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10 Years of the Blog

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

 


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Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen- Be, Become, Bless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) What is spirituality?

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

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

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

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

2)  How did you turn to spirituality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) What is the distinction between doing and being?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6) How is your approach about accepting the other?

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

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

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

7) What is your connection of OM and shalom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11) How can we compare Moses and Buddha?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

divine and demonic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nathaniel berman

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) Why is the demonic important in the Zohar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My analysis proceeds on two axes: rhetoric and ontology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7) Where do you differ from Isaiah Tishby?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rashi book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Prof Eric Lawee about his new book on Rashi

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) What percentage of the text is probably Rashi?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8) Was there dissent or resistance to Rashi?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rabbi and the Buddhist Monk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Interview with Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wisdom – Theistic Piety

The most mild usage is that of intellectual wisdom.

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

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

Learning from the Other

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

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

Integration

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

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

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

Kumbh Mela2

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

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

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

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

  1. When did you fascination with Hinduism start?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Why are Israelis attracted to ashram life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

samegod

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

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

Comparisons

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

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

Four Jewish Opinions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essentialism

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

From Rejection to Acceptance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi-Dr.-Alon-Goshen-Gottstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Meiri helpful to understand Hinduism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Who defines Hinduism for these discussions?

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

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

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

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

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

Eitan Fishbane on The Art of Mystical Narrative: A Poetics of the Zohar

For admirers of the Zohar, the work is a delight to study. What is the attraction of this work?  It opens the reader into a Judaism of great possibilities- possibilities of mysticism, of visions, of the afterlife, of prayer, and of creatively reworked midrashim. Much of the joy of reading comes from following the band of mystics as they wander the countryside encountering supernal beings and revealing a hidden reality. Many have noted in passing the medieval courtly background to these stories- the maiden in the tower, the heroic suitor, spending a night in a secluded castle, or an unexpected teller of tales-, which provides vivid color and richness to the drama. We now have to thank Eitan Fishbane for writing a guide to reading the Zohar as medieval literature, as a mystical narrative.

Eitan Fishbane is associate professor of Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). His earlier book As Light Before Dawn: The Inner World of a Medieval Kabbalist (Stanford University Press, 2009 ) explored the mystical thought of Isaac ben Samuel of Akko especially prayer, meditative concentration, mental intention and chains of authority. His recent book, The Art of Mystical Narrative: A Poetics of the Zohar (Oxford University Press, 2018) is a masterpiece of opening up the Zohar to literary analysis including characterization, dramatic speech, structural framing.

fishbane- book

The 2017-2018 academic year was a bumper crop for Zohar studies producing ten serious studies on the Zohar, each one making a significant innovative contribution. Future studies of the Zohar will never be the same and the field will now start from a very different place than before. The works are so extensive that I have still not gone through this new shelf of books; actually not a shelf but a guilt inducing pile on my floor. Among the recent books are  Melila Hellner-Eshed’s Seekers of the Face : the Secrets of the Idra-Rabba (The Great Assembly) of the Zohar [Hebrew] (2017), Ronit Meroz’s The Spiritual Biography of Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai–An Analysis of the Zohar’s Textual Components [Hebrew] (2018), Oded Yisraeli, Temple Portals: Studies in Aggadah and Midrash in the Zohar [English edition], and Yonatan Benarroch’s Sava and Yanuka : God, the Son, and the Messiah in Zoharic Narratives [Hebrew] (2018). (For my 2016 interviews with Joel Hecker and Daniel C. Matt on translating the Pritzker edition of the Zohar, see here and here.)

Nevertheless, Fishbane’s study stands out for the moving of the study of the Zohar from the provincial realm of Jewish thought to the wider realm of medieval literature and Andalusian history. The book is innovative for letting us see what we always knew, that the Zohar tells a good story. Fishbane contextualizes the Zohar in its Castilian  milieu showing influence and parallel with Jewish and non-Jewish works such as Yehudah Al-Harizi’s Takhkemoni, Yitzhak Ibn Sahulah’s Meshal Kadmonim , Alfanso X of Castille’s sponsoring of the collection Cantigas de Santa Maria and Juan Ruiz’s Libro se Buen Amor.

Treating the Zohar as literature was already implicit in Peter Cole’s amazing anthology The Poetry of Kabbalah (Yale University Press, 2014) and in David Stern & Mark Jay Minsky’s Rabbinic Fantasies (1990). However, Fishbane sets it forth as a sustained study of literary criticism.

The book’s topics include: Zohar as a classical work, the role of performance and theatricality in the Zohar, as well as gestures and drama. This drama relies on a magic realism of sheltering trees, astounding cave discoveries, spirit birds, and magical herbs. In each of these, Fishbane analyses structural flow, rhetorical devices, and time sequence. He also used the method of narrative ethics to explain the role of ethics in the Zohar in which the ethic comes from the narrative and not from Kabbalistic symbolism. The book’s chapters have a clear, and sometimes heavy, didactic element in which he explains the literary term and quotes from literary critics who define the term before applying the terms to the Zohar.

The highlight of the book are the last two chapters correlating the poetics of the Zohar with both Jewish and Christian Spanish literature. He relied on this context earlier in the book when he compares the theatricality of the Zohar to the symbolic importance of gestures in medieval Christian liturgical drama and when he discussed the symbolism of the rose. I do however wonder whether the last chapters should have been placed in the beginning. First, give me the Spanish context and then show how each stylistic trait fits into this context, rather than detailing many stylistic traits and then surprising the reader by showing that is a medieval Spanish style.

Fishbane’s book is limited to the section of the Zohar that scholars colloquially called “guf haZohar.” This section is the product of a few circles of kabbalists working over a period of several decades in the late thirteenth century, possibly as a Castilian fellowship. His analysis does not include the over thirty other parts of the Zoharic corpus including the heihhalot, matnitin, Tikkune Zohar, Sitrei Otiot, or Idra. Fishbane says that he hopes to treat some of these other sections in a possible sequel.

The book deserves big congratulations. It is a well-done important book, a significant piece of scholarship, a game changer in Zohar studies. The book will change the manner in which Zohar will be taught in American universities and in adult education classes. I enjoyed reading it, so will your students. Woe to those who think this book is a mere monograph, happy are those who seen the great value in this book.

  1. Why do you like the Zohar? 

I find the Zohar to be endlessly fascinating, intellectually exciting, aesthetically and spiritually alluring. Like so many others, I have been drawn to this magnetic text since the earliest days of my studies and continue to return to it as a great work that reflects the summit of Jewish spiritual creativity and theological imagination.

There is much depth and beauty in these philosophical texts, but the Zohar speaks to the spiritual and theological yearnings of the poetic soul. Just as those of a certain artistic and spiritual bent turn to poetry instead of the more analytic nature of prose, so too does the Zohar beat with the pulse of spiritual artistry, brushing against the borders of the ineffable and the sublime in religious thought and experience.

2) Where are you differing from prior scholarship on the Zohar as literature?

This book is the first full-scale attempt to study the Zohar through methodologies inspired by literary and aesthetic criticism, notable — in part — as an effort to elucidate the text as a work of literary art. I think it is fair to say that no one has attempted or accomplished this prior to The Art of Mystical Narrative.

To be sure, there have been article-length efforts in this direction, and the work of Yehudah Liebes certainly pioneered the emphasis upon the crucial importance of the story of R. Shimon and his circle as the heart of the Zohar.

However, there is a great difference between work that explores the zoharic story and doing for the Zohar what Alter and Sternberg did for the Hebrew Bible, or what Kugel, Stern, Rubenstein (or Hasan-Rokem, Levinson, and Wimpfheimer) did for rabbinic literature.  I developed a multifaceted literary studies methodology for reading the Zohar and this, I suggest, is the innovative contribution of my work.

3) How does the Zohar compare to the Hebrew literature of its time?

One of the key new contributions of the book is my attempt to locate zoharic narrative within the broader landscape of medieval Iberian fiction and poetry, both Jewish and Christian. I specifically focus on the structural form of the frame-tale as a literary device in this time and place.

Isaac Ibn Sahula (b. 1244) wrote two separate works which embody the twin literary concerns of the Zohar, prose narrative and kabbalah. The first was his rhymed prose narrative, entitled Meshal ha-Kadmoni, and the other an explicitly kabbalistic commentary on the Song of Songs. But other key Jewish works compared in the book that seem similar to the Zohar include the Tahkemoni of Yehudah Al-Harizi and the Sefer Sha’ashuim of Joseph Ibn Zabara.

Though consideration of various thematic and structural criteria, I show how our understanding of the Zohar is enriched by considering it as a literary work that employs techniques and conventions of related contemporary non-mystical texts.

