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Rabbi on the Ganges- New Book

My new book arrived on October 31st (Lexington Books). It is an account of my time in India combined with an introduction to Hinduism for Jews. My audience is the Jewish world and I go through many major aspects of Hinduism and explain them in Jewish terms.

One of my major points is that you cannot compare 21st century Judaism to 5th century BCE Hinduism. Contemporary Jews are not practicing sacrifice, fighting molekh or marrying off their minor daughters, rather following a contemporary application. Similarly, American Hindus have define themselves as a theistic worship as embedded in Temples that function as American style social centers with youth groups, social halls, and Sunday school. You have to compare like to like.

A second one of my major points is the vast variety of forms of Hinduism and Hindu thinkers. One cannot make sweeping generalizations about the many religions and denominations that coalesced in the 17th century to be called Hinduism. There are more members of any minor Hindu sect than there are Jews in the world. There are 1.15 Billion Hindus. There are many theologies.

Third, please top judging them without any knowledge or based on 2 lectures in an intro to religion class or a google search. They do not like being judged with Western eyes or by those who make them exotic. Also, please immediately stop assuming they are too simple to understand their own religion.

I did not deal with the halakhic issues, I will leave that to Rabbi Prof Daniel Sperber and others.

I am already working on several other books and applying for grants to write them.

When I posed this a few days ago on Facebook, someone half jokingly and half seriously asked:who is going to do the author interview with me and who will be the respondent?

The book arrived on October 31 and is available via the publisher Lexington Books. I apologize about hard cover price but my contract explicitly stipulated that it goes into paperback in 12 months. There is a 30% off coupon below- valid until 12/31. Unfortunately, Amazon offered 30% off the book back in April when it had no cover, no blurbs, and no description. But Lexington Books is offering a discount. The paperback should be out by December 2020.

Hardback: ISBN 978-1-4985-9708-1    October 2019 Regular price: $95.00/£65.00  After discount: $66.50/£45.50
ebook: ISBN 978-1-4985-9709-8   October 2019 Regular price: $90.00/£60.00  After discount: $63.00/£42.00

30% DiscountTo get discount, use code LEX30AUTH19 when ordering.

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Rabbi on the Ganges: A Jewish-Hindu Encounter is the first work to engage the new terrain of Hindu-Jewish religious encounter.

The book offers understanding into points of contact between the two religions of Hinduism and Judaism. Providing an important comparative account, the work illuminates key ideas and practices within the traditions, surfacing commonalities between the jnana and Torah study, karmakanda and Jewish ritual, and between the different Hindu philosophic schools and Jewish thought and mysticism, along with meditation and the life of prayer and Kabbalah and creating dialogue around ritual, mediation, worship, and dietary restrictions. The goal of the book is not only to unfold the content of these faith traditions but also to create a religious encounter marked by mutual and reciprocal understanding and openness. 

This work is the best comparative analysis ever of Jewish and Hindu philosophy and religious thought. Brill knows his Jewish sources impeccably, and with skilled observations of daily life and engaging dialogues with Hindu thinkers and texts, we accompany him on his journey. This is a groundbreaking dialogue, and through Brill’s appreciative eyes Hindus and Jews will come to understand both the other and themselves in a new way. It has my highest recommendation.
— Nathan Katz, Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Florida International University

The late Swami Dayananda Saraswati declared Hinduism and Judaism to be the two fountainheads of Religion in our world—the one of the Abrahamic traditions and the other of the Dharmic religions. Yet for the most part in the course of history, the two have remained foreign to one another.

In recent times this has changed dramatically, not least of all reflected in the fact that India is frequently the preferred destination of young Israeli Jews. However serious attempts to understand the religious world of the other have been rare. Alan Brill’s book is an impressive pioneering work in this regard and will enable those familiar with Jewish teaching to gain a serious comprehensive understanding of Hindu religious thought, practice, and devotion. Moreover the clarity and insights he provides will enlighten not only Jews, but all those who wish to gain understanding of the rich wisdom and forms of Hindu religious life.
— Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs, AJC

Brill succeeds in juxtaposing a comprehensive introduction to Hindu history, thought, and practice with personal reflections drawn from his experiences in India. A Highly readable contribution to the growing field of Indo-Judaic studies, and an invitation to further Hindu-Jewish dialogue.
— Yudit Kornberg Greenberg, George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Endowed Chair of Religion, Rollins College

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.
— Rabbi Yakov Nagen, senior educator Otniel Yeshiva

Aryeh Kaplan on Evolution- A Missing Chapter of The Handbook of Jewish Thought

In honor of Bereshit, here is Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan on reading Genesis as presenting the truths of 20th century science, as discussing a world 2 billion years old with humans as existing for 25,000 years.

This is part VII in a series on Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan- for biography see Part IPart II, Part III, for Kabbalah see Part IV  Part V  and Part VI Much of the prior biographic discussion has already been incorporated into Wikipedia.

Kaplan (right side) at an NCSY Shabbaton

Aryeh Kaplan’s Handbook of Jewish Thought has become a classic of synthesizing the classic positions of Jewish thought into an order fashion both an introductory guide and simultaneously a reference book

Below is a pdf of a full chapter of Aryeh Kaplan’s Handbook of Jewish Thought left out of the published work because he presents evolution as part of the basic tenets of Judaism. The already typeset chapter has an editor’s note across the top asking if the chapter is “fixable” and “true kosher”? There is also an editor’s note that dates the chapter to 1968 when Kaplan was leading a Conservative congregation in Dover NJ.

The Handbook of Jewish Thought was published in two volumes, the first, containing 13 chapters, appeared in the author’s lifetime in 1979. The second volume edited by Avraham Sutton, was published posthumously in 1992. This volume has 25 chapters. While the first volume had no introduction from the author, the second volume contains the following statement:

The bulk of the present volume is from the author’s original 1967- 1969 manuscript that consisted of 40 chapters. Thirteen of these chapters were prepared for publication by Rabbi  Kaplan himself and published in 1979 as the Handbook of Jewish thought – Volume I. It is clear that the remaining chapters were set aside with the thought of eventually preparing them for publication. Of these remaining chapters, 25 are presented here

Despite the assertion that the first volume was called “volume 1”, no such statement is to be found in the original Handbook of Jewish thought.

Quick arithmetic – 13 (volume 1) and 25 (volume 2) indicates that 2 chapters of the original 40 were suppressed. In the end, they – Moznayim – or the Kaplan family concluded to leave these chapters out of the book.  Generally, the works published by Moznayim are much more circumspect than the audio recording of his lectures. Here is an extreme case.

Moznayim assigned people to edit Kaplan’s writings  or tapes of his lectures who were not there at the lectures or had left for other teachers years before.

I thank Rabbi Ari Kahn for providing access by sending me the pdf of this gem. If someone has the final – 40th chapter – I would love to see it.

Evolution      

Kaplan is explicit in his affirmation of evolution in this piece.

In the first three paragraphs, he states that the creation account in Genesis is not literal and not science but narrated to teach the history of Israel. He believes that new concepts in science are always being discovered beyond the limited science known in the Biblical and rabbinical era.  We are, according to Kaplan, to continuously interpret the Biblical text according to currently available knowledge.

Even though the explicit text is to narrate Israel’s history, nevertheless Kaplan states that the scientific knowledge is hinted at in the Masoretic text through “subtle variations”. In addition, we have traditions that aid in our discovering the scientific truth in the text. Maimonides and other medieval commentators interpreted the text based on Aristotle. Maimonides in his Guide II:29 explains how he would be willing to read texts based on current science. Similarly, Kaplan footnotes Ramchal in his commentary of the Aggadot.

Kaplan considers the creation of the universe as billions of years ago when there was the initial creation as the creation of matter as well as the initial creation of time/space. The creation at the start of Genesis was billions of years ago according to Kaplan, even if the Torah does not explicitly state it.

Kaplan explicitly rejects the 19th century Gosse theory, a theory that the world only appears to be older because God created it that way. Kaplan writes: “God does not mislead humans by making the world appear older.” Many of the members of the Association of Orthodox Scientists of his era did accept Gosse as did the Lubavitcher Rebbe.   

Kaplan defines the creation with the date of 3761 BCE as only the date when Adam (the new being with intelligence) was created. The world itself is billions of years old and various species of men, including Neanderthals and Homo Erectus, pre-date this created Adam.  People generally assume the creation of the world, creation of men, and creation of the intelligent descendants of Adam occurred at the same time; Kaplan differentiates these events.

Neanderthal- Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis

The metaphoric sixth day was only when Adam was created in Divine thought as the plan for creation, not the actual date of his creation- see below on Kaplan’s acknowledging humanoids before Adam. (Berakhot 61b  Eruvin 18a)

Kaplan makes a general statement that the “time of creation is not essential to our thought.” He proves this from a citation in Yehuda Halevi’s  Kuzari,1:60-61”

Al Khazari: Does it not weaken thy belief if thou art told that the Indians have antiquities and buildings which they consider to be millions of years old?” To which the Rabbi in the dialogue answers: “The Rabbi: It would, indeed, weaken my belief had they a fixed form of religion, or a book concerning which a multitude of people held the same opinion, and in which no historical discrepancy could be found. Such a book, however, does not exist.”

Kaplan takes this to mean that Halevi would only be bothered if they had a form of religion accepted by the multitude with discrepancy, but not about the claim concerning civilization and ancient books.

Kaplan states that nature does not change so we accept radioactive dating; the method is valid to establish definitively that the world is billions of years old. In this, he rejects the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s opinion that radioactive dating is not valid because nature changes.  Kaplan has certainty that science works without caveats and if the method of radioactive dating of fossils show that they are millions of years old then they are millions of years old. They are not animals killed in the Biblical flood but creatures who lived billions of years ago.

In footnote number 12, Kaplan states that each of God’s years is 365,242 of ours yielding a world age of two billion years, which is not the current scientific age of 13.8 billions of years.

In contrast, in his later writings and talks, most notably his 1979 essay on evolution, he comes up with a 15 billion year date for the universe based on Isaac the Blind, a date closer to the scientific view. For more on his later calculation, see Ari Kahn, Explorations: In-depth Analysis of the Weekly Parashah Through the Prism of Rabbinic Perspective (Brooklyn: Targum press, 2001).

In this early passage in the Handbook and its notes he does not cite Isaac of Acco. At this point, it seems he did not yet have a copy of Isaac of Acco or he might have had a citation but did not have the full sefer or did not fully study it yet. Isaac’s Sefer Meirat Eynayim was not yet published; it was published in 1974. And Isaac’s important Otzar Hayyim still remains in manuscript. Kaplan write that he obtained the photocopy of the manuscript of Otzar Hayyim in the 1970’s circa 1976. If in 1968 he did not have the manuscript yet, and he only photocopied it after he started publicly teaching Kabbalahthen he might have been relying on an older work of scholarship that cited it. Alternately, he might have been creative enough to develop the Rashi on his own to reach 2 billion. (see footnote 12 below)  

Kaplan explains that God did not really verbalize in the creation of the world, rather God speaks means the impression of will upon matter thereby giving it a new property. God speech involves modulating creation to desired results.  (There is already a sense here of Kaplan’s later focus on mental acts – meditation). Kaplan in his spiritualizing of the text successfully manages to be deeply Maimonidean and Nahmanidean at the same time. He can cite simultaneously Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed on how locutions such as “God spoke”, “God’s mouth” or “God spoke to Moses” are anthropomorphic and not to be taken literally. Simultaneously, Kaplan appeals to Ramban 1:3 in that Divine will impressed upon the primordial matter of hiyuli, God is not literally speaking but engaged in the coming to be of the lower hypostatic element, which in turn will create the world. Kaplan foreshadows his later thought and treats kabbalah in a non-literal manner.

 (In Castilian Kabbalistic language, this would be keter affecting hokhmah. Later Orthodox attempts to harmonize Biblical create and science used Ramban’s concept of primordial matter in a literal manner as an allusion to the Big Bang theory).

Kaplan further spiritualizes the process so the steps of creation did not happen at the stated time, just that the prerequisites for God’s goal was complete even though the actual goal would not manifest until later (15:8)

Kaplan explains the phrase “it was good” to mean the completion of something essential for the evolution of the universe, destruction of prior worlds means evolution to something higher.  The world is evolving to higher stages. The destruction of prior world does not mean there were prior worlds just that lower forms of this world. (15:9) (He cites Maharal Beer Hagolah 39b)

Days of Creation

What was the light created on the first day before the creation of planets? For Kaplan the light on the first day is the electromagnetic force in matter responsible for all chemical and physical properties, without the electromagnetic force the world is chaos and void.  

What was created on the second day? It was when God set the matter of the first day into Euclidean four-dimensional space-time matrix. (15:12).

On the third day, God created the gravitational force. The “gathering of the waters” is not about swamps and sea but the “warping of matter” and the creation of phenomena that follow non-Euclidian geometry. It was also the physio-chemical properties of matter needed for plant life, (15:13)

On the fourth day, God initiated the process by which matter would condense into galaxies, starts and planets,” which is the completion of inorganic matter.

On the fifth day, God started the process by which organic matter and life came to be.

On the important 6th day of creation, God created the evolutionary potential of higher mammals and primitive man. Nothing was actually created on the 6th day, rather the evolutionary potential of the development of higher mammals from lower mammals was designated. After the 6th day, God allows world to develop by itself – without intelligent design- solely through the natural evolution. Just as the geological evolution of crystals grow naturally over millions of years from natural processes, so too the evolution of animals is the same way. The unfolding properties for mammals and eventually man is in the natural order.

Man, known to paleontologists as later stages of homo sapiens, already had mental and physical capabilities about 25,000 years ago according to Kaplan’s scheme. (In 1979, he extends this to 100,000 years ago).

However, it was only 6000 years that man was given a divine soul. This was a new level of wisdom and inventiveness to allow for cultural evolution through invention, metallurgy, animal husbandry, ship sailing (15:22). Actual paleontologists place this Chalcolithic period, the period of new wisdom, as between 11,000 to 6000 years ago. Kaplan acknowledges that species change and that even man evolves as shown by his vestigial tail.

Hence, the seven days of creation are as follows:

Day 1 Electromagnetic force

Day 2 4-D space/time matrix

Day 3 Warping of matter, beyond Euclidian space

Day 4 Inorganic matter

Day 5 Organic matter and life

Day 6 Evolutionary potential of higher mammals and primitive man.

Kaplan explains his own method of not treating the words literally, rather as allegories for scientific principles. Water, sky, and light are all allegorical terms for the unfolding of the scientific cosmos because the scientific terms were unknown in ancient times. (15:10) As he wrote earlier in the chapter, according to Maimonides the words used as not intrinsic but subject to interpretation and according to Nahmanides, these terms refer to divine unfolding of the cosmos not physical objects.

In many ways, Kaplan approach to science is similar to Nahmanides’ concept of remez, in which scientific concepts are alluded to in the Torah. Both Kaplan and Nahmanides read the allusions in the Torah to science, psychology, and powers of the soul.

Nahmanides in his introduction to the Torah wrote: “God informed Moses first of the manner of the creation of heaven and earth and all their hosts… together with an account of the four forces in the lower world, minerals, vegetation, animal, and the rational soul. With regard to all of these matters Moses our teacher was apprised, and all of it was written in the Torah, explicitly or by implication.” (For more about Nahmanides, see Oded, Yisraeli, The Kabbalistic Remez and Its Status in Naḥmanides’ Commentary on the Torah. The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy. 24. (2016)1-30)

Miriam Feldmann Kaye Responds to the Responses

Welcome back after the holidays. Before the holidays, we discussed the new book by Miriam Feldmann Kaye and had three responses from Levi Morrow, Zohar Atkins, and Claire R. Sufrin.

The interview with Miriam Feldmann-Kaye- here, the first response was by Levi Morrow- here, the second was by Zohar Atkins- here and the third was by Claire R. Sufrin-here.In her final word to response, Feldmann Kaye seeks to disaffirm and negate their specific comments.

At the end of her response, Feldmann Kaye positively affirms that we are called again to respond to the “plentiful array of intersections beyond postmodern thinking and Jewish philosophy. Profound responses to these deeply philosophical questions, are well on their way, and many more rest on the horizon.” Personally, I look forward to these imminent profound responses.

Miriam Feldmann Kaye – Response

Thank you to Prof. Brill for hosting some of the critical questions of our times. This blog pioneers contemporary Jewish thought, encouraging new Jewish philosophical and literary knowledge and engagement. The nature of this particular conversation reflects a heated discussion of the array of intersections beyond postmodern thinking and Jewish philosophy. These responses partially epitomise the ambivalence towards the term ‘postmodernism’. Although, expressions of this stance deserve to be addressed with a deeper, content-based, and respectful nature, of critique. 

What is apparent in this discussion typifies religious approaches towards cutting-edge theology. In a positive sense, it also exemplifies engagement with these ideas. The particular focus here is on my book, and an analysis of the theologies of Rav Shagar (Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg) and Professor Tamar Ross, but it is about a far broader picture of engagement with postmodern thinking, drawing on the wealth of writings of other Jewish thinkers. It is about the ability of Jewish thinking to cope with, or amalgamate, ideas from contemporary philosophy.

Before I address each response, there are two points which I stated in the interview, that I will emphasise to avoid some of the apparent confusion:

  1. It is not my purpose to champion or to defend postmodernism. This seems to be an important point to state, and to set aside some confusion. This allows us, or should have allowed us, to go beyond the debate of who is for and against; who agrees and who disagrees; who affiliates and who does not. The book addresses the ways in which, and the extents to which, ideas in postmodern discourse, are integrated into new thinking on contemporary Jewish philosophy. This includes discussions of the limitations of postmodern discourse in propounding a robust Jewish theology for today’s age.
  2. I continue to take care not to class any of the numerous thinkers I deal with, as proponents of ’postmodernism’’. Throughout the book, I analyse Prof Ross’ and Rav Shagar’s ambivalence towards issues that postmodernism raises. This is not a simple zero sum game and needs to be addressed in accordance to these fine distinctions.

Connected or unconnected to this, the first two presented responses potentially discard a great opportunity for a public conversation on the deeper issues at stake.

The first response, written by Levi Morrow, would have had many of his issues answered in the previous interview, which it seems was only partially related to, as illustrated in the following ways:

Morrow critiques what is plainly a philosophical analysis of Rav Shagar, stating that “there is something fundamentally strange about trying to identify Rav Shagar with a given philosophical stream”.

However, this is precisely the way in which Jewish philosophy has functioned and flourished for centuries: Philo and his integration of Platonic and Socratic philosophy; Rambam’s engagement with Aristotle; Maimon and Mendelssohn’s engagement with Enlightenment ideas; Rosenzweig, Buber and Levinas’ engagement with phenomenology and existentialism.

The consideration of future Jewish thought becomes the natural task – and the consideration of Rav Shagar and Prof Ross as amongst these thinkers, brings to the fore the issues of today – including Hasidut, neo-pragmatism, Kabbalah, phenomenology, semiotics and late twentieth-century hermeneutical trends. This is hardly ‘’strange’’.

What is strange is that he states that my book, which deals with philosophical elements of Rav Shagar’s philosophy presents a “depiction of Rav Shagar [which] cannot serve to introduce new readers to his theology’’. It in fact does provide readers with philosophical insights into the thought of Rav Shagar. This simplification seems to be based on a mistaken understanding of the book as an introduction to Rav Shagar’s life.

Rav Shagar is indeed recognised for his total commitment to and deep engagement with the national-religious Yeshiva world, from Kerem B’Yavneh, Mekor Haim, to Bet Morasha, to Siach as his intellectual ‘’home’’. His writing is steeped in Torah learning, and, as his works are published, presents an ever-developing search for the mystical interpretations of religious-Zionism of Rav Kook.

At the same time, Rav Shagar was also a Jewish theologian, and I invite others to recognize him as such. His home bookshelf attests to his readings of Wittgenstein, Althusser and others, alongside R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady. In his later years, he was comparing the thought of Rebbe Nahman of Bratzlav with Derrida, Barthes and Lyotard. And so, I re-state that Rav Shagar was a theologian addressing postmodern thought at the same time as his immersion in the Yeshiva world – the same way in which philosophers over the course of Jewish history have also been. 

This encounter between both worlds is an important part of this discourse in its entirety. In this case, I analyse Rav Shagar’s Lamdanut through the lens of phenomenology. Another example is that his interpretations of Hasidut, are analysed within the framework of the philosophy of language.

Neither Morrow, nor Atkins give hardly a mention to Prof. Ross, who is critical to the discussion, at the very least in the way that Rav Shagar’s thinking is framed. Readers might have expected at least one informed comment of Prof. Ross as unique in her synthesised works on Rambam, and Rav Kook which simultaneously address the meaning of religious language, and its epistemological significance. Neither of the first two respondents take this crucial comparative element into account – which ultimately suggests a misunderstanding of the thematic nature of the book.  

Unfortunately, Morrow’s response descends into nit-picking. He finds certain footnotes – of which there are hundreds in the book – to be ‘’unhelpful’’ and another as ‘’frustrating’’ and another as ‘’insane’’. In addition to this sort of language, he writes about the book as “misleading’’, and certain paragraphs which are apparently ‘’lacking’’, and ‘’absent’’.

His list of referencing publication dates is weakened by his statement that my dissertation was, over a period of time, ‘’converted by the publisher’’. Is he unaware, or taking away from the fact that I wrote the book? The content and style of this critique could be understood as begging the question as to what is really bothering him about the book. 

However, he completes his response by lauding my ‘’visionary theology’’. He writes that this work is ‘’excellent’’ and ‘’constructive’’ which is ‘’deeply in tune with both Jewish mysticism and the power of religious language’’. He also recommends that book ‘’call[s] for us to do much the same’’. Given his erudite readings and initial work of the translations of Rav Shagar’s work, one might have expected him to offer a more respectful response.

The second response was written by Atkins. In his comments he seems to be missing elements of the subject that were explicated in the book, and the interview, which I’ve re-stated above.

Atkins’ response begins with what seems to be a description of postmodernism which he implies forms the main argument of both my interview and book.  He then begins to critique postmodernism, and it becomes apparent, that he is offering a metaphor for an engagement with postmodernism, namely my own, with this sceptical critique. He blurs the boundaries between his criticism of postmodernism and between my writing, wherein it is implicit that the two are inseparable.

Atkins considers my use of philosophers – including Derrida, Lacan, Irigaray – as superficial ‘’name-dropping’’ and ‘’miming authority’’ – comparing it to the listing of names of women objectified in a degrading gangster sexualised rap song. This inappropriate comparison raises the question as to what he is really suggesting? Is the problem that philosophers are listed together as representative of philosophical movements? Or is he offering a critique of postmodern literature? Or is he critiquing the ongoing misogyny in popular culture, and beyond? This would have been an interesting, albeit, misplaced debate had it not been for the derogatory tone – which continues far beyond this paragraph. His response was then unsurprisingly censored by Prof Brill himself.  

In a continued reading of his piece, he repeatedly implies that I am out to ‘’defend’’ postmodernism. One example of this is his critique of Derrida for whom, he writes, “performance is the point, that there is nothing besides the rhetoric”. Again, it is probably based on the presumption that the book is putting forward an unapologetic defence of postmodernism.

He further states that I am the ‘’expositor’’ of Prof. Ross and Rav Shagar. This is mistaken, in the same way that a scholar of Rambam is not necessarily a logician, and a researcher of Kierkegaard is not necessarily a Christian existentialist. In addition to this, unexplained responses to a multifaceted discipline are rife: “a tease’’ – with no explanation as to what this means here; “none of the views espoused by Feldmann Kaye…”; and, ‘’none reflect a deep phenomenological experience’’. These are simplifications of a far more complex discourse.

His call for a methodological deconstruction of postmodernism itself is engaging. I might too have taken interest in his discussion on Heidegger and Derrida, had he not made repeated generalisations of my interview, making the starting point of the discussion difficult to ascertain.

However, with all of this, he is “grateful to Miriam Feldmann Kaye for introducing the question of postmodernism into the contemporary discussion of Jewish thought and theology”.

In the meantime, since publication, both respondents have sent me private apologies.

The third response was written by Claire R. Sufrin. It was, relatively, a more thoughtful and engaging response – not just because it came across in a respectful manner but because she offers important reflections. I note that she hadn’t read my book though she does have the decency to say so.

In response to Sufrin’s point on Prof. Ross as a forerunner in the religious feminist movement, please see the introduction to my book where I determine her ground-breaking work on feminism to be a case in point of her broader concerns in philosophy of epistemology and revelation.

The question of how new the subject, can first be answered of postmodernism as a movement itself. In its various formations, it can be said to go back to the mid-twentieth century, alongside, or offshoots of, and manifestations of, contemporaneous trends. This is because postmodernism constitutes a discursive model of engagement, way beyond  philosophy and religion.

Postmodern discourse is now appropriated in the fields of law, architecture, literature and Political studies (even within Israel).  These fields engage with the questions of how far postmodern discourse serves to reframe the very questions asked in these fields of study. Some of the central perspectives offered by postmodernism comprise issues such as non-binary and beyond binary theories of post-structuralism, post-colonialism, aesthetics, gender theory as well as meta-ethics. In the realm of religion, ‘postmodern theology’ has been developed by Christian theologians for the last two decades.  

In the introduction to my book, I suggest that the subject be approached thematically, rather than by addressing totalised chronological movements of ‘’modernism’’ and ‘’postmodernism’’. What can be said though, is that we are at the transition between modern and postmodern thought, reflecting the changes in the trends with which we are surrounded.

I am however intrigued by Sufrin’s question as to why the book is referred to as new. I can think of at least ten thinkers, some based in Israel and some based outside of Israel, who deal with aspects of postmodernism, who include Kepnes, Handelman, Wolfson, Govrin and Ofrat. In addition to these thinkers, we also now witness postmodern Jewish exegetical approaches to other aspects of scholarship, such as of rabbinic literature, feminism, and so on.

As a whole, we witness a glimpse into different approaches towards postmodern ideas. We are called again to respond to the issues to hand, and to join the substantive, heated discussion, about how Jewish thinkers respond to the critical issues of our times – and to the plentiful array of intersections beyond postmodern thinking and Jewish philosophy. Profound responses to these deeply philosophical questions, are well on their way, and many more rest on the horizon.

Claire E. Sufrin responds to Miriam Feldman Kaye

This is the third response to the interview with Miriam Feldmann-Kaye- here, the first response was by Levi Morrow- here, the second was by Zohar Atkins- here. I was expected direct engagement with the book; the conversation about the book is important to have. If you read it and have a knowledgeable response then please PM me.

Claire E. Sufrin is Associate Professor of Instruction and Assistant Director of Jewish Studies at the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies. Her research and teaching interests include modern Jewish thought, religion and literature, and American Judaism.

Sufrin thinks that we still need to confront Lyotard because he was observing something he observed. Her comments focus in several ways on why the Orthodox focus on “pluralism of multiple religious faiths” and not “the plurality within Judaism and Jewish thought” In addition, why describe Feldmann Kaye as the first when there are antecedents? Finally, is the definition of postmodernism used by Feldmann-Kaye focused on an Israeli Orthodox definition. Sufrin’s substantive comment on the treatment of Tamar Ross is the role of legal theorist Robert Cover for Ross, rather than postmodernism.

Claire E. Sufrin – Response

I want to start by thanking Professor Brill for inviting me to comment on his conversation with Miriam Feldmann Kaye. His invitation and then even more so the record of the Feldmann Kaye-Brill conversation led me to order a copy of her book and to wait for it with anticipation. (It is not yet in my university’s library system.) Alas, I am still waiting at the mailbox, and the original deadline I agreed upon with Brill has come and gone. So I offer what follows below with the caveat that I am responding to the interview as well as to the comments offered by my colleagues but that I have not yet read Feldmann Kaye’s book. As a result, I intend my contribution to this forum not to be a review of Feldmann Kaye’s work so much as a list of ideas and questions that I will bring to her text when it does finally arrive.

Postmodernism

I agree that with Zohar Atkins that the term post-modernism is inherently slippery. Especially if it refers to a “mood” rather than a distinct movement. I appreciate the genealogy Atkins has constructed of skepticism and other distinguishing characteristics of post-modernism.

He is certainly right that Lyotard’s claim that post-modernity is the end of grand-narratives is itself a grand narrative. But I don’t think that that structural problem should distract us from Lyotard’s claim. We need to read Lyotard as responding to and trying to describe a change he was seeing in the world around him. This is true even if he was himself still struggling to leave a modernist paradigm behind him.

Yet, Post-modernism was a small blip on the screen of modernity, rather than a new screen altogether. My way of measuring this is inelegant but still must reflect something: when I was an undergraduate in the late 90s, the term post-modernism was everywhere. One of my friends joked at one point that she needed to take a course on the western classics in her senior year, given all the time she’d spent deconstructing those classics in every other class up until then. And yet, when I survey the undergraduates I teach, they rarely have heard the term post-modernism or the name Derrida.

Postmodernism and Judaism

What about post-modernism makes it threatening to Judaism? If Lyotard’s definition is right—and I generally think that it is and find it useful in my research and teaching—then postmodernism is threatening because Judaism is built on a grand narrative. That’s easy enough. But which sort of pluralism (another word for “no grand narrative is allowed to reign supreme”) is more threatening—the pluralism of multiple religious faiths? Or the plurality within Judaism and Jewish thought?

Another point that may or may not be related: why do the other blog posts treat Feldmann Kaye as the first Jewish thinker to wrestle with post-modernity when the subtitle of Eugene Borowitz’s Renewing the Covenant (published in 1991) is “A Theology for the Postmodern Jew.” Surely there are other examples as well. [siteowner note- think of Marc Alain Ouaknin & Michal Govrin as Orthodox examples of postmodernists]

Borowitz, of course, wrote as a liberal Jew, a leading figure in the Reform Movement. Does Feldmann Kaye acknowledge his book? Can post-modernism be a starting point for conversation between liberal and traditional Jewish theologians? If not, why is Wittgenstein a more comfortable conversation partner than Borowitz?

If Levi Morrow is right and the “postmodernism” that Feldmann Kaye has in mind is liberal individualism (something I’d suggest we should associate with modernism, not post-modernism) and “what comes after and/or attacks the ideas of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook.” This is a definition specific to a community within Orthodoxy.

If Morrow is right, there are a few questions I’d like ask: first and foremost, what is the audience of this book? If it is other Orthodox figures—perhaps Ross herself or followers of the now-deceased Shagar—then to interrogate her use of the term “postmodernism” seems to miss the point.

Tamar Ross and Postmodernism

Unlike the other reviewers, I know Tamar Ross’s work fairly well and I have a deep appreciation for what she tries to do in Expanding the Palace of Torah, even as I am not sure she is entirely successful.

To me, the heart of Ross’s work is not her use of Wittgenstein or others I might label “postmodern.” Rather, the importance of her work lies in two other places.

One is her claim that revelation is continually unfolding, a claim she bases on her reading of Rav Kook and prior Kabbalists and Hasidic thinkers.

