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Maimonides the Universalist – Interview with Menachem Keller and David Gillis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Kellner and Gillis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. How are Purim and Hanukah seen as universal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. What is Maimonides’ view of the Messiah?

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

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

The key passage reads as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright- Alan Brill & Levi Morrow

Interview with Alexander Kaye- The Invention of Jewish Theocracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chief Rabbi Hertzog

Interview with Alexander Kaye on The Invention of Jewish Theocracy

  1. What is legal pluralism and legal centrism?

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

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

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

2. What is Jewish legal pluralism?

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

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

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

3. Why did Rabbi Goren favor legal pluralism?

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

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

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

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

4. Why did Chief Rabbi Herzog oppose legal pluralism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8.  Why was Herzog opposed to Mishpat Ivri?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Shai Held Responds to Rabbi Art Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Shai Held responds to Rabbi Prof. Art Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview Rabbi Art Green Part II- Neo-Hasidism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louis Jacobs: Rabbi Benjamin Elton responds to Harry Freedman

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

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

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

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

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

Louis Jacobs: A response to Harry Freedman

Benjamin J. Elton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arthur Green- Judaism for the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Arthur Green Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. How do we “know God” in prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. How does divine law become ever fashioned anew?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. How did you come to this project?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacobs saw New West End orthodoxy as representing the “Anglo Jewish Tradition”.In the Anglo Jewish Tradition, synagogue services were formal and reminiscent of High Church Anglicanism; top hats, canonicals, a procession of clergy and wardens into synagogue before the Reading of the Law and a recessional at the end of the service, standing on the steps to shake the hands of the congregation as they emerged.

They used Simeon Singer’s Authorized Daily Prayer Book which had a blue cover and red page edges, like the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The synagogues had mixed choirs, public prayers for the restoration of sacrifices were not recited, This tradition was mostly to be found in the cathedral synagogues in the city centers; New West End, Hampstead and the Central in London; Princes Road in Liverpool, Singers Hill in Birmingham, Garnethill in Glasgow. The tradition was less prevalent in the poorer areas, where the congregations remained closer Eastern European traditions, but even there, there are echoes of it could be found.

Minhag Anglia is the modern incarnation of this tradition, as reflected in the Sacks-Koren machzorim. It is not a rite that would have been recognized at the New West End. Referring to their tradition using a Hebrew name would have been anathema to the New West End

Theology rarely played a part in British Jewry, but middle of the road orthodoxy, whether or not it considered itself part of the Anglo Jewish Tradition, tended to the ‘progressive conservatism’ of Chief Rabbi Hertz. Hertz had been the first rabbi to graduate from JTS, shortly after the institution’s founding, and although he defended the literal account of Revelation, there was very little visible difference between early 20th century American Conservatism and British, United Synagogue orthodoxy.

This changed after World War II, with the arrival of rabbis from Europe. The more hardline Dayan Chanoch Abramsky was appointed by the barely observant President of the United Synagogue to the London Bet Din, in order to act as a foil to the autocratic Chief Rabbi Hertz. His appointment changed the character of British orthodoxy. United Synagogue orthodoxy became less compromising in terms of Jewish law, but by ditching canonicals, top hats and Anglican-inspired formality, it appeared to be more modern. By the time of the Jacobs Affair the old Anglo Jewish Tradition was on the wane, Louis Jacobs’s New London Synagogue was possibly the only place to retain it. British Jews, who saw the modernization of the services as a positive step, and appeared oblivious to the more rigorous application Jewish law did not seem to mind.

8. Where do you differ from prior discussions of Jacobs? 

My book is concentrates Jacobs’s biography without any attempt to analyze his theology or subject his thought to critique. It is intended as a biography, telling his life story, not an academic study. Louis Jacobs wrote an autobiography but it is necessarily subjective and only covers his life until the 1980s.

In contrast, an unpublished PhD thesis, presented an intellectual biography of Louis Jacobs illustrated how his theology reflected his life story is academically rigorous, but is not aimed at the popular market. Another scholar, has a forthcoming book in which she examines his theology as a potential model for the evolving shape of British Jewry. I think that it may be somewhat over-optimistic to wonder whether a scholar born more than a century earlier will have significant influence on future generations. Those scholars who have worked on Jacobs have tended to emphasize theology over biography. I broadly share their views on Jacobs, although I tend to attribute a more conservative bias to Jacobs’s approach than they do; I believe that his adherence to the old pre-war ‘Anglo-Jewish tradition’ shows that he was no radical.

Not every scholar has been rigorous in their treatment of Jacobs. Some have been influenced by those with a religiously partisan agenda. One, speaking of former British Chief rabbis, falsely claimed that “Hertz and Brodie were traditional, Jacobs was not.”(!) My book clearly situates him as within a more traditional Anglo Jewish Tradition. 

9. What was his contribution to the modern study of Talmud?

Louis Jacobs was among the first generation of scholars who took an academic interest in the compilation, structure and editing of the Talmud. He had completed his PhD thesis on the economic life of Jews in Babylon, based on information he gleaned form the Talmud. He had a masterly command of Talmud and was able to recall almost any passage and could not only quote it verbatim but identify which page it was on and where it fell on the page.

Many of his early academic articles were on Talmud logic and argument. He explained to his readers how Talmudic logic operated by expressed the Talmudic debate in the form of numbered syllogisms, showing how the argument progressed.

Jacobs maintained that the Talmud was a literary composition. In his books Rabbinic Thought in the Talmud, and The Talmudic Argument he identified the techniques and conventions that its editors used to draw together material originating in various places and times into a work of unitary appearance. In his book Teyku he identified all the Talmudic discussions that concluded with the word teyku, over three hundred in total,  indicating that the problem under discussion was incapable of resolution, showing that in most cases they followed a literary pattern and suggested possible explanations of the phenomenon.

In the field of halakha, Jewish law, his best known work in this field is Tree of Life in which he provided case studies showing the flexibility of Jewish Law. He maintained that Jewish Law was dynamic, evolving over time in response to changing circumstances. He concluded the book with a chapter entitled Towards a Non-Fundamentalist Halakha in which he argued that Jewish Law was sufficiently flexible and creative to withstand the challenges of Higher Biblical Criticism.

10. Can you discuss his interest in mysticism?

He took a very strong interest in kabbalah and mysticism, particularly Chabad mysticism, and he does  seem to regard it as an essential component of the religious quest, although ancillary to the mainstream Jewish tradition. This I think is because he regarded reason, rather than mysticism, as the path to Truth. When speaking of the Talmud he would however say that behind every rigorous halakhist stands an imaginative aggadist, indicating that he recognized the importance of speculation, or at least the creative imagination, in shaping tradition, and it is possible that in the quietness of his own mind he might have contemplated mystical ideas. But as far as I am aware he never communicated such private thoughts openly.

Miri-Freud Kandel holds that Jacobs’s works on Hasidism- she has in mind Seeker of Unity on the life of R. Aaron of Starosselje- provide an entry point into understanding the role of Hasidism in constructing Jacobs’s theology, and help explain how Jacobs theology can be applied today. R. Aaron’s panentheism, she maintains, enables us to understand the limit of what we can truly understand from our human perspective and emphasizes the purpose of the journey towards truth, which Jacobs refers to as his Quest. 

Jacobs was a polymath, he was interested in every field of thought. His granddaughter relates how he learnt calculus just so that he could discuss her schoolwork with her.

11. Any thoughts on his 50 years of interest in Buddhism- including discussing Maharishi and inviting the Dalai Lama- but usually concluding in a somewhat critical way toward it?

Jacobs took an interest all religions and all aspects of Judaism, but there is nothing that either in his published work, or from the conversations I have had with his family in regard to this question, that indicates a greater interest in Buddhism. From what I understand for the family he invited the Dalai Lama at the request of some in his congregation.

He wrote an article about Transcendental Meditation after conducting the Memorial Service for Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, after the event brough him into contact with the guru’s prominent follower. He concluded that article with the words: Only a bigot would suggest that we have nothing to learn from Eastern serenity … For all that, it is Judaism and those influenced by her which have heard the cry of the poor and the distressed. Both Buddha and Moses cannot remain at ease in the king’s palace when suffering humanity groans outside its doors, but when Moses leaves it is to go out to his brethren.

12. My take away from reading your book was that his congregants deeply loved him and he loved them. Can you describe this relationship? 

Jacob’s appointment to the New West End Synagogue was the first time he had ministered to a cultured, wealthy, religiously middle-of -the-road community, other than a very short period at Munks in Golders Green, The New West End was very different both from the working-class Manchester he had had grown up in and the strictly orthodox world where Jacob’s had studied. It included several distinguished businessmen, professionals and diplomats. The congregation were culturally erudite, and their self-image was that of the British upper classes. For Louis and Shula Jacobs it felt like social advancement and they enjoyed it.

His congregation was drawn to him because he was young and enthusiastic, with young children and a wife who could make friends with anyone. Their previous rabbi had been very personable but was older, had been in post for some time, and Jacobs represented a breath of fresh air. He introduced study programs, brought fresh faces into the congregation and had the ability of talking seriously and informatively about Judaism at their level, rather than speaking over their heads.

The defining point in the relationship came when the Jacobs Affair broke out and he was not allowed to return to the New West End. Few in the congregation appreciated all the theological nuances but they saw themselves as thoroughly British and therefore duty bound to support an underdog. They were the old-money of the English community, their families had been running Anglo Jewry since the 19th century, and the United Synagogue that was thwarting them was led by nouveau-riche upstarts, self-made businessmen who had muscled their way into communal leadership but had none of the refinement which the old families believed they had.  The New West End community saw themselves as paternalistically supporting a bright and charismatic young man whose career was being impeded by people not born to communal leadership.

Jacobs was deeply touched by the support the congregation showed him when they resigned en-masse to set up the New London. He and the congregation became allies in a battle that was attracting considerable media interest and in which they all felt emotionally invested.

The relationship revolved around Louis and Shula Jacobs’s charisma and a deep personal interest in the congregation that made them all feel as if they were friends. They all called him Louis to his face, which may have seemed disrespectful to their rabbi but was indicative of the closeness they felt for him. Toward the end of his life, when the Jewish Chronicle ran its competition to find the Greatest British Jew, the congregation made sure that they sent in enough votes between them for him to win. It embarrassed him, but secretly he was touched.

13. Why did he never take any of the academic positions offered him, especially after his several American tours?

Jacobs heart was in the synagogue not the academy. He preferred to teach Judaism in a religious environment, a rabbinic college or a synagogue, rather than in a secular university. Had he been appointed Principal of Jews’ College and able to train a new generation of open-minded British rabbis, he would have had the best of both worlds. But that was not to be.

Louis Jacobs was an English Jew; it was part of his DNA. It is one of the reasons why he was so wedded to the Anglo Jewish Tradition, and why he never used the term minhag Anglia. Although there were periods in his career when it looked as if Britain held out no hope for him, he was reluctant to leave the country, for America or anywhere else, if he could possibly find a way of remaining.

There were also practical impediments to his leaving the country. He was an only child and felt a responsibility to his parents. His wife Shula felt similarly about her family. Her moth lived with them. When Jacobs’s mother died and his father was left alone he became even more determined to stay. And his children also resisted the possibility of a move, they were growing up as teenagers in London in the 1960s, nowhere else in the world held out the same appeal at that time.

If he had gone to America he would have worked in the Conservative movement. And although he was comfortable with Conservative theology, the day to day social issues that the American rabbinate dealt with were not those that interested him. He saw no reason for the relaxation of Jewish law that the Conservative movement was currently engaged in, e.g. granting permission to drive on Shabbat as long as it was only to synagogue. In Britain congregants had been driving to synagogue for years and parking around the corner, knowing that nobody would say a word. He very much preferred the understated British fudge when it came to matters of observance, to the American preference for openness and clarity.

The Idols of ISIS: From Assyria to the Internet – Interview with Aaron Tugendhaft

A major contemporary rabbi in Israel known for his Neo-Chassidus recounts how he once asked his teacher to go to ancient idolatrous places, meaning the archeological remains of Phoenician and Canaanite worship, in the land of Israel to destroy them. He asked if they could “go in the quiet of the night to destroy them.”  His teacher answered him that “everything will be revealed, and it therefor cause retaliation and endangering lives.”  But nevertheless, “we should share in the pain of the shekhinah who agonizes of the idolatry in the land, especially the Churches on Mt Zion.” And “our way to wage war is only a spiritual war” What motivates these rabbis to go beyond Jewish law and seek a purity over the past? What are the value of these sites as cultural heritage? And what vision of the polis are they seeking to create?

To help up conceptualize these questions we turn to a great new book by Aaron Tugendhaft, The Idols of ISIS: From Assyria to the Internet (University of Chicago Press, 2020). Tugendhaft teaches at Bard College Berlin. He received his PhD from the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University in 2012 and also holds degrees in Art History and Social Thought from the University of Chicago. In 2013, he received the Jonas Greenfield Prize for Younger Semitists from the American Oriental Society. He is the editor, with Josh Ellenbogen, of Idol Anxiety (Stanford 2011) and the author of Baal and the Politics of Poetry (Routledge 2018). His work moves between his PhD in Assyriology to his background in political theory and religious studies.

Tugendhaft’s book The Idols of ISIS: From Assyria to the Internet explores the political power of images and the significance of their destruction. In short, the book is smart, sharp, astute, and sophisticated. It is really just a 100-page essay leaving the reader wanting more or to spend the rest of the evening debating the application of the ideas in the book. The author had a very sharp insight and then rather than spend several years developing a full book, he wrote a three-chapter essay with insight for readers in religion, art, politics, Islam, history, and media studies. Idols of Isis is a deeply humanistic work asking the basic questions about the human condition.

The start of the book was the author watching ISIS destroy the Assyrian statues in the National Archeology Museum. They claimed the statues were idolatry while other saw them as universal cultural heritage or a Iraqi cultural heritage. 

Isis destroying Assyrian statues

This contemporary image brought to his mind the similar image from the reign of Sargon II of the destruction by three men of the rival kingdom’s images. This led to considerations of the political role of idols and the need to publicize their destruction. It also brought to mind that museums are not neutral spaces but political statements. Assuming that the public form is never without images, the question is why video their destruction? and why attack images in a Museum?

Destruction of statues in reign of Sargon II

The book has three chapters: Idols, Museums and Video

Idols, the first chapter, situates images, idols, and stories in the medieval thought of Al Farabi who understood that society must have images and stories so that the laws would be followed. Hence, the successful prophet knew how to use his imagination to create appropriate stories. (Maimonides follows Farabi’s thought and affirms the same ideas about prophecy and Moses’ leadership.) As much as Farabi (and Maimonides) want to escape representation, it is nevertheless essential to create the virtuous society. What is note worthy here is the use of Farabi rather than a modern theorist to explain idols. The chapter also discusses the thought of Sayyid Qutb, the ideology for the extreme Islamist groups who declared the USA and the Western world as idolatrous similar to the idols of the pre-Islamic ignorance, thereby conflating the past with the contemporary. There is a tension between Farabi’s concessions to the human need for images and those who aim to achieve purity for their visions of society.

Museums, the second chapter discusses how they are representative of who we want to be. Are the statues idols or cultural heritage?  However, all heritage is political. Are ancient pieces of art part of universal cultural heritage or national heritage. ISIS framed the destruction of the statues as idols but the real idol being destroyed was the Western universal heritage of art. Westerners saw the museum as cultural heritage. It includes discussion of the debate in Iraq of seeing themselves as Arabic or as a continuation of the Assyrians. Similar debates go on in many countries. Are Confederate statues heritage or idols of a past age needing to be removed?  (Are excavations of Canaanite sites part of Israeli heritage or against it? The state of Israel decided that they were heritage.)  

Mural showing Saddam Hussain’s embrace of the ancient Assyrian heritage

Video, the third chapter discusses how ISIS posting a video of the destruction is a replacement of the secular heritage by this new image that of an ISIS video. The ISIS video was meant to evoke rage and sharpen sides.  

The chapter also compared these images to video games. It creatively returns to Farabi by comparing his concept of how the image creates the common life of the polis with how modern social media technology creates individual experiences. Still following Farabi’s thought, the book states that political images should be investigated in how they arose, what did they choose, and what did they leave out. What does it say about our needs?

Idols of Isis is an engaging piece of cultural criticism, a passionate meditation on the tension between those seeking ideological purity in society and those seeking what he calls pluralistic grey zones of public discourse. If all this was not interesting enough,  the book has an undercurrent about Tugendhaft’s own family background as a Jewish Iraqi family who fled the June 1941 outbreak of mob violence against Baghdad Jewry known as the Farhud (Farhud is an Arabic term best translated as “pogrom” or “violent dispossession”) showing how Iraq went from a cosmopolitan country to one under ISIS concerned with purity.

  1. What is the drive to destroy idols?

The Hebrew prophets refer to idols as the work of human hands. Underlying the drive to destroy idols is an anxiety about that which we as human beings have brought into being. Specifically, anxiety about their authority.

Idolatry, that is, submission to idols, treats things that arose through our own power as if they had power over us. The desire to destroy idols is linked to a desire to escape responsibility for the authority that guides the way we live. True authority, according to this way of thinking, must come from somewhere beyond the human. It must be unsullied by all the imperfections that we rightly recognize as attending what humans have made. So, the drive to destroy idols is connected to the dream of living in a world without those imperfections always complicating the decisions we make and the actions we take. It’s, therefore, intimately linked to a desire to escape politics—by which I mean, that all too human method of taking collective responsibility for how we choose to live together. Like idols, politics is the work of human hands.

2. Why make a video of the destruction of idols?

Because you want your new image to rest authority from the destroyed image. There’s actually a long tradition of making images of image destruction.

Note that the new image is no less a work of human hands than the one shown being destroyed. And like the image being destroyed, the new one also makes claims about what we should value and how we should live. In this sense, the new image is no less an “idol” than the old ones shown being destroyed.

It might be helpful here to think of an idol not as a particular kind of image distinct from others, but as a way of experiencing an image. When the humanly made character of an image becomes problematic for us, when we experience anxiety over the authority that image exerts, then it has become an idol for us. The term “idol” can also be used as a reproach against others; by labeling certain images as idols, one group can try to generate anxiety in another group about the authority of the images that that second group had accepted unproblematically until then.

In the case of the Islamic State video from the Mosul Museum, one could plausibly argue that those being accused of idolatry weren’t really the ancient Assyrians but rather those of us today who instill a certain authority in images by putting them in museums and giving them the status of heritage. We might rightly be anxious about the ways such images assert power over us. The video of their destruction might get us to experience them as problematic in a way that we hadn’t before. Simply removing the images without recording that removal for people to see wouldn’t have the same effect; it’s the image of their destruction that challenges their authority. The new image is necessary for this change of perception to take place.

That said, an image of image destruction might not change people’s minds so much as further entrench them in their prejudices and presuppositions. We might double down on the images we adore when we experience them as under attack. That was certainly the case with the ISIS video. Heritage organizations around the world immediately condemned the Islamic State for not abiding by the cosmopolitan norms that images placed in museums are meant to cultivate in us.