4) How does the Zohar compare to the general literature of its time?

Two non-Jewish parallels that I consider as influences on the Zohar are the Libro de Buen Amor (The Book of Good Love) of Juan Ruiz, and the Cantigas de Santa Maria of King Alfonso X El Sabio. Based on my literary analysis of select passages and parallels in the Zohar, I argue that the Zohar appears to have absorbed key features that were part of the larger folkloric and textual culture of this time and place.

One striking example is the source of the famous zoharic advocating against accepting the pure literalism of the Torah (where the wise are advised to look beneath the garments of Torah, and even within her body to the mystical soul of Torah). The source is the the prologue of Juan Ruiz to the Libro de Buen Amor, wherein the author exhorts his reader not to think that his book, which tells tales of seemingly crude lust and debauchery is truly only about the literal kind of lust that it appears to be. In truth the book is meant to teach figuratively about the mystery of divine love.

Ruiz puts it in the following way (The Art of Mystical Narrative, pp. 400-401):

Do not think that this is a book of foolish nonsense (Non cuidedes que es libro de necio devaneo), and do not take as a joke anything that I recite in it, for, just as good money can be stowed in a worthless purse, so in an ugly-looking book lies wisdom that is not uncomely (assí en feo libro yaze saber non feo).

The fennel seed, on the outside blacker than a cooking pot, is very white inside, whiter than ermine; white meal lies within black covering (blanca farina yaze so negra cobertera); sweet white sugar lies inside the humble sugarcane.

Under the thorn lies the rose (So la espina yaze la rosa), a noble flower; in ugly letters lies the wisdom of a great teacher (en fea letra yaze saber de grand dotor)…, under a bad cloak lies good love (assí so mal tabardo yaze el buen amor).

Because the beginning and root of all good is the Holy Virgin Mary, therefore I, Juan Ruiz, Archpriest of Hita, first of all composed a song about her seven Joys…” (Willis, ed., Juan Ruiz, Libro de Buen Amor, pp. 14–15)

In Chapter 6 (The Art of Mystical Narrative, p. 403), I compare these remarks with the much discussed zoharic passage about literalism and mystical meaning in interpreting the Torah. These include lines such as:

“Those fools, when they see someone in a good-looking garment, look no further”;

“Fools of the world look only at that garment, the story of Torah”; and

“Whoever thinks that the garment is the real Torah and not something else, may his spirit expire! He will have no share in the world that is coming!” (Zohar 3:152a)

5) What is the role of dramatization in the Zohar?

One of my core arguments in the book is that the stories of the Zohar are a kind of dramatic literature. In the process of speaking mystical secrets and encountering one another, the characters enact a near-theatrical mode of expression, performing their deep ambivalence and excitement over the disclosure of hidden matters.

The Zohar depicts performative fictional scenes as the context in which the homiletical mysticism is delivered and received. This dramatic element should be seen in the larger context of medieval frame-narratives—a convention of the intersecting literary worlds into which the Zohar was born.

6) What is the role of gestures?

A key aspect of this performative literature is the varied use of physical gestures to express emotion as well as to mark the rhythm and boundaries of different scenes and moments in the narrative. Such gestures include weeping, prostration, kissing, the raising and laying on of hands, sitting, standing, and walking.

Moshe Barasch studied “the language of gesture” among medieval visual artists— particularly in the paintings of the late thirteenth- and early fourteenth- century Italian master Giotto di Bondone (1266/7–1337). Barasch considered the ways in which medieval painters and sculptors utilized similar types of dramatic gesture that were employed in the Christian mystery plays of the period: forms of physical movement that often had to substitute for the spoken word, given that the majority of audience members would view the performance from a significant distance and without a set stage. This gave rise to a cluster of well-established, even stereotypical, gestures that could be interpreted by the audience from afar. Barasch develops the argument that Giotto is representative of dominant sociocultural views, around the year 1300, regarding the potent meaning of gestures in several intersecting realms of social relations, ritual performance, and literary imagination.

Perhaps most applicable to our present inquiry into the zoharic use of gesture, however, is Barasch’s observation— filtered somewhat through later Renaissance characterizations of Giotto’s work—that what “is striking about Giotto’s gestures is not only the aesthetic quality of variety, but their ability to show the figure’s inner life.”

Gestures in the Zohar frequently signify and dramatize interior emotional states; the authors of the Zohar utilize physical expression in their characters to communicate or reveal some inner thought or feeling that the narrators typically will not articulate in an omniscient fashion.” (86) And consider the following representative passage from the Zohar itself:

“R. Elazar came forth, placed his head between the knees of his father and told the story. R. Shimon became afraid and wept. R. Shimon wept and said: “From what I have heard, I too fear the Holy One blessed be He!” He raised his hands to his head and exclaimed: “How is it that you have merited to see R. Hamnuna Sava, Light of the Torah, face to face, and yet I have not merited it!” He fell on his face and saw [R. Hamnuna] uprooting mountains and lighting candles in the palace of the King Messiah.”(Zohar 1:7b)

7) How does soliloquy, embedded performance, and setting replace narration?

Like other literary dramatists the authors of the Zohar use the rhetorical device of dramatic monologue or soliloquy to convey the interiority of thought and emotion without inserting omniscient narration. More common than hearing a third-person narrator say, “character so-and-so felt or thought…,” a character will erupt in a monologue — much like a Shakespearean soliloquy uttered as audible interior thought — to communicate his own inner process and feeling.

The theatrics of disclosure, relations among the disciples, as well as the rhetoric of reverence for the master—all of these are realized by the narrator through a cluster of compositional techniques, each of which is effected through the use of dramatic monologue and dialogue. As the disciples encounter one another on their pedestrian journeys through the Galilean roads, and even more so, when they come before the master (R. Shimon) to receive the disclosure of kabbalistic wisdom, they exclaim about the overwhelming character of these secrets, the elevating and terrifying power involved in hearing their revelation.

Through the representation of dramatic speech, the zoharic narrators construct character intent; the modalities of monologue and dialogue serve as indirect methods for the authors to convey subtext and the interiority of emotion to the reader. (p57)

8) What is the role of encounters on the road?

Most of the Zohar’s narrative action takes place on the road of the characters’ journey through a fictionalized ancient Galilee in quest of mystical wisdom. Along this path, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his disciples will often encounter a person whom they hastily judge to be a simpleton and devoid of any mystical wisdom that they might receive. This expectation is generally turned on its head in a narrative process that I refer to as the poetics of recognition. This dramatic uncovering of true character locates the Zohar in the literary landscape of its time and place, where non-mystical storytellers also frequently utilize this literary motif.

As we see in the following passage from the Zohar:

“R. Hiyya and R. Yosi were walking in the desert. . . . After a while, they saw a man who was approaching with a load in front of him. R. Hiyya said: “Let’s walk on. Perhaps this man is a Gentile or an ignoramus, and it is forbidden to join with him on the way.” R. Yosi said: “Let’s sit here and see if perhaps he is a great man.”

After a while he passed before them and said: “In roughness of crossing, the cluster of this companionship is essential!9 I know another way—let’s turn away from this one. I must tell you so that I am not guilty before you, so that I do not violate what is written (Lev. 19:14): Before the blind you shall not place a stumbling block. For you are like blind men on the road, and you shouldn’t endanger your lives.” R. Yosi said: “Blessed is the Compassionate One that we waited here!” (Zohar 2:49a–49b)

In this instance, R. Hiyya’s initial skepticism is proven to be hasty and inaccurate, for the mysterious stranger turns out to be a wise man who is also able to save the mystical companions from danger on the road. As the text continues in the voice of R. Yosi:

“Didn’t I tell you that he is a great man?”

He opened and said (Prov. 3:13): “Happy is the person who finds wisdom, the person who attains understanding. Happy is the person who finds wisdom—like me, who found you and came to know a word of wisdom from you.

The person who attains understanding— like me, who waited for you, to join with you. This is the person for whom the Holy One blessed be He prepares, on the road, the face of Shekhinah. About this it is written (Prov. 4:18): The path of the righteous is like gleaming light, shining ever brighter until full day.”

9) What is the role of the rose in the Zohar? How does that compare to medieval literature?

The rose in the Zohar typically symbolizes Shekhinah, the tenth of the divine sefirot. In the Zohar characters encounter roses in their travels, leading to theological reflections. In the book, I discuss evocative comparative correlations to the symbolism of the rose in broader medieval literature, including in the class work, Roman de la Rose. One textual case from the Zohar is particularly instructive (Art of Mystical Narrative, p. 173):

He who wanders among the roses. (Song 2:!6) Just as this rose is red and its waters are white, so too does the Holy One blessed be He conduct His world from the Attribute of Judgment to the Attribute of Compassion. And it is written (Is. 1:18): If your sins are like crimson, they can turn white as snow.