The other important aspect of her work is her engagement with feminism, with other feminist Jewish theologians such as Judith Plaskow and Rachel Adler, and with Robert Cover’s legal theory. (Disclosure: I’ve written about Cover as a source of feminist theology elsewhere.) There is a real struggle in this book to find a way for feminism and Orthodoxy to somehow make sense together. Like Adler, Ross takes feminist Jewish theology to the next level of complexity and intellectual integrity, beyond earlier works by Judith Plaskow and Blu Greenberg, which were more focused on disrupting the status quo and highlighting the exclusion of women from Jewish history, thought, and community (if not more).

Is Ross postmodern? It’s not a term I would have applied to her; if Morrow is correct about the definition that Feldmann Kaye is assuming, then it applies to her insofar as she is an interpreter of Kook. But what does that get us? Perhaps Feldman Kaye’s book is best understood as a book about Kook’s legacy; but that does not appear from the interview to be the way in which she understands it. I look forward to reading the text and deciding for myself. I am grateful already to Feldmann Kaye, however, for engaging with Ross and giving her work the attention it deserves. To all those who have participated in the formal conversation on this blog and in other fora such as Brill’s facebook page by saying “I have not read Ross but…” I hope that this will lead you to pick up her book and take its claims quite seriously.

Zohar Atkins responds to Miriam Feldmann-Kaye

This is the second response the interview with Miriam Feldmann-Kaye- here, the first response was by Levi Morrow- here.

Rabbi Dr. Zohar Atkins (here and here) is the founder of Etz Hasadeh and a Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He holds a DPhil in Theology from Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and semikha from JTS. He is the author of a philosophic work An Ethical and Theological Appropriation of Heidegger’s Critique of Modernity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and a book of poetry Nineveh (Carcanet, 2019). He is the author of a weekly d’var Torah newsletter: tinyletter.com/etzhasadeh

His organization Etz Hasadeh  is both an emergent community oriented around the existential study of Jewish texts, philosophy, and poetry, and a lab for rethinking the field of Jewish education writ large. We promote the development of personalized, psychologically inflected, existential meaning-making skills. Etz Hasadeh offers an intervention in the way Tanakah and Rabbinic literature are taught and studied, clearing the way for a ​poetic ​approach to learning that empowers students to engage ancient images and ideas as metaphors for the challenges of contemporary life.

In this response essay, Zohar Atkins has several points. First, and easiest to grasp, is that the term postmodernism is difficult to define and may ultimately be more of a mood than a theory. Second, and more substantively, Torah is about continuity, tradition, mesorah, and grounded readings, not skepticism and the limits of knowledge. Therefore, to Atkin’s ear much of the discussion of consensus, self-acceptance, and progressive revelation sound like 19th century opinions of the followers of Zechariah Frankel.

Third, postmodernism is clearly not Existentialism, and Franz Rosenzweig already rejected the early 20th century idea of living “as if” as inauthentic. Fourth, he finds problems with Feldmann-Kaye’s use of Heidegger who rejected humanism and instead sought an opening to truth, an unconcealing of Being allowing us to think.  

Atkins does try to explain the use of postmodernism as a way of saying “God wants us to be incapable of finding God. Postmodernism is just another name for Galut Edom, the Roman Exile.” Yet, he concludes that: “these flights of poetic fancy are not postmodern, they are fundamentalist, mythic.” For Atkins, postmodernism has to treat every myth as an idol. Atkins defines the task of the contemporary religious philosopher to live “shuttling back and forth” with “an agon with myth for philosophy and an agon with philosophy for myth. Postmodern theology, thus, is a relishing of myth and a relishing of demythologization, yet it is an endeavor that, to me, seems like it can only be idiosyncratic, and a source of great dissonance.”

Finally, Atkins considers thinking “a form of avodah, is a holy, religious task” in which engagement with postmodern thought is necessary. He appreciated the “effort to amplify and beatify Torah (yagdil Torah v’adir),” by placing “it in conversation with the wisdom and insights of other traditions,” in this case postmodernism.  He is deeply committed to the horizons of our lived Torah. For him, “Torah should speak to everything we know, love, and experience.”

Concerning Postmodernism and Jewish Thought-Zohar Atkins

Defining Postmodernism

Postmodernism is notoriously—though perhaps appropriately—difficult to define.
Is it a school of thought? A literary style propounded by a set of thinkers, writers, artists (often French)? A worldview rooted in skepticism so radical it always becomes its own object of critique? An aesthetic that fuses avant-garde and pop, a la Andy Warhol, Frank O’Hara, John Cage, and Lady Gaga? A historical epoch dating to 1968? A fancy or pretentious synonym for contemporary? A way of saying modernism mamash  (really modernism)? 


If postmodernism is defined as an aversion to fixed labels and determinacy, is there any purchase to the term—l’shitato—according to its own standards, or is it a self-cancelling term, like a witness who comes before a court and says, “I am an unreliable witness”? Perhaps it is impossible to write about postmodernism; “one cannot look upon its face and live.”


If I were postmodern, I cannot be said to have an identity; rather identity is something I perform. There is no self, just presentation. To be a subject is to be a prisoner of the social order; my name-dropping does not actually refer to thinkers out there in the world, but only to the act of citation itself, a gesture, a miming of authority. In this sense, the string of proper names, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, is no different than those found in, say, a song with many names in the lyrics.

One reason for the confusion is that one of postmodernism’s chief proponents, Jean Francois Lyotard, defined (paradoxically) the postmodern condition as the end of “grand narratives.” Yet in so doing, Lyotard set up his own grand narrative, in which modernism was said to be naive and postmodernism was presented as the end of history. In this way, postmodernism’s self-representation is no different than the bombastic pronouncements of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra or Hegel’s Absolute Spirit; I suppose the main difference is the way in which these earlier iterations still aspired at some ideal, whereas postmodernism aspired to pursue with one hand what it took away with the other.

If Derrida has become a poster child for postmodernism, then perhaps what distinguishes postmodern thought from its critical antecedents is less its content than its mood, the mood of disenchantment, levity, comedy, neurosis, anti-messianism; or as Derrida put it “messianism without messianicity.”

Postmodernism and Judaism 

When Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai asked the Roman Emperor Vespasian for a yeshiva in Yavneh (Gittin 56b) he exchanged politically doomed Temple-based Judaism for a new paradigm of Jewish life. Sometimes postmodernism is presented in this way.

Yet if rabbinic Judaism saw itself as continuous with its historical past, and still, at times, looked nostalgically to the figure of the Temple in its fantasies, postmodernists emphasized and venerated rupture, as implied in their prefix “post-”. Never mind that the slogan of literary modernism was “make it new” (Ezra Pound, translating an ancient Confucian sage); never mind that montage and irony and indeterminacy and ambiguity were already important conceits before postmodernism became a cultural shibboleth. Never mind that skepticism is an ancient tradition, that subjectivism took off with Descartes, that pragmatism was a Neo-Kantian idea already popularized by William James in the 19th century, or that the so-called “linguistic turn” can be traced to Wittgenstein, a modernist, if not earlier to Herder, Schlegel, and the romantic movement?

The ubiquity and unclarity of the term postmodern means that it often does more harm than help when appended to another term such as “Jewish thought” or “Jewish theology.” Does postmodern Jewish thought mean thought that is influenced by postmodern thinkers, thought that simply occurs in a historic period known as postmodern, or thought that is treated by critics as having the worst signature features of postmodern writing, namely, convolution, sophistry, relativism, a “retreat from judgment” (Arendt), etc.? The term is so contested that it is probably better just to say what one means than make appeal to this proper name; though one thing shared by postmoderns through their debt to Quintillian, Schlegel, and Kierkegaard, is that it is impossible to say what one means; to think we can is to commit the “intentional fallacy.” “There is nothing outside the text” (Derrida).

Even here, though, postmodern analysis proves no different than its modernist antecedents; for whether the analysis is structuralist or post-structuralist, Freudian or Foucauldian, the point is that the interpreter, and not the text itself, holds the key to its interpretation. In some ways this posture is quite compatible with a certain understanding of oral Torah, whereby the meaning of the written Torah falls to the rabbis rather than, say, the karaites, historians, or philologists. At the same time, the sages of the Talmud still sought to ground their arguments in a reading of verses from the Written Torah, and subsequently, in the precedent readings of earlier sages.

I am not an expert in the thought of Tamar Ross or Rav Shagar, yet I am a great admirer of anyone who, in an effort to amplify and beatify Torah (yagdil Torah v’adir), places it in conversation with the wisdom and insights of other traditions; Torah should speak to everything we know, love, and experience. And even if Western thought is a kind of Exile, we should take comfort in knowing that “the divine presence goes into Exile with us.” Whether Ross, Shagar, and their expositor, Miriam Feldmann Kaye, succeed or fail, we should applaud their effort at kiddush hashem, of sanctifying (the Jewish) God. They follow the example of Maimonides, who said that if Aristotle’s thought were true, the Torah would have to be read in light of Aristotelian philosophy, and whose thought was, for a time, accused of being heretical until it became a dominant school of Jewish thought. 

The irony and self-contradiction of a postmodern Torah, however, is the way in which it challenges the commonsense view of truth. How can the critique of truth itself be true? What is meant by “truth”?

Reading Feldmann Kaye’s interview, my impression is that she/Ross regards postmodernism in a positive light as the doctrine that truth is decided through intersubjective agreement. To me, though, that’s not postmodernism at all, but positivism, and I don’t see how it’s much different than the historicist view established by the Conservative movement in the 19th century. Perhaps the fundamental claim that revelation is ongoing, is culturally rooted, is emergent, is not different in kind, but only in degree, from the ideas of Zechariah Frankel. Majority rules is not postmodern, its just liberal. Minhag yisrael halachah hi (the customs of Israel are legally binding)—is no different than Vox populi Vox Dei or Rousseau’s theory of the general will. We find the norm of law by consensus in the Talmud; but law is not truth; and saying there are many truths a la postmodernism is different than saying we can’t know the one truth; the former is an ontological claim, while the later is an epistemological one.

For non-specialists for whom the above sounds rather dense, let’s just put it this way, Franz Rosenzweig criticizes the view that truth is decided by human will as “as if thinking,” a form of theological hedging whereby the non-believer says that the only way to live a good life is to act as if God exists. If postmodern Jewish theology is “as if” thinking, is Pascal’s wager 2.0, I find it weak. If postmodern theology just means existentialist religiosity, it’s both hardly new, and hardly radical. Kierkegaard and Rebbe Nachman share the view that one cannot have certain knowledge of anything, yet this self-skepticism becomes a tool for motivating a leap of faith that, unsurprisingly, is outwardly quite submissive to dogma and the protocols of religious observance. The only thing that distinguishes a religious existentialist and a regular eved hashem is the existentialist’s emphasis on interiority.

Non-Foundationalism 

Feldmann Kaye invokes non-foundationalism as a hallmark of both postmodern thought and postmodern Jewish thought, yet ends up defining it in a foundationalist way as the agreement of people on what the truth is. 

For Heidegger, truth is “unconcealment,” not social reality, which he sometimes derides as “hearsay” in Being and Time, nor is truth some kind of individual experience a la the romantics. Meanwhile, for Nietzsche, truth is perspectival, yet it is the task of strong artists and thinkers to will their truth into existence by exercising a will to power; consensus is for the herd of half-dead unoriginals who are still too bound up with “slave morality,” whether they be religious fundamentalists or bourgeois secularists (or, as we now see in our day, bourgeois, religious fundamentalists). Heidegger is a non-foundationalist insofar as he rejects systematic thought based on first principles, yet the reason for this rejection is not because he is skeptic, but because he believes foundationalism is ontologically impoverished, does not enable us to properly think, and therefore, flourish. 

If non-foundationalism means we keep the Torah “simply because” we are thrown into a heritage, rather than because we have good rational reasons and justifications that can withstand critical (Western) enquiry, this is a kind of honest, modest, and yet Rube-Goldbergish way of utilizing academic thinkers to basically follow in the footsteps of Rebbe Nachman’s simpleton (see the story “chacham and tam”). It’s good therapy for people who are born into a thick knowledge of and commitment to Jewish life, but it is unlikely to win any one over; perhaps this is its virtue—it’s anti-patronizing, nice, polite pc liberalism. I happen to be a slave to God and you happen not to be, but, hey, these are both just lifestyles we inherited from our families. 

If you believe that God revealed everything to Moses, all the oral law, and all the principles for expounding it, it is very difficult to make sense of the story in Menachot 29b in which Moses sits, confused, in the back of R. Akiva’s classroom. If Rabbi Akiva is so great, Moses asks, why wasn’t the Torah given to him? “Be quiet. Such did it come to me.” 

One might be tempted to ask, similarly, why God did not reveal postmodern thought to Moses; why did God wait for our generation to reveal postmodern philosophy? To ask such a question, though, is to go crazy, for it is the kind of question that postmodern thought forbids asking with a straight face (it is somehow less absurd to ask why God waited to reveal relativity theory to Einstein). 

On the other hand, if we translate it into metaphysical terms, we can say that God wants us to be incapable of finding God. Postmodernism is just another name for Galut Edom, the Roman Exile. But these flights of poetic fancy are not postmodern, they are fundamentalist, mythic. Postmodernism is monotheistic insofar as it treats every myth as an idol, even the myths of Sinai and the myths of an unbroken mesorah. My shuttling back and forth represents not postmodern theology, but an agon with myth for philosophy and an agon with philosophy for myth. Philosophy sought to defang myth; religion is the submission to it. To be a religious philosopher is to defang and submit at once, to make a myth of defanging while defanging it. Postmodern theology, thus, is a relishing of myth and a relishing of demythologization, yet it is an endeavor that, to me, seems like it can only be idiosyncratic, and a source of great dissonance. If I were an amora, I would suggest that this dissonance is divinely prescribed, that philosophy corresponds to the first set of (broken) tablets and myth to the second (whole) set, both of which were kept in the ark together. And if I were an amora (playing Abaye to my own Rava) I would counter, and say the first set refers to myth while the second set refers to philosophy. Teiku.

Use of Heidegger and Derrida in the Interview 

Feldmann Kaye’s invocation of Heidegger is a tease; little besides the name Heidegger is given to us that suggests what a Heideggerian approach to revelation could involve, but even if there were, it is arguable whether Heidegger can be called postmodern. He is certainly viewed that way, negatively by Allan Bloom and positively by Richard Rorty. I have no doubt that Heidegger has much to contribute to contemporary Jewish life and thought, but none of the views espoused by Feldmann Kaye in the name of Shagar and Ross fit Heidegger’s thought too well, and none reflect a deep phenomenological influence; the value of cultural particularism is not unique to Heidegger and Heidegger would have eviscerated terms like “culture” and “experience” as remaining caught in a retrograde metaphysics of “humanism.”

When you compare Derrida to Heidegger, besides the linguistic and political differences, you find a tonal difference. Heidegger’s mood is heroic, tragic, messianic; Derrida’s is playful, jestful, cerebral. Heidegger and Derrida are both gnomic writers; yet one senses with Heidegger that he has something serious to say; with Derrida, one senses that the performance is the point, that there is nothing besides the rhetoric. In Heidegger, rhetoric serves the purpose of thought. In Derrida, one feels, there is nothing besides rhetoric. Derrida scholars can disagree; Heidegger reads as a reluctant spiritual Master, as a thinker. Derrida reads as a comedian, as Aristophanes to Heidegger’s Socrates, which isn’t to say Derrida isn’t serious or that there isn’t a seriousness to his jocularity, or that he doesn’t have something to say. Still, one never feels levity reading terms like Seinsfrage, GeworfenheitErschlossenheitdie Frage nach dem Technik; meanwhile, Derrida’s essays seem haughtily pitched to deflate everything of its gravity, as if any form of seriousness were somehow in danger of becoming an instrument of fascism. One can certainly make the argument that Heidegger is postmodern or else presages postmodern thought, yet his aesthetic—even when playful, even when self-questioning—has a devotional quality to it. We should consider whether postmodern Jewish thought and life require us to be jesters in the Derridean mold or pietist in the Heideggerian one. In the end, the issue of postmodernism might be one of tone and aesthetics more than content (after all, postmodernism can also be framed as a privileging of form and frame over content, e.g., “the medium is the message.”)

Conclusion 

For those of us who aspire to think, who believe it is of the utmost import, and who, as Jews, or as religious folk, believe that thinking is a form of avodah, is a holy, religious task, engagement with postmodern thought is necessary. It may be necessary even as a Jacob’s ladder we climb and then kick away. I don’t believe postmodern thought often succeeds in “thinking,” yet I believe it helps us spot the ways in which we are not yet thinking, and this humility is needed today, not just for ethical and political reasons, but also for spiritual ones. To know that one is not yet thinking, is this not the awe of heaven?

I am grateful to Miriam Feldmann Kaye for introducing the question of postmodernism into the contemporary discussion of Jewish thought and theology, not because I believe postmodernism can save Jewish life or thought (I’m not sure any doctrine, even an anti-doctrinaire one could do this), but because the question of how to live a sincere, elevated, responsible, pious Jewish life that is critical, self-critical, and open-minded, is upon us.

Levi Morrow- Response to Miriam Feldmann-Kaye’s use of Rav Shagar

This is the first in a sequence of responses to the interview with Miriam Feldmann-Kaye about her book Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age. The second response is by Zohar Atkins- here.

The review deals with Feldmann-Kaye’s use of the writings of Rav Shagar. Morrow is pursuing a graduate degree on the writings of Rav Shagar so he has the passion of a graduate student in his vigorous comments. He rejects the ridged division of Rav Shagar into periods (such as “traditional,” “existentialist,” and “postmodern,”  Yet he still works with the division to note that an early homily based on the Maharal should not be used as postmodern, and to note that Rav Shagar has explicit Existential essays in the spirit of Sartre. Morrow points out how the book needed to update its 2002 references since the majority of the writing were published since that date. Finally, Morrow returns us the Israeli sociological meaning of postmodern as post Rav Kook’s religious national project in order to point out that Rav Shagar himself remained in the Yeshiva, taught Torah and was not aiming to be a postmodern, even when he read those works.

Levi Morrow is a Masters student at Tel Aviv University, and is writing his thesis on Rav Shagar and Franz Rosenzweig. He has translated a forthcoming book of Rav Shagar’s holiday derashot, as well as many of the teachings and poems of Rav Shagar’s friend and colleague Rav Menachem Froman. Levi teaches Jewish Philosophy in Jerusalem, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.

A Postmodern Theology from the Writings of Rav Shagar?

Dr. Miriam Feldmann Kaye’s Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age focuses primarily on Rav Shagar and Dr. Tamar Ross. Is it meant to introduce their respective theologies to the reader as examples of postmodern Jewish theology? Or is it meant to use them as resources for the author and readers’ own theologies? A close reading of the book indicates that the latter is more correct, that constructive theology takes precedence to historical scholarship.

Understanding Rav Shagar’s Context

I can’t speak to the depiction of Ross’s theology, but the depiction of Rav Shagar cannot serve to introduce new readers to his theology. The focus on Postmodernism renders it at best partial, and in some cases actually misleading in understanding the thought of Rav Shagar. A few examples will suffice.

In discussing the idea of cultural particularism and the historical conditioning of the subject, Feldmann Kaye quotes from Shagar’s Panekha Avakesh, a collection of derashot on the parashah from when he was interim Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat Hakotel in 1982-83. Feldmann Kaye states:

Shagar’s conception of cultural particularism relies on a forceful alienation and negation of the self, which leads to an all-encompassing awareness of the influence of one’s surroundings. He acknowledges the strong parallels between postmodernism and hasidic introspection… With the self utterly nullified, the individual is no longer subject to delusions. She can look into herself as if she were a perfect limpid vessel and finally appreciate who she is and, indeed, the extent to which her identity and character are the result of a host of conditioning factors. (JTPA, 34; emphasis added)

However, the text she references doesn’t mention Postmodernism or Hasidism, and misses the source of the self-negation in the writings of the Maharal. Rav Shagar stresses the importance of negating the active, egoistic self, as well as purifying the self from urges and desires, in favor of a return to the “source” and “root” of the person, which enables recognition of divine truth (Panekha Avakesh, 62-63). There are many types of self-negation, and in some places Rav Shagar does connect it to the historical conditioning of individual identity and character (see, for example, Luhot U’shivrei Luhot, 52). Here, however, he’s talking about a pious duty to cleanse the self of desires and of ego in order to connect to a person’s divine source and gain a divine understanding of truth.

 I’m not of the opinion that his thought can be neatly divided into periods (such as “traditional,” “existentialist,” and “postmodern,” as I’ve heard suggested), but there’s clearly some truth to it. His early texts (and Panekha Avakesh is the earliest of his published teachings!) simply don’t reflect postmodern themes and ideas, which would make some sense as he doesn’t seem to have read them yet. Some of the same concerns may exist throughout, but the changing forms these concerns take is important. Rav Shagar talks about negation of the self, bittul, from his earliest texts to his latest. In the former, this means humility, purification of the self, and connection to the source. In the latter, it means recognizing the divine nature of the self exactly as it is (Luhot U’shivrei Luhot, 419).

Sartre and Existentialism

Another example of the value of a closer reading arises in a discussion of freedom. Feldmann Kaye discusses an essay called “Freedom and Holiness” from the book Kelim Shevurim (a lightly edited version appears in the later Luhot U’shivrei Luhot, and it was translated into English in Faith Shattered and Restored), and remarks that

Shagar guides his readers away from the existentialist idea of freedom as individual autonomy. He takes Jean-Paul Sartre to task by arguing that his understanding of the concept leads inevitably to nihilism or fatalism… Shagar takes exception to Sartre’s understanding of the self. The latter lays the burden of freedom on the individual, placing on her shoulders the onus to choose her own essence and thereby devise the ‘project’ that is her existence. Sartre saw the self as the sole arbiter of values. Shagar, however, criticizes such a conception of freedom on the basis that it leads to anarchy, and proposes instead to shift the burden for formulating truth claims onto the community… he qualifies his own version as ‘mystical freedom,’ that is, an inspired freedom derived from ‘the unity of the human and the divine’ which enables the community of Israel to shape its own set of truths ex nihilo (or in mystical terms as yesh me’ayin). (JTPA, 40-41)

The problem here is that Rav Shagar is actually aiming at a version of freedom closer to Sartre than to any other thinker he mentions, a “Sartre Plus” model rather than a rejection of Sartre (this is eminently clear from the essay, but also from similar texts such as Passover derashot on freedom in Zeman Shel Herut, 163-168, 169-178, and an essay on the self in Nahalekh Baragesh, 139-146). In the essay, Rav Shagar catalogues models of freedom, including that of the Tanakh, the Rambam, Rav Kook, and Sartre. Of all of them, Sartre is the only one who believes that freedom means the ability to create values, and this is what Rav Shagar wants to embrace.

Rav Shagar’s problem with Sartre is that Sartre, he says, thinks human creations can never be meaningful because they can never transcend their creator and gain a sense of absoluteness, meaning that a person can never commit to values that she herself created. He solves this by paradoxically identifying human creation with divine revelation. After a person creates their own values, they should paradoxically see them as divine values to which they must commit. Living a life of “covenant” (“berit”), Rav Shagar says, means seeing our freely-made choices as inevitabilities, like a person seeing their freely-chosen spouse as the only person they could possibly have married. This is Rav Shagar’s “Sartre-Plus” model of freedom.

Moreover, the emphasis on community that Feldmann Kaye sees in the essay is almost entirely lacking. The discussion of the concept of freedom in Tanakh mentions that the “subject” with whose freedom Tanakh is concerned is the nation, not the individual, and I can see Feldmann Kaye could construe that toward a postmodern cultural particularism. However, that concept is nowhere to be found in the section on “mystical freedom,” or the passages on Rambam or Rav Kook, for that matter. The emphasis is on the individual and her ability to make creative choices, and the essay concludes with a discussion of how modern man (ha’adam ha’akhshavi, which if I would most accurately translate as “the contemporary individual,” but that begs my conclusion) possesses an image of God on the level of ayin, nothingness, a liberating non-essentialism that allows them the ability to create ex nihilo.

Updating the References

On a more technical note, I want to briefly address the issue of references. JTPA is a revised version of Feldmann Kaye’s 2012 PhD dissertation, and it has been excellently converted by the publisher into a more popularly accessible book. One area that did not receive enough attention in the intervening years, however, was the references to Rav Shagar’s writings. Many volumes of his writings have been published since then, and referencing (nevermind quoting) them would certainly have enriched the book, but they are almost entirely absent (with the exception of She’erit Ha’emunah). Just to give one example, her discussions of both cultural particularlism and linguistic determinism would be greatly enhanced by Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah derashah “Religious Life in the Modern Age,” Faith Shattered and Restored,” 41-65, published in Hebrew as “Halakhah, Halikhah, Ve’emunah,” Le’ha’ir Et HaPetahim, 158-186.

Additionally, many of the references may have made sense in 2012, but the publishing since then has made them confusing. For example, there are references to “Broken Vessels, vol. 2,” a non-existent second volume of Kelim Shevurim. For someone well versed in the editors’ footnotes to Rav Shagar’s writings from before it was published in 2013, this is clearly Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, which the editors sometimes referenced as a forthcoming, expanded, second edition of Kelim Shevurim. However, for anyone not so versed, the reference is unhelpful (this also means that the correct pagination could have been tracked down, and wasn’t). Similarly, there is the essay “My Faith” which has been published twice, in Hebrew and English (Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, 407-426; Faith Shattered and Restored, 21-39), but which in 2012 was an unpublished file available only to those in the know. Feldmann Kaye’s reference to the text demonstrates just how thorough her PhD was, but the lack of an updated reference, referring to either of the essay’s two versions, is frustrating.

Is Rav Shagar a Postmodern?

By way of conclusion, I would return to more substantive issues Is Rav Shagar a Postmodernist, or a thinker who deals with Postmodernity? ( cf. JTPA, 35) He is certainly the latter; perhaps he is sometimes the former, but he is also so much more than that. It is a shame that so much of the discussion about him revolves solely around his interest in Postmodernism. He was a constructive theologian as a Rosh Yeshiva, deeply in tune with the cultural and religious shifts his community was undergoing, and he marshalled the best of the Jewish tradition and his readings of non-Jewish philosophy to respond appropriately.

As with the first example in this review based on the Maharal, there are of  many more postmodern counterexamples from Rav Shagar’s writings. In one text, he explicitly denies the ability of a person to create ex nihilo, instead celebrating the bricolage of creating something new out of something else (See She’erit Ha’emunah, 24). But that itself is exactly the point. There is so much in the writings of Rav Shagar, which are quite rich and full of theological explorations, that make it reductionist to consider them only from a postmodern perspective. Rav Shagar was a born-and-raised Kookian Religious Zionist, a Post-Kookian Religious Zionist, a brilliant talmudist, a driving force in Religious Zionism’s Hasidic revolution, an existentialist, and yes, a postmodernist as well. Appreciating all of the different voices that emerge from his writings requires care and precision, something I find somewhat lacking in Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age.

Furthermore, the matter of Postmodernism quickly becomes a question of what we, and Rav Shagar, mean by it. Tomer Persico and Alan Brill have  shown how Religious Zionist opponents of “Postmodernism” and Rav Shagar himself define postmodernism as liberal individualism. For all of them, “Postmodernism” is what comes after and/or attacks the ideas of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, a category that can include a lot more than what people typically call “Postmodernism” such as Buber, Sartre, and Rav Nachman.

It’s not incidental that Rav Shagar’s “postmodernism” is shaped by his Jewish theological context. He spent his whole life in the yeshivah system, never attending university, and was not shy about his unfaithful, ahistorical readings of secular philosophical texts: “We aren’t committed to ‘scientific,’ faithful-to-the-original, readings of Western or Eastern philosophy” (Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, 132-133).

On some level, there’s something fundamentally strange about trying to identify Rav Shagar with a given philosophical stream, while he was so self-conscious and explicit about appropriating a variety of such streams for his own theological ends. Understanding Rav Shagar requires paying close attention not to his affiliations but to his appropriations, the way his readings of non-Jewish texts constructively shape both those texts and his understanding of Judaism, “the external light and the internal vessel.”(ibid.).

JTPA is an excellent constructive work, one that attempts to delineate specifically postmodern issues for theology, and then proposes methods for dealing with them through readings of Rav Shagar and Dr. Ross. Feldmann Kaye’s call for a “visionary theology,” one deeply in tune with both Jewish mysticism and the power of religious language, is a call for us to do much the same.

Interview with Miriam Feldmann Kaye – Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age

Anthony Giddens, the world-renowned sociologist divides Western modernity into three periods, the enlightenment, modernism, and late modernity. The Enlightenment as the first form of modernity, characterized by the 18th and 19th centuries’ attempt to turn towards literacy, reason, science, and autonomy, as well as the fight against the old regime and traditionalism. Modernism, the second form of modernity, is the enthusiastic embrace of the late 19th and early 20th centuries’ turn to urbanization, individuality, and new understandings of humanity and society. The goal was to cultivate a religion that grapples with modernist challenges and accounts for individuality. Modernist expert knowledge— such as science or the university— during this period was authoritative. Late modernity, the third form of modernity, was a loss of trust in the expert authority of modernity, which resulted in the emergence of multiple forms of authority while also embracing the new materialism and post-secularism. We are in the later age. Some who emphasize philosophy and theory call this period last period postmodernism, a period that sees the limits of modernism. and its universal visions.

Among those using this philosophic language is the recent book by Miriam Feldmann Kaye, Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age ( Liverpool University Press in association with  Library of Jewish Civilization, 2019), a short but smart book encouraging us to simultaneously expand our horizons and those of contemporary Jewish theology. Miriam Feldmann Kaye, a recipient of the Cambridge Theological Studies Prize, holds a BA from Cambridge University, MA from the University of London, and PhD in Jewish History from Haifa University.  She is currently a Teaching Fellow at Bar Ilan University. She recently completed a Lady Davis Post-Doctoral Fellowship, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She also teaches in the MA program for Jewish Education at the School of Education, the Hebrew University. She is Founding Director of the Israel branch of the Faith and Belief Forum (formerly the Three Faiths Forum).

Feldmann Kaye’s book seeks to make philosophy and theological meaning from the writings of Rabbi Shagar and Prof Tamar Ross. She seeks to rescue them from sociological explanations grounded in changes in Israeli culture, and instead, sees them as directions for Jewish thought in the post-modern age, postmodern in the broad sense of general philosophic trend after modernity.  

The blog hosted a number of responses to the interview with Miriam Feldmann-Kaye. The first is by Levi Morrow on her use of Rav Shagar- here The second response is by Zohar Atkins on her postmodernism -here.

[For interested in Tamar Ross’ ideas see my interview here (also here and here), for those interested in Rav Shagar, I have 19 posts- see here and here for the end of my many posts and here and here that directly relate to his postmodernism. For those who want the sociological approach to these thinkers, see my review of Smadar Cherlow’s book here.]

