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Interview in Makor Rishon in January 2023

I was interviewed by Makor Rishon last year and it was published on January 18, 2023. Below is an English translation. It is a little awkward in phrasing since I gave the interview in English and it was translated into Hebrew and then back into English. some phrases and some of my voice were lost in translation. I find it interesting how I am understood in the portrait as basically all interfaith.

Here is the Hebrew original

R20 Conference in Bali, Indonesia -November 2022, press conference after my talk

“Hindu Meditation is Closer to Judaism than Vipassana and Buddhist Techniques”

Rabbi Professor Alan Brill teaches in a Catholic college, travels to interfaith conferences around the world, helps Indonesians articulate a moderate version of Islam, and compares Indian religions to Kabbalah; following his teacher Rabbi Soloveitchik, however, rejects the idea of a common alliance of all religions.

By Yeshaya Rosenman

“I have never taught at a secular college,” Prof. Alan Brill tells me with a smile. “I taught at the religious institutions of Jews, Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, and Hindus. I think I’m the only person in the world who has taught in each of these kinds of institutions.”

Rabbi Professor Alan Brill (61) is a full professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, a Catholic institution. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the thought of Rabbi Tzadoq HaKohen of Lublin at Fordham University, another Catholic university in New York. He belongs to the large Orthodox community of Teaneck, New Jersey, and visits Israel regularly. He is now in Israel attending an academic conference at Bar-Ilan University on the legacy of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I took the opportunity to chat with him about his interfaith activities with Muslims and Hindus, and about his unique writing on these subjects.

For the average Israeli, studying and teaching at Catholic universities sounds almost like studying at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. How did you get there?

“Fordham is right next to Yeshiva University, where I did my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in general philosophy. I thought about doing my PhD at Columbia University, but when I came to the interview, they told me: ‘We study religions through a social sciences lens. If you want to research “from the inside,” as a religious person, go to Fordham.’ Neither did I feel at all strange at Fordham, nor was I the only religious Jew there. One of the lecturers once told us: ‘Look around: Catholics, Mennonites, Greek Orthodox, and Orthodox Jews sitting together. You are not the typical Americans!’ At Fordham, I wrote about Maimonides, and my classmates wrote about a parallel Christian figure, Thomas Aquinas. I felt at home with them more than I do with secular non-Jews.

“That is how I feel today at Seton Hall. Northern New Jersey is one of the most religiously and linguistically diverse places in the world. Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu populations, in that order. It is the largest Indian diaspora outside Asia. The number of Muslims and Hindus at the university is steadily increasing. These are immigrants who want a conservative institution for their children, where religions are respected, where prayer is made accessible, and where the cafeteria serves Halal. By the way, in general, local Muslims trust the OU’s kashrut, and they have a website with a list of impermissible items containing alcohol. We have no violent confrontations with Muslims in New Jersey. This attendance at Seton Hall is a kind of natural, ethnic conservatism, not an ideological one like that of the Catholic justices on the Supreme Court. These are children of immigrants who want to escape the aggressive secularism of campus culture, who find a ‘Noah’s Ark’ in which there is almost no preoccupation with the culture war raging around us.”

In the wake of 9/11

During the ‘80s, Brill spent a few years in Jerusalem, and looked into the possibility of doing his doctorate at Hebrew University. After his doctorate, he taught Talmud at Maimonides High School in Boston and later Hasidism at Yeshiva University, at that time he was a sought-after lecturer at many Jewish institutions. In 2013,  he was awarded the prestigious Fulbright scholarship and chose to travel and teach Judaism at the Hindu university in Varanasi. Upon his return, he posted several recounts of his experiences to his excellent blog, “The Book of Doctrines and Opinions.” Later on, he lectured and was interviewed for various platforms, and finally authored a book called Rabbi on the Ganges (2019), an introduction to Hinduism for religious Jews. The book and its bibliography reveal impressive expertise of the English-language literature on Indian religions and is rife with ongoing comparisons to all arenas of Torah literature: Jewish thought, Kabbalah, and Hasidism.

This book was preceded by two others: Judaism and World Religions: Encountering Christianity, Islam, and Eastern Traditions (2012), and Judaism and Other Religions:Models of Understanding (2010). Selected excerpts of Brill’s books have been translated into several languages (although not into Hebrew).

“I studied general philosophy at Yeshiva University in 1978, and was ordained as a rabbi in one of the last years that people received semikha from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (‘the Rav’). I helped organize events and the summer lectures of his, but we did not have a very close relationship. I was close with Rabbi Walter Wurzburger, the Rav’s student in philosophy. Rabbi Wurzburger engaged in interfaith dialogue with Catholics after Nostra aetate (the historic 1965 Vatican council that announced a fundamental change in the Catholic Church’s attitude towards the Jews).

“It is often said that Rabbi Soloveitchik opposed interfaith discourse, but we have to specify what exactly he opposed. He was not opposed to intellectual discussions. The lectures that became The Lonely Man of Faith were given at the Catholic St. Joseph’s Seminary and College, where the Rav tried to explain Judaism to Catholics. Famous Christian theologians such as Paul Tillich also lectured as part of the same series. The Rav opposed a ‘shared covenant’ with Christianity. He refused to discuss similarities between the religions, or a common religious-existential experience. He did not want to build commonality between Jewish and Christian theology and did not desire a common religious brotherhood.

“I hold this approach, in line with the Rav. I reject the idea that there is a shared covenant between all religions or Abrahamic religions. After all the analysis and discussions, when all is said and done, each religion has its own unique theology, setting it apart in the context of prayer, exegesis, and spirituality. I am not looking to point out connections between religions; rather, I am trying as a Jew to react to the world of great religious diversity that surrounds us today. What’s more, I believe that there is wisdom in these religions—as the saying goes, ‘There is wisdom among the nations, believe it’” (Lamentations Rabah 2:14).

Although Rabbi Wurzburger suggested he join the interfaith activities when he was a student, Brill did so beginning only in the early 2000s, as part of the global flourishing of interfaith discourse in the wake of the September 11 attacks, which were carried out in the name of Islam.

“During that period,” Brill points out, “Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book The Dignity of Difference was published just a few months after 9/11, constituting a summary of the lectures he gave in response to the attack. Rabbi Sacks discussed questions of religious diversity and the place of Islam in the contemporary world, and this book raised his profile as an international thinker. At the same time, The Economist also published a book called God is Back. Until then, the West did not really treat religion as a living thing that influences world politics. Religious studies in universities focused on classical texts. But studying the Buddha’s sermons will not explain to you why the Rohingya are being persecuted in Myanmar, so they understood that there needed to be a change in the study materials.”

The Transformation of the Emirates

In 2004, Brill had the opportunity to explain his worldview on the subject of theology of other religions as part of a large conference of rabbis and senior Catholic clergy, under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress. “Present were figures like Rabbi Steinsaltz, senior members of the Conference of European Rabbis, and priests like Fr Patrick Debois. I gave a lecture there on the theology of other religions, which was the basis for my first book on the topic. I tried to clarify what the Torah says about other religions, employing four categories of relationships between religions, developed by others before me: exclusivity, inclusivity, pluralism, and universalism. Exclusivity means your religion is the true one, and everything else is false; inclusivity means that your religion is true, and you are willing to accept other religions on your own religion’s terms; pluralism means that there are many ways to worship God, or even many gods to worship and that all pathways are legitimate; and universalism will claim that all religions share a common kernel.

“Not all of these categories suit us as Jews, but it should be emphasized that these are not necessarily mutually exclusive categories. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook used more than one of these categories. The breadth of the library in your beit midrash indicates what you deem legitimate.

It should be noted that this lecture was given at a completely different era from that of Rabbi Wurzburger’s interfaith activities. In the audience were Hebrew-speaking priests with degrees in Talmud, as well as Jews who were well-versed in Catholic theology. This meeting did not belong to an inchoate earlier stage, but was one in which collaboration was already underway.”

What kind of collaboration?

“There can’t be just one format; it is always contingent upon local needs. Sometimes it is the fight against antisemitism, and other times it is promoting civil rights legislation. Nor should it be expected that the goals of Jews and Catholics will always coincide. I was working in collaboration with a host of Jewish organizations.”

You don’t necessarily find deep religious questions within the struggles for human and civil rights. What do we do with instances whereby antisemitism stems from sacred texts themselves, such as Islamic antisemitism?

“Recently, I was in Indonesia, at the personal invitation of the Islamic Nahdatul Ulama party. They read excerpts from my book translated into Indonesian, and wanted me to help them build a Muslim version of what I did in my book. I was also asked to help them formulate a campaign against antisemitism in Indonesia. The country has a culture of antisemitic conspiracies, from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the conspiracies about the Rothschild family.

“You have to understand that Islam in Indonesia is very different from what you are familiar with in Israel. There are two major Islamic parties, and they are the pillars of support for the democratic regime in Indonesia. Their Islam is a tolerant one, resting against the backdrop of the religions that preceded it in Indonesia: Hinduism and Buddhism. Nahdatul Ulama represents traditional Islam, which is syncretistic. They do not interpret the hadith stringently, and they combine Sufism with popular religion. The second party, Muhammadiyah, are ‘modern orthodox,’ as it were. They emphasize Islamic law, but are not an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both of these parties are opposed to extremist Salafist factions, who desire an undemocratic Sharia state. Neighboring Malaysia watches Indonesia closely. Even though it is a much more extremist state, if everyone else progresses, they will not want to be left behind.”

Can Islam be democratic?

“Islam in every country is different. Indonesia has its own unique story. You see, even their Hindus and Buddhists say they believe in the oneness of God, in the Prophecy, and in reward and punishment. On the other hand, Muslims there have no problem watching plays of the Ramayana epic, which is sacred to Indians.

From a different perspective, that of Turkey, I spent two days in the court of the Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen in New Jersey, and I heard him lecture to his students. He is a tolerant person, which is why he had to flee Erdogan’s Turkey. Islam in Senegal is also tolerant, but for completely different reasons.”

Is de-radicalization possible, given that extremist Islam has already become deep-seated?

“In 2018, before the Abraham Accords, I was on an American Jewish Committee (AJC) delegation to the Emirates, the aim being to familiarize the Emiratis with Jews and rabbis. Right before my eyes, the Emirates went from extreme Salafism to ‘spiritual but not religious.’ Over the years I had contacts with Saudis, and they want to progress in a different way. Morocco also has its own approach.”

And where is the state of Israel in all of this?

“The process I’m observing in Indonesia is supposed to be similar to what is happening in the Emirates. In 2019, I taught a semester at the illustrious Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and visited major Islamic colleges in the country. This was the initial stage, and now the phenomenon is burgeoning. After laying the infrastructure in Indonesia for meetings with rabbis and Jews, the conditions will be riper to implement normalization and diplomatic relations with the state of Israel.”

The Pandits refused to eat with me

How did you arrive at your engagement with India’s religions? It is a pioneering field in which few religious Jews have engaged.

“Over the years I read Indian religious texts. In 2012, I applied for a Fulbright senior scholars award, with the goal of teaching in a foreign country. Given my prior research on Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and his writings on Jewish meditation, the concept was to travel to India and compare Jewish techniques to Hindu meditation, which I immediately realized is more akin to Jewish methods than Vipassana and Buddhist techniques are.”

There are those who claim that Rabbi Kaplan took Indian material and rendered it in Jewish terms. Do you agree with this assertion?

“Rabbi Kaplan read Eastern texts, and essentially reframed Jewish materials within frameworks that were commonplace in Eastern discourse at the time. It should be noted that Indian materials from before the twentieth century were written using very complex, abstract, and difficult-to-understand terminology. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Swami Vivekananda, in his book Raja Yoga, adapted these texts into simple instructions for practice, and in so doing constructed Indian meditation as we know it. Other guides copied him. Rabbi Kaplan did something similar with the Jewish tradition: he translated the complex and abstract texts of the Kabbalists and Hasidim into simple language. He availed himself of his general knowledge of physics, psychology, and Eastern teachings. He did not read the Indian literature in the original.”

In your mind, why are Jews and Israelis attracted to India?

“Initially, it is because of India’s ‘exotic’ nature—Israelis don’t necessarily understand at all the difference between a Hindu, a Buddhist, or a Sikh. They see modernized ashram culture. It should be emphasized that ashram culture is neo-Hinduism, it is not the religion that Indians themselves know. For 98% of Indians, religion means dietary restrictions, marriage laws, purity and impurity, life cycle rituals, holidays, etc. In fact, the ashrams don’t call themselves Hindu, instead using other names, such as ‘followers of Advaita Vedanta.’

We have to grasp what an insult it is when an Israeli who meditated in an ashram begins to essentialize how religion functions in the East. Imagine if a non-Jewish tourist who studied ‘Kabbalah’ for a few weeks were to explain to a religious Jew how to properly pray with kavvanot.

And does the Indian commoner have any familiarity with what is studied in ashrams?

“There are many movements in Hinduism. They each emphasize different aspects and are intended for different audiences. There is religion for the middle class, for academics, and for spiritual types. If you are a Gujarati businessman, you will go to Swaminarayan’s BAPS institutions. They build huge temples in the ancient Indian style, in the private ceremonies at home, there are no statues and no offerings. For them, everything is internalized and performed meditatively in one’s consciousness.”

So Maimonides was right when he said that the more religion progresses, the more abstract and monotheistic it becomes?

“Not necessarily. ISKCON is a movement with Christian influences, which is why they are fans of icons, and cleave to the image of baby Krishna as Christians do with baby Jesus. Two stages in the modernization of religions can be identified: first, the period from pre-modernity to modernity; and second, the twentieth century to the twenty-first century. In nineteenth-century India there were reformers who belonged to the local enlightenment movement, the ‘Bengali Renaissance,’ such as Ram Mohan Roy and his disciples, who are very much the Indian parallel to Reform Jews. Thereafter, thinkers like Sivananda articulated the Hindu commandments in ethical and non-mystical terms, similar to our own Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Most of the Indians I met still think of their religion in this way, and are offended when people say that their religion is mystical and not ethical.

In the twenty-first century, you see a new stage where Hindu or Buddhist meditation teachers teach meditation for the purpose of stress-reduction and achieving happiness, wealth, and the like.

Classical Indian texts already have all the layers we are familiar with in Judaism. Mimamsa corresponds to Jewish Midrashei Halakha, Nyaya corresponds to its medieval scholastic thought, and texts that I have researched in Tantra literature correspond to Kabbalistic kavvanot. I plan to publish a comparison of Tantra to Kabbalah.”

The Colonialism of Monotheism

What is your opinion on the deification of human beings in India? To the Jewish observer, this is a shocking phenomenon.

“Also to many Indian observers, certainly the Pandits. Any time you would mention to them –you might get an earful on the moral corruption of these characters.”

The Tantra literature you mentioned is a genre of Indian mystical literature known to Westerners mainly in its sexual valences. What does Tantra mean to Indians?

“In India, meditation that combines intention and action is called tantra. The purpose of tantra is the union of the male and female elements, Shiva and Shakti. This might be compared to the unification of Qudsha B’rikh Hu and His Shekhina according to the Kabbalists. Tantric techniques are very complex, with similarities to the kavvanot of the Kabbalists. I showed Indian colleagues texts of the prayer kavvanot from the early Kabbalists, and they immediately recognized the similarity. These colleagues are people who read Gershom Scholem and his disciples and already have a general familiarity.

Yoga is generally about abstract mental states of absorbtion—even if in modern versions of yoga, such as hatha yoga, there is a majority focus on breathing and postures. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, these body postures are described in just 13 words. Whereas in the ancient yogic texts, you will find mountains of words about different mental states.

“The transgressive things that Westerners associate with the worlds of tantra—which Indians themselves hardly engage in—are referred to as ‘left hand tantra.’ ‘Right hand tantra,’ however, centers visualizations, similar to the philosophy of kavvanot. Left hand tantra is concerned with ‘sin performed in God’s name’ (‘aveirah lishmah), that is, intentional transgression of religious prohibitions in order to be above the Law and beyond religious notions of good and evil: forbidden marriages between high and low castes, violations of purity laws, laws of worship, and more.”

When it comes to Tantra, is there a recognition of feminism?

“Indian discussions of female deities and female spirituality do not necessarily go hand-in-hand with feminism. On the contrary, sometimes such discourse is entangled with misogyny and the subjugation of women. Many more social reforms are needed in India, and religion alone will not provide for that.”

And after all is said and done, Indian culture is idolatrous. In fact, it can be associated with the most classic case of idolatry known to us from the Bible. If there is one animal we associate with idolatry, it is the cow.

Brill laughs when I mention cows. “First of all, Indians never pray to or worship cows. The cow is the symbol of motherly kindness, which gives nourishing milk to all. Therefore, it is simply on the same stratum of existence as humans, and therefore humans may not eat them. In the Dharmasastra it is written that ‘every day one should help gods, humankind, cows, and the poor.’ In India, there are different stages of religious development, wherein different reforms were undertaken. There is a striking difference between Indian and Jewish traditions: we do not claim that the worshipers of Ba’al and Ashtoreth, or the golden calf and the copper snake, are part of our tradition. But the Indians will say that all the disparate stages of their religion were once a part of their faith, and only today certain parts are no longer extent.

