “does not refer to a God ‘‘out there’’ or ‘‘over there’’ somewhere beyond the universe… Transcendence means rather that Y-H-W-H—or Being—is so fully present in the here and now of each moment that we could not possibly grasp the profundity of  that  presence. Transcendence thus dwells within immanence.”

In this response, Held offers a few paragraphs to let the reader clearly see this distinction between Green’s immanent monistic divine, which offers self-transcendence from Held’s transcendent personal God who loves us has mercy on us, and demands us to take responsibility.

Rabbi Shai Held is President, Dean, and Chair in Jewish Thought at Hadar, where he also directs the Center for Jewish Leadership and Ideas. Rabbi Held’s first book, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence, was published by Indiana University Press in 2013; The Heart of Torah, a collection of essays on the Torah in two volumes, was published by JPS in 2017. (I interviewed Held on his Heschel book -here and on his Torah studies- here and a decade ago as one of my first interviews in 2011.)

Held declares: “I am not God and God is not me, but I am summoned to be God’s servant.”  In addition, “God is personal, but God is not just some version of us.  For one thing, God loves in a way that no human being can comprehend, let alone completely emulate.”  Faith in a personal God lets the believer know that “we are loved regardless of what we do or accomplish in this lifetime.”

On one hand, Held’s response has resonance with the distinction between the prophetic and the mystical in Friedrich Heiler and Karl Barth, on the other hand it pushes us to look at Heschel’s theology more closely. Beyond that it opens a window on the many views of God within Judaism, letting us ask if a personalist Jewish conception of God who loves and shows mercy has more in common with a personalist reader of scripture in other faiths while an immanent view of God in Judaism may have more in common with believers in divine immanence in other traditions. This may be so even if two Jewish perspectives share a common Biblical and Rabbinical canon since readings of the text are capacious and can reflect different relgious imaginations.  Alternately, I can use the Hindu terminology that I used in Part II  of my interview with Green, that Green is an advaitan position looking for self-realization while Held is a dvaitan position looking for a relationship with the Lord in love and responsibility.  

This debate among colleagues provides a clear teaching moment for opening up theological discussion about God, religious language, and the use of religious texts.

Rabbi Shai Held responds to Rabbi Prof. Art Green

Rabbi Art Green gives us glimpses into his theology and spiritual life with admirable lucidity.   I take this opportunity to share some questions and hesitations about Art’s approach.

“It has been clearly shown to you,” says the book of Devarim, “that the Lord alone is God; there is none beside [the Lord]” (Deuteronomy 4:35).  For Devarim, the words ein od milvado are a declaration of monotheism (or of something approaching it).  If other passages focus on God being the only god Israel may worship, this verse seems to insist that God is the only god– period.  God alone is God.  Nothing but God is God.

Some of the mystics Green most admires turned this verse on its head.  What they heard in the Torah’s words is that there is that “The Lord is alone is God; there is nothing besides [the Lord].”  There is nothing that is not God.  It is important to notice what an inversion this represents.  For the Bible, God is God and nothing else is God; for [some of] the mystics, everything is God.  These are two diametrically opposed conceptions of the fundamental reality of the universe: Is God the creator of the World, or is the world in some sense a panentheistic part of God?

Green writes: “I believe that there is only One.  Better said: I have glimpses of an inner experience that tells me that there is only One.”  

Let me contrast my own view: “I believe that there are always two.  Better said: I have glimpses of an inner experience that tells me that I am commanded by, and obligated to, that which is not me.”

Art writes that the question of Ayekah, where are you, is “‘addressed’ to each human being from within.”  This may be so, but for the Bible and the Talmudic Sages, and in my own experience, that question is also addressed to us from without, by the Kadosh Barukh Hu (The Blessed Holy One).

It seems to me that at bottom what we have here are competing intuitions.  Green is convinced that his intuition is correct; since the first time he read Hillel Zeitlin, he tells us, he “knew” the truth of his own intuition of what is ultimate.

I readily admit that I do not share Art’s confidence.  I do not “know” that my intuition of twoness, of commanded-ness, of interpersonal obligation, is true.  I perceive the world as such, move through the world as if it were true, but I do not know it to be so.  Living as I do after Kant, how could I?  

I share with Green his commitment to what he calls “the cultivation of… inwardness,” but I would add, no less (and probably more), the commitment to the cultivation of responsiveness.  I am not you and you are not me, but I am responsible for you and you for me.  I am not God and God is not me, but I am summoned to be God’s servant. 