Feldmann Kaye’s method is to first present the theological tenor of the current age, followed by showing how Rabbi Shagar and Prof Ross fit into this age, then to give examples and directions for expanding these ideas.  Feldmann Kaye is comfortable contextualizing her subjects in postmodern thinkers even if the subjects themselves have not read them.  If Wittgenstein is important in the 21st century, and her two thinkers fit into this trend of Wittgenstein, then she can offer other thinkers and ideas – such as by Paul Ricoeur, W. V. O. Quine, or Martin Heidegger- to amplify and develop the idea.  This method would be akin to discussing the Existential Age of Buber, Sartre and Camus, then showing that Heschel and Soloveitchik should be contextualized as Existentialists, and concluding with ideas from Tillich, Maritain, or Rahner.

All her discussion points to Feldmann Kaye’s own “visionary theology” bursting out between the lines of the book never articulated, even with my coaxing for this interview. She has sympathy for the post-secular 21st century ideas of Richard Kearney’s anantheism and Jean Luc Marion’s saturated event. She wants to open up to a theology “which does not rely on an ultimate and singular truth, but posits instead that the notion of a multiplicity of truths.” For Feldmann-Kaye “The implications are twofold: firstly, since faith does not lend itself to scientific verification, it becomes difficult to justify a preference for one’s own world view or way of life. Second, if such truths are perceived as culturally particular social constructs, their prime function is limited to defining communal boundaries.”  I heard part of it at the World Congress of Jewish Studies in 2017.  I hope to hear more.

The book focuses on three specific themes in their thought, (1) Cultural Particularism, (2) Language, and (3) Revelation.

In 1979, Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, a work acknowledging that the era of modernism and existentialism had ended. In its place, Lyotard offered skepticism about universalizing theories and a rejection of universals and metanarratives. Feldmann Kaye relies heavily on this seminal work to define the philosophic climate of our era.

The first, cultural particularism is Feldmann Kaye’s way of saying that there are only local religious truths; no longer do thinkers have to respond to modernist universals of authority and knowledge. Rav Shagar has an approach of being at home in the study hall and one finds one’s truth in the study hall, while Prof Ross has an approach of working within the particularistic canon of Kabbalah, Hasidut, and Rav Kook. Feldmann Kaye does not discuss the biographic element that Rav Shagar and Tamar Ross were friends and talked to each about theology. Nor does it discuss their specific personal uses of Hasidut, Rather, her book discusses the relationship of kabbalah and postmodernism in the thought of Sanford Drob and the role of truth in Heidegger.

The concept Feldmann Kaye focusses on is that of language and especially of Lyotard’s reading of Wittgenstein. Lyotard (mis)used Wittgenstein’s phrase “private language” to mean that there are no longer universal truths. She shows how Rav Shagar and Prof. Ross each have a sense of a private language and she discusses parallels in Richard Rorty, Jean Baudrillard, more Heidegger.  I wish she had been more analytic here since Wittgenstein is subject to many interpretations by theologians. Evangelical and Fundamentalists read Wittgenstein as interpreted by the scholar DZ Phillips as a fideism, a dogmatic private language in which the gospels are a private language not subject to any alien methods. In contrast, the scholar Norman Malcolm reads Wittgenstein as only allowing an act of faith since we cannot have any certain knowledge. But I believe Prof Ross is closer to a third reading, in which language is the rules of a game or the grammar.

Finally, Feldmann Kaye’s third topic is revelation based on these ideas of truth and language. She shows that Prof Ross accepts an idea of progressive revelation, a metaphysical idea of the unfolding of the truth, which she based on Kabbalah and Hasidut. But rather than discuss the Ross’ feminist application of this view of revelation, Feldmann Kaye opens up the discussion to Paul Ricoeur’s theory of interpretation. Rav Shagar uses the language of the study hall and treats the ongoing creativity of the Torah scholar in what he calls lamdanut as revelation.  

There will be posted a few responses to this interview in order to generate some discussion. I will return with some clarifications and some of my own views on the topics after the responses. We should thank Miriam Feldmann Kaye for opening this discussion with her smart book Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age about the importance of contemporary thought for Jewish thology. In the meantime, this is a good chance to read, if you have never read it, Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition a dated period piece and then jump to the 21st century by reading Richard Kearney’s Anatheism: Returning to God After God  (2011) to get a sense of how the secular ideas of postmodernism are used by 21st century religious theologians including Miriam Feldmann Kaye.

  1. Are you actually discussing postmodernism?

The thinkers I deal with Rabbi Shagar and Tamar Ross grapple with late 20th century modernist thought continuing to read current thought through to the current era. Rabbi Shagar joins several Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century who engaged with the existentialist movement, Ross with analytic engagement. Both of them grapple with Rav Kook, joining the ranks of some of the most significant theologians in contemporary times.

It would be reductionist to call them ‘postmodern thinkers’. I have clarified this important point – that the majority of thinkers I deal with, reject the term “postmodern”, and especially the label of “postmodern thinker”, and I have tried to respect this throughout. They are not just postmodern thinkers, but rather, draw on a breadth and a depth of contemporary philosophical movements.

In fact, I am not dependent on the term ‘postmodernism’ and would not have been opposed to using in the title the term “twenty-first century Jewish philosophy”, or even more specifically, contemporary. In the way in which I have used it, postmodernism refers to the temporal era of the end of the 20th and start of the 21st century A period after modernity – literally post-modern- in which we see the limits of modernity. In its most basic sense, postmodernism embodies a critique of different elements of modernity.

Having said that, taking sensitivities into account, I am not afraid of the term postmodern, and neither to use the word relativism, and believe that these words and concepts must challenge and draw us in as much as they repel us.

I do not think that postmodernism immediately signals relativism – it is important and preferable to separate between the two, and challenge the ambivalence towards the term. In the more lenient use of the word ‘postmodern’ in this book, I draw attention to what is meant by using this frame of Jewish thinkers who engage with postmodern philosophy.

2. Is ambivalence towards Postmodernism justified?

I want to address the ambivalence towards the term postmodern. Postmodernism is a contentious word which is easily associated, by some, with a nihilistic relativism. The outlooks it espouses indeed reflect a breakdown of ultimate truths and values.

I actually identify with the hesitation surrounding the term, and have sought to break down the fear in a way that theologians have done for centuries with surrounding cultural movements which have seemed, and which have been, strongly at odds, with the worldview that one seeks to maintain.

This is why I decided to change the title of the book, initially, “Jewish Theology in a Postmodern Age”, to “Jewish Theology for a Postmodern Age”. This change frames the purpose of the book – Jewish theology engages with its contemporaneous philosophical trends, and the volume addresses profound development of what will, in my view, become an immersion in the areas of intellectual creativity that the postmodern age has begun to offer. It must be understood as an enigma which demands our attention and as a challenge to thought, rather than a corrosive problem which must be destroyed.

The change in the book was made to highlight the distinctions between postmodern philosophy and Jewish thought, and to reflect the nature of the book which is a philosophical quest to understand the parameters of a new conversation.

In light of this, theology takes an active role engaging in that conversation where postmodernism as a worldview might be constructive, as well as destructive, to contemporary Jewish philosophical debate.

I made clear in the outset of the book, that my aim has not been to defend postmodernism – rather, to examine its various themes, as a negotiation with diverse elements of Jewish thought in the twenty-first century. This means leveraging what philosophy of religion became towards the end of the twentieth century – existentialist, dialogical, pragmatic, and following how these ideas develop into the new century. In this sense the main question becomes whether and how Jewish thought which can function and be compelling, in today’s world.

This change reflects my approach towards the thinkers I deal with: their engagement with issues of the day, does not necessarily class them as postmodern thinkers. Rather, I have written about their thinking as addressing certain issues that postmodern philosophy raises, and the acute questions it raises.

3. Why is it important to approach Rabbi Shagar’s and Tamar Ross’ thought from a philosophical viewpoint?

One of the main characteristics of the book, has been to set aside sociological analyses of both Shagar and Ross. My own academic training has been in the field of philosophy of religion.

This forms the backdrop for my intense engagement with Shagar and Ross. It is the lens through which I examine numerous texts. I probe their thinking, asking the critical questions of contemporary times, from a Jewish perspective. I specifically analyse Shagar’s later engagement with non-Jewish continental philosophers, even if he did not read them, which is so important, in my view, for understanding the true contribution he makes to contemporary Jewish thought. I am interested in the epistemological and linguistic contributions that Ross makes to Jewish philosophy, seeing feminism as a case in point, rather than as the central objective.

In Israel, some of the discussion around the yeshiva world of Shagar is associated with New Age and the pop-Hasidut of contemporary “spirituality”. Much continues to be written on this topic. Suffice it to say, there is more than meets the eye to this neo-Hasidic thinking, which actually calls for an understanding of the roles of Hasidut and Kabbalah in postmodern theology.

4. What are Rabbi Shagar’s and Prof Tamar Ross’s main contributions?

Ross and Shagar are engaging in an original dialogue about culture, language, revelation.

They both demand a revision of the concept of Torah and revelation for a postmodern age. Shagar and Ross are two of the first thinkers to reconceptualise revelation on terms which do not get caught in the issues of modernity.  Although in the book I deal with their thinking in parallel, I draw points of reference for comparison and contrast.

The book shows how this dialogue is representative of the sort of discussion seeking to engage which strands of contemporary philosophy will be most accepted in contemporary Jewish thought. In this way, we are offered an unusual insight into how they firstly recognise, and secondly handle postmodern ideas. This forms the basis for an analytical consideration of how internal Jewish theological ideas are interpreted in this age.

5. What is Cultural Particularism?

The book is split into three main conceptual sections: cultural particularism, language and revelation.

“Cultural particularism’” is a central feature of postmodernism.I use this term to refer to the position which states that our understanding and interaction with the world is contingent upon culture.

According to radical interpretations of cultural particularism, the category of objectivity is limited altogether, and only multiple different perspectives based on local perceptions and interpretations, each anchored in a specific cultural context, hold water.

Furthermore, in these interpretations the notion of objectivity is a figment of our philosophical imagination, itself conceived through the lenses of our respective cultures.

In my book, I analyse the impact of this contentious theory specifically in the realm of religion. Firstly, postmodern theology regards religion as a particularistic endeavour, fundamentally rooted in cultural idiosyncrasies. As a result, it downplays the modernist quest for universal truth and objectivity outside one’s culture. Secondly, truth claims no longer purport to represent absolute, universal, and justifiable statements about the world. A radical postmodernist world view conceives of an individual’s values and beliefs as a drop in an ocean of culturally-accepted norms.

This shift in thinking carries far-reaching implications in the domain of Jewish theology. Currently, most Jewish religious responses to the challenge of cultural particularism have come, perhaps inevitably, from a generation of thinkers who have found themselves in a transitional period between modernity and postmodernism. Even though philosophically they accept the notion of multiple truths, they still dread the ethical and practical implications of relativism.

6. How does Rav Shagar deal with Cultural Particularism?

In discussing their treatment of the problem of multiple truths and relativism, I show how their arguments facilitate the acceptance of a multiplicity of truth-claims. Nevertheless, I underscore a persistent refusal on their behalf to what they view to be a ‘collapse’ into a relativism according to which one’s own faith holds nothing truer than that of others.

Shagar appropriates cultural particularism by rendering truth subject to a cultural context. He rejects the idea of a fixed, monolithic truth as little more than an artificial, human construct.The way he envisions the community ‘playing’ a sophisticated language game allows for a degree of freedom and human creativity rarely observed in traditional circles.

Cultural particularism, the deconstruction of the universal, of the monolithic, is linked to Shagar’s notion of Beit’iut  -“home-ness” shorashiut – “rootedness”. The philosophical ‘home’ is the starting point of theology, rather than an empirically decided universal standpoint. Beitiut is an example that Shagar uses for cultural particularism. Religious meaning is where the home is. The starting point for ‘doing’ philosophy is not a neutral or objective standpoint – rather it begins and necessarily must remain, in the particularist context called ‘home’.

In Shagar’s discussion on Shabbat and the Hindu ritual of Samadhi, he draws comparisons between the spirituality of these two states of existence. The home is the contextual and therefore conceptual starting point, which I delineate as cultural particularism.

Given the role of immersion in contextual community, often described as a socially constructed community, collective discourses are what inform practice and conversation around its meaning. The individual does not operate in a theological vacuum, as he or she did prior to these times, even in times where existentialism was most prominent in religious discourse – wherein the personal experience affected and was effected by one’s own religious experience – the ennui or malaise of the age.

7. How does Prof Tamar Ross deal with Cultural Particularism?

Tamar Ross views local religious truths as valuable precisely because they are relative to a particular group. She uses this relativism to put forward a non-empirical, kabbalistic, metaphysical truth, and in so doing, endeavours to redeem relativism from its negative connotations. She affirms the relative nature of each religion, and claims that such a conception of religious truth permeates the history of Jewish thought

 Ross, like Shagar, dismisses the self as the frame of reference for determining reality. She reaches this conclusion by exploring the implications of a Kookian, Hasidic conception of the divine as a singular unity, which converge with the postmodern breakdown of subjective and objective.

Having internalized the epistemological uncertainty characteristic of the postmodern critique.

Ross seeks to establish a sound ground for religious knowledge. She turns for that reason to non-foundationalism, a contemporary epistemological position that justifies truth-claims not on the basis of their purported grounding in some neutral or objective source of knowledge, but on the degree to which they cohere with other beliefs and opinions. This attitude she contrasts favourably against any sort of radical postmodern relativism, which turns the rejection of absolute truth into nihilism and anarchy on the simplistic assessment that all truth-claims are of equal value. Instead of establishing the truth-value of a proposition against the background of an objective, metaphysical source, non-foundationalists rely on intersubjective agreement within the wider community

Ross similarly takes Kook’s innovative and non-traditional theology as an inspiring model. She describes him as ‘wise to be suspicious of all claims to absolute truth, or to any direct and perfect correspondence between our perceptions and ontological reality’. Indeed, she identifies with his scepticism and notes that such a feeling ultimately leads to ‘a fundamental shift in the expectations surrounding traditional theological claims’.

However, for her, cultural particularism, does justify one’s ability to posit a belief of ‘truth’, without believing that this constitutes the only truth. From an analytic philosophy perspective if a truth is subjective, then it is not Truth.

From the perspective of continental thought, it is evident that this misses the point. It is perspectival. This forms the demand for postmodern deconstruction of the notion of Truth altogether, linking to the ‘inter-subjectivity’ of Heidegger amongst others.

8. Is Cultural Particularism relativism?

There is a question asked of Shagar: if cultural particularism defines the starting point, the all-pervasive contextualisation of language and culture have the potential to relativize values as a whole.

We find a response to this question in Ross’ discussion of the self through Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam- even if it was not used by Shagar or Ross. Analytic (behaviouralist or neopragmatic) theories of language, propounded by Rorty, Putnam and Quine, is the idea that language it holds meaning insofar as it means something to the one who uses or understands that language. In other words, a metaphysical being or essence is not assumed when using such language. How is this constructive in philosophy of religion? Because the distinctions between language as ‘true’ or ‘false’ need not bother us so much anymore. Philosophy has moved on from these questions, and this gives us the opportunity to reconsider a Jewish theory of language. I have said many times, that this is not necessarily a new idea, but the response to it, in the relevant discourse, is highly original. 

For Ross, this reading deepens the question as to how mysticism should be understood. If not given to neo Hasidic spirituality, how should mysticism be interpreted on the philosophical level? Empirically or allegorically? In response to the theory of cultural particularism and relativism, she responds by questioning the role that truth claims play, rather than their supposed abstract metaphysical essence.  

Shagar addressed the issue through an interpretation of Slavoj Zizek’s reading of Jacques Lacan, and the idea of chosenness. Shagar provides us with a unique reading of this sort of discourse, interspersed with interpretations of Hasidut, and its relevance to this new thinking. 

Ultimately Shagar bequeaths to us a “hierarchy of truth”, rather than an acceptance of the zero sum game that some modern vs. postmodern debates seem to embody.

I critique all these responses concerning the limitations as to how far Jewish thinkers can go in cultural particularism without falling into relativism. I end this section with a broader observation that the deconstruction of universalism, plays an ethical role in its breakdown of the fallacious belief in ‘one truth fits all’.

9. How do both thinkers deal with language in a postmodern age?

If language cannot describe anything beyond itself, how can any statement be true? Do beliefs serve any purpose if they do not express something true about the world? According to postmodern theory, each culturally particular community functions according to its own semantic and linguistic system, similar to Martin Heidegger’s “intra-worldly” and Ross’ “inter-subjectivity”.

For Tamar Ross, certain aspects of this new postmodern philosophy of religion become fundamental in examining what we mean when we use theological language. To give three examples, Francois Lyotard claimed that meaning is contingent on its context. For Rorty, language serves the claim of different collectives, and in this sense is functional. Jurgen Habermas and others view this in a constructive way – how does meaning arise in a particular cultural context?

Wittgenstein’s theory of the “language game” is utilised at various points in constructing postmodern positions, by Shagar and Ross.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of ”language games” is often held up as his flagship contribution to the philosophy of language. However, his idea of ‘Forms of Life’ is critical in studying a contemporary Jewish consideration of religious language. It is in fact far more telling of the nature of religion today, and how language functions as a theological tool in our communities.

Thus, the role of Wittgensteinian thought must be reconsidered. It is at this point where the role of language comes in. Ross in a way, clears the path for what Shagar means when he speaks of revelation.

10. Does Language affect Reality?

Before the advent of postmodernism, philosophers generally viewed language as concordant with reality. In other words, they assumed that the words, phrases, and sentences we use correspond to the objects in the world that we purport to describe. This assumption that a ‘signifier’ (most notably, in speech) necessarily relates to a specific ‘signified’ is known as ‘correspondence theory’. Philosophers of language, in turn, seek to investigate the nature of this relation. They consider, among other questions, whether and how language reflects reality. This is known as ‘the problem of language’.

For Shagar, language illustrates, and manifests itself through, reality. It is the nature of reality, which changes, together with that of language. According to Jean Baudrillard, the very nature of reality alters according to the cultural-linguistic turn. I discuss his theory of semiotics as coinciding with theological interpretations of reality.

Shagar wrote about Baudrillard, combining his thinking on the nature of reality with mysticism. This led Shagar to an analysis of the role of mystical language as descriptive of reality, without having to be understood as empirically historic. Semiotics is the study of signs. It relies on the fact that our understanding of society comes through ‘signification’ (signs) which are referred to by language and in the media, but that do not exist in and of themselves. Hence language and cultural rituals symbolize, but do not embody, reality.

Today’s world is full of ‘signs’. Although we may not be fully aware of them, these signs surround us, and effectively build up what Baudrillard terms a simulated ‘hyper-reality’. Facebook and Twitter, for example, create an artificial, simulated social existence. Virtual exchanges on the cyberspace—on our smartphones and computers—allow individuals to bypass reality. It is crucial to recognize that a simulated reality is not a false reality. It means that we are aware of the factors that make our reality what it is. Shagar turns to Baudrillard to reconfigure the role of language in postmodern religion. His position is original on two accounts: it acknowledges the problem of language, and in response, re-envisages it as a network of signs that help the religious community generate its own simulated reality.To him, the language of the community serves to engender, rather than merely refer to, the religious values of its adherents.

The way Shagar is able to accommodate these positions is by relying on the Jewish mystical tradition. He employs concepts drawn most notably from Lurianic kabbalah and Bratslav hasidism to draw out a theological discourse that comprises both postmodern linguistic elements and traditional ones.

Through Ross we arrive at a fascinating, and distinct treatment of the language in her interest in the structures and types of language available to us. For her, the metaphor is instrumental in opening a world of reality which might lend themselves to, as she says, “direct intimations of the Divine”,

 For Jacques Derrida, we find that metaphors can express truths with more power than any literal statement. For language is poetic, and imaginative, rather than literal. So, literal statements about empirical facts on which religious claims might be made, are in fact, lacking in their potential for describing a reality far beyond what is imaginable, and therefore more fitting to the sort of dialogue that we have. The purposes of language in the realm of theology, are less to describe factual events, and more to create and sustain a phenomenologically compelling image of the world as it is true to us. In this sense, we move further away from the language game as a problem for theology.

11. How do the chapters on culture and language lead to a new approach to revelation?

The first two chapters bring together a new approach to Torah min Hashamayim ‘ (loosely ‘translated’ as Torah from Heaven) wherein the ‘text’ responds to the issues raised in the two previous chapters. Torah min hashamayim (Torah from Heaven) is released from modern ongoing debates of science vs religion. Denominations as being formed around responses to these questions. Certain Jewish communities, particular in the diaspora, retain this question as the overall arbiter of what is meant by Jewish thought. Moreover, it is applied to aspects of Jewish practice.

Ross’ epistemology is her idea of cumulative revelation – where Torah min Hashamayim is understood as a perpetually unfolding reality, manifesting itself in the lives of those who live by it. Shagar’s position is not dissimilar – but expressed in a more yeshiva-style way, wherein truths and meaning in Torah are unravelled through Lamdanut  – ultimately a theory of interpretation and hermeneutics. Torah inherently refers to and embodies continual revelation. For both, Torah min Hashamayim is a continual, ongoing, dynamic process, accompanied by upholders of the faith via halakhic debate and praxis, and engagement with textual exegesis and its intersections with the ruach – spirit – of the world around us. The will of God is continually discovered in each generation. Neither position is necessarily ‘postmodern’ but it is expressed in language of the cultural-linguistic turn. So, the “life of the text” as Mikhail Bakhtin argues, presents a solicitation of the text within and outside of a language game, reaching out beyond this world to an unspeakable reality – necessarily undetermined (“deferred” according to Derrida) in postmodern theory.

The book compares Tamar Ross to Paul Ricoeur’s understanding of the “conflict of interpretations” and its meaning in a textually generative community. Linguistic interpretative techniques are esoteric in their nature, pulled out of a static existenceand given a life of their own, in a dynamic, living process. Similarly, for Shagar, Lamdanut, does not constitute a language game, but a reaching out for a reality, generating its genuineness as a phenomenological community. Lamdanut and biblical and Talmudic interpretation, represents a grappling with the text which fits with the notion of postmodern hermeneutic activity as part of the continuing manifestation of oral Torah. It is here that Covenant becomes the immense and intense engagement in this process, in its various manifestations.

12. How is phenomenology important to this thinking about revelation?

The phenomenological movement of the 1920’s sought to explore the philosophical articulation of human experience. Edmund Husserl, and later, Martin Heidegger, put forward the claim that experience happens with human existence, rather than as separate from it. Whilst it was others who were to apply this to religion, it has come to provide a different and more useful way of considering religious language and the experience around linguistic dialogue. Experience is a key component of how religious meaning and truth are understood. Religious phenomena include the sense of the miraculous, the encounter with a striking text, or the sensation of transcendence at a holy site. It is the community as phenomenological discourse, which accepts upon itself the ultimate link to and connection with Torah.

Revelation as “perpetual revelation” is a development on the acceptance of the ideas of cultural particularism and language. Revelation and the language through which it is understood and experienced, depend on the nature of reality.

Torah min Hashamayim becomes the primary cultural particularist, linguistic conduit, for religious experience, rather one that works against it. Study is itself done through language and Torah is transmitted from Moses to Sinai in our very textual and dialogic activity. This is one of the main points that we arrive at in postmodern Jewish theology.

 And it is this that I have termed Visionary Theology – an embryonic model for Jewish thought today.

The methodology reflects the objective, which is to weave together postmodern and Jewish thinking side by side, rather than as conflicting opposites.  I place Jean-Francois Lyotard and Michel Foucault alongside Jewish thinkers in speaking about the first step of my claim – cultural particularism. Much of contemporary Christian post-metaphysical theology deals similar themes, such as that of Jean-Luc Marion and Richard Kearney – an area of theology which I continue to research.

I have put forward the case for their opening up to a Visionary Theology which does not rely on an ultimate and singular truth, but posits instead that the notion of a multiplicity of truths as compatible with Judaism.

The implications are twofold: firstly, since faith does not lend itself to scientific verification, it becomes difficult to justify a preference for one’s own world view or way of life. Second, if such truths are perceived as culturally particular social constructs, their prime function is limited to defining communal boundaries.

Teaching in Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia or How I spent my Summer Vacation

This past summer I taught a graduate course in comparative mysticism at University Gadjah Mada in their Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies in Yogyakarta, on the island of Java in Indonesia. In addition, and maybe more significantly, I spoke at a variety of Islamic colleges (& Christian and Hindu colleges). Indonesia is the 4th largest country in the world and it is the largest Islamic country in the world. 

The goal was to bring them a knowledge of Judaism in order to clear up misconceptions and to foster a more receptive attitude to Judaism. I was sponsored by Gadjah Mada University and by the AJC-API (American Jewish Committee -Asia Pacific Institute) for the University teaching and sponsored by Gadjah Mada University and the regional Islamic colleges for my important travel to give talks.

University Gadjah Mada is the major center for the study of religion in Indonesia and is the feeder school producing the faculty of the Indonesian Islamic colleges. I stayed in a lovley guest house a mile from the university and walked to work each day down the main shopping avenue.

In my class, I covered contemporary approaches to mysticism such as Michel de Certeau, Jeffrey Kripal, and Amy Hollywood, then the theory was applied to mystical texts from the Christian, Islamic and Jewish traditions.  I taught a course in mysticism since it complements the Indonesia emphasis on mysticism as a main rubric for self-understanding of their own religion and as an easy way to introduce Judaism into the curriculum since I spent about 40% of the classes discussing Judaism. I was specifically brought to introduce the Judaism into this major graduate program of religion, which because of its status as a feeder school producing MA’s and Phd’s who go into administration and teaching in Islamic colleges.

Indonesia is predominately an easy-going hybrid Islam oriented more toward local traditions of the arts and devotion than law. By their own estimates, no more than 25% of my classroom prayed daily, let alone five times a day. They said it was between them and God. They said they all fasted during Ramadan but did not go to prayers.

They like Sufism but are not into Sufi saints or graves. They read the Sufi mystics Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra about the “unity of being” (waḥdat al-wujūd) in which all of creation is a manifestation of the divine. But they also accepted as meaningful to their Indonesia Islam the universal Sufism of the West, including Inayat Khan, Idries Shah and Robert Frager. This acceptance of western universal Sufism by Indonesian is similar to going to Monsey NY and finding the Chassidim reading Buber.

My syllabus included the Jewish Sufism of Bahye, Ovadiah ben Avraham ben Maimonies, Isaac of Acco, and Eliyahu deVidas as a bridge topic to show a Judaism that was similar to their Islam before I turned to the Zohar and Hasidism. We also covered Christian Kabbalah as a hybrid form of Kabbalah because their own conceptions of religion are about hybridity.

Indonesia was founded on the motto of “unity in diversity” and has Pancasila as an official ideology in which one must accept one God, revelation through a prophet and scripture. The government has determined that the six official religions that follow this are Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. It is a world where Muslim acknowledge Hindus and Buddhists as having one God and where conversely Hindus and Buddhists see themselves as having one God, revelation, and scripture.

Pancasila was legally mandated from the founding of the state until 20 years ago. Now, it is still accepted but has many interpretations and variants. How much it is social policy as opposed to theology is debated; one finds explanations of this as a policy of social cohesion and for others it is a liberal and tolerant reading of Islamic theology. The country uses the phrase “God almighty” in official events to refer to all six religions.

The Islamic focus on tawhid- divine unity remains in place but also includes the other religions. Tribal religion is treated as culture and folkways- not as theology or religion- so those practices can be integrated into any of the six. The tribes were basically made to pick one of the faith for their identity cards, Depending on the region they chose Christian, Muslim, or Hindu. 

Jews are not included in this list anymore since there are not many Jews in Indonesia. They were briefly included at the founding of the state before they emigrated to Australia and the U.S. There is a trend of recent conversions to Judaism clustered in several cities, which deserves its own discussion. (In the meantime, read the two articles here and here)

There are also Muslim who study Hebrew and Jewish books as Judeophiles. Many of the latter reached out to me before I arrived when they read the announcement of my arriving.

My own host professor at the university and co-instructor is one of these Judeophiles. He is Christian, teaches Judaism, and has been on The Brandeis Schusterman program for Israel studies. He even translated Heschel’s The Sabbath into Indonesian and could not find a publisher because there was no market.

However as I write this, I note that Americans tend to know little about Indonesia and few college students study Indonesian. Sufism is a good way to introduce Indonesian Islam before I speak directly about the Islamic colleges.

Indonesian Sufism

The East Java city of Kediri is on the site of an 8th century Hindu city and is now an Islamic factory town, known as the headquarters of the leading brand of Indonesian cigarettes, mainly clove cigarettes. When I visited Kediri to speak in an Islamic college, my hosts graciously took me to the shrine of Sufi Sheykh Sulaiman Al-Wasil Syamsudin. The shrine is downtown right near the bus station and main hotel owned by the cigarette company.


In the 12th century, Sheykh Al-Wasil Syamsudin brought Sufism and Islamic teaching to Kediri in East Java from Persia. His Sufism included astrology and fortune-telling. In the 16th century, a Chinese Buddhist style enclosure was built around his tomb with Hindu and Buddhist temple ornamentation. The shire has an actual inscription about his work in old Javanese. The tomb is in the middle of a small graveyard. Around the graveyard is a mosque, community cemetery and concessions for Islamic ritual objects.

When I visited at ten PM there were only two men reciting Quran as a remembrance of God near the tomb and another two or three women behind a curtain. There is no set ritual to be done there. Outside the shrine, there were a few tables with literature from the various local Sufi organizations who venerate the shrine. Finally, as in Turkey, there were shops for sweetened Turkish style coffee in glasses.

Around the shrine, one sees items of the broader syncretic faith of Java. These include a mural of the Chinese goddess of the sea on the wall of one of the shrine’s building, Javanese Gamelan instruments, holy water for ritual in the Hindu style., and a “Cambodian tree” as a place to pray for marriage (like Amukah in the Galilee). This syncretism is characteristic of traditional Javanese Islam; one that does not worry about purity, legalism, or other faiths. This syncretism was important for me to see with my own eyes.

Clifford Geertz, the important anthropologist, considering true Islam as centered on law (fiqh) based on his knowledge of Islam in Morocco, and therefore saw Javanese Islam as an Islamic veneer over Javanese traditional religion. More recent scholars such as Mark Woodward reverses it and makes Islam as the primary religious category, which uses the local cultural blend of a Hindu-Buddhist-animist practices as ways to be Muslim.

Sufism is an alternate fundamental mode of Islam that is alternative to the version we know based on law. This is the primary mode of Islam in the Islam of Kediri. The Quran and Hadith are read in Sufi terms. It is strictly Muslim, in that, Muslims use Islamic prayer modes and chant Quran, Javanese Hindus and Christians do not. But Islam is embedded in Javanese culture. For greater detail, consult the experts on Indonesian Islam who have produced a vast secondary literature.