“It is important for me to clarify the question of polytheism and monotheism. The majority of Indians, about 70%, are Vishnu worshipers, and about 24% are Shiva worshipers. They all worship one transcendent God, above nature, who is not one of the forces of nature—irrespective of our notion that using idols even to worship one God is forbidden by the Torah. Recently there was a conference on Vaishnavism, with 16 speakers from around the world, and the lectures are about to be published as a book. Every speaker claimed to be a monotheist. They also do not worship individual idols, but indeed one God, ‘God of gods,’ as in the Torah.

This is how they see themselves today, and this is what they read back into their classical texts. Shiva worshipers have always believed in only one God. The novelty is that the Vaishnavas are even willing to ignore the Vedas, the most ancient layer of Indian religion, for this purpose. The important medieval commentaries on the classic texts all state that the highest understanding of religion is toward Oneness of the paraBrahman, as the formless divine. Sure, it’s unsurprising that they did away with Vedic horse sacrifices; theologically, however, they made an even deeper revision as a reaction to the spiritual challenge of monotheism that arose starkly via encounters with the West.”

Many Indian polemicists speak fervidly against monotheism and against the zealotry of the Abrahamic religions.

“They say ‘monotheism’ and mean ‘colonialism.’ The monotheism they hate is Christianity, which granted the British the right to conquer India in its name, and Islam, with which they are in conflict to this day. They have never heard of Judaism and think of monotheism as a single religion that strives to destroy all other religions. India’s contemporary right-wing and its spokespeople demand that Islam be tolerant again, as it has been for many years in India. They view fanatical Pakistani Islam as a mutation shaped under Arab influence, foreign to the subcontinent.”

Becoming Elijah Interview with Daniel C. Matt

There is a story told about the birth of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement. His parents, Reb Eliezer and Sara, were known far and wide for their generous hospitality. Elijah the Prophet was once sent to their home to test their sincerity. One Shabbos afternoon, Eliyahu banged on their door carrying a staff in his hand and a knapsack on his back thereby clearly desecrating the Shabbos.

Reb Eliezer opened the door and warmly greeted his guest.  Although Reb Eliezer understood that the beggar had violated Shabbos, he pretended not to notice. Reb Eliezer told his guest. “Please, come and join us.” The next morning, Reb Eliezer and his wife prepared to send the beggar off with a generous donation, as well as provisions for the way. Not once did they mention a word about their guest’s lack of Shabbos observance the previous day.

As he was walking out the door, Eliyahu Hanavi revealed to Reb Eliezer his true identity. “Since you did not shame me when I came to your house,” Eliyahu told him, “you and your wife will soon be blessed with a son who will illuminate the world with the depths of his Torah.” The following year, Reb Eliezer’s wife gave birth to a son, Israel, who become the Baal Shem Tov.

In this story, the prophet Elijah serves as a divine messenger to test the sincerity of mortal humans and to bestow miracles. He also stands in for the modern Jew giving up observance.  In the 21st century, these stories continue to flourish with ever-new permutations of Elijah as a divine helper who still shows up on the streets of New York or Jerusalem.

In his recent award-winning book Becoming Elijah: Prophet of Transformation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), Daniel C. Matt shows how Elijah evolved from his portrayal in the Bible as a zealous prophet, attacking idolatry and injustice, championing God to a folk hero champion of the common Jew. Though residing in heaven, Elijah revisits earth—to help, rescue, enlighten, and eventually herald the Messiah.

Daniel Matt is a noted scholar of Kabbalah who spent 18 years translating the Zohar. His nine-volume annotated translation The Zohar: Pritzker Edition – received various awards and has been hailed as “a monumental contribution to the history of Jewish thought.”. Matt received his Ph.D. from Brandeis and taught for many years at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.  Daniel lives in Berkeley and currently teaches Zohar online ( People I know locally highly recommend his online Zohar class.

Recently, Becoming Elijah was awarded the inaugural Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Book Prize, established by Yeshiva University. It is interesting to note that this is one of the first times the university has given any award to a book not affiliated with Orthodoxy.

Matt’s book Becoming Elijah: Prophet of Transformation was published by Yale University Press in their series Jewish Lives. Therefore, he presents a biography of Elijah through the ages, the way Jack Miles wrote an award-winning biography of God. Matt surveys how this Biblical zealot evolves into a popular figure in Jewish tradition. Becoming Elijah traces how Elijah develops from the Bible to Rabbinic Judaism, Kabbalah, and Jewish ritual (as well as Christianity and Islam) culminating in Hasidut.

The book is enjoyable and a quick reading as a romantic anthology of sources, part folklore, and part literary work. Matt gives most sources no more than a paragraph, so the book is a rapid survey more than analysis, more kaleidoscope than theology. Matt’s bibliography is a gold mine of works on Elijah. I would still recommend as an ancillary reading Aaron Wiener, Prophet Elijah in the Development of Judaism: A Depth-psychological Study(Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1978) which offers psychological analysis. Matt’s book can profitably be read alongside its out-of-print predecessor.

The commitment to the biography format treating each literary unit- Midrash, Kabbalah, Jewish ritual- as if it was a self-contained historic event or major trend may have been too restrictive in that many things were associated together that needed their own section. For example, all Kabbalistic citations are in a single overpacked chapter.

In the last chapter, Matt presents the Hasidic idea that individual people contain an aspect of Elijah in their own souls, in which there is an inner quality of Elijah within all of us. Which he interprets with his own unique Neo-Hasidic homily as the evolution to inner compassion.

The book stops without modernity at the end of the eighteenth century. Therefore, we do not hear the above story of the parents of the Baal Shem Tov. We do not get to hear how S Ansky uses Elijah as a harbinger of the breakdown and destruction of Galicia Jewry. We do not hear how Elie Wiesel treats Elijah “as the chronicler, the historian of Jewish suffering. He takes note of every tragic event, every massacre, every pogrom, every agony, and every tear; thanks to him, nothing is lost. His most magnificent role is that of witness; he is the memory of the Jewish people.“ And we definitely don’t get to hear how Jacques Derrida considers Elijah- which is his own middle name- epitomizes the “coming of the other” into the differential space of language. In the later texts, the figure of Elijah is invoked to signal the promise of a language—performative rather than affirmative, paradoxically determined by its own indeterminability.

The book will make a great gift to your hosts for Passover Seder and buy a second copy for yourself as your Passover book. Pick a nice bottle of wine for a Passover lunch and then spend the day reading the exploits of Elijah, the prophet.  Maybe when he visits everyone’s seder this year, he will recount to us his latest adventures to add to his already rich biography.

1) How long have you been interested in Elijah?

I have been interested in Elijah ever since I was a little boy, the curious son of a rabbi. Of course, we expected Elijah annually at the Seder, but he seemed to pop up so frequently, especially every Saturday night, when we sang a song about him as we said “Goodbye” to the Sabbath Queen. I wondered who he was, and if he was real.

Writing Becoming Elijah occupied me for about 5 years: two years of reading and collecting sources, a little more than a year of writing, and then about 2 years of editing and seeing the book through the publication process.

2) What did Cynthia Ozick say about Elijah? Does your book agree with her statement?

One of Cynthia Ozick’s characters (in Envy, or, Yiddish in America) has this to say: “Please remember that when a goy from Columbus, Ohio, says ‘Elijah the Prophet’ he’s not talking about Eliohu hanovi. Eliohu is one of us, a folksmensh, running around in second-hand clothes. Theirs is God knows what. The same biblical figure, with exactly the same history, once he puts on a name from King James, COMES OUT A DIFFERENT PERSON.”

In Becoming Elijah, I make a different distinction, but there is some overlap. The biblical Elijah is a fierce zealot; in his post-biblical career, he becomes a compassionate hero, helping those in need, spreading wisdom, and ultimately making peace in the world.

3) Why is your book called “Becoming Elijah”?

Throughout most of the book, the title Becoming Elijah means: how the biblical Elijah (the fierce zealot) was transformed into the compassionate hero who rescues those in need, the super-rabbi who spreads wisdom and will ultimately bring peace to the world. But at the very end of the book, the reader discovers another meaning of the title: how each of us can cultivate our own “aspect of Elijah” (behinat Eliyyahu), thereby in a sense “becoming Elijah.”

4) Why did you choose the opening quote from Cordovero?

The 16th-century kabbalist Moses Cordovero writes this about Elijah: “His mystery is really the mystery of divinity spreading. Divine energy clothes itself in him, extending to the world. . . Elijah never appears in the world without the mystery of divinity revealing itself through him. The mystery of God on earth is the mystery of Elijah . . . The closest that divinity can possibly come to humanity is the mystery of Elijah.”

I came across this quotation shortly before the book went to press. I chose it as the book’s epigraph because it conveys what Elijah eventually became: the embodiment of the Holy Spirit (ruah ha-qodesh) and a semi-divine figure.

Cordovero’s remarkable statement may strike some readers as more Christian than Jewish, with Elijah functioning as an intermediary between God and humanity. Well, Elijah is unique, and he frequently mediates between heaven and earth. He is a virtuoso of the in-between, communicating heavenly teachings to earth and inspiring the Kabbalists with new insights and revelations. Yes, Cordovero’s formulation is extreme, but already in the Midrash, God Himself affirms His similarity to Elijah:

“The blessed Holy One said, ‘I revive the dead, and Elijah revived the dead…. I bring down rain, and Elijah brought down rain. I stop the rains, and so did Elijah…. I brought down fire and brimstone upon Sodom, and Elijah similarly brought down [fire]…. He lived and will go on living until the revival of the dead.’”

5) How does Elijah evolve over the centuries?

I trace how Elijah evolves over the centuries, how he “becomes” the full-fledged Elijah. In the Bible, he is a fierce zealot, fighting for the one true God and jealous on behalf of YHVH. Already here, there are certainly mythical and legendary elements—and a hint of the mystical, as well. For example, at Mount Sinai, Elijah encounters God not in the loud phenomena of nature (wind, earthquake, fire), but in qol demamah daqqah. In the King James Bible (and ever since), this remarkable phrase is translated as “a still small voice.” But more accurately, it means “a sound of sheer stillness.” From out of stillness—a pregnant, vibrant silence—Elijah hears God’s voice. We can now appreciate this as an indication of the power of meditation: God can be found in stillness and silence.

At the end of his biblical career, suddenly a chariot of fire… appeared… and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Was this a spectacular death? Or did he escape death entirely? The answer is not clear, but the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash assume that “Elijah lives and endures forever.” These rabbis transform Elijah into a super-rabbi, who appears to certain select rabbis, instructing them. He also miraculously saves worthy people in dire straits.

In medieval Kabbalah, the mystical dimension of Elijah becomes more prominent. He is the source of mystical wisdom who enlightens spiritual seekers, the embodiment of the Holy Spirit. One kabbalist, Hayyim Vital, actually describes how to stimulate “a revelation of Elijah” (gillui Eliyyahu). The various preparations he recommends include normative religious practices and more demanding spiritual ones: turning back to God (teshuvah), intense study of Torah, an ascetic lifestyle (limiting food, drink, and sensual pleasure), seclusion, immersion in a ritual bath (miqveh), meditation on the Divine Name, emptying one’s mind of wordly concerns, and love of God. As Vital concludes, “Through these practices of devotion, Elijah (gratefully remembered) will reveal himself. The greater one’s devotion, the greater [Elijah’s] revelation.”

Later, a Hasidic master teaches how each of us contains “an aspect of Elijah” (behinat Eliyyahu), which can manifest as a mystical insight, a creative urge, an eagerness to uplift others. By cultivating this aspect, or spark, we can, in a sense, “become Elijah.”

6) How is Elijah a shape-shifter?

This is one of the most remarkable things about him. I used to think that the term “shape-shifter” referred mainly to certain superheroes in comic books, but actually it’s a term from the academic study of folklore, referring to mythological characters who adopt different forms. After ascending to heaven, Elijah becomes angelic, but he is capable of assuming various human types. He can appear as an ordinary person or especially an old man, the archetype of wisdom. But often he appears in disguise, adopting whatever personality is appropriate to the situation. In various tales, he impersonates a horseman, an Arab, a Persian, a slave, a royal minister of a gentile ruler, a Roman dignitary. Elijah can mold his angelhood into any identity he needs.

Of his many transfigurations, the most shocking one involves Rabbi Me’ir, a leading sage of the second century. Me’ir had boldly rescued his sister-in-law from a Roman brothel, to which she had been condemned. Consequently, the Roman authorities posted Me’ir’s “wanted” picture on the city gates:

“They went and engraved Rabbi Me’ir’s image at the entrance of Rome and proclaimed, ‘Anyone who sees this face—bring him!’ One day [some Roman officers] saw him and ran after him; he ran away from them. . . . Some say that Elijah appeared to [the pursuing officers] as a prostitute and embraced [Rabbi Me’ir]. [The officers] said, ‘Perish the thought! If this were Rabbi Me’ir, he wouldn’t have done that.’ [Thereby he was saved.]”

To rescue Rabbi Me’ir, Elijah fashions himself into a whore and behaves accordingly. Here, he’s something of a benign trickster, making fools of gentile oppressors; he is champion of the Jews in a risky world.

7) What were your literary principles in deciding the amount of space to give to each use of Elijah in the tradition?

Elijah begins as a biblical hero, so I wanted to devote a good amount of space to the chapters in the book of Kings describing his remarkable life in the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 9th century BCE. The next major stage is how the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash transform Elijah into a super-rabbi, and this too deserves a lengthy chapter. The mystical quality of Elijah becomes more prominent in the Kabbalah, and I devoted a full, shorter chapter to this phase. The book is in a series called Jewish Lives, but Elijah is also a significant figure in Christianity and Islam, and I devoted a shorter chapter to this feature of his endless career. Most Jews know of Elijah because of his prominent role in several rituals (especially the Passover Seder and circumcision), so this demanded a separate chapter. The final, brief chapter emphasizes the mending or rectification (tiqqun) of Elijah (from zealot to compassionate hero), and thenreveals the hidden meaning of the title: how each of us can, in a sense, “become Elijah.”

The book is a biography, as are all the books in this series (Jewish Lives). But this is not a normal biography, because according to Jewish (and Christian and Islamic) tradition, Elijah never died. I constructed the book to show how Elijah is reimagined again and again. Each generation pours their yearnings into him and draws comfort from him. So the various portrayals of the immortal prophet reveal not only the multi-faceted character of Elijah, but also the mind of the people of Israel through the ages—their needs and ideals.

8) How does Elijah give hope?

Elijah gives hope because since he never died, he is available—ready to help those in need, able to traverse the world, reaching any destination “in four glides.” Furthermore, he will announce and herald the coming of the Messiah. This is foreshadowed in the Bible itself, not in the book of Kings, but in the later book of Malachi, which concludes with God’s promise: Look, I am sending you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the day of YHVH, great and awesome. He will bring fathers’ hearts back to their children and children’s hearts to their fathers.

Unlike Christians, who can pretty easily picture Jesus, it’s difficult for Jews to picture the Messiah. Elijah provides a more readily imaginable figure, which made it easier to Jews to maintain their belief in the ultimate redemption. That’s why in the Grace after Meals, we ask God to send us not the Messiah, but “Elijah the prophet…, who will bring us good tidings of salvation and comfort.”

9)  How is Elijah like Moses?

The Midrash lists about 30 parallels between the two! For example, “Moses redeemed [Israel] from Egypt…, and Elijah will redeem them in the time to come.” Both are called “man of God” (ish ha-Elohim). Moses parted the Red Sea, while Elijah parted the Jordan River toward the end of his biblical career. Both had a zealous quality, though Elijah was more extreme. Both were in a cave (or crevice) on Mount Sinai. Moses spent 40 days and forty nights on Mount Sinai, while Elijah journeyed forty days and forty nights to the same site. Both, in moments of despareration due to the stubbornness of the Israelites, asked God to take their lives. Both ended their earthbound lives in the same vicinity: east of the Jordan River, across from Jericho.

How are they different? First of all, Moses died a natural death, whereas Elijah, it is told, neve died, but rather ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot and ever since has been returning intermittently to earth to help those in need. In this sense, you could say that Elijah surpassed Moses.

In a crucial way, however, Moses outshone Elijah. After the sin of the Golden Calf, he pleaded with God to spare Israel. Elijah, on the other hand, kept accusing Israel, complaining to God, The Israelites have forsaken Your covenant… and I alone remain. Moses was rewarded with divine intimacy, whereas Elijah was relieved of his prophetic duties for failing to defend Israel. According to one early midrash, when God told Elijah to anoint a successor in your place, what God meant was: “I no longer want your prophesying!” Elijah is the only prophet who, roughly speaking, was fired!

10) Do we encounter Elijah today? Why did you not include any stories of later eras or modern encounters with Elijah?

There are many contemporary stories of encounters with Elijah, for example, those assembled by Eliezer Shore in his book Meeting Elijah. These modern accounts are certainly interesting, but they aren’t significantly different than earlier tales and traditions in the Talmud, Midrash, Jewish folklore, Kabbalah, and Hasidism.

We can encounter Elijah in several ways. One is by imagining him—opening the door for him at the Seder, or sensing his presence as the guardian of the covenant at a ritual circumcision. Another is by following the advice of Hayyim Vital, and making some of the preparations he recommends (see above, question 3), which may lead to a mystical experience, a “revelation of Elijah” (gillui Elliyahu). Another is by discovering an aspect of Elijah (behinat Eliyyahu) within ourselves (see above, questions 3 and 5).