Abba was walking along the road, and with him was R. Yizḥaq. As they were walking, they happened upon some roses. Abba took one in his hands and walked on. R. Yosi met them, and said: “Surely Shekhinah is here, and I see that what is in R. Abba’s hands [is there] to teach great wisdom. For I know that R. Abba did not take this [rose] but for to show wisdom.” Abba said: “Sit, my son. Sit.” They sat. R. Abba inhaled the smell from that rose and said: “Surely the world’s existence depends upon scent! For we have seen that the soul’s existence [also] depends upon scent. And this [is the reason for the inhalation of the aroma of ] the myrtle [leaves] at the departure of Shabbat.”

He opened and said (Song 2:16): “My beloved is mine, and I am his—he who wanders among the roses. Who caused it to be that I am my beloved’s and that my beloved is mine? It is because He conducts His world through roses.

Just as the rose has a scent—it is red, and when it is distilled it turns to white, and still its scent never alters—so too does the Holy One blessed be He conduct His world in this way. For was this not the case, the sinner could not endure. The sinner is called ‘red,’ as it is said (Is. 1:18): If your sins are like crimson, they can turn white as snow.” (Zohar 2:20a)

As I note in my analysis of this passage:

The characters who are presented in this passage serve to dramatize the process of metaphysical discovery within the structures and forms of the physical realm—through their interaction and speech they theatricalize the hermeneutical claims made in a homiletical voice on either side of the narrative piece. In this respect, the con- tents of the fiction and the exegesis are clearly integrated; R. Abba’s reflection on the cosmic meaning latent in the color and aroma of the rose fleshes out and clarifies the interpretive argument.

10) How is Zohar magical realism and personified nature?

Supernatural happenings in the world are represented as though they are perfectly normal and even realistic phenomena. At the very least, however, the authors of the Zohar believed that the world inhabited by R. Shimon and his disciples was an enchanted one — where, for example, a character wandering in the desert happens upon a gargantuan tree with a cave opening at its base. This opening reveals steps leading into a mysterious underworld overseen by a magical guardian, leading into a pathway of countless trees where souls fly on their way to the Garden of Eden.

The Zohar is indeed populated with such supernatural realia- magic, magic birds, especially eagles, spirit guides, magic herbs, creating an ambience of enchanted and mysterious spirituality and otherworldly sensation

Encounters with nature play a key role in the literary and mystical imagination of the zoharic authors. For the Zohar, the natural elements of the earthly realm refract higher mysteries about Divinity, and the wandering movement of the text is situated in the outdoor setting of the natural world.

For example, R. Shimon and his disciples are located beneath the shade of a tree on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and through a series of associations this mundane experience leads to rumination upon the supernal tree of life in the Divine Garden of Eden, to a sefirah represented by the royal pavilion (Apiryon) built by King Solomon from the cedars of Lebanon. Nature functions as a symbolic allusion to the supernatural; the physical points the mystic to the metaphysical.

11) What is the tension of road/cave or quests/stability?

The narratives of the Zohar are marked by the ongoing quest of the road, by the recurrent motif of mobility. This is interspersed with moments of pause and stillness, whether sitting in a field to pray or study, or entering a cave only to discover a hidden mystical manuscript therein.

In some cases, this newly discovered manuscript is imbued with heavenly magic and secrecy, erupting into fire and flying away from their hands upon reading it.

We also see several scenes where the zoharic characters stop for the night in a roadside inn — a phenomenon that was relatively widespread in late thirteenth century Spain, especially in light of recent royal edicts to provide such lodging to travelers. These nights spent at an inn also often prove to be times of mystical discovery in the depths of the night.

12)   If this is the Zohar, then why read Zohar instead of Lord of Rings, Harry Potter, or Game of Thrones?

Certainly, it is a unique literary world unto itself, which is not reducible to these later instances of fantastic storytelling. But it does share certain features with the magical classics you mention here, the creation of a paranormal universe in which characters are transported beyond the bounds of our normal expectations within natural law.

13)      How is forgiveness portrayed? How is it a form of narrative ethics?

The Zohar gives the theme of idealized forgiveness is given a prominent place. The authors of the Zohar tell the tale of a character who experiences miraculous divine intervention, saving his life, because of his high virtue in always forgiving others for any wrong they may have committed against him. The Zohar compares this character to the biblical persona of Joseph who was called a righteous man precisely because of his ability to forgive his brothers for the grievous wrong they committed against him. Through this exemplum narrative, the reader of the text is guided toward the virtue of radical empathy and love, modalities of artistic evocation that the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has shown to be the foundations of moral instruction. In the language of the Zohar (The Art of Mystical Narrative, pp. 287-290):

“Rabbi Abba was sitting at the gateway of the gate of Lod. He saw a man come and sit in a dugout in a mound of earth. He was weary from the road, so he sat and fell asleep there. Meanwhile, [Rabbi Abba] saw a snake that was moving toward [the man].

Out came a honey badger, oozing an excretion, and killed it. When the man awoke, he saw that snake dead before him. He stood up, just as that dugout collapsed into the depths below, and he was saved.

Rabbi Abba came forward to him and said: “Tell me what you do, for behold the Holy Blessed One has performed these two miracles for you! It wasn’t for nothing !” The man said to him: “All my days, no person in the world ever did me evil without my reconciling with him and forgiving him.

And if I could not reconcile with him, I would not climb into bed until I forgave him and all those who hurt me. All of my days I never cared about the evil that they did to me. Not only that, but from that day on, I strive to do good to them.”

Rabbi Abba wept and said: “The deeds of this one are even greater than those of Joseph! As for Joseph, they were surely his brothers, and he had to have compassion for them. But what this one has done is greater than Joseph! It is fitting that the Holy Blessed One performs miracle upon miracle for him!” (Zohar 1:201b)

Narrative ethics is a mode of discourse in which a moral ideal is portrayed through story, often serving to stir understanding and compassion in the reader, helping her to realize how she ought to behave. As Martha Nussbaum has argued, art holds the power to evoke such ethical guidance in a way that philosophical analysis cannot. Art may move us to regard our fellow human beings with love and empathy. The Zohar too partakes of this widespread genre, and it is through its storytelling that the mystics often convey their highest moral ideals — conceptions of value and virtue that are, for them anyway, inextricable from mystical theology.

14)      How is hospitality portrayed?

Hospitality is a revered virtue, dramatized in the Zohar through exemplary narratives and then textured with homilies of mystical-moral midrash. In one remarkable instance (The Art of Mystical Narrative, pp. 317-321), which is actually the source of our contemporary use of the term ushpizin (guests) for the sukkah, the Zohar tells the story of R. Hamnuna Sava who would invoke the presence of the divine sefirot into his sukkah.

Rav Hamnuna Sava, when he would enter the sukkah, he would rejoice and stand inside at the opening, and say: ‘Let us invite the Guests!’ He would set the table, stand on his feet, recite a blessing, and say: In sukkot you shall dwell, O seven days. Sit, exalted Guests, sit! Sit, Guests of faith, sit!

He would raise his hands in joy and say: ‘Happy is our portion, happy is the portion of Israel!’ For YHVH’s portion is His people, Jacob His own allotment (Deut. 32:9). Then he would sit.” (Zohar 3:103b)

The narrator adds, however, that it is imperative that one who invites these divine forces into his sukkah must give their portion of physical food to the actual human poor in his community, that he must provide a place for the hungry at his own sukkah table. The impoverished person here serves as the embodied form of divine presence, and the Zohar is clear that such charity and hospitality is necessary for the divine guests to remain in his sukkah.

For one who has a portion in the holy seed sits in the shade of faith to receive guests; to rejoice in this world and in the world that is coming. Nevertheless, he must bring joy to the poor. And what is the reason for this? Because the portion of those Guests whom he has invited belongs to the poor.

And he who sits in this shade of faith, inviting those supernal Guests, Guests of Faith, but doesn’t give [the poor] their portion, [the supernal Guests] all get up and leave him, saying (Prov. 23:6): Do not eat the bread of a stingy man, do not crave his delicacies.