This Sufi Islam that accepts the practices of the local Javanese culture is rather mellow, pluralistic, irenic, and accepting of its cultural setting. In addition, Java also has many nominal Muslims, without Islamic practice or knowledge. I will talk more about it when I discusses the colleges that I visited and people I had personal discussion with about Islam. But it is important to note how mellow is their tradition flavor of Islam. One of my colleagues at the University, recently wrote a paper showing how Islam is compatible with animism. A paper that is border line between empirical observation and creating a progressive 21st century Islamic political theology that embraces tribal religions.

Since I taught mysticism, I found out quickly from both my classroom students, and subsequently from readings, that Indonesian Sufism and mysticism to them is not the sublime unitive mystical experience of William James or an inner meaning as described by the classic books on Arabic and Persian Sufism. Rather they used the word mysticism for any religious experience or connection to religious or ritual forces. The terms in Indonesia are kebatinan, which in class they used for any religious experience and kepercayaan for relgious faith.

Ritual done by Sufis is seen as having powers and blessings. And Sufi leaders, for their followers, have supernatural powers. People want the blessing (Karamat) and become Sufis. For Geertz, this was a native Javanese animism with an Islamic veneer and for current trends it is clearly Islamic Sufism making use of local language and practices.

There are many Sufi groups in the city of Kediri. The major groups recruit the male adolescents at the Islamic boarding schools and are traditional quoting Al Ghazali and requiring the following of Islamic precepts. However, there are others ranging from those that include women and children, to those that recruit through social media for outreach, and there are those that primarily cater to addicts and criminals. Some allow non-Muslims to attend. Some of them only meet at the shrine and not in a mosque because the nominal Muslims do not feel comfortable in the normative in the Mosque.

In general, the Sufi directive is that everything one does should be for God, “Le- allah” and one should think of god in all you do. Similar to the parallel concepts in Hasidut and Neo-Hasidut. According to the books about Kediri Sufism, even for the traditional groups, they assume if something is not forbidden in the Quran then it is permitted.

They do not relate to stringency of later generations. Most of the Sufi groups care little about later Arabic fatwas or later fiqh. I received similar answers from the Muslim graduate students in my classroom or local Muslims in Jogja (Yogyakarta). If you asked them about how they relate to anti-Christian (or Jewish or Hindu) writings of the medieval ibn Taymiyyah (or other conservative Islamic thinkers), they answered that it is not Hadith and does not apply to them or that they are not Salafi so he does not matter.

Finally, I wanted to take my entire University class to a Sufi dhikr or visit a tarikah since as a group of university liberals they had never been. They may have personal theologies based on Ibn Arabi or Mulla Sadra, but no actual pietistic practice or exposure. But my hectic lecturing schedule outside of the university precluded the visit. Next time.

Islamic Colleges

Besides teaching graduate school at the university, I traveled to speak about Judaism in several Islamic colleges around the country. The goal was to give them familiarity with Judaism.

Many Indonesian attend religious colleges- Christian, Hindu or Islamic- funded by the state and subject to state supervision. They are generally BA institutions; students go to the secular universities for graduate school. The Islamic colleges teach Islam in a college social-science style. They have a mandatory freshman course in Islamic religion and culture. The rest of the courses are part of the various majors. A history major can take history of Islam, a sociology major can take a course on Islamic sociology, an education major can take courses on Islamic education. Even a college that has a major in Islamic law, offers courses of a historic-social nature such as “Rise of the Salafi in the Modern Era.” The overall approach to their Islam is to rely on the Indonesian tolerant culturally embedded form and to study in a historic manner.

In some ways, one can compare their Islam to ideas of a tolerant “Catholic Israel” historic form of Judaism with deep respect for folkways and using their own clear thinking about the classic texts over the stringent interpretations made in later centuries. The heads of these Islamic colleges ideally have graduate degrees from places like the center of religious studies at the secular Gadjah Mada University where I taught. These deans, and department heads have the responsibility for the formation of a tolerant Islam in their institutions.

In each Islamic college, I began my talk by introducing myself and my religious background as a Jewish American, a rabbi, and a professor. And in each place, I created opening connection by recounting how the medieval Fatimid traders who originally brought Islam to Indonesia included Jews among the traders. We have responsa from the Cairo Genizah permitting wives back home in Egypt to remarry after Indonesian shipwrecks. Indonesians understood these as analogous to the similar fatwa permitting remarriage for the Muslim traders. But they also understood that Jews were on the Fatimid trading ships as part of what Marshall Hodgson called the Islamic Caliphate; the Jews were part of the diversity of Islamic Egypt in many ways similar to my culturally belonging to the US.

The first part of the talk was an introduction to Judaism as similar in structure to Islam in unity of God, prayer, and the other pillars of Islam. I also showed similarity in dietary practices, circumcision, and other rituals. Then, I repeated those ideas in a historic manner mentioning Talmud, hadith, kalam, Maimonides, shaariah, fatwas, responsa and Jewish sufis.

Then, I gave a brief overview of Jews under medieval Islam, both symbiosis and tension. I included famous contrasts such as the high that Shmuel Hanagid reached and then the pogrom against his son. I continued the history briefly survey the decline of the Jewish-Muslim relationship under colonialism and the rise of nationalism. I transitioned to contemporary interfaith efforts of Muslim organizations as well as very briefly mentioning the basic terms of 21st century interfaith and intercommunal relations.

Finally, I concluded with the story of one of my current Muslim Seton Hall students. He came to the program wanting to know about interfaith and Christianity, and through the course of his study decided that he wants to become a professor of Judaism in a Muslim country. He is currently working on a PhD on medieval Jewish texts. I concluded with his story as an exhortation for them to encounter Jews and study Judaism.

The students ostensibly know English as part of their HS and college education, but in all the school I used a translator stopping after every idea. In the first school, the translator only helped with some words and summarized a few ideas. By the last school, I sat with the translator the night before and went over the entire talk.

The content of the talk was not original. It included the texts from the two chapters on Islam from my book Judaism and World Religions, articles and handouts from Rabbi Prof Reuven Firestone, and speeches from Rabbi David Rosen. For the first talk, not knowing what the students would be interested in discussing in the questions and answers, I brought lots of pages with me. A whole stack. For the next talk, I just brought the script of the talk.

The reaction was better than anyone expected. I was told to anticipate 30-50 students showing up in each school. Instead I had attendance numbers like 200 in Manado and 160 in Kediri. They were excited beforehand and afterwards to meet a Jewish scholar. There was sincere appreciation for opening new vistas. After one of the times that I spoke, a female student came up to me saying: “You give really good dawah,” using the Arabic phrase for outreach or calling to God.

They had never heard any of this material before. They did not really know the basics of Judaism, the history of Jews under Islam, or met a Jew. In some ways, and I don’t say this to flatter myself, it was like Swami Vivekananda speaking at the Parliament of World Religions (1893) to introduce Hinduism, when his audience knew nothing about Hinduism, or at best, just knew it as paganism. I do not know the stereotypes that they had before the lecture since there was no before the lecture survey and Jews are not a big topic for discussion.

I was repeatedly warned to prepare for abrasive questions from the students about Palestine/Israel. In each case I was told to brace myself. But these questions never came. Maybe they were just polite. Maybe I seemed more of a cleric than a politician, the same way one would not ask a Swami from the Vedanta society about Indian national politics. I assume that I was perceived as more religious knowledge so no political questions. Or maybe they themselves do not associate their Islamic practice in anyway with the politics of Arabia, Pakistan and Syria, or even their own governments actions to suppress rebellions. Alternately as one Christian pastor involved in seminary education told me “Israel is a Christian country” and he did not understand the existence of post-Jesus Jews.

Instead, I was asked by the students in each school about the normal concerns of contemporary college students. The questions of the students were: Judaism and LGBT, Judaism and feminism or woman’s rights, is internet good for religion, and what is the role of the internet in fostering peace or violence. They did ask about overcoming social media hatred about Middle East conflicts. They also asked about Jewish dietary laws and the exact times of Jewish prayer. They wanted PowerPoint images of Jewish ritual objects, tallit, tfillin, head coverings, synagogues, Jews from different lands. I regret not having prepared such a display.

They had little interest in the theological questions of Moses vs Mohamed, or the nature of Jewish scripture, or even Quranic passages. They already have a basic respect and tolerance for other faiths as part of their curriculum.


Since the Indonesian constitution states that “the nation is based upon belief in one supreme God.” The first tenet of the country’s national ideology, Pancasila, declares a required belief in one God, revelation and scripture, which is fulfilled by accepting Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Confucianism. There would be an automatic sense that we all worship one God and one sticks to one’s tradition. This basic equivalence of faiths as political theology allows them to easily add Judaism to their accepted religions. They have all studied this in high school as part of civics or civil religion.

The Islamic colleges seek to go beyond the mandated course and offer a required course in world religions as part of their goal of creating a tolerant Islam. They actively dismiss the hardline exclusive readings of Islam produced in other countries. So, my audiences knew something about Judaism from the chapters in introductions to world religions books of Huston Smith and Ninian Smart. Those 1960’s classics present Judaism as essentialized, without medieval history, and as a religion outside politics. They have the other world faiths discussed in Ninian Smart in Indonesia, so I was the novelty of meeting a believer in faith they never met before.

There are few books in Indonesian exclusively on Judaism, some of the few books available are Abba Eban, My People and a work by a Dutch Christian. This Fall 2019, one of the Islamic colleges will be introducing a new course focusing on Judaism. I have a copy of the textbook that the teacher produced; it builds on the categories of Ninian Smart. I also met students who are studying Hebrew and came to the event in t-shirts embossed with Shalom in Hebrew.

After each talk, I would be surrounded by dozens of students wanting to take a selfie with me. Indonesia is a very big Instagram country. There are hundreds of pictures on Instagram of me with young female in a jilbab (Indonesian name for hijab) students. The jilbabs are an interested facet of Indonesian Islamic life. They were generally not worn in the 1980’s and returned in the 21st century as part of the self-identity of the younger generation. The head covering by the young generation absolutely drives crazy many of the baby boomer age Muslims who feel their children are getting too religious. Yet, this young generation is more educated, open, and tolerant.

There is a vast literature on how the young feel the jilbab is essential to their Islam and how at the same time they are more likely than the previous generation to write dissertations on eco-feminism or greater feminist rights. Part of the current acceptance of the jilbab is that they are now in bright colors, vivid patterns and serve as bold fashion accessories. More than half of my graduate classroom was female. From what I hear, that is a major change from 15 years ago.

On the other hand, most of these same women wanted to shake my hand and then put their arm around me for the selfie. I asked many of them: Is touching a member of the opposite sex permitted. I have been in other Muslim counties where it clearly was not permitted, even in non-Salafi ones. Each woman gave the same basic answer. “We are not Salafi” so we touch. Salafi functions as a pejorative in the language of the college students for those too strict in the law or those who invoke a fatwa made in the Arab lands. They have their own identity as traditional Indonesian Muslims.

There are 100’s of these selfies with students on Instagram

What about Salafi Islam? Isn’t it taking over?

Some of my readers may remember that Bali was bombed in 2002 by Jemaah Islamiyah, a violent Islamist group.  But the government has been banning, imprisoning, and expelling radical Islamic forces. Those convicted in relation to the bombings were sentenced to death.

On the other hand, the NYT considers the younger generation of feminists and phd students who wear a jilbob as a right-wing turn. However, it is a truism around the world that the younger generation of Orthodox of any faith who are more educated than their parents have a greater return to textual practice as part a transition from traditionalism to a text-based religion. And Indonesia has had religious parties that have wanted more Islam in the country since it founding 1945, but they want an Indonesia Islam.

Recently, there was a wonderful article by Muhammad Sani Umar &  Mark Woodward, “The Izala effect: unintended consequences of Salafi radicalism in Indonesia and Nigeria” in Contemporary Islam. In the article they “argue that the Salafi religious and cultural agendas are incompatible with Islam as understood by a vast majority of Muslims in these regions.” They see the extreme Islam as inauthentic compared to their version. The Salafi seek to ban the cultural Sufi world of poetry, music, performance and that drives the Indonesian to totally reject the Salafi.  The Salafi want to introduce Arabic culture and people are proud of their Indonesian culture, so the Salafi are obviously false. They show that Indonesians associate all forms of Salafi- Wahhabism with violence and terrorism.

To return the opening discussion of how does Indonesian Islam accept Hinduism and Confucianism as a unified monotheistic God of tawhid. Indonesians study the Sufi mystics Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra who are monists and  define tawhid as the “unity of being” (waḥdat al-wujūd) that denies an ontological distinction between Allah and creation because all of it pre-existed in the mind of Allah prior to the moment of creation. All of creation is a manifestation of the divine; we experience the divine in all things. Since  Salafis reject these propositions, then from an Indonesian perspective they do not have the proper Islamic worldview. 

My students certainly had these mystical perspectives and their parents certainly went to Sufi shrines. Hence, they are compelled to reject Salafis. Arabic beards and robes do not make the Muslim, rather the unity of God in the heart.

Plato, in the Republic wrote “when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.” Here the converse is true. The Indonesian commitment to Gamelan music and ritual performances  means the extremism is not accepted. I am not an ethnomusicologist and did not pay the same attention to music as to religion. However, gamelan music is taught to children. People told me that their relatives taught it to them as children or they went to Sunday school for gamelan music.  One Sunday morning, standing before an open-side building design, I watched such a class for 30 kids. I even met some American ex-pats who were sending their girl – age six to the Sunday gamelan class. People shows off to me that they could play. But outside of the classes or special festivals and events, I heard little of it on any island. Even the masjid in Kediri had a set up for playing gamelan music in the mosque.

Nevertheless, yes, 2019 Indonesia is stricter than 1999 Indonesia. Alcohol and porn are banned on Java as an act of upholding Islamic values- but that does not mean they want other aspects of the law or the undoing of religious diversity.

Do not confuse Java with Aech on the northern tip of Sumatra, which follows Sharia. I did not visit it and it functions, in many ways, as its own region. I also was not in Papua or the Maluku islands.

In addition, do not confuse Islamic popularism in politics with Islam as a religion. Indonesia has its share of Islamic versions of Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, and Bezalel Smotrich, below the threshold but making lots of noise. But they are not Bnai Brak Haredim, so too the Islamic popularists are not Haredim.

For example, there is preacher at as a masjid on/near the campus of University Gadjah Mada who advocates an ethno-national Islam of wanting to exclude Christians and Hindus from teaching and living together, but it has little connection to Islamic observance or knowledge of Islam. The same ethno-nationals may not pray Islamic prayers or follow Islamic law. It mainly attracts the formerly secular and those in the natural sciences. The strictly observant Muslims are products of Islamic boarding schools and are more politically tolerant than these ethno-nationals. The University’s administration counters the ethno-national Islam by giving greater voice to the graduates of the Islamic boarding school system who can read Arabic and know the Islamic religion.

Finally, seventeen years ago in 2002, was the last time the university had a visiting professor of Judaism, Rebecca T. Alpert of Temple U. In her own account of her time in Indonesia, she remarked how people thought she was crazy to go to a Muslim country. Now, it is common to meet fellow ex-pat Jews in Dubai, in Turkey, and elsewhere. Also she notes how she learned of how the Biblical stories are portrayed in the Quran in this visit. Now there are Jewish professors of Islam and Christianity as well as Muslim and Christian professors of Judaism. The age of globalization creates a field of greater travel for interfaith work, and in the 21st century there is greater Jewish-Islamic encounter and knowledge of one another. My trip did not have the surprise element but is all part of today’s interfaith work.

10 Years of the Blog

I started the blog 10 years ago 9/11/2009. Still Here.

 


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Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen- Be, Become, Bless

Rabbi Yakov Nagen’s new book Be, Become, Bless (Magid, 2019) is a delightful and thoughtful series of talks on the weekly Torah portion closing the gap between Torah and Indian religion and thought. The book came out six years ago in Hebrew Lehitorer Le’Yom Hadash and has been translated and reedited for an English audience.

Nagen who has visited India as part of the bigger wave of 30,000-40, 000 Israelis who visit India each year. This gap-year in India has had a profound impact on Israeli youth, who seek to find some of the same spiritual values and ennobling aspiration of Asian religions in the Judaism they return to in Israel. It is common to see Religious Zionist youth with Hindu and Buddhist works and it is common for them to attempt an integration of meditation, visualization, yoga, or monism into their Judaism.

Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen (formerly Genack) studied at Sha’alvim Yeshiva, Har Etzion Yeshiva, and RIETS. He obtained his BA, MA and ordination from Yeshiva University and has Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. His PhD on Rabbinic thought was the basis for his book on Tractate Sukkah —Water, Creation and Divinity: Sukkot in the Philosophy of Halacha [Hebrew] (Giluy 2008); The Soul of the Mishna – a literary reading and search for meaning [Hebrew] (Dvir, 2016). Nagen is a leading rabbinical figure in interfaith encounters with Palestinians in the Holy Land. He has organized prayer vigils bringing together Israelis and Palestinians against religiously motivated violence. Currently, he is Ra”M in Yeshivat Othniel allowing him full Rav Shagar inspired freedom to ask new question. Nagen was a friend and student of Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa, well known for his emphasis on interfaith and peace. There will be a part II to this interview where we discuss his views on Rabbinic thought and Interfaith.

Nagen is responding to this turn to India by helping his readers see commonalities between the two faith. They are not in contradiction, rather complimentary. Nagen’s basic rubric is the distinction between Doing and Being.

Doing is the active life of accomplishment, looking to the future, and building society. Being is the activity of living in the moment, accepting the depth of the inner life, and the silence of meditation. Nagen acknowledges that it has taken a turn to India for Jews to rediscover Being. However, Nagen repeatedly points out in his classes and in this book that a Jewish spiritual path combines both Being and Doing.

The point of his book is that is OK to turn East, it is fine for the turn to Hinduism and Buddhism to return us to this inner point. His innovation is that once we rediscover this quality of Being, we rediscover that it was all along with Judaism, and we can return to Jewish texts. He acknowledges that it was not found in the immediately prior era of Brisk and Yeshiva learning, but it is found in the breath of Judaism. The turn to India should lead us back to the depths of our own tradition, Kabbalah, Hasidut, and even a spiritual reading of Rabbinic texts.  The goal is not to knock Asian religions as lacking, rather they have something to teach us and we need to return with this new emphasis and reintegrate it into our lived Torah.

Even though we are seeking spirituality, orthodox Neo-Hassidism is not the approach. we need to work out our own forms of be here now – to embrace our 21st century life. What does it mean to see God in all things in our contemporary lives? How are all things in God? A world where everything is a manifestation of the divine and we should come to appreciate it. We need a Torah spirituality that gives us compassion like the Buddhists or love like the Christians and a spiritual acceptance of others. Much of Neo-Chassidism obscures the spirituality by focusing on jargon, externals, particularism, and romanticism. A positive example of how to read texts how to present spiritual ideas powerfully and simply is Eckhart Tolle. We can use his method to present Jewish spirituality just as clearly and powerfully. Yet, always seeking to reground it in the Jewish commitment to mizvot and worldly activity.

I am not sure all of his groundings of East in West work, for example his grounding of OM in Shalom or his grounding of Buddha in Moses may be a bit too speculative. In addition, Nagen focuses on the East and Being in a way that does not really differentiate Jains, Buddhists, the many varieties of Hindus, and Sikhs, he just treats them all as Indian spirituality. He discusses Hinduism and Taoism in the same paragraph. Nagen’s homilies do not offer anything to someone who wants to learn Eastern thought. He does not have sustained exposure to Eastern thought but neither do the Israelis who have been to India that he is speaking to during shiur. However, he does open Torah themes that others have never opened up. He is the next generation after Rabbis Shagar and Froman pointing to a more experiential Torah.

Ten years ago, Rosh Yeshiva Elchanan Nir at Siah Yitzhak edited From India Till Here, [Hebrew] (Rubin Mass, Jerusalem, 2006) presenting accounts of Israeli religious Jews visiting India to see its spirituality. And six years ago Rabbi Yoel Glick wrote a Hindu inflected insights into the weekly Torah reading Living the Life of Jewish Meditationfor interviews see here and here . Now are also the years for the first academic comparisons of the to faiths Dharma and Halacha: Comparative Studies in Hindu-Jewish Philosophy and Religion edited by Theodor and Greenberg (2018), the two works by Rabbi Dr Alon Goshein Gottstein, Same God, Other God (2015); The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism (2016)- discussed in interviews here and here, the forthcoming work by Rabbi Prof Daniel Sperber and my own soon to be released Rabbi on The Ganges: A Jewish-Hindu Encounter (2019)

Nagen’s spirituality is based on meditative quiet, existential depth, and sincere awe of the compassion and goodness he sees in Asian religions. More than a decade ago, American scholars of congregational spirituality divided spirituality into four types: (1) working out the cosmos and the game plan for reality;  (2) emotional enthusiasm (3) contemplation and inner self; (4) the giving of oneself in helping others. Nagen is unique against a backdrop of Orthodox emphasis on types one and two, much dancing and/or kabbalistic esotericism, he offers us “Being” the third option of an Eastern inflected spirituality of the inner self combined with “Doing” the compassion for all beings and reality.

Be, Being, Bless (Magid, 2019) is an enjoyable read, which offers new vista into the meeting of Eastern spirituality with Judaism. The book’s arrangement as Torah commentary on the weekly section of the Torah makes it into a delightful choice to read on the Sabbath or take to synagogue. The book allows us to journey with Rabbi Nagen as he shares his own experiences, which he uses to develop his creative integrative path. At the same time, he provides a Torah role model for this generation of seekers. We have a Rosh Yeshiva sharing the journey East with his students and coming back enriched and transformed. He is the Rosh Yeshiva who says that it is not only OK, but enriching. I would recommend for all those looking for a path of integration of Indian spirituality and Judaism.

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Interview with Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagan- Be, Become, Bless

1) What is spirituality?

Spirituality is an emphasis on the emotional, imaginative and experiential elements.  Spirituality is a search for meaning in life in which there is a sense that there is more to life than what is visible and familiar. It aspires to be transformative to how life is lived and experienced. In the context of religious life, it is the thirst for a direct connection to God and to experience the divine. Its praxis includes a greater focus on prayer that is spontaneous and personal prayer, not only verbal prayer but also connecting to God through music, art and meditative techniques.

Much of the Jewish literature which deals directly with these issues are Chassidut and Kabbalah. Understandably, the resurgence of Jewish spirituality is often referred to as neo-Chassidut. However, I feel this is a problematic term as is creates a very particular historical and cultural frame of reference for this phenomenon. Instead I see spirituality as a vital and fundamental impulse at the heart of Judaism and indeed of religion in general.

I find that the use of the broader term of spirituality facilities encompassing a broader range of ideas and sources, especially those outside of Judaism.  I find it leads to less using labels and jargon and thus challenges us to use a language of life itself and demand of the ideas to have inherent meaning.

In contrast, I consider the Chassidic masters of the 18th century thought the 20th century not as starting points for today, rather as records of the significant expressions of this impulse in prior ages. By not using hassidut and its historical context as  the point of reference, allows to focus on the inner essence and not externalities. Thus, I do not recommend returning  to clothing characterizing a certain context, nor do I seek a cult of personality relating to masters such as Rav Nachman.

2)  How did you turn to spirituality?

One could argue that the materiel success of our generation frees us from focusing on basic survival needs and opens us to the bigger questions of life and its meaning.

On a personal note, however, it was an opposite path which brought me to focus on spirituality. The formative insights in the book emerged in response to painful and traumatic events, primarily of the second Intifada (2000 – 2005) in which many close friends and students were killed, this is what pushed me and others to question life and to search.

When my student Avi Sabag was killed by terrorists half a year after his marriage, one of the most oppressing thoughts was the disparity between how hard it is to build a life, how much parents worked raising him, how much his teachers invested in him, and how much the person himself worked to build. I saw how easy it is to destroy. While being consumed by this thought suddenly, I realized that there is another way to look at life, not as a series of progressive steps, but to see each part, each day as an end it itself. I eulogized Avi as having lived few years but many days, thousands of days of rejoicing in the blessings of life and bringing blessings to others. Each day of life is a fulfillment and world in its own, and the challenge of life is found in how I lived today.

This insight evolved into a practice that I have done for many years – I begin each class by saying the Hebrew date, to recall that it is unique, never was and never will return, which pushes my consciousness to focus on today. I then add the verse “This is the day that God has made, let us rejoice in it (Tehillim 118:24) to direct my consciousness to see life itself as a blessing. Only later I discovered this focus on living the present as theme in Breslov Chassidut and in Eastern spirituality.

This return to spirituality is much more pronounced in Israel than in the United States. I see this in the context of exile and redemption. The Talmud (Berachot 8a)  teaches that after the destruction of the Temple, “all God has in the world is the four amot of Halacha”. This reflects a tragic limitation of the sphere of divinity in life. In many of his writings, Rav Kook saw the essential spiritual significance of the return of the Jewish people to Israel, as a return of religiosity to the totality of life of which is what spirituality strives to fulfill. In a similar vein I once heard Rav Shagar give a lecture about why Briskers’ have a conflict with Zionism.  Zionism he argued is about the return of the Jewish people to history and life, Brisk see the divinity of Torah and Halacha as being above and therefore detached from life and time.

3) How is God present in the world and how is everything in God?

When my children were four and six years old, they had a conversation at home about the relationship between God and humanity. Noa returned from kindergarten and declared that God is in heaven. Hillel replied, “God is everywhere – in the mountains and in the sea and in heaven too. I will explain it to you: Do you see how our house surrounds us and we are inside it? God is like our house. Later I discovered that the simile my son chose to explain that the world is within God appears in the ancient kabbalistic work The Bahir (1:14): “Why is the letter bet closed on all sides and open in the front? This teaches us that it is the house (bayit) of the world. God is the place of the world, and the world is not His place.”

This is not just an abstract idea. Kabbalah teaches us that God is present in everything: in life, in humanity, and in humanity’s relationship with the world and all living creatures. If we open ourselves up to this way of thinking, it will change the basic consciousness mediating our experience of reality. It is an insight that teaches us to open our eyes and hearts to the light and goodness in the world and in humanity, to love life and consider it a blessing, to understand that there is a principle that unifies everything.

4) What is the distinction between doing and being?

Jawaharlal Nehru, former prime minister of India, described the cultural divide between east and west as what is the fundamental question of life – for the west it is “what to do?”, for the east “what to be?”

The difference between “doing” and “being,” in this intercultural comparison, is the difference between wanting to change reality through action and the capacity to accept reality as is, between orientation toward the future and a recognition of the present. Existentially speaking, it is the difference between defining oneself in relation to the question “What do I do?” and the question “Who am I?”.

A central thesis in my book is that the land of Israel is at the crossroads of East and West, a geographical-historical fact that carries profound spiritual implications. Judaism contains ideas that are generally identified with Eastern religions, along with ideas that underpin Western thinking. Judaism’s grand spiritual message is the synthesis of these disparate elements, an outlook that unifies “being” and “doing.” One obvious reflection of this is the structure of the Jewish week, six day of doing and one day, shabbat, of being.

The terms “being” and “doing” are not extraneous to the Torah – they appear in the text itself. In the first description of Creation, the Torah relates a story of action. Humanity is made in God’s image, and its purpose is to rule over the world.  In describing the purpose of Creation, the Torah uses the word “laasot,” meaning “to do” (2:3). The second story, in contrast, describes an existential experience of “being”: humankind is portrayed as living in harmony with nature in the Garden of Eden, and the purpose of its creation is given as “It is not good that the man should be alone” (2:18). In the first description, the relationship between Adam and his wife is outward-facing – they are charged with changing reality by being fruitful and multiplying, enjoined to procreate so as to dominate the world. But in the second narrative, the relationship faces inward, and rather than multiply, the male and the female coalesce: “…and [he] shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh” (2:24). Together, a man and a woman are the answer to human solitude, and being in union is the pinnacle of their relationship.

The Torah relates the creation of the world twice: chapter 1 of Genesis divides it into seven days, while the telling in chapter 2 focuses on Man in the Garden. This repetition is the basis of Rav Soloveitchik’s essay The Lonely Man of Faith of two archetypes of Humanity. I suggest an alternative reading to that of Rav Soloveitchik that considers the difference between the stories as an expression of the gap between a life approach of “doing” and a life approach of “being.”

5)What do we gain by looking to India? What does it have to teach?

First allow me to preface by saying that I see it as a positive and not a problem when Jews and Judaism are blessed to learn from others.

I know that there are those who always will try to find a source for everything in ancient Jewish sources to make it “kosher” or will try to claim, based on the Zohar, that Eastern spirituality emanates from the gifts that Abraham gave to the children of the concubines who went East. (Genesis 25:6). However, if one truly believes that God is the source of all life and that there is a spark of the divine in all things and ideas, then what should count is not is it Jewish or from a Jewish book but is it an expression of the divine. Furthermore, the vision of unity that stems from this belief sees a value of connecting to the divine in all things.

The dynamics of giving and receiving is a powerful way to connect to the potential of the divine in the world. Once, on a hilltop in India, I thought of a Drash on the name of God, the tetragrammaton. The first letter, Yud, in Kabbalah reflects giving, the second letter, Heh, receiving, the third Vav is the letter of connection and the fourth, Heh, is the letter of teshuvah, return. In the encounter between Judaism and the world there are four blessing, the blessing to give, the blessing to receive, the blessing to connect and finally I belief that a Judaism in deep dialogue and connection to the world will lead to teshuva, return, of those who have strayed afar.

For me the value of exposure to the East is less about learning new ideas, rather the value is the simplicity and directness with which the basic ideas of spirituality are presented, especially the concepts of Nondualism and Being. This is something that we can learn from and what I try to implement in my book.

Professor Shalom Rosenberg at the beginning of his book “Good and Evil in Jewish Thought” brings the anecdote from the beginning of “The Little Prince”, about the Turkish astronomer who finds the planet of the little prince. At first, he is not taken seriously because of his strange garb. When Ataturk takes control of Turkey and has all wear modern attire, the astronomer after changing his clothes is finally listened to. So too, the Eastern garment for spiritual ideas makes them more effective in gaining our attention. Our goal is not to use the Eastern garment, rather to learn from the East how to use more accessible, familiar and not arcane language to discuss spirituality; we need to a language that is lived in.

I must point out that some of the systems of Eastern spirituality are one-dimensional, believing that one technique or one idea, is enough to be a gateway to awakening. However, I see this as a gross limitation of life and reality, on the other it is very effective to convey that particular idea.

For example, Eckhart Tolle’s best seller “The Power of Now” focuses on the significance of being present in the present. The fact that he sees this as end all allows him to convey this idea very powerfully and passionately. However, this exclusivity I see as very problematic, I once heard a tape of his being cynical of people who go to Africa to help the poor as futile, being that what really would uplift life is learning to live the Now. With my students I teach Tolle but also present the limitations of his approach.

6) How is your approach about accepting the other?