What really happens when a person experiences a “revelation of Elijah” (gillui Eliyyahu). Is this an inner experience or a direct encounter with the immortal prophet? According to several kabbalists, the distinction is not that clear. Moses Cordovero writes, “Sometimes Elijah clothes himself in a person’s mind, revealing to him hidden matters. To the person, it seems as if he pondered those things on his own, as if that innovation suddenly entered his mind…; it feels as if he said it himself.”

A famous contemporary of Cordovero’s shares this view. Discussing a Talmudic story in which Rabbi Yehoshua son of Levi meets Elijah, the Maharal (R. Judah Loew) of Prague writes: “It makes no difference whether [Elijah] was revealed to [Rabbi Yehoshua son of Levi] in a vision or whether he was revealed as such, not in a vision. For frequently Elijah would speak words to someone, and that person did not know where they came from. It seemed to him as if those words came from himself―but they were the words of Elijah, speaking to him.”

In other words, the encounter with Elijah can take place deep within. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, it is “an inner experience, a fact in the soul.”

11) You end the book with a Hasidic story and then conclude about our need to become an Elijah of compassion in ourselves. Can you explain?

Over the course of his endless life, Elijah learns to tame his fanaticism, but he never loses his passion. Rather, he channels that passion into mending himself, his people, and the world. We can “become” Elijah by imitating his transformation. By caring for others, we embody his quality.

That Hasidic story conveys this nicely: A pious Jew once asked his rabbi why Elijah never appeared on the night of the seder, even though the door was opened for him and his goblet of wine was waiting on the table. The rabbi told him: “There is a very poor family in your neighborhood. Go visit them and propose that next year you and your family will celebrate Passover with them in their house and that you’ll provide everything they need for the whole holiday. Then on the night of the Seder, Elijah will certainly come.” The man did as he was told, but after the following Passover he returned to the rabbi, complaining that once again Elijah had failed to appear. The rabbi responded, “Elijah came, but you couldn’t see him.” Holding a mirror to the man’s face, he continued, “Look, this was Elijah’s face that night.”

12) Can we compare Elijah to a Bodhisattva. Have you thought more about that comparison?

In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a person who could enter the ultimate bliss of nirvana but instead decides to remain here in the mundane world in order to help others, both materially and spiritually. Elijah is transported to heaven, but he, too, refrains from basking eternally in celestial bliss and instead makes himself available to human beings here below. He inspires and demands ethical behavior and spiritual progress.

People often contrast Buddhism and Judaism, and there certainly are significant differences. But this parallel enables us to appreciate their shared wisdom. The bodhisattva, refusing to abandon life on earth, remains committed to the here and now. This brings to mind the contrast between Enoch and Elijah. According to the Jewish mystical tradition, Enoch, like Elijah, was transported to heaven, becoming an angel. But these two heroes proceed to act very differently. Enoch never leaves heaven. Why should he? It’s so blissful up there. But Elijah remains committed to people struggling down here on earth. That is his greatness.

13) You seem to have avoided the Jungian approaches entirely such as Aaron Wiener’s book on the prophet Elijah or Jung’s depiction in the Red Book. Why?

Wiener’s book, The Prophet Elijah in the Development of Judaism, was actually very important to me, and I cite him frequently in my extensive endnotes (12 times, to be precise). Already in the Introduction, I paraphrase one of Wiener’s basic claims, that “Elijah follows the path of the archetypal hero: uncertain origins, trials and adventures, transformation, and return into the world.” I proceed, throughout the book, to illustrate Elijah’s heroic journey. What I avoided was Wiener’s repetitive Jungian jargon, which I find tiresome.

14) Do you think you have a spark of Elijah in your soul? Do we all? What does your book mean for contemporary spirituality?

We each have a “spark of Elijah,” which the Hasidic master Nahum of Chernobyl also calls “an aspect of Elijah” (behinat Eliyyahu).

Elijah is important for contemporary spirituality because he isn’t perfect. He is a flawed human, like each of us. To me, the most striking thing about Elijah is how he undergoes a mending or rectification (tiqqun). You could say that certain rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash engineered this tiqqun because they couldn’t bear the harsh, fanatical contours of Elijah’s biblical personality. For them, he was simply too extreme, too remote and exalted, unable to mediate between God and mere humans. They criticize him, but more significantly they refashion him, softening and refining his image.

But from another perspective, Elijah effects his own tiqqun. He becomes immortal because his task has not been completed; he needs to mend his ways. Frequently returning to earth, he harnesses his zeal to help the persecuted and wretched. Instead of castigating the people of Israel, he fervently defends them. His wrath is spent. Now, in helping others, he cultivates kindness; his heart opens, and he discovers how to love.

Centuries after encountering God on Mount Sinai, he finally grasps an implication of the sound of sheer stillness (qol demamah daqqah)that he experienced there: to succeed in transforming others, fierce power is often less effective than patient gentleness.

In the Bible, Elijah saw everything as black-and-white. In his later phase of existence, he realizes that conflicting views can sometimes be equally true. As he declares in the Talmud, “Both these and those are words of the Living God.” He reveals the unity within the contradictions of tradition. Eventually, paving the way for the Messiah, he will “harmonize disputes.” The biblical zealot who slayed his opponents will come “to make peace in the world.”

Having mended himself, Elijah can stimulate others to strive for personal and social tiqqun. Having been flawed, he is familiar with failure. He failed to turn Israel completely and firmly back to God, and consequently, he begged God to take his life. But, having sunk so deeply in despair, over the ages he gradually learns how to lift anyone’s spirit.

Elijah is a model for how we can deal with failure, with negativity, with our negative traits. If we feel rage, we can learn from the immortal prophet how to transmute it into compassion. By quieting our restless mind, we can become attuned to the soothing yet potent sound of sheer stillness.

Johnny Solomon Responds to Aryeh Klapper

Here is the third response to my last week’s interview with Rabbi Aryeh Klapper about his new book Divine Will and Human Experience   The first response was by Rabbi Yitzchak Roness- here. The second one here is by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz-here

This one is by Rabbi Johnny Solomon who teaches Halacha and Jewish Thought at Matan and Midreshet Lindenbaum, and he works as #theVirtualRabbi – offering online spiritual coaching, halachic consultations, and Torah study sessions to men, women, and couples around the world.

DIVINE WILL and HUMAN EXPERIENCE:  Review by Rabbi Johnny Solomon

‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ is a soft back book which has been self-published by the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, of which Rabbi Klapper is Dean. On its front cover is an image of a glass pyramid where a black beam of light, labelled as ‘Divine Will’, is refracted into four different light beams labelled ‘Freedom’, ‘Dignity’, ‘Equality’ and ‘Responsibility’.

Perhaps mentioning the style of the front cover of a book appears to literally fall into the trap of judging a book by its cover. The issue, however, is that unlike most books, there is no Preface or Introduction to ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’, and similarly, there are no approbations which oftentimes feature in books relating to Jewish law.

Instead, following the title page and copyright page are four pages detailing the contents of the 39 chapters of ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ (which themselves are divided into six categories: ‘MetaHalakhic Principles’, ‘Equality as a Torah Value’, ‘Halakhic Methods’, ‘Long Covid and Yom Kippur’, ‘Halakhic Illustrations’ and ‘Biblical Portraits’) which is then followed by the 39 articles (spanning approximately 230 pages).

Admittedly, there is a paragraph titled ‘About the Book’ on the back cover of ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ which is seemingly intended to inform its readers about the purpose of this book which, for the sake of considering the goals of ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’, I’d like to quote in full:

Wallace Stevens wrote that poetry is generated by the pressure of reality on imagination. Along the same lines, practical halakhah at its best is generated by the pressure of reality on Torah. ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ illuminates every stage of that process in a wide variety of contexts and genres. You’ll find the halakhot of art and the art of halakhah. You’ll find an authoritative responsum, and a psak that failed; an explanation of how a beit din practice became oppressive, and an explanation of how rabbinic powerlessness enables oppression. This book is for everyone who wants to understand halakhah deeply and share responsibility for the Torah that constructs and governs our personal and communal religious lives.

The problem is that while some of this paragraph is descriptive, some of it poetic, and some of it (specifically the statement that ‘‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ illuminates every stage of that process’) are bombastic, it actually doesn’t tell the reader who this book is for, or whether readers should treat each essay as being exhaustive, or anything about the role that ‘Freedom’, ‘Dignity’, ‘Equality’ and ‘Responsibility’ – which, on the basis of the image on the front cover are the four principles that make up the ‘Divine Will’ – play in halakhah. In fact, it is only by reading the essays in ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ and paying close attention to some brief remarks made by Rabbi Klapper in some of those essays, that the reader gets any sense whatsoever about the nature of this book.

Unlike many books incorporating halakhic essays, the halakhic essays in this book different from most others, in that, on two separate occasions Rabbi Klapper informs his readers that what he is writing is neither comprehensive nor conclusive, while the tone of writing used by Rabbi Klapper clearly points to the fact that he intends that these essays will help foster further discussion.

For example, in Chapter 11, titled ‘When Torah Clashes with our Values’, Rabbi Klapper writes that:

‘this essay is a collection of raw, first-level interpretive observations – they provide ways of thinking through the Torah narrative without (I think) imposing any conclusions… You’re welcome to send me your thoughts about what these interpretations could mean for these issues, or to politely post them (and equally politely critique such posts), and of course to challenge or support them at the level of the text’ (p. 69).

What this suggests is that the essays in ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ are not actually halakhic essays per se. Instead, they are thoughts on points of halakhah which Rabbi Klapper shared or presented at some point to members of his Center for Modern Torah Leadership.

In fact, this point is made even clearer in his remarks in Chapter 12 titled ‘Learning Torah we Disagree With’ where he writes,

‘I’m writing stream-of-consciousness to model the idea that there is value in thinking about challenging interpretations of Torah, and in sharing our understanding of such Torah, even if we won’t necessarily agree, or at least not agree fully, with the hashkafic perspectives that emerge from them’ (p. 74).

What this tells us is that while, as noted on the back cover, Rabbi Klapper is ‘a posek, lamdan, and though-leader’, the reader of ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ doesn’t encounter Rabbi Klapper-as-posek in the sense that his role isn’t to present fully reasoned halakhic thoughts and rulings. Instead, they encounter Rabbi Klapper-as-mentor-and-teacher to budding Torah scholars whom he has taken under his wing and whom he feels a responsibility to teach them about the importance of ‘Taking Responsibility for Torah’ (which, as he writes in Chapter 13 in his essay titled ‘Purely Theoretical Halakhah’, is ‘the motto of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership’, which ‘was formulated to oppose the claim that halakhah can be discussed in the beit midrash without considering real-world consequences’ (p. 83)).

Having said all of the above, I would now like to more closely examine some of Rabbi Klappers’ insights by reflecting on four of his essays:

a. ‘Chazakot and Changing Realities’

Even a quick glance at ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ leads the reader to the conclusion that Rabbi Klapper enjoys offering insights about the development of halakhah. As he writes at the beginning of Chapter 2, titled ‘Chazakot and Changing Realities’:

Practical Halakhah exists in constant dialogue with the world around it. Competent poskim know and respond to the social, political, and economic realities of their communities. In turn, halakhah shapes those realities in important ways. Consider for example the effect of capitalism on the halakhot of ribit (usury), and the effect of halakhah on the price of ungrafted citrons’ (p. 14).

Having provided readers with this background, Rabbi Klapper addresses the chazakah attributed to Rav Hamnuna (as mentioned in Gittin 89b – although for some reason Rabbi Klapper does not provide this basic Talmudic reference), as codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 17:2), that ‘a woman is believed if she claims to be divorced while in her presumptive husband’s presence’, because, “a woman is not brazen in the presence of her husband”.

Yet the Rema rules ‘that because of societal changes, this chazokoh (sic) no longer generates the credibility necessary to allow remarriage’, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe EH 1:49) ignores, and as Rabbi Klapper adds, ‘I suggest deliberately’, the question of ‘whether changes specific to his own time and place have weakened the latter chazokoh’ (p. 15). He writes in his concluding remarks to this chapter:

while chazokoh’s are influenced by social changes, there is no straight line from a change in circumstances to a change in law. The legal presumptions that Chazal created via chazakot resulted from an interplay between their evaluation of reality and their sense of what halakhic outcomes were necessary or desirable. A competent posek must consider how changed circumstance affect the reality underlying the chazokoh and also whether allowing those changes to affect the chazokoh would yield undesirable halakhic outcomes’ (p. 17).

What Rabbi Klapper does here is reveal some of the considerations that inform and inspire poskim to reach various halakhic decisions, which is particularly valuable given that these considerations are rarely made explicit by poskim.

b. ‘Changing Realities and New Rabbinic Legislation’

In Chapter 3, Rabbi Klapper contrasts the approaches of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer 1:16) and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe OC 4:50) regarding the question of whether new decrees may be established in the modern period, with his argument being that while ‘discussions of halakhic innovation often revolve around an asserted need for new leniencies.. it stands to reason that changed circumstances will require just as many new stringencies’ (p. 19). However, as he continues, ‘if today’s halakhists are judged incompetent to issue new stringencies, they are unlikely to succeed in implementing new leniencies’ (ibid.). Given this, Rabbi Klapper notes that, ‘generating the authority to permit may require granting the authority to forbid’ (p. 24) and that, ‘my hope is that this essay opens space for serious discussion of the extent to which we wish to grant that authority’ (ibid.).

Here, Rabbi Klapper gives voice to a rarely addressed consideration in halakhic decision-making – although not one that is shared by all poskim. The question, however, is to what extent is his thesis about the need to issue new stringencies correct? While I’ll not answer that question directly, I believe that any answer demands significantly more research and consideration than reference to a singular responsum of Rabbi Feinstein (putting aside the fact that the subject of this specific responsum has been challenged by various halakhic authorities). Given this, I humbly suggest that the brevity of this and some similar essays in ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ are insufficient for Rabbi Klapper’s students to truly have a ‘serious discussion’ on this topic.

c. ‘Defining Dying’

Chapter 25 opens with the same reference to Wallace Stevens as appears on the back cover of ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ (see above), while Rabbi Klapper then continues to state that, ‘the practice of halakhah inevitably changes when reality does. But the ‘way’ in which it changes is often badly misunderstood’ (p. 155).

This statement is, to my mind, a powerful insight into what Rabbi Klapper primarily seeks to address in his book: not the ‘what’ of halakhic change, or necessarily the ‘why’ for halakhic change, but in fact the ‘way’ in which halakhah changes.

In terms of his treatment of Dying, Rabbi Klapper considers his teacher – Rabbi J. David Bleich’s –  contention (see Tradition 30:3) that ‘any patient who may reasonably be deemed capable of potential survival for a period of seventy two hours cannot be considered a ‘goses’’ (p. 155).

As Rabbi Klapper then notes, under this definition, ‘many conditions categorized as ‘goses’ in past centuries would not be ‘goses’ nowadays, for example because mechanical ventilation might extend their lives. So the practical halakhah of ‘goses’ might change in response to technological change’ (ibid.).

As he concludes the chapter, ‘we might for instance argue that medical progress has created a new class of people regarding whom it is ethical not to provide life-extending treatment, even though they do not fit the category of ‘goses’’ (p. 160). Yet, whatever the case, while it may be ‘tempting to assume that poskim who reach results we dislike on issues of technological change must be ignoring the science or distorting the sources. The truth is that sometimes they are expressing very in-the-moment moral opinions that disagree with ours’ (ibid.).

d. ‘A Tale of Two Cities’

The final section of ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ deals with what Rabbi Klapper calls ‘Biblical Portraits’, and in Chapter 38 he examines the plea that Rachav makes to the spies that they spare the lives of her family (see Yehoshua Ch. 2).

One might wonder how this story aligns with Rabbi Klapper’s overall interest in halakhah. However, what Rabbi Klapper seeks to argue here is that moral examinations must precede halakhic decision-making.

He does this by opening this chapter with a quote from Rabbi Norman Lamm that ‘Halakhah is a floor, not a ceiling’ (p. 226), and by then asking a series of questions: ‘Can human decisions lower halakhic floors, and raise spiritual ceilings? How should we evaluate decisions that do both simultaneously? Can our commitments affect other people’s spiritual range?’ (pp. 226-227).

And then, through considering the approach of a number of commentaries on the Rachav story including Ralbag who draws a parallel between this event and Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s petition to Vespasian (see Gittin 56a – although here too Rabbi Klapper does not provide this basic Talmudic reference notwithstanding the fact that he prompts the reader in the header introducing his essay to ‘Think of Rachav facing the spies as parallel to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai facing Vespasian’), Rabbi Klapper reaches a conclusion that:

‘The spies’ oath raised the halakhic floor to the level of the moral floor. But it seems likely that Rachav’s demand did not raise the moral floor – she merely enabled the spies to correctly perceive its level. They were halakhically obligated once they took the oath, but they were morally obligated to take the oath. In fact, they were obligated to take the oath even before (Rachav – nb. this is missing from the original text) made any demand, because without such an oath, halakhah was setting its ceiling below the moral floor’ (p. 230).