It is important to stress that the new image is just as able as the old one to succumb to the anxiety that it is an idol.  Images depicting the destruction of idols may give the impression that false images are being eradicated, while in fact they are being replaced by new images that are equally false.

3. How is the story of Abraham/Ibrahim smashing the idols a political story?

The Quran recounts a story about how Ibrahim as a youth smashed the idols that were worshiped in his hometown. A similar story can be found in the Jewish Midrash (though not in the Torah).

The Mosul Museum video quotes a line from the Quranic story, implying that ISIS is continuing the work that Ibrahim began. Like many Jews who received a religious upbringing, I’ve been familiar with the story since childhood. But it was only after I saw it referenced in the ISIS video that I began to give it some thought. The more I thought about it, the more complex the story became.

In both Arabic and Hebrew, the core meaning of the verb usually translated as “worship” when associated with the divine is simply “serve.” The conventional translation risks losing the word’s political connotations. When Ibrahim/Abraham objects to his neighbors’ serving images rather than God, he is raising a question about where political authority should lie—whether with human beings and their manmade images or with a transcendent God who created the world and all mankind. Medieval elaborations of the Quranic story make the political implications explicit by associating the offensive images with the legendary king Nimrud. In the medieval imagination, Nimrud’s kingdom stood for the great Mesopotamian civilizations of the pre-Islamic past. By challenging the authority of Nimrud’s images—that is, the images by which Nimrud established his authority—Ibrahim is making a political statement, not just a theological one. He is calling for regime change.

It’s worth noting that the story in the Quran uses the words commonly translated as “image” and “idol” interchangeably. That is, to Ibrahim’s way of thinking there is no difference between them. All images are false and so subordinating oneself to any image constitutes idolatry. The young reformer doesn’t seem to want to replace Nimrud’s images with better images or truer images (whatever this might mean); he claims that the only legitimate regime is a regime without images. The people must serve God directly, without any mediation. I think the townsfolk are rightly skeptical of Ibrahim’s radical idea. There’s a certain conservative wisdom in their reply that they were simply serving the images as their ancestors had done.

4. How does Farabi understand the relationship among images, politics, and prophecy? How do images provide us with a “second nature”?

In order to get a tighter grip on what’s at stake in the idea of a “regime without images,” I turned to the political writings of the 10th century Baghdadi philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi. (In a letter to his Hebrew translator Ibn Tibbon, Maimonides once compared all of Farabi’s works to “fine flour.”) Developing insights that are already present in Plato, Farabi argued that political life is impossible without images and that human happiness is impossible without political life. So, if we want to be happy, we need to keep images around.

All political communities, Farabi argues, need laws that regulate the behaviors and desires of individuals so that they can live together successfully. These laws impinge upon our individual freedom and natural inclinations. (If we naturally wanted to do what the law wants us to do, there would be no need for the law.) And so, it is necessary to make the law seem desirable so that people will want to obey it. Images, for Farabi, are what make this possible. They give people a common orientation and a set of shared ideals that allow individuals to think of themselves as part of a greater community. When most successful, these images produce a kind of “second nature” thanks to which we no longer experience the law as an impingement upon our freedom.

The prophet is the figure, according to Farabi, who can successfully generate images for a political community. Farabi’s prophet combines extraordinary intellect with a vivid imaginative faculty. Thanks to this imaginative faculty (we might call such a person “creative”) the prophet is able to provide the people with images that move them, images that inspire their longings in specific ways and give them a collective sense of belonging. Today, we might look to Hollywood as a major producer of such moving images.

Prophetic images in Farabi’s sense need not be limited to visual images. They might include anything that plays on our imagination to create commitment to the law. The category certainly includes stories. In fact, I’d suggest that the story of Ibrahim/Abraham smashing the idols is a prophetic image that has allowed people to imagine themselves as part of a community that shuns images. It’s proven to be a particularly moving image. After all, it has provided countless people with a sense of identity and common purpose for well over a thousand years.

5. Are all images equal?

All images are incomplete. That doesn’t make them all equal. Some are better than others.

Farabi’s prophet isn’t just creative, he’s also really smart. He knows what images are best for his people and offers them those. They are “best” in two senses. First, they lead us towards happiness. We can easily be moved by images that incite factionalism, for instance, but these are unlikely to produce the flourishing political life on which our happiness depends. Second, Farabi understands that images that might work well for one group of people may not be suitable for another, depending on geographical location, past history, and other factors that render groups different from one another. So images also need to be judged based on their appropriateness to a particular group and its needs at a particular time.

Farabi envisions a hierarchical situation where an idealized prophet provides images for a receptive community. Can Farabi’s idea of prophetic images fit with modern commitments to democracy and popular sovereignty? There is good reason to be cautious here, as we risk turning a blind eye to some of Farabi’s deepest political insights. Nonetheless, it’s important to think about how Farabi’s insight that politics needs images might apply when we don’t have access to an all-knowing prophet to tell us which images we should adopt.

6. What is the role of judgement?

As I’ve said, all images are incomplete. Therefore, it’s never a matter of adopting the perfect image. There simply are no perfect images. By emphasizing one thing, something else is necessarily left out. There is always a particular perspective involved. A fully inclusive image, were it to exist, would be like the imperial map that Jorge Luis Borges describes in his one-paragraph story On Exactitude in Science, “whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” Such an image would be utterly useless. So we have to choose between imperfect options. It’s here that I’ve found Hannah Arendt’s writings about political judgment to be useful.

In a democracy, it is up to us to decide which images we want to live with. We get to judge which images are better for us than others. At least to a certain extent, because we never get to judge free of the influence of images. Any commitment we might have to a democratic way of life, for instance, itself belongs to a “second nature” that we’ve acquired from the images working on us from childhood. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem.

I take issue with early American president John Quincy Adams’ statement (which I chose as one of two epigraphs to my book) that “democracy has no monuments” and that “it’s very essence is iconoclastic.” This is deceptive. Commitment to democratic ways of doing things doesn’t arise naturally; it must be cultivated in our souls through images, not merely rational argument. Any political community whose “essence” was iconoclastic couldn’t survive. So, again, it’s never really a question of living without false images, but of choosing which ones seem best for us given a particular circumstance.

Politics is that process of negotiating the relative merits of these different alternatives. It takes place in a space where people argue over better and worse options, each necessarily imperfect. Such a space for politics doesn’t arise naturally and it doesn’t sustain itself without constant care and cultivation. A deep impulse in us may desire to circumvent the hard work and imperfect results of political negotiation and compromise. We might yearn for more solid certainty that our way of doing things is the right way.

Around the time that ISIS released the Mosul Museum video, its online magazine Dabiq featured an article titled “The Extinction of the Grayzone.” It described the group’s intention of dividing the world into two, clearly demarcated groups: the camp of faith and the camp of apostasy. They wanted to eradicate any middle ground where people could have legitimate doubts and disagreements about what’s right and what’s wrong. In other words, they wanted to do away with the messy realm of politics.

This desire to live “beyond the political” is by no means unique to ISIS or so-called radical Islam. If we consider just the past hundred years, there have been numerous attempts to identify an absolute standard that would make politics superfluous. National Socialists deferred to Race, Marxists to History, and libertarians to the Market. Some today hold out similar hopes for the Algorithm.

It’s worth adding that not everyone would accept this vision of politics that I borrow from Arendt. Some might insist, rather, that politics is about forming powerful factions—each seeking to force an issue in its own favor. It’s not about coexisting but about beating the other guy. Carl Schmitt’s definition of the political as that which distinguishes friend from enemy comes to mind. What makes someone an enemy? Must friends agree? How much disagreement can exist before a group of friends breaks apart into enemies? At a time when factionalism in politics seems to be on the rise, often together with purity tests to determine loyalty, these are serious questions that deserve serious consideration. I hope that my work can at least help people see the stakes involved.

7. Was the smashing of the statues by ISIS a removal of idols or of art? What’s significant about the video having been filmed in a museum?

As I’ve already mentioned, an idol is not so much a particular kind of object but rather an object experienced in a particular way. An ISIS spokesman in the video states that the objects that they destroyed were idols. Interestingly, the flurry of international condemnations of the video rarely talked of art. Rather, the word of choice was “heritage.”  

Concern over the preservation of cultural heritage can be traced back to the French Revolution. Responding to the iconoclastic fury that was overtaking France, the clergyman and revolutionary leader Abbé Grégoire gave a series of speeches in the National Convention advocating for the protection of what he considered France’s patrimony—a patrimony that belonged to the people even if the objects that constituted that patrimony were made at a time when the people didn’t hold power. The cleric turned the biblical parodies of idolaters on their head, declaring that it was now the iconoclast who displayed their ignorance by treating a sculpture as a dumb piece of stone rather than a piece of “marble that breathes.” Grégoire famously coined the term “vandalism,” whereby he linked the destruction of cultural heritage to the Vandals—one of the so-called barbarian tribes that brought down the Roman Empire. He was also instrumental in having churches throughout France converted into museums to house the objects that were now considered heritage.

It’s worth thinking about not only what’s at stake in calling the destroyed objects heritage rather than idols, but also why heritage rather than art. When ancient Near Eastern sculpture was first displayed in the British Museum in the 19th century, Sir Richard Westmacott, a professor of sculpture and museum trustee was asked what he thought; he replied, “It is very bad art.” Perhaps some of that initial opinion remains.

More likely, the inclination to refer to the objects as heritage rather than art reflects a reigning democratic impulse that considers art too elevated a term. If so, then the assumption would be that art is too elitist to expect everyone to care about, but people who don’t care about their heritage can rightly be declared barbaric. The civilization vs. barbarism binary returned with a vengeance in the wake of the Islamic State’s videos. If the goal of the videos was to polarize the world into two camps, they were working.

8. Can you talk about your own connection to Iraq and the Farhud? Do you still feel a connection?

My grandfather was born in Baghdad in 1910, eleven years before the establishment of the modern state of Iraq. He belonged to a Jewish community that had called the banks of the Tigris home since antiquity. I never got to know him, though, because he died when I was very young. This project was in part a way for me to learn more about my own heritage.

Thanks to the work of scholars like Orit Bashkin and memoires like Sasson Somekh’s haunting Baghdad, Yesterday, I was able to gain some access to the world in which my grandfather came of age. Baghdad in the early 20th century was known for its bookstalls and literary cafés. It was a city animated with intellectual fervor focused on founding a new nation. Iraqi Jews participated alongside Iraqis of other religions—or of no religion, as there were quite a few Marxists in the mix.

But things weren’t entirely rosy. Anti-Jewish sentiment grew in the 1930s, culminating in the Farhud of 1941—a pro-Axis pogrom that left nearly two hundred Jews dead and precipitated my family’s departure from Iraq. My grandfather first moved to Tehran (where my mother was born), then to Tel Aviv, and finally New York (where I was born). He was living in Washington, DC, and working for the United Jewish Appeal when he died in 1982.

Though I never got to talk with my grandfather, I did get to read his books. When my parents cleared out his apartment after he dies, they moved his library into our house. It mainly consisted of books about Middle Eastern history and politics. Years later, as a teenager, I became interested in reading about history—these were the books I began with.

So, yes, I do feel a connection to Iraq. That said, I often also feel like I’m not supposed to identify as Iraqi because I’m Jewish and a (critical) supporter of the State of Israel. I’d like to be able to claim all of these things, with the attendant tensions. Identity politics often seems to impose neatly defined categories that don’t correspond to an individual’s complex lived reality—another way of eradicating the grayzone. My identity is messy. And yet, at the same time, I also want to recognize that neither I nor my family have suffered personally from the war and destruction that has been brought on Iraq in recent years, which circumscribes how much I’d feel comfortable speaking “as an Iraqi” today.

9. How does this research grow from your book on the political role of the poetry about Baal?

Both books deal with the relationship between politics and products of human creativity. The Idols of ISIS focuses on visual images, whereas Baal and the Politics of Poetry is about a mythological poem. In my earlier book, I tried to think about how a poem might help its audience think critically about the political world around them. I did so by considering the thirteenth-century BC Ugaritic poem of Baal alongside the many political and diplomatic texts that have been recovered from the same period. I tried to show that someone who was familiar with the political norms of the day would have found the depiction of the gods to be quite strange—in many they echo the actions of earthly kings, but in ways that reveal things about the workings of politics that are normally kept hidden here on earth. The poem, I argued, helped its audience break through their political “second nature” (I didn’t use such Farabian terminology, but it fits) in order to be able to reflect on the norms that governed their world. So if The Idols of ISIS is concerned with images that generate political norms that hold a community together, the Baal book focused instead on how a poem can serve to provoke reflection on those norms. One might think of this as the difference between prophetic images and Socratic images—i.e., ones meant to operate like a gadfly that stings us out of our stupor and gets us to think. I do treat Socrates briefly in the coda to the ISIS book.

10. How do your interests in art history, political philosophy, and Assyriology come together in this project?

The project started when I recognized a parallel between one moment in the Mosul Museum video and a section of an ancient relief sculpture from Sargon II’s palace at Khorsabad. Both show three men with sledgehammers smashing the sculpture of a king. The resemblance is truly uncanny.

I was familiar with the Assyrian image because I had chosen it for the cover of my book Idol Anxiety, an anthology of essays that I edited with the art historian Josh Ellenbogen. (Incidentally, the introduction that we wrote for that volume provides a fuller account of the notion of anxiety that I discussed earlier.) Beyond this resemblance between two images, the video brought together themes that I had been thinking about for year: idolatry, the ancient Near East and its modern reception, the politics of images. I had gotten my BA in art history, but then spent time studying phenomenology at the Sorbonne and religious studies at Hebrew University before beginning a doctoral program in the Committee on Social Thought, where I mainly focused on political theory, and eventually completing a PhD in ancient Near Eastern studies at NYU. Suddenly, all those years spent studying various disciplines started to make sense. I felt like the video was calling out to me to write something. So I did.

11. How and why did Saddam Hussein draw connections to ancient Mesopotamian antiquities?

Back in the 1920s, Gertrude Bell and Sati al-Husri disagreed about the role Mesopotamian antiquities should play in constituting the identity of the nascent Iraqi state. Bell believed that Iraq’s ancient past should be harnessed to generate a sense of national identity; as the country’s first director of antiquities, she built the National Museum in Baghdad to showcase these national treasures.

By contrast, al-Husri, a childhood friend of King Faysal who became the country’s first director general of education, thought Bell’s plans worked against his own pan-Arabism. By emphasizing a past that was unique to Iraqis, he thought, Bell’s museum undermined their Arab identity and their connections to Arabs beyond Iraq’s recently-demarcated borders. He refused to include trips to Bell’s museum in the Iraqi school curriculum. And when al-Husri took over as director of antiquities after Bell’s death, he redirected funds and energy towards establishing the Museum of Arab Antiquities.

Future leaders of Iraq, however, like Abdul Karim Kassem and Saddam Hussein, tended to favor Bell’s perspective—they made extensive use of Iraq’s pre-Islamic past in their attempts to construct a modern identity. While many who have prioritized Islam have taken issue with both Bell’s antiquities and al-Husri’s Arab nationalism.

Saddam Hussein was particularly active in producing images that linked him to Iraq’s ancient past. When he wanted to be seen as leader of the Palestinian cause, he took on the guise of Nebuchadnezzar—the Babylonian king who sacked Jerusalem. During the Iran-Iraq War, he associated himself with ancient kings who withstood the Elamites. One image shows Saddam receiving Iraq’s heritage (in the form of a palm sapling) from an ancient Assyrian deity. Details emphasize the continuity of Iraq’s culture, from cuneiform antiquity through medieval Islam to today.

When I began this project, I was living in Chicago, which hosts a large Iraqi expat community. I asked the owner of a grocery shop where I regularly went to stock up on date syrup and foul what he thought about the destruction of antiquities that ISIS was then regularly perpetuating. He wasn’t particularly bothered by it, he said. As one of the many school children bused to Babylon and other ancient sights during the Saddam era, he considered all that stuff to be the propaganda of a tyrannical regime.

I mention all this because I think it is helpful to keep in mind how complex and contested our relationship to the past can be. And these are only the broad strokes; far more tensions can be found as one looks more closely at the details. I doubt that there is a right answer to which past someone should connect with and which past they should shun. There are always going to be tradeoffs. I do think it’s possible to become self-aware, at least to a certain extent, about why one might embrace one option rather than another. But it is foolish to expect people to live without such ways of rooting themselves.

As a teacher, I believe that it’s my job to help students see beyond the confines of the prophetic images with which they were raised, as well as those that they may have adopted more recently. Unsettling self-certainty is probably a good thing and I certainly try to provoke it in my students. But I’m also aware of its limitations. Even within the relatively narrow demographic represented in my classroom, I regularly experience a wide range of reactions to my prodding—from students who thrive on having their self-certainty challenged to those who instinctively dig-in or aren’t even able to register that what they take for granted is being called into question. This makes me skeptical of a cosmopolitanism that requires all people to overcome their particular prophetic images. I think it is the job of liberal education to help each student reflect on their commitments and assumptions. That alone can be powerful. But it shouldn’t be confused with ushering us into a promised land without prejudice, without the rootedness that comes from partiality. That’s just another utopian fantasy of a world beyond politics.

12. There is a Haredi Neo-Chassidic rabbi in Israel who preaches that if not for the government, we should destroy the remnants of the Canaanite and Phoenician idolatry found in heritage sites and in museums? What do you make of that?

I think he should read my book. He might actually find it surprising. I’d be happy to send him a copy.

Orthodox Judaism and the Politics of Religion – Daniel Mahla

In 2020, Haredim and Relgious Zionists seem worlds apart. One side following its Rabbinical leadership and living a life of learning Torah, while the other side accepts its Rabbinical leadership but also finds serving in the army and engaging in building the land as prime relgious directives. They represent two very different visions of Orthodox Judaism. Yet, both sides engage in politics, both sides claim to be the Orthodox voice in Israeli politics, seeking to maximize their role in the government with its financial motivations. One side says they will not join a collision unless there is completely no draft for Haredim and the other side says they wont join unless the Haredim are drafted. The big change now is that in the last decades Religious Zionists were having 3-6 children, while the hareidim are having 8-12 children and will soon be a solid 20% of the Israeli population. How did these two groups come to be from the undifferentiated traditional rabbinic world of Eastern Europe circa 1900?

To answer this question, we now have Daniel Mahla’s Orthodox Judaism and the Politics of Religion: From Prewar Europe to the State of Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2020). Mahla teaches at the Historisches Seminar der LMU- Jüdische Geschichte und Kultur, and the coordinator for the Center for Israeli Studies at Munich University. His PhD is from Columbia University. Before coming to Columbia, Daniel did a master’s degree in History, Political Science, and Jewish Studies at Humboldt and Freie Universities in Berlin. This book needs to be read by anyone interested in the history of Orthodoxy. It is an excellent piece of scholarship. The research into primary sources is remarkable in showing how political issues around Zionism separated the two groups.