One of the chapters of the book, was originally titled “God is in other people”, My translator, Elie Leshem, very cleverly changed that to “God is other people” as a play on Sartre statement that “Hell is other people”.  I discuss the Zohar conception that giving to the other is giving to God because God is in the other. The first time in the Zohar that the doctrine of broken vessels is mentioned, is the context of people with broken lives who are the broken vessels of God’s divinity.

This idea of the divine in each of us goes back to the fundamental statement about the nature of humanity in the Torah, that we are all created “in the image of God.”

Rav Kook begins his book “For the Perplexed of the Generation” with the statement – “Humanity is created in the image of God, this is the essence of the entire Torah” I certainly see this as the fundamental idea of the Kabbala, including the Zohar and the Ari, especially their stress on the Partzum of God.

7) What is your connection of OM and shalom?

The similarities between Om and Shalom are apparent. Shalom includes the Om, and both refer to the divine. Within Judaism not only Shalom (Leviticus Rabba 9:9) but Om is a name of God according to th Sitrei Torah of the Zohar (Zohar Vayera 108b- it lists 70 letter combinations each to be considered a name of God- in this case alef vav mem).

Both “Om” and “shalom” connote oneness and harmony. Therefore, they are used to summarize and conclude: “Om” often appears at the end of sacred texts, such as in Hinduism’s Upanishads. The word “shalom,” too, concludes many prayers, including the Grace after Meals (“The Lord will bless His people with peace”), Amida (“Who blesses His people Israel with peace”), and the Priestly Blessing (“and give thee peace”). In talmudic and mishnaic literature, many tractates are concluded with Shalom.

However, what I find most significant and fascinating is how these similarities  highlight the differences between them.

The following insight originated while I was preparing for a lecture to be given at the Boombamela – a week long New Age shanti festival held during Pesach on a beach near Ashdod which in its heyday attracted tens of thousands. I thought to talk about similarities  between Om and Shalom, but realized how this missed the point and the message that I wanted to convey to the people there.

Shalom incorporate the Om but is not limited by it:  According to Sefer Yetzira (The Book of Creation) at the root of language are three “mother” letters – alefmem, and shin – each of which represents a different element of creation: mem stands for water, shin for fire, and alef for air (Yetzira 3:4). The three elements reflect the dialectic between fire and water, with air symbolizing the synthesis between them (2:1). The Zohar (Vayikra 12b) notes that “shalom,” begins with the letter shin and ends with the letter mem. The shin, it explains, represents fire (esh), while the mem represents water (mayim). Shalom is the capacity to encompass those binary opposites. The duality between fire and water is symbolic for the duality of doing and being and of western civilization and eastern spirituality.

For example, in the foundational text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, water is likened to the Tao itself (the indefinable, infinite principle that underlies and sustains all of creation). The book praises water and its attributes – nothing is as soft and yielding as water, which is yet strong enough to overcome and wear away that which is hard. Consequently, the Tao advocates inaction (Wu wei), a passive approach to reality. Many other Eastern traditions also teach that enlightenment is attained by accepting reality and “flowing” into it, a process that takes place mostly in one’s psyche, irrespective of action. The sound of the “Om” rises up from the water.

Western culture is founded on fire. The calendar is derived from the solar year, and the Christian Sabbath is Sunday, the day of the sun. Greek mythology, which, in many respects, remains to this day the foundational mythology of the West, associates the dawn of civilization – the very possibility of creation and progress – with Prometheus, who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humanity. Fire symbolizes the active principle, that which imposes its will upon reality. Dynamism, the will to effect change in the world, and the desire for progress – these are the foundations of Western society.

8) What are the fundamental differences between Judaism and Eastern religions?

I would start with the differences in the conception of the divine. The classical conception of God in Judaism and the other Abrahamic religions are based mostly on dualism, meaning a clear differentiation between the divine and the earthly. Creator and creation exist independently of one another – a distinctness that enables dialogue. God created the world, He steers it and acts upon it; man talks and prays to Him, and examines His ways in an effort to learn from Him and obey Him. The individual can maintain a real relationship with God, with room for feelings such as love and hate, fear and anger. These religions cast God in human terms, as Father, Lover, and Brother.

The Eastern religions, in contrast, are non-dualistic. They consider God and the world to be one, and their religious experience is an awakening to the oneness underlying everything (Brahman, or “infinite expansion,” in Hinduism, and “emptiness” in Buddhism).

My friend the late Rabbi Menachem Froman used to relate an anecdote that illustrates the difference between the two outlooks. During the Dalai Lama’s first visit to Israel, the Dalai Lama took part in an interfaith conference by the Sea of Galilee. It was a drought year, and Rabbi Froman, who also attended the conference, convinced the other religious leaders to join him in a prayer for rain. They all stood together – rabbis, sheiks, and priests – and prayed  for rain. But the Dalai Lama whispered to Rabbi Froman that he did not believe “in this kind of thing.” I mention this anecdote in the book. But what I don’t mention as I didn’t want to move the focus from the essential point, was that the next day there was pouring rain!

The difference between the two approaches is the essential starting point of the great divide presented in my book between “being” and “doing.” In a world where everything is one, humanity’s purpose is to reveal the unity underlying reality, which to the naked eye seemingly comprises endless disparate elements. However, when God is conceived as being outside the cosmos and acting upon it, the individual’s challenge is to act and strive to rectify reality.

Judaism incorporates a synthesis between doing and being,  the conception of the divine incorporates these two conceptions of God.

Rav Kook presents this approach in his Shemona Kevatzim (1:65). In the overt level of reality, God is distinct from the world and maintains a relationship with it, but on a deeper, more concealed level, all is one; everything is divine. The sources of “overt” Judaism, including the Bible, Talmud, and halakha, deal mostly with a personal God, while Jewish mysticism – Kabbala and Hasidism – is concerned with the inner Torah, with uncovering the divine in all of reality.

The complex relationship between God and the world can be likened to the love between a man and a woman. In order for there to be a loving relationship, each must reserve a place in their lives and their personalities that is separate from the other. It is only from such a place that they can emerge, love, and carry on a relationship. At the same time, each aspires to feel, even within that separate space, a sense of unity and shared experience with the other. A great example of this ideal is Rabbi Aryeh Levin, who – as the famous story goes – went with his wife to the doctor and complained, “My wife’s leg hurts us.”

9) You advocate the cultivation of compassion,  Isnt that Buddhist and not Jewish?

I am happy that Buddhists cultivate compassion. However, I protest the assumption I often hear expressed, consciously or unconsciously, that once a world religion or culture is identified with a value however significant and authentic it is can become almost taboo for Jews.

Similarly, concerning human rights, there are circles in which you can be accused of in influenced by western values, which they consider in opposition to Jewish values.

To say “God love you” can elicit a response “that sounds very Christian”. But it is Biblical and part of Torah. I am not defined by the negation of what defines the other. Compassion is Buddhist, it is Jewish, it is Divine.

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10) What lesson do we learn from the Sikh temple in Amritsar?

The Golden Temple in Amritsar is the holiest site in  Sikhism. As Sikhism is a purely monotheistic religion, this was the only Temple I entered while in India. For 2000 year we don’t have a Mikdash, the Golden Temple can give a taste that helps us grasp the experience of Mikdash. However, as in all my encounters with the east, was struck not only by the similarities to – but also the differences from.

The Jewish and Sikh temples are similar not only in what is conspicuously absent from them – idols – but also in terms of their content. The Golden Temple houses the original Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, just as the ark in the heart of the ancient Jewish Temple contained the Stone Tablets of Moses and the first Torah scroll, written by Moses. At the center of the Sikh temple, an old man in white vestments sits and reads from the Guru Granth Sahib, surrounded by a group of elders, also clothed in white, who play music. This recalls the atmosphere in the Temple, in terms of both the white vestments of the ministers and the musical instruments, which in Jerusalem were played by the Levites.

I was impressed especially with the eating rituals in the Golden Temple. Every visitor, upon entering, receives a helping of food. The ritual has a moral implication: everyone eats together. The ritual reminded me of the eating of the burnt offerings in the Jewish Temple. When it comes to the Pascal lamb for example, all Jews eat the same sacrifice in the same place, in a national meal meant to drive home the fact that we are all free.

Another similarity is the welcoming atmosphere it both temples: the Golden Temple is open from all four directions and features a hostel for non-Sikh guests. Those are expressions of an openness to all of humanity that echoes Isaiah’s prophecy about the future Temple: “For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is. 56:7). Indeed, already during the dedication of the First Temple, King Solomon asks God to heed the prayers of “the stranger that is not of Thy people Israel” (I Kings 8:41–43).

Yet, alongside the many similarities between the two temples, there are also differences. The Temple in Jerusalem occupies a far more central role in Jewish life – including thousands of years of mourning for the destruction of the Temple and yearning for it to be rebuilt – than the Golden Temple does in the Sikh religion, where it is of relatively minor importance.

Perhaps the difference stems from the varying meanings associated with the temple in the two religions. Sikhism does not contain a concept of sanctity of place and time. The significance of the Golden Temple is an expression of the fact that it houses the religion’s original scripture. The absence of discrete holiness – such as in time or place – stems inter alia from the idea that God is everywhere. Although Judaism, too, believes that no place is devoid of His presence, it retains an idea of sanctity of place. Judaism believes there are special sites that facilitate intimacy and an encounter between human and divine.

It is due to this conception of holiness that the Temple is designed in a manner that is at once welcoming and removed and exclusive. The Temple is open on one side to all – women and men, Jews and gentiles alike – and all are allowed to bring offerings, but the farther in one progresses, the more stringent the demands. Entry into the heikhal, the main sanctuary, is contingent on special physical and spiritual preparation, and there are places where one is forbidden from entering. In the encounter with the divine there is a constant dance between revelation and concealment, a running and returning (ratzo vashov).

If holiness is to dwell within a secular world, there is need for boundaries and separation. Thresholds are there to awaken our sense of the sacred.

11) How can we compare Moses and Buddha?

The similarity in the arcs of their lives is clear: both begin as princes in the royal palace, both leave their sheltered lifestyle behind after encountering the suffering and pain of existence, and both eventually become spiritual teachers. But there are further parallels between them that highlight a fundamental difference.

Buddhist tradition tells of the four sights, a series of encounters that Siddhartha Gautama has enroute to his enlightenment, when he leaves the palace and becomes the Buddha. The first encounter is with an old man, the second is with a sick person, and the third is with a dead body. Through these encounters, he comes to the realization that human existence is steeped in pain and suffering. Finally, Siddhartha meets a man who grapples with his suffering by practicing asceticism, and from him draws hope that the problem of suffering is not insoluble. In the wake of that meeting, Siddhartha devotes his life to sharing his insights with others.

Moses, too, has a series of four encounters after emerging from Pharaoh’s palace. As with the first three sights of the Buddha, Moses encounters human suffering three times: an Egyptian beating a Hebrew man, a Hebrew man beating his comrade, and a group of shepherds denying the daughters of Yitro access to a well. Yet Moses, unlike the Buddha, intervenes to right the injustices he encounters. In the fourth encounter, which is parallel to the Buddha’s meeting with the monk, God reveals Himself to Moses. That encounter, too, revolves around the issue of injustice, and concludes with Moses taking upon himself the mission of returning to his people and rescuing them from bondage. He thus devotes himself to a life of action, of “doing.”

12) How does this turn to spirituality and the East affect my role at Rav in the Yeshiva Otniel?

In order to obtain an inner an inner balance between spirituality and halakhah, I asked the Yeshiva to allow me to be the Rosh Kollel Halacha for a number of years so that my primary endeavor would be the nitty gritty of halachot.

I ultimately realized that this balancing must be a day-to-day challenge, not merely a topic for an occasional talk.  I mentioned earlier that for many years, I have begun each class with my students by noting the date and then adding the verse, “This is the day that God has made; we will rejoice in it” (Ps. 118:24), thereby expressing the perspective that life itself is a blessing and that joy is to be found in recognizing this reality. At some point I realized that this is creating an imbalance and I searched for a way to end each class to correct this. After a long search I found the solution, a close each class the last verse of Ecclesiastes together: “The end of the matter, when all is said and done: Fear God, and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of man” (Ecc.11:13).

I once heard Dr. Micha Goodman compare the relationship between spirituality and religion to that of love and marriage. Spirituality without religion is like love without marriage.  Religion without spirituality is like marriage without love.  Following Goodman’s analogy, I would add that we must be careful that the discourse of spirituality will be of love that inspires marriage and not of love that makes marriage seem unnecessary.  Here I see the danger of neo-Sabbateanism promoted by certain New Age gurus, such as Ohad Ezrahi, who are explicitly antinomian. My hope and belief is that spiritual focusing on mitzvot will lead to greater observance and give an opening to expose many to Jewish practice. Time and time again I tell my students that this is the challenge. Spirituality not replacing commitment but empowering each other.

Interview: Nathaniel Berman, Divine and Demonic in the Poetic Mythology of the Zohar

Biblical texts contain the great myth of evil dragon. “Behold, I am against thee, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon that lieth in the midst of his rivers …” (Ezekiel 29:3) The evil is not a separate power, rather a force to be conquered. Thirteenth century Castilian Kabbalistic texts develop this into a separate realm of evil that is parallel the side of holiness. This becomes one of the major dividing lines between Castilian approach to Kabbalah compared to the Geronesse approach where the evil dragon is an allegory for the privation of the good. The Castilians, as an act of shocking revelation, present this evil realm as a high mystery.

In the Zohar,“Rabbi Shimon said, ‘Now it is fitting to reveal mysteries cleaving above and below.’”   ( Matt, Pritzker Zohar 2, page 34a), which Matt explains in his footnote that “these are mysteries of the demonic powers, who are rooted in the divine realm and branch out below.”Furthermore,“Rabbi Shimon said, The Companions study the account of Creation”–that is, the first chapter of the Book of Genesis–“and comprehend it, but few know how to allude thereby to the Mystery of the Great Dragon.”  That mystery, he says, has been shared with “those fathomers who know the mysteries of their Lord.” The Mystery of the Great Dragon is the shadow side of the Biblical Creation story, hinted at between the lines of creation and understood by those who can comprehend.

To this topic, we have a fine new monograph by Nathaniel Berman, Divine and Demonic in the Poetic Mythology of the Zohar: the “Other Side” of Kabbalah (Leiden: Brill, 2018). Berman is the Rahel Varnhagen Professor of International Affairs, Law, and Modern Culture in Brown University’s Religious Studies Department. A graduate of Yale College, Harvard Law School, and his PhD in Jewish Studies from University College London.

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This book is one of dozen books on the Zohar that came out in 2017-2018, each one making a significant contribution.  This voluminous amount of scholarship is still being absorbed by specialists; this is my second interview on this scholarship, see here for Eitan Fishbane’s book.

If Gershom Scholem and Isaiah Tishby saw this Zoharic myth of evil as relevant for their early 20th century era of breakdown, but with clear sides of good and evil. Berman find the myth useful for our age of evil, in which the sides are ambiguous.

According to the Zohar, evil has diverse sources. (1) Evil is like the bark of a tree of emanation: it is a husk or shell in which lower dimensions of existing things are encased. In this context, evil is understood as a waste product of all organic process—it is compared to bad blood, foul water, dross after gold has been refined and the dregs of wine. (2) These evil powers came into being through the supra‑abundant growth of the sefirah of Judgment (Din) when it separated from the sefirah of Compassion (Rahamim). (3) Human sin continually strengthened this realm. However, correct actions, and avoidance of sin, allow man’s to separate them.

Berman picks up the discussion at this point by showing that these categories are more ambivalent tan prior presentations. For Berman, the evil is specifically proximate to the good. He shows cases of needed nearness of the two realms and cases where they are intertwined. Tishby famously saw the evil as dross needing a purgation and catharsis from the good. Scholem was more ambivalent, seeing the possibility of a Jungian integration of the shadow side in order to attain individualization. In contrast, Berman finds both good and evil belated products of striving to differentiate from the undifferentiated primordial being.

To explain this primordial undifferentiated oneness, Berman turns to Julia Kristeva’s concept of  “Abjection”, which is Kristeva’s word for this “breaking away.” It comprises the subject’s “earliest attempts to release the hold of the maternal entity even before existing outside of her …. a violent, clumsy breaking away, forever stalked by the risk of falling back under the sway of a power as sheltering as it is smothering.”  The maternal body begins to be distanced even before the subject who does the distancing comes into being.  That which is thus “abjected” becomes invested with an intensely negative valence, even disgust. For Berman, that ambiguity and multi-valence of the mother in the coming to be of human subjectively is the very language that can be used to describe the relationship of the sitra ahara and the sefirot.

Berman treats myth as etiological and literary. Julia Kristeva treats them as a symptom. This Incredible Need to Believe  (Columbia University Press, 2009) which is available online here. Kristeva as a post-secular and post-Lacan thinker assumes that we can never escape the psychological necessity for religion as a medium to work out our hidden recesses. We need to acknowledge the powerful and ineradicable need to believe and to use the mythology of belief. If we deny this need, we risk the destructive return of the repressed. Kristeva thinks human beings are constituted by an incredible need to believe, to live in the realms of symbolism, mythology and mystical experience. For her, to be capable of speech is to be capable of symbolic discourse, and symbolic discourse is characterized by a profound need to believe. (Conversely for Rav Shagar, the wild mythic realm of Rav Nachman reconnects us the sacred.)

To return to the discussion of the sitra ahara, the evil side, as the primordial undifferentiated, for Berman, pace Kristeva, we have undifferentiated positive and negative evaluation of the mother. However, Kristeva does not just label it as “abjected.” Rather, she shows how this points to the  fundamental exclusion of woman from the linguistic order.  in Kristeva’s opinion, the abjection of women has been the cause of the separation of the sexes, and the relegation of woman to the silent ‘Other’ of the Symbolic and society, keeping men to command a world based on science and rational authority. Kristeva’s Lacanian Imaginary order, associated with the feminine language of the unconscious is a world of illusion, duality, deception, and surfaces. Women were portrayed as sorcerer, witches, and hysterics. Berman’s book does not particularity discuss Kristeva’s rich analysis of the feminine to paint a richer sitra ahara. In addition, Kristeva’s interpretation of Adam and Eve would have fit the book’s thesis.

Berman treats Zoharic myths as etiological, as explaining our perceived world, rather than as a symptom of our psyche as Kristeva presents myths. Of all my interviews, this is the first one that seemed to call out for a psychoanalytic reading, maybe because the interview itself was personal or that the use of the myth seemed a symptom. Berman’s narrative includes a casting off of a symbolic registry of Orthodoxy before a mythic world of evil, a Holocaust survivor as material image with inherent undifferentiated good and evil, and in turn, a world of very real evil.

Unlike the Buddhist mediator, for whom evil comes from desire. According to Berman, evil is real. For Paul Ricœur, in his classic Symbolism of Evil, we do not have an existential sense of evil and then pick our root metaphor to explain the evil in the world. Rather, we are born into our metaphor though our religion.  Ricoeur assumes the Jewish metaphor is missing the mark, Christianity fall of man,  Zoroastrian dualism, Buddhist illusion- and we see the world through the religious root metaphor. This interview clearly shows Berman’s root metaphor as Zoharic rather than Ricoeur’s choices.

Berman’s book was honored by Yehudah Liebes who wrote a response, which is especially noted in that Liebes is not a fan of English. The review offers a nice insight into Liebes’ own approach to the Zohar, as well as showing how much more there is to be done on these topics especially the personality of the shekhinah. Berman’s book is a important for placing the holiness-demonic dualism at the very beginning of divine auto-genesis. Especially, his discussion of rhetorical elements, such as anaphora and structural homology,within the Zoharic library. Personally, I would now want to see Berman’s reading of the Zohar compared to Catherine Keller’s 21st century use of the same Kabbalaistic ideas of tohu-chaos to construct a positive appreciation of chaos and materiality of the divine.

The book is unfortunately extremely high priced even for an academic monograph, which will limit is readership drastically. It is also a technical work, concerned with literary distinctions and arguing for his readings of the Zohar. However, I have heard Berman in several popular venues such as the various Limmud conferences, where he gives and excellent dynamic presentation of his points in a lively psychological manner. Berman oral presentations are wonderful for bringing the listener into the mythic-poetic world.  (Here is one at Drisha) This book shows Berman as an admirable Virgil leading us on a tour of the demonic realm of the Zohar, offering poetics, psychology, mythology, and current anxieties.

nathaniel berman

Interview:Nathaniel Berman, Divine and Demonic in the Poetic Mythology of the Zohar

1) Why do you call the Zohar a work of “poetic mythology”?

The strand of Zoharic writing upon which I focus consists of mythical portrayals of the divine and demonic realms, written with a literary audacity and virtuosity akin to poetry, language-bending, syntax defying, avant-garde.

Zoharic mythology includes dramas of divine and diabolical personae, male and female, engaging with each other through love and hatred, desire and repulsion, grace and judgment. It portrays a world in which there is nothing, neither plant nor animal, heaven nor earth, ocean nor land, star nor planet, that does not symbolize, or rather embody, some archetype or persona. Zoharic mythology includes wars of a God with a Great Dragon, seduction of a divine Woman by a diabolical Serpent and of a divine Man by the diabolical Lilith.

Earlier scholars, most prominently, Gershom Scholem and Isaiah Tishby, focused on explicating the Zohar’s doctrine. My work participates in a wave of recent scholarship focusing on literary approaches to the Zohar, often associated with Hebrew University Professor Yehuda Liebes. From this perspective, passages that might seem simply internally contradictory from a doctrinal perspective prove to be elaborate, self-reflective, paradoxical literary masterpieces.

In order to appreciate the Zohar as mythology, one must exercise one’s own mythological imagination, seeking to envision, not merely analyze, its extraordinary, often scandalous, portrayals!

2) Why is the demonic important in the Zohar?

“Few are those who know how to allude to the Work of Creation through the mystery of the Great Dragon” (Zohar II:34b).

In pronouncements like these, the Zoharic authors proclaim the greater profundity, difficulty, and secrecy of those who engage with the demonic “Other Side” [sitra aḥra], the abode of the Great Dragon, as well as the “Side of Holiness,” the abode of the divine Creator.

The elaborate Zoharic mythology of a cosmos split between divine and demonic narrates features of life of which we are all aware, however painful it may be to acknowledge them. Our world, as one can verify by experience, is teeming with divergent forces, sometimes harmonious, sometimes conflictual, sometimes beautiful, sometimes repulsive. The Zoharic writers confront this teeming reality by constructing elaborate mythologies of divine/demonic relations – relations of both absolute antagonism and profound intimacy between the two realms.

The Zoharic use of the apparently neutral phrase, “the Other Side,” as the most common appellation for the demonic suggests that the demonic is “Other” to the divine, but also that it is another “Side” of a whole. The phrase suggests an inextricable relationship between the two “Sides” and a drive for unification that is as powerful as that for conflict.

At a human level, the Zohar’s mythology of divine/demonic relations also provides a profound way of addressing a phenomenon that affects us all every day, the manifold and ambivalent relations between Self and Other, whether on the inter-personal, national, ethnic, or gendered planes.

3) How does the Zohar portray the split cosmos of divine and demonic through etiological myths?

“Etiology” literally means the “study of causes.” An etiological myth starts with features of the world as we know it, and then tells an origin story that culminates in those features: a “back-story,” as it were. Zoharic etiological myths focus on features of our world that our rational ideas and/or conventional theological doctrines find unacceptable. These myths do not provide a theological explanation for those features of the world; they do not seek to reassure us by denying or justifying those features. On the contrary, they often make the theological quandary, or even scandal, much worse. They confront the reality of those features unflinchingly, refuse to engage in theological apologetics, and often prescribe ritual practices by which human beings can heal the world’s ruptures.

A clear example of a Zoharic etiological myth: one passage begins by portraying Rabbi Shimon, the Zohar’s chief sage, lamenting the inverted, unjust state of the world, particularly the degraded state of the people of Israel, subjugated by the other nations. He then proceeds to spin his myth, encapsulated in its opening lines, “the King has cast the Queen away from Him and inserted the Bondwoman in Her place” (Zohar III:69a). In Zoharic mythology, the King is the central male divine persona, the blessed Holy One. The Queen is his true consort, the Shekhinah. The Bondwoman is the Shekhinah’s demonic counterpart, Lilith.

This dalliance of the male God with the diabolical female provides a back-story for the inverted state of the world. It does not resolve the theological quandary implicit in the problem that launched Rabbi Shimon’s narrative. On the contrary, for a theologian, the lust of the male God for a transgressive mate is something like the ultimate scandal. Nonetheless, the mythological scandal, the desire of the blessed Holy One for Lilith, also contains a hint of a redemptive drive: the aspiration for unification between divine and demonic, Self and Other.

4) How did the prior Castilian kabbalists develop this mythology?

Gershom Scholem bestowed the appellation “Castilian Gnostics” upon certain 13th century Spanish kabbalists who were particularly interested in the demonic – the most well-known of whom were Yitsḥak Ha-Kohen and Moshe of Burgos.
Yitsḥak Ha-Kohen and Moshe of Burgos wrote short treatises portraying a demonic dimension of the cosmos parallel to the divine dimension: the “Left Emanation” or “Left Column.” These treatises also opened up a path to integrating an array of ancient myths of the demonic – from Jewish and non-Jewish sources – into the emerging kabbalistic imagination. The complex Zoharic portrayals of Sama’el and Lilith, ancient figures who emerge transformed in kabbalistic myth as a diabolical couple, the chief Devil and Deviless, are elaborate extensions of themes in the writings of the “Castilian Gnostics.”
Zoharic portrayals of Dragons also draw on the “Castilian Gnostics.” From a broader perspective, these reptilian creatures emerge from centuries, even millennia, of Jewish and Near Eastern mythology. The Zoharic portrayals draw on, among other sources, the verses describing the Leviathan in Psalms and Job and the “Taninim” in Genesis 1. The latter term has been variously translated as whales, crocodiles, sea monsters, and so on – but their Zoharic portrayals are best understood as those of Dragons, denizens of the demonic realm, at times personifications of the Devils Sama’el and Lilith.

An intriguing feature inherited from the “Castilian Gnostics” is that the demonic Dragons are doubled by divine Dragons. This twinning relationship between the divine and demonic is one of the symptoms of Zoharic ambivalence towards the split cosmos.

5) How does the Zohar use the two literary techniques of anaphora and structural homology to present the two sides of divine and demonic?

My analysis proceeds on two axes: rhetoric and ontology

My rhetorical analysis looks at the literary techniques the texts use to construct a cosmos split between the two “Sides.” One of the principal such techniques employed by the Zoharic writers is “anaphora.”

Anaphora consists of the repetition of the first words of consecutive phrases, clauses, or sentences. The Zohar frequently employs the anaphora “there is … and …. there is …”, with each “there is” followed by an identical noun, to construct the divine/demonic split – for example, “there is a field – and – there is a field” (Zohar I:122a). While the consecutive phrases in such anaphoras are identical, the Zohar’s deployment of them signifies that they refer to opposed entities or personae. In the “there is a field” anaphora, these two antagonists are the Shekhinah, the central female divine persona, and Her mortal adversary, Lilith. This literary technique thus yields two antagonistic personae who are nonetheless identical linguistically.

At the ontological level, the Zohar posits identical structures on each “Side,” a feature I call “structural homology.” Both the divine and demonic “Sides” contain ten Sefirot, seven “breaths” (corresponding to the seven lower Sefirot), three “knots” (corresponding to the left, right, and central columns of each realm), seven “palaces” [Hekhalot], male and female personae in conjugal relationships, and so on.

The rhetorical and ontological twinning between the divine and demonic realms constructs an objectively ambivalent cosmos, in which divine and demonic are absolute enemies and yet often indistinguishable – suggesting a deeply rooted subjective ambivalence of the Zoharic writers to the Other Side.

6) Why use Kristeva’s concept of abjection to explain the demonic?

I believe that underlying Zoharic portrayals of the split cosmos lies a rather startling, even shocking myth: the divine and demonic realms of the cosmos both emerge from a primordial, inchoate indifferentiation. I note that others, including Yehuda Liebes, already pointed in this direction.I have employed the work of Kristeva as a way of elucidating the consequences of this myth for the emergence of the two realms.

I recall that the opposed realms include structures (such as the kabbalistic “Sefirot”) and personae (such as the divine blessed Holy One and his female consort, the Shekhinah, as well as the diabolical couple Sama’el and Lilith). While the dramatic vicissitudes of these personae constitute much of the focus of Zoharic mythology, their emergence from a primordially shared inchoate origin presents one of its most radical features.

How is one to understand the emergence of these personae? They cannot be created in the conventional theological sense, for any Creator would be one of those very personae whose origin we are seeking. Rather, Zoharic texts portraying the emergence of their central personae present one of the most puzzling paradoxes of the literature: a subject-less striving for a separate identity. In order to gain insight into these Zoharic texts, I turned to the work of Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian-French psychoanalyst and literary theorist, whose work has long fascinated me.

Kristeva locates the emergence of the human self in the inchoate strivings of the infant for independence from its mother. She portrays “the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be.” It comprises the subject’s “earliest attempts to release the hold of the maternal entity even before existing outside of her …. a violent, clumsy breaking away, forever stalked by the risk of falling back under the sway of a power as sheltering as it is smothering.” “Abjection” is Kristeva’s word for this “breaking away,” in which the maternal body begins to be distanced even before the subject who does the distancing comes into being. That which is thus “abjected” becomes invested with an intensely negative valence, even disgust.

Kristeva’s portrayals of subject-formation-though-abjection are uncannily reminiscent of Zoharic texts about the emergence of divine and demonic personae from the primordial indifferentiation – and provide a powerful way of appreciating both their antagonism and their secret kinship.

I caution that I try not to “apply” Kristeva’s ideas to Zoharic texts, but to find productive and uncanny parallels between them – parallels that help illuminate both.

7) Where do you differ from Isaiah Tishby?

I often refer to Tishby’s essay on the Zoharic Other Side as a foil for my own approach. Tishby argues that there are two different strands in Zoharic writing on the relationship between divine and demonic.

One is a dualistic strand, in which the two “Sides” stand in radical antagonism to each other. In this strand, the Other Side is structurally homologous to the divine, geographically remote, and fundamentally different in essence. The other strand is marked, in Tishby’s words, by “restrictions” on this dualism. In this strand, the Other Side consists of a set of concentric circles around the divine, rather than a set of independent, homologous structures. In this strand, the demonic is thus geographically proximate to the divine. Indeed, in this strand, the Other Side can even serve as an ally of the divine.

“And, again, I stress that in order to understand these images, one must embrace the mythological genre, and give free rein to one’s visionary powers!”

Tishby’s exposition, however useful, is inadequate as a grid for reading Zoharic texts. Zoharic writers freely mix elements from both of these models, weaving them together in literary texts that foreground startling, phenomenally impossible, juxtapositions of images. Such features would be defects in a text aiming at expressing coherent conceptual models – but are the glory of an audacious literary work.