Having considered four different chapters in ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’, I would like to address just three further issues. One relates to the way Rabbi Klapper explains certain ideas, one relates to the role of Rabbanit Deborah Klapper in this book, and one relates to notable absences in ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’.

i. Clarity of explanations

As previously mentioned, Rabbi Klapper’s ‘role’ in ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ is that of a mentor and teacher, and his skill in explaining ideas in a fun and creative way is evident throughout the book. For example, he summarizes Yoma 85b as stating, ‘one should chai by them and not die by them’ (p. 94).

Less playful but certainly very helpful for a budding Torah scholar is where he explains the meaning and significance of certain halakhic terms. For example, he writes that ‘vadai is a legal term of art; it means that the exceptions are rare enough that the law does not need to account for them’ (p. 158).

At the same time, there are times when Rabbi Klapper chooses to be so expressive as to lose most readers, such as when he writes that, ‘the hypotheticality position is a Masoretic epiphenomenon’ (p. 83).

ii. Deborah Klapper

Oftentimes, authors reference their family, or spouse, or children, in the ‘Acknowledgements’ section of a book. Yet while no such section exists in ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’, the reader is treated to something altogether different – namely a number of insights of Deborah Klapper which Rabbi Klapper then includes in his book.

For example, towards the end of Chapter 5, titled ‘Halakhah and Reality Don’t Always Have to Agree’ which discusses the role of probability in halakhah, the reader is informed that, ‘Deborah Klapper suggests… [that] not everything is probabilistic; sometimes reality just is. If halakhah and reality always corresponded in probabilistic cases, we might mistakenly conclude that they always corresponded, period, and refuse to correct even the most egregious halakhic errors of fact’ (p. 35).

Additionally, in Chapter 21 titled ‘The Private History of a Psak that Failed’, where Rabbi Klapper expressed concern about the choice to rely on certain halakhic leniencies such as Megillah livestreaming during the ‘second COVID Purim’, the reader is informed that, ‘Deborah Klapper challenged my assumptions in two ways. First, she argued that my critique of our lack of preparation was overblown… Second, she thought that because many community rabbis had issued psakim, in reliance of major poskim, telling people that they could rely on the livestream this year, it would be wrong and irresponsible for me to make people feel uncomfortable doing so (p. 131)’. Interestingly, Rabbi Klapper nevertheless began writing a responsum suggesting that listeners of a livestream video combine this with a livestream dictation – which was subsequently challenged by Rabbanit Klapper. As he wrote, ‘That should probably have been enough to stop me. However, Deborah only got involved after I had already written several drafts of an essay arguing for this proposal’ (p. 132).

Personally, I would love to see a responsa volume reflecting the blend of idealism and pragmatism that are evident from the exchanges between Rabbi and Rabbanit Klapper. Beyond this, perhaps Rabbi Klapper could have further emphasized the role that a spouse, or peer, can play as a sounding board and as a learning partner in the development of a psak.

iii. Noted Absences

Lastly, while Rabbi Klapper is clearly fascinated by halakhic development and especially by the way in which halakhah responds to real-world issues, I did find it particularly unusual that while he often quotes certain modern responsa authors (eg. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef), there are a number of significant poskim who have made major contributions to these areas (eg. Rabbi Hayyim David Halevy, Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch, Dayan Shlomo Deichovsky, Rabbi Yisrael Rozen) whom he doesn’t quote. As the Center for Modern Torah Leadership ‘was formulated to oppose the claim that halakhah can be discussed in the beit midrash without considering real-world consequences’ (p. 83), I would have imagined that a greater number of contemporary halakhists who wrestle with these kinds of issues would have been mentioned.


Rabbi Klapper has a penchant to philosophize about what is halakhah, and in many instances, his observations are incredibly incisive. At the same time, there were moments when I would have preferred the halakhic texts that he quoted to speak for themselves.

As mentioned, the omission of any Preface or Introduction made it considerably harder for me to understand what this book is and who it is for. Moreover, for those who are not participants of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, it is not entirely clear where to go next with the discussions that naturally spring from each of the chapters in this book (nb. unfortunately, Rabbi Klapper doesn’t even include his email address in ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ for readers to offer their thoughts – which I think is a missed opportunity).

Does ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ ‘illuminate every stage’ of how ‘practical halakhah.. is generated by the pressure of reality on Torah’? No. Still, it is most certainly a stimulating read that touches on a wide range of issues relating to the intersection of halakhah and reality which many will find to be incredibly valuable especially when thinking about the ‘way’ in which halakhah changes.

Ysoscher Katz Respond to Aryeh Klapper

Here is the second response to my last week’s interview with Rabbi Aryeh Klapper about his new book Divine Will and Human Experience   The first response was by Rabbi Yitzchak Roness- here. The second one here is by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is the Chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, he has posted here several times before including his credo  Torat Chaim Ve’Ahavat Chesed

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz Respond to Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Thank you Prof Brill for the opportunity to share some reflections on R. Klapper’s new book and your subsequent interview with him. I will first deal with the book and then consider the interview. The combined perspectives of the book and interview are richer than each on their own.

Reading R. Aryeh Klapper’s new book Divine Will and Human Experience last Shabbat was a true joy of Shabbos (oneg shabbat).  Few people have Rabbi Klapper’s ability to dissect an intricate philosophical precept with such nuance, depth, and sophistication. R. Klapper hones in on an idea, pushes aside the chaff, and gets right to the wheat, the core essence of a postulate. He then is able to dismantle the argument all the way to its granular elements and then reassemble it, in the process making the idea’s hardware sturdier, and its software more potent. The reader in turn gains new insights coupled with a greater appreciation of halakha’s secondary infrastructure: its philosophy. 

Notwithstanding the insights contained in the book, a question hovers over it. One wonders: What kind of book is it? Given the audience of this book, answering the classification question is crucial, with each essay the question of classification becomes more acute.

Rabbi Aryeh is a prominent Modern Orthodox thinker and highly regarded educator, who has a large following and vast readership. His ideas inform the Modern Orthodox laity and guide the community’s young future leaders, some of whom will in time become poskim. His thoughts about the “halakhic system and its values” (as is the subtitle of the book) are therefore highly influential in shaping the way those future adjudicators will think about halakha, obviating the question: is this indeed a book that should function as a guide for our next generation of halakhic decisors?

After much reflection, I reached the inescapable conclusion that it is its own genre, one that Chazal would call an “entity unto itself” (בריה בפני עצמה), one that operates alongside classical sifrei pesika, but itself is not on a continuum of that genre of seforim.


Over the years, R. Klapper and I have debated the essence of Modern Orthodox pesika, particularly as it relates to its Hareidi counterpart. I argue that the two are distinct genres, their building-blocks diverging on many levels from classical pesika’s starting points and first principles. The two, as a result, are incomparable and apart. R. Aryeh disagrees. He contends that Modern Orthodox psak is essentially the same as Hareidi psak with certain contemporary sensibilities thrown into the mix.

Paradoxically, the discourse in this book belies this claim. Its methodology of psak is distinctly modern and not Haredi. Both its premise and process stand in stark contrast to the way classic halakhic deliberations have been conducted for millennia. This method of pesika is so unique that it no longer operates on a continuum of traditional psak. It is indeed a new creation

The ways in which it is unprecedented

1) Process:

A central feature of classical halakhic discussions is that arguments are predominantly textual. Texts are the primary arena in which halakhic questions are dissected, analyzed, and finally resolved. A classical teshuva consists of eighty to ninety percent text. Only about ten or twenty percent are devoted to logic and argumentation. Rabbi Aryeh inverts that ratio.

The essays are overwhelmingly conceptual with an occasional text thrown into the mix. This configuration makes it difficult to claim that a Modern Orthodox posek following R. Aryeh’s methodology operates on a continuum with the Rashba, Chasam Soffer, or Rav Asher Weiss. More accurately, these different halakhic modes have some overlapping commonalities but speak in very different meters. This overlap is enough to potentially enable the two communities to dialogue, but the divergences necessitate mutual adjustments in order to have a meaningful conversation with one another. Not on a classical continuum, one cannot move naturally from traditional responsa to the halakhic discussions of those who write in Rabbi Klapper’s style.

2) Halakhic Philosophy

In these essays, Rabbi Aryeh undertakes the challenging task of analyzing the philosophical components of halakhah which are not obvious to the naked eye. Such a project lacks precedent in the classical canon of halakha. Undoubtedly, poskim are driven by a halakhic philosophy but they are hardly ever stated explicitly. It, instead, is always implicit and embedded in the textual claims they present. The reader only encounters the posek’s view and the textual sources leading to it. There is an awareness that underneath the classical discourse there is also a subtle undercurrent of philosophical, ethical and theological assumptions, but they are never expressed explicitly. And that ratio is deliberate. Classical halakhic discourse is primarily legal and behavioral, exploring what is permitted or prohibited in Jewish practice. The philosophy of halakha is merely one ingredient in the multiplicity of methodologies employed. The opposite is found in R. Aryeh’s writings: the jurisprudential philosophy is overt, and texts are embedded in the argumentation on occasion.

Classical Halakhah is doing halakha; Rabbi Klapper composes jurisprudential philosophy-in a style that is uniquely his. The difference between classical pesika and R. Aryeh’s project is not merely numerical, the number of texts used. This quantitative difference is indicative of a qualitative distinction. Classical poskim paid little heed to the philosophical underpinnings of their psak because the notion of a “philosophy of psak” was foreign to them, perhaps even anathematic to their project. “Jurisprudential philosophy” is a markedly modern enterprise, diverging significantly from the project of classical pesika-both in the past and the present.

3) Halakhah is not Law

I intend to expand on the larger issues of this topic at a later time. It is part of a larger critique I started articulating several years ago, when Prof Benny Brown published his mammoth biography of the Chazon Ish.

Dr. Brown’s project was unique. He evaluated the חשיבה הלכתית (halakhic philosophy) of the Chazon Ish (R. Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, 1878-1953) through the prism of the philosophy of law. Presenting key tenets of legal philosophy, he superimposed them onto Chazon Ish’s pesakim, claiming that Rabbi Karelitz’s methodology of psak carries a robust and perhaps even innate resemblance to what non-halakhic jurists do. Underlying this juxtaposition is Dr. Brown’s assumption that these two legal systems, halakha, and secular jurisprudence, more or less do the same thing; creating law.

The assumption is flawed. The Chazon Ish and philosophers of law are not playing in the same arena, their projects are not comparable. Halakha is not the Jewish version of Law, it is an entirely different organism. Law is jurisprudence, halakha is theological prescriptive. To paraphrase the famous statement of R. Chaim Brisker (“שיעובד is שיעבוד”): Halakha is Halakha! It has little or perhaps nothing in common with other systems of law, their many similarities notwithstanding.

My lack of comfort with Prof. Benny Brown’s approach is also applicable to Rabbi Aryeh. Exploring halakha primarily through a philosophical prism means stepping out of the halakhic arena. Giving disproportionate weight to the philosophy of a psak or a posek is predicated on the assumption that halakha is “law;” that like other legal systems it operates primarily on first-principle philosophical axioms and ethical predicates. Halakha is Halakha, not law. Its foundational building blocks are theology, divine will, and normative halakha.

But not to confuse future readers, lay or scholar, this edifying book will more naturally be housed in a library, not a Beit Midrash. Classical Rabbinic texts are the foundation for the essays and philosophical discussions of this book, but once the analysis starts it guides the reader towards new uncharted vistas the classical poskim would not explore.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Klapper’s Divine Will and Human Experience is a must-read for anybody interested in seeing what halakha looks like when a modern thinker, deeply rooted in contemporary Orthodox philosophy, disassembles halakha’s operating board. The essays delve into the deep crevices of halakha and with immense creativity tries to extrapolate a harmonious logic and consistent philosophy. Rabbi Aryeh’s probing enables him to reveal that which the average reader does not notice, and what he discovers is illuminating and intriguing. They bring to mind the poetic Rabbinic formulation: “If it were not for his excavation skills, we would have never noticed the pearls [of wisdom] hidden beneath the surface” (Makot 21). Studying this book is therefore a truly edifying and vivifying experience.

4) Coda

The interview is the Oral Torah (Torah She-Ba’al Peh ) to the book’s Written Torah (Torah She’Bichtav). As with the Oral Torah itself, the interview magnifies what is only hinted at in the written word. The interview gives a better understanding of the book’s ethos and context  thereby illuminating ideas only alluded to in Rabbi  Klapper’s writing.  

It also reveals an added layer to Rabbi Klapper’s understanding of Halakha’s mechanics. For Rabbi Klapper, Halakha has a certain degree of meta-physical self-awareness. Consequently, he believes that Halakha is often in active dialogue with value systems and modes of thought outside its own universe. Illustratively, Rabbi Klapper suggests that although “ethics exist prior to Halakha,” nevertheless halakhah incorporates it into its universe as an outside partner but one with equal footing. “Making practical Halakhic decisions [therefore] ideally requires understanding each of these [ethics and other universal values] on their own terms.”

Such an interest in human values is anathema to a classical understanding of Halakha. The above-mentioned postulates are incompatible with a traditional notion of Halakah as a theological phenomenon that exists prior to-and independent of-any other system. Even if another system has parallels to Halakha, Halakha is an independent and unique genre. 

The halakhic process is animated by a Divine spirit, אלוקים ניצב בעדת אל. And while the idea of Daas Torah has unfortunately been tainted by its abuses and misapplications, it is nevertheless a (misguided) outgrowth of the premise that the process of psak is animated and guided by a transcendent Divine.

Accordingly, the value of Human Dignity (Kevod Habriyot) is not as Rabbi Klapper thinks an “ethical principle incorporated into Halakha,” it is a Halakhic category. In this regard, it is no different than the halakhic premises of “hearing is like answering” shomeia keonah,  “the more frequent act takes precedence” (tadir kodem) and the like. It is part and parcel of Halakha’s innate and self-containing infrastructure, not merely something that complements it.

For the traditional posek, ethics is a divinely ordained sacred principle.  Dickens, Hawthorne, Lofting, and Plato (authors which, according to the interview, form the basis of  R. Klapper’s ethical compass), serve at best as the Torah’s handmaidens. These thinkers can help to illuminate some of Halakha’s ethical positions but they are certainly not its source.

Therefore, as I explained, while not part and parcel of the pesika canon,  the book Divine Will and Human Experience nevertheless sheds tremendous light for those who care about that canon. Therefore, I strongly recommend that you add this important book to your library.   

Yitzchak Roness responds to Aryeh Klapper

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper discussed his new book Divine Will and Human Experience here in last week’s interview last week. There will be several responses -here is the first of the several responses.

Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Avi Roness is a lecturer in various colleges [Michlala, Orot, Givat Washington] and a communal Rav in Beit Shemesh.  His Phd is on the halakhic method of Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli and he writes on contemporary issues such as family planning

Review and Response to Rabbi Aryeh Klapper – Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Avi Roness

Rabbi Klapper’s book of explorations Divine Will and Human Experience touches upon a wide range of diverse topics from the specific to the conceptual. At times he explores the Halakhic minutiae surrounding specific narrow questions, while other explorations are dedicated to explicating some of the overarching metahalakhic questions regarding the underpinnings of Halakhic Discourse.

Thus, one essay takes the reader on an interesting ‘behind the scenes’ tour of R. Klapper’s own educational, and communal, considerations and motivations which led him to reject the accepted halakhic view regarding ‘Megillah Livestream reading’, and how he set out to establish a viable competing Halakhic alternative.

And in the interview R. Klapper explains that his unusually lengthy discussion of the Halakhic attitude towards Long Covid, stemmed from his seeing this as an opportunity “to model in real time the values of transparency, respect for autonomy, and textual/legal integrity” within Halakhic discourse.

R. Klapper’s fully candid, and wholly transparent, relationship with his readers is most apparent in his open admission of ultimately having failed. The author self-describes this attempt as a failed P’sak. He even gives a detailed description of how and why the author would choose to present his readers with a chronicle depicting the details of this type of a ‘failed’ endeavor.

Turning to the broader metahalakhic questions, I found a special interest in the attempt to clearly articulate the exact dynamic by which a Posek finds his way amongst the confusing maze of Halakhic opinions. Seeing as there are a multitude of Halakhic opinions, and various Halakhic precedents’ to draw upon, a veritable Seventy Face to Torah (Shiv’im Panim Latorah), how does any given Posek navigate his way around? Why is it that two contemporary Halakhic authorities presented with the same problem rule so differently from one another?

Two Types of Halakhic Decisors

Rabbi Klapper speaks of “two kinds of halakhic decisors” (See Divine Will and Human Experience, p. 63). He distinguishes between Poskim who rely heavily on procedural rules, as opposed to those whose decisions are animated by their attempt to weigh the respective merit of each opinion in order to arrive at the ‘correct’ Halakhic answer, based on their own subjective evaluation of the Halakhic possibilities.

Klapper proceeds to analyze the matter further, by distinguishing between different types of ‘merit’ which a Posek may prioritize in deciding upon the correct, or best, answer in any given case: Some Poskim may choose the opinion which they feel manages best to integrate the various Halakhic details into one unified, and coherent, conceptual structure, while others may evaluate the merit of any specific Halakhic opinion primarily as a function of its perceived fealty to Halakhic precedent. This Posek will attribute the most importance, and give added weight, to the Halakhic avenue which fits in best with accepted Minhag, or communal practice.