It follows that the table he has set is his own, and not that of the Holy One blessed be He. About him it is written (Malachi 2:3): I will strew dung upon your faces, the dung of your festivals. Your festivals, and not My festivals. Woe to that person when those Guests of Faith get up from his table!” (Zohar 3:103b–104a)

 

Hipster Hasidic Pop-Art

Two years ago, I spoke at Van Leer Jerusalem Institute (VLJI) on contemporary spirituality about the use of pop-psych and contemporary non-Jewish spirituality in American Orthodox Jewish spirituality.  I presented a range from  Aryeh Kaplan’s use of Huxley to Abraham Twerski’s 12 step and self esteem psychology to those Orthodox spirituality books of the 21st century who are using Anne Lamont, Tony Robbins, and various new age concepts.

One of the attendees at the conference was Noa Lea Cohn, an Israeli graduate student in art history who wanted to apply my research to her field of contemporary orthodox art. I sent her a half dozen emails of bibliography on various aspects of the topic. In turn, she asked me to write an introduction for an exhibition catalog of a show she was curating on Hasidic pop -art as part of the Jerusalem Biennale called “Popthodox / Black Humor.”  

She called the exhibition Black Humor after the Israeli slang expression for the ultra-Orthodox, who are called “blacks” for the dominant color of their clothes, and exposes for the first time a new pop art genre called Pophoddox. The exhibition  wanted to show a two-way view: interior and exterior. The exhibition’s artists “use introspective, inner humor that belongs to the public in which they belong to the thin nuances within it. On the other hand, humor enables them to direct an external critical eye on themselves” as a “self-conscious stranger.”For her, it showed the sociological processes taking place under the radar in ultra-Orthodox society.

I was already familiar with several of the artists and already actually had a prepared lecture with a handout with some of the art as part of my Hasidut class.  Below was my short entry in the exhibition catalog. (There were several other entries more concerned with the art itself.)

Hipster Hasidic Pop-Art –Alan Brill

The Baal Shem Tov taught that the Creator is found in all things and that one should serve God in all of one’s ways. Hence, some Hasidic groups, especially Chabad, encourage their followers to use their God-given talents to serve the Almighty. Following this expansive view, some contemporary Orthodox artists serve God through creativity and individuality.

Contemporary Hasidism is not outside of culture nor does it have to bridge the worlds of art and Orthodoxy. Rather, Orthodoxy is embedded in the wider culture around it. One should not conceive of Chabad adherents as otherworldly nineteenth-century mystics, unfamiliar with technology and new ideas. Rather they are media savvy enough to create advertisements, appear on Oprah, and host non-Jewish Hollywood stars in their fundraisers. Hasidim walk the same streets, buy the same consumer goods, and use the Internet as everyone else. Media, graphic design, and popular culture are everywhere in their daily lives.

In recent years with Chabad’s strong emphasis on outreach, its adherents have become masters at using popular culture to bring in unaffiliated Jews. They might almost be considered another form of modern Orthodoxy in that they adopt a modern sense of urban life, media use, and material culture. In order to reach people they have created a rich world of popular psychology, motivational posters, graphic design, and cool evenings devoted to the cutting edge in food, eyeglasses, or design. Many young Chabad Hasidim work in web design or online marketing, so they are well aware of recent trends and are conversant with Photoshop.

One does not have to go to art school to learn about the official pop art of the 1960s. Rather, people with open eyes appreciate the graphic designs that are all around them. The famous designs of the 1960s of Milton Glazer, Peter Max, and Robert Indiana continue to inspire artistic descendants to create pop art on packaging, on housewares, on children’s toys, and on city streets. In living their embedded life in the vibrancy of New York City, Chabad Hasidim are exposed to the pop styles of Keith Haring, David Hockney, and Barbara Kruger. From daily life, they know of the commercialized images of commodified art such as famous cartoon characters, as well as the pop use of them.

Strictly religious cultures create an interest inversion: the more religious it is, the more a particular group has to create its own art. The paradox is that the more the Orthodox community becomes part of an open society, the more it partakes of the general secular culture, and the more it experiences its own sectarianism. When this happens, it must descend into the realm of popular culture in order to produce more accessible products for the Orthodox community.[1]

Since the 1990s there has been a trans-Atlantic hipster subculture of young creatives who distinguish themselves by their quest for authenticity, especially in material culture, as well as by a lifestyle distinguished by its rejection of mass produced consumerism.[2] Journalists noted a subtrend of cross acculturation of Chabad Hasidism and hipster subculture in which the former were seen to adopt various cultural affinities similar to the local hipster subculture.[3] In the hipster Hasidic pop art trend, they have given up the more sentimental and romantic images of dancing Hasidim done as illustrative realism in favor of depicting their authentic lives with the contemporary popular culture they live within

Those in the world of Hasidic hipster religious pop art do not think that art has to have an overt outreach message and be adaptable for a worship service. Rather, they strive for emotional vibrancy and honesty. In this approach, there is a need to be able to see eyn od milvado, all things as connected to God, as a total celebration of Judaism. Many young Orthodox Jews note “there is nothing besides Him” as their religion on Facebook. The question is not whether or not pop art should be used to convey a religious message; rather anything can be used, as long as one believes it will lead to authenticity and commitment.

This is part of the larger trend of religion and religious art around them. Just as Hasidim appeal to finding God in all things, contemporary hipster Evangelicals appeal to the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit in the riches of art, even art that does not line up with their theology. Many Evangelical pastors are following the lead of hipster trendsetters blurring the lines of cool and religion.

Evangelicals want to leave behind the early decades when, owing to their sole focus on outreach, religious art was fuddy-duddy, kitsch, and unconcerned with broader trends. They are even ironic about these earlier trends. Now they can portray Christian images as pop art with hipster sensibility. Conversely, they offer a redemptive gesture toward the objects of the recent past, in this case pop art.[4]

Hipster Christian pop art culture makes extensive use of the hipster interpretive tool of irony and suspicion of popular mainstream culture, thereby allowing multiple perspectives. For some, this is a path for moving out of the constraining community. For others it is a limited rebellion against conservative elements. Hipster Christianity sends mixed signals.[5]

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The Hasidic pop art in this exhibit shows a similar spectrum from the colorful to the mild rebellion to the critique of the system. Some use the art as a criticism of their social limits and some are already pointing outward toward new lives. They are not all inside the system; rather, there are those who are completely in the system, those who have minor adaptations to the system, and others who are already looking at the community with a sense of distance.

On the one hand, we have Moully with his goal of showing that Hasidim are not homogeneous and that they can appreciate color and pop art. His emphasis is on individuality and creativity. Moully was even featured on a program featuring Oprah’s exploration of the Hasidic community of Crown Heights in 2012. Her religious teachings of individual spiritual journey are filtering down into Orthodoxy. (Notice the Individuality of the Orange Socks.)

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On the other hand, we have those who use their art for more sustained social criticism. Shai Azouly shows the incongruity of Hasidic life with many ordinary aspects of daily living even when not prescribed by religious law or tradition. The Hasid with a well-coiffed poodle highlights a contradiction between the community’s aesthetic and social practices and the wider world, while his image of Hasidim gathered around a museum exhibition of a dinosaur illuminates the problematics in the Hasidic intellectual world.

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In a similar perspective, Yiddy Lebowits draws attention to professions that are currently not associated with being Hasidic, such as doctor, fireman, astronaut, or tai chi instructor. The art allows one to push against the current aspirational limits of the community.

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We see a very different approach in the bricolage of Yom Tov Blumenthal, who portrays a football player as getting his power from Kabbalah, as indicated by the magical emblems all over his uniform. The image plays with the meaning of power and strength: does strength actually come from religious ritual or can this ritual be compared to secular strength.

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Finally, Anshie Kagan’s defining “Hashem is here” with the digital icon of a pinpoint in the way places are defined on a GPS or foursquare is highly insightful for its misplaced concreteness and irony, which leads us to reconsider what it means when we say God is here.

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In the work of all of these artists, the use of pop designs allows for an isolated individual image without background or landscape. In many ways, this is a reflection of the artists themselves grappling with issues beyond their Hasidic backgrounds. In the absence of meta-narratives, atomized individuals follow media inspired mini-trends. The show thrives on the fact that nothing is black and white. Even when it is ironic, it acknowledges that there is also a post-ironic.

Postmodern religion, including much of Chabad, accepts its role as a commodity more than as authentic spirituality. But the semi-ironic gives place for the non-commodified change in people’s lives. The pop art leads to utopian change through its use of irony, immanence, and individuality. The art re-establishes a critical distance between the individual and his society, and recognizes the need for an examination of the material condition of the religious life. Popular culture plays, and will continue to play, an increasing role in Orthodoxy, as one needs products that relate to the first-person journey through life.