An example: one Zoharic text depicts the Other Side as comprised of ten Sefirot, homologous to the ten divine Sefirot – and declares that this antagonist to the divine “clings to the slime of the fingernail” of the Shekhinah, the latter associated with the tenth of the divine Sefirot (Zohar III:70a). This text thus portrays the demonic as both homologous to the divine and proximate to it – as well as depicting the demonic as perched precariously on an insubstantial aspect of its divine enemy. Inducing meditation on this paradoxical and scandalous image was, I believe, the author’s goal – not the presentation of a consistent metaphysical doctrine.

8) Can you apply this to the myth of creation?

Zoharic writers re-cast the story of Creation in Genesis as one of divine unfolding, an elaborate emanation of the divine being. While this perspective makes possible a profound appreciation of the world as imbued with the divine, it simultaneously makes far more acute the theological problem entailed in the existence of conflict and evil.

Scholem and Tishby cast the Zoharic, and later Lurianic, understanding of these issues in terms of a myth of divine catharsis – a Greek term whose literal meaning signifies purification or purgation. The God who unfolds Himself through the emanation of the cosmos was seeking to get rid of unwanted elements within Himself. These unwanted elements first emerge as inchoate refuse and then consolidate into the structures and personae of the Other Side.

The myth of catharsis is shocking theologically because it posits a God beset by impurities within His own being. Perhaps even more shocking is this God’s seeming inability to rid Himself of those impurities, the necessity for Him to engage in a never-ending series of attempts at purgation.

I think, however, that the idea of catharsis in Scholem and Tishby emerges from an appropriation of a variety of classic sources, which, moreover, differ among themselves: Plato, Aristotle, Freud, and so on. Among the many crucial questions their use of catharsis leaves open is this: if God is a coherent (even perfect) being prior to catharsis, why does He experience certain elements within Himself as unwanted or alien?

My reading of Zoharic texts reveals a very different myth. The personal God, the God with a distinct, bounded identity, does not stand as the initiator of the story but emerges as the outcome of the story – much as human identity emerges over time. The Zoharic divine subject, like the human subject described by Kristeva, does not pre-exist the struggle with inassimilable elements. On the contrary, this struggle is the pre-condition for the establishment of a bounded subject.

Kristeva’s portrayal of abjection powerfully illuminates this interminable struggle. The (divine or human) subject’s struggle to be rid of impurities, of inassimilable elements, is, by its nature, always provisional and ultimately pyrrhic – for those elements and the subject bear a primordial kinship to each other. The divine Self and its demonic Other are both belated products of strivings to differentiate from the undifferentiated primordial being.

9) Should the demonic be treated with respect or cast out?

Zoharic writers foresee two opposite fates for the Other Side: integration into the divine and annihilation by the divine. Scholem declared long ago that these opposite fates are equally “plausible” within the discourse of the Zohar. One finds these opposite fates throughout the Zohar, often in close textual proximity to each other. In one text, the Zohar stages this opposition as a debate between two of its key sages (Zohar II:203b).
This textual coexistence of opposed fates underscores one of the pervasive themes of my book: the ambivalence of the Zoharic cosmos.

10) What do we gain by using the paradox of abjection and crystallization? How do you apply it to the Zohar passage, elaborating on the first three verses in Genesis, portraying the transition from “slime” to “tohu” to “mighty” wind?

I read a mysterious, poetic, and evocative passage, the “snow-in-water” passage, as paradigmatic for the Zoharic vision of primordial cosmic processes. The passage begins (Zohar I:16a):

“And the earth was Tohu [KJV: without form] and Bohu [KJV: void]” (Genesis1:2). “Was,” precisely – before this. Snow in water: slime issues forth from it, from the force of snow in water. And a harsh fire strikes it. And there is refuse in it. And it becomes “Tohu”: the dwelling place of slime, the nest of refuse. “And Bohu”: a sifting/selecting/clarifying (beriru) that was sifted/selected/clarified (de-itberir) from within the refuse. And it was settled in it.

While I cannot reproduce here the long analysis I give in the book, I note that this passage is a mythological elaboration of the movement from the first to the third verses of Genesis, revealing the mythical events concealed in the enigmatic second verse. In Genesis, we see a movement from the seemingly perfect creation of heaven and earth in the first verse, to an unsettling scene of chaos, darkness, and a confrontation of Elohim and the abyss in the second verse, to the creation of light in the third. The Zohar’s snow-in-water passage recasts this textual movement mythically, in ways that strikingly resemble aspects of Kristeva’s portrayals.

The “snow-in-water” passage moves from a placid scene of primordial harmony (“snow in water”), to a seemingly inexplicable discharge of inchoate, repulsive stuff (“slime issues forth from it”), to a consolidation of that inchoate stuff through a series of berurin (siftings/selections/clarifications). By the end of this lengthy passage, the slime has consolidated into formidable demonic entities, the “great mighty wind,” “earthquake,” and “fire” of Elijah’s Horeb vision (1 Kings 19:11). This entire process, for the Zoharic writer, lurks in the second verse of Genesis.

Only after this “sifting/selecting/clarification” of the seeming primordial harmony between opposites, and the emergence of consolidated demonic entities, can the Creation of the divine cosmos take place, the emanation of the light portrayed in the third verse.

The short imagistic evocation at the beginning of this passage is paradigmatic for the kinds of processes I elucidate throughout the book, with the help of Kristeva: the inevitably simultaneous emergence of divine and demonic, the initiation of processes of abjection (the “issuing forth” of “slime”) even before the emergence of a subject, the inference that the roots of both divine and demonic lurk in the state of primordial indifferentiation – and, implicitly, the endless pyrrhic struggle to separate or reintegrate them.

11) Why is divine anger paradigmatic of the myth of the demonic?

The theme of anger may be the most accessible entrée for many people into the mythology of the demonic. People often encounter anger as a fearsome force of mythical proportions. Most of us have had the experience of being overwhelmed by anger, an experience aptly described as “being possessed by anger,” often followed by “I don’t know what came over me!” This experience of being possessed by something alien to ourselves is rather uncanny – and even those not mythologically inclined might see how one can be led into myths of the demonic in order to narrate what has taken place. At the same time, we experience anger as an appropriate response to injustice against ourselves and others.

On the religious plane, divine anger poses a seemingly insuperable dilemma. Even a cursory reading of the Hebrew Bible discloses a God who is prone to anger, an anger that often exceeds all bounds. The Bible often associates anger with fire: a pervasive verb to depict divine anger is the “scorching of the nose” [ḥaron af]. That “scorching” at times leads to the literal unleashing of destructive fire, indiscriminate in its targets (e.g., Numbers 11:1). What “possesses” this God, a God of mercy and justice, that transforms Him into a fire-breathing Dragon?

Zoharic myth associates anger with the swelling up of the “left side” of the divine, the side associated with judgment and might (Gevurah). Ideally, divine judgment and might come into balance with divine grace and love (Ḥesed), the attributes of the “right side.” If, however, the left side becomes dissociated from the right side, the divine personality fragments and anger hypostasizes. Zoharic myth sees such moments of the hypertrophy of divine anger as one of the key origins of the demonic – specifically, of the chief diabolical personae, Sama’el and Lilith. These figures emerge as the key unintended consequences of an unleashed divine anger.

12) What is the importance of confusion of the realms of the divine and demonic by means of a demonic “impersonation” of the divine and “enclothing” of the divine by the demonic ?

One of the main themes of the book is that the literary techniques used to construct a cosmos split between divine and demonic also undermine that very distinction. Such techniques include the portrayal of divine and demonic entities as linguistic and phenomenal twins. Divine and demonic personae as portrayed as continually engaged in intimate relations. Zoharic writers portray these relations in vivid and, again, theologically shocking images. Divine and demonic personae are depicted as born from the same gestational processes taking place in the “Supernal Mother” (Ima Ila’ah); divine and demonic personae are depicted as engaged in nurturing, “suckling” relationships (yenikah) with each other; divine and demonic personae are depicted as engaged in sexual relationships with each other. One consequence of these diverse processes is a variety of divine/demonic confusions.

A particularly dangerous set of phenomena are portrayed in myths that I call “aggressive enclothing” and “impersonation.” These phenomena are emphasized in the Tikkune Ha-Zohar and Ra’ya Mehemna, two anonymous works written slightly after the bulk of the Zoharic literature.

Such myths portray assaults by a demonic entity or persona, which take the form of “enclothing” a divine core with a demonic exterior. This “enclothing” results in a capture of the divine by the demonic and the emergence of an entity which is an ontological mixture of the two.

These kabbalistic myths draw on far older rabbinic tales of “talking idols.” Those tales depict two notorious idol-makers, Jeroboam and Nebuchadnezzar, placing the divine name in statues, enabling the latter to proclaim, “I am the Lord thy God.” Even in the rabbinic tales, the perverse phenomena are not merely magicians’ illusions, but emerge from the real subordination of a divine power to the nefarious purposes of a wicked human being. In the kabbalistic re-appropriation of these tales, it is the demonic itself which assaults the divine with its aggressive acts of enclothing.

The danger of confusion posed by aggressive enclothing becomes most acute when it is combined with the twinning phenomena I described earlier. If the entity doing the enclothing is indistinguishable from that which is enclothed, the task of telling divine from demonic, good from evil, becomes almost impossible.

A world in which such impersonation becomes pervasive is a horrifying prospect: the difference between good and evil, friend and foe, God and the Devil, becomes impossible to determine with certainty. Self and Other are at their most antagonistic, and yet at their most indistinguishable. Such a vision is, in fact, the stuff from which many a fictional tale of horror is made; it also corresponds to the terrifying existential dilemmas portrayed by many a modern philosopher.

And yet: the etiology provided by Zoharic mythology of this horrifying vision also hints that such a world is but one step away from redemption. Zoharic mythology shows that the possibility of a world of simulacra lies in the shared origins, desires, and sustenance of divine and demonic. These twins are locked in lethal embrace precisely because of their tragic cognitive and ontological separation, a separation with a history, a reversible history. The aggressive mirroring or even coercive amalgamation of divine and demonic may prove to be a monstrous, reified form of the primordial indifferentiation out of which they both emerge, and thus a promise of redemption in grotesque form.

13) Why is the demonic important to you? And to all of us?
I believe that no one with a moral conscience or emotional sensitivity can fail to experience the world as a place of deep rupture, as well as a place of aspirations for harmony. I grew up in a community of Holocaust survivors, during the brutal American war in Vietnam. The question, “how could an omnipotent, benevolent, God permit evil?” pervaded the air I breathed. From a young age, I found the answers provided by Modern Orthodoxy, in which I was educated, to be unpersuasive, deflective, and, at times, morally unacceptable: answers such as “if you only you were God, you’d see it was all for the best,” or “the question is not ‘where was God?’ but ‘where was Man?’.” Mythological dualism seems to me a much more honest, much more realistic response to the world than a rationalist monism. And even if one is not inclined to mythology, one must still account for the impulses that drive human beings to good and evil, to conflict and reconciliation, to domination and love. It is not insignificant that Freud, for example, was an instinctual dualist, even if his dualism took shifting forms.

Ultimately, I see the Zoharic literature on the divine/demonic relationship as a grand poetic mythology of the relationship between Self and Other. I portrayed its contemporary relevance in the Introduction:

The relationship to the “Other” – ethnic, racial, sexual, religious, unconscious – is the central challenge of our time. From the bloody wars that ravage the planet to the “culture wars” of academia, from parliaments to the streets, from theological walls between religious denominations to concrete walls between countries, from divided families to divided selves, the contemporary world seems in a veritable state of hysteria about alterity. Embrace or exclude? Efface difference or respect it? Protect or crush? Celebrate or ignore? Repress or express? …This book is about the poetic mythology of Otherness in the Zoharic tradition in kabbalah.

14) Do you encourage people to worry about the sexual demonic and the danger of seminal emission? What you treat as mythopoesis is what turns some off to the Kabbalah since they were taught it as literally dangerous during their adolescent years.

The question of “literalness” haunts the reception of all mythological, perhaps all religious, texts. Coercive religious authorities have enforced repressive sexual rules on those under their control using these myths. It should go without saying that I wholeheartedly disapprove of this repression.

The Zohar continues an ancient trend within the Jewish tradition, as well as world mythology, of associating divine creativity with human procreativity. Kabbalists understood the human capacity to produce new life through sexual reproduction as an earthly correlate of analogous divine capacities. The kabbalists gave this correspondence a distinctively mythical turn by envisioning divine Creation as a product of sexual relations between divine personae. Moreover, in relation to the themes of my book, they went further: proper sexual relations among divine personae yield holy creations, while improper sexual relations, especially between divine and demonic personae, yield unholy creations.

This latter theme is a projection into the divine/demonic realm of the story in rabbinic literature about the begetting of demons by Adam and Eve – as a result, the rabbis taught, of their copulation with demonic beings during the period of their sexual separation after the sin in the Garden.

What meaning do I find in these myths? I think most of us recognize that sexuality and love are powerful forces in our lives. I think most of us believe that sincere, honest, and ethical engagement with those forces provide the most vital, even holiest, experiences the human condition offers. I think most of us believe that insincere, dishonest, and reckless engagement with those forces provide the deadliest, unholiest experiences. How we distinguish among those different kinds of experiences, however, is likely to differ radically among us.

15) Your moral compass is unclear to me as a reader. You enjoy the etiological myth as to the closeness of the divine to the demonic to explain the unexplained evil in the world. Yet, your gut cries out against evil such as the Holocaust. Doesn’t your Zohar reading seem to make a needed place for evil?

This question goes to the core of an ambivalence that pervades the Zoharic literature, as well as my own book. Zoharic writing constructs a cosmos split between divine and demonic, but in such a way that the very techniques that construct that split also undermine it. The Zoharic writers fiercely present the split as absolutely real, and yet also present it in such a way that the two poles of that split mimic each other, desire each other, sustain each other, prove to have a common origin. The Zoharic writers, I believe, live within that paradox.

There is no Archimedean point from which to present such a paradox when one is living inside it. Unlike some later kabbalistic writers, the Zoharic writings that I analyze neither present the demonic as merely an illusion nor as simply something to be annihilated. These Zoharic passages present the split in the cosmos as a painful rupture in reality, but also as something they long to overcome. An overcoming that requires real struggle, perhaps eons of real struggle, on the religious, ethical, and personal planes.

As a result of the kinds of complex, confusing dynamics I have described here, it is not always clear how to proceed in that struggle. Indeed, I often disagree with the particular judgments the Zoharic writers made in their struggles – particularly concerning relations with non-Jews and gender issues. Evil is real, all-too-real, in the Zoharic vision – as it is in our world – and evil must be fought. And yet, one must never lose sight of a redeemed world, in which the elements in the divine (or proto-divine) that gave rise to evil must be re-embraced into a harmonious whole. The Zohar is a dualistic mythology with a monistic eschatology (and genesis).

What could be more relevant to a world, our world, beset by seemingly iron-clad oppositions, yet in which dreams of a future harmony seem like our only hope?

Interview with Prof Eric Lawee about his new book on Rashi’s Commentary 

The Bible and the Talmud are certainly the two classic texts of Judaism. But what would be the third classic text? Prof Moshe Idel, says the obvious choice is the Zohar as the third classic text. This would certainly be true for the world of 21st century academic study of Judaism. However, there is another obvious choice: Rashi’s commentaries, [the acronym of the name of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040 – 1105)] who wrote a comprehensive commentary on the Bible and the Talmud, which has shaped Jewish thinking for a millennium. Yet, unlike the dozen books on the Zohar, which appeared last year, Rashi as a figure of Jewish intellectual history has not been given his due in historical scholarship. To remedy this lack, Eric Lawee has produced a wonderful new book Rashi’s ‘Commentary on the Torah’: Canonization and Resistance in the Reception of a Jewish Classic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) 

rashi book

Eric Lawee is Professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University where he specializes in Jewish biblical interpretation in medieval and modern times. He holds the Weiser Chair for Research into Medieval Jewish Biblical Interpretation and directs Bar-Ilan’s Institute for Jewish Bible Interpretation. His doctorate was from Prof Isadore Twersky at Harvard University. His first book, Isaac Abarbanel’s Stance Toward Tradition: Defense, Dissent, and Dialogue (2001), won a Canadian Jewish Book Award and was a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award.

This new book Rashi’s ‘Commentary on the Torah’:  (tablet of contents here)  treats Rashi as figure in Jewish intellectual history, fielding major questions such as the nature of the Rashi text, its reception, and his critics. Lawee summaries much of the Rashi scholarship of Avraham Grossman, Yisrael Ta-Shma, and Elazar Touitou who contextualize Rashi as a text without a critical edition, as open in scribal editions, and as having 10% or more as comments by other’s hands than Rashi’s.

Unlike the widely known literary method on Nechama Leibowitz, who credited every comment as having an antecedent question based on textual irregularities, a historical perspective yields a text with a clear medieval European context and that many of the comments were to give a midrashic worldview that fit Rashi’s medieval theology. In other words, Rashi is not a neutral baseline of the meaning of the text, rather a painter of an 11th century theological world, as fabulous and as supernatural as other texts of its time.

One of Rashi’s key themes was the defense of Judaism against the idolatrous Christian worldview. In addition, to give a theology of the special chosenness of the Jewish people and the miracles done for them.  Philosophically and scientifically informed commentaries written in other geocultural centers found Rashi lacking. They saw magic, supernaturalism, and lack of rationality. Lawee does not detail the theology of Rashi in a topical manner, rather as an unfolding of history showing how Rashi became accepted despite detractors. Hence, there is no direct discussion on topics such as Rashi’s belief in Divine corporeality. No longer are the rationalists the innovators; rather both the scientifically educated and those without such education are both contextualized.  Lawee made creative use of his Maimonidean training under Prof Twersky to produce this dialectic reading of the medieval tradition.

The biggest novelty of the book is Lawee’s presentation of the rational critics of Rashi: Eleazar Ashkenazi, a 14th-century Maimonidean; Pseudo-Rabad, who also probably wrote in the 14th century. (his attack on Rashi was so harsh that a later reader mutilated the sole surviving manuscript of his work, crossing out Pseudo-Rabad’s harshest expressions); and  Aaron Aboulrabi, a 15th-century offshoot of the Sefardic exegetical tradition. The Mediterranean Levantine readers saw Rashi as an exegete who lacked basic skills and who propounded a version of Judaism they deemed distorted, or even dangerous. One is not expecting there to be Biblical commentaries who found Rashi “ridiculous” or exemplifying a “girl’s fantasies,” or giving the “drash of a dolt”.

Eventually, Rashi was not only accepted but became a staple of Jewish education with claims that nearly 300 commentaries were  written on his commentary. The book also deals with how Rashi’s readers soften Rashi’s views by harmonizing them with the more rational scientific view. They would remove the radical difference of Rashi’s view from their own. A method still done today when 21st century Jews read medieval texts. People do not want Rashi to sound too close to Sefer Hasidim. 

After finishing this book, one feels that one has just put down a great piece of scholarship. A book that is deserving of its forthcoming awards. One that will now be on the reading list of every Jewish educator who teaches Rashi and on the reading list of every graduate student. The years put into this project show in the wonderful final product. The book is almost 500 pages, almost 270 pages of texts and 200 pages of footnotes. In some ways, that is the one drawback to the book. Those who have already read some of the antecedent literature will best understand much of this massive summary of earlier scholarship, especially on the text and early reception. The chapter on the early reception moved at a breakneck speed, a tad too fast to absorb even though I have read the prior literature. This book is groundbreaking for opening up new avenues of research on Rashi’s thought, on medieval intellectual trends, and on the exegetic imagination.

Interview with Prof Eric Lawee about his new book on Rashi

1)      Who is Rashi & what is his Commentary on the Torah

Solomon ben Isaac (1040–1105)—also known as Shlomo Yitzhaki, or Rashi—is one of post-talmudic Judaism’s towering figures. His stature owes to the fact that, astonishingly, he managed to write the classic commentaries on the two classic books of Judaism: the Bible, especially the Torah; and the Babylonian Talmud. His Commentary on the Torah stands out as the most widely studied and influential Hebrew Bible commentary ever composed. It has decisively shaped Jews’ perceptions of their faith’s foundational documents. Its readers have included all strata of Jewish society: young and old, scholars and lay persons, men and women. Contemporary biblical commentator Avivah Zornberg offers a vivid metaphor to help give a sense of the Commentary’s fate: it was “absorbed into the bloodstream of Jewish culture.”

2) Is there a critical edition of Rashi? Is there a unified text?

There is no critical edition of the Commentary. Indeed, no medieval Jewish work experienced as many textual fluctuations as the Commentary. This has led scholars to grapple with the difficulty of establishing any final version of the Commentary in light of numerous variant witnesses and the lack of an autograph manuscript.

The reasons for the variations are many, some common to medieval texts and some more uniquely applicable to Rashi’s work in particular. There were, of course, scribal errors and conjectural emendations of the work. In the period of the work’s transmission in manuscript, there were also elisions of Rashi’s text with jottings placed in the margins of various copies that were incorporated, as if Rashi wrote them, into later versions. Rashi is also remarkable for his effort to refine and revise his interpretations over time, sometimes due to new discoveries but on occasion simply as part of an effort to make his work more “user-friendly” (by, say, relocating a comment to a new location). The Commentary proves to be an extreme case of what Israel Ta-Shma calls “the open book.” By this he means a tendency of medieval authors to circulate different versions of a work in unfinished form. Ta-Shma compares this to computerized databases which are refreshed to give the user a summary of data known at the time of the latest updating.

An example of an addition, this one amazingly late, is a famous expression Rashi puts in the mouth of Jacob at the time of a fraught encounter that he has with his older brother Esau. Rashi has the patriarch say: “I dwelled with the wicked Laban [my uncle], yet I observed the 613 commandments and did not learn from his evil ways.” The comment begins to appear in the Commentary only a half-millennium after Rashi ceased putting pen to paper, in printed versions of his work.

3) What percentage of the text is probably Rashi?

Scholars can’t agree and the issue enters us into a thicket of methodological dispute.

A common idea, espoused for example by Abraham Grossman, is that about 90 percent of the version in use today actually left Rashi’s pen but some scholars would say this estimate is too high. Among them is Elazar Touitou, who argues that one can only be certain that a comment is original if it appears in all good manuscripts, requiring a painstaking comparison of many manuscripts to allow one to spot the “non-Rashi” comments embedded in the text.

Grossman promotes the virtues of a particular manuscript now found in Leipzig. It is increasingly seen by many scholars as the best if not uniquely definitive witness of the Commentary due to its association with Rashi’s close pupil, Shemaiah. For me, the textual issue was not central since my book focuses on the Commentary’s reception. What counts in such a study, or so I suggest, is that a comment was received as a genuine part of Rashi’s interpretation of the Torah by a later reader or migrated as such to a particular locale, circulating as what “Rashi said.”

4)      What is the role of midrash in his commentary? Why is it not closure?

The most striking feature of Rashi’s reading of the Bible is its mixture of what Rashi calls peshuto shel miqra and the classical midrashic expositions.

Peshuto shel miqra is an elusive term often rendered as “biblical plain sense” or the “contextual” interpretation. Classical midrashic expositions that Rashi routinely drew often have an exegetically fanciful character that put them at a far remove from the plain sense.

As for the exact role played by midrash in Rashi’s work, it is complex and, to this day, hotly debated. On one level, Rashi uses midrashim to address countless ever-so-slight “surface irregularities” (a usage of James Kugel) in scripture such as apparent redundancies.

On another level, midrash infuses his Commentary with a profusion of theological ideas and elements of pastoral reassurance. For example, despite a medieval world divided between the “cross” and the “crescent” in which Jews lived under either Christians or Muslims as a tiny minority, and at times a persecuted one (Rashi’s lifetime coincides with the violent assaults on German Jewish communities during the First Crusade of 1096), Rashi frequently reassures his reader via his midrashic teachings that God’s love for Israel is eternal and that the Jews remain, despite the evidence, the “chosen people.”

In terms of closure (or, really, lack thereof), here are two points to consider. First, Rashi does not explain the meaning of the midrashim that he adduces, leaving readers to ponder their purport. Second, these midrashim comprise an elusive and allusive way to teach one’s message whose constituents remained pliably open to interpretation, and sometimes begged for it. This being so, the Commentary has a capacity to generate a successive unfolding of meaning as the divine word is refracted through Rashi’s commentary and, in turn, the varied lenses worn by his diverse readers.

5) What was the role of science and external wisdom (or the lack thereof) in the debates concerning Rashi?

Throughout the Middle Ages, as today, Jewish scholars (and of course many others) debated the relationship between religion and reason, or faith and science. Some saw science, what was sometimes called “external wisdom,” as incompatible with Judaism—or worse, highly subversive of it. Others, most famously Moses Maimonides, insisted that human perfection consisted primarily of the perfection of the intellect and that mastery of sciences was the royal road to spiritual achievement.

Rashi, living in an Ashkenazic cultural setting, was oblivious to such sciences, and his rationalist critics could lament or even excoriate his scientific ignorance. Yet Rashi could also be heralded by those suspicious of intellectualist ideas and aspirations. To give an example, we hear from followers of Maimonides that in a major intercommunal controversy over rationalism in the 1230s traditionalists opposed to rationalism issued a remarkable fiat. It proclaimed that acceptance of Rashi’s interpretations of classical (biblical and talmudic) texts was a binding precept of Judaism! One such follower responds: if some wish to declare Rashi their sole “beloved,” so be it, just as long as these self-appointed “princes and judges” do not foist this choice on others “without our consent.”

To speak in these terms is to emphasize a side of the Commentary that has received short shrift: its role as a source of ideas in Jewish intellectual history. Rashi’s careful selection and at times decisive reformulation of midrash shaped perceptions of the Torah’s teachings.

I think one reason Rashi’s enormous impact on this score has been obscured is his use of the commentary genre. People tend to assume a work that looks back to an earlier text is a “mere” commentary, with no ideas of its own. The Commentary was, of course, a commentary meant to expound the Torah, but it can also be seen as an important work of Jewish thought that is true to the texture of classical Jewish thinking which, as Michael Fishbane puts it, takes the form of an ongoing exegetical process in which ideas “arise hermeneutically.”

6)      Can you briefly summarize his reception in the various medieval Jewish communities?

Over the course of the Middle Ages the Commentary attained its status as the closest thing Judaism has to a canonical commentary on scripture. In the end, the Commentary endured: in Jewish education, in the synagogue, in sermons, and in the public square. Along the way to acceptance, the commentary saw a wide range of responses by individual writers and communities that I trace in several chapters of my book.

In Rashi’s native Franco-German (Ashkenazic) realm, there was initial criticism, most notably by his own grandson Samuel ben Meir, also known as Rashbam, of Rashi’s overly midrashic interpretive approach. This dissipated somewhat in following generations and over time it was replaced by evermore intense study of Rashi and increasingly submissive reverence for him.

In Spain, the Commentary became a classic, but not without reservations. The most important and complex figure is Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides), an astonishingly multifaceted communal leader and sage who also wrote a commentary on the Torah. In that work, Rashi’s place was central, with Nahmanides citing the Commentary in an estimated 40 percent of his own comments.

One scholar writes that Nahmanides is for the most part favorably disposed to Rashi’s commentary but this judgment is more than a little facile. His generally respectful tone notwithstanding, Nahmanides often criticizes Rashi, especially for his frequent failure to uncover the true biblical “plain sense.” Later writers were quite attuned to Nahmanides’ trenchant criticisms of Rashi and sought to rebut them.

7) How did Spanish commentaries bring Rashi in step with Sefardic teachings?

Spain sees another significant trend that enabled the Commentary to be “naturalized” there. Problematic elements in the work were read by Spanish scholars in ways that put them in step with Sefardic teachings and sensibilities. This development is writ large in many Spanish commentaries on the Commentary (such works are often called “supercommentaries”) written by a large number of now largely forgotten scholars whose voices I recover in the book (e.g., Samuel Almosnino, Moses ibn Gabbai).

To give an example, Rashi cites a strange midrash to explain Adam’s cry of “This one at last is bone of my bones” (Gen 2:23). The midrash ascribes serial acts of bestiality to Adam. In the case of many Spanish supercommentators on Rashi as well as several more famous Sefardic Torah commentators, like Isaac Arama and Isaac Abarbanel, the notion of actual sexual congress between the first model of humanity and animals was impossible to accept. But rather than reject the midrash that Rashi made famous, their refusal to take the midrash literally paves the way for a new interpretation that takes Adam’s mating with beasts as a metaphor for an act of cognitive discernment as he probed each animal’s nature in his quest to find a fitting soulmate. In this way a strange midrash that Rashi cites without compunction, one that Sefardic readers found implausible or repellent in its literal sense, is made to conjure a noetic act that imbues the midrash, and thence the Commentary, with deep meaning.

8) Was there dissent or resistance to Rashi?

Not everywhere did the Commentary attain primacy in the Middle Ages. In many cases there was indifference but my book also focusses a lot on centers of Jewish learning, especially in the eastern Mediterranean, where Abraham ibn Ezra is the exegetical hero, not Rashi. One startling finding, treated in the three chapters that comprise part 2 of the book, is the phenomenon of hitherto unknown harsh resistance to the Commentary by those whom I call “Rashi’s resisting readers.” Three main figures are discussed from this veritable Babel of conflicting Jewish intellectual and literary expressions.

One is Eleazar Ashkenazi ben Natan Ha-Bavli, a 14th-century Maimonidean whose work, copied in Crete in the early fifteenth century, was plundered by the Nazis and has only recently been recovered.

The second is an anonymous writer whom I call Pseudo-Rabad, who also probably wrote in the 14th century. His attack on Rashi was so harsh that a later reader mutilated the sole surviving manuscript of his work, crossing out Pseudo-Rabad’s harshest expressions. (The cover image of my book depicts the results of this literary violence.)

A third critic was Aaron Aboulrabi, a 15th-century offshoot of the Sefardic exegetical tradition who wandered the Mediterranean and claims to have engaged in a discussion in Rome about the tabernacle cherubs with a pope and his cardinals.

So the critics are a colorful bunch but they are also serious scholars whose engagement with the Commentary brings to the fore competing Jewish visions regarding interpretive method, the status of midrash, scripture as a repository of scientific teaching, and more.

9)      Why did scholars situated in the Eastern Mediterranean show resistance to Rashi?

Why this region provided such salubrious soil for Rashi criticism is not entirely clear but in the book I posit a number of factors. One is the region’s status as a Jewish multicultural mecca where wildly divergent ideas arrived from abroad and generated intrareligious conflict. Rashi became a target, especially for rationalists who saw in him an exegete who lacked basic skills and who propounded a version of Judaism they deemed distorted, or even dangerous. Another, though this one remains to be investigated, is the apparent lack of outstanding rabbinic authorities in the East who could suppress dissident expressions such as those found in the writings of the resisting readers. Another possible contextual element is the high degree of Jewish mobility in the East, which may have created a space for more unfettered expression. Not rooted in any place, certain scholars may have felt free to speak their minds about Rashi and even write without fear of reprisal—or in the knowledge that a safe haven on another Aegean island was not far away.