It is this crucial aspect of what Heschel is doing in the first part of God in Search of Man that Green seems to leave behind: the way that wonder is a path to responsiveness to that which is not us.  Intrinsic to the experience of wonder, Heschel writes, is the sense that we are “being asked the ultimate question… In spite of our pride, in spite of our acquisitiveness, we are driven by an awareness that something is asked of us.”  As he explains in Man is Not Alone, for Heschel wonder is interwoven with a sense of indebtedness: “How shall we ever reciprocate for breathing and thinking, for sight and hearing, for love and achievement?”  Reciprocity, needless to say, involves otherness.  We are grateful to Someone, namely God, who is neither ourselves nor the world as a whole, but a genuine Other.

Art seems to think that believing in a personal God entails being imprisoned by a “forbidding, commanding, and guilt-producing father figure.”  I find this portrayal sad, as it does not reflect my experience of the KBH at all.  Believing in a personal God can mean being liberated by a loving, commanding, and unfathomably forgiving Parent/Lover.   When the prophet Isaiah declares that God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are nor our thoughts, Rabbi David Kimchi explains that while human beings struggle to forget what we forgave, God forgives completely and bears no grudges.

Faith in a personal God can mean knowing (feeling, sensing) that we matter, regardless of what we do or accomplish in this lifetime; it can mean knowing (feeling, sensing) that we are loved regardless of what we do or accomplish in this lifetime (haviv adam she-nivra be-tzelem—Avot 3:14).  When Green writes of the personal God, we get no sense of that God’s immense, immeasurable love and compassion (hesed and rahamim).  No biblical verses are quoted more often within Tanakh itself than Exodus 34:6-7, which speaks of God as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness.”  Instead, we get only the guilt felt as a young adult.

I have great respect for Art, who first opened the vast treasures of Hassidut to me, and whom I am proud to number among my friends and teachers.  But I do not think it is fair or helpful to juxtapose the best and most sophisticated version of one’s own worldview with a cardboard caricature of others’.  I believe in a personal God, but I do not worship what Art calls “the Old Fellow in the sky.”   God is personal but God is not just some version of us.  For one thing, God loves in a way that no human being can comprehend, let alone completely emulate.  The prophet Hosea draws a stark and breathtaking contrast between God and humanity: whereas we sometimes (understandably) give up on each other, God never gives up on us: “How can I make you like Admah, render you like Zevoiim?  I have had a change of heart; all My tenderness is stirred.  I will not act on my wrath, will not turn to destroy Ephraim.  For I am God, not man…” (Hosea 11:8-9).

It is also unhelpful, I think, to describe a thinker like Heschel as “needing” God to be personal any more than it would be fair to characterize Green as “needing” God to be internal.  Heschel experienced and thought of God in this way, and Green experiences and thinks about God in another.  The interesting question, I think, is just how and whether these two ways of encountering or experiencing God can be brought into fruitful conversation with one another.

The idea of coming between a student and his teacher is not particularly appealing to me, especially when that student (Art) is also my teacher.  But I find myself thinking that Heschel would regard the theology Green offers not as neo-Heschelian but as anti-Heschelian.  For Heschel, loyal student of the Bible that he was, that God is personal was enormously important.  That God loves widows and orphans, that God is appalled by cruelty and injustice, that God is angry at callousness indifference– this was everything to Heschel.  Heschel was committed to covenant, and covenant always includes two partners.  They can love one another, bond with one another– but they always remain separate.  “The culmination of prophetic fellowship with God,” he writes, “is insight and unanimity—not union.”  Heschel explicitly contrasts his own view with the pantheistic approach; for him, “Nature is not a part of God but rather a fulfillment of [God’s] will.”

Heschel was clear that the prophet always experienced two partners (even when he sympathized with God’s pathos).   “Prophecy,” he writes, “is a confrontation.   God is God, and man is man; the two may meet, but never merge.  There is a fellowship, but never a fusion.”  Following Genesis 1, he insisted that the world is not God and God is not the world.  God and Being are not the same.  God is the Source of being, the borei olam.

There is much more to say about the differences between Art’s position and my own.  There is the question of theological method and the extent to which we do or do not regard the biblical and Rabbinic canons as normative for our theological projects; there is the question of what role nostalgia plays for each of us in remaining committed to religious (and liturgical) language that may not reflect our theological worldviews; and, of course, there is the question of how these serious and substantial theological differences do or do not manifest themselves in religious practice.  I hope we can pursue those conversations in due time.