The book shows how at the turn of the twentieth century in 1902 there was originally a single entity of Orthodoxy, which by 1953 separated into two distinct groups. Mahla’s method is one that will add to a reader’s knowledge, even if well versed in the topic. Mahla does a diplomatic political history, the way one would be a history of the NAFTA treaty or of US-China relations done through the statements of the embassy personnel and diplomats.  Most of us tell the story of the divide in ideological terms, through theology, ideology, and rabbinic leaders. Instead, Mahla tells the story through functionaries, party officials, conferences, requests from the Zionist Organizations, and political differences. He downplays the role actual rabbinic leaders played and instead showed how party official created two distinct groups.

Mahla shows that neither side started with a clear ideology.  The life in Eastern Europe was breaking down, the shtetl faced extreme poverty, the Russian revolution, WWI, and a breakdown of the institutions. Jewish Education was in shambles. The new Jewish urban centers witnessed breakdown of traditional patterns. The secular parties- Bund, citizen’s rights, communist, Zionist- all full ideological agenda to save Jewish life. According to Mahla, the relgious parties had no clear-cut ideologies to start but they worked it out as they founded schools, rabbinical seminaries, social facilities, youth movements, newspapers, libraries, as well as other associations.

Some rabbinical leaders, the Relgious Zionists, thought a major change was needed, others, the Agudah, thought the older models still worked. Some rabbinical leaders thought that Zionism was the answer and to see Jews as a national people, while others, the Agudah, saw Jews primarily as a religion. But both eventually had to turn to the Zionist organization for visa to move to British mandate Palestine, as well as funding.

The Relgious Zionists saw themselves as the true Zionists. The Haredim according to Mahla were not anti-Zionist but counter-Zionists. Mahla credits the Agudath Yisrael president Jacob Rosenheim with creating a counter-movement to Zionism. Both groups saw the other relgious group as a bigger threat than the secular Zionist. It was a fight over who can speak for Judaism and Orthodoxy. Over time, the multitude of institutions of Europe and then mandate Palestine were supported by one or the other organization, they had separate schools, separate yeshivot and even separate printing of relgious books. People were ideologically one or the other, a card-carrying member of one or the other.

On the practical level, they differed over giving women the right to vote in the new Yishuv. The Agudah was adamantly against giving women the right to vote, while Relgious Zionist went along with the Zionists on women’s suffrage in a modern state, even though Rabbi Kook forbid it. They differed on partition and compromise with the Arab population. The agudah was willing to partition the land and make political compromises, while the Relgious Zionists wanted a greater Israel entirely for the Jews as part of a messianic vision.

The two groups worked together in 1948 as a unity party to ensure that the new state would keep shabbat and the dietary laws. But both sides new it was a temporary pragmatic truce.

Mahla ends his book with a final divide in 1953, when Relgious Zionist men were proud to serve in the army and Agudah obtained a exemption from the army for the few hundred studying in Yeshiva. But the divide was widened over the issue of women in the army. The state wanted to draft all women, the Relgious Zionists accepted a compromise of national service for women in lieu of army service, while the Hazon Ish  adamantly, said no to even national service for women. Mahla ends with a coda jumping seventy years to Naftali Bennet and other Religious Zionist leaders fighting with Haredim.

My favorite part was when he shows how an encyclopedia of relgious Zionist leaders made everyone a follower of Torah combined with secular knowledge, while the Agudah book made every party functionary into a gadol in Torah.

The book has a unique approach, almost dramatic, of framing everything as a public battle of these two groups in which they are the only two protagonists. It is like watching Chaim Grade’s “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner” in which a still Orthodox musarnik argues with a secular friend. Here we have the two protagonists Relgious Zionism in a fifty year debate with the Agudah, going back and forth. The secular Zionists and the immense number of those who built the Yishuv, later becoming the leaders of the early Israeli government become a faceless entity of “the Zionist Organization.” And both protagonists are painted as relatively unified in their approaches, rather than having enormous differences among themselves.

And as mentioned at the start, this book avoids discussion of all ideology or great rabbis. The book avoids the material that most of us focus on: Rabbi Isaac Breuer, Rabbi Fishman-Maimon, Rabbi Herzog, the Hazon Ish, Rabbi Ozer Grodinzki, Rabbi Reines, and Shmuel Hayyim Landau. It is a political-diplomatic history. One that all who work in this area will gain from immensely from his research in primary documents and learn many of subtleties of the coming to be of the two contemporary Orthodox parties.

From my perspective, the divisions were not total in 1953. in the 1980’s and 1990’s Rav Shakh’s made the kollel model universal and more importantly spoke against seeking against any grey areas. As I was reading this book, Peter Lintl of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, just posted a forty-page report dated December 2020 on contemporary Haredim, which is worth reading and downloading the pdf for its wealth of facts and statistics.  “The Haredim as a Challenge for the Jewish State: The Culture War over Israel’s Identity”

  1. Did Mizrachists and Agudists have formulated ideology and new worldviews?

The two movements and their struggles have often been depicted in the light of their theological and ideological differences concerning Zionism.

In this ideological approach, religious Zionists wholeheartedly committed themselves to settling Palestine, most traditionalist authorities rejected these attempts out of hand. The Orthodox establishment’s initial, instinctive opposition to Zionism soon evolved into a full-fledged and prolonged ideological struggle over issues like the meaning of Jewish existence and the role of human agency in the messiah’s coming.

Yet as Orthodox Jews, both movements were reluctant to formulate an ideological platform that seemed novel or revolutionary. This was true even for Mizrahi. More than one and a half decades after its creation, one of its foremost rabbinic leaders, Rabbi Moses Avigdor Amiel lamented in 1919: “There is no unique spirit of Mizrahi that unites us into one entity.” As late as the 1930s major Mizrahi leaders complained about the failure of their movement to formulate a clear religious-Zionist ideology and group identification.

One could hardly speak of “Mizrahism” in the way members of the Jewish workers movement identified with their Bundist family (misphokhe). In Agudah, distrust of new ideologies and group formations ran even deeper.

Thus, instead of focusing on their ideological debates, my book analyses their social and political activities. Both movements created a wide net of institutions and organizations. They founded schools, rabbinical seminaries, social facilities, youth movements, various types of associations, newspapers, libraries, as well as other associations and facilities. The two respective movements forged all-encompassing microcosms that facilitated loyalty and fostered group identification through the shaping of interpretative patterns, moral standards, and emotional ties.

This is at the same time an argument for the significance of the two movements. A large part of the research literature focuses on the rabbinic leadership. Yet while towering figures like the Hazon Ish undoubtedly played an important role in formulating Orthodox responses to Zionism, the two major social movements constituted important frameworks that helped organizing and structuring Orthodox society and eventually dividing it into two well-defined camps.

2. How do both movements react to the breakdown of the Kehillah?

Both movements deplored the breakdown of the Jewish community structures (kehillot) during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the concurrent danger to Jewish traditional communities and religious life. Both advocated for strengthening the kehillot. At the same time, Mizrahists and Agudists developed very different approaches for doing so.

Agudists advocated for keeping traditional institutions and organizations. They claimed to merely rebuild the traditional structures, while at the same time strengthening religious authority at the expense of lay leadership and the gave more authority to the local rabbi. Mizrahists, on the other hand, wanted to modernize the communities and strengthen the influence of bureaucratic elites and the administration.

3. What was the chief difference of Mizrachi and Agudah at the start?

As Zionists, Mizrahists embraced modern Jewish nationalism and hoped that Zionism would help lead to the return of secular activists to religious lifestyles. They promoted the cooperation with secularists in the movement.

Yet at the same time they acknowledged the danger of secularism to religious Jewry and over the years had many conflicts with their secularist partners in the Zionist movement. The most important of these conflicts was the question of the creation of a modern (secular) Hebrew culture. Mizrahists agitated against Zionist support for such a culture. Once the Zionist movement decided to support secular cultural institutions in Palestine, Mizrahists invested in their own cultural and educational institutions which essentially led to the emergence of distinct secular and religious frameworks.

Agudah on the other hand, rejected modern Jewish nationalism and tried to counter it by strengthening and forging traditionalist institutions and frameworks. Part of Agudists’ efforts was to shield traditionalist communities from secular influences by creating strong barriers and borders.

Many Agudists welcomed Zionist efforts to unite Jewry on an international (or rather national-Jewish) level. Yet they strongly resisted the strong secular outlook of the movement and the idea of a secular political leadership.

However, the growing influence of the Zionist movement and its hegemonic position in the Jewish communities in Palestine increased the willingness among Agudists to cooperate with the Zionists especially during the 1930s and 1940s. Yet this increasing cooperation at the same time stressed the necessity to shield their communities from secular influence. In my book I describe this pragmatic mode of cooperation as “cooperation on the basis of separation.”

In this context it is important to point out that both movements struggled with the definition of Judaism as either “religion” or “nation,” concepts that had developed in a Christian context. Both movements perceived Judaism to be both religion and nation. Yet they weighed the two loyalties differently. For Agudists, religious affiliations carried the most weight. For Mizrahists, on the other hand, nationalist loyalties were of primary importance and they were willing to subordinate religious affiliations (if not at all costs).

4. How was Agudah a counter movement to Zionism?

Historians usually conceptualized  Agudah as anti-Zionist movement that coped with the nationalist challenges by developing an “ideology of seclusion”. While it is true that Agudists tried to protect religious communities by shielding them from secular influences, I argue that we can understand the aims of these leaders better as counter-movement to Zionism.

Orthodox entrepreneurs established their own institutions and frameworks. Agudath Yisrael gathered such activities under its wings. The aim of the movement was to offer an Orthodox alternative to modern nationalist group formations. Agudath Yisrael, as its later president Jacob Rosenheim argued in 1911, was to become “a counter-movement to Zionism.”

Mizrahi, in its role as an Orthodox movement, posed a great challenge to the endeavor of establishing Agudath Yisrael as the sole political representative of Orthodox Judaism and for that reason the two movements became involved in protracted struggles.

5. If they were not explicitly Zionist, then why did they expect things from the Zionist Organization (ZO) such immigration permits? Is that not asking for things from the Zionist Organization and then spitting in the face of the Zionist Organization or pretending that it does not exist?

When the British Mandate was established after World War I, and with increasingly dire economic perspectives and rising antisemitism in Europe, Palestine became an important center of Jewish life and attracted more and more Jewish immigrants.

Agudists reacted to such developments by creating a local branch in the traditionalist, non-Zionist centers of Jewish life, in particular in Jerusalem. With increasing immigration to British Mandate Palestine during the 1920s and 1930s, more and more traditionalists arrived, strengthening these settlements. During the 1920s, Agudists established their movement as the political representative of these traditionalist settlements, including the Old Yishuv.

As such, they tried to challenge what they perceived to be a Zionist monopoly on the representation of Jewish interests in the area. Immigration certificates, for example, were given to the Zionist dominated Jewish Agency, which distributed them through the different political movements. Agudists, who did not participate in the political structures of the New Yishuv, argued that it was wrong to give preference to Zionist immigrants and successfully demanded immigration certificates for their own adherents. In this context, it is also important to point out that many of the new traditionalist immigrants arriving during the 1930s did in fact join the official Jewish community, thereby blurring the boundaries between New Yishuv and traditionalist settlements, and pushing the latter to enhance their cooperation with the former.

6. How did these movements address the issue of education in the crumbling communities?

Religious Zionists attempted to modernize and professionalize the Jewish communities. Moreover, they lobbied for a more expansive bailiwick, including the power to directly tax members. Stressing the need for centralization, Mizrahi officials advocated for all religious services, not least kosher slaughter, and facilities, like synagogues and Talmud halls, to be placed under the community’s ambit.

Non-Zionist Orthodox leaders were deeply suspicious of these sorts of centralization and democratization initiatives. In 1919, Haim Ozer Grodzinski, the leading Eastern European spiritual authority, declared on the pages of the Agudah newspaper Der Yud that it was not the kehillah’s job “to create new [structures], but to put traditional religious affairs in order.” That said, he shared quite a few of Mizrahi’s concerns, for example, he proposed the introduction of communal membership fees. In general, Agudists preferred strengthening traditionalist institutions and by enhancing the influence and power of the local rabbinic authority (mara de-atra).

Both movements sought to strengthen education by building up new schools and institutions under their purview. Mizrahists supported the introduction of secular topics that was to help religious Jews with coping with their environments. In particular, they aimed at modernizing rabbinic ordination and for that purpose established their own rabbinic seminary in Warsaw in 1920. This institution, the Tachkemoni Yeshiva, was designed to produce a new kind of leader, who as its founder Rabbi Isaac Nissenbaum hoped, would not only tend to their congregants’ spiritual needs but represent them before non-Jewish bodies. “Today a rabbi cannot be one-dimensional,” a 1921 article in the Mizrahi press read; “he must be both the religious as well as national leader of his community.”

Agudists mocked Tachkemoni-trained rabbis for having immersed themselves in profane, rather than sacred, works. They dubbed the seminary a “rabbi factory” that manufactured “leaders on assembly lines” for global export, and claimed that traditional yidishkayt (Jewishness) was foreign to the Tachkemoni “boors.” While deeply critical of introducing secular studies into Jewish male education, they created their own seminaries, such as the Hahmei Lublin Yeshiva in Poland, and politically took the innovative Beit Yaakov schools under their wing.

7. How do the two groups differ over the role of the rabbinate in Jewish life?

Mizrahists tried to establish themselves as a new elite of religious politicians. They were proud that many of their leaders were steeped in religious knowledge. But as their own authority rested on their social and political activism, they were deeply suspicious of the clerical elite and many wanted to confine the rabbis’ authority to the ritual realm of the synagogue.

Agudists, on the other hand, saw religious authority challenged by the Zionist movement, both secular and religious. To counter such challenges, they granted their rabbinical elite unprecedented authority over decisions concerning not only ritual matters but also public and national policies. To this end, they established a Council of Torah Sages that was to direct the party politicians, and to take all important policy decisions.

Such ideas of absolute spiritual authority were of course not unique to Orthodox Judaism, but can be found e.g. in the notion of papal infallibility or the Iranian revolution of 1979. The Council of Torah Sages came nowhere near the power of the repressive state apparatus of Ruhollah Khomeini. Yet the council was an important symbol distinguishing Agudah from its secular and religious-Zionist opponents, helping the movement to establish itself among traditionalist Jews.

8. How did each of them portray their member leaders? On some level, why did Mizrachi make everyone educated and Agudah make everyone a gadol?

Mizrahists depicted their movement and leaders as the perfect synthesis of Orthodox Judaism and Zionist activism. In 1909, one activist opined that his movement incorporated “the spiritual-religious foundation of extremist Orthodoxy – which is passive from a national standpoint – with the national-political principles of secular Zionism – which is passive from a Jewish standpoint – into a single bloc of active Judaism.”  This combination of observance of Orthodox Judaism with Zionist activism posed a serious threat to Agudah.

In response, Agudists depicted themselves as strictly following the rabbinic elite’s directives. What is more, Agudist held that religious sages were not compelled to disclose the textual sources of their rulings, in stark contrast to traditional Jewish modes of decision making. That deprived opponents of the opportunity to challenge respective rulings, thereby constituting a particularly valuable defense against critique from within Orthodox circles. Adherence to such absolute rabbinic authority became a significant identity marker of ultra-Orthodox Jews. It effectively divided not only the two political movements but played an essential role in the creation of two distinct socio-cultural milieus.

9. What were the women’s issues that they differed on and which did they agree about?

Agudists wanted to confine the public sphere strictly to men and excluded women from any leadership positions. As Orthodox Jews, Mizrahists were also highly critical towards the idea of female participation in political activism, but at the same time barring women from political enterprise seemed ill-suited for a nationalist movement.

This issue was urgent in Palestine during the late 1910s and early 1920s, where Jews debated the participation of women in the emerging communal structures. Traditionalist Orthodoxy was firmly opposed to female participation in communal elections as either voters or representatives and used the issue to separate their communities from the Zionist frameworks.

Religious Zionist, on the other hand, found themselves between a rock and a hard place because for secular Zionists by this point the right of women to take part in politics was already beyond dispute

Religious Zionists vacillated over this issue for several years, until it decided in favor of female enfranchisement, concurrently disregarding a directive of the most important religious Zionist authority, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who already declared his opposition to such enfranchisement in September 1919. In this vein, the issue of women political participation became a further marker between the two movements and their communities. 

10. How did they differ over equal rights for the local Palestinians? Did they differ on other issues relating to the Arabs?

During the 1920s and parts of the 1930s, Agudists were opposed to the idea of a Jewish nation state and preferred Jews to live as a protected minority in an Arab empire. With the deterioration of Jewish life in Europe during the 1930s, and its utter destruction during the 1940s, Agudists accepted the fact that a Jewish state would eventually be established. However, they strictly separated such an entity from any messianic hopes. This, ironically, made it much easier for them to reach political and territorial compromise. When the British proposed the partition of Palestine in the mid-1930s, Agudists were willing to accept.

A statement of one of the most important Agudah leaders in Palestine, Moses Blau, in his debate with Zionist representatives illuminates this pragmatism. When asked by the Zionist leader Menahem Ussishkin about the eschatological significance of the Zionist movement, he responded: “Do you really believe that the national movement has any connection to our future redemption? The Land of Israel is, to date, an Arab country, and when we have the opportunity to receive political equality – if only the Arabs shall agree – then we have to welcome this [political parity] with open arms.” Any further goals, he argued, should be left to the Messiah.

Among Mizrahists, on the other hand, political hawks with uncompromising stances towards Palestinian Arabs, gained the upper hand. While there were moderates, such as the first Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Avigdor Amiel, who preached tolerance towards the non-Jewish local population, these lost influence with the increasingly violent conflict with the Arab population during the late 1920s and 1930s. “Whoever governs the land, it is ours and will be ours,” wrote the movement’s imminent political leaders, Rabbi Yehuda Maimon, in a fiercely nationalist response to Arab riots that broke out in August of 1929 and left hundreds of Jews dead and wounded. When the British attempted to partition the land in 1937, Mizrahists were among the strictest opponents demanding that greater Israel is to be entirely part of a Jewish state. In discussions with the British, Maimon claimed that Jews were divinely forbidden to grant other nations a share in the land.

Asked about the idea of a state with political parity between Jews and Arabs, Maimon pronounced “As a religious Jew, I can by no means agree on giving Arabs political equality.” Turning the question of partition into a religious issue made it extremely difficult for religious Zionist to compromise. Only after the calamities of the Second World War and the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust, did they consent to partition in order to create a Jewish state.

11. How did they compete over yeshiva funding in 1940?

In early 1940s, the two movements founded umbrella organizations for religious academies in Palestine through which funds were distributed to these institutions. Every academy seeking financial support had to align itself with one of the organizations, and thus the split between the two camps became entrenched and institutionalized in the world of higher religious education.