10) What was the critique of Eliezer Ashkenazi? Why was Rashi considered “ridiculous and risible” in his eyes?

Ashkenazi criticizes Rashi from the perspective of an uncompromising rationalism that frequently views midrashic interpretations in the Commentary as misguided and that finds Rashi propounding a scandalously unscientific understanding of the Torah.

An example is a midrash cited by Rashi to explain the assertion that “all flesh (kol basar) had corrupted its ways on earth” (Gen 6:12). According to Rashi, the corruption involved “all flesh” just as the Torah says, including the subhuman creatures. Specifically, Rashi asserts that “even domestic animals, beasts, and birds cohabited with those not of their own kind.” By implication, then, the fauna shared responsibility with humankind for the depravity that had evoked the divinely wrought flood.

Eleazar objects to the midrash on the fauna’s sins for multiple reasons. First, inter-special breeding is an act no more unnatural for animals than the more frequently attested behavior of conspecific mating or promiscuity. Second, it is untenable that the destruction of the fauna reflected a sin since animals lack a capacity for “choice,” hence are devoid of a capacity for moral (or immoral) action. To these scientific claims Eleazar adds that individual animals are not subject to individual divine providence and thence reward and punishment. Rashi’s exposition, opposed as it is to demonstrated scientific truth and what Eleazar takes to be “Judaism 101,” has to be rejected.

But there is rejection and then there is rejection. Here is where  “ridiculousness and risibility,” a phrase that appears in the title of my chapter on Eleazar, comes in. About Rashi’s idea of the “sins of the fauna” Eleazar says: one can only “laugh at the derash that every species paired with a species not of its kind.” He also calls the idea “ridiculousness and risibility.” In so doing, he hearkens to the manner in which he refers to Rashi, which is by way of his patronymic “Isaac / Yiṣḥaq”— a name that summons the laughter associated with the biblical Isaac (Gen 17:17, 18:12, 21:6). In short, Eleazar deploys ridicule as a weapon in order to undermine the one whom he calls “Ha-Yitzhaqi.”

In so doing, I suggest that Eleazar anticipates advocates of modern Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries who criticized orthodoxy. Leo Strauss casts the latter as figures who “had to laugh orthodoxy out of the position from which it could not be driven by any other means.” Eleazar cultivates this sort of subversive laughter to delegitimize the Commentary.

11)      What does the critique or comments of Abraham Kirimi show?

Kirimi is a 14th-century Crimean Torah commentator who displays plain sense sensibilities and a rationalist outlook. His approach to Rashi shows that criticism of the Commentary did not have to be an all-or-nothing affair. Kirimi can praise midrashim of Rashi in one line and tell his reader in the next one to “pay no heed to Rashi’s words” since they lack grounding in the method of plain sense interpretation.

An example that shows his critical side concerns Lamech’s polygamy (Gen 4:19–24). Rashi cites a midrash that had Lamech opt for an exploitative division of labor, with one wife for breeding and the other for nonprocreative sexual gratification. Rashi takes the name of the second wife, Zillah, to allude to her role as an object of Lamech’s self-indulgence: “she would always sit in his shadow (ṣilo).” But Kirimi rejects such wobbly midrashic readings that derive meaning from names in this way, asking: “[W]ho can fathom the meaning of every name?”

Kirimi also points to another trend mentioned above: valorization of Abraham ibn Ezra, and Maimonides, at Rashi’s expense. In this way, he is one of many who figures in an overarching theme of the book; namely, Ibn Ezra and Maimonides as Rashi’s opposite numbers in a competition for canonical supremacy in a late medieval struggle for Judaism’s soul. This phenomenon is attested in many Mediterranean seats of Jewish learning. In the end, the Commentary’s Judaism emerged triumphant.

12) What was the critique of Rashi by the author whom you call Pseudo Rabad? How was it part of a broader critique of Rabbinic Midrash?

The figure whom I call Pseudo-Rabad authored the most concentrated assault on Rashi’s biblical scholarship in the annals of Jewish literature. It comes down under the title Book of Strictures in which Rabbi Abraham ben David Censured Our Rabbi Solomon the Frenchman. Pseudo-Rabad’s varied formulae of condemnation stand in a class all their own, forming a steady a drumbeat of disparagement in which Rashi is repeatedly said to have “erred,” “blundered,” or worse.

Pseudo-Rabad criticizes the Commentary by contrasting it with an understanding of scripture grounded in canons of plain sense interpretation and steeped in rational criteria of credibility. For example, showing his strong anti-magical spirit, Pseudo-Rabad negates a midrash adduced by Rashi that has Moses killing the Egyptian who struck a Hebrew slave by pronouncing the Tetragrammaton. Implied by the midrash was divine authorization for the slaying in a manner that subdued all moral qualms. Though presumably based in theological opposition, the point of attack is, in the first instance, exegetical.

Pseudo-Rabad denies any prompt for this reading, although midrashists find such a hint in a strange response to Moses by the Hebrew maltreating his brother: “Do you say to kill me?” (Exod 2:14). The implication is that the Hebrew anticipated an end similar to that experienced by the taskmaster, not through physical force but through deployment of the divine name. To bolster his view that the Egyptian’s demise was effected naturally, Pseudo-Rabad notes Moses’ effort to hide the crime by burying the victim. Such an expedient born of fear would, he implies, have been unnecessary if the killing was achieved through supernatural means.

13)      What should we make of the fact Aaron Aboulrabi of Sicily speaks of midrashim of Rashi as “girl’s fantasies” but also as “sweet midrash”?

Aboulrabi can express wildly divergent views of Rashi’s midrashim. On one hand, he does not scruple to hurl invective at “the Straight One,” as he calls Rashi, and at Rashi’s rabbinic forerunners. Yet if he shares the incapacity for prevarication characteristic of Eleazar Ashkenazi and Pseudo-Rabad, Aboulrabi is also open to appreciation of Rashi’s interpretive successes and can, in rare instances, go so far as to speak of “sweet” fruits of the midrashic hermeneutic.

Aaron Aboulrabi evaluates the Commentary on the basis of its consonance with the scriptural plain sense and frequently finds it wanting. He also promotes an approach nourished by considerations of plausibility. Take God’s command to Moses to write “all the words of this Torah” on stones to be erected after the Israelites cross the Jordan (Deut 27:8). Rashi, on the authority of the Mishnah, contended that the Torah was engraved on the stones in “seventy languages.” Sensing, like others before him, a major logistical challenge, Aboulrabi assesses that only “fundamentals of the Torah,” the commandments in a bare litany, appeared, since “not even a thousand stones could encompass” the Torah in its entirety (let alone in seventy languages).

14)   What were Aboulrabi’s criticisms of “drash of a barbarian” and “drash of a dolt”? Why, in his opinion, did the Commentary not always cast biblical figures accurately?

Aboulrabi mocks a midrash that purports to explain the report that the Egyptian Pharaoh went down to the Nile in the morning (Exod 7:15). Rashi says it was because he claimed divinity and tried to hide his need to relieve himself. Aboulrabi calls this “the derash of a dolt,” asking: had Pharaoh no way to relieve himself in a concealed place such that he had to go down to the river? Here is a straightforward rejection of a midrash of Rashi on the grounds that it lacks logic.

Aboulrabi’s disdain for midrashim reaches a crescendo in his handling of the sensitive issue of sins or moral failings of biblical heroes. Rashi tends to justify seemingly problematic words or deeds of such heroes. Aboulrabi is willing to see them more at “eye level” (as modern Hebrew usage has it).

In dealing with conduct apparently unbecoming of biblical greats, medieval exegetes juggle various factors including the plain meaning of the text, the educational value of defending the Jewish people’s ancestors, and findings in the rabbinic record. As the Middle Ages wore on, new factors arose, including a surprising tendency of some Christian polemicists to paint unflattering images of Israel’s ancestors in order to excoriate their Jewish posterity.

Aboulrabi can finds the black-and-white evaluations of biblical figures that often appear in the Commentary severely lacking. Among instances where Aboulrabi impugns such an evaluation, Jacob’s conduct in procuring his father’s blessing stands out. Where Jacob told Isaac “I am Esau, your firstborn” (Gen 27:19), Rashi configures his meaning by dividing this utterance into two and having Jacob add mental reservations as needed: “I am the one who brings [food] to you and Esau he is your first-born.”

To Aboulrabi, it is clear that Jacob’s reply “was a lie” and Rashi’s midrashic artifice of twisting words to preserve their technical veracity “full of wind.” It violates the main principle of human communication—that the aim of speech is to convey truth to another. It is the auditor’s understanding that is determinative in assessing truthful speech in such cases, not some sly equivocation or mental reservation on the part of the speaker. Needless to say, this is not exactly traditionalist Jewish fare, not least because, as always, it is Rashi’s interpretation that has become known among Jewish readers over the ages.

15)   What was the critique of Allilot devarim? What was the book?

Sefer ‘Alilot devarim (Book of Accusations) is a peculiar specimen of late medieval Jewish rationalism. The earliest manuscript dates from 1468 but it may have been written as much as a century or so earlier. Like Pseudo-Rabad, it is written under a penname: “Rabbi Palmon ben Pelet,” described as “a son of ‘Anonymous,’ who married a daughter of ‘So-and-So.’” Its author puts satirical genius in the service of exposure of the obscurantism that, in his view, had come to degrade Jewish life in post-talmudic times. As part of his critique, the author claims that Rashi’s biblical commentaries in general, and Commentary in particular, distance Jews from rationality. Indeed, he insists that the Commentary effects confusion “with respect to the perfection of souls.” In writing those words, he must have had in mind the intellectualist vision of human perfection promoted by his hero, Maimonides.

16)   What role did the commentators such as Elijah Mizrahi play in Rashi’s triumph?

Many factors commended the Commentary, even leaving aside its author’s status as a towering scholar and singular reputation as the foremost commentator on the Talmud. The Commentary explained the Torah in concise and digestible glosses. It provided a more or less continuous running account of the Torah’s narratives and laws where many later commentators glossed the Torah only intermittently. It offered an exposition of the Torah basically in harmony with the authoritative rabbinic corpora, and more. No other commentator could compete on these scores.

One mechanism for the Commentary’s triumph was the extraordinary number of commentaries that it attracted, with the most famous that of the sixteenth-century Ottoman rabbi Elijah Mizrahi, who passed away in 1526. How the phenomenon of commentary promotes a work is a large question but the most basic way is in selecting a text as an object of exposition, thereby potentially initiating or confirming a process of canonization. More important than the number of commentaries is what the enduring succession of glosses—which continues down to the present—betokens; namely, the Commentary’s capacity for sustaining ongoing reading in a way that is of the essence in mechanics of canonization in rabbinic Judaism.

The Rabbi and the Buddhist Monk

“All mystics speak the same language, for they come from the same country,” declares Rabbi Shmuel Braun. There is a mystic reality greater than any religion. This is the position of perennialism or perennial wisdom, a perspective in spirituality that views all of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single core or origin from which all doctrine has grown.

Rabbi Shmuel Braun  is a Chabad educated rabbi who has been teaching Chassidus around the NY-NJ area.  In this video, he is having a conversation with Ajahn Sona, abbot of the Birken Forest Buddhist Monastery. Braun is, by his own admission, a perrennialist.  He states that all of the world’s religions are about seeking the core of religion the oneness and non-duality of reality.

Rabbi Braun originally studied at Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem eventually found his spiritual home in Chabad. Now as a Modern Orthodox Chassidic, he looks to wider religious horizons including Buddhism.

In this sweet discussion with the Buddhist Abbot, Rabbi Braun does not actually discuss Buddhism or any commonalities of faith. Rather, he focuses the discussion on the realm where all religions are the same. He calls this the realm of Pre-Faith, with explicit Heschel influence.  “We are all united in silence.” “We are all the same inside.” “Language is confining.” “God is beyond language.” For him, there is no name for God, all the names of God are just human attempts to speak of God.

Since God is beyond language and reason, the way to God is by mean of meditation. Judaism is about practice of the mizvot. We do mizvot to bring the infinite divine into our world. But also a reaching up to the infinite, the eyn sof. The words “boundless” and “infinite” are the same words used to describe Buddhist Nirvana showing their commonality. Buddhism is just this universal truth. Braun generally sounds more Vedanta than Buddhist. God is not a being or an existant, rather God is existence itself.

In the Second Temple period, according to Braun, everyone meditated but the techniques were lost due to the Anti-Semitic persecution of exile. But we have tefillah to guide us; we should treat prayer as meditative. But we were not let with clear instructions.  He knew of the writings of the Piesetzna Rebbe on stilling the mind, but how does one connect to it? He found the answer in classes by Rabbi Dovid Weiss, who gives classes in Israel on Vipassana for Orthodox Jews.  Weiss openly labels his class as Vipassana and even has approbations from Hardal rabbis. (see Rabbi Weiss’s interview with Tomer Persico.) Weiss’s classes turned him onto meditation.

Personally, I am not a perennialist, but this is still a sweet video.  Forty years ago, these positions of Buddhist –Jewish encounter would have been seen as part of Jewish Renewal, influenced by Reb Zalman, or really pushing the traditional envelope. See for example, Harold Heifetz, Zen and Hasidism : The Similarities between Two Spiritual Disciplines (1978) or even Harold Kasimow’s Beside Still Waters: Jews, Christians, and the Way of the Buddha (2003). Now, it has made itself at home even in the Haredi world. Tomer Persico in his various articles has shown the influence of Buddhist meditation on diverse Haredi rabbis, including Rabbi Erez Moshe Doron, Rabbi Avraham Tzvi Kluger, Rabbi Itchie Mayer Morgenstern, and the aforementioned Rabbi Dovid Weiss. I dealt with Rabbi Avraham Yurovitch,

Braun stresses that many Jews are attracted to Buddhism, and we need to allow Jews (he adds- “and all people”) to feel God.  Therefore, we need to bring some of the Buddhist teachings to help the contemporary Jew.  Braun is one of at least a half dozen NY-NJ Chabad trained figures seeking a following for their spirituality teachings. The others give classes, write books, make podcasts and have tisches. So too Braun, who is seeking to found an organization called SOUL- Seekers of Unity and Love – to be beyond religion and teach the ineffable source of all religions – the mystery and transcendence beyond anything we can speak or articulate.  We wish him mazal and auspicious good fortune.

 

Interview with Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein Part II

Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein has opened himself up to the wisdom of the East, specifically Hindu religious thought. He studied with Swami Chidananda of the Sivananda Ashram and at the Sadhana Kendra Ashram and worked together with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar  In addition, he visited the ashrams of other noted leaders.  Goshen-Gottstein feels is that Judaism is in crisis. Torah needs more god talk, more spiritual focus, and to create a focus on ultimate reality. This interview is a continuation from Part I – here.

Alon- all religions
(Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the first person on the left of the picture)

Goshen-Gottstien asks: “how much is this really an encounter with Hinduism. What I describe in my journey is increasingly a movement away from rituals, ideas and symbols into the realm of spirituality that transcends religions, and perhaps should therefore not be presented as Hindu at all.” There is for him, a spirituality, that transcends any specific form.

In his The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism, he notes that among those whose have experiences with both religions, the two religions are not being mixed. Rather, most with Jewish background “have dropped their Hindu identity upon return to Judaism.” Yet, he could see the integration into Judaism of “various yogic or mantric japa practices.” In his view, “such individuals would certainly be returning back to Judaism with a more expansive understanding of the religious life and possibly of God than many of their Jewish co-religionists. “

Goshen-Gottstein has been grappling with this question for decades and some of his ideas that go beyond this interview can be found here on Jewish-Hindu relations, here on his own encounter, and here on the Hindu-Jewish dialogue. 

The most important point of the interview, from my opinion, is that “[m]ost Jews… do not devote much time, or are incapable of the kind of God-talk that Hindus cultivate.”

So my question is to consider if this is similar to Bahye ibn Pakuda and his extensive integration of Sufism? And what are the categories of this influence from another religion. We have no trouble using the wisdom of Christian thinkers such as Aquinas, Kierkegaard, Barth, or Tillich to understand Judaism. But how do we learn from the wisdom in the theological thinking in the other religions.

Wisdom – Theistic Piety

The most mild usage is that of intellectual wisdom.

In 2009, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (Zt”l d. 2015) Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion gave a discourse for over an hour on the Bhagavad Gita as an illustration of the Torah’s concept of duty.  For him, the Torah teaches the need to do the right action without worry for the results similar to Nishkam Karma. “To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction”(Bhagavad Gita 2.47) He also used it to teach the need for the Torah scholar to have self-control , discipline, and freedom from attachment.   “With the body, with the mind, with the intellect, even merely with the senses, perform action toward self-purification, having abandoned attachment. He who is disciplined in Yoga, having abandoned the fruit of action, attains steady peace. ( 2.48). Here, the Gita did not provide new content or thoughts patterns, it provided as language for discussion.

Similarly, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, in his work God, Man, and History, asks about the inherent chasm between the human person and the Divine in the encounter with God. To emphasize his point, he surprisingly quotes the Bhagavad Gita on human smallness before the divine: “Suppose a thousand suns were to arise tomorrow in the sky?” (33) For Berkovits, God’s infinite greatness remains beyond human understanding, creating an abyss between the human person and God. However, unlike Berkovits, classical Hindu commentators believe that this gap can be bridged on a personal level through meditation and enlightenment. Furthermore, for the Hindu the infinite divine takes on manifestations to help bridge the gap.

Learning from the Other

A different approach goes beyond language to actually learning from the other faith to gain greater perspective. A binocular or bifocal vision allows one to see deeper trends in one’s own faith. For those attracted to Asian traditions of meditation this can contribute to one’s own faith through reclaiming lost traditions.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan popularized the statement of Rabbi Menashe ben Israel (17th century Amsterdam) that the gifts of Abraham to his concubines were the Asian religions. But Kaplan held that “Idolatrous and other occult practices often shed light on the prophetic methods.” (Innerspace 109, 115). Hence, he often used books about practices in other religions to figure out Jewish practices. We read books about Asian religions to reclaim Jewish practices.

Integration

Rabbi Yoel Glick, whom I interviewed a few years, (see the links here and here) goes further to integrate a Hindu approach into Jewish texts and practices creating a Judaism of God centered spirituality. Rabbi Glick teaches the wisdom of Ramana Maharshi and Sri Ramakrishna in a Jewish form. Goshen-Gottstein see this as an important perspective both in the interview and in his book.

The current Christian and Muslim communities in the USA are asking many of these same questions in terms of meditation, yoga, and Asian theology. We have to thank Rabbi Goshen-Gotstein for his Jewish insights into these questions. The interview stresses the impact of great swamis as great spiritual leaders on his life. If I had wanted more from him, it would have been greater autobiographic details in vivid specifics of how it changed the minute of his spiritual life, including specific practices and specific concepts.

As a final point, last week on March 28 Swami Sarvapriyananda of the Vedanta society spoke at Seton Hall and I was the respondent. The Swami was introducing what he called his modern reform Hinduism to students whose home Hinduism was ritual and Temple based. He acknowledged the differences. My response was the need to always compare like to like. We compare Hindu mystics to Jewish mystics, Hindu legalists to Jewish legalists, and Hindu rationalists to Jewish rationalists.  And quoting Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, I said we have to respect our differences and not to elide our differences. When we received questions from the audience, he answered one of them by stating that he was asked the same question by Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein.

Kumbh Mela2

  1. What does it mean to acknowledge a rich spiritual life in another faith?

How do we understand religion? All too often, we have a view of religion as a set of beliefs, moral instruction, and actions. Yet, all too often, we do not take into account the quality of relationship with God that individuals attain in a religion.  How one’s faith is lived allows the formation of a relationship with God as what may be described as a living God. Contact with the living God has a powerful transformative impact on the person. We may describe how this contact transforms the individual as the spiritual life.

Let me give an example from Judaism. I argue that Judaism is in crisis. This means that for the overwhelming majority of Jews, Judaism is not a vehicle for living a spiritual life in the sense just described. Such a life is surely available within Judaism, but only within small circles or spiritual groups that seek it. For the most part, Jews are more concerned with Jewish survival, education, observance, people and state. The spiritual life focused on God, a conscious relationship with God and growing in a spiritual relationship are low on the collective value scale.

Herein is a key to two dimensions of Judaism’s relationship with Hinduism. In part, this is what Hinduism has to offer us, if only by way of the example of a religious culture that does make God more central to its concerns than present-day Judaism does. From another perspective, appreciating the fullness of the spiritual life that is possible in Hinduism would shift the view of Jews from the question of the forms of worship of Hinduism, which are obviously strange and foreign to Jewish sensibilities, to the broader spiritual concerns that Jews and Hindus share.

  1. When did you fascination with Hinduism start?

My own initial fascination with Hinduism owes to street encounters with one brand of Hinduism, popularly known as Hare Krishna, that was visible on street corners of major cities in the 1980s and ’90s. One cannot consider this a real encounter, even if it engaged my fascination, and led me to visits to temples and to conversations with faithful. Of course, it was an encounter of sorts. It involved curiosity, learning, dialogue and contact with practitioners. But this early teenage kind of engagement did not really affect me. The contact remained external, even if fascinating.

Taking up transcendental meditation (TM) in my early twenties might be considered a step toward a fuller encounter, especially as it was accompanied by many hours of study of the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, either through books or recorded videos. Certainly, meditation is a means of going deeper into a tradition. It forces one to make one’s own whatever experience is being attained through meditation, and if that experience is related to another faith tradition, then it could be a way of interiorizing, possibly owning, something of that tradition.

This form of meditation, however, was offered as a universal approach that was not religious and essentially not particularly Hindu. Even if the initiation ceremony followed Hindu conventions, and even if Maharishi wrote a commentary on Hinduism’s most popular text, the Bhagavad Gita, the practice, message and mindset, had been abstracted into a universalism from its Hindu particularity.It was a teaching that taught a path to oneself, not to another tradition. If nothing else, I was introduced to TM by a group of mostly secularized Israelis, for many of whom this functioned as a substitute religious identity, but who lacked the depth of the fullness of a religious tradition that they could represent to others.

  1. Can you explain your journey into Hindu ashram culture?

One approach to Hinduism is what you call Ashram culture. Ashrams are spiritual centers where live-in conditions offer the opportunity for full dedication to the spiritual life. They are typically organized around a great teacher, alive or one who has passed away. They contain some mix of teaching, ritual, meditation, service, community life and they seek to offer a comprehensive approach to the spiritual life as the goal and purpose of life. To compare them to what we know in Judaism, they are not synagogues or houses of study, though both activities take place there. They are closer to monasteries, though the discipline is often much laxer than in Christian monasteries.

Ashrams are closely associated with teachers, gurus, and monks. Broadly speaking, outside of the home, which is an important site for the practice of religion, ashrams and temples are the two main institutional expressions of Hindu religious life. Whereas a temple is organized primarily around the deity, the ashram is organized primarily around the teacher, lineage and the dedication to a form of the religious life. Ashrams are hugely diverse in terms of the activities that take place in them.

My first visit to India was to an ashram of a contemporary Hindu teacher, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. It also included visits to the ashrams of other noted leaders, such as Sai Baba and concluded with the ashram with which I maintain ties until this day, the Sivananda Ashram.

In the course of my years of visiting India, I have visited dozens of Ashrams, some of which did not even go by that name, but which were ashrams in functional terms.

Ashram culture is a where one encounters Hindu dedication to the spiritual life. The following thought occurs to me. Let us consider the purposes of religion. One purpose is to receive blessing in various aspects of one’s life – what the Zohar calls “children, life and livelihood.” One turns to God for the needs of life. The other purpose of religion is to transform oneself to attain the highest goal of religion, which is self-transformation, liberation, going beyond the limitations of material life and entering the fullness of a relationship with the divine.

From my experience, schematically speaking, temples serve the first set of goals; ashrams the latter. Exceptions abound in both directions, but the overall characterization gives us a sense of the institution. So, if you wish to get a handle on how Hindus dedicate themselves to the spiritual life, the practices they undertake, the ideas they share and how they organize their religious life around teachers, teachings and practices with the goal of attaining what they often refer to as “God Realization”, then ashrams are the place to go to.

  1. Why are Israelis attracted to ashram life?

I think the answer is contained in the previous questions. A meaningful number of Israeli travelers to India travel there for spiritual reasons. If they seek the spiritual life, they will usually not find it in Hindu temples that cater to the local Hindu population. They require a structured approach to the spiritual life, as set forth by teachers who offer a teaching and a path. This they will only find in ashrams.

Some ashrams have a high concentration of Israeli visitors, such as Sadhana Kendra Ashram, near Dehradun. The resident teacher, Chandra Swami, has been to visit Israel several times. He practices a form of Hinduism (he would claim he is not even practicing Hinduism, but something beyond the specificity of Hinduism) that is devoid of elements of worship and is focused almost exclusively on meditation.

This makes it easy for Israelis to be enriched by the Ashram experience without compromising their identity. However, Israelis are found in many other places in India. All ashrams that belong to gurus who travel to the west and have western following have Israeli residents, some of whom are even in positions of leadership. Israelis, Jews more broadly, are spiritual seekers. If they do not find their nourishment in Judaism, they will turn elsewhere.

India is an important destination in such a spiritual quest. There are several reasons. One is that India does not come with some of the negative baggage associated historically with other religions. A second reason owes to the ability of Hindu teachers to present their teachings as spirituality, rather than as religion, thus minimizing the conflict between competing identities.

  1. Can you share something about Swami Chidananda, the disciple of Swami Sivananda?

I wish I could communicate in words the feeling of being in this man’s presence. The intensity of energy and feeling, the uplifting of one’s internal orientation and internal quest, that occurred simply by being in his presence, are the stuff of which stories of tzaddikim and masters of faith in all traditions are made. One knows the presence when one is in it and someone who has not experienced being in the presence of a great soul or spiritual teacher will simply not understand the overwhelming energizing and the transformation one undergoes simply by being in the presence of some individuals.

My first encounter with him was as part of a group meeting. I, and others, had been sitting on the floor. He was seated in his chair.  When it came time to talk to me, Swamiji did something startling. Before talking to me, he descended from his chair, and positioned himself on a level with me for our conversation. Here I was, a rabbi of another tradition. He would not talk to me from a position of greater height.

The impression this gesture made was tremendous. It was a gesture that captured the essence of this man, something I came to appreciate later through the reading of many of his books and watching dozens of hours of his teaching. The hallmark of this contemporary teacher was humility, the kind of humility that grows from the fullness of knowledge of divine presence and that translates itself into a meticulous care taken in human relations. I do not think I ever saw or felt the depth of humility in practice as during that brief moment when Swami Chidananda descended to sit facing me.

For me, the encounter with Swami Chidananda is not over. It is alive when I visit him, or nowadays his home, that is maintained as a sacred place, since he passed away in 2008. But it is also alive inside me. To touch the spirit and to be a model means that his example of humility and wisdom in action and his approach to the spiritual life can inform my internal horizons, together with the testimony of the great Jewish teachers. His presence remains real, and so he remains a teacher.

My question is how much is this really an encounter with Hinduism. What I describe in my journey is increasingly a movement away from rituals, ideas and symbols into the realm of spirituality that transcends religions, and perhaps should therefore not be presented as Hindu at all. This may be so. But then at the very least it would be a recognition that there is a spiritual reality that transcends religious particularity and that can communicate across religions. Such an understanding allows us to cultivate respect, appreciation and admiration for figures of another religion, where affirmation of existing boundaries would have the opposite effect. This in itself is no small feat.

Religious teachers speak the language of the tradition and bring its particularity to light, in light of their own experience and person. Therefore, Hinduism as taught by a Chidananda has a very different valence not only from classroom Hinduism but also from what other academic and religious teachers could offer. It is a full reading of the tradition, supported by a high point of spiritual and existential fulfillment. It allows a full encounter with the tradition itself, enhancing respect and understanding, even as it is a force for the transformation of spirit for the outsider who is lucky enough to be invited in.

  1. What do Jews and Judaism gain from the encounter?

Heschel has said that had Judaism gone east rather than west, to the Ganges rather than to Athens, it would have had a different course for its evolution. Religions grow and part of their growth occurs through contact with the other. Hinduism is a relatively new other and contains significant opportunities for growth for Jewish thought. Hindu thought and how it configures the religious life around God’s presence, in an immanentist context, provides many interesting philosophical and theological challenges.

Jewish theology is largely at a standstill. Throughout the ages, Jewish thought grew from its encounter with other religious cultures. Today, science is the significant other, not another religious tradition. I think Hinduism can play the role that Greek culture, Islam and Christianity played in earlier periods, in stretching Jewish thought.

On the personal level, Jews are finding in the Indian religious life a welcome alternative to what they perceive as the rigidity, authoritarianism and politicization of their own religion. Never mind that the same problems plague Hinduism as well. It’s all about perceptions. Because the forms of Hinduism to which many Jews are exposed do offer an alternative to some of the ills of Judaism, some Jews have found their spiritual path through Hinduism.

There are, then, two modalities for what Judaism can receive. The first is a function of the ongoing growth between religious traditions. The second, relating to the spiritual journey of individuals, is a function of Judaism’s present day crisis. The two dimensions come together in the recognition that Judaism does face a crisis in its relation to God, with other values having eclipsed God and the relationship with Him. Hinduism either already is or can become an important conversation partner and source of inspiration. Given that the great majority of gurus do not wish to make souls for Hinduism, but rather to help aspirants on the spiritual path, Jews could make their way back to Judaism enriched by their encounter with Hinduism.

  1. Should Jews go to the Kumbh Mela? Should they bath in the river?

The public image of the Kumbh Mela is governed by picturesque images of exotic sadhus, often naked, dipping in the confluence of Indian rivers. In fact, the Kumbh Mela is very different. It is, more than anything, a great learning camp, where different religious groups camp out and spend a month or so with their spiritual teacher. It is more like yarchei kala than anything else. Going to the Kumbh is therefore a wonderful opportunity for learning about the diversity of Hindu groups as well as of how they are united in the act of coming together and in the practices of the Kumbh.

The Kumbh is very impressive, but without command of the language and ability to partake of the teachings, one can only benefit from a fraction of what goes on. When I visited the Kumbh Mela I was interested in meeting the famous preacher Murari Bapu. I had heard much about him and I know he touches millions in his sermons. I sat through several hours of his teaching. I did not understand anything he said, but I learned a lot. I learned about how teaching and song combine; how teaching moves to prayer; how a teacher and community interact and more. In some ways, this was similar to what I knew from Judaism; in some ways there were new nuances and new dynamics. It was enriching. It allowed me to appreciate this great teacher in context. Still, most of what goes on in the Kumbha Mela is beyond the understanding of the outsider, which is in fact why there are so few outsiders who attend the event.