R. Klapper is well aware that these options do not even begin to exhaust all of the theoretical possibilities by which a posek will weigh, and ‘grade’, competing Halakhic pathways. Perhaps, R. Klapper proceeds to suggest, the chosen Halakhic outcome will be determined by an innate, almost intuitive, sense of propriety. In other words, the P’sak may be influenced primarily by the Posek’s asking himself which of the various opinions makes ‘more sense’ than any other? Which of the options simply ‘feels right’?  

R. Klapper’s discussion of images fits nicely into this schema. He describes a specific case where we find communal adoption of the Halakhic opinion which dovetails most closely with the community’s set of values: “Most of us live in Jewish cultures… (where) even non-philosophers instinctively agree that neither G-d nor angels look like anything in particular… “. “We also live in Jewish cultures that instinctively accept virtually every halakhic leniency regarding the production of images… It seems clear to me that these realities go hand-in-hand…” Our not considering angels as images dovetails with our leniency regarding the production of images. [page 128].At this point in his essay, Rabbi Klapper moves on to describe additional differences between Poskim.

Halakhic Intuition

As a reader I was left hoping that he would have paused a little longer to ponder this last point. I would have enjoyed if he would have allowed himself to try and untangle, and unpack further, this last claim:

What exactly constitutes, contributes to this intuitive feeling? What stands behind the subjective feeling that a given Halakhic position is more authentically true than any other?

When can we determine that it is the Posek’s subjective moral worldview that is at play? and when can we justifiably claim that some ideological tendency, or another, lead him to intuitively adopt one Halakhic path from amongst the various options laid out before him?

In any event, R. Klapper does not let himself get mired in endless theoretical philosophizing.

He quickly returns to reality and points out that no typological description can truly be seen as a full description of the practical approach adopted by a flesh-and-blood Halakhist.

A real life Posek will move back and forth between various pathways of decision making:

“Actual decisors”, he writes, “like actual human beings, are generally hybrids rather than ideal types”. To this he adds another insightful caveat: “Even decisors with generally strong and self-aware methodological commitments, may override them roughshod when dealing with issues that activate them ideologically”.

Halakhah, Ethics, and the Broader Community  

One of the additional metahalakhic questions dealt with in the interview is the relationship between Halakha and ethics, and more pointedly, situations in which Halakha stands in opposition to a person’s ethical intuitions. R. Klapper’s reply is nuanced. On the one hand, he celebrates the declaration that “Halakhah should be heavily influenced by ethics”, and believes that “students have the responsibility to challenge their teachers… especially when they are taught Torah that conflicts with their deepest intuitions about what G-d wants”.

On the other hand, R. Klapper openly acknowledges the teacher’s own limitations as a result of their membership in the broader community of Halakhically obligated individuals.

Just “as in every political system, one can be ethically bound to respect the outcome of a communal decision process even when one finds that outcome to be substantively unethical”.

This association with Halakhists of a different moral and political ilk leads to the conclusion that rulings issued by communally accepted Halakhic authorities may reflect ‘narrow perspectives’, ‘mechanical’ or even ‘magical’ thinking, and may express ethically problematic views. Nonetheless, such decision are binding for the simple reason that they were ‘made by people to whom the halakhic community gives authority’.

Thus, the harsh reality is that the teacher himself does not have the power to solve ethical conundrums. The Teachers too, no less than their students, inhabit a position of ‘uncertainty and discomfort in the context of unwavering commitment’, as they too find themselves to be “bound by halakhic outcomes that they consider unethical”.

I would add the following observation: A Rabbinic authority who sees himself as part of a community is constrained not only insofar as he must reject his own conclusions when they are contradicted by those made by ‘accepted authorities’. The actual constraint runs far deeper than that. Such an individual is held back in the degree to which he can allow himself to stray from the accepted view, in order to even propose, if only provisionally, a differing opinion, without fearing that this itself will lead to his being labeled as one who has strayed afield and broken away from the fold.

Who has authority? How do Rabbis relate to Gedolim & Chief Rabbis?

Who is the community and who are the accepted authorities invested with authority?

The current ‘working model’ grants Halakhists broad authority as a result of general acclaim and regard. However, this system tilts the scales rather heavily in the direction of certain types of individuals. Sadly, it seems that the current model highly favors those who espouse ‘narrow perspectives’, ‘mechanical’ or even ‘magical’ thinking…

The willingness on the part of individuals like R. Klapper who pay a heavy price in the sense of self-censorship in order to remain a part of the broader Orthodox community, can only exist if there is a sense of reciprocity in the guise of a minimal amount of recognition afforded by this same community.

Writing from the standpoint of an American born, yet Israeli bred communal rabbi, my thoughts naturally turn to the realities of the Israeli scene, the world that I am most intimately aware of its contours.

For many years the Religious Zionist Rabbinate gladly accepted the overarching authority of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. And yet, something has changed. Over the past ten years or so a number of different independent organizations have sprung up, Whether it is in regard to matters of Kashrut Supervision, private Conversion Batei Din, and even independent Kiddushin more on the fringes.

The reason for this change is easy to discern: For over seventy years the Chief Rabbinate was led by Rabbinic figures who openly identified as Religious Zionist. Currently, neither one of the two acting chief rabbis is seen as such then there is an unbridgeable gap between the Rabbinate and Religious Zionist rabbinic figures.

This reality certainly has evolved over time, and yet the case may be made that the present chief Rabbis are more distant from the traditional image embodied by figures of former chief rabbis such as Rabbis Kook,, Herzog and Nissim.

But perhaps more importantly, I believe that the shift may be traced back to the way R. David Stav was treated when he ran as a candidate for this position some eight years ago:

R. Stav who was seen as a leading Religious Zionist rabbi, of the more liberal and open minded bent, was roundly derided by leading Rabbinic authorities of the day such as R. Ovadia Yosef as well as many others.

I believe that this was a watershed moment for many in the Religious Zionist rabbinic mainstream: Simply put: If you are unwilling to even accept my candidate as someone worthy of even participating in the process, than I’m sorry, but I’m opting out… I no longer feel bound by your accepted Halakhic authorities [i.e. the Chief Rabbinate]. From that point onwards many felt free to set out on their own path and try to influence Halakha in the way they saw appropriate, unfettered by the bonds which had previously held them back.

Rabbi Klapper & Authority  

This leads me back to think of R. Klapper himself, and to wonder what would happen if he were to reach a similar conclusion: If he were to decide to ‘throw off’ some of the social restraints currently holding him in check, and set out on his own path of paskening practical Halakha in an unrestrained manner, what novel Halakhic positions would he then espouse?

On a practical level I wonder what could possibly trigger such a move on his part: Would a personal affront in the guise of a Cherem lead him to decide that ‘enough is enough’?

What about the possible realization that community-wide accepted Halakhic authorities are deciding fundamentally important Halakhic questions with complete disregard to the principles of freedom equality and dignity which he values so dearly: Would this ‘do the trick’?

I suggest that I would not find this possibility to be overly objectionable, the reason is simple:

Although our community is well served by a modicum of social conformity on part of its rabbinic leaders, at the same time this constant need to compromise with their inner sense of truth comes at a high price.

When a Halakhic scholar on R. Klapper’s level constantly holds himself back, the entire world ends up losing out on words of Torah we might never hear…

As R. Kook describes in his classic work Orot how social divisions and separations may inadvertently be seen as a source of blessing. If this social process ultimately provides each independent group with the spiritual environment needed to properly develop their respective positions in full, then in the sum total we are all better off. (Orot Yisrael, 4:6)

R. Kook explains that the greater abundance of ‘Lights’, and perspectives involved in the translation of the Divine Good into practical life, ultimately serves to elevate the entire world.

To conclude, I would like to thank R. Klapper for his current explorations and bless us all so that we merit to enjoy many more explorations in the future!

Aryeh Klapper – Divine Will and Human Experience

The blog is back. Stay tuned for many different books and some accounts of what I have been up to all these months.

I have a backlog of posts and books to get to. But we will start with a recent work on Jewish law and Talmud study by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper.  The book’s own blurb states that halakhah is generated from the pressure of reality – ethics, autonomy, and equality- upon Jewish law, the way poetry is from the meeting of imagination and reality. Klapper wrote in the book blurb:  “Wallace Stevens wrote that poetry is generated by the pressure of reality on imagination. Along the same lines, practical halakhah, at its best, is generated by the pressure of reality on the Torah. “Divine Will and Human Experience” illuminates every stage of that process in a wide variety of contexts and genres. Readers will find the halakhot of art and the art of halakhah.” With that grand of a pronouncement comparing halakhah to poetry, what’s not to love?

The book is by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, and entitled Divine Will and Human Experience: Explorations of the Halakhic System and Its Values (Bookbaby Pennsauken, NJ 2022). Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is Dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, Rosh Beit Midrash of its Summer Beit Midrash Program and a member of the Boston Beit Din. He previously served as Orthodox Adviser at Harvard Hillel, as Talmud Curriculum Chair at Maimonides High School, and as Instructor of Rabbinics and Medical Ethics at Gann Academy. In the words of Harvard Hillel Executive Director Dr. Bernard Steinberg, he is “provocative and evocative.”  

We will interview the author and then have a few responses next week. (We can still use some gender parity so if you are interested in responding then email me).

You can sign up for his weekly Torah essays at and follow him on the podcast Taking Responsibility for Torah. More of his articles and approaches to topics can be found at his website by topic from a pull down menu including the topics of : gender, halacha, and halakhah and public policy. He was previously on the blog when he wrote a response to the legal approach of Rabbi Ethan Tucker of Hadar.

This book has been long in coming. Thirty years ago, the author expressed a strong desire to have ample time to write his envisioned commentary on tractate Sanhedrin. We waited. And we waited. Now, we finally have a volume of essays on different topics in his halakhic thinking which are only the tip of the iceberg of Klapper’s creative oral teaching. The book is more an emblematic store sign or conversely a streetlamp letting the world know that there is a valuable and unique store here. It will serve as an advertisement for his Summer Beit Midrash.

Klapper’s approach is to use halakhah to tackle issues in modern life and thought such as labor law, human rights, policy issues, and journalistic ethics.

The major thesis of the book is to demonstrate that Klapper advocates a commitment to halakhah and halakhic authority combined with a commitment to the ideal of autonomy, responsibility, human dignity, human freedom and human equality. In his view, the laity should that joint responsibility with Rabbinic authority over the shape of halakhah by raising the level of community discourse. Klapper, distinguishes Orthodox from non-Orthodox Jews by a willingness to abide by halakhah despite ethical qualms or plausible counterarguments. Parts of the book on conceptual essays on halakhah and parts are essays where he actually decides Jewish law. There are also some Biblical essays.

Klapper takes on the major issues of authority in law, ethics in law, and legal interpretation, but from a study hall (beit midrash) perspective. He does not directly grapple with Ronald Dworkin or John Rawls, or even with Rabbis Nachum Rabinovitch and Moshe Avigdor Amiel. In his teachings, Klapper opens the window and lets in the fresh air of big questions but without a need to be weighed down to produce a sustained conceptual exposition of halakhah.  The questions alone combined with a sense of human dignity and autonomy are enough to create a thoughtful approach.

Unfortunately, the book needs better editing and a better consistent format and style sheet. But now that the ice has been broken and he published one volume, it would be nice if he now converts his classes to book form and publishes a volume of halakhic thoughts every two years.

1.Can you differentiate between practical and ideal halakhah?

Practical halakhah (halakhah lemaaseh) is about regulating and developing human beings, their relationship with each other, and their relationship with G-d.

Halakhah is not a “black box” of commands with no inherent purpose. It has substantive goals. Halakhic interpretations that advance those goals in one time and place may inhibit them in another. More commonly, changes in circumstances will over time make a static halakhah completely ineffectual and irrelevant. I think this is universally agreed. The debates are sometimes about who has the authority to make changes, and what mechanisms of change are legitimate; and sometimes those debates are smokescreens concealing disagreements about whether specific changes are desirable.

Ideal Halakhah is a separate endeavor to understand the mind of G-d. Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik described it as the equivalent of pure math or physics, while practical halakhah is engineering.

Both disciplines require conceptual construction and imagination. But these elements are of the essence of studying the ideal halakhah, and only tools with regard to developing the practical halakhah.

Ideal halakhah does not relate directly to human experience. Practical halakhah exists only in the context of human experience. For example: The ideal halakhah might demand the execution of murderers based on impeccably reliable eyewitness testimony. But human experience might indicate that no eyewitness testimony is impeccably reliable.

Because ideal halakhah influences practical halakhah, it is ethically incumbent on people engaged in scholarly conversation about ideal halakhah to consider what its practical effects might be.

2. Why do we learn purely theoretical halakhot?

The majority of Tannaim and Amoraim held that all areas of halakhah were intended practically. The famous statements that some halakhot “never were and never will be” are minority positions. There are no purely theoretical halakhot.

A halakhah’s lack of practical expression in a specific time and place may reflect cultural progress. Slavery is the usual example given. But the halakhot of slavery actually govern many aspects of employment law. We should make every effort to apply them in those contexts. For example, they may nullify most noncompete agreements, strongly resist a system of employer-based health insurance, and ban assignments and behaviors intended to assert dominance.   

The choice to Interpret a halakhah out of practical existence usually reflects a past failure of interpretation. Consider for example the virtual elimination of the prohibition of ribbit (taking interest from fellow Jews or charging them interest) via the heter iska. [A heter iska is a halachically approved way of restructuring a loan or debt so that it becomes an investment instead of a loan] We should have ruled from the outset that a heter iska is valid only for loans that have a genuine commercial purpose.

We can learn a great deal from the reasons given in the masorah for and against interpreting a halakhah out of immediate existence, such as the debate among Tannaim about whether the death penalty should ever be imposed.

Other disputes about whether a halakhah should be given practical expression, such as those about the leprous house and the zav, remain mysterious to me. I also cannot presently give circumstances and interpretations which would make implementing the laws of the rebellious son (ben sorer umoreh) and the idolatrous city (ir hanidachat) acceptable. But that may just mean that I need to study them more.  

3. In many chapters you set up questions and then you either do not like your given answer or leave the reader without an answer. Why? Why ask the question where you don’t like your own answer, and why include it in this book?

Students have the responsibility to challenge their teachers on values, especially when they are taught Torah that conflicts with their deepest intuitions about what G-d wants.

Teachers must welcome and engage genuinely with those challenges. This requires teachers to model uncertainty and discomfort in the context of unwavering commitment. That’s a primary reason I teach questions to which I don’t yet have satisfying answers.

I am proud and blessed to have generations of superb students who don’t hesitate to challenge me.

4. How free can a halakhic reader be with the text? What are the restraints? Is halakhah whatever a creative reader can make a text mean?

I don’t believe that halakhic readers are permitted to be “free” with texts, if freedom means consciously reshaping the text in their own image.

However, texts cannot defend themselves. The integrity of readers and audiences is the only practical restraint. Halakhah is whatever a creative reader can make a text mean to a sufficiently authoritative and committed audience. But the audience should not give any authority to readings that they cannot with integrity say are meanings of the texts.

Texts have a wide range of possible meanings, some more likely than others. Halakhah often allows or encourages giving authority to meanings that are not the most likely. One may adopt less likely readings in response to economic pressure, or to free an agunah, or when a different outcome would be ethically intolerable, etc. The canonical meaning of a text may also not be the same as its historically original meaning.  

No human being’s decisions are based exclusively on their readings of texts. Any such claim betrays an extremely worrisome lack of self-knowledge.

But all of these assume that one is reading with integrity. There is no license to misread. 

5. How do halakhah and ethics relate?

Deciding halakhah properly requires an ethical intuition independent of halakhah. This insight is at the heart of almost everything I write.

What I mean by “independent of halakhah” is that it doesn’t rely on mechanical halakhic reasoning, and is not based exclusively based on halakhic data. Ethics is a separate discipline whose outcomes are incorporated by halakhah.

Halakhah should be heavily influenced by ethics, but individuals are legally bound by halakhic outcomes that they consider unethical.  

For example: Mechanical halakhic reasoning often concludes that the best course of action is to account for all prior halakhic positions rather than deciding among them. But this can yield a result that is ethically worse than any of the prior positions. For example: tagging someone as “maybe Jewish” leaves them unable to marry anyone, whereas definite Jews and non-Jews can each marry others of the same classification. An ethical posek will take great pains to resolve such uncertainties, especially in cases where conversion is not a live option,  

Some ethical principles are epistemologically prior to halakhic reasoning. For example: The principle that one cannot kill an innocent person to save one’s own life is not derived from a Torah verse, but rather is a prerequisite for properly interpreting a Torah verse.

Other ethical principles are explicitly incorporated into halakhah reasoning. For example, there is a formal rule that the preservation of human dignity (kavod haberiyot)

overrides all Rabbinic and at least some Biblical prohibitions.

The legal definition of human dignity must be developed using both halakhic precedent and ethical intuition. Many ethical principles play that sort of complementary role in halakhah.

New circumstances often raise halakhic questions that can’t be answered on the basis of precedent. In those circumstances, one must resort either to “fulfilling all positions”, which is sometimes impossible and is often a worse option than adopting a position at random, or to making a decision based on broader values.

6) Where did your ethical intuition come from?

Ethical intuition comes from the totality of Torah and every aspect of the self, nature and nurture.