I am grateful to Art for mentioning my work on Heschel, and I am grateful to Alan Brill for giving me a chance to respond to Art’s ideas.  May this mahloket be le-shem shamayim and may it serve lehagdil Torah uleha’adirah.  

Interview Rabbi Art Green Part II- Neo-Hasidism

This is part II of a two-part interview with Art Green, the first part is here.

This part, we look at his new book A New Hasidism: Roots  (JPS, 2019), a volume where we can directly read the essays, which give the antecedents to Green’s thought. This first volume explores the writings of Buber, Heschel, Carlebach, Reb Zalman, and Arthur Green’s early work creating a genealogy of what would become the spiritual path of Neo-Hasidism.

Shai Ish-Horowitz (1861–1922) applied the term Neo-Hasidism to IL Peretz and other literary forms of Hasidism such as Michael Levi Frumkin-Rodkinson (1845–1904), which were creating a romantic glorification of the Jewish peasant and his folk tales. The term was originally about a literary genre applied to dozens of authors in the first half of the twentieth century such as Berdichevsky, Pinchas Sadah, Eliezer Steinman, or J. L. Snitzer. 

In contrast, this book is about a late 20th century American Jewish revival movement. Green defines the prefix neo as a translation of the Hebrew word for newness (hadash). For Green, the original 18th century Hasidism began as a renewal movement in Judaism, a creative spirit against the formulaic and rote, so too the 20th century authors Buber and Zeitlin sought renewal and rebirth. The goal was to rescue Hasidism from the shells of darkness (klippot) into which it fell.  The focus is on seeing the world as filled with divine glory, and as the purpose of human life to raise sparks. As noted by Green, Neo-Hasidism is to awaken a very this worldly Judaism into being God centered – a focus on the mysterious divine presence and oneness of being.

Martin Buber is represented at three stages in his thinking about Hasidism, first as mysticism, second as dialogue, and third as a renewal of spirituality. Green comments that Neo-Hasidism is not about reading original Hasidic texts, but in creating a renewal from it. Hillel Zeitlin envision an elite group dedicated to a spiritual and contemplative life, a reformulation of Hasidism after James, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. For Green, Zeitlin is a core of his thought of a renewed formulation of Hasidism. From Heschel, we get inwardness, serving God and the willingness to critique society. For Green’s debt to Heschel, see questions #3 and #11 in the interview part I. Reb Shlomo Carlebach brings a passionate, emotional, post-Holocaust path dealing with anger, loneliness, and the need for connection.

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is credited with calling for Neo-Hasidc rebbes, and the creation of a Neo-Hasidic brotherhood and spiritual community. He is also credited with calling for a radical revamp of the liturgy, and to break down boundaries, seeking for the evolutionary, global, and interreligious. Whereas Green uses a monistic language, Reb Zalman has a more multi-vocal language and looking to many experiences and religions. Reb Zalman is more practice centered, a kalidiscope of relgious experiences.

Art Green includes a selection of his thinking including two essays about his early use of psychedelics and finding God in all things, and his 2003 talk at the seminal Neo-Hasidic conference where he defines Neo-Hasidsm in thought, word, and action. Thought is defined as worldview, word is defined as religious language, and action, Green admits that Neo-hasidism is problematic in the implementation as action. Better than these, is that Volume II open with Green’s Neo-Hasidic credo (which is reproduced here as the last question).

From my frame of reference, I would like to compare Art Green’s Neo-Hasidic approach to the various Neo-Hindu groups that came to be at the same time. The yogic philosophy speaks of three paths: jnana yoga (self-realization), bhakti yoga (devotion), and karma yoga (actions-either ritual or service to others). Green’s approach would be what is called a jnana-yoga path, one about self-realization and then acting in life based on this higher spiritual realization. There were many Neo-Hindu teachers in the US teaching a path of self-realization such as Paramahansa Yogananda, with a focus on realization of our true nature and the true nature of reality. In contrast, most of those attracted to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach were on a bhakti path of devotion, song, storytelling. And Pearle Epstein called Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s books on mizvot as karma yoga. This comparison of Neo-Hasidic to Neo-Hinduism also gives us a sharper understanding of the role of Green’s concept of self-transcendence to a God who is not out-there but inside ourselves as our true nature if we realize it. It is not new age self-worship but similar to the jnana-yoga path of Neo-Hinduism, a realization of the true nature of the self and reality.

The volume A New Hasidism: Roots is specifically those authors and teachers that influenced Art Green’s. Neo-Hasdism and only those. As if a Neo-Hindu teacher explained that his guru approach was built on Swami Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, and Swami Sivananda, but excluded as not part of his path Amma, & Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In a similar manner, the volume is about Rabbi Art Green’s teachers not a comprehensive history. I doubt that if Reb Zalman or Reb Shlomo edited the volume that it would be the same.

On to a more sensitive topic, multiple yoga gurus have been accused of sexual improprieties: including Bikram Choudhury, creator of Bikram Yoga; Swami Satchidananda, Amrit Desai, creator of Kripalu Yoga; Muktananda, founder of Siddha Yoga, and Swami Rama, founder of the Himalayan Institute. In a similar manner, several teachers of Neo-Hasidism have histories of sexual impropriety. But just as a visitor to a yoga studio will be told how this studio relates to Kripalu, Birkam, or Sivananda without a long history of the people involved, so too this book walks gently concerning these issues, focusing on the spiritual message. Its goal is not to be a Jewish version of Homegrown Gurus: From Hinduism in America to American Hinduism, by editors Ann Gleig & Lola Williamson (Suny 2013) Specifically, the book is emic and not etic, a resource book not a critical work.

Finally, I teach at various Yoga retreats. This year, due to Covid, I taught by Zoom so I taught in more places than usual. From these experiences, I do not see those Jews at Yoga retreats wanting Rabbi Green’s Neo-Hasidism as their path.  From the opposite direction, and more importantly, all this talk of intentional community, spiritual brotherhood, and relgious language is not aimed at our highly successful Jewish community –litigators, hedge fund managers, and surgeons who are competitive, outer directed, action oriented and not especially inward.

But I like the message. However, I preferred part I of this interview where Art Green showed  “A Judaism of Love” of heartfelt divine warmth, full of faith, and light.

  1. For you, what is Buber’s contribution to Neo-Hasidism?

Buber was the first to present Hasidism as a teaching about how to live in the world, one that might be applicable to people far beyond the traditional Hasidic communities, both westernized Jews and non-Jews.  He instinctively felt the presence of deep and abiding universal wisdom in the Hasidic sources, which he encountered in their “raw” form.  Living long after Buber, we tend to take much of this initial “translation” effort for granted.  But he looked at poorly-written lists of Hasidic practices, hanhagot, and half-transcribed oral teachings, vertlekh, and was able to find gems within them.  These, along with the tales that he loved so much, he distilled into a philosophy of life.  All of us, beginning with Scholem, were led to discover Hasidism through paths he first opened before us.  To appreciate Buber, read his early essay “The Life of the Hasidim,” included in A New Hasidism: Roots.  A romantic re-creation to be sure, but a great gem of Jewish religious literature

2. For you, what is Zeitlin’s contribution to Neo-Hasidism? After all these years, did you realize what you initially found in Zeitlin?

Zeitlin presented Hasidism as a distinctive Jewish mystical theology.  He was brought back to Judaism after much exposure both to Eastern thought and to Western philosophy, especially Spinoza and Nietzsche.  He read the derashot, the fullest teachings of Hasidism, much more seriously than did Buber.  He was able to take the thought of the Maggid of Mezritch and his disciples and shape it into a sort of primitive phenomenology.  His thinking, as reflected in the two key essays presented in the Roots volume, lies at the base of much of my own approach to Judaism.

3. Is Zeitlin’s Bnai Aliyah the same as your vision of the rabbinical school?

No and yes.  Zeitlin was try to create neo-Hasidic groups in Poland of the 1920’s.  The times in which we live, a century later, are very different; the problems we Jews confront are of an entirely different order.  He was addressing primarily Jews like himself, those who had fled the very traditional world from which they had come.  I encounter many who come from the periphery of Jewish life, seeking a way in.  I am also truly a pluralist, one who does not require all the rabbis who study at our institution to share my theology or approach to Jewish living.  I hope they will be exposed to it, and that my thinking will have stimulated them to do and articulate their own.  But that’s all I expect.

Then why the “yes?”   Because I, like Zeitlin a century ago, believe that Judaism is deeply in need of a spiritual revival, and that there is much in the mystical tradition (Zohar and early Hasidism especially – we share those choices) that can inspire it, if properly selected, taught, and universalized. 