As regards bathing in the river, it is a question of motivation, and in part a halachic question. Overall, I avoid engaging in rituals of another religion, which is also true for bathing in the Kumbh, if undertaken as participation in the ritual of another religion. However, as I go to the mikveh regularly in preparation for Shabbat, I did find myself bathing alongside Hindus who were engaged in similar activities (though not carried out as fully and as strictly as Jewish mikveh practice). Such a moment is a moment of solidarity across religions, recognizing our common quest for purification and transcendence. I have experienced such moments in other contexts, for example at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where Sikhs bathe.

  1. Do you then espouse a form of multiple religious identity, being both Hindu and Jewish?

I certainly would not proscribe multiple religious identities. In forty years of study of and fascination with Hinduism, I could never say of myself that I have a multiple religious identity. Even when I am in ashram, my path is Jewish, as is my practice, even my meditation practice. But I do recognize that there are Jews whose lives have taken other paths.

Could I see multiple religious identities for them? Much depends on how one defines Hinduism and the engagement to it. As I describe it in The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism, most Jews who have engaged Hinduism have not cultivated a strong Jewish identity or have dropped their Hindu identity upon return to Judaism. I could see ways of upholding certain practices and integrating them within one’s Jewish identity. This could include various yogic or mantric japa practices. Such individuals would certainly be returning back to Judaism with a more expansive understanding of the religious life and possibly of God than many of their Jewish co-religionists.

Most Jews, as stated, do not devote much time, or are incapable of the kind of God-talk that Hindus cultivate.

Within the parameters of a multiple religious identity that does not consider both components of equal value, I could see a theoretical possibility where some individuals would return to Judaism as their primary identity and bring back to it some of the spoils that were gained through their spiritual process and struggle within Hinduism.

  1. Why is Rabbi Yoel Glick’s work important?

Glick is one contemporary spiritual teacher who seeks to live and teach a Judaism with God at the center. He has found a very unique voice that draws from the treasures of Jewish spirituality, especially from Hassidic teachers. But he has also been inspired by some of the great masters of the Hindu tradition, such as Ramana Maharshi and Sri Ramakrishna. His is not a case of multiple religious belonging, but it is a case of being able to draw from the wisdom of those teachers and to deliver a message of Judaism that is either in dialogue with the teachings of those teachers or that draws in different proportions from the wisdom of both traditions. This is a unique balance and one that addresses head on the spiritual crisis of Judaism, its need to return to God at the center, and also makes room for getting “help” from Hindu sources for this process.

  1. How do you deal with the diversity of Hinduism and what role do your direct encounters play?

There is extreme diversity of forms of Hindu religious life. Some Hindus may never visit an ashram; some Hindus may never go to Temple; some Hindus may not have a guru; some may never read scripture. And yet all come under that broad umbrella called Hinduism. It is a great challenge for the outsider to get a handle on Hinduism given this diversity.

Given the problem of diversity of Hindu positions, we have two fundamental paths we could take. The one is to relate to these traditions in their diversity, as a series of religious phenomena, avoiding reference to the broad, and admittedly somewhat artificial umbrella term of “Hinduism”. The other is to seek to understand the broader phenomena in terms that are broad enough to be representative.

Situations such as the dialogue of the Chief Rabbinate with Hindu leadership require some kind of representative conversation partner. The Hindu side came to this dialogue featuring a broad spectrum of Hindu voices. Reading the transcripts of those dialogues one realizes they were nevertheless united in some important ways relating to the fundamentals of their faith.

My journey involved not only entry into the ashram world, but also very close personal associations with Hindu leadership, through my work with the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders.

Let me recount one moment that will illustrate how broader understandings cut across the diversity of schools. I recall sitting in a hotel room in Cordoba, Spain just as the Elijah Board was established, with Sri Sri Ravi Sankar and one of the leaders of the Madhva stream of Hinduism, Sugunendra Theerta Swami, and discussing what idols and images meant to them. Needless to say, for a Jew this is a cardinal question and one that had to be explored in dialogue with authoritative practitioners.

Engaging religious leaders has provided an opening to what is most meaningful to those leaders in Hinduism, the heart of their faith, their practice and their message for others. As it turns out, the diversity of philosophical positions concerning metaphysical unity or multiplicity was quite inconsequential to that conversation in Cordoba. Both leaders affirmed the same fundamental view of God, the absolute, representation, images, immanence etc. You would not know they belonged to different schools. The same took place during the Jewish-Hindu summits. The same has also been true of my extensive conversations with leaders of diverse streams of Hinduism.

Projecting my understanding back to them, hearing how they conceptualized matters, following their arguments, suggested that fundamental commonalities far outweighed the particularities of philosophical, ritual or devotional schools. Since many such exchanges did not take place in “diplomatic” interreligious contexts, I must conclude that there is a significant religious and philosophical agreement about fundamentals of the faith, notwithstanding many differences.

Thus, I would state that what I write of Hinduism is descriptive of far more than the Advaita Vedanta that I often appeal to. Even if one would put forth the view of a historically diverse Hinduism, to me the living Hinduism of today’s teachers and practitioners is of greater consequence, and this suggests some fundamental commonalities. It seems reasonable to me to appeal to contemporary teachers as far as understanding Hinduism for present Jewish purposes is concerned. I appeal for the validity of my Judaism to the great spiritual teachers who have inspired me, even if some of them lived in the 20th century. I do not see why another religion cannot be dealt with along similar lines.

Interview with Alon Goshen-Gottstein on Same God, Other God: Judaism, Hinduism and the Problem of Idolatry

Do Jews and Hindus worship the same God? Moses Mendelssohn argued over two centuries ago that Hindus were not polytheists but monotheists who worship God through a system of symbols misunderstood by Westerners. Mendelssohn argued that images of the divine in Hinduism are symbolic the same way the rabbinic stories of the cherubim embracing are symbolic. An outsider would misconstrue the story of the cherubs, so too Westerners misconstrue the symbolic nature of Hinduism, which is actually part of their healthy human understanding of God.  Drawing on traditional categories, Mendelssohn thought the Bible only forbids imagery to Jews as Nahmanides taught and he extended the tosafist idea of shituf (association) to Hinduism. Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein returns to this approach in two recent books.

samegod

Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and has a PhD in Rabbinics from Hebrew University has devoted his career to interfaith work as founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. The first book is The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism (New York: Palgrave, Macmillan 2016) and the second book is Same God, Other God: Judaism, Hinduism and the Problem of Idolatry (New York: Palgrave, Macmillan 2016). He is also the editor of Jewish Theology and World Religions (The Littman Library 2012).

This interview will be in two parts; the first part will discuss the questions of Same God, Other God  and the second part will be about Goshen –Gottstein’s actual encounter with Hinduism. This interview raises many important issues. If you want to write a response or want to ask both of us questions then email.

Comparisons

Yale professor Miroslav Volf in a significant book Allah: A Christian Response (HarperOne 2012) asks if Christians and Muslims worship the same God starts by separating the question into a series of questions. Do we have the same referent for God? Do we have the same descriptions? Do they have the same attributes?  Were they accepted as historically similar? Is the worship style similar? Medieval thinkers such as Saadyah, Aquinas, or Farabi could see the same God is they affirm a unity based on the classic arguments for the divine. Volf created a method for asking these question in our age when scholastic thought does not have the same resonance.

Alon Goshen-Gottstein wrote an fine essay concerning Judaism and Christianity responding to the book’s argument, “God  Between Christians and    Jews   Is    it    the    Same God?”(available online) in Do We Worship the Same God?: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Dialogue edited by Miroslav Volf. In addition, Goshen-Gottstein wrote some of the finest essays on the topic of comparisons with Christianity “God the Father in Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity” (2003)  and “Judaisms and Incarnational Theology”(2002)

Four Jewish Opinions

Alon Goshen-Gottstein’s method in his book on Hinduism is to ask what the halakhic figures of Maimonides, Nahmanides, Tosfot and Meiri would say about similarities between the faiths.  According to Goshen-Gottstein, Maimonides’ oneness of God can be compared to a proper understanding of Vedanta’s oneness. As a philosophic monotheist, there can only be one God regardless of the name and worship style. In the case of Hinduism,  Maimonides’ negative theology has great commonality with Shankara’s Vedantic theology, but not the varied theologies of the individual devas -deities. (136)

The Tosafot concept of shituf, according to Goshen-Gottstein, means that non-Jews are not bound by the strict criteria of Jewish monotheism or the demand for exclusive worship of God. They may worship another being alongside God, the saints, Jesus or a deva.

Goshen-Gottstein gives special attention to Nahmanides’ who limit the lack of representation of God to Jews alone.  Thereby, it leaves the other religions with  “room for a rich mythical, imaginative and artistic life, that is particular to any given religious tradition, while balancing it with a more abstract, philosophical, if we will “pure” understanding of God.” For Goshen-Gottstein, “[a]ccording to this perspective, it may indeed be that Hindus worship various gods who are not the same as our God. Nevertheless, such worship may be legitimate and appropriate for them.

The thirteenth century Provencal Rabbi Menachem Meiri created a new category of the “ways of religion” based on its moral teachings, which Goshen-Gottstein perceptively divides this position into two aspects, the acknowledgment of non-Jewish forms of worship and the importance of moral teachings.  Goshen-Gottstein plots a new course by expanding the Meiri into a statement of the acceptance of multiple ways to relate to God.

If we follow the Meiri, Hinduism is definitely a religion bound by the ways of religion and belongs in the same category as Islam and Christianity. For Goshen-Gottstein, “Hinduism provides us with an alternative way of configuring religious belief and moral duty.” This is because all “the fundamental details of belief –God, unity, power- may be recognizable, they appear in different combinations, carrying different weight within the overall system and operating in different ways as they interact with the moral order.” As long as we see the basics of Jewish religious principles in another faith then is monotheistic and moral enough to be respected by Jews.

Goshen-Gottstein creatively reaches to create a new category, a general respect for the “overall structure and value of their religious and spiritual life” found in other faiths. He encourages the reader to bracket out the technical halakhic questions of foreign worship in order to see a common religious goal. Jews can judge the other faiths as sharing common philosophical arguments concerning Gods being, negative theology, actions, and attributes.

Goshen-Gottstein develops from these positions a theory of religious imagination. For him, in this bold theory, the differences between religious ideas and symbols can be seen as the workings of religious imagination. This theme is a strong undercurrent to the book, partially discussed in many chapters, which should have been an independent section.

He models himself on Chief Rabbi Herzog’s statement that Christians elevated Jesus to a level of divinity as an act of their religious imagination and that halakhah permits these imaginative flourishes to gentiles. Goshen-Gottstein  develops that into a broad concept of viewing the role of imagination in religion as our culturally diverse differences, meaning that our theological differences can be ascribed to imagination.  If one accepts this extension of Rabbi Herzog, the other religions are not false gods or others gods, rather, the religious imagination at work. In Goshen-Gottstein’s estimation, the Hindu gods Krishna and Shiva can be treated the same way Herzog treated Jesus, that is, as acts of religious imagination rather than other gods.

Beyond this, he makes imagination a value in the full religious life rather than a hindrance. Just as there are rabbis who allow Jews who need to visualize God during worship as a concession to the strength of the imagination, so too non-Jews should be allowed even greater freedom in their religious imagination, even within their images of God, even if they are false images.

Alon Goshen Gottstein writes: “we might consider the specific manifestations of deities in Hinduism as part of what God has allotted this people, not through astral governance, but through the expressions of their religious imagination.“ The goal would be to “leave room for a rich mythical, imaginative and artistic life, that is particular to any given religious tradition, while balancing it with a more abstract, philosophical, if we will “pure” understanding of God.” For Goshen-Gottstein, “[a]ccording to this perspective, it may indeed be that Hindus worship various gods who are not the same as our God. Nevertheless, such worship may be legitimate and appropriate for them.

Later in the book, Goshen-Gottstein moves beyond his broad interpretations of the Shituf and Meiri  to a theory of religious imagination and the religious personality, which includes “those expressions of moral and spiritual excellence that constitute religious perfection: humility, service, loving-kindness, compassion…”. In turn,  “it can further be extended to formative experiences of God, as these register within human awareness and as these shape the religious personality.”

Goshen- Gottstein poses the question of what are signs by which one can recognize that a religion has true contact with God and extending Meiri from morality to religious life. We approach other religions looking to recognize God’s presence, especially mystical presence, and to see “traces of contact with God.”  It would be non-generous to think that Jews have holiness but other religions have self-interest. We all share a common life of faith and recognize God’s presence. (144-145)

By the end of the book Goshen-Gottstein has advanced Meiri’s thought beyond his own rational starting point to the foundation of a more mystically oriented understanding of divine presence something between Paul Tillich or Bernard McGinn, in which a legitimate religion can be considered as anything having  a presence of God, a dimension of contact with the divine.  If the goal was raise a halakhic discussion, then the work has moved far from it.

Essentialism

The book however suffers from an essentialist approach to Hinduism. Tamar Reich, a Hinduism scholar with academic background in Judaism & Kabbalah, in her review of the book in the journal Pardes points out what she regards as the limitations of the work. “Advaita Vedanta theology resonates with the author’s Hasidic acosmistic leanings. This is very well, but it blinds him, in my view, to most of what Hinduism, for better and for worse, has been and is. He is less interested in the Sub-Continent’s rich pantheon, sacred narrative and religious poetry, theology of sacrifice, great temple architecture and art and devotional and social-protest movements.” I concur; the Hinduism in this book does not accord with what I know from my time teaching and studying in a department of Hinduism in India, rather it reflects Goshen-Gottstein’s own internalization of Advaita- Vedanta from his time with important Hindu teachers. (For more discussion, see part II of this interview- next week).

From Rejection to Acceptance

Most Christians accepted Miraslav Volf’s analysis of the issues of comparing conceptions of God. However, Evangelicals generally rejected it because the Muslim or Hindu views of God do not offer salvation and grace even if God is the same referent and same attributes. Goshen-Gottstein goal is to move from a Jewish Haredi rejectionist position toward his own reading of the Meiri and Nahmanides. Hence, frames his work using the Egyptologist Jan Assmann who claims that the religion of the Bible, and by extension Judaism, draws a sharp line between true and false religions, claiming that all other religions are false. Assman extends his claim, thinking that Biblical faith requires they be hated, persecuted, and destroyed as rivals, parodies, or perversions of the one true faith.

However, Mark S. Smith, professor at NYU, rejected Assmann’s claims and in fact Biblical and Hellenistic Jews translated the God of the Bible into corresponding to the God of their neighbors. He also points out that they could recognize other national gods as valid for Israel’s neighbors. “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts.” (Malachi 1:11)

From my own work, Jews were able to find an ability to translate the Jewish God into the divine ideas of theos and Allah around them. For example, the  letter of the Jewish Annas to Seneca from the 4th century, is a purported Jewish letter to a pagan. He accepts that the pagan philosophic God and the God of the Bible are one. God is the father of all mortals is invisible to humans. However, Annas, the Jew attacks those who worship images that are nothing but images of their own desires.

The medieval philosophers readily translate between faiths such as Saadyah who writes of the Brahmins. Or Shem Tov Falquera already  in the 13th century adumbrates a theory in which everyone believes in one God but the many deities are due to the religious imagination.

And in the age of exploration in the 17th century, Menashe ben Israel rejected the explorers labeling the nations of Asia as superstitious and pagan, rather he quoted “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts.” (Malachi 1:11)

During the colonial era, Chief Rabbi of Britain Joseph H. Hertz (1872–1946) stated that the heathens were not held responsible for a false conception of God and “were judged by God purely by their moral life.”  For Hertz, “a primitive stage of religious belief” can still form “part of God’s guidance of humanity.” Even in their primitive version, [they] are serving the one true God (Malachi. 1:11)

All of these historical points are to emphasize that there has been discussions in the past about other religions, Asian religions and pagan practice, albeit not much about Hinduism. Yet, it was not a  blanket condemnation of other religions or a sharp denunciation without translation. Goshen-Gottstein sees a direct line from Chief Rabbi Hertzog to himself. In the end, however, his position is a more developed Mendelssohn position. Finally, while an important book, the volume suffers from dense overwritten chapters which should have been trimmed from the Yeshiva casuistry that makes this work difficult to the reader without the requisite background as well as the many repetitions.

I acknowledge that my comments are some insider’s perspective, coming from my own concern with the topic. This is especially true since my own very different book, Rabbi on the Ganges: A Jewish Hindu Encounter (Lexington 2019) will be out this Fall 2019. Rabbi Prof Daniel Sperber has a forthcoming book on Hinduism and Avodah Zarah that will offer a contrast to this volume, so hold your breath before making final judgments. (Here is a recent article of Sperber’s) We have to thank Alon Goshen-Gottstein for producing strong Jewish theological analysis of the topic and the book should be read by all those interested in the topic, eventually together with my book and Rabbi Sperber’s forthcoming volume. Enjoy the interview. Stay tuned for part II next week.

Rabbi-Dr.-Alon-Goshen-Gottstein

  1. How is the tosfot concept ot Shituf helpful for a Jewish understanding of Hinduism?

Let me begin perhaps by defining what “shituf” is. “Shituf” is the position developed in the late middle ages by Jewish legal authorities who sought to legitimate Christian worship of God for Christians, while maintaining it is still forbidden for Jews. The position assumes there are two standards of proper approach to God – one for Jews, the other for non-Jews. Non-Jews are not bound by the strict criteria of Jewish monotheism or the demand for exclusive worship of God. What this means is that they may worship another being alongside God, the saints or Jesus himself. This provided Jews with a means of affirming the validity of Christianity for Christians, while continuing to affirm it is forbidden for Jews.

In the case of Hinduism, I have personally done very little to extend it because Rabbinic authorities have raised the possibility that what holds true for Christianity can hold true for Hinduism as well. The first to raise this possibility was the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, Rabbi Y.I.Herzog. He made the point tentatively, stating he didn’t know that much about Hinduism, but it seemed to him that the construct could be applied to Hinduism as well. The point was also made by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who affirmed the “shituf” position by arguing that non-Jews are not expected to hold by the same standards that Jewish monotheism does. This softer or compromised monotheism he was willing to apply to Hinduism.

The basic argument would be that while Hindus may worship various forces of nature, deities, being or humans considered divine, they nevertheless do have a sense of a divinity beyond, and that therefore these are worshipped along with that absolute Supreme beyond.

If one thinks in terms of “Shituf”, then one could read the statement signed by the Chief Rabbinate and Hindu leadership, cited below, in these terms. The Hindu worships the Supreme, while worshipping in fact nature, concrete objects or individuals. Actually, in the case of Hinduism the argument to permit “shituf” may be stronger than with reference to Christianity, inasmuch as there is a conscious articulation of the principle that the Absolute Supreme Being manifests as those beings. Therefore, the Hindu acknowledges that it is not those beings that are being worshipped alongside God, but rather God who is worshipped in or as those beings.

But, frankly I find the category of “Shituf” not fully adequate to the task at hand.

  1. What contribution does Nahmanides make to our evaluation of Hinduism?

Ramban develops a theory of Avoda Zara in his commentary on the ten commandments (Exodus 20). According to Ramban there are different levels of what constitutes Avoda Zara.

In a manner analogous to the tosafot’s notion of permissibility of Shituf for non-Jews, Ramban develops a theory of permissibility of worship of other beings for non-Jews, provided they remain aware of the existence of the Supreme Being. He grounds this in a theory of distribution of divine providence to nations through their governing angels. Non-Jews are allowed to worship the celestial beings who provide for them. Why should it forbidden to them? The only thing is that they need to remember that beyond these angels is the one God who put it all in place. Jews, by contrast, may not worship other beings, because they are God’s lot and therefore exclusive allegiance is owed to God and cannot be compromised.

The advantage of Ramban’s position is that it does not require simultaneous worship of the absolute God while also worshiping a created being. In that, it avoids some of the theoretical problems associated with “Shituf”, which may not accurately reflect the beliefs of either Christians or Hindus, even if it is helpful to a Jewish theological discussion. On the other hand, however, is the difficulty that Ramban’s theory assumes a cosmic ordering, wherein different nations worship the angel or star that has been divinely allotted to them.

  1. Meiri helpful to understand Hinduism?

Rabbi Menachem Hameiri seeks to establish what a legitimate religion is; reversing the procedure of first establishing what is foreign worship. For Meiri a legitimate religion is one that has some knowledge of God, that by virtue of such knowledge assures a morally ordered society and that aids humans in their overall moral improvement and evolution. The key thing for Meiri is that details of faith, theology and ritual do not matter. Once one has it basically right, the details that one gets wrong don’t change the big picture. It is a very tolerant view that has great capacity to contain theological and religious disagreement, highlighting instead what is common between religions. In one way, that commonality is the commonality of the moral life.

Ultimately, valid religions all reference the same God. That they have different conceptions, names, myths and rituals does not detract from the fact that it is the one same God that is worshipped in different religions.

Moreover, Meiri subscribes to a theory of progress, wherein idolatry is something of the past and most religions have outgrown it. Because Meiri paints his theological picture in very broad strokes, I see no reason why Hinduism would not be included within this view of other religions. I think Meiri would consider Hinduism a valid religion. It has a notion of God. God ties into the moral order, though in ways that are different, perhaps parallel, to how God and the moral order are tied in Judaism. It has an idea of a morally ordered society and it aids the human person in advancing past his or her material inclinations, as proper religion should.

In my book, I expand the Meiri’s position as considering moral living as the measure of recognizing the validity of other religions. Meiri’s  argument is that God is known through a particular dimension of human life  – the moral order – that serves as proof for a particular religion knowing him. This argument can be extended to other dimensions of the spiritual life. We may consider various expressions of the spiritual life as indications of the presence of God in a given religion. People of deep faith, mystics and saints manifest various qualities. A partial list would include love (of God and other), humility, generosity, altruism, joy and much more. A true religious life forms the individual in particular ways and these in turn can serve as confirmation for a given religion of the nature of God-as known and worshipped.

  1. So do Jews and Hindus mean the same thing when they speak of God?

Well, yes and no. It really depends on which Hindus position one speaks about. But let me give you a Jewish answer – do Jews and Jews mean the same thing when they speak of God? In other words, how much flexibility or pluralism do we assume in our notion of God and when do differences in theological view necessitate declaring the god of another person (or religion) a different god.

The question of how we know that two people, even of the same faith, really refer to the same God, is not always that simple to answer. Naming helps, and sharing scriptures and stories also helps. But these cannot always cover up for theological differences. Sometimes two people from different religions may be closer in their understanding of God than two members of the same faith. One would therefore have to establish the criteria by means of which one knows that two people are speaking of the same God.

Here Meiri’s criterion of the moral life is so crucial.  By your fruits you shall know them, not by their theological declarations. I would push the argument one step further and refer to the spiritual life as a criterion for the knowledge of God. Ultimately, the “yes and no” answer may be the only answer we can give, even with reference to any two individuals.

  1. How do you apply the notion of religious imagination with reference to Hindu faith?

As I suggest, it is possible to construct an argument for God being the same in Judaism and Hinduism, based on authorities such as the Meiri, who applies moral criteria for the establishment of the identity of God. While this resolves many contemporary challenges in practical terms, it does leave us with the difficulty of reconciling God, as he is known in Judaism and the various descriptions of God and gods in Hinduism.

The problem is less extreme in cases where forces of nature or people are worshipped. But what most Hindus refer to as God has elements of the fantastic – either by way of description of the deity or in terms of what is ascribed to God or gods in stories and myths told of them. Do these then undermine the possibility of affirming God in both traditions as the same God? Not necessarily.

This is where a theory of the religious imagination comes in. I suggest we can develop a theory of religious imagination that respects the workings of this faculty of the human person and recognizes its contribution to the religious life. Imagination is instrumental in giving expression to our deepest quest, in guiding us to truths and realities that we cannot attain without it and to integrating mind and heart in religious experience. Without imagination, much of the vitality of the religious life would be lost.

Now, we can recognize that imagination operates differently in different religious cultures, as we see in the art and artifacts produced in different cultures, and specifically religious cultures.

It serves instrumental needs. Looking at it in instrumental terms means we put aside the valuation of whether the portrayal through the imagination is correct. Rather, we ask if it produces good fruit. If it does, we accept its beneficial consequences and bracket the question of its truth content.

I rely on Jewish sources that are willing to make that move internally. For instance, in Hassidic sources we find reliance on Rabad’s refusal to reject someone who considers God in anthropomorphic terms and to call him a min. One important Hassidic teacher, the Piasetzner Rebbe, turns this into a recommendation to cultivate anthropomorphic imagination if it is beneficial for the beginner to cultivate a desired attitude to God. Such internal acceptance of “false” imagination for beneficial purposes can be extended more broadly to recognizing the beneficial consequences of the religious imagination in other religions and religious cultures.

  1. How does Maimonides’ approach help us in relating to Hinduism.

I think Maimonides’ thought and Hinduism needs to be understood in two ways. The first is to compare Vedanta to Maimonides’ view of God and consider the convergence. The second is a consideration of how Maimonides is more concerned with philosophic concepts of unity than practice.

Rambam offers us a baseline definition of Avoda Zara and conditions much of Jewish attitude to other religions. He is the champion of the view that Christianity is Avoda Zara. It would stand to reason that what holds for Christianity would apply also to Hinduism with its multiple deities and the use of image worship. Rambam is therefore not the most promising resource for considering ways of accepting Hinduism as non-Avoda Zara.

Still, a conversation between Rambam and Hindu thought is interesting, in theological terms, even if these do not necessarily affect the practical outcome, the pesak. Hinduism offers an entirely different structure from the one that informs Rambam’s understanding of Avoda Zara. For Rambam Avoda Zara is based on the worship of intermediaries, given a mistaken understanding of divine will. One is worshiping another being instead of worshiping God. This assumes a clear distinction between God and non-God and a theory of intermediaries that leads to the worship of the latter. Hinduism operates with an entirely different structure. As the Hindu-Jewish summit declaration states, the Hindu does not worship another being per se, as he or she worships the many beings, real and imaginary, that are worshipped. Rather, it is God alone that is worshipped, as he is made manifest in these beings. The entire approach to Hinduism as Avoda Zara shifts if one considers that intentionality and awareness are directed to God, rather than to non-God.

I recently heard a wonderful story of the Magid of Dubna, in the context of approaching Avoda Zara. An impostor came to town a week before the Magid of Dubna and received great honor, as well as the monies that would have gone to the Magid of Dubna. When the Magid came to town the people were in shock as they had given all their money to the impostor. The Magid comforted them saying – be not disheartened. Even if you honored someone else, in your own minds it was me you were honoring.

  1. What was lacking by both sides of the Jewish-Hindu encounters in 2007-2009?

Hindus, led by Swami Dayananda, sought to resolve the problem of Hinduism as idolatry by claiming that “the Hindu” only worships the absolute, or Supreme Being, even if such worship is expressed through worship of other beings. It was certainly an important clarification from the perspective of Jewish participants and allowed them to shift their attitude to Hindu participants from one of suspicion of idolaters to a more appreciative and respectful approach.

The rabbis were willing to sign onto a document that affirmed that Hinduism and Judaism shared the recognition of One Supreme Being, Creator and Guide of the Cosmos; shared values; and similar historical experiences. “It is recognized that the One Supreme Being, both in its formless and manifest aspects, has been worshipped by Hindus over the millennia. This does not mean that Hindus worship “gods” and “idols.” The Hindu relates to only the One Supreme Being when he/she prays to a particular manifestation.”

Rabbi Daniel Sperber who is writing an important book on  Jewish view of Hinduism based on what the Hindus taught is an extreme expression of this change in attitude. But for most of the Jewish participants, I don’t think that they really considered that the Jewish category of Avoda Zara had been addressed by the explanations offered by the Hindu party.

In my understanding of the rabbis involved, personally I do not think that even if they signed a declaration affirming that the Hindu only worships the Supreme Being, I don’t think any of them had intended to declare that the charge of Avoda Zara was off the table.

  1. How does the work of Jan Assman help us move beyond medieval Jewish positions?

Jan Assman is a scholar of Egyptian religion, who has been fascinated with the issue of monotheism and how religions of the ancient world related to each other. His work is important for me because it allows me to explore from a historical perspective the question of “same God” in antiquity.

If you can identify means of translating the name of God from one system to another, you uncover a deeper commonality. Of course, one must distinguish between the ability to do so in a polythetistic and in a monotheistic context. Nevertheless, even the monotheistic context still requires such work of translation. Consider some parts of America where you may find support for the notion that “Allah is not God” and some places where it is a given that “Allah is God.”

Jews are not used to discussing the “same God” issue. I think that beginning to ask the question of the same God is an important theological step and it is particularly important in the context of doing theology of religions against the backdrop of improved relations between faiths. A new framing of the question allows us to get past places where the theological discussion seems stuck. No less importantly, it opens the door to deeper respect, and the possibility of mutual and reciprocal learning and inspiration.

Probably the most important conceptual move that I make in Same God, Other god, and I am certainly not the first to make it, is to shift the discussion from a discussion of whether another religion is “other”, foreign, strange, all synonyms of idolatry, to whether another religion, or rather its God is the same.

Classification as Avoda Zara sends  a religion to the divine recycle bin and renders it senseless to reflect on the relative import of such world religions. The halakhic category devalues the other religions in that traditionally Jews concluded that there is nothing of value to be learned or received from that religion.

Theoretically, one may believe in the same God but still be culpable of Avoda Zara, on technical or conceptual grounds. For instance, there are halachic voices that consider Islam to be Avoda Zara, even though it believes in the same God as Judaism. However, the likelihood is that once the God of another religion is recognized as the same, the charge, or the intensity of the charge of idolatry drops.  Maimonides on Islam is a case in point. His recognition of Islam’s God as the same God as Judaism, on grounds of a philosophical understanding of monotheism, leads him to exempt Islam from the charge of Avoda Zara.

  1. Who defines Hinduism for these discussions?

During the infamous sheitel controversy, a rabbinic emissary was dispatched to determine what Hindus believed. This emissary questioned believers. His procedure then was to approach ordinary believers in order to determine what the beliefs of the faith are. This in turn led him to declare Hindus as idolaters, which in turn led to major international manifestations of Jewish rejection of Hindu faith. The halachic authorities who engaged the subject at the time, notably R. Menashe Klein, tackled the question of who speaks for Hinduism and whether it should be defined by its practitioners or by its sages and scholars.

So the question is who speaks for Hinduism. Should one consider the voice of the sages, the learned, the leaders or should one consider the faith of the man and woman in the temple?

While I am personally in favor of having theologians and religious professionals speak for the religion, one cannot fully divorce the perspective of the sages from that of the common worshipper. To do so would mean we have in fact two different religions, that of the scholar and that of the common person. I have therefore also been concerned about capturing the attitude of the common Hindu person.

One of the challenges we as Jews would have looking at Hinduism is how much of a gap can be tolerated between the views of religious elites and those of the masses and consequently whether our “issues” with Hinduism are theological (differences with the elites) or focus more on different educational perspectives, with Judaism showing greater care for the education of the masses.

In the interim I can state that it is not at all the case that understanding there is ultimately one God is a conviction that only scholars and sages hold by. It is also prevalent among the masses, though by no means universally, based on hundreds of conversations I have conducted.