[1] Many of these ideas are further developed in Alan Brill, “The Emerging Popular Culture and the Centrist Community,” in Developing a Jewish Perspective on Culture. Ed. by Yehuda Sarna. (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 2014) 16–66.

[2] Bjørn Schiermer, “Late-Modern Hipsters: New Tendencies in Popular Culture,” Acta Sociologica 57:2 (October 8, 2013) 167–181; Linton Weeks, “The Hipsterfication of America” (November 17, 2011) https://www.npr.org/2011/11/16/142387490/the-hipsterfication-of-america (accessed October 12, 2018).

[3] Nicole Greenfield, “Birth of Hipster Hasidism?” Religion Dispatches (February 2, 2012).

[4] James Bielo, Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity, and the Desire for Authenticity (New York: NYU Press, 2011), showed how the quest for authenticity of the 1960s counterculture fed into the turn to Evangelical Christianity in later decades. There is a similar connection in Judaism.

[5] Brett McCracken, Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2010).

Nick Rynerson, “The Problem with Writing Off ‘Un-Christian’ Art,” MAR 12, 2013 christandpopculture.com (accessed October 12, 2018).

Interview with Daniel Reiser –  Imagery Techniques in Modern Jewish Mysticism

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piacetzna (1889-1943), also known as the “Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto” left behind a series of books on educating teenagers and newly married men, a diary of his Holocaust sermons, and variety of visualization techniques that he used in his work to create a modern Chassidus in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman emphasized the use of imagination and vision within Torah. We are to imagine the events in the weekly Torah study as if we are there and with vivid imagery, we imagine the Biblical stories in sermons, we use the vivid element of the midrash to teach and we are to engage in specific techniques of visualization to achieve closeness to God. We can even, if needed, image God for praying. This visionary quality is what gives his tragic Holocaust sermons delivered in the Warsaw ghetto such pathos. Daniel Reiser wrote his dissertation and subsequent book on these visionary meditations. The book was translated last year.

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Dr. Daniel Reiser is the director of the Department of Jewish Thought at Herzog Academic College and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Religious and Spiritual studies at Zefat Academic College. He received his PhD in Jewish Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

His book Imagery Techniques in Modern Jewish Mysticism (deGruyter, 2018)   analyzes and describes the development and aspects of imagery techniques. In Reiser’s opinion these techniques, in contrast to linguistic techniques in medieval Kabbalah and in contrast to early Hasidism, have all the characteristics of a full screenplay, a long and complicated plot woven together from many scenes. Reiser compares Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira’s techniques to those of his contemporary Menachem Eckstein and to Musar visualization techniques. The Hebrew edition won The World Union of Jewish Studies Matanel Prize for the best book  in Jewish Thought published during the years 2013-2014.  Here is the Table of Contents.

Reiser’s work on Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira visualization lead to his editing of a new edition of the Warsaw ghetto sermons.

To return to the visualization method of the Piesetzna, he exhorted his students not to limit oneself to one’s first image, rather to cultivate an entire imagery approach to Torah. “Train yourself to expand your thinking, and relate all that you know about the Temple” to your mental image of the Temple. One should think that this Temple image is “the place where God’s Presence can literally be seen and which the Torah commands us to visit three times a year. Why? In order to behold the countenance of the Lord God of hosts.”

These visualization of the themes of prayer and of the weekly Torah study are a continuous activity.  The Piesetzna advocates: “even at times other than the regular prayers, it is recommended that a person practice such imagery, so that when it is time to pray, he will be able to conjure such an image immediately… Even in your spare time, think of such images, so that when you are at prayer it will be as though you are standing in the Temple, etc. Thus, when you come to pray, it will be easier to arouse fervor within yourself.

Rather than a Judaism of emotions, volition, or intellect, neo-chassidic enthusiasm, submission to the law, or conceptual analysis of Torah, here we have a fourth option. A Torah of the imagination. Reiser shows how this Torah of the imagination is linked to a renewal of prophecy in early 20th century Jewish thought.

Reiser, however, does not deal with the basics of Kalonymous Kalman’s thought, presupposing his reader knows them already. He also does not address the full life and corpus of the Piesetzna limiting himself to his techniques. For those unfamiliar with the corpus of the Piesetzna, I highly recommend the book by Ron Wacks available in Hebrew as Lahavat Eish Kodesh and in English as 36 online lessons on the VBM.

This blog has dealt with many of these issues before including Tomer Persico’s broad survey book on Jewish meditation and Menachem Ekstein’s visualization techniques. I also published observations when I returned from a conference on meditation (here and here) and have dealt with Aryeh Kaplan in three posts.  There is still much to write about the Piesetzna and there are several fine unpublished dissertations on his spirituality.

Unfortunately, the English edition of the book costs a fortune therefore the causal English readers will likely rely on the popular and much less reliable presentations on this topic. One final note, the book is very Israeli. It focuses on tracing the ideas to prior texts.It is very unlike current approaches in contemplation studies which are interdisciplinary explorations of psychology, neuroscience and comparative religion.  American graduate programs also integrate practice, critical subjectivity, and character development, this thesis is very rational. For an example of the American approach, see here.

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  1. How did you get interested in Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira?

When I was 21, I went into a store of old and used books in Jerusalem. I saw a small booklet there, at a cost of 1 NIS. It was written on it The Obligation of the Students, Warsaw 1932. The year and location and of course the price drew my attention and caused me to buy the book. I was then drawn to the author’s unique language, full of pathos and ethos. That was the beginning.

Subsequently, it was not easy to get the rest of his books but with the help of a friend I acquired the book “Hachsharat Ha’avrechim” and his other books. I immediately saw that this was an unusual figure, full of spirit and relevant. And the rest was history.

2. What is Kalonymous Kalman Shapira’s conception of prophecy?

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira associates imagery exercises done in contemporary times with prophecy. Practicing guided imagery develops a new internal sense, and with that new talent people will be able to gain prophecy.

According to the Shapira, biblical prophecy has two sides to it, the personal and the social. The Prophet has an individual personal attachment to God. However, at the same time his influence has an impact on the surrounding society. His interest in prophecy is both – personal and to influence others to seek prophecy.

The essence of prophecy is a constant cleaving with God, which makes it possible for man to achieve Holy Spirit. Kalonomous Kalman describes this in terms of light: the prophet is filled with the “light of God.” He thus serves as a projector for the dissemination of light to society, which is “full of splendor, they radiate brightness” (El Adon).

Since the prophet is filled with light, he wants to bring it to the people, to let it radiate. Biblical prophecy bring a message to society which is its radiation. It is not a personal enlightenment as in Buddhism. but always with a message. One can call it Jewish spiritual enlightenment or Jewish prophecy in that it always has a social message. Yorem Jacobson assumed this was also true about early Hasidism.

3. What is the role of imagination in Kalonymous Kalman Shapira’s thought?

For Kalonymous Kalman Shapira imagination has 2 roles: (1) To prepare man for prophecy (2) To empower any religious experience, that is, to transform any normative religious experience into a more powerful experience which is called a mystical experience.

Similar to the role of hot pepper placed in food to enhance its taste so is imaginative imagery added to other experiences such as Torah study, prayer, dance and music and makes them an experience of contact with the divinity.

4. What role does imagination play for Rabbi Shapira in Torah and prayer?

Shapira stresses that Torah study is not just intellectual and informative learning. Imagery makes learning experiential. Anyone who imagines that he lives far away from his father for many years and suddenly receives an envelope with a letter from his father will obviously be moved and shaken when he opens the envelope and then reads the letter eagerly, over and over again. Thus, one who imagines that learning Talmud is to receive a love letter from God, then all his learning will be full of experience. He will have more motivation to learn. In other words, the imaginative faculty enables empowering Torah learning from an intellectual act to an experiential one.

The same applies to prayer. Institutional prayer is routine and sometimes boring – imagination can “light” it and make it relevant. You cannot compare those who say routinely and banally “And we will be our descendants … We all know your name and learn your Torah for its own sake,” to those who say this while they imagine their children one by one and plead that they will continue their parent’s tradition.

5. How did Kalonymous Kalman Shapira come to these ideas?

Good question. The first role of imagination, namely, the preparation of the prophecy, is based on medieval Jewish philosophy, and especially on Maimonides, who discusses in the Guide for the Perplexed the vital and central role of the “imaginative faculty” in the phenomena of prophecy. Maimonides spoke only theoretically while Shapira offered practical exercises to realize this vision.

The second role of imagination in the empowerment of a religious experience – I do not know – it seems original. Although Rabbi Shapira based his techniques on early Kabbalah and Hasidism, his enormous project – the addition of imagination to every action and religious action – is original and has no serious precedents.