One experience that shaped mine was reading great non-Jewish books on my own as a child, on my own. In addition, I had to read everything my mother taught in college literature classes. Dickens, Hawthorne, Lofting, Plato – meeting these authors and their characters before my bar mitzvah made it impossible to believe the things my rebbeim would say about inherent differences between Jews and non-Jews. I also grew up in a family with so many brilliant women that claims about men’s intellectual superiority seemed absurd.

My elementary school started a special gemara class for three of the four top Mishnah students – of course excluding the girl. Star Trek (TOS) made me see the evil of the open, unapologetic and malignant racism in the Charedi summer camp that I otherwise loved. This was all before I met Dr. Will Lee, whose integrity, kindness, and curiosity about Torah was exemplar. This was all before I learned Tanakh in depth, and aggada, and Jewish philosophy.

My ethical intuition is often wrong. But my understanding of Torah is also often wrong. Rav Eliyahu Bloch of Telshe writes that one’s understanding of Torah, the world, and the self must be developed in equal depth so that you can check them against each other. I don’t understand why some rabbinic scholars (talmidei chakhamim) seem to believe themselves ethically infallible. I think that in Heaven (shomayim) their students will be held accountable for allowing such delusions, let alone for reinforcing them.

Halakhah as practiced is never perfect. One is entitled to say that a halakhah currently regarded as binding is wrong, intellectually or morally, and to hope for change.

7) Is ethics the only value framework other than halakhah that Jews must take into account?

No. Torah has a pluralistic axiology that considers ethics, morals, aesthetics, sanctity, and all other types of value. Making practical halakhic decisions ideally requires understanding each of these in their own terms.

8) Your cover has a sketch of Divine will as light refracted into freedom, dignity, responsibility, and equality. Your essays seem to make it more about the human element based on human responsiveness than divine light. What role does the divine play in your human constructions?

The primary data we have about Divine Will is a text that we must translate into norms.

The cover of my book, beautifully designed by Maximilian Hollander, shows Divine will refracting into the values of freedom, dignity, responsibility, and equality, rather than directly and exclusively generating the norms of halakhah. Halakhic decision making is not a matter of mechanical value-neutral reading of the Torah text, Values are central to halakhah, and sometimes prior to halakhah. One cannot properly understand Divine Will without translating it into broader values on the basis of human experience.

9) What happens when halakhah seems unethical or does not work for a person?

As in every political system, one can be ethically bound to respect the outcome of a communal decision process even when one finds that outcome to be substantively unethical. One should work to change halakhic outcomes that one considers unethical in a manner that maintains the overall legitimacy of halakhah. 

Maimonides teaches that Divine Law, like the laws of Nature, is good for most people in most places most of the time. (Guide 3:34; cf. Hilkhot Mamrim 2:4, Eight Chapters Chapter 5).

A responsible halakhist recognizes that halakhah cannot avoid harming some people some of the time. He or she must try to find ways to minimize the harm and maximize the good, like scientists and engineers using their understanding of nature to build seawalls and irrigation systems without ending tsunamis. The analogy is imperfect but instructive.

Recognizing the inevitability of some harm does not suffice to explain the cases in which the Torah seems to directly flout the values I claim are central. For example, the Torah permits two kinds of slavery, and as halakhah is currently understood, not everyone is eligible to serve on the Sanhedrin.

Recognizing human responsibility for halakhah entails recognizing that we often fail at that responsibility. Practical halakhic decisions may reflect narrow perspectives, mechanical thinking, magical thinking, or ethical error. Such decisions nonetheless carry authority when made by people to whom the halakhic community gives authority. Challenging such decisions as incorrect, shallow, misguided, or worse does not necessarily entail seeing them as illegitimate. Denying them authority means that one’s preferred decisions will also be given no authority by those who disagree with them.

10) Why these four qualities: freedom, dignity, responsibility, and equality.

With regard to freedom:

G-d gave the Torah as a publicly accessible text written in human language, and declared that it was no longer in Heaven. Democratizing access to His will was a way to prevent it from becoming a source of power over others, i.e. to preserve religious autonomy.

Religious autonomy is a Torah ideal. Submission to another human being’s authority to interpret Torah, or to an institution’s, is often necessary and sometimes valorized. But the default must always be autonomy and spreading the knowledge that enables autonomy and widens circles of authority.

The ideal of religious autonomy means that Halakhic authorities should generally scaffold their replies so that questioners either make the final choice among the halakhically viable options or else realize the correct action on their own. Poskim should explain the grounds of their decisions clearly so that questioners can grow to make future decisions on their own. Chapters 14-19 of my book are an extended effort to model this sort of scaffolding and transparency.

Religious autonomy is just one of many kinds of freedom central to Torah. For example, the prohibition against slavery ramifies halakhically into a strong preference for human beings choosing their own work tasks and schedules. (The relationship and sometimes conflict between freedom-from and freedom-to is discussed in Chapter 1.)

11) What about Equality?

With regard to equality:

The Talmud (Pesachim 25b and parallels) teaches that commitment to the ontological equality of all human lives must precede Torah interpretation. It derives the Jewish obligation to die rather than commit roughly adultery or incest (gilui arayot)

from a verse that compares adulterous rape to murder – “because like a man rising against his fellow and murdering his life-spirit – so too this”. But what is the source for the obligation to die rather than commit murder? The Talmud answers that this is derived from reason: “What have you seen that makes your blood redder than his?!” The halakhic implications of the analogy in the verse are accessible only to interpreters who already acknowledge that principle.

Ontological equality is a fundamental principle with many halakhic ramifications. Chapter 6-8 discuss political equality; chapter 9  discusses economic equality; and chapters 8 and 26 address the explicit Biblical obligation for the law to treat converts and born Jews equally.

12) What about dignity?

With regard to dignity:

A sugya on Talmud Berakhot 19-20 discusses what to do when concern for human dignity (kavod haberiyot) conflicts with other halakhic obligations. 

The opening statement of Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav seemingly restricts concern for human dignity to the gaps of halakhah. “One finding shatnez (mixed wool and linen) in their garment must remove it, even in the marketplace. Why? There is no value to human wisdom, sagacity, or discernment where they conflict with G-d’s will”. Ethical concerns have no weight against law. Going naked in public to avoid wearing shatnez is a paradigm case.

The Talmud then cites a series of apparent exceptions. It responds to each exception by saying “that kind of law is different”. The apparent upshot is that concern for human dignity can justify violating any Rabbinic prohibition actively, violating any Biblical prohibition passively, and violating any Biblical prohibition regarding money or property.

The Talmud thus establishes concern for human dignity as an ethical factor that should be raised to challenge the practical outcomes of formal halakhic reasoning.

Acknowledging exceptions undermines the false dichotomy that opens the sugya. Granting that “There is no value to human wisdom, sagacity, or discernment where they conflict with G-d’s will”, The real question is: when does G-d’s will obligate us to honor human dignity above (what would otherwise be) the law?

Possibly the job of a halakhic decisor is to make shatnez the exceptional case that preserves the rule, while discovering ways to prioritize human dignity in every practical case that arises. Chapter 22 discusses one aspect of this possibility.

Human dignity includes both natural and social dignity. I am also heavily influenced by Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s deep conviction that autonomy is an essential constituent of dignity. In a political context, equality is necessary for autonomy; and in a social context, equality may be necessary for dignity.

13) What about responsibility?

Human responsibility is a fundamental premise of Torah anthropology. We can be obligated, expected to fulfill our obligations, and held accountable for failing to fulfill them.

Jews are responsible for Torah. We construct our own obligations by interpreting Divine Will in the context of our experience. Halakhah requires constant attention, defense, repair, and adaptation.

Fulfilling that responsibility requires virtues such as courage, compassion, and integrity. Many of the book’s chapters are intended to model one or more of these virtues. They are particularly necessary when dealing with conflicts among recognized values, or between values and apparently established law.

The motto of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership is “Taking Responsibility for Torah”.

14) Can you unwind the intent of past legislators or the historical past in halakhah? 

Halakhah is a quantum system – there is no halakhah in any specific situation until someone rules or acts to establish a ruling. There are only probabilities. Sometimes one is entitled to rule or act in accordance with a position that was extremely unlikely until that moment. People who rule on the basis of prior abstract certainty are doing it wrong. One can never say that a halakhic outcome is impossible, only that it is exceedingly unlikely.

Probability factors include how an outcome fits with texts, how past and present authorities have related to it, and how it fits with values.

The halakhic past was written by a committee whose members had different motivations, experiences, ideas, and intuitions. We can never know exactly what motivated even a consensus position – usually there were many and contradictory intentions.

Halakhah is a system whose parts affect each other. A posek might rule one way on the assumption that the psak on another issue would balance the effects of this psak. Halakhah might be subject to chaos theory or to a “butterfly effect”. Knowing how someone ruled in a past situation can’t give you absolute confidence as to how they would rule on the same abstract issue in different circumstances.

15) How does Halakhah relate to the Jewish collective?

G-d’s will is directed to the Jewish collective as well as to individuals. Communal Halakhah is the Jewish social contract.

Halakhah is the arena in which we decide how to distribute power within the community. We are responsible to interpret and administer it in a way that prevents people from seizing illegitimate power over the law, and from seizing disproportionate power within the law,

Halakhah is how we negotiate when to sacrifice the freedom-from of individuals in order to increase the freedom-to of the collective. Freedom-to in this context means the development of a sustainable moral and religious society, both to maximize the development of its members and to serve as a model for other communities.    

Halakhic is how we approach the challenges faced by every society that assumes the ontological equality of all human beings and also values virtue and earned achievement. 

Meeting these challenges without abandoning the ideal of autonomy requires a social contract whose meaning is determined by the people who are bound by it: “No taxation without representation”. All citizens should ideally have an equal say in the contract’s interpretation.

The straightforward solution is to make everyone equally eligible for positions of authority. In an as-yet unpublished article, I demonstrate that Rabbi Soloveitchik in his shiurim made room on principle for every Jew of appropriate character and learning to serve on the Sanhedrin for the purpose of determining the law, meaning that every Jew is equally eligible to have power over the legal meaning of Torah. This has here-and-now implications for both converts and women.

16)  Are Jews and non-Jews equal? What of laws that imply inequality?

An acid test for the role that ethics plays in one’s halakhic thought is whether one applies the rhetorical question “what have you seen that makes your blood redder than his” to situations where only one party is Jewish. I apply it to such situations. I assume ontological equality.

I do not think one can give a general answer to “laws that imply inequality”. There are ethical grounds for distinguishing between citizens and non-citizens in some legal areas without contradicting ontological equality. I hope that some psakim currently accepted within halakhah will eventually be considered beyond the pale.

There is no obligation to believe that the halakhah as currently decided is perfect, only that it is binding. The Torah describes the sacrifice brought when the Sanhedrin errs, and no one has ever claimed that this sacrifice “never was and never will be”.

Legal rulings that discriminate against Gentiles in the civil sphere should be subject to strict legal scrutiny, especially in societies where Gentiles do not similarly discriminate against Jews. Everyone who lives by halakhah has the obligation to point out unjustifiably discriminatory psakim and seek to correct them.

I generally don’t see an ethical issue in laws that restrict Jewish rituals to Jews. 

17) Why is long covid an interesting halakhic topic that took six chapters?

Long Covid exposed several important gaps and weaknesses in the standard halakhic treatments of health risks.

One such weakness is that the laws of pikuach nefesh are presented as “digital”; either a situation is life-threatening or it isn’t. An alternative approach would be to describe situations on an “analog” scale of more or less life-threatening. The digital model makes it very hard to respond cogently to new situations with many fundamental unknowns.

Gaps include how to classify long-term risks to longevity, and whether to classify various kinds of long-term disability risks as pikuach nefesh.  

The woman who asked me the question wanted a public response because she felt that halakhah was failing people on this issue. My response was therefore also an opportunity to model in real time the values of transparency, respect for autonomy, and textual/legal integrity, along with compassion and creativity, that are critical to proper halakhic decisionmaking.  

18 ) What is your ideal vision for the modern Orthodoxy community you live in as expressed in your summer beit midrash.

I want the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, my Summer Beit Midrash, to stand for these principles, which I hope are evident throughout my book:

  1. Not responding to ideas out of fear, no matter where they came from. Eagerly seeking to gain knowledge of the world and the self, and to bring that knowledge into Torah
  2. Recognizing that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elokim and therefore of equal ontological value
  3. Recognizing that men and women are equally entitled to full access to Divine Will
  4. Expanding our conception of Torah to include understanding and appreciation of the many kinds of value G-d has put in Creation, rather than using Torah as a way to deny value to everything else in Creation
  5. Understanding that the halakahic community is responsible for the content of the Torah it lives by; it’s not enough to obey whatever emerges

The Summer Beit Midrash is the opportunity to create a community that lives by these principles, during the program, among its alumni, and where those alumni have influence. The best moments are when we seem close to achieving that.

God in Vaishnavism from a Jewish perspective

What is the Hindu view of God from a Jewish perspective? Social media is filled with those who speak with minimum knowledge of modern Hinduism. They might have once read a survey book on world religions that described the Vedic religion of ancient India 3000BCE and 200BCE and considered that minuscule amount of information about an ancient civilization as enough to address a modern religion.  And they certainly do not consider how much that textbook reflects Protestant or Orientalist perspectives that make ritual less Protestantism as the pinnacle of religion.

I will state clearly and unambiguously that modern Hinduism from a Jewish perspective has a concept of One single God and has since approached this position since the Upanishads were written ~200BCE. In the Mahabharata Narayana is the highest personal God, is the Supreme Being. All the deities are said to have been created by Him and all other deities are, therefore, parts (angas) of that one great Being. Another verse of the Mahabharata offers the same explanation of Lord Vishnu. Thus it states: “Vishnu is the unique and unparalleled Deity; He is the Supreme Being (mahabhuta); He pervades all the three worlds and controls them but He Himself is untouched by their defects. “Their medieval scholastic thinkers refined the notion to One God with philosophic rigor. And modern movements have further presented the notion of One God in contemporary terms.

So the TL:DR of this post is that Jews should recognize that the Hindu religion is about one God.

This issue should have been settled years ago. Twenty-seven years ago, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote

Under the Noahide laws, it is possible to assume that Hinduism and Buddhism are sufficiently monotheistic in principle for moral Hindus and Buddhists to enter the gentiles’ gate in heaven. Jewish law regards the compromises made or tolerated by the world’s great religions as ways of rendering essentially monotheistic theologies easier in practice for large populations of adherents.

A similar conclusion was reached whenever Jews encountered modern Hinduism. Rabbi Menashe ben Israel, Moses Mendelssohn, Chief Rabbi JH Hertz, and others have all written similar sentiments.  But the idea that Hindu conceptions of God are not AZ does not take hold even with repeated exposure and 40K Israelis traveling to India each year.

This post works with the assumptions of Rabbi Herzog about Christianity in which contemporary Christians are not AZ, it is just extending his reasoning to Hinduism. If you do not accept this, then this post is not for you. It also assumes that Jews cannot use images, statues, murti, stars, planets, or trees even if intended to serve one God. The golden calves of Jeroboam were monotheistic but still AZ.

In my book on a Jewish -Hindu encounter, I minimized direct normative statements. I was specifically waiting for Rabbi Prof Daniel Sperber to publish his book on Hinduism and AZ, which he finished in 2012. I have a draft copy of his manuscript. But at this point, it does not seem to be coming out even with years of direct prodding.

Therefore, I was going to start working on a full statement. However, this past week there was a wonderful four-day academic conference broadcast n Zoom on God in Vaishnavism, which is the main Hindu denomination of more than half of Indian Hindus. Vaishnavism is the version with many manifestations of God in different forms and with thousands, if not millions, of gods to worship. This contrasts with second-largest denomination Shaivism with its singular focus on a unique high God. Vaishnavism is known for its devotionalism, its arts, and its temple rituals. In later posts, I will deal as needed with Shaivism, Smartism, Yoga, Tantra and Advaita Vedanta. Here I limit myself to Vaishnavism.

This four-day conference was so rich in analysis that it led me to this blog post to jump-start my larger statement. My writing allows me to turn observations into prose before I forget. In addition, it allows me to post it in sections and receive feedback. Nothing in this post is final and I will return and edit the page as I gain more feedback.

The important thing is that all the speakers and listeners assumed that Vaishnavism has a single supreme being that can be translated as God. The main question is how to relate the monotheistic and theistic formulations to the monistic formulation. But notice how the various answers fall into a range of God formulations, rather than questioning the premise that Vaishnava worship one God. 40 years ago, world religion textbooks presented a dichotomy, in which, Protestant Christianity had a transcendent theist God and Hinduism as a panentheism God. Today, the mystical and panentheistic is celebrated in Western religions- think of Hasidism, Neo-Hasidism, and Kabbalah. We see the personal and transcendent aspects of God in Hinduism and see the panentheistic in Judaism.

I write this post as a scholar of Jewish studies without any claim to philological or scholarly claims to knowledge of Sanskrit, Tamil, Hindi, or Malayalam.  I will base this post on what I took from the lectures for my purposes. It will not summarize everything said at the conference or the content of any given paper. It is just my picking out various points useful to me. I may have missed many historic and philosophical subtleties. But it still proves my point.

Forthcoming book by one of the conference presenters

Here are eight forms of Vaishnavism from the conference and one from my book.