The tools needed for such a revival include selected and translated Hasidic sources as well as my (and my students’) reflections on them, along with my own theological writings, deeply shaped by my lifelong engagement with Hasidism.  I am now completing a commentary on the Jewish prayerbook, soon to be published, and am working on a collection of brief teachings, divrey torah, on the weekly Torah portion cycle.  I hope that all of these will be useful to the widest array of future teachers and leaders among Jewish generations to come, both here and in Israel, where I have also developed a serious readership, in Hebrew translation.  Neo-Hasidism can not just be about teaching the old texts, even those I love so much.  We too need to create our own Torah, in the spirit of our generation, to keep Torah vital as a living process.

4. How do you see yourself as different than Reb Zalman?

Zalman was my very dear friend and mentor.  I loved him deeply and learned a great deal from him, on many levels.  But he was not a rebbe to me, as he was to so many others.  I was not  able to permit that, and he understood that and related to me as a younger peer, and eventually as a true friend.  That became important to him; it is not easy for a rebbe to have friends.

In the course of his break with Chabad, which was long and painful, Zalman became attracted to the language and value system of the “New Age.”  I was much more suspicious of it than he was, and did not become a true believer in it.  While we both found experimentation with psychedelics  very significant in our spiritual lives in the late 1960’s (see my two essays in Roots), I left them behind more than Zalman did.  He saw himself as a prophetic figure living on the edge of the Age of Aquarius, wanting to help bring it about and to create a religious outlook appropriate to it.  For him, this would be based in Judaism, since that was such a deep part  of his identity, but he strove to be wide open to learning from everyone, allowing for a significant degree of eclecticism in creating new forms of religious praxis.

My trajectory was different.  I did not come from such a closed place; therefore, I did not have to struggle so hard to be wide open.  I came to see myself as both a scholar and theologian, trying to understand the sources of Kabbalah and Hasidism and also to the separate task of articulating a contemporary Jewish mysticism.  I felt (and continue to feel) a great sense of responsibility both to the sources themselves and to the Jewish people.  Once I became involved in rabbinic training (starting at RRC in 1984), that commitment to providing leadership that would both sustain and revive a distinctively Jewish spirituality became central to me.  A rabbi, as I insist on telling my students, is not just an American clergyman of the Jewish persuasion, there to guide people in their spiritual growth and support them in times of need.  We are heirs to a great tradition and leaders of an ancient community, one that seeks to continue its existence.  Being a rabbi demands that we learn to love Jews, even those who disagree with us, in order to work together toward building that future.

Zalman introduced me to my dear wife Kathy and officiated at our wedding.  He introduced us as two young people interested in joining his envisioned semi-monastic Jewish community, to be called Bnai Or (See his essay in Roots).  That community never happened.  We went on to form Havurat Shalom, which was influenced by the original Bnai Or vision, but was quite different.  The Bnai Or that became Jewish Renewal was founded by Zalman in Philadelphia, in a house around the corner from us that we had found for him and Elana.  After attending the first few meetings, we both sadly realized that our approaches had diverged, and that this rather wildly eclectic and new-age version of Judaism was simply not for us.  In later years, Zalman himself walked back from some of the more extreme aspects of his 1980’s eclecticism, but that is another story

5. The volumes gave little instruction on how to be a Neo-Hasid. Why not?

In general, it is true that the Hasidic sources offer little by way of specific step-by-step instructions in religious enlightenment.  This is one of several reasons why Buddhist pathways have become so attractive and are being integrated within contemporary Jewish life. (I am not opposed to this, if it is done carefully, separating methods and techniques of meditation from the cultural/religious setting in which they were developed.  This is not always an easy task.)  In my EHYEH: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow, I offer a number of meditational practices, but that is not my usual style.  For other sources of Jewish meditational praxis, try the works by the Piasecner rebbe, by Menahem Eckstein, and by Aryeh Kaplan.  All of these are useful.

I think the Hasidic masters felt that Judaism was already filled with “how to’s.”  On the one hand, all of the mitsvot were ways of embodying their spiritual message.  On the other, everything one does and encounters in life should become an occasion for awareness and an object of devotion.  What they wanted to teach was an attitude toward life and toward the existing practice itself; they did not need to offer new means.  As my life has gone on, I have come to realize this truth in a more personal way.

I am proud of the fact that my closest students include a wide array of divergence with regard to religious practice.  The important thing is to remember that devekut, attachment to the One, is the goal; all the rest of religion is a means toward it, not an end in itself.   Praxis is supposed to teach you how to see the rest of life through that lens as well. 

6. Is the future of Neo-hasidism with Entheogen usage?

I am happy to see that psychedelics and their place in spiritual growth are being rediscovered by lots of serious people.  I believe they are a great tool, if used responsibly and integrated to a life of religious discipline.  I came to realize, after my LSD experiences, that finding your way to the mountaintop was not the real struggle in the religious life.  The greater effort was recalling that peak experience on an ordinary dull weekday afternoon,  and trying to live – and to build human community – in the light of it.  No psychedelic drug can do that for you. 

How does one do it?  By the tried-but-true methods of torah u-tefilah.  Study each day a text or an aspect of Torah that excites your soul.  It may be from the Torah text itself or from the widest array of later teachings.  I have tried to share many of those that have worked best for me.  Tefilah, a regular practice of prayer/meditation, ideally twice each day (as close to dawn and dusk as possible, with consciousness of them) is also a great tool for restoring awareness, for climbing back onto the path.

7. What is the future of your Neo-Hasidic ideal?

I am delighted at those among our students and alumni who have chosen to read me seriously and join in this quest.  It is they, among others, serving in the community long after I am gone, who will help to bring about such a revival.  My life is much about providing them the tools. 

I do not need to own the term neo-Hasidism.  It is used to describe a wide spectrum of approaches to Jewish life based on the memory of Hasidism.  What Ariel Mayse and I have tried to do in A New Hasidism is to emphasize those sources and directions that we think will be most useful in creating that future.  But as a pluralist, I am happy to see it develop in other ways as well, including some I would never have considered.

Let me use the example of neo-Hasidic music, where the range of creativity has been very great; new niggunim are constantly being created and performed.  I myself may be an old-fashioned guy, enjoying niggun singing without electronic amplification and all the rest.  But I still appreciate the Hasidic soul that is alive in what is emerging, even though it goes beyond the limits of my own capacity to absorb.

8. What is the future of American Jewry in your opinion?

In the course of my life, I have sadly watched the decimation of the American Jewish community.  I am the Jew I am because of childhood memories.  I was partly raised by grandparents who had immigrated from Eastern Europe before the First World War and still carried within them the richness of Yiddish speech and traditional Jewish culture.  I loved that world and was attracted to it.  But all that is long gone now.  The grandchildren of most of my cousins, on all sides of my family, are no longer Jews in any significant way.  I feel great sadness about that.  Much of it is due, of course, to the inevitable process of assimilation and the positive fact of our acceptance within American society.  (I am aware of the complex racial aspects of that, the acceptance of “white privilege,” etc., but that is not our subject here.)

Will Judaism survive in America?  Orthodoxy has provided one set of answers to that question.  “Yes,” it claims, if we build the walls high enough and strengthen the commitment to observance, in all its details.  Where those walls lie, of course, varies across the wide spectrum of what is now called Orthodoxy, but the strategy is essentially the same.  That will work for a certain minority, those who have deep roots in the tradition and some others who are psychologically attracted to such a fully mapped-out pattern of living.  But for most American Jews, including some who grew up within it, that approach will not suffice.

The whole denominational structure of American Jewish religious life, based on the question: “How much does one have to observe?” has always seemed absurd and trivializing to me.  The Hasidic emphasis, and the neo-Hasidic approach, is all based on the question of inner direction, kavvanah, and how to re-stimulate it.  If we need to measure something, let us invent a thermometer that will measure the degree of love and warmth created by our mitsvot, rather than counting how many of them we observe. That is where the focus of my religious life, and my teaching, lies.  It is all about the heart.

Either by chance or by providence, depending on your point of view, we American Jews wound up in a country where religion continues to play a significant role in human life.  For reasons beyond our scope here, spiritual seeking became a major preoccupation of large numbers of young Americans, beginning in the 1960’s and continuing into our own day.  Many Jews are involved in it, but as part of a much broader American phenomenon.  (Something parallel is now happening in Israel, but that’s another story.)  I believe that a neo-Hasidic approach to Judaism might speak to large numbers of such seekers, including both Jews and others who will find its teachings attractive.  It is for them, and the Jewish teachers who will reach out to them, that I write.  I want to open the doorways to this tradition as a spiritual path, to create a Judaism that welcomes seekers and helps them to feel at home.

9) How are you so prolific in writing? What is your discipline and schedule for translation and writing?

I find this hard to answer, as I do not consider it to be true.  I could have done much more.  But one thing I will say.  Turning 70 gave me a much-needed kick in the butt.  The psalmist’s verse “The days of our lives are seventy years” stared at me in the face and demanded “What else do you still want to get done?”  “Lots,” was my answer, and I got to work.  My seventies, just about to conclude, have been the richest and most prolific decade of my life.  As I face eighty, trying to gather my strength (gevurot, as in the following verse), I find the task still incomplete.  I expect I’ll be working on it harder than ever.