In prior centuries, we can only find traces of such an emphasis on imagination in Abulafia’s school of Kabbalah, which use linguistic imagery techniques, where you imagine the Hebrew letters and different linguistic variations.

At the beginning of Hasidism, we find similar imagery techniques. However, they are characterized by being limited to one short scene such as imagining oneself jumping into the fire to die a maryrs death, by R. Elimelech of Lizhensk.  I am not aware of full imagery techniques of an entire imagined script, as Shapira developed. (In my opinion, a script that is not inferior to a modern full movie).

6) What role does imagination play in his meditation techniques?

Shapira’s Imagery exercises are meditation! (I define meditation as a human effort to reach an experience of divine presence). This is not the current [Vipassana] Buddhist type of meditation of emptying the consciousness but a meditation of mind filling, which has strong roots in Judaism, as Tomer Persico showed in his book on Jewish meditation.

Yet even with antecedents in Jewish meditation practice Shapira is unique in his approach. He brought the imagery exercises in Judaism to a highpoint beyond any antecedents. We mentioned above that he developed very long imaginative exercises similar to a cinema script, which was never done before him. In this he was groundbreaking.

He also has imagery exercises that I would call sub-categories of prophecy, but not a direct prophecy. In these exercises one imagines God in one way or another and thus man demonstrates and presents God in his private life. (See #7)

7)      Why does Shapira allow one to visual God? What does God look like?

Shapira permits in one case an imaginal corporealization of God. He even uses halakhic terminology in order to grant halakhic justification to the practice.

 A person, who is in such a situation at the beginning of his growth and expansion of his thought, can rely on the Rabad (Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquières), who comments that a physical being who utilizes images, may visualize this…  As for you, as a member of the fraternity, in a time of distress you should visualize yourself standing before the Throne of Glory, praying and beseeching from God like a son who cries and pleads before his father(Benei Maḥshavah Ṭovah, 18-20).

Mostly Shapira does not go that far in this visualization and prefers not to imagine God as an image but rather uses – what I call – imaginal substitutions. For example, he suggested contemplating the heavens and similar entities as a barrier separating prayer from God. By doing so, one can indirectly turn to God and stand before him, without needing to directly engage with the problem of corporealization of God. Or he encourages visualize the Holy Name of the tetragrammaton, which is an old technique that goes back to the Hekhalot literature.

Shapira radically pointed out quite radically a visualization of God, an insight that Rabbi Kook also insisted on.

Even though an error in divine matters is very damaging, nevertheless, the primary aspect of the damage,which is drawn from the flawed concepts, is not actualized, to the point that one who has [these flawed conceptions] is to have a soul-death (mitat ha-neshamah), only when he actualizes [them] in deed … However, as long as the matter is in an abstract form, this is not a fundamental heresy (aqirah). And in this we are close to R. Abraham ben David’s reasoning, in which he objected to Maimonides’ calling someone who believes in God’s corporeality a heretic (min).We can agree that as long as the man who corporealizes does not make an idol or [a physical] image, behold, he has not completed his thought, and it still remains in the company of the spirit, which is not able to be considered heresy and a departure from religion. Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook, Shemonah Qevaṣim (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 2004), 1:8–9

The Torah forbids the making of a statue/icon – an actual action and object but they do not reject the use of mental images. Imagination is permitted because it is abstract and is not really a materialization of God. Shapira permits to imagine God as light, and stresses that his halachic permission is just post factum for those who need it to pray more deliberately (with Kavvanah) but should not be used ideally.

 8) What do you like most about Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira? 

I like his honesty. He shares with the reader his dilemmas, which he does not hide, and his difficulties. This type of writing is not too common in Jewish-Orthodox writings. In addition, dealing intensively with prophecy surprised me – especially in the 20th century and especially the desire to renew it – and not just for elite individuals, but he designated and assigned prophesy also for simple people.

9)      What are the imagery techniques in Menachem Ekstein’s writings?

In 1921 a short Hebrew book was published in Vienna, entitled Tena’ei HaNefesh LeHasagat HeHasidut [Mental Conditions for Achieving Hasidism] by Rabbi Menachem Ekstein (1884-1942). The author was a Dzików Hasid, from Rzesów in the center of western Galicia, who immigrated to Vienna following World War I. The reader will immediately notice that modern issues of psychology, such as self-awareness, split mind, and complex, daring “guided imagery” exercises, appear and play a central role in this book.

Ekstein’s imagery exercises are a kind of an astral journey in which a person imagines himself flying in the sky and wandering through the world and seeing everything from above – continents, states, animals, seas and lakes and humans. These exercises are very universal and very long.

At first sight they do not seem to have any religious aspects, however they are intended to bring the person to an experience of integration with creation, and creation is presented as a reflection of God.

In addition, he develops Ratso va-Shov (running and returning) exercises in which the person imagines something, enters it psychologically and then imagines the opposite. For example: a person imagines the great joy of a wedding and as in a good dream he really experiences the joy and the love. Then suddenly he imagines the opposite – the couple divorcing, with great anger and bitterness. These exercises are designed by Ekstein to develop full control over our feelings. When a person wants, then he is happy and when he wants, he is sad.

10)      What are the musar techniques in the Lithuanian Yeshivot? How are they different than Shapira’s?

In the Musar movement, Imagery techniques were used, but not for the purpose of attaining adherence to God or achieving an experience of religious amazement, but rather for developing concern and fear from “the great and terrible day of judgment.”

Israel Lipkin of Salant (1810-1883), the founder of the Musar movement said:

The wicked know that their path leads to death, but they have fat on their kidneys that prevents that realization from entering their hearts… . And it can only be established through the expansion of the soul’s ecstasy, expanding the idea through sensory imagery, (Israel Lipkin, Or Yisra’el, ed. I. Blazer (1900), 29 (letter 7).

The imagery techniques revolve around the imagery of death. A person imagines his bitter end and therefore distanced himself from sin and idleness.

Lipkin’s student, R. Simḥah Zissel (Broida) Ziv (1824-1898), also emphasized this and taught the use of visual contemplation for the obtainment of fear, “for fear is built upon images (ṣiyurim);”

He shall remember the day of his death’ that our sages spoke of… meaning, he shall remember a [visual] depiction (ṣiyur) of the day of his death, and so shall he visualize all types of sufferings, how much he will suffer for transgressing the laws of the Torah, and this is very beneficial for being cautious of sin.  (Ḥokhmah u-Musar (1957), 383; 56-57)

Nevertheless, it is possible to find in the Musar movement more positive elements – such as creating a religious impression in the human psyche and deepening living faith. Already Lipkin called on several occasions for the use of the imaginative faculty in connection to experience in general, and excitement in learning in particular, “[One should] learn with burning lips, with a proper idea, a broad imagination (be-ṣiyur) broadening all matters, and bring within him proximate images, until the heart will become impassioned, to whatever degree.”(Or Yisra’el, 22).

11)   What have you found of similarities to mesmerism and modern psychology such as Théodule-Armand Ribot 1839-1916 in Eastern European visualization techniques?

Mesmerism was the name given by German doctor Franz Mesmer in the 18th century to what he believed to be an invisible natural force, “supernal fluid” (“fluidum”),  possessed by all living things. He believed that by controlling this fluid he can heal physical and psychological illnesses. In addition, he held of the existence of a hidden power that exists in the world and passes from one person to another and allows one person’s unconscious to influence another (“suggestion”).

The French psychologist Theodola-Armand Ribot (1839-1916) published essays on the creative imagination in 1900 (Essai sur l’imagination créatrice, translated into Hebrew in 1921). His model of “creative imagination” in which imagination creates the world around us rather than vice versa in which the world molds our imagination. Usually a person sees a certain reality and then imagines it. For example, in many dreams a person dreams of events that he has seen and experiences in his life. That is, imagination is an imitation of reality. However, the “creative imagination” model maintains that in some cases imagination precedes reality and that man can imagine something that he has never actually seen. For example, No one has actually seen an angel in real life and then described it using his imagination. Rather the imagination is primary, it creates the angel.  In this case, a vision of an angel is not imitating reality but rather creating it! we write about angels we pain them etc. and this reality is drawn from the imagination.

These ideas French and German ideas clearly appear in Menachem Ekstein’s doctrine. By using these concepts, Rabbi Yekutiel Aryeh Kamelhor, Ekstein’s Rabbi and teacher, explains the “elevation of the Soul,” (Aliyat Neshama) which is the phenomenon described in the Baal Shem Tov’s famous letter which he wrote to Israel (in 1744) to his brother-in-law. In that letter the Baal Shem Tov describes the elevation of his soul to the upper spiritual worlds – what he saw and what he heard.