The case of yeshiva funding illustrates the fact that two movements not only acted as political stakeholders, but created many social and educational institutions and frameworks that helped the formation of two distinct socio-cultural milieus. Establishing a wide range of schools, rabbinical seminaries, social facilities, youth movements, cultural associations, newspapers, libraries, and many additional organizations and establishments, they created distinct microcosms that helped to establish loyalties and maintain identification and thus shaped interpretative patterns, moral standards, and emotional ties.

In Europe, Agudists and Mizrahists competed with a wide range of both religious and secular institutions and protagonists. The Nazi genocide brutally destroyed this diversity. In Palestine, on the other hand, both movements respectively established themselves as the exclusive political representatives of religious Jewry, thereby essentially dividing Orthodox Jews into two camps. In the Jewish settlements in Palestine, political parties were key players, for in the absence of a state, resources were allocated via their institutions.

12. Why did they comprise in 1944 and why did they create a united religious front in 1948?

With the British proposal to partition Palestine in 1937, the creation of a Jewish state seemed to be more and more within reach.

Both movements were anxious about religious life in a secular state. In order to safeguard religious lifestyles and institutions in a future state, they came together in the late 1930’s to discuss Orthodox cooperation. While high-ranking party politicians of both sides convened in Paris in 1938 and in London in 1939, they failed to secure cooperation. Yet leaders from both sides continued to meet over the next years and in these discussions agreed on basic Orthodox demands regarding the emerging state structures.

In November 1948, the different Orthodox parties formed the “United Religious Front,” a political alliance to safeguard religious interests in the new state. This front, however, did not signify the political and ideological convergence of Agudah’s positions with basic religious-Zionist tenets, as some scholars argue. It was a “marriage of convenience”, as one activist put it, with the limited aim to safeguard basic religious rights. Once those rights were secured, the two camps  parted ways.

13 Why was the issue over drafting women important and why do you use it as a way to frame the book at the beginning and ending?

During the early years of Israeli statehood, its political representative fiercely debated the issue of a mandatory military service for Jewish women. Due to the fragile political situation, a strong army was vital to the survival of the state. What is more, secular Zionists saw in a mandatory military service an important contribution of both men and women to the welfare of the state and thus an important aspect of gender equality.

On the other hand, for religious leaders of both groups, the idea of young women serving in the army next to their male peers was anathema. A rare unity prevailed among Zionist and non-Zionist rabbinic authorities, who all declared that female military service was prohibited according to Jewish religious law (halakhah).

In the following years, a compromise was reached between secular politicians and their religious-Zionist peers. A specially appointed commission proposed exempting religiously observant women from the draft, if they serve in civil institutions instead.

While religious Zionists embraced this compromise, ultra-Orthodox leaders fumed against a mandatory civil service for religious women, and in the ultra- Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem, angry masses took to the streets to demonstrate. Ultra-Orthodox politicians left the governing coalition of (over?) this issue, never to return. Religious-Zionists on the other hand, stayed in the coalition and supported the passing of this legislation. The issue and the fierce debates surrounding it symbolized the final parting of ways of the two movements.

During the 1950s, Orthodox Jews differed not only in their political affiliations, but these distinctions denoted that the groups differed in their attitudes toward halakhah, as well as in their social norms and behaviors.

The highest ultra-Orthodox rabbinic authority of the period, the Hazon Ish, decreed a “prohibition by halakhah to vote for the law of conscripting girls to a civil service.” The refusal of religious Zionist politicians to accept his ruling brought the fundamental differences of the two communities and their leaders to the fore.

The refusal of ultra-Orthodox leaders to accept any compromise on this issue, on the other hand, helped fostering clear boundaries between their own communities and their Israeli surroundings (ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students had been already exempted from military service by an agreement between Agudat Yisrael and Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion). In contrast, religious Zionists integrated into Israeli society, serving in the army shoulder to shoulder with their secular peers. At the same time, exempting religious girls from military service while having them serve in civil institutions helped Orthodox leaders to preserve their distinct milieu within the Zionist-Israeli society.

A second cornerstone of these new milieus that was forged during these same years was the formation of three distinct Jewish educational streams (in addition to an Arab one): a secular one, a national-religious system and an independent ultra-Orthodox system under the auspice of Agudat Yisrael.     

14. In the end, could a united Orthodox party have been created at any point?

Much of the scholarship on Orthodox Jewish politics perceives the non-cooperation of the two movements during the interwar period as “lost opportunity” and puts the blame on Agudath Yisrael, claiming that its leaders were not able to overcome ideological and political barriers.

Rather than asking about lost opportunities, my book shifts the focus to the political dynamics between the two movements and carefully situates calls for cooperation and actual negotiations in their concrete historical context.

It is true that we can find quite a few calls for cooperation in the religious Zionist press and from individual Mizrahi leaders. Yet many of such press releases served the purpose of mobilizing adherents and convincing the Jewish masses that  Agudah was passive and neglected its duties towards religious Jewry. A typical example is a newspaper article of the Polish Mizrahi leader Joshua Heshel Farbstein from November 1919, in which he bemoaned the schism that was hindering Polish Orthodoxy and advocated for cooperation in its stead. But rather than offering practical steps in that direction, he went on to attack his political opponents for monopolizing the Orthodox political sphere and predicted their demise. His article as well as his conclusion that “the future of religious Jewry in Poland and Lithuania belongs to Mizrahi” hardly make a convincing argument for fruitful cooperation.

To be sure, Agudists employed similar tactics. The point here is not to put the blame on Mizrahi instead. Rather, I argue that we have to pay close attention to differing political interests and strategies, instead of taking such statements at face value. Both sides employed similar tactics.

Part of the challenge for historians is the fact that due to the two movements’ different approaches to social and political activism, Mizrahists produced many more historical sources than  Agudists did and their archives today are more accessible. This creates an archival imbalance that we have to take into accou

15. Did the movement change in their ideologies during the 50 years from 1902-1953 covered in your book? Or was it really a fait accomplice in 1902 that took time to be articulated?

My book argues that this intra-religious competition was an important factor in facilitating observant Jewry’s transition to the age of the nation state. Their competition helped both sides to develop and strengthen their respective organizations and outlooks, and contributed to the formation not only of two distinct political camps, but of two very different socio-cultural milieus.

These developments were far from a forgone conclusion when the religious Zionist movement was founded in 1902. Looking at these dynamics we can detect several important turning points.

The emergence of Agudath Yisrael ten years later was a first important step towards the formation of two political camps, which not only provided non-Zionist Orthodoxy with an organizational framework, but at the same time helped Mizrahists to develop and sharpen their own positions. 

During the next decade, leaders from both sides occasionally reached out to the other side. Interestingly, calls for cooperation and actual negotiations during this period were frequently accompanied by statements that such cooperation would eventually cause the other side to dissolve and to join the own movement. Leaders from both sides of the aisle showed themselves convinced that their own movement was the sole legitimate representative of Orthodox Jewry and would prevail.

A few years after World War One, these attempts stopped. For the next decade and a half, both movements focused on their own consolidation. Political rivalries and mutual attacks in the press helped both sides to hone their platforms and outlooks. When the political leadership met again in 1938-39, not only the social and political context had changed drastically, but the movements themselves and their dynamics greatly differed from the early 1920s. Although they remained fierce opponents, each side was forced to acknowledge that the other would neither join its own ranks nor simply dissolve. The negotiations in Paris & London themselves constituted indirect recognition of the fact that each side represented a distinct part of Orthodox Jews.

Both sides also had gradually reached the understanding that the terms of their political rivalries would change drastically with the founding of a state. Therefore, even after the collapse of the negotiations in 1938-1939, several leaders kept meeting and prepared the way for the cooperation in the framework of the United Religious Front during the first years of the state. The disbandment of this political alliance and the final parting of ways in the context of the debates about a civil service for religious women highlighted not only the deep rifts between these two political camps, but the emergence of two distinct Orthodox societies.

A further aspect impacting the development of the two movements was their separate relationship with the Zionist Organization. From early on, Mizrahist had called on their Orthodox brethren to support and joint the Zionist movement. Yet when Agudists and the Zionist Organization started negotiating the terms of cooperation in the mid-1920s and gradually reached an understanding during the 1930s and 1940s, Mizrahists were among the fiercest opponents of such rapprochement. Direct negotiations between Agudah and the Zionist Organization jeopardized Mizrahi’s position as it highlighted an alternative approach of Orthodox-Zionist cooperation. The existence of Mizrahi, on the other hand, helped the general Zionists in their claim to represent the whole Jewish people, and not only its secular parts, and undermined Agudist attempts to establish their movement as the exclusive representative of Orthodox Jewry.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l and Globalization

In the late 1990’s and the early 2000’s, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks as Chief Rabbi was invited to world forums on economics, the environment, education, interfaith and globalization. These conferences were meetings of world thought leaders seeking to give direction to political leadership. At the time, Sacks was a master of the form advocating in his speeches for a moral climate to be created because free markets are not moral, and the goal of profits does not lead to responsibility or human dignity. In 2003, he penned an article “Global Covenant: A Jewish Perspective on Globalization,” in John H. Dunning, Making Globalization Good: The Moral Challenges of Global Capitalism (OUP, 2003) which contains a summary of his many speeches from this era, a good article to use as an overview of his general philosophy of this era. 

Before turning to the article, let us start with a few basics on Rabbi Sacks’ thought. At university, Sacks read liberal moral philosophy-Mill, Hobbs, Hume, Locke, Whitehead, and Isaiah Berlin- writing his dissertation on Jewish moral thinking, eventually reworked into parts of his later books such as To Heal a Fractured World. In the 1980’s, he was deeply influenced by the communitarianism of Michael Waltzer, Michael Sandel, Alister Macintyre, and Charles Taylor. These thinkers, seeing the problems of individualism and the lack of clear moral directives for society saw the answer in a return to the structures of the Bible, religion, community, and the social realm. None of them advocated a return to a fundamentalist religion or even necessary to organized religion, rather they held that without a social group and sacred texts, one had no moral force to reign in liberal atrophy and anomie.

In the 1990’s, Sacks himself wrote about the breakdown of family, schools, morals, and society He advocated the need for all us to be a good covenant that would teach us responsibility and caring. Not just the Jewish covenant, but any good covenant. For example, he was the only Jewish advocate for the UK retaining the Anglican church as the official church of the UK because it was a good covenant to breed responsibility and a just society. Sacks himself was the product of a proper Anglican secondary school. Instead, the UK dropped the established church. Sacks was also against multi-culturalism because we need a standard culture in order to assume moral responsibility.       

In the 1998-2002 era, the issues were globalization and capitalism. Samuel Huntington believed in a clash of civilizations, while Sacks followed Thomas Freidman (The Lexus and the Olive Tree) and Benjamin Barber (Jihad vsMcWorld) who believed in the power of the market to temper the clash. On the issue of capitalism, Sacks used the critics of unchecked capitalism such as Naomi Klein (No Logo), George Soros (Open Society), Michael Waltzer (many works) and Zygmunt Bauman (Globalization). In many of his positions, Sacks was close to his contemporary Prime Minister Tony Blair, who converted to Catholicism upon leaving office and set up an organization for solving global problems as part of an interfaith program.

One of Sack’s major contributions to Jewish ethics is the extension of local ethics to the global level. I can talk about the mizvah not to waste things (bal tashit) but personal action alone will not save the world until one directly addresses the structural changes and governmental regulations needed to save the environment. On many issues, he was the first Orthodox rabbi to make a leap to a global imperative.

In the blog post below, I will deal with this one article. I am not giving an overview of his entire thought. I am not covering his early writing as a teacher, his many books, or his thoughts on Jewish identity, or his apologetics for religion, or his recent books on the Torah parasha. They each deserve their own treatment. This article does not convey the full range of Sack’s thought. But it does deal with an aspect shown more at the international forums than in the Jewish community. When I had the privilege to meet with him in his office, I was invited as an international interfaith speaker, not as an educator.

I have selected paragraphs from the article and added brief commentary before the quotes. I lectured on this topic many years ago when the article first appeared. Spelling have been changed to American from British to please my online programs.

Global Covenant: A Jewish Perspective on Globalization

Sacks connects contemporary issues to Biblical stories, which he will describe later in the article, as a means of addressing issues with narrative that dramatizes the contemporary issues. In this case, he uses the Phoenicians to address globalization.

International  commerce, practiced extensively by the Phoenicians, goes back almost to the dawn of civilization.

There  are many positive changes of globalization but there are many negative ones as well, especially the poverty and disruption left in its wake.

But there are changes in degree which become changes in kind. The sheer speed and extent of advances in modern communications technology have altered conditions of existence for many, perhaps most, of the world’s six billion inhabitants. The power of instantaneous global communication, the sheer volume of international monetary  movements, the  internationalization  of processes and products, and the ease with which jobs can be switched from country to country have meant that our interconnectedness has become more immediate, vivid, and consequential than ever before.

But globalization also carries effects that are perceived as deeply threatening, especially to traditional cultures. Jobs become vulnerable. Whole economies are destabilized. Inequalities within and between nations grow larger, not smaller. One- fifth of the world’s population subsists on less than a dollar a day. Throughout Africa and parts of Asia, poverty, disease, and hunger are rife. Developing countries find themselves vulnerable as never before to sudden economic downturns, currency fluctuations, and shifts in production, leaving behind them vast swathes of unemployment.

Religions teaches us to look beyond the tribe and nation toward a universal God of justice, righteousness, peace, and human dignity. Judaism is one of those universal voices.

Francis Fukuyama (1999: 231–45) points out, it was religion that first taught human beings to look beyond the city-state, the tribe, and the nation to humanity as a whole. The world faiths are global phenomena whose reach is broader and in some respects deeper than that of the nation state.

Judaism is one of those voices. The prophets of ancient Israel were the first to think globally, to conceive of a God transcending place and national boundaries and of humanity as a single moral community linked by a covenant of mutual responsibility (the covenant with Noah after the Flood). Equally, they were the first to conceive of society as a place where ‘justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a never ending stream’ and of a future in which war had been abolished and peoples lived together in peace. Those insights remain valid today.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all endow life with human dignity, All three give us freedom, volition and choice to make the world a better place, to dream and hope for a better tomorrow. The religions teach us a moral view so that we use technology and globalization for good and not for bad. (He never directly addresses the parts of religion, especially his Judaism, that do not use religion to increase human dignity).

Our hopes are not mere dreams, nor are our ideals illusions. Something at the core of being responds to us as persons, inviting us to exercise our freedom by shaping families, communities and societies in such a way as to honor the image of God that is mankind, investing each human life with  ultimate  dignity. This view, shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, sees choice, agency, and moral responsibility at the heart of the human project. We are not powerless in the face of fate. Every technological advance can be used for good or evil. There is nothing inevitably benign or malign in our increasing powers. It depends on the use we make of them… Our aim must be to maximize human dignity and hand on to future generations a more gracious, less capricious world.

In an age of globalization, we care more about the creation and patenting of ideas, rather than production. Intellectual skills count more than modes of production, hence education is a fundamental human right in order to compete in the new global economy.

The labor content  of manufactured goods continues to fall. Huge profits go to those who have ideas. To an ever-increasing degree, multinational enterprises (MNEs) are outsourcing production and peripheral services and becoming, instead, owners of concepts: brands, logos, images, and designs (Klein 2001). In such an age, immense advantage accrues to those with intellectual and creative skills. Education, not merely basic but extended, becomes a necessity, even a fundamental  human  right. Investment in education is the most important way in which a society offers its children a future.

God made humans in His image of creativity and as His partner in creation. This is achieved through education. Just as education in Judaism in both the Biblical and rabbinic worlds meant a greater democratization of knowledge, so too the personal computer and internet lead to greater democratization of knowledge. Just as Judaism made education a primary duty, our primary duty in an age of globalization is to ensure an education for all and that everyone on earth have access to information, knowledge, and skills. (Note that he footnotes to Bill Clinton and George Soros)

By making mankind in His image, the creative God endowed humanity with creativity, giving us the mandate to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ and inviting us to become, in the rabbinic phrase, ‘God’s partners in the work of creation’. Specifically—following through the possibilities raised by the invention  of the alphabet—Judaism made education  a primary religious duty.

As with the invention of the alphabet and printing, so with the personal computer  and the Internet: what makes them  so significant an  enhancement  of  human  possibilities is their contribution to the democratization of knowledge, and thus ultimately of dignity and power (Friedman 2000).

Education is still far too unevenly distributed. A hundred million children worldwide do not  go to school. There are twenty-three countries—mostly in Africa, but they include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Haiti—in which half or more of the adult population are illiterate. In thirty-five countries— including Algeria, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Laos, Morocco, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia—half or more women cannot read or write.

The first and most potent global intervention, therefore, is to ensure that every child has access to information, knowledge, and skills. The model here is the Bolsa-Escola scheme in Brazil that provides subsidies to poor families provided that their children attend school regularly. School participation  in Brazil has risen, as a result, to 97 per cent of the child population  (Soros 2002: 37, 84; Clinton 2001).


Modernity valued progress over anything else. But this lead to an impoverished social world of our family community, voluntary organizations, neighborhood groups, and religious congregations. They are the places where we operate based not on profit and utility but on love, loyalty, faithfulness, mutuality, and a sense of shared belonging. These are the places where we learn about responsibility and morals. These are our covenantal relationships. This is his communitarianism. Notice he uses the term covenant to mean communities of responsibility, not revelation or covenant with God. His book Politics of Hope was 1999, where he first presented his communitarian views.

One of the dominant metaphors of modernity has been the idea of competition as the driving force of progress… What we and others have argued is that this is an impoverished view of our social ecology. It omits ‘third sector’ institutions like the family, the community, voluntary organizations, neighborhood groups, and religious congregations which have in common that they are larger than the individual but smaller than the state. Their significance, and it is immense, is that they are where we learn the habits of co-operation, whether we describe it as reciprocal altruism or social capital or trust. Families and communities are not arenas of competition. To use the vocabulary, I developed in The Politics of Hope, they are places where relationships are covenantal, not contractual. They are based not on transactions of power or exchange, but  on love, loyalty, faithfulness, mutuality, and a sense of shared belonging. They are less about the ‘I’ than about the ‘We’ in which my ‘I’ becomes articulate, as a child of this family, that history, this place, that set of ideals.

Sack uses the critiques of society by Schumpter, Putnam, and Walzer showing that social bonds have broken down and we are now in Putnam’s phrase “bowling alone” instead of building community and civil organizations. We no longer feel bound to build democratic union with a large number of others in our fragmented multi-cultural world. Bear in mind that Walzer is a progressive social democrat, not a conservative. Sack answers that Judaism has always valued family, synagogue, and school and not individualism or state-building and political power..