My only answer to the mal’akh ha-mavet, the angel of death, who inevitably begins to hover closer at this age, will be “Go away.  I’m too busy.”

10. How does one get started in Neo-Hasidism?

Look at my “Neo-Hasidic Credo” in the Branches volume,



Hasidism is a Judaism based on hesed, meaning love or compassion.  It calls us to a love for God, for Torah or wise teachings, and for one another.  All that we do in this world should be motivated by our pursuit of hesed.   As hesed is an endlessly flowing love, a hasid is one who loves and gives generously, stretching beyond limits, suspending judgment of those who receive that love, and without thought of recompense or reward.

  1. There is only One. All existence began as and forever remains a simple, undifferentiated whole.  Because Y-H-W-H (the Hebrew term for “God,” really “is-was-will be”) is beyond time, the oneness that underlies reality has never changed.  Our evolving, ever-changing cosmos, filled with an endless array of individual creatures and the absolute stasis of that singular Being are two faces of the same One.  Our seeming existence as individuals, like all of physical reality, is the result of tsimtsum, a contraction or de-intensification of the presence of that One, so that our minds can encounter it and yet continue to regard ourselves as separate beings, in order to fulfill our worldly task.  Daily life requires us to live as separate individuals and to recognize both the boundaries between self and other and the great opportunity for communion across those boundaries.  In ultimate reality, however, that separate existence is mostly illusion.  The call of Shema‘ Yisra’el, that “God is one” means that we are all one.  Divine presence (shekhinah) underlies, surrounds, and fills all of existence.  It is not limited to any particular place, nor is awareness of it limited to Jews or Judaism.  Awareness of and encounter with this presence is the purpose of all religious life.  

2.  To be a hasid means to live in loving awareness of God’s presence in all that we encounter, and to act in response to it.   Being part of the One calls upon us to love all that is.  Our pursuit of hesed leads us to find sparks of divine light scattered everywhere, in every human being and throughout the world, but often hidden behind both real and illusory “shells.”  Our task is to seek out and discover those sparks, even in the most unlikely places, in order to raise them up and re-join them to their Source.  This work of redeeming the sparks and restoring wholeness, carried out on spiritual, physical, and social planes, fills the daily life of the true hasid.  It brings joy to shekhinah and to us as we re-affirm the divine and cosmic unity.  “God needs to be served in every way.” All of life is an opportunity for discovering and responding to the divine presence.  The way we relate to every creature is a mirror of our devotion to our Creator, who lives in all of them, the single presence behind every mask. 

3. That joyous service of Y-H-W-H is the purpose of human existence.  The One delights in each creature, in every single distinctive form in which it is garbed.   But we human beings occupy a unique role in the hierarchy of ever-evolving Creation, having the capacity for awareness of the larger picture and an inbuilt striving for meaning-making.  We must shape that awareness so as to make us desire to serve, to fulfill our unique role as denizens of two worlds.  We become most fully human as we stretch to realize the divine image in which we are created.

4. The essence of our religious life lies in the deep inward glance, a commitment to a vision of spiritual intensity and attachment to the One.  Surface appearances do not suffice for us.  This is true with regard to our encounter with humans, both ourselves and others.  It applies also to our view of the world, as we seek the hidden One within the many.  So too is it the key to our encounter with Torah and religious praxis.  We are ever in search for their deeper layers of meaning, bringing us back to awareness of the single truth.

5. Outer deeds are important; the mitsvot are the forms into which we pour our devotion; they call out to us to be fulfilled.  There is no Judaism without ahavat ha-mitsvot, a loving devotion to our forms of religious life. They are the tools our tradition gives us to achieve and maintain awareness.  Each such mitsvah is be seen as a great gift, an opportunity to stand in the divine presence in a unique way.  At the same time, we need to recall that the mitsvot are means rather than ends in themselves.  They are vessels to contain the divine light that floods the soul,  concrete embodiments of the heart’s inward quest.  They also serve as paradigms for the rest of human actions.  To live fully in God’s presence is to do everything as though it were a mitsvah.

6. Our human task begins with the uplifting and transforming of our spiritual and emotional selves to become ever more perfect vehicles for God’s service.  This requires us to demand much of ourselves, setting a high bar for our spiritual aspirations, including the life of prayer. This process begins with the key devotional pair of love and awe, which together lead us to our sense of the holy.  But it also means treating ourselves with kindness, accepting our own human limitations.  Care for both body and spirit, our own and others’, as God’s handiwork, is also a vital part of our worldly task.   Regarding the body, there is much correction needed of a prior imbalance in Judaism.

7. The deeper look at reality should put us at odds with the superficial values of the consumerist and overly self-centered society amid which we live.  Being, unlike our Hasidic ancestors, citizens of a free society, we can and must take a critical stance toward all that we regard as dehumanizing or degrading in our general culture.  Care for each person, including both Jew and non-Jew, as a unique image of God and as our fellow-limb on the single Adamic body or Tree of Life, is the first way we express our love of God.  It is in this that we are tested, both as individuals and societies.  We envision a Jewish community that speaks out with a strong moral voice.  We offer special devotion to the great moral challenge of our age, that of preserving our planet as a livable and verdant home for future generations.

8. The above principles all flow directly from an expansive Hasidic reading of Torah, classical Jewish teachings.  We live in an abiding and covenanted love relationship to Torah.  That means the text, “written Torah,” and the whole of the oral tradition, including our own interpretive voices.  All of these point us to the cosmic and wordless Torah that lies within and beyond them.  We know that our people has mined endless veins of wisdom and holiness from within the Torah text, and we continue in that path, adding new methods of interpretation to the old. The whole process of renewal through constant reinterpretation is sacred to us.       

9. We are Jews.  We have a special love for our people, past, present, and future, a love that only increases our love for all of humanity, indeed for all of God’s creatures.  We bear within us the pain of Jewish suffering and the joy of Jewish rebirth.  We consider the ingathering of exiles and the renewal of Jewish life that has taken place in the Land of Israel to be among the great miracles of our era.  We fully and joyously embrace the emergence of a free and proud Jewish people in the Holy Land, and at the same time celebrate a rich and creative Jewish existence wherever Jews live. We Jews exist in order to bear witness to our truth.  As bearers of a great spiritual legacy, we survive and carry our traditions forward as embodiments of divine hesed.   

10. Our world suffers from a great imbalance of energy between the typically “male” and “female” energies.  Neo-Hasidism needs to be shaped by the voices of women alongside men, as full participants in every aspect of its emergence.  We welcome devotion to the one God through the channels of shekhinah and binah, Y-H-W-H as saving and protecting Mother, even as we know that all metaphors and symbols point to the elusive One that lies both within and beyond them.

11. Hasidism at its best and worst is built around the figure of the tsaddik, a charismatic holy man blessed by God and capable of transmitting divine blessing. We too recognize that there are gifted spiritual teachers in our world and we thank God for their presence and our ability to learn from them.  But we live in an age that is rightly suspicious of such figures, having seen charisma used in sometimes dangerous ways.  We therefore underscore the Hasidic teaching that each person has his/her own path to walk and sparks of light to discover.  We encourage spiritual independence and responsibility. 

12. Hasidism, like Judaism itself, believes in community.  The sense of hevrayyah or fellowship among followers of a particular path is one of the greatest tools it offers for spiritual growth.  Cultivating spiritual friendships and communities that allow one to work through personal struggles and the obstacles each person finds in the path, as well as developing an ear to listen well to the struggles of others, is one of the great gifts to be learned from the Hasidic tradition.

13. We are heirs to one of the world’s great spiritual traditions.  We recognize that Torah is our people’s unique language for expressing an ancient and universal truth.  For many centuries, persecution and hatred made it the legacy of Jews alone.  While its exclusively inward-looking focus gave it great depth, in our age it needs to breathe deeply the air of freedom, broadening its focus and addressing the great issues that confront all humanity.  As we join with other seekers in the quest for that universal truth, we remain committed to preserving our ancient language and way of life in full richness, limited only by ethical challenges.  We believe that we have much to offer in a spiritual conversation that transcends all borders, as we have much to learn from others.   We enter into that conversation happily, coming together with others who admit in collective humility that none of our languages embodies truth in its fullness.

Louis Jacobs: Rabbi Benjamin Elton responds to Harry Freedman

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

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

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

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

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

Louis Jacobs: A response to Harry Freedman

Benjamin J. Elton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arthur Green- Judaism for the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Arthur Green Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. How do we “know God” in prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. How does divine law become ever fashioned anew?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. How did you come to this project?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Can you discuss his interest in mysticism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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