Hasidic Jews had access to these ideas via their precis in M. A. Zilbershtrom, “Ha-Hipnaṭizmos,” (Hypnotism) in Kenneset ha-Gedolah, ed. Yiṣḥaq Sovelski (Warsaw: Ḥayyim Kelter, 1889), 41-56. In this Hebrew article, Zilbershtrom delineates the history of hypnosis, beginning with Franz Mesmer until its current state.

Natan Ophir has shown an interesting similarity between Shapira’s silencing technique and elements found in the “self-remembering” teachings of Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1866-1949) and his pupil Peter Demianovich Ouspensky (1878–1947). But in my book, I disagreed with these parallels since I consider Gurdjieff’s method as having phenomenological differences and I did not see direct influence. Yet, it was an interesting possibility.

12)   Do you practice these techniques? Do you teach people these techniques?

No. My students at Zefat Academic College complain to me, asking: how can I write about imagery techniques with great enthusiasm without practicing them? They say it’s like writing about love without experiencing love. My answer is that they may be right, but I am not perfect. It just does not suit me. I am too rational to practice imagery or any other kind of meditation. I’m a kind of a “Litvak” who is interested in Hasidism. I find in Hasidism amazing psychological insights, but I am not the type seeking for emotional experiences and therefore I am far from any kind of spiritual journeys.

13)   How does your approach differ from others who have written on Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira?

Zvi Leshem dealt with the full range of the practices of Shapira. He dealt with the imagery of the Piaseczner, along with other practices such as melody, drinking alcohol, dance, etc. However, I did not relate to imagery as another practice alongside other practices, but rather as a practice that adds to all other practices, similar to hot pepper that you add to other things and empower their own taste. I applied the concept of “empowerment”, which I learned from Jess Hollenbeck’s studies. To empower any religious experience, that is, to transform any normative religious experience into a more powerful experience which is called a mystical experience.

14) How did you move from the imagery techniques to work on Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira’s Holocaust writings?  Do you find the Holocaust work just as satisfying as the visualization writing?

I came to it accidentally!! I went to the Jewish archives in Warsaw to examine his mystical writings written before the Holocaust, and then I saw that the printing edition of his sermons from the time of the Holocaust was unreliable. So, I understood that a new edition was needed. Believe me, I did not really enjoy working on it, but I have done it in order to have a revised and reliable edition as the author would want it to be.

Dealing with these sermons was heartbreaking and tormenting for me. I do not recommend this for anyone. Writing about visualization was uplifting but dealing with the Holocaust was the opposite. In spite of this fact – without any rational explanation – I cannot escape research of the Holocaust. The more I run away from it the more it chases me. I found more and more materials dealing with the holocaust that I must publish, and I am asked to referee papers in Holocaust studies and etc.

 

 

Tomer Persico Responds to Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Here is the third of a series of responses to Rabbi Pesach Wolicki’s Biblical centered Judaism that converges with Christian Zionists. The first response by Rabbi Arie Folger was here.  The second response was by Nechemia Stern and the third is by Tomer Persico.

Tomer Persico is the Koret Visiting Assistant Professor of Jewish and Israel Studies, Dept. of Near Eastern Studies, Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, Center for Jewish Studies at U. C. Berkeley, and Shalom Hartman Institute Bay Area Scholar in Residence. He is also the author of  Jewish Meditation: The Development of Spiritual Practices in Contemporary Judaism [Hebrew] which we dedicated two long blogs to an interview about his book – Part I and Part II

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Evangelical Christian Zionists 

The Jewish Religious-Zionist and Evangelical-Zionist romance is heartwarming. After two millennia of a tense, at times absolutely deadly, relationship, it is certainly a comfort to see the hatchet buried and old bygones be bygones. As is well known, a lively romance includes a subtle play of revealing and concealment. I do however believe that Rabbi Wolicki has invested a bit too much on the concealing side. He is certainly right when he says that “there are many different kinds of Christian Zionists”, and indeed, many of them are not deeply invested in end-time predictions and visions of the coming Armageddon. And yes, most of Christian Zionism is about being a part of the simple fulfillment of the words of biblical prophets on the return of the people of Israel to their promised land.

But when he states that “Christian Zionists [don’t] think about the Book of Revelations end game nearly as much as Jews think they do” it’s important to understand which Christian Zionists we are talking about. If we’re talking about the many volunteers working in different centers in settlements in Judea and Samaria, that might be true. But if we are talking about their leaders, it is false in at least a few important examples.

Let’s take two prominent Christian Zionist leaders – the ones that President Trump chose to speak at the inauguration of the new US embassy in Jerusalem: Pastors John C. Hagee and Robert James Jeffress Jr.. Hagee is founder and chairman of the Christians United for Israel organization, and Jeffress is a passionate supporter of Israel and Israel’s right-wing government.

Both have also written quite a lot about what they foresee in Israel’s future. In his 2015 book (whose sub-headline did not age well) Countdown to the Apocalypse: Why ISIS and Ebola Are Only the Beginning, Jeffress writs that “There is a Millennium coming. Jesus is going to sit on the throne of David in Jerusalem”. Based on the bible Jeffress predicts that “a future invasion of Israel by certain nations to the north and east of Israel” and insists that “It won’t be long now”.

Hagee strikes a similar tune. According to his 2006 book Jerusalem Countdown “The final battle for Jerusalem is about to begin. Every day in the media you are watching the gathering storm over the State of Israel”. Hagee is much more detailed then Jeffress. He predicts a “nuclear showdown with Iran”, aided by Russia, that will “sweep the world toward Armageddon”. Some of the Jews in Israel will be saved, some not. All shall be free from their “spiritual blindness […] concerning the identity of Jesus Christ as Messiah”, as Christ will be descending from heaven. “I believe”, Hagee sums up, “that my generation will live to see Him sitting on the throne of King David on the Temple Mount in the city of Jerusalem.”

These are very clear words. Both Jeffress and Hagee expect the terrible war of Armageddon quite soon, and the Jewish people to become quite Christian. It is one thing to say that notwithstanding a few theological disagreements we, as Jews, appreciate the support of these generous Christians and agree to delay the argument over the exact scenario of the End of Days to the end of days. It is another thing to pass over these disagreements and present a harmonious picture of a mutual messianic path and/or vision. No such mutual path or vision exists.

Rabbi Wolicki writes that “there is a lot more talk of the Christian beliefs in rapture and the millennial kingdom from Jews who are suspicious of Christian motives than there is among Christian Zionists”, but I think that two whole books on the rapture and the millennial kingdom from two central Christian Zionist figures is not something we can brush gently under the rug.

One last thing. Rabbi Wolicki says that he “categorically reject[s] the notion that Islam believes in the same God as we do”, and that only Jews and Christians actually believe in the same God. But Pastor Jeffress differs. In the book mentioned above he writes that “As followers of Christ, we do not share a ‘generic’ God with other religions […] Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe in one God, but not in the one, true God. All three believe in one God, but not in the same God.” It seems others can play this triumphalist game.

Now, I’m not going to deny Rabbi Wolicki’s main point on this subject: yes, Muslims do not take the Hebrew Bible to be a canonized text the way Christians do. But perhaps our objective should be finding what’s mutual between the religious traditions, not what they’re antagonistic about, and certainly not bicker about who’s got the best God. The latter path is taken by those who wish to keep the antagonism alive, and it’s a pity that our Christian friends are that kind of people.

Nehemia Stern responds to Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Here is the second of a series of responses to Rabbi Pesach Wolicki’s Biblical centered Judaism that converges with Christian Zionists. The first response by Rabbi Arie Folger was here. 

Nehemia Stern has a PhD in Religious Studies from Emory University. His research focuses on contemporary forms of Jewish religious Zionism in Israel. Currently he is a Post-Doctoral Fellow and Adjunct lecturer in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Ariel University in Samaria. We featured on the blog Dr. Stern’s MA thesis on Post-Orthodoxy and the changes of 21st century Orthodoxy in 2010 and the thesis is now available online

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In a recent article of Stern’s, he showed how the direct turn to the Bible in Religious Zionist circles is parallel the early Zionist turn. The Bible is now being used as a direct source to debate conscientious objection to military service in which “Biblical texts are often intimately intertwined in particular social and political contexts that are “publically manipulated, pushed and pulled by different social actors.” In his article, Stern compares the Israeli use of the Bible to the work of James Bielo in his studies of the Evangelical community in which Bielo shows the “social life of the Scriptures’” (2009). Working off his ethnographic studies of Christian Evangelical Bible study groups, Bielo argues that “the social life of the Bible” is not simply a matter of reading and exegesis but includes various forms of action in the world’ (2009, 160).