It  was Joseph Schumpeter, in  Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy,  who pointed out that market based-capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction. It ‘creates a critical frame of mind which, after having destroyed the moral authority  of  so many  other  institutions,  in  the  end  turns  against its own’ (Schumpeter 1947: 143). The combined power of the state and the market causes third  sector institutions  to atrophy. Marriage and the family become fragile. Communities disintegrate. Attendance at places of worship declines. Voluntary groups become more fragmented and ephemeral. We prefer, in Robert Putnam’s phrase, to go ‘bowling alone’. The result is that it becomes ‘very difficult for any individual to find any stable communal support, very difficult for any community to count on the responsible participation of its individual members’. This, argues Michael Walzer, ‘works against commitment to the larger democratic union and also against the solidarity of all cultural groups that constitute our multi-culturalism’ (Walzer 1992:11–12).

The Judaic emphasis on third sector institutions hardly needs spelling out. For two millennia, without a home, sovereignty, or power, Jews and Judaism survived and flourished on the basis of three foundations: the family, the synagogue, and the school.

The modern West is too individualistic but some developing countries are too centralized which also works against the building of covenantal associations.

To be sure, the problem does not arise in the same way throughout the world. In some societies, most notably the liberal democracies of the West, individualism may have gone too far. In others—those that have not yet, or only recently, become democratized—it may not have gone far enough. Excessive centralization inhibits the growth of civil associations, just as excessive commercialization erodes them (Soros 2000).


Sacks defines tzedakah as social justice. He thinks the Biblical concept of tzedakah means the removal of barrios to human dignity, which includes the removal of poverty, tyranny, structural economic and social deprivation, lack of public facilities and intolerance. Sacks fined the definition of Amartya Sen valuable to define tzedakah, but Sen is a committed secularist who wants to solve the problems through dedicated government amelioration, while Sacks thinks we need a covenant to be responsibility to make these changes through government.  The entire message to remember that you were slaves in Egypt and not to oppress the widow, orphan and stranger was in order to create a society with poverty, persecution, and enslavement, a society unlike the oppressive slave owning society of Egypt.

What tzedakah signifies, therefore, is what is often called ‘social justice’, meaning that no one should be without the basic requirements of existence, and that those who have more than they need must share some of that surplus with those who have less. The view articulated in the Hebrew Bible has close affinities with Amartya Sen’s concept of ‘development as freedom’ meaning that freedom is not simply the absence of coercion but also the removal of barriers to the exercise of human dignity: ‘poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states’ (Sen 1999: 3)… The society with which the Israelites were charged with creating was one that would stand at the opposite extreme to what they experienced in Egypt: poverty, persecution, and enslavement.

Now to his strong statements about markets and morals, based on several prior essays he had written on the topic. The market is unfair and unequitable and will never fulfill the Torah requirement of tzedakah defined as social justice. The Bible assumes that we need a equitable distribution of wealth, possibility, and economic freedom. Sacks is therefore against the economic policies of Reagan and Thatcher which created greater inequalities removed many of the social safety nets. (Even though Chief Rabbi Jacobovits supported Thatcherism in his From Doom to Hope: A Jewish view of “Faith in the City” ) He is also against the outsourcing of production to developing countries here there are slave wages, child labor, and unsanitary conditions.

A free society cannot be built on mishpat, the rule of law, alone. It requires also tzedakah, a  just  distribution  of  resources. What  is clear—indeed taken  for granted by the Bible—is that an equitable distribution will not emerge naturally from the free working of the market alone.

Tzedakah is a concept for our time. The retreat from a welfare state and the financial deregulation and monetarist policies set in motion  by Reagonomics and Thatcherism have led to increased inequalities in both the United States and Britain.

Meanwhile, third world workers producing  the  goods  the  multinationals  sell do  so  often  under Dickensian conditions  involving child labor, unsanitary  factories, and  less- than-subsistence wages. As George Soros notes, ‘Markets are good at creating wealth but are not designed to take care of other social needs’ (Soros 2002).

Sacks acknowledges the critique by conservatives of the welfare state that it has the potential to lead to dependency, the opposite of human dignity. But he notes that Maimonides already taught that the highest form of tzedakah is to make someone self-sufficient. Despite this hierarchy of types of tzedakah, there are sometimes inequities so great that the only solution is periodic redistribution. 

One of the most profound insights of tzedakah legislation is its emphasis on human dignity and independence. Millennia ago, Jewish law wrestled with the fact that domestic welfare, like foreign aid, can aggravate the very problem it is intended to solve. Welfare creates dependency and thus reinforces, rather than breaks, the cycle of deprivation. Tzedakah therefore, though it includes direct material assistance (food, clothing, shelter, and medical aid), emphasizes the kind of aid that creates independence, as in Moses Maimonides’ famous ruling:

The highest degree, exceeded by none, is that of the person who assists a poor person by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment—in a word by putting him where he can dispense with other people’s aid… (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor 10: 7). The supreme form of tzedakah is therefore one that allows the individual to become independent of other people’s aid.

The Bible is acutely aware that the workings of the free market can create, over time, inequalities so great as to amount to dependency and which can only be removed by periodic redistribution.

Sacks categorically concludes on the need for advanced economies to help eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, ensure universal education, combat treatable disease, reduce infant mortality, improve work conditions, and reconstruct failing economies. Sacks does not care if it is justified as compassion, social justice, or human solidarity. One should compare Sacks to a similar conclusion by Michael Walzer, writing as a Jewish thinker, who extends Maimonides’ laws of tzedakah to global tzedakah to eradicate poverty but is exacting to justify it specifically as tzedakah. See Michael Walzer, “On Humanitarianism: Is Helping Others Charity, or Duty, or Both?” (2011)

There can be no doubt that some of the economic surplus of the advanced economies of the world should be invested in developing countries to help eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, ensure universal education, combat treatable disease, reduce infant mortality, improve work conditions, and reconstruct failing economies. As with tzedakah, the aim should be to restore dignity and independence to nations as well as individuals. Whether this is done in the name of compassion, social justice, or human solidarity it has now become a compelling imperative. The globalization of communications, trade, and culture globalizes human responsibility likewise. The freedom of the few must not be purchased at the price of the enslavement of the many to poverty, ignorance, and disease.


On questions of the environment, Sacks criticizes modernity’s faith in open ended progress with limits and responsibilities.  The covenantal approach means that we need to assume stewardship for the environment. He appeals to the relgious literature of all faiths to help us. On the environment, he is reading the works on economics and globalization, not environmental theology.

Legislation governing the conduct of war forbade needless destruction of fruit-bearing trees, a principle expanded in rabbinic law to cover the entire range of wasteful consumption and environmental pollution… The human  covenant therefore signifies that we are, collectively, the guardians of the natural universe for the sake of future generations.

The sense of limits is one of the hardest for a civilization to sustain. Each in turn has been captivated by the idea that it alone was immune to the laws of growth and decline, that it could consume resources indefinitely, pursuing present advantage without thought of future depletion. Few have committed this error more consciously than the age we call ‘modernity’, with its belief that rationality, science, and technology would create open-ended progress toward unlimited abundance. In the words of Christopher Lasch, ‘Progressive optimism rests, at bottom, on a denial of the natural limits on human power and freedom, and it cannot survive for very long in a world in which an awareness of those limits has become inescapable’ (Lasch 1991: 530). Many of the world’s great faiths contain teachings of great wisdom on environmental ethics.


On the religions of the world, he already wrote an entire book called Dignity of Difference. The 1st edition of the book became the gold standard in interfaith and is still used by Muslim, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and others around the globe in Indonesia, Singapore, India, UAE, and across Europe. Quotes from the book are used in statements made at conferences and in interfaith motivational posters. This very morning, I saw a Muslim friend of mine in Singapore posting a quote from Sack’s book.

Sack’s position is that there is one universal God but each religion is it own particular covenant with God. Each religion, as a religion, has its own narratives and moral resources to bring us to God and to moral responsibility.

This essay, written a year after the publication of the book, and after the edition was censored to produce a second edition. The change made below from the first edition was that in the first edition it said that God sends prophets to all people to give them their own religion, and below it says that “Mankind  has spoken to God in many languages, through  many faiths.” He changed it from a divine plan to a natural quality of humanity. Paradoxically, it made his thought more naturalistic and liberal, in that, religions are more human than divine. He retained in this essay the idea that religions are not truth claims but stories of each religion’s self-understanding of their relationship with God.

There are no easy answers to this dilemma but there is an instructive precedent. Judaism is that rarest of phenomena: a particularist monotheism. The God of Abraham, according to the Hebrew Bible, is the God of all humanity, but the faith of Abraham is not the faith of all humanity. So strange is this idea that it was not taken on by the two daughter monotheisms  to which Judaism gave rise, Christianity and Islam. These faiths are both universalist monotheisms, holding that since there is only one God, there is only one true religion, one path to salvation, to which ideally all mankind will be converted. Judaism believes otherwise: that there are many ways to serve God and that one does not have to be Jewish to do so. ‘The righteous of the nations of the world [i.e. non-Jews] have a share in the world to come’ (Tosefta, Sanhedrin 13).

Mankind  has spoken to God in many languages, through  many faiths. No language need threaten the others; none should supersede the other. Religious truth is not solely ontological (a matter of what is) but covenantal (a relationship between a specific group and God). Ontologies conflict, covenants do not.


Sacks is aware that many see religion as part of the problem. But he is adamant that religion as a moral covenant can give us a sense of responsibility. Civilizations must care for the poor, weak, and powerless. They must increase human dignity. This moral responsibility can be done by secular humanists and religious zealots who have denied it. But Sacks argues that for most of us, religion gives us our moorings. In none of his books does he directly address the large part of Orthodoxy that would not agree with his rejection of fundamentalism or his definition of Jewish moral responsibility.

The wisdom of the world’s religions may seem at best irrelevant, at worst dangerous, to a world driven by economic forces. In the West, especially Western Europe, society has become secularized. In the Middle East and parts of Asia it has witnessed a growth of fundamentalism that threatens economic development and political freedom alike. Whatever therefore the prospects for the future, religion seems part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Our  own view is that  civilizations survive not  by strength but  by how they respond to the weak; not by wealth but by the care they show for the poor; not by power but by their concern for the powerless. The ironic yet utterly humane lesson of history is that what renders a culture invulnerable is the compassion it shows to the vulnerable. The ultimate value we should be concerned to maximize is human dignity—the dignity of all human beings, equally, as children of the creative, redeeming God.

Is this a ‘religious’ insight? Yes and no. There have been secular humanists who have affirmed it; there have been religious zealots who have denied it.

Sacks concludes his essay with his definition of religion as giving us meaning. Sacks has always been deeply influenced by Victor Frankl and the importance of meaning in our lives. Religions form communities and tell narratives and perform rituals that dramatize the narrative. These give us as humans continuity with the past and a future oriented sense of meaning. Notice the absence of God, revelation, holiness, experience, or mysticism in his definition. (This definition is important also for his view of Judaism, which I may show in a follow up post.) 

We are also, uniquely, the meaning-seeking animal. We seek to understand our place in the universe. We want to know where we have come from, where we are going to, and of what narrative we are a part. We form families, communities, and societies. We tell stories, some of which have the status of sacred texts. We perform rituals that dramatize the structure of reality. We have languages, cultures, moralities, and faiths. These things are essential to our sense of continuity with the past and responsibility to the future.

Finally, Sacks advocates creating a global covenant to work for human rights, human dignity, and the common good.  He does not want a political entity such as the United Nations, but a covenantal agreement. But if you read the original documents around the forming of the UN such as those which supported The Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Rene Cassin, Jacques Maritain, and Elanor Roosevelt, one finds a similar vision.  

What we need now is not a contract bringing into being a global political structure, but rather a covenant framing our shared vision for the future of humanity.

That is at least a starting point for a global covenant in which the nations of the world collectively express their commitment not only to human rights but also to human responsibilities, and not merely a political, but also an economic, environmental, moral, and cultural conception of the common good, constructed on the twin foundations of shared humanity and respect for diversity.

Coda- This week Chief Rabbi Mirvis issued a statement that we cannot sit idly at persecution, we are “compelled to speak out” on the plight of China’s Uighur. Mirivis wants Jews to actively take up the cause and be involved. In contrast, Chief Rabbi Sacks did not pick up any political causes to get personally involved with.  He never exhorted his followers to put his ideas into practice through speaking out and protest. And this American election season, he advocated to not get involved in a partisan political opinion.

Zalman Newfield Interview – Degrees of Separation

In 1867, Isaac Joel Linetsky published his best selling Yiddish novel The Polish Lad. The book is a semi-autobiographic account of Linetsky’s rejection of his Hasidic upbringing and community. Linetsky’s protagonist left because he was disgusted by the Hasidic community’s closed ways, lack of morals, misogyny,  pettiness, and ignorance. However, the lad lacks the skills needed to survive in the outside world. He did not have language skills, secular education, or even the ability to dress, eat, or make conversation. The latter half of the book narrates his inability to make a living or find his way until a kind-hearted Reform rabbi has pity on him and helps him. This depiction of the lad is, in many ways, a typical description of what is now colloquially called the off derech-OTD (derech means path or way of life). This lad typifies how a hasid who grew up in a sheltered sectarian community and leaves it to enter the wider world despite lacking the requisite skills and education has to struggle to form a new identify.

Linetsky was not alone. At the end of the 19th century the majority of Polish-Russian village youth left the path and became secular believers in the many new movements- socialism, communism, Bund, civil rights party, Zionism- that were going to change Polish Jewish life. They moved to the cities such as Lublin, Lodz, Bialystok, or Odessa to seek their new lives. Some showed up at the Warsaw address of the famed Yiddish author I. L Peretz still wearing their long Hasidic garb but grasping a manuscript in hand telling him they wanted to be an author so they could tell their story.

In the last twenty years, there has been a bevy of similar cases of those leaving contemporary Hasidic communities and wanting to write about their stories. A significant group of those who left became authors writing at first hesitant blog posts, followed by memoirs and books. But do these novels contain an accurate sociological depiction of those who leave? To find out, Schneur Zalman Newfield, who is himself an Ex-Lubavitcher, one who left the path of Chabad, wrote his dissertation on the topic.    

Dr. Schneur Zalman Newfield is an assistant professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Newfield received his MA & PhD in Sociology from New York University and a BA from Brooklyn College, CUNY. Prior to attaining his academic position, he taught sociology courses for two years in six New Jersey state prisons through Rutgers University-Newark’s New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) program. He has a reflection of his prison teaching experience- here. Newfield’s wrote a book on those who leave the Hasidic path today Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism (Temple University Press, April 2020).

Leaving religion is not new. Secular ages and periods of religious recession have always been with us going back to the Roman Empire and ancient India. Most of Eastern European Jewry left the path in the early 20th century. The United States has been having religious recessions and inflations approximately every 35 years. In the 21st century, many American Evangelical Christians and Mormons are leaving their paths, which the American anthropologist James Bielo called deconverting. This follows a period of rapid religious revival in the 1990’s. This back and forth of pendulum of religious revival and recession is not new.

However, when an Evangelical forgoes the closed Christian culture, he or she speaks English as a native tongue and usually has received enough education to function in today’s world. Exceptions tend to be the segregated old-world Amish and those whose parents kept them away from education like the family depicted in the 2018 bestseller Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. When an early 20th century Hasid left to become a socialist, they usually still existed an all Yiddish world. But the contemporary ex-Hasid does not have the language skills or education that makes the transition easy. This is what Newfield studied, the transition from Hasid to ex-Hasid and the process of forming a new identity. They are like the Polish lad in Linetsky novel, having to completely change their identity.

(Modern Orthodox who graduate from a day school and then give up their religion in college already have full language and cultural skills, have full TV and pop-culture values, and do not have to be taught the basics of secular society or obtain a GED. Therefore, they should not be compared to the OTD who need to entirely form a new identity.)

Unlike the contemporary literary memoirs of ex-hasidim that generally present a complete break with their past, portraying those who leave as not going back and certainly not going back and forth or being indecisive or creating a new hybrid identity. The thesis of Newfield’s book, based on extensive interviews and collecting a statistically meaningful number of cases, is that many do create hybrid identities and do go back and forth. They want to maintain ties with family, friends, and accustomed aspects of their lives. People Newfield interviewed exhibited a range of degrees to which they have successfully moved beyond their religious upbringing and managed to create a new lifestyle and mode of being in the world.

Newfield divides his interviewees into three categories: trapped, hybrid, and disconnected, those who cannot form a new identity, those who combine aspects of both their new and their former lives, and those who completely sever connection with the past. But Newfield shows that even the latter category still struggle with their attraction to the old ways. These people may experience intense and unhealthy preoccupation with their upbringing.  Newfield’s data places most people in the middle category.  Newfield credits successful adjustment to being able to move beyond black and white thinking.

The most interesting parts of the book are those on the descriptions by ex-Hasidim of the fear of leaving, how leaving is treated as a pathology, and how one of the biggest shifts of thinking required is to stop denigrating non-Jews, goyim, and secular society as worthless, immoral, and valueless. He also discusses the various habits and traits that Ex-Hasidim retain after the formation of a new identity, such as right-wing values, anti-feminism, or shukling. He also deals with their anti-intellectualism and their need to acquire the basics of secular studies.  

The book is a very quick read and a solid sociology monograph to earn an academic position. Newfield should be commended for a fine first monograph, but it does not push far enough or hard enough. Essentials in the process of forming a new identity which I would want to know about include discussion of the changes in sartorial choices, eating, and leisure habits, finding a job, and how they became educated. The book points out how they had to become less demonizing of gentiles. But does that apply to only white gentiles? How about black and Hispanic gentiles? How about Christians who self-identify as Evangelical?  

Personally, I would have also wanted a frame analysis of an event with ex-Hasidim showing the hybridity of their choices. I would have also liked a greater sensitivity to socio-economic concerns in the viable options in forming a new identity. From where I sit in the township of Modern Orthodoxy, they cannot easily transition to Modern Orthodoxy or most Liberal Jewish communities because of the need for an upper middle-class income as well as having the worldview and class distinctions that maintain it. The book also does not directly address the issues of pain and psychic rupture from the transition.

The biggest question that the book consciously avoids is: why now? What are the social and historic factors that are leading to the current defection? For that, we need another book. The data would not be personal narratives but a social history of the last seventy years of how Hasidism was rebuilt in Brooklyn after WWII. That generation of immigrants adjusted to the new country by learning to be highly adaptive and pragmatic. How did they produce grandchildren without those skills that felt compelled to leave? How many of those who leave had parents and grandparents whose decisions played a role?

Finally, there is the rise of the Modern Hasidic, Hasidim who are in commerce, real estate, or have even gotten psychology degrees. Many of them stay in the community but are now more exposed to broader ideas, western culture, and their liberal Jewish co-workers. Are those who leave part of a broader phenomena of modernizing Hasidim or are they something completely separate? I hope that Newfield or another scholar devotes themselves to this topic

  1. How is this book autobiographical?

I was raised in the Lubavitch Hasidic community and exited it in my early twenties, so in a sense my research on people leaving their Hasidic upbringing is autobiographical. At the same time, I’ve worked very hard to separate my own personal experiences and emotions from those of the people I interviewed for my study.