(1) The Tamil devotional poets the Alvars, of the 5th to the 10th century have one single God Vishnu as a personal God with qualities and attributes. But at the same time, they say he has 1000 forms, which are all ultimately Vishnu. They are, according to the presenter monotheistic but use many forms to worship God. These forms are not just an expression of the Oneness behind them but have value unto themselves. The worshipper creates or craves these forms. The specifics of the forms are the means to serve the One monotheistic God. This is similar to the way Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz ZL saw Christianity, in that Christians do not think a cross, crucifix, or icon is a separate deity, rather they are thinking of one God.

(2) The Madhvacharya or Madhva was based on the 13th-century interpretation of the Vedanta into a dualistic interpretation of a chasm between the only true reality, the infinite God, and the human. This approach is still followed in India and in my own 21st century NJ. God is the one true ruler of the universe external from the subordinate material world of humans and matter. All names of the divine point to the one God. As in Kabbalah, every word, breath, and speech points to God. In addition, God is the immanent essence in all things. A person can call God any name since it all points to the infinite God..  God is the creator God in taking pre-existing microforms to create macro forms. The millions of devas are not God or gods but spiritual beings who are not God. The principle of each and every good quality in the world is God. (God is pure love, pure justice, pure compassion)

(3) The God in Puṣṭimārga is a God of giving grace. This approach founded by Vallabhacharya (1479–1531 CE), also known as Vallabha is a devotion path directed towards  Kṛṣṇa’s early life and ‘divine play’ (līlā) among the gopīs in Vṛndāvana. Everything is grounded on the grace (puṣṭi) of Kṛṣṇa, as is eventual liberation. The Lord is accessible only through His own grace. God is visualized via descriptions in texts.  The Lord cannot be attained by a given formula or ritual done by humans. He is attainable only if He wants to be attained. (Think of George Harrisons’ song My Sweet Lord where he appeals to a personal God to show )

This approach is more panentheistic and less Biblical theism because god is everywhere and manifests everywhere and everything can be used to serve God. This approach combines God as celestial, God as monotheistic Lord, and Divine as the spark in all things. The higher primordial aspect of the divine, Brahman is the monistic source and cause of all that is in the Universe, Everything is imbibed with the spirit of the Lord and as the Lord is eternally perfect, everything is perfect just the way it is.

(4) In the Bhagavad Gita, the classic analysis is that it contains two views of God. As a transcendent Lord, infinite God over all  and also God as immanent in the cosmos. A tension between immanence and transcendence and a tension within the immanence of God pervaded by God or cosmos identified with God.

(5) In the Pancaratra  texts, there is an emanation from an unknown divine to supernal manifestations to manifestations in this world. In one example, Jayakhya Samhita God is Lord as a person. He is also the cause of the cosmos. He is also revealed in hierarchical decent forms as avatars.

(6) The presenter on the Bhagavata Purana discussed the tension between the theist God and the non-dualism in the book.  But most of all, he stressed the need for God to become manifest in which the hidden truth reveals itself in beauty. God must be beautiful and God must be a form. Therefore, one creates one’s personal image of God in one’s mind. Statutes and images are the mind’s form of God.

As a side point, it came up that Vaishnava rarely cite the Rig Veda, the text of ancient India (written 1500-1000BCE), which is the most taught in Western textbooks.

(7) The Nimbarka Sampradaya , is the text of one of the four major Vaiṣṇava subdivisions, which was founded by Nimbarka in the 12th-13th centuries. It is a dualistic non-dualism-  humans are both different and non-different from Isvara, God or Supreme Being. Specifically, this Sampradaya is a part of Krishnaism—Krishna-centric traditions.

This was a popular break away from the more Orthodox rule-centered Mimamsa approach to Hinduism. Here, meditation on self without symbols of God can reach liberation Under Mimamsa – only some can study Vedanta, for example, women are excluded. Here it is open to all.

It this approach Brahman as – non-creator, without beginning or end. But Krsna is identified with Brahman. Brahma is theistic but can also not be non-theistic because people have different tastes in spiritual life  Worshiping without symbols is non-theistic, with symbols is theistic.  It is only by surrender to Radha-Krishna (not through one’s own efforts) could they attain the grace necessary for liberation from rebirth; then, at death, the physical body would drop away. Thus Nimbarka stressed bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, self-surrender, and faith. 

(8) The Concept of God in the Caitanya Vaiṣṇava Tradition is more complex than the others presented.  This tradition is the tradition of devotional attachment to Krsna, most associate this approach with one of its offshoots Iskcon. For them, God is polyvalent as three perspectives-Brahman, paramatma and bhagwan, they are attributes on some level. Brahman is the transcendent, paamatma is God in action who converts potential to actual, the transcendent acts in the world via paramatra. And Bhagwan is the local personal deity. These three aspects of God can contradict each other in action.

As an aside in the conference, someone brought up the use of images to worship God. One person said they were only a reminder, a symbol to serve as a reminder of God, another person said they have an actual spark of God, another person said that the entire infinity of the Lord is in the image, and the fourth answer was that everything points to the Lord but under different names, in a way similar to Frege’s explanation of the morning and evening star as bother referring o Venus

(9) From my book- Swaminarayan Hinduism, also known as the Swaminarayan or BAPS sect, is a modern Vaishnava spiritual tradition, worships a form of Supreme deity Para-brahman. For many Americans, this is the Hinduism that they will encounter in a visit to their new marble Temples. Even among rabbis, this becomes one of the reference points. In 2007, the Chief Rabbi of Israel visited the vast temple complex of the Akshardem Temple in New Delhi, which, unlike traditional temples, this temple has a museum on the history of the movement, a theater showing movies about Hinduism, and even a Disney- style boat ride through Hindu themes., It also has a large restaurant and a park for the family.

In BAPS, most deities are accepted but they are not given statues rather they are included among the hundreds of gods and devas carved into the decorations of the building and its pillars. Even home worship (puja), central to Hindu life, has been reworked for decorum. They perform it as a visualization of offering rather than an actual offering of fruit and flowers. The traditional offering of flowers and foods is only in one’s mind.

Is this image of a young Krishna any different than the many images and statues of Jesus?

Modern Monotheism

These modern temples are as monotheistic as other Americans are. Yet, those who belong to these modern temples are told in the press by non-Hindus that they are polytheists and their children are told in school textbooks that they are polytheists. The vast historical phenomena of Hinduism has many conceptions of God from theist, monist, panentheist, polytheist, henotheist, and others. However, they do not want Westerners deciding for them what they believe and how to label it.

The correct term for the monotheism of these groups in Hindu terms is Para Brahman (Supreme Being) or Suayam Bhagwan (Lord Himself), but if they translate it as monotheism, it is not for the outsider to reject it. Para Brahman is the Highest Brahman; that is beyond all descriptions and conceptualizations. “He is the prime eternal among all eternals. He is the supreme living entity of all living entities, and He alone is maintaining all life.” (Katha Upanishad 2.2.13.). In the Bhagavad Gita, the Suayam Bhagwan (Lord Himself) intones: “There is no truth superior to Me. Everything rests upon Me, as pearls are strung on a thread” (Bhagavad Gita 7.7)

Yet, often Westerners reject these self-understandings as apologetic, cliché, and only said for show. Westerners, including Jews who have visited India, are willing to declare as definitive that any elementary school Jewish child knows that Hinduism presents the same Biblical idols.

Many Hindus that I met assumed that Judaism is still the ancient book of Leviticus and commented that they thought our synagogues without sacrificial altars are not true Judaism. If you heard this, you would want to correct them. So too here. My advice is to talk to Hindus themselves and trust their own explanations.

Rabbi Joseph Ergas- Shomer Emunim: An Interview with Avinoam Fraenkel

Is the Lurianic concept of God’s contraction (tzimzum) a metaphor or to be taken literally? The thinker who formulated the approach that treats it as a metaphor and that the divine still fills all space was Rabbi Joseph Ergas (1685–1730), an Italian rabbi, kabbalist, and halakhist. Ergas wrote a short 57 double-sided page book called Shomer Emunim which is a basic defense and introduction to Lurianic Kabbalah.

Avinoam Fraenkel did the English-speaking world a service by translating the work in a new volume, which spun the original 100 pages, as flax into thread, into an 1100-page work. The volume has two parts, a translation with introduction and footnotes, and an original exposition of Lurianic by Fraenkel. If you have never read Shomer Emunin then buy it and read it. The book Shomer Emunim (Urim 2021) Amazon.

Fraenkel is a veteran hi-tech professional working as a product manager for business management software solutions. He also has Rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and Rabbi Chaim Perlmutter. He translated Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin’s Nefesh Hahayim which we highlighted with an interview when it came out.

1st edition with Putti on the sides of Moshe

Joseph ben Emanuel Ergas studied halakhah under Samuel of Fez  and Kabbalah under Benjamin Ha-Kohen Vitale of Reggio. (Vitale also taught Rabbi Isaiah Bassan who became Ramchal’s teacher) Ergas briefly taught in his yeshiva in Pisa, however, he spent most of his career as rabbi in Livorno.  

Italian Jewish culture shifted from the rationalism and skepticism of Quattrocento and 16th century to a 17th century kabbalistic infused worldview. Ergas’ writings reflect the intellectual currents of this era. His Kabbalistic writings have three motivations.

First, there were still many defenders of the rationalist tradition. Rabbi Leon Modena criticized Kabbalah to which there were many responses. Just between 1727 and 1736, Benjamin Kohen Vitale, Joseph Ergas, and Aviad Sar Shalom Basilea all published semipolemical treatises on the supremacy of Kabbalah.

Second, the Sabbatian Kabbalist Nehemiah Hiyya Hayyun (ca. 1650 – ca. 1730) is his work Oz LeElokhim was using Lurianic Kabbalah for Sabbatian theology. Ergas became famous for his anti Hayyun pamphlet Tokhaḥat Megullah as well as a sequel Ha-Ẓad Naḥash (London, 1715).

Third, to explain Lurianic Kabbalah in an Italian Platonic Renaissance understanding.

Shomer Emunim brings these themes together. The work that is sometimes referred to as “the earlier edition/Shomer Emunim HaKadmon,” to distinguish it from the Toldot Aharon Hasidic work of the same name.

Shomer Emunim is structured as two short dialogues. The first defends kabbalah and the second gives Ergas’ understanding of Lurianic emanation. The short work is structured as a dialogue between two fictional characters “Shealtiel,”  and “Yehoyada”. The first, named “Shealtiel,” “the one inquiring about God,” assumes the role of a skeptical Talmudist needing to learn the importance of Kabbalah. The second protagonist named  “the one who knows God,” is a presentation from an experienced Kabbalist.

The two debates gradually ease the reader into Kabbalistic terminology and concepts, often contrasting Kabbalistic ideas with ideas from Jewish philosophy, especially Ergas’ rejection of Aristotelian and Maimonidean categories. They elaborate on key concepts such as: Kabbalah’s authenticity and the importance of its study; God’s Unity; Relating to God through Kabbalistic worlds and Sefirot; the nature of God’s Essence; Tzimtzum; Prayer; and Providence.

Returning to tzimtzum, what does it mean? Does God literally contract? Hasidut and most 19th-century works treated tzimtzum (the divine contraction), as a metaphor. God did not really contract. The source for the later thinkers to treat it as a metaphor is Ergas’ work. However, the actual creator of the idea Rabbi Abraham de Herrera’s Spanish kabbalistic work Puerta del Cielo. Herrera was held in deep respect by Amsterdam’s Rabbinic leadership. His Puerta del Cielo was paraphrased/translated by Isaac Aboab da Fonseca as Shaar Hashamayim, which is what Ergas read. Herrara’s work read Kabbalah in terms of Renaissance Platonism and Florentine academy. It also read Kabbalah as an unfolding cosmology and temporal infinite expansion, rejecting the medieval closed universe.

Ergas is also known as one of those who questioned Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto. In one letter, Ergas wrote to Bassan, Luzzatto’s teacher about whether the Ramchal was a legitimate kabbalist. Ergas wrote that he heard from others that while the Ramchal was learned in kabbalistic teachings, he did not consider him pious since he was not married and he was not careful to immerse in the mikveh on erev Shabbat, and he cut his beard even with scissors. Elsewhere, Ergas was worried that the yihudim practiced by Luzzatto brought down an impure spirit and not the divine. Paradoxically, Luzzatto was deeply influenced by Ergas and Luzatto’s 138 Gates of Wisdom is a similar reading of Lurianic Kabbalah to that of Ergas.

The second half of Avinoam Fraenkel’s edition is his own Kabbalah Overview. Fraenkel considers that the interesting contemporary material is in the Kabbalah Overview – and therefore the primary focus of his interview with me is on the details of the Kabbalah Overview. Fraenkel tells us that the Overview presents key ideas of the Arizal’s Kabbalah, explained in the context of contemporary science and technology, providing “insight into the dramatic transformations taking place, and about to take place, in the world around us.”  

For Fraenkel, the Overview “sets out a clear framework of understanding as to how we can relate to the remarkable ongoing advancements in the technological world around us within the context of the larger Kabbalistic vision of the Messianic process and beyond.  There is nothing touchy feely in this book, it is fully grounded in authoritative Kabbalistic and scientific sources.”

To help explain his views, Fraenkel produced ten short videos – if you want to understand his views, then you should watch them. He also produced two blog posts elsewhere. One on prohibiting translating Kabbalah and the other on the type of intelligence needed for our contemporary reality.

Here is number ten on messianism where Fraenkel has discovered that the messianic age is an age of the new emergence of science, technology, and information. The messianic age is our collective consciousness in an age of emergent information systems. I am amazed about the convergence between this messianic vision of emergence and the emergence vision of the main pavilion Alif of EXPO 2020 in Dubai.

Avinoam Fraenkel’s 10th video out of 10

In his own words, the unfolding of messianism “is through cycles of emergence that relative underlying states of separation, uncertainty, shattered tohu [chaos] and reduction are transformed into ever higher partzufim [metaphorical figures of human likeness] of relative states of tighter integration, certainty and tikkun.

Fraenkel contrasts the reductionists, in which all laws of nature follow the rules of the behavior of the smallest subatomic particles, to his own emergent model that argues that the atomic world and the visible world can operate using different rules. Prior attempts at combining science and mysticism such as The Tao of Physics or the Dancing Wu LI Masters worked at the level of the reductionist.

Since this book is 1100 pages, (did I mention that already?) it is the largest book that I own, if I ever used this in a classroom I would take an X-Act-O knife and cut the volume into usable units.  

The volume will make a contribution to English-Language Judaica. The translation is basically correct and it has copious notes and an introduction. Fraenkel’s introduction and notes contextualize Ergas in 18th-20th issues of the Leshem, Tanya, Ben Ish Hai, and Nefesh Hahayim, but not in the Italian milieu of Ergas himself. Fraenkel rejects Rabbi Yihya Qafih (1850-1931) for critiquing the kabbalah but not Kabbalah’s 17th century detractors.

The footnotes properly acknowledge the role that the writings of Rabbi Moses Cordovero play in Ergas’ understanding of Luria as well as the role of the writings Rabbi Yehudah Hayyat from the 15th century. This is important because Fraenkel regrettably denied the vast Cordovero influence in his edition of Nefesh HaHayyim.

For a historical contextualization, you can start with Alessandro Guetta, Italian Jewry in the Early Modern Era: Essays in Intellectual History or one of Moshe Idel’s essays such as “Conceptualizations of Tzimtzum in Baroque Italian Kabbalah.” 

For those looking to enter the world of the later post-Lurianic Kabbalah, there is no better book to start with than that of Ergas. In addition, Fraenkel’s introductions and notes are a gold mine of information that will steer the beginner in the right direction of further books to master.  For the second half of this tome, Fraenkel reminds us of the need for Jewish thought to start engaging more with the current cosmologies of emergence, transhumanism, Anthropocene, posthumanism, and singularity, Overall, a solid volume and a major accomplishment. And definitely worth buying for those interested in Kabbalah.  

Avinoam Fraenkel Interview on Shomer Emunim: The Introduction to Kabbalah

  1. If Shomer Emunim is an introduction to Kabbalah, why did you write such an extensive Kabbalah Overview?

Shomer Emunim very ably communicates several key Kabbalah concepts, however, in places it touches on some deeper ideas without elaborating and requires its reader to simply accept them. This led to the birth of the appended “Kabbalah Overview” which, in effect, is a book in its own right.

Short footnote explanations did not lend themselves to the frequent appearance of these ideas scattered across Shomer Emunim, and it was necessary to build a central repository of these ideas to serve as a reference point for them. Before I knew it, building significantly on the fine platform set out in Shomer Emunim, the Kabbalah Overview transformed into a systematic presentation of the most important basic concepts of the Arizal’s Kabbalah.

Very significantly, in addition to this, these concepts have been presented in the Kabbalah Overview in the context of contemporary science and technology. In particular, the primary concept of the Arizal’s Kabbalah known as “Partzufim” has now been properly explained for the first time, using the up-and-coming framework of scientific understanding known as “Emergence.” With this explanation, I believe that the nature of the radical technological changes we are all witnessing in the world, together with the general future trajectory of these changes, become clearly understood.

2. What made you decide to integrate analogies and explanations based on contemporary science and technology into the Kabbalah Overview?

Kabbalah works have historically always been richly illuminated and tightly integrated with analogies from the contemporary science prevalent at the time of writing.

A simple example of this is Kabbalah’s deep integration of the ancient concept of the 4 elements (earth, water, air, and fire). There are several such examples and most derive from Greek philosophy which broadly prevailed as the mainstream scientific understanding of the universe for the best part of two millennia. As such, it is entirely understandable that these analogies were borrowed and assumed as the established truth throughout the corpus of Kabbalah writings.

However, it is important to bear in mind that even though some Kabbalah texts might come across as indicating otherwise, at the end of the day these are all just analogies, and if the analogies are based on what we now understand to be false assumptions, that does not invalidate the underlying idea any particular analogy was being used to explain. The Kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (the Ramchal), a contemporary of Rabbi Yosef Ergas, highlighted this in his essay Maamar Al HaHaggadot,when explaining that Kabbalistic concepts are encoded in the Talmud’s story narrative (Aggadah). He stated that a “concept could have been presented differently in the context of what is well-known in other generations, and the author of the [Aggadah] statement would do so himself were he to express it in those generations.”

Therefore, now that many ancient scientific concepts are no longer considered true and we have a more sophisticated understanding of the universe around us, we are able to far more effectively communicate the age-old Kabbalistc concepts, using the language and conceptual toolset of contemporary science and technology.

More than this, as was already explained in Nefesh HaTzimtzum, the Zohar explicitly refers to the opening of the wellsprings of Kabbalistic and scientific knowledge in our times and that as we edge closer to the times of the Messiah, these ideas will become increasingly accessible to all, and even children will be able to relate to them. The Vilna Gaon goes further and highlights that it is specifically the new scientific knowledge that will provide us with an ability to properly understand the depths of Kabbalah, the depths of Torah.

3. In focusing your Kabbalah Overview on rational scientific explanations don’t you lose the mystical side of Kabbalah?

It is unfortunate that Kabbalah is associated with the “mystical,” because when properly understood Kabbalah is entirely rational and totally grounded. It is only its history of restricted highly cryptic transmission through a few elite individuals in each generation, together with its association with having deep explanations of reality, that has led many to build up a mystical culture around it.

Kabbalah provides a remarkable framework to understand the Torah and the world around us. With very recent advancements in science, we now have the tools and language to begin to tap into and publicly express the Kabbalah’s and therefore the Torah’s deeper and highly rational meaning, as applied to the reality of the world around us.

Just as it is with science, which currently only explains a tiny part of the workings of the world around us, there are also huge unexplained aspects of Kabbalah. However, just as no-one calls the many unknowns in science “mystical,” so too it is a mistake to refer to the unknowns in Kabbalah as “mystical.” Therefore, in providing rational scientific explanations for the basic concepts of Kabbalah, I intentionally removed the word “mystical” from my book. I even went so far as to ask permission from one Rabbi who had initially referred to Kabbalah as “mystical” in his approbation published in the book, if I could remove the word. He kindly agreed.

4. How can contemporary science help us to relate to the concept of Kabbalistic Worlds?

It is common knowledge that the physical world around us is filled with things that are made of smaller entities. A simple piece of paper is made of paper molecules. Those molecules are comprised of atoms, which in turn are made of protons, neutrons, etc. Protons and neutrons are made of quarks and quarks are theorized to be made of strings. So, what is the reality of the piece of paper, is it paper or perhaps atoms, maybe its protons and neutrons, or perhaps quarks or possibly strings. The truth is that the piece of paper is comprised of all these things, and all are simultaneously true. However, the way we see the paper depends on our perspective. If we just look at it, we see the paper. If we look through an electron microscope, we will see shadows of atoms and if we use a Hadron Collider, we might infer the existence of traces of quarks.

Kabbalah explains that there are an infinite number of what it calls “worlds” that are all tightly interconnected, cascading down in a chain from the Essence of God all the way down to us in our physical world. Rabbi Ergas explains that the meaning of a “Kabbalistic World” is a level of perception. All these worlds occupy the same larger environment (although this is not what we would call a physical environment), and they are analogous to the simultaneous existence of strings, quarks, protons and neutrons, atoms, and molecules within every physical entity. In the paper analogy, each of these levels can be viewed as being like different physical worlds with the lowest “world” in this example being the strings and the highest “world” being the piece of paper.

Each higher Kabbalistic world above us is defined to be a higher dimension of existence that is associated with a higher level of perception that a lower world simply cannot relate to. With our paper example, there are properties at each higher level of perception of the reality of the paper that don’t exist at the lower levels. So, the piece of paper itself is seen under normal circumstances to be highly stable and used for drawing or writing on. In stark contrast, quarks are seen to be subject to uncertainty, and it is inconceivable that they can be used to communicate information by drawing or writing on them. Each higher level within the paper has an additional dimension of existence that cannot be related to from the lower relative level.

There is a Kabbalistic principle that no entity in any particular world level can perceive anything higher than that world level. Therefore, we can relate to the paper and all the levels below it, but we cannot even imagine what it means to live in a higher dimensional existence. This is just beyond our comprehension.

The Kabbalists explain that our physical world is a cut down, dramatically limited experience of an unimaginable multi-dimensional reality of worlds. They broadly categorize the world levels into 5 general levels of world groupings and we, in our physical world, inhabit the lowest world of the lowest world grouping. There is nothing physical about any world above ours. A key point resulting from this understanding is that even though we are totally unaware of it and only relate to our physical world, we simultaneously exist within all levels and Kabbalistic worlds above it, and ultimately, within the Essence of God Who permeates throughout all existence.

5) Is our physical world real or an illusion?

Often those first engaging in Kabbalah study question the reality of our physical world around us.

A Kabbalah beginner will learn about the world levels, he will also learn about the Kabbalistic axiom that the creation of any lower world level does not change any higher world levels and also does not change the Creator in any way. When first encountering the idea that our physical reality is embedded within all the higher “worlds” and within an unchanged Creator, it is all too easy to conclude that while we don’t perceive the higher “worlds,” nevertheless all the higher “worlds” and ultimately our unchanged Creator, are ever present, and therefore our physical world must just be an illusion.

This is a fundamental error! Although paradoxical to us and requiring more detailed explanation, Kabbalah explains that notwithstanding our Creator being unchanged by the Creation, our physical world is still very real.

More than that, the Torah was given by the Creator to the Jewish People, and it defines how to live in our physical world and as a result, how to get closer to the Creator all around us. It prescribes commandments (Mitzvot) that must be performed within the very specific limits of physical space and time. If the physical world is to be related to as an illusion, then the Torah, God’s instruction as to how to live in this physical world, could be seen to be meaningless.

6. Can you share a scientific insight in relation to the Sefirot?

The Sefirot are generally associated with the process stages of the creation of every lower world/entity from a higher world/entity. The essence of the Sefirot is the creation of the other, and therefore of separation, where a newly created lower entity sees itself as separate from the higher entity that creates it. A useful way of remembering this key point is that the Hebrew word “Sefirot,” has the same consonants “s-p-r-t,” as the English word “separate.”

There is much to discuss about the Sefirot, but to home in on one central aspect of them, the Sefirot process stages occur through relationships between at least pairs of Sefirot. At a deeper level every relationship between a pair of Sefirot can be understood in terms of a relationship between what are called “Chasadim” and “Gevurot.” In contemporary terms we can relate to “Chasadim” as being “energy,” and “Gevurot” as being a “constraint” of that energy. For anything to happen in this world, there must be an interaction between both “energy” and a “constraint.”

For example, when walking along a floor, energy is provided by a person’s leg. The floor in turn provides a constraint of resistance and friction that prevents the foot from slipping and allows the foot to push against the floor and thus the energy in the leg propels the person forward. However, if a person tries to walk on ice, there is no constraint, there is no friction. There is nothing for the energy of the foot to push against, so the foot slips backwards, the person falls and goes nowhere. Without the constraint, energy cannot have any impact and simply dissipates.

Everything in the world, whether the development of an abstract idea, the generation of movement or the production of an entity can be understood as being a relationship between some type of supply of energy, Chasadim, and its constraint, Gevurot.

7. What is the Tree of Life and how does it relate to the Sefirot and the Arizal’s concept of Partzufim?

The Tree of Life is a well-known diagrammatic presentation of the Sefirot, represented as circles, connected to each other with various lines (e.g., see the website logo and also the image of the flashlight shedding light on a Tree of Life on my website homepage screen here).

Many who describe Kabbalah, only talk about the Sefirot and unfortunately don’t refer to Partzufim. However, while it is true that the Tree of Life contains Sefirot, most are entirely unaware that it depicts what is called a “Partzuf” (the singular of “Partzufim”), an entity formed by the integration of the underlying Sefirot into a larger “Whole,” that is much more significant than the Sefirot it contains.

8. Using science, the Kabbalah Overview innovates an entirely new understanding of Partzufim. Can you briefly explain this?

It is only with an up and coming relatively recently understood framework of scientific understanding of the world called “Emergence,” that we now have the tools and language to talk about Partzufim in a truly meaningful and relatable way.

In a nutshell, Emergence relates to new properties that arise specifically from the integration and combination of underlying separate “parts,” (i.e., Sefirot,) into a greater “whole,” (i.e., Partzuf), where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Perhaps the most significant example of this is the human brain, which is comprised of a very specific configuration of some 80+ billion neurons. No-one would ever say that a single neuron can think or have consciousness. However, it is the specific configuration of the individual separate neurons (the Sefirot) into a larger whole of the brain (the Partzuf) that results in the emergence of conscious thought. The key point about Emergence is that the emerging properties of the whole (the Partzuf) simply cannot even be predicted from a complete knowledge of everything about the separate parts (the Sefirot).

The framework of Emergence, although still in its infancy, seriously challenges the mainstream understanding of science and turns it on its head. It challenges the common scientific understanding of “Reductionism” that posits that if we can reduce all of existence down to its smallest underlying separate component parts, say quarks or strings, and then build a grand theory of precisely how those separate parts work, then we can not only know everything about the parts, but can also know everything about the “whole” of the world that is built from an integration of these parts.

The framework of Emergence counters this from the consistent observation of real-life systems across many areas of science, highlighting that even when none of the separate system parts have changed, it is the specific integration of these parts into a larger whole that causes new unpredictable properties, such as conscious thought, to emerge. At the same time, it should be emphasized that this framework is simply a different perspective of the same scientific facts that are evident in the world around us and does not challenge the validity of those facts.

What is becoming increasingly clear from many independent scientific disciplines, is that in stark contrast to Reductionism, it is specifically Emergence that is a key factor required to properly understand those disciplines. For example, in chemistry it is well-known that graphite and diamonds are both comprised of the identical underlying parts, i.e., carbon atoms. Configure the carbon atoms in one combination and they become soft and pliable graphite, a black substance that conducts electricity well and is perfect for use in pencils. Integrate the same carbon atoms in another combination and we end up with clear diamonds, one of the hardest materials known to man, an electrical insulator. The diverse macroscopic properties of graphite and diamond cannot be understood solely from the carbon atoms in isolation. It is therefore specifically Emergence that causes the field of chemistry to exist and that the reductive knowledge of the physics of single atoms in isolation is not enough on its own to infer the field of chemistry from physics.

It is similarly true that biology, psychology, and economics are disciplines that ultimately emerge, are independently relevant and cannot be predicted from a knowledge of physics.

When properly analyzing the texts of the Arizal’s Kabbalah written hundreds of years ago, it is remarkable that the concepts of Reductionism and Emergence directly parallel the concepts of Sefirot (the underlying reduced parts) and Partzufim (the larger emerging wholes) respectively. Both concepts are valid and necessary to understand the world around us.

The concept of Emergence and Partzufim, which is the dominant factor, is very much the primary teaching of the Arizal’s Kabbalah. When deeply looking at the Arizal’s Kabbalah in the context of the contemporary understanding of Emergence, there is a clear “emerging” understanding of the trajectory of the accelerating pace of change in the world around us through science and technology. On a personal level, every time I reflect on this, it never ceases to astonish me.

9. Your way of connecting science to Kabbalah is different from others. Why do you think you are right?

There are many who have a simplified understanding of the process of the cascading down of Kabbalistic Worlds from higher to lower world levels. They understand this process to be a straightforward top-down creation process. With this simplified understanding it becomes tempting to look at our understanding of our world, and to suggest that the greater the level of Reduction, the higher the level, and therefore the higher the Kabbalistic World/level.

So, using the piece of paper example mentioned earlier, they would say that the piece of paper itself is the lowest Kabbalistic level and the molecules, and then atoms, then protons and neutrons are all increasingly higher levels, ultimately reaching the highest levels of quarks and then strings. They therefore associate quantum mechanics and quantum uncertainty with higher relative Kabbalistic levels.

In all honesty, before I delved more deeply into Kabbalah study, I used to also think this way. However, this pure top-down approach to understand Kabbalistic Worlds is not the whole story. While the worlds are indeed created with an overall top-down cascading of higher world levels to lower world levels, nevertheless, within each individual world level there is a bottom-up building up of that individual world. So, every lower world is created by the higher world first creating the lowest level underlying components of the lower world. These components are then built up within the lower world on a bottom-up basis. Therefore, using the piece of paper example, the lowest levels that we are aware of within our physical world are the strings and quarks. Then, ascending the levels we reach protons and neutrons, and then atoms and then molecules, it is only then that we reach the highest level in this example, of the piece of paper.

Therefore, according to this more refined understanding of Kabbalah, quantum mechanics and quantum uncertainty and all that goes with them, do not relate to higher Kabbalistic levels, but rather, relate to lowest Kabbalistic levels. Therefore, all the theories assuming a juxtaposition of quantum mechanics with higher Kabbalistic levels are misleading! It is only by appreciating the bottom-up creation process within each Kabbalistic world level that we can properly relate science to Kabbalah, and when doing so it becomes abundantly clear that this bottom-up process is entirely synonymous with the concept of Emergence.

10. How is your explanation of the interplay of Sefirot and Partzufim related to what the Talmud calls “Maaseh Bereishit” and “Maaseh Merkava,” and what does this tell us about future times?

The Talmud (Chagiga 11b) refers to the deepest understanding of Torah in terms of two areas of knowledge that it calls “Maaseh Bereishit/the Act of Creation” and “Maaseh Merkava/the Act of Merkava.”

In Shomer Emunim, R. Ergas explains that the Maimonidean understanding of these terms, as described in detail in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, Chaps. 1–4, is simply wrong. While R. Ergas highly respects Maimonides’ teachings and frequently quotes from them, at the end of the day, he demonstrates that Maimonides was not part of the chain of illustrious rabbis through whom the Kabbalah was passed down the generations.

In contrast, the Arizal explains Maaseh Bereishit and Maaseh Merkava as being the essence of what Kabbalah is about.

The Arizal, in effect explains that Maaseh Bereishit is about reduction and the Sefirot. In contrast he relates the word “Merkava” to “Harkava,” meaning “grafting” or “integration,” and that therefore Maaseh Merkava is about emergence, integration and the Partzufim.

Once we properly understand the interplay between Maaseh Bereishit and Maaseh Merkava, as between reduction and emergence, between the Sefirot and Partzufim, then, and only then, can we begin to properly understand the Kabbalah and the astonishing trajectory of the accelerating scientific and technological processes in the world around us.

Perhaps the most amazing thing though, is that once we have a clear understanding of the Arizal’s teachings of Maaseh Merkava, Emergence and Partzufim, then the precise identity of the Messiah (Mashiach ben David) becomes utterly obvious. It is likely to be very different to who and what you might think. It is the collective consciousness, the larger Partzuf whole, that will ultimately emerge from the specific integration of all the separate Sefirot parts of humankind and the world around us!

Return of the Blog

The blog will return after a hiatus of the better portion of a year. Look forward in the coming weeks to my own essays and to interviews with various visiting authors.

I was busy with new administrative activities as director of graduate studies. I was busy preparing for my month-long return to India and I was busy with having to prepare asynchronous online classes. But now I am back.

Blogging, for me, is a sign that I am writing. In fact, I have a two contract deal from Fortress Press for two books (1) One on a Jewish theology of religious diversity, and (2) one on a Jewish Theology of the Trinity. Yay! But it does mean that my blog will have more interfaith material than usual.  Actual book titles are yet t be determined.

In the coming months, you will hear about my return to India, my visit to  Jewish-Sufi shrine, my speaking to experts in Tantra, the relationship between kabbalah and tantra, some Jewish-Buddhist interfaith encounter in Sri Lanka, and many new books that have come out in Jewish theology.  

In the meantime, if you have not bought my book Rabbi on the Ganges: A Jewish-Hindu Encounter pb 2021, now is the time to do it since I will be referring to it.

The activity that kept me busy was making our Master’s program into an online MA

ONLINE MA in Jewish-Christian Studies or Certificate in Jewish -Christian Studies or a Certificate in Interfaith As of Fall 2022, our graduate programs will have both asynchronous online courses and hybrid courses with students who are both in-class and ZOOM. The entire degree will be available online.   There are full scholarships from our Sister Rose Thering Fund for anyone who can, however loosely, present themselves as an educator The program is $100 for two courses for 65 & over

Finally, as I say every year. If you enjoy these posts, then the best way to show appreciation is to repost them on social media, discuss them on social media, and give credit.

12 Years of the Blog – 12th Anniversary

Still here since 2009

After all the years, still posting

If you like a given post then please repost it to social media or send it to friends

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.