In his response below, Stern offer a variety of directions to think about this Evangelical and Religious Zionist convergence.

Christian and Jewish Religious Zionism: Between an ‘Oy Gevalt’ and a ‘Hallelujah’

By Nehemia Stern

Jews have been debating the fine line between ‘inter-faith’ and ‘intra-faith’ relations with Christianity since about the time Saul (later Paul) saw the light and fell to the ground on his way to Damascus. Currently, with the establishment and flourishing of the State of Israel, and the return of the Jewish People to their native lands, a conversation that was perhaps cut off prematurely has since reemerged, and with renewed vigor.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki forcefully argues that the relationship between Christian Zionism and Jewish religious Zionism is an intra-faith one that “expands upon common points of faith and builds the relationship around what is shared”.   According to Wolicki, what is shared between Christian and Jewish religious Zionism is not necessarily a similar theological attempt to “understand and systematize” our understanding of God, but rather a focus on some of the same foundational Biblical and prophetic texts. Both Jewish religious Zionists in Israel and Evangelical Christian Zionists share similar ways of interpreting scriptural lessons as well as “the role that people of faith play in historical processes”. The return of Jewish sovereignty to the Land of Israel is the precondition for this ‘intra-faith’ relationship.

As an anthropologist of religion who has specifically focused on religious Zionism in Israel, I have to ask: when does a close resemblance between two faiths turn into something uncomfortably familiar? Anthropologists love cross-cultural observations, so I’d like to make a few.

Both Christian and Jewish religious Zionists see in the reestablishment of Jewish statehood after 2000 years of exile a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. For Jewish religious Zionists this return creates an opportunity to refocus educational and religious attention to the biblical text itself. Rabbi Wolicki used the phrase Bible-believing invoking a Protestant sense of sola scriptura. Similar to evangelical Christians (and Martin Luther’s scriptural return), some Jewish religious Zionists directly engage with biblical stories and biblical characters in ways that sometimes marginalize accepted rabbinic tradition. In contemporary Israel this technique is called Tanach b’gova einayim or reading the Bible at eye level- reading the Bible outside of the traditional commentaries. Here the faults and foibles of characters like Jacob, Samson, or David are critical in understanding the Bible’s moral, social, or political lessons. This technique is controversial among some Jewish religious Zionists precisely because it forces the classical medieval biblical interpretations of Rashi, Ramban, Ibn Ezra etc. to take second place to a straightforward reading of scripture.

In a recent academic article of mine titled The Social Life of the Samson Saga in Israeli Religious Zionist Rabbinic Discourse, I demonstrated how various groups of religious Zionists debate their own contemporary political differences through their interpretations of the Biblical tales of Samson. These ‘eye level’ interpretations I argued, are a textual method through which religious Zionists debate not just the narrative of Samson itself but also the very current political and moral questions surrounding issues like personal vengeance towards Palestinians, assimilation, and sexual impropriety. The social life of passages of the Bible becomes a means by which to justify or critique the violence of  Israel’s contemporary Hilltop Youth. For example, a minor textual difference in how the Meforshim (the classical medieval Rabbinic commentators) read Samson’s final call for vengeance in Judges 16:28 can be used by more modern observers to justify violent acts of personal vengeance against Palestinians just as they can also serve as the basis for more statist responses to terror.

Evangelical Christians generally share a similar relationship with Biblical texts. They too seek an unmitigated experience of the Bible centering on a straightforward reading of the text itself.  Their readings of the first few chapters of Genesis for example resonate with just as much political force in political debates surrounding issues of abortion, stem cells, or even educational funding for evolution studies. And I dare say, the consequences of these interpretations can sometimes be just as violent.

Indeed, the relationship between Evangelical Christianity and Religious Zionism may run even deeper than modes of biblical interpretation.  As Rabbi Wolicki noted “the largest most vocal group” of Christian Zionists are dispensationalists. Dispensationalism isn’t a sect, a religious movement, or a denomination. Dispensationalism is a way of reading the Bible and interpreting history (which itself is always a way of commenting on the present and of predicting the future).  In a nutshell, dispensationalism offers a progressive understanding of God’s role in the salvation of humanity, in which the end time is slowly revealed. Redemption becomes a gradually unfolding process that is divided into epochs or dispensations. In each, God presents humanity with a different road to salvation toward the end time.  Humanity fails to fully realize the opportunity, is punished, which in turn begins a new dispensation.

For dispensationalists, the Jewish people are the agents through which this end-time process is meant to unfold, yet their specific contribution to salvation is up for debate. For some Christian dispensationalists, the Jewish rejection of Jesus’ messiahship critically hindered the ultimate redemption. At the same time, God’s original covenant with Abraham (and thus the Jews) was never nullified, making both the Jews and the Church two distinct and theologically legitimate entities. Whether or not ultimate the end-time salvation requires Jewish conversion is left vague for some evangelical Christians.

Those conversant with religious Zionist thought -especially as expounded by Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, his son Tzvi Yehuda, and their many contemporary disciples – might see something familiar here. This messianic brand of Israeli religious Zionism views the drama of redemption (which admittedly, is somewhat different from ‘salvation’) as an overarching mystical and historical process. My favorite example of this kind of thinking can be seen in how Rav Abraham Isaac Kook gave historical, ethical, and redemptive significance to the mass slaughters of the First World War. As he wrote in the Lights of War, a collection of notes published in the years following the conflict;

We were thrown out of world politics by a force that had within it an inner will, until such a happy time when it would be possible to administer a kingdom without evil and barbarity. This is the era that we are hoping for. It is obvious that in order to achieve it, we have to awaken with all our strength, and use all the means that the era brings. Everything is in the hand of the creator, but the delay is necessary, for our souls are sick of the terrible sins of the kingdoms in this era. And now the time has come, it is very close. The world is becoming sweetened, and we can already prepare ourselves for that moment when we can manage our kingdom on the foundations of Goodness, Wisdom, Righteousness, and the clarified illumination of the divine.

For Rav Kook, the forceful exile of the Jewish People was one stage in a larger mystical and ethical drama. It allowed the renaissance of Jewish nationalism to occur at a time where the violence and barbarity that characterized the trenches of WWI, were coming to an end. Much like Woodrow Wilson’s ‘the war to end all wars’, the naivete of this prediction, doesn’t take away from its theological and ethical force. What Rav Kook is implying here, is that the Jewish People slowly move through a series of mystical and moral stages which ultimately lead to nothing less than world redemption. The reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel is the precondition for this process.

Interestingly for religious Zionists in the Kookian mode, the role of non-Jews is just as ambiguous as that of Jews for dispensationalists. Where do the nations of the world (including Palestinians) fit into the grand process of redemption?  For Rav Kook were the vast casualty lists, the blight of war in general, or of Sin itself, just an unfortunate means to a better future? Can violence and suffering be so easily sanctified? For many religious Zionists these are open question with real world political implications.

Rabbi Wolicki was certainly consistent in questioning Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik’s non-messianic “interpretation of the State of Israel and the ingathering of exiles”. In contrast, mystical and messianic religious Zionism in the framework of Rav Kook offers a vision of redemption that is structurally quite similar to Christian Zionist dispensationalism. Rav Soloveitchik was extremely skeptical of these sorts of progressive messianic redemptive claims. For him, the State of Israel was less an outcome of mystical messianism than it was a pragmatic expression of a renewed Jewish power and political presence after the Holocaust – which itself was a sign of God’s continued love for his people.

Indeed, in my anthropological fieldwork I met many mystical and messianic religious Zionist rabbinic figures in Israel who criticized this aspect of Rav Soloveitchik’s thought. They felt his philosophy simply did not offer an uplifting worldly vision – something they were so used to hearing in Rav Kook’s thought. In their view how could one not see a progressively redemptive message in the Jewish drama of the twentieth century? These religious Zionist debates between followers of the ideologies of Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik, are really two modes of viewing God’s hand in the tragedies and triumphs of his people in the 20th century, and they play themselves out in Rabbi Wolicki’s worldview expressed in his interview.  It is curious though, that many who support a closer theological relationship between Christian Zionism and Religious Zionism come out of an American Modern Orthodox context, where Rav Soloveitchik’s skepticism towards messianic Zionism (and inter-faith dialogue) simply cannot be ignored.

Little ethnographic research has been done on how religious Zionists in Israel reflect on the similarities between themselves and evangelical Christianity. It is possible that some religious Zionists