For a long time, I’ve wondered who is best suited to study religious communities, those who were raised in them or those who come to it from the outside. Eventually I realized that there is no such thing as a completely “objective” scholar and that everyone brings their own biases, experiences, and concerns to their research. The most any scholar can do is to be honest about their background and orientation and to try to approach their work with an open mind. I have tried to live up to this standard. Studying others who left Hasidic communities has certainly opened my eyes to the many different kinds of exiters and to the realization that there are many particular circumstances that can shape people’s exit process and their feelings about it after the fact. I’m still figuring out the details of my next research project, but it will certainly explore some facet of ultra-Orthodox communities.           

2. Why is this topic an important topic?

There are several reasons why the study of ultra-Orthodox exiters is of interest. For one thing, according to some studies there are currently as many as ten thousand exiters from Orthodox Judaism throughout the world, with a majority living in the US but substantial minorities living in Israel and parts of Europe. That is not an insignificant number. In addition, there is some reason to believe that the rate of exit has increased in the past decade and it may continue to go up even higher in the foreseeable future, potentially brining into question the entire ultra-Orthodox way of life. 

Certainly, there are many examples—from public pronouncements by ultra-Orthodox leaders and articles in ultra-Orthodox publications—that these communities themselves view this issue as a major problem.  For example, Reb Aaron Teitelbaum, one of the spiritual leaders of the Satmar Hasidic community, in a tearful Yom Kippur speech in 2013 lamented the “lost neshumas,” the lost souls, who are leaving his community.  Similarly, thirty-three prominent Lubavitch rabbis from around the world issued a public statement proposing that community members get married earlier to ensure that members stay faithful to the community.  These statements illustrate that both communities are well aware of the fact that members are exiting and are trying to respond to this situation as they see fit.

From a sociological perspective, in addition to the inherent interest in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish case, there are broader insights this case illuminates that helps us understand all kinds of experiences of “exit” or radical personal transformation. This study is about the process of resocialization from a total institution and there are many other kinds of exiting from other total institutions.  For example, the experiences of immigrants, divorcees, and people leaving prison.  In all these cases people need to learn the new rules of their new society or circumstances, need to develop a new set of norms and behaviors, and they need to determine what parts of their previous selves they want to hold onto and what parts they want to let go.   

I should mention that there are many similarities among the experiences of those exiting ultra-Orthodox Judaism and those exiting other strict religions. One possible significant difference has to do with how the former religion is perceived by mainstream society. So, for example, if someone exits fundamentalist Islam, given the widespread Islamophobia in America, they may face greater scrutiny and suspicion than someone exiting ultra-Orthodox Judaism.  This suspicion may make it more difficult for them to speak openly about their upbringing and make it more difficult for them to develop new social contacts and fully integrate into the broader society.    

3. What does it mean to exit the Ultra-Orthodox world?

Scholars have used various terms to describe people leaving a religion. Some of these terms are value-laden such as “apostasy” or “heresy,” which tend to have negative connotations. Others terms also have other shortcomings. For example, the term “deconversion” implies that leaving a religion is the reverse of joining one, but that misses the mark since leaving a lifestyle one was born into and lived for decades tends to be much more gradual and less linear than the process of conversion.  One of the most popular phrases within the American Orthodox Jewish community to describe people leaving is “to go off the derech,” off the path, often referred to by community members as going OTD (off the derech).  This expression is certainly not neutral, since it assumes that there is a single “path” and that those who deviate from it are off that path, and negatively judges those who do so.

Among some Hasidim (notably Lubavitchers) they often describe exit-ers as “going frai;” the word “frai” is a Yiddish word derived from German, meaning “free.”  This phrase may sound less judgmental, or possibly even value-neutral, until the true meaning of the word “free” in this context is understood.  “Free” is not associated with a “free spirit” or “free as a bird,” but rather someone who is free from “the yoke of the sovereignty of Heaven” (ol malchus shamayim).  The person exiting is viewed as devoid of the constraining force of Jewish law and tradition and is as depraved as an animal wholly at the mercy of its natural passions.  I try not to use these phrases in my scholarship. Instead I use the term “exiting” because it is value neutral, and it leaves open the question of when they exited and whether they exited completely.

4. Is there any typology that can be made of those who leave?

The people I interviewed exhibited a range of degrees to which they have successfully moved beyond their religious upbringing and managed to create a new lifestyle and mode of being in the world. I divide the interviewees into three categories: trapped, hybrid, and disconnected.

Exiters who are “trapped” feel they are stuck, living in a no-man’s-land, as it were, uncomfortable and constantly struggling with the norms that they find in the outside world.

Exiters who are “hybrids” adopt new norms from the outside world while simultaneously incorporating a limited amount of their former community’s norms into their new lives.

Exiters who are “disconnected” appear on the surface to have replaced all of the norms of their former community with new ones, without any carry overs. Upon closer analysis, however, they still struggle with their attraction to the old ways. These people may experience intense and unhealthy preoccupation with their upbringing.  I would say that the majority of exiters would fall into the hybrid category, with only a small, but tragic, number of exiters comprising the trapped and disconnected categories. 

It is difficult to say exactly why some exiters thrive post exit while others falter. It does seem that an ability to transcend the rigid mindset of ultra-Orthodoxy that sees everything in black and white terms (for example, either God wrote the Torah and every word must be followed punctiliously or it was written by humans and is of no lasting import) is key to being able to adapt to mainstream secular society.    

5. How do Hasidim denigrate Goyim? How do they imagine Goyim live?

In Hasidic communities there is a tendency to view non-Jews, as “goyim,” as lower than and less than Jews.  The Hasidim tend to view non-Jews as less intellectual, less spiritual, and less moral than Jews.  Hasidim also tend to view non-Jews as more enslaved to their animal instincts and less capable than Jews of using their free will to make moral decisions.  As one of my Hasidic male interviewees told me, “I was taught that non-Jews have no choice, they have no free will.  My teachers went so far as to say that non-Jews were robots.” Along similar lines, a Hasidic woman told me, “I was taught that non-Jews are unclean….[Non-Jews] weren’t portrayed as caring, loving, family-minded people like us.  We live for our families, for our kids, we love our kids.  They don’t love their kids, they hurt their kids all the time.  There is so much abuse going on” in the goyish world.

One of the reasons why it is possible for the Hasidic community to promote such negative stereotypes of non-Jews is because there is very little genuine familiarity between the Hasidim and non-Jews. Hasidim tend to shop in Jewish own stores, go to Jewish (although largely non-Hasidic) doctors and dentists, patronize Jewish-own car services, and when they do interact with non-Jews such interactions tend to be brief and superficial.  What is more, when they do occasionally see non-Jewish strangers in their neighborhoods or in the news acting immorally, they use this as evidence that the Hasidic negative preconceptions of non-Jews are correct.  It is a kind of confirmation bias.  Overcoming this negative attitude towards non-Jews is certainly one of the major hurdles exiters must overcome.     

6. How is exiting prevented? What is the role of fear?

For people contemplating exiting their community, fear plays a huge role. Hasidim tend to know very little about the outside secular world; therefore they are understandably terrified about surviving on their own on the outside without the supports they can often expect to receive from their community were they to remain inside. Because of this fear, most people who think about exiting tend to decide not to go through with it. 

For those who decide to exit anyway, their Hasidic communities have various ways to try to prevent it.  Among the Lubavitch and Satmar communities I studied, I found that these communities tended to denigrate those who exited and claim that there were no “legitimate” reasons for exit. All those who exited were viewed as doing so in order to satiate their lusts.

Among the Satmar community, but not the Lubavitch one, it was common for the religious schools to expel children whose parents deviated religiously. This was a major weapon against those starting to deviate religiously since all the neighborhood Hasidic schools were in alliance, and if a child were expelled from one school another school in the area would not accept that child. This meant that if the parents still wanted their children to attend a religious school, they would need to move to a new neighborhood with a different school system. So, expelling a child from a school was a way to force a religiously deviating family to move.

Of course, for those parents who were farther along in their process of exiting and no longer wanted their children to attend a religious school, the Satmar community had another weapon at its disposal. It would forcefully inset itself in the child custody hearings to ensure that the parent who remained in the community retained full custody of the children.  The community would arrange to have former friends and neighbors of the exiter come to court and testify that the exiter was not a fit parent.  The community also raised money to cover legal costs and other expenses to assist the parent remaining in the community.  The threat of an exiter potentially losing all contact with his or her children is very real and is a major disincentive for would-be exiters to exit.      

7. How and why does the community pathologize exiting?

Hasidic communities pathologize exiting by arguing that those who exit are mentally ill (meshuga).  They maintain this position for several reasons. For one thing such a position attempts to remove from public discourse any legitimacy from the motives or actions of exiters.  That is, it implies that there is no legitimate reason for exiting, these exiters are simply out of their mind.  It also acts as a deterrence to others who might be thinking about exiting.  How many people are going to decide to exit when they know that their own family and friends will go around saying that they suffered from a mental illness. 

It is also possible that these communities maintain that exiters have a mental illness out of a genuine bafflement at the choices exiters make.  That is, these communities cannot fathom how someone in their right mind who knows so much about the Hasidic way of life could choose to live in violation of its norms—it must be that person is crazy!     

8. How does your research show that ex-Hasidim do not cut off ties with the past including family and ways of life?

My research found that the majority of exiters continue to maintain at least some connection with their families post exit. There was range in terms of how connected exiters were to their families post exit. Some exiters only called their families before major Jewish holidays and endured awkward conversations, some visited a few times a year and suffered through stilted conversations, and others continued to enjoy regular loving—although still complicated—meaningful family contact.   This finding is significant because there is a general perception among some scholars and the public that once people exit from the Hasidic community they are completed cut off from their families.  Some outsiders even believe that Hasidic families sit shiva for the exit-er, as if the person had actually died.  Of the seventy-four exiters I interviewed, I only confirmed one case where parents sat shiva, and that case had two distinct characteristics: The exiter not only stopped being Orthodox but also married a non-Jewish women (which was uncommon among the majority of exiters) and the leader of the exiter’s community had a personal antagonism against the exiters.  This antagonism grew out of the fact that the exiter had publicized sexual abuse inside his community of origin. 

I should mention that the image that emerges from memoirs written by those who exit the ultra-Orthodox community may conflict with my findings. These memoirists may give the impression of being completely cut off post exit. Assuming the veracity of their claims, there is a simple explanation for the discrepancies. Specifically, these personal memoirs may represent the narratives of a marginal group who are indeed so disconnected from their family and community that they feel free to write about it and tell the whole world their personal story.  However, for the majority of ultra-Orthodox exiters who still connections with their family or community have they are loath to publicly discuss their disagreements with the community for fear of causing offense and jeopardizing those relationships. 

9. How do they retain and give up many habits after exiting?

My research also found that exiters continue to hold on to aspects of their upbringing as well, what scholars call “role residuals.”  Examples of this include the way that some exiters continue to maintain the socially conservative attitudes from their upbringing regarding race and gender.

Other exiters continue to hold onto some of the bodily behaviors that were instilled in them growing up such as swaying (shuckling) while reading a book, even though now the book they are reading is not a “sacred” text.  It must be stressed that these role residuals are not simply things that exiters choose to hold on to because they enjoy or appreciate them. Instead, these are more like habits that they are either unaware of or unable to jettison even if they want to.  The presence of these role residuals is significant because it highlights how much of an effect the  upbringing has them, even if (or especially when!) we are unaware of it.      

One pattern to emerge in terms of which habits exiters maintained from their upbringing and which they discarded, was that habits that were not supported by the outside world (such as the denigration of non-Jews) were much less likely to be maintained.

On the other hand, habits that found support from at least some segment of the broader public (such as conservative attitudes towards race and gender) were more likely to be maintained. That is, it is possible for exiters to tune into conservative talk radio and hear people promoting reactionary views on race and gender. Therefore, it is possible for exiters to feel like these views are not simply “Hasidic” and should be maintained. But it is extremely unlikely for exiters to find non-Orthodox Jews (let alone non-Jews) who would agree that none-Jews are less than full human beings. Therefore, it is very unlikely that exiters will maintain the kind of anti-goy attitudes from their upbringing. 

10. How is Hasidism anti-intellectual?  Do Ex-Hasidim often substitute Dawkins and Hitchens for Torah, trading a religious fundamentalism for an atheist fundamentalism?

Hasidic communities tend to be anti-intellectual in several ways. For one thing, they tend to disparage secular knowledge as “foreign knowledge” (chochmas chitzonim) and limit or entirely prevent members from learning in school even such basic subjects as English reading and writing and rudimentary mathematics.  This not only limits members knowledge of these specific secular subjects but also limits the imagination and exploration regarding the physical universe and the outside world in general.  This general pattern exists within both the Lubavitch and Satmar communities.      

Hasidic communities also tend to place strict ideological boundaries around the religious subjects that they teach in their schools.  So, for example, students in yeshiva will be discouraged from asking the “wrong” kind of questions when studying the Bible or the Talmud, such as questions that challenge God’s omniscience or the wisdom of particular legal rulings of the sages.

When people leave their Hasidic upbringing, they often reject its theological foundations. Approximately 16 percent of the exiters I interviewed become atheists, the rest were agnostics or maintained some form of belief in god. Many of these atheist exiters are attracted to the “four horsemen” of New Atheism (Hitchins, Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett) and embrace these authors simplistic critique of religion as based primarily on theological beliefs which they reject as superstitious. Atheist exiters sometimes also embrace the Islamophobia rampant among the New Atheists.

11. What do the gender attitudes remain after exiting?

About a third of the exiters I interviewed expressed conservative gender attitudes. That is, they said that men and women were fundamentally different and that there were certain types of jobs, specifically being a rabbi, which were better suited to men than women.  Interestingly, these were the same views as those of people inside the Hasidic community.  I think one reason these views of gender remain with exiters is that they are supported by socially conservative voices in the broader society. This support reinforces these views among exiters and allows them to feel like this is not one of the things that are unique to the Hasidic community and therefore should be rejected. It is also possible that since views about gender are related in their minds to embodied differences, this embodied aspect may naturalize these views and make them less susceptible to change.    

12. What is your method? How do you differ from others?

My main research method is to use in depth interviews. This is a significant methodological difference between my study and most other studies on ultra-Orthodox Jews, which tend to use ethnographies and participant observations.    

I wanted a method that would allow me to have extended conversations with exiters in order to find out exactly what they were thinking and how they made sense of their own experiences and transformations.  I’m not aware of any other contemporary study of ultra-Orthodoxy based primarily on in-depth interviews.

My interviews tended to last about two and a half hours and I tried as much as possible to let the interviewees describe their own experiences in a way that made sense to them without superimposing my own sociological issues and concerns on their narratives. Once I finished conducting interviews, I pored over their transcripts and searched for emergent patterns. 

I’ve learned so much from the many insightful ethnographic works on Orthodoxy.  One book in particular that inspired me was Ayala Fader’s Mitzvah Girls. Although our methods differ, I greatly appreciated how serious Fader took her subject and how she wasn’t afraid to describe honestly what she observed, even if it made for occasionally uncomfortable reading, such as when she described the anti-goy messages rampant in the Hasidic girls schools she observed.   

13. What did they become religiously after exiting?

Out of the seventy-four people I interviewed, only eight could be classified now as Modern Orthodox and only five actively embraced some form of liberal Judaism.  The rest tended to create their own amalgam of Jewish rituals and practices as they saw fit.  As one exiter I interviewed put it, “For some weird reason when it comes to Hanukah and the menorah, there was one year I was like “Ok let’s just do this,” but this year I didn’t light it once.  I mean I wouldn’t not light it. I’ve come to the point that I could enjoy those things. But I don’t of my own volition do anything religious.” 

As a sociologist nothing would please me more than being able to identify a clear pattern to explain why particular exiters ended up in particular places religiously, but I could not find such a pattern.  For people raised ultra-Orthodox and socialized to believe that conforming to Orthodox religious standards is the highest ideal and that Judaism is an all or nothing proposition, it is extremely difficult for exiters to develop their own sense of Jewishness and to feel confident to embrace some aspects of Judaism while disengaging from others.  Being able to improvise in this way is an expression of religious open-mindedness and creatively not typically associated with ultra-Orthodoxy.  

14. You seem to trust the narratives, as a sociologist should not you question them more?

Although my research is based on interviews with exiters, and although I take what exiters tell me seriously, I do not accept it uncritically as fact.  That is, throughout my work I make it clear that I do not view what exiters tell me as the causal reason for their exit as a straightforward fact. Rather I analyze what exiters tell me in order to understand how they make sense of their experiences.  So, when exiters tell me that they left their community for intellectual or social reasons, rather than assuming that these explanations are the causal reasons for their behavior, I look at these explanations as narratives that invite scholarly interpretation.  And it is as “narratives” that I present them in my scholarship.  Analyzing exiter narratives in this way allowed me to discover not only that there were differences among exiters in terms of how they explained their motivations for exiting—some giving primacy to intellectual critiques of religious texts and their communities and others giving primacy to feelings of alienation and disconnect with their upbringing—I also discovered that there was intense competition between these two groups and mutual recriminations against each other. 

Those who gave intellectual narratives argued that if one does not leave for intellectual reasons, they are not real exiters.  They claimed that if the exiters do not have “real” problems with their community, as soon as they realize how hard it is to start over in mainstream society, they will come running back to the community to be readmitted.  Conversely, those who consider their reasons for leaving to be emotional or social, often ridicule the “intellectuals” for their self-deception.  They say things like: “These people think that they are so smart and so much better than the rest of us. Really, they left for the same reasons that we left but they don’t want to admit it, so they protect themselves by claiming intellectual reasons.”

15. I encounter Hasidim who are in commerce, real estate, or even gotten psychology degrees. Many of them stay in the community but are now more exposed to broader ideas, western culture, and their liberal Jewish co-workers. How do you see them changing? Is it in continuity with the OTD? Many of the things you noted also apply to these “Modern Hasidic”?

This might get me into trouble with my fellow sociologists, but in general I try to avoid grand schemas or systems of classification as much as possible.  My study explores the lives of those raised in the Hasidic community who decide to exit it. There are certainly many other members of ultra-Orthodoxy who are exposed to the secular world to some degree or other and who change some aspects of their thinking or behavior while remaining in their community of origin.  These people are sometimes referred to as “Modern Hasidic.”  These people are certainly interesting and should be studied, but this would be a very different kind of study.    

Talli Rosenbaum responds to Monologues from the Makom

Here is a response to our interview from last week Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity  (Ben Yehuda Press, 2020) by Rivka Cohen, Sara Rozner Lawrence, Sarah Ricklan, Rebecca Zimilover, and Naima Hirsch. Let me know if anyone else has a different response they want to write up.

Talli Y. Rosenbaum is an individual and couple therapist and is certified as a sex therapist and certified sex therapy supervisor. She cohosts the Intimate Judaism podcast and is co-author with David Ribner of  “I am For My Beloved: A Guide to Enhanced Intimacy for Married Couples.”  Rosenbaum earned a masters in Clinical Sociology and Counseling and a certificate in Mental Health Studies from the University of North Texas in Neve Yerushalayim.  She holds a BA in Physical Therapy from Northwestern University.

Response of Talli Rosenbaum

I am honored to have been invited to respond to this blog interview with some of the authors and editors of the recently published,  Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity  (Ben Yehuda Press, 2020) by Rivka Cohen, Sara Rozner Lawrence, Sarah Ricklan, Rebecca Zimilover, and Naima Hirsch.

I was aware of the book’s publication, and had planned to purchase and read it, but had not yet done so. This invitation provided both the impetus and the opportunity to read, reflect, and respond. My short response, upon which I will expand, is this: anyone involved in the Orthodox Jewish community and women’s spiritual physical, mental, and sexual development, from clergy, educators, Kallah instructors, to mental health professionals (including sex therapists who may think they have had heard it all) should read this book. In fact, if you are a woman and Orthodox, this book is likely to have meaning and relevance to you.

Reading through the volume’s entries confirmed for me why I had procrastinated. I thought that reading it would probably feel like work and indeed, it did.  As an individual and couple’s therapist and a sex therapist working primarily in the Orthodox community, the concepts and conflicts that are highlighted in this book are familiar: how body image is affected by strict and often shaming messages around tzniut (modesty), the impact of feelings of guilt regarding fantasy, sexual arousal,  masturbation, “breaking negiah” (engaging in physical contact with the opposite sex), and the cognitive dissonance associated with the radical shift from the expectation of no physical touch before marriage to wedding night intercourse.

Women in my therapy practice report feeling very alone with their confusion around sexuality and as noted by the book’s editors, this is because sex is not talked about.  “The more I talked to my friends about sex, the more I realized that almost everyone had felt lonely or uncertain because of their sexuality at some point in their lives.” (Sara Lawrence Rozner, introduction). The interview and the book’s content deal candidly with these topics, normalizing for so many women that the experiences they have struggled with are shared by so many others.  The personal stories also underscore the specific struggles of modern Orthodox Jewish female millennials navigating the integration of their traditional Jewish beliefs with their more progressive values.

 In the interview, the editors are asked how the book relates to identity formation. One essay, in which the writer describes that sexually related content presented in the college orientation or discussed in classrooms felt irrelevant to her as an unmarried Orthodox Jewish woman, deals with this very subject. The belief that sexual education does not apply to religious youth and the reluctance to offer such discussion in schools is often based on fears that doing so implies tolerance of sexual activity.  Unfortunately, as discussed in my blog article “Too much information or not enough: Addressing adolescent female sexuality in Orthodox Jewish girls”, this  prevents access to fundamentally important information about LGBTQ identity, reproductive health, and, most importantly, autonomy and consent . It also leaves curious young people vulnerable to easily accessible but unreliable, unrealistic and potentially harmful sources, such as pornography. Rather than experience a conflict of identity between the spiritual and the sexual, values based sexual education provides the opportunity to strengthen and integrate religious and sexual identities, as noted in the article:

Adolescents steeped in religious teachings yet exposed to popular culture receive divergent and confusing messages about sex. If they are not processed and balanced with a values based sexual education, the information they do receive is likely at best to be incorrect, and at worst, harmful.  Sexual education should not be viewed, however, as a necessary evil required in order to contend with today’s cultural realities. Sexual education in the adolescent years is crucial in preparing individuals for a sexual relationship in marriage and includes elements that do not require experiencing sexual activity. This includes self and  body-awareness, positive self and body image, and development of the capacity for intimacy and expressions of love. The development of a sexual sense of self is integral to ability to enjoy sexual relations in marriage.

One of the most salient take-home messages gleaned from the experience of the book’s contributors, and to which I can attest based on years of clinical experience working with Orthodox individuals, is this: framing the laws of yichud and shmirat negiah as providing sexually protective boundaries is potentially harmful. Without an appreciation of sexual agency, autonomy, and consent, a woman who decides to engage in physical touch, as many women will, may not feel sufficiently entitled to boundaries such as ‘this doesn’t actually feel good to me, please stop” or even “this feels good, but I am not ready to go this far.’ The opposite of “shomer” is not “hefker.”

The themes, the content, the pain, and the confusion of juggling the dissonant parts of the sexual self, innocence and guilt, ignorance and curiosity, are laid bare for the reader with content and language familiar to me from my therapy room.

In fact, in Professor Brill’s interview, he notes, “I was deeply struck by the tension of those pieces that were healthy and moving forward and those that were confessions of unresolved trauma and pain.”To this, editor Sarah Ricklan responds thoughtfully, “Some of the writers have emerged from their struggles stronger or at least wiser…. But on the flip side, many of the pieces express a devastating amount of pain — pain that is not fully resolved even if, in some cases, less acute.” This honest response appears to recognize the impact of exposing such deeply private and vulnerable thoughts, feelings and experiences. Some writers may have achieved closure with their entries, but others may have just begun to open painful wounds.

This is the most compelling reason that mental health professionals, and in particular sexual health professionals, should read these narratives. This book provides first-person accounts of the extent to which the lack of sex-positive sexuality education and sexually shaming messages can affect healthy sexual development, positive self-image, and sexual functioning.  These are messages about which I have been writing for years.  In fact, I suggested in a rather glib but popular blog post published in May 2014, entitled Ten Tips for Raising Sexually Healthy Orthodox Daughters,  that while modesty in dress and behavior are legitimate values, they should not be taught in ways that shame, blame, objectify, or instill fear regarding male lust.  I suggested ways to promote the appreciation of sensual pleasure, facilitate a positive body image, talk directly about sex, genitalia, and menstruation, provide modeling for healthy sexuality and affection, and to encourage assertiveness. For example:Encourage your daughters to “tell me what you want, what you really, really want”: To enjoy sex, one needs to be able to say things like “this feels good” or “this is uncomfortable”. If girls do not learn the language of asking for or anticipating that their needs be met, they will have a hard time experiencing pleasure.

 I also discussed not relying on halachic boundaries alone in lieu of personal autonomy and consent. “Not being shomer” does not imply consent. Choosing to engage in physical touch still must involve enthusiastic consent and the entitlement to change one’s mind and to establish chosen boundaries. So too, the “harchakot” which refer to prohibited activity between a married couple during a woman’s menstruation until immersion, should not be framed as “protective”:However, you wish to explain the “harchakot” let’s not attribute them to the need to make boundaries. That makes the perceived force of touch as turning immediately to sexual intercourse into something scary and uncontrollable and can create anxiety in many young women, particularly as they return home from the mikvah.

But talking to girls and young women is not enough. In my follow-up blog post, Ten Tips for Raising Sexually Healthy Orthodox Sons, I related to the formation of healthy sexuality in boys and young men, also through their contact with young women. For example, “Don’t tell your son that by touching a girl, he is disrespecting her. This sends the message that a girl who engages in touch, with agency and mutual consent, is not deserving of respect. Rather, explain that if he doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, pushes her into doing things with which she is uncomfortable, or takes advantage of her simply for his own gratification, that is disrespectful.”

Monologues from the Makom highlight inherent conflicts between sexual and religious identity. I am acutely aware of these conflicts for women as well as men, at least in the demographic of people who end up in my office. Guilt-inducing messages about masturbation being tantamount to murder can create existential feelings of shame. (see my blog post The M word, an addendum to raising sexually healthy Orthodox sons). Messages that a wife who may not be in the mood for sex must agree to intercourse if otherwise the husband might spill seed attribute unfair responsibility to women and sabotage their personal autonomy and right to say no to sex. (See my post “I am his vessel”: Influence of male ejaculatory restrictions on women’s sexual autonomy in Orthodox Jewish marriages.) Teaching modesty as a way to protect boys from their own animalistic urges creates fear of male lust (not to mention sabotages young men’s belief in their own ability to self-regulate). Comparing a woman to a tomato that no one wants after it has been touched devalues women and creates feelings of objectification. Monologues from the Makom is a positive step in raising awareness and moving towards change, as well as breaking stigmas and taboos regarding sexuality and Judaism.

I am also attempting to raise awareness through the Intimate Judaism podcast, which I co-host with Rabbi Scott Kahn. The podcast addresses intimacy and healthy sexuality in the context of Jewish family life, navigating topics such as shmirat negia, masturbation, Taharat Hamishpacha, gender identity and sexual orientation, infidelity, pornography, and sexuality throughout the lifecycle.  More discussions, books, podcasts, and sex-education initiatives that promote healthy sexual development within a Jewish values-based perspective are necessary and welcome.

Interview with Clémence Boulouque Another Modernity: Elia Benamozegh’s Jewish Universalism

Italian Jewish culture was unique for its openness to the broader society and its distinctly Italian character. They lived with a deep integration into Italian life including both low and high cultures. Prof. Cecil Roth termed it assimilation, and most will call it acculturation. The historian David Malkiel captured the hybridity well in academic language when he described Italian Jewish life as “heterocultural, exemplifying the dialectical character of the Jewish -Christian cultural encounter, in which the Jews assiduously cultivated their own tradition as they intensively and fruitfully engaged the culture of the surrounding majority.” This openness led Rabbi Abraham Berliner to teach a course at Hildesheimer’s Berlin Rabbinical Seminary on Italian Jewry as a role model for modern observant Jews.

One of the 19th centuries shining stars of this approach was Rabbi Elia Benamozegh of Livorno (1823-1900) whose many writings show a different form of Jewish modernity than that of the German Enlightenment. Benamozegh was an Italian Sephardic Orthodox rabbi, highly respected in his day as one of Italy’s most eminent Jewish scholars. He served for half a century as rabbi of the important Jewish community of Livorno. Rabbi Dr. Jose Faur wanted to claim Benamozegh as a paradigm the Italian Sephardic approach of a Sephardi modernity, an alternate modernity consisting of a rabbinic humanism combining Judaism with the best of culture. But, as Berliner noted Benamozegh was born under an unlucky star, having less success than he deserved.

To help the reputation of Benamozegh, we have a new book by Clémence Boulouque Another Modernity: Elia Benamozegh’s Jewish Universalism (Stanford University Press, 2020).  Boulouque is the Carl and Bernice Witten Assistant Professor in Jewish and Israel studies at Columbia University. More interesting, is that she had a first career as a journalist, literary critique and TV producer in France. Hence, her course listings include religion and film as well as religion and the arts. Boulouque is a graduate of the Institute of Political Sciences in Paris, she holds a B.A. in art history and a post M.A. degree in comparative literature, and she was a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University in the master’s program of the School of International Affairs with a concentration on the Middle East. She received her PhD in Jewish Studies and History from New York University in 2014.

Another Modernity is a rich study of the life and thought of Elia Benamozegh, specifically focusing on situating Benamozegh as a modern and specifically as an alternate approach to modernity than the Ashkenazi paths of Germany or Russia. Much of the trajectory and organization of the book is from her comparison and contrast of Benamozegh to others as a means of showing this alternate modernity. Part of the point is to show that a Moroccan born Kabbalist has what to say to European modernists.  Boulouque situates Benamozegh in the modernism of the port Jews of Livorno, hence it is not just any Sephardic modernist or any Italian Jew but a specific kind, a port Jew who lived in a more open and flexible way than Jews in Italian ghettos.

Benamozegh was a publisher, communal rabbi, seminary professor, and author of many works including a commentary on targum, two  defenses of kabbalah, a commentary of Psalms, more than one introduction to Judaism, a presentation and defense of the oral law, and a presentation of the metaphysics of Judaism. These works are more traditional, less universal, and tend to attract the attention of Israeli scholars who want to downplay his universalism.  Benamozaeh presented Judaism as the religion of the future, a polyphonic capacious Judaism, which he calls Hebraism, that includes the full range of Jewish works including kabbalah.

His Hebrew work that attracts the most attention is his Em la-Mikra commentary on the Pentateuch,. The former was a unique commentary incorporating the archeology, comparative religion, study of mythology, and philology of the early 19th century.  Nevertheless, this unique work has yet to be fully studied for its exegesis. No other rabbinic work has turned to comparative religion, rather than history. Benamozegh see parallels between the Biblical stories and the narratives of other religions. For example, in  his  commentary  on  Genesis  23:6    he  compares  Joseph  to  the  Egyptian God Serapis

What people usually do discuss is that this work was banned by the Iraqi rabbinate who could not accept his modernism. Yaron Harel, a historian of Iraqi and Syrian Jewry, has shown that the Aleppo rabbis banned it because of the worries about rise of Reforming tendencies in those countries. (It is an urban legend that Sephardic Jews did not have reforming movements.) He also wrote Ya’aneh be-Esh a rejection of the practice of Italian Jews cremation (see here where this blog discussed it.)

Benamozegh is most famous in the wider world for his French works placing him in the orbit of French Jewish thought, (which we discussed here in an interview with Sarah Hammerschlag). His two most famous French works, His comparison of Jewish and Christian morals, “Morale Juive et Morale Chrétienne.

And his “Israël et l’Humanité” (Israel and Humanity), discussion of universal religion and the roles of and relationships between Judaism, Christianity, 1914 (posthumous, edited by Aimé Pallière [fr]). The work is constructed of selections from a 1900 manuscript. Various claims are made about the relationship of the manuscript and the published edited book. But it is in many ways the first modern Jewish theology of other religions. For Benamozegh, polytheism, Christianity, and religion in general all hold sparks of the divine, which the other traditions fail to interpret properly. For  Benamozegh,  divine attributes  transcend a given religion, so that the same attribute can  be identified  with pagan  gods  or with  YHWH,  the  Jewish  god.  On the other hand, God is so great that Jew and polytheist perceives a different attribute of God; each religion or people perceives their own attributes pointing to the one God. Benamozegh imbibed heavily from Vico and the post-Schelling idealism of von Hartmann, Vincenzo Gioberti, and even Feuerbach.

Benamozegh remade Christianity to have an obscured Jewish heart, rather than the German Ashkenazim such as Geiger who had polemic against Christianity. He finds a place for world religions in God’s plan and places Judaism at the top of the religions the same way that the Neo-Hindu modernist Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan finds a place for all religions but place Advanta Vedanta Hinduism as the highest form of religion.

Clémence Boulouque’s book is a fine book returning Benamozegh to a place of honor in Jewish modernity and even to French Jewish modernity. From the interview one can see Bouluque’s depth and wide ranging knowledge of European culture. The book deserves a place next to Allesandro Guetta’s Philosophy and Kabbalah: Elijah Benamozegh and the Reconciliation of Western Thought and Esotericism (SUNY, 2009). However, we still lack a comprehensive volume that brings together the full range of Benamozegh’s life and thought.

  1. How does Benamozegh fit with your own Moroccan background or personal connection to an Italian-French-Morrocan Sephardi Jewry.

I first came across the work of Benamozegh after 9/11 as I was exploring the works of thinkers who strove to offer narratives of religious coexistence in times of crisis or divisiveness. Even if one may argue that his endeavors are an instance of noble failure, I still feel drawn to such efforts and to the lessons we can learn from them. I also soon realized that I had a personal connection to this Italian thinker of Moroccan descent: I was born in France but spent a significant amount of time in Italy as a child and it felt like my second country. On my father’s side, our family roots are in Morocco as well as Algeria and Turkey if we go further back in time. So, I do feel a sort of bond with Benamozegh, the languages he wrote in and the worlds he lived in.

2) How is Benamozegh a different form of modernity or as your title says Another Modernity?

 Benamozegh’s understanding of, and agenda for, modernity, is idiosyncratic. It was dictated by a sense of urgency and a call for religious unity:  in his view, both secularism and reactionary impulses within religious institutions were perilous for society as a whole.

While the most trodden path for thinkers of the Jewish enlightenment or advocates of Jewish assimilation was to prove the worthiness of Judaism through its rationalism, Benamozegh rejected the binaries of religion vs reason which he saw as insufficient categories and a key reason for the religious and political crisis of the Western world. In order to go beyond the dichotomies, Benamozegh sought to apply kabbalistic concepts, derived from the tradition but refashioned in a a modernist discourse, to contemporary debates about religion in his time. He turned these concepts such as the coincidence of opposites, into a stock of tools relevant to religious coexistence. By the same token, he emphasized the Jewish capacity to solve the quandaries of his time – and of humankind – by highlighting its humanitarian nature and its universalism through particularism, in a paradoxical synthesis that foreshadows Levinas philosophy.

Benamozegh’s analysis of the concept of modernity intuited – and rejected – what has become the classical framework by which tradition and modernity are distinct categories. Indeed, Benamozegh claimed that the harmonious dialogue between faith and science originated from within tradition understood as the locus of progressive revelation –a concept central in Kabbalah and from which progress could derive.

Jurgen Habermas in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity offers a relevant frame of analysis for his work when he discusses the imperative for modernity to find normativity, i.e.  the standards by which one evaluates permissible and desirable behaviors, within itself lest individuals will experience alienation; in fact Benamozegh framed religion as a place where normativity, is both internal (when it resembles natural law, and thus derived from one’s reason or mind),and external (determined by divine revelation)– something he found in Kabbalah and in the Noahide laws.

Finally, in his work as a publisher of Hebrew books, mostly geared toward the Middle-East and North Africa, Benamozegh promoted a vision of Oriental Judaism that decentered an Aufklärung/Europe-centered narrative of modernity, and certainly contributes to what Shmuel Eisenstadt called “multiple modernities”

All of his propositions and his self-assertive tone make Benamozegh the advocate of a multi-facetted modernity that was unique in his time and is still relevant today in times of renewed clash between science and faith, and divisive identity politics where particularistic agendas lead to divisiveness and seem to undermine the very possibility of unity or coexistence.

3) What was his Moroccan-Sephardi-Italian education? Did not Jose Faur come to similar conclusions about Benamozegh in his articles?

The importance of Benamozegh’s Italian (more specifically Livornese) and Moroccan roots and education, his intellectual and religious genealogies, cannot be overstated. The rabbi was born in the Tuscan port city of Livorno, Italy, to parents of Moroccan descent.

In many ways, Benamozegh is emblematic of the figure of the Port Jew proposed by David Sorkin and expanded by Lois Dubin; his openness toward other religions arguably stems from his Livornese Jewish milieu: it did shape Benamozegh’s understanding of unity through diversity. The tight commercial networks that connected Livorno and Morocco were paralleled by a circulation of knowledge and rabbinical personnel – of which Benamozegh’s uncle, the Kabbalist Yehuda Coriat – active in Gibraltar, Mogador and Livorno, serves as a perfect example.

Having lost his father at a young age, Benamozegh was raised by Coriat who took over the boy’s religious education in which Kabbalah, and the Zohar especially played a central role, as it did in traditional Moroccan households.

Aware of the discredit of Kabbalah in Western Europe, Benamozegh never ceased to defend it, calling it “our theosophy,” thus insisting on the scientific approach of the divine and not on magic or contemplative practices. He also rejected the notion of an antinomian nature of Kabbalah which he saw as a corruption of its true nature, for which he blamed the Hasidim, and pitted obscurantist practices in Eastern Europe against an Oriental Jewish Enlightenment. This is the sort of openness that he promoted in his activity as a printer where he strove to counter the discourse of contempt toward the Orient in his time.

Benamozegh stands for what the late Jose Faur described as a religious humanism,” in Sephardic thought, noting the influence of the 18th century Italian philosopher Vico on Benamozegh and other Sephardim. Vico’s emphasis on the need to understand religion neither as eternal truth nor in a literalist manner as very conservative communities would admonish, while resisting their wholesale rejection because of their irrationalism as the enlightenment would have it, struck a chord with these thinkers. Like Vico, whom he references, Benamozegh envisioned religious texts as instances of humanity’s confronting nature, creation, and the sublime- and as stages of what he called progressive revelation.

In addition to Vico’s influence, the role of his Italian identity is also noteworthy – he came of age at the time of the Risorgimento, and he saw the Italian struggle for independence as a way for Jews to show their Italian patriotism. During these years, he gave impassionate speeches where he articulated his key axiom:  the more Jewish, the more Italian, and vice versa – the more national, the more universal, which he foreshadows his later credo whereby the more particular, the more universal a religion can be . Yet, the Risorgimento also tells a story of shattered hopes for a more tolerant religion, which Benamozegh experienced first-hand in the Peninsula when the Papacy took an aggressive reactionary turn against which the rabbi fought throughout his life.

Benamozegh stood at many crossroads and this multi-layered Sephardi Italian identity deeply shaped his worldview.

4) What does he mean by the Hebraism?

Hebraism captures Benamozegh’s expansive understanding of Judaism in which both the Talmud and Kabbalah had a central role to play, alongside midrash, philosophy and poetry. The term could be a faulty translation of the Italian word for Judaism, “Ebraismo,” but when Benamozegh wrote in French, his use of Hébraïsme was deliberate. This is no accident that he turned to this expression which, alongside other alternative terms for Judaism such as “Israélitisme,” took hold in the 19th century in order to emphasize the moral aspect of Judaism, especially in its prophetic and ethical message, and to break away from a conception of Judaism that was viewed as narrowly legalistic or ethnocentric. His purpose in using the term was certainly to highlight the worthiness of Judaism.

But the term had an additional distinct resonance for Benamozegh who was versed in Christian theology: it is reminiscent of the fourth century Christian polemicist, Eusebius, who in his Evangelical Preparation called “Hebraism” the universal, acceptable, non-nationalistic aspect of Judaism. Evidently, the purpose of Eusebius was not to defend the Jews but to show that the Greeks had stolen from Hebraism aspects that could be universal and that these aspects were a preparation for the truth of the Christian scriptures—all of which the Jews, paradoxically and ironically, refused to acknowledge. This claim of Eusebius is crucial because this is exactly the point that Benamozegh wants to emphasize to his interlocutors: the religious core constituted by Judaism, which was picked up by later religions and somehow distorted along the way by Christianity. Religious differences come from a misrepresentation that needs to be addressed and this is this core that humanity should return to – or at least be aware of. Benamozegh’s use of Hebraism showcased a typical strategy of his: he reappropriating Christian terms or concepts and using them in a Jewish key.

5) What is the importance of the layers of human voices that make traditional Judaism more universal than Reform Judaism?

Benamozegh repeatedly emphasized the importance of deliberation within the Talmudic tradition and he even saw these deliberations as foreshadowing Kant’s concept of practical reason – which is one of the tenets of universalism. Because the Reform movement severed ties with the Talmud, it divested itself of the layers of tradition, and of richness of minority opinions that were kept for the benefit of future generations. Benamozegh also compared Reform Judaism to Karaism – the Jewish movement that originated in Baghdad in the eight century, grounded its observance in the Pentateuch alone, in a stern way – and  he claimed that such a movement could only lack unity and carry the danger of individualism since true pluralism could only be found in the polyphony of deliberation.

Additionally, in his Kabbalistic references, Benamozegh rekindled the notion of encrypted layers of meaning so central to medieval Jewish thought and used it in a modernist key by addressing multiple readerships- Jews and non-Jews- on their own terms: he thus turned his own writings into a multilingual, multilayered, polyphonic body of work.

6) How does he make the Noahite laws into a universal religion?  

The Noahide laws – the seven edicts that bear on all of humankind and offer salvation for all – play a major role in Benamozegh’s system; he viewed them as evidence of Judaism’s true universalism : “If Judaism had been only a purely national religion, it could not have given birth to two religions with truly universal aspirations,”  he wrote. This universalism is superior to that of Christianity’s whose salvation is predicated on the acceptance of the messiahship of Jesus.

Unlike Mendelssohn who identified the Noahide laws as natural law, Benamozegh insisted on the fact that they should be accepted as an aspect of the monotheistic revelation. Noahism is thus a continuum between reason and revelation, autonomy and heteronomy, it quietly offers a middle way and caters to the need for metaphysics that, Benamozegh claimed, constitutes a defining feature of humanity and should not be taken away by modernity. Thus spreading the teachings of the Noahide laws in an effort to foster religious unity across nations was paramount to him.

Benamozegh set out to demonstrate that God’s law ought to be immutable and to establish that the Mosaic laws did not supersede Noahism, the previous code, but complemented it- and Christianity, as an expression of Noahism, should be returned to his root in order to enable religious coexistence.

Another crucial aspect is that the Noahide laws made Judaism immune to one of his key criticisms of Christianity which led to the theology of supersession—the Christian theological concept according to which Jesus’ New Covenant superseded the old one, meant exclusively for the Jews. The Jewish-non-Jewish binary was thus softened: there were two modalities of a covenant – a covenantal pluralism.   

7) According to Benamozegh, how do Judaism and Christianity compare?

According to Benamozegh, it is Judaism and not Christianity that should be understood as being the true universal religion and the seed for that religious unit because it contains the seeds of all other religions. A metaphor of choice is that of the sun and the rays which Rosenzweig also used.

While he never ceased to acknowledge the beauty and the role of Christianity, the tone of some of his writings could be occasionally scathing. For instance, in Jewish and Christian Ethics, he lamented that Christianity prided itself on its ethical teachings when they derived them from Judaism, and rhetorical questions such as “Is there no exaggeration in the praise Christianity lavishes upon itself?” abound. Additionally, Benamozegh endeavored to demonstrate the Jewish origin of the Christian dogma and more specifically the Kabbalistic origins of Christianity – he viewed the trinity as a misunderstanding of Kabbalistic concepts wrongfully disseminated by apostles who were not ready nor sophisticated enough to be initiated in the mysteries of Kabbalah.

In order for Christianity to reform itself, in a move urgently needed for the future of religion in general, it needed to return to its Noahic origins and acknowledge its deep connection to Judaism so that Christianity could properly embrace modernity, as deployed and defined anew by Benamozegh, instead of becoming a reactionary force likely to further alienate believers from religion and would result in deepening the social and moral crisis of his time.

8) What role does his thought play in that of Orthodox right-wing Zionists? Why do they say Pallière was not faithful to Benamozegh’s work? 

Benamozegh was eager to rewrite the narrative of inclusion and exclusion in Judaism and Christianity from an Orthodox perspective and the laws were a perfect tool, but in doing so, he turned a blind eye to the limitations of the Noahide laws, – and this is one of the key criticisms of scholars who shows how this renewed articulation of Jewish difference of the Noahide laws is pivotal in contemporary movements such as Lubavitch, but remains highly problematic. The inclusivity arguably hierarchical nature may indeed bespeak minimal universalism.

As Benamozegh hoped, Kabbalah has indeed become an instrument of political engagement—albeit sometimes at odds with what Benamozegh seemingly envisioned: its radical use among fringe groups of the settler movements in the West Bank testifies to limits or ambiguities in the inclusive interpretation of an ethnocentric tradition. The figure of Adam that he used in order to demonstrate the common origin of humanity appeared in Lurianic kabbalah and has been used by rightwing thinkers according to whom Adam does not stand for humankind but for Israel only – an aspect that Benamozegh silenced but that fueled the notion that his was in reality a sort of qualified universalism: the same system of ontological differences based on Kabbalah is present in Rav Kook’s complex universalistic worldview, which have inspired Israel’s religious far right.

Ethnocentric tensions also remain since it is incumbent on Israel to carry out this universalist mission, especially in messianic times. Some of his texts display a strong messianism in which the messianic times will usher in an era in which differences are subsumed into a return to unity and the original Jewish faith. So isn’t it misleading to talk about Benamozegh’s universalism?

This is what suggest the critiques leveled at Aimé Pallière who edited Benamozegh’s Israel and Humanity. Pallière, his Christian disciple (who wanted to convert but was dissuaded by Benamozegh who asked him to be an advocate of Noahism instead), was asked by Benamozegh’s son to take care of this edition, and he frequently consulted with a Livornese rabbi. The magnum opus, which appeared posthumously, based on a manuscript written directly in French has generated heated controversies over the Rabbi’s authentic legacy. Scholars have disagreed about the content of this 1900-page work, claiming it had been rewritten by Pallière who fabricated a universalism that was absent from the original – and that response also raises the question of how a non-Jew could be familiar with the Jewish tradition, and especially its esoteric/secret aspects. I do believe that Benamozegh’s universalism is not a construct and that its tensions are part of his theological and philosophical construct – a dynamism born out of frictions and the coincidence of opposites.

9) What is his idea of universal psyche? How does Kabbalah and myth fit in?

Benamozegh’s efforts to draw on nascent theories of the unconscious, which he also defined as a “confused perception of the wider field of shared consciousness,” were part of his broader undertaking: showing that “Hebraism,” to use his category, had anticipated scientific discoveries, and notably the science of the mind. In 1877, he closed his 250-page Theology (Teologia) with a credo where he affirmed that the unconscious predated its emergence in the 19th century:  “I believe that man does not have conscience of himself, that it is more than what he knows to be, and thus I believe that the philosophy of the unconscious which makes speak of itself so much, not only with Hartmann but before, has a lot of truth to it in that sense.” In 1897, three years before his death, Benamozegh wrote in a small volume entitled Dio (God): “I have long been at work on perfecting my theory of concentric consciousnesses that culminate in God, the consciousness of consciousnesses as the first protological principle of the universe, in the place of intelligence, will, etc… Now that the Unconscious is playing an increasingly important role, we may allow that it is the sense or the awareness of the greater field of shared consciousness; it has at least been proved that we do not have total consciousness of ourselves and that our consciousness has no insurmountable boundaries.”

Kabbalah mirrored the quandaries of the modern mind: just like the unconscious, it allowed for contradictory truths which Lacan defined as a key feature of the unconscious, and which explains his attraction for Benamozegh’s work. Additionally, Benamozegh highlighted the power of myth in Kabbalah with its figures such as Adam. These archetypes will later influence Jungian psychology, which Benamozegh foreshadowed by insisting on myth as a universal expression of the human psyche and as a language shared by humanity. Yet a significant distinction remains. In Benamozegh’s construct, the study of psyche and the unconscious are not the ultimate goal: they are primarily worth studying because they constitute a tool to explore the revelation of God himself in and as the human mind.

10) How does he allow foreign religious elements to play a role in Judaism?

Benamozegh argued that, in Kabbalah, the Jewish tradition had a hermeneutical device perfectly suited for bringing the different faiths together – for understanding otherness in general. He called it was a “connecting shape” (“forme mitoyenne”), which also meant the possibility for proximity but involved a risk of friction: “There can be no hostility where there is no contact.” Kabbalah, he claimed, had fallen in disfavor among Jews precisely due to its proximity with Christianity.

The central concept in Benamozegh’s theology of otherness is berur, choice, separation and elevation. In Luria’s cosmology, the world is the result of God’s contraction, his light pours into vessels which cracked as a result of its intensity and the sparks are trapped in the world. It is incumbent on human beings to reunite them with God and to elevate them, as part of the tikkun (reparation). Benamozegh transposed the concept from transcendent to immanent categories, and cosmological to intellectual categories, whereby berur becomes an act of discernment. In his understanding, one has to extract truth and merits from all traditions – just as God shaped his creation and this world from previous ones. As a result, religious pluralism is a form of imitatio dei, the highest ethical call for humans.

It is worth noting that this old kabbalistic motif, as it appears in sixteenth-century Lurianic sources, is arguably ethnocentric– as it is meant to shed the impurity of the non-Jews – and yet, Benamozegh reframed the concept so that it constitutes the locus of interfaith encounters and a cosmogonic basis for the Maimonidean ideal of accepting the truth from any source.

It is through the coincidence of opposites and the variations on the notion of elevation (illuy and berur) and clarification that Benamozegh was able to provide a new framework, serving as a hyphen between faiths and as a path defying the traditional divide between secular and sacred worldviews. The Kabbalistic concept of coincidence of opposites which first appeared in the 13th century writings of Azriel of Gerona  posits that, because the source of all things is one and divine, opposites should be emphasized and elevated and no one is better equipped for this task than the Kabbalists.

11) What is his idea of poligonismo? How does it relate to the religious unity of mankind?

Probably borrowing from the Italian Catholic thinker Gioberti who exerted a great influence over him, Benamozegh used this rare term “polygonism” (which doesn’t even have an entry in the dictionary!) to describe the multiple pathways of the divine plan toward unity. “Alongside polyglottism, which deals with the extrinsic shape, we will place polygonism too, which regards, so to speak, the intrinsic form, the religious idea, whether it addresses one intelligence or the other, in order to make itself accessible.”

The term means that only God is complete and humanity can only have access to fragments of truth, and in multiple languages. Benamozegh often described the importance of multilingualism as a part of revelation – in seventy languages and seventy nations of the globe – so that each could be addressed in their own terms, according to their own capacity. Indeed, in his view, each language is a repository of culture (and here Benamozegh is indebted to Vico’s philosophy) and each worldview is couched in a specific language, which acquires a metaphysical nature. Polyglottism and polygonism are fragments of truths and a reflection of the multiple ways to access God.

12) How does he find polytheism as serving God?

 Benamozegh claimed that “The notion of false gods is not the language of the Bible.” and pushed against such a translation, asserting that the accurate rendition would be “unworthy of worship” and not “false, based on his reading of the book of Hosea 1:9.  And even such deities provide an opportunity to refine people’s religion and make it worthy of worship as it leads to a greater understanding of the divine.

An interesting way to drive this point home is the unexpected treatment of Egypt. Traditionally, Egypt is the evil place of the “mixed multitude,” the “erev rav” (see Exodus 12:38) that left with the Hebrews, was the cause for worshipping the golden calf, and whose influence was cited by the rabbis at every negative juncture of Jewish history. Yet, Benamozegh claims: It is just a mistaken understanding of the role played by the parts in the whole: “Kabbalism regards the long sojourn of the Hebrews in Egypt as a way used by the Divine Providence to restore to the religion of Israel- to incorporate in it through a selective process – all that was good and true in Egyptian religion.” Here, a pivotal concept is the “iron crucible,” an alchemical metaphor for the sojourn in Egypt, where identities mixed and where the Jewish religion was refined through its contact with paganism, and is thus viewed as positive theological experiment.

13) What is his concept of a relational dependence of other religions with Judaism?

Benamozegh articulated a notion of interdependence that should replace tolerance and he uses a few operative concepts in order to promote his views and compares religions to a family or an organism. For instance, if religions are equated with the children in a family, Judaism would thus be the priestly religion because it is the oldest monotheism and traditionally the eldest child in a family was dedicated to priesthood: he thus equates Judaism with priesthood (thus also tacitly drawing on the  theological notion of a nation of priests, found priestly mission to the nations) but he hasten to add: “ what greater absurdity by the way than priests without laity?”. He couched these views on interdependence in a scientific language and described society as a large organism:   mutually interdependent parts that maintain various vital processes. He took that organic metaphor to describe “humanity or the world of nations,” or “the civil world of the nations”= whereby every nation has a role, with Israel – the eldest – being the priestly one, in a well-known trope of mission to the world. One can grasp one of the tensions in  Benamozegh’s system here; even if this construct conveys a sense of hierarchy it also expresses a singular born out of a plural, a universalism born out of differences and an interdependence, which is more lasting than toleration.

Benamozegh’s contribution is to demonstrate in Judaism the relation between particularism and universalism-  “a particularism that conditions universality,” in the words Levinas’ who articulated the same thought in his essay “A religion for adults.” Although Levinas would have likely objected to the metaphors of organs and body parts since these seem very functionalist and have articulated this interconnection based on the responsibility toward the other, irreducible to rationality or vitalism (which ewere especially fraught references in the wake of Nazism), but what Benamozegh sought to convey, steeped as he was in a language of positivism, was that the interconnectedness, and the indispensable nature of all nations and facets of humanity.

14)   What were the biggest insights from looking at the full manuscript of Benamozegh, which removed passages taught the most?

Until now, however, no close reading and comparison of Benamozegh’s manuscript to the one published by Pallière in 1914 had been done. Such a comparison constitutes a critical part of my book as I gained access to the 1900-page text, certainly not the first draft but an intermediary stage, which resides in the archive of the Jewish community in Livorno.

The close reading and the analysis of the text has enabled me to shed new light on Benamozegh’s thought and probe the deep influence of the Christian thinker Gioberti. While his ideas, and his faulty French based on Italian , the urge to compress many ideas into one sentence, the subsequent run-on sentences, called for extensive edits, Pallière did not “Christianize” the texts. Many of the mentions of Jewish universalism were actually  present early on in Benamozegh’s earlier work, and especially in his 1885 introduction to this opus magnum in which he claimed that the notion of common humanity made Judaism all the more relevant for his time because it never ceased to talk to “humanity about humanity.”

15) Why was his Biblical commentary put in Herem?

Benamozegh’s five volumes commentary came out between 1862 and 1865: it included non-Jewish material as well  thinkers such as Spinoza and Voltaire and comparisons between Greek and rabbinical sources.

A few years later, the Aleppo rabbis put the book in herem, thus condemning it to be banned and burned. The rationale for this very rare act of censorship was twofold – first, Benamozegh’s claim that the use of external (non-Jewish) texts could advance knowledge of the Torah and second, that comparisons between the Torah and pagan mythologies – and Christian scriptures – were acceptable.  

The measure appears all the harsher given that the commentary accompanied the text of the Torah itself, and thus burning the book meant burning the sacred text, which is proscribed unless the commentary is written by a heretic  (See Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah)

Yaron Harel has shed light on this internal dynamic in the Aleppo community that led to this episode: in spite of Benamzoegh’s reputation for orthodoxy, the rabbis felt compelled to reject his “Westernized” treatment of the Bible to better combat a budding reform community in their midst. Following this humiliating episode Benamozegh wrote a long defense in the newspaper Ha Levanon where he claimed to be only following in the Jewish tradition but  – except for a long responsum on cremation  (which he opposed because it is against Orthodox Judaism but nevertheless stressed that, should this act be performed, it was a duty to bury the ashes)- he never wrote in Hebrew again, and turned to Italian and French in an effort to expand his readership and offer a vibrant defense of Judaism geared toward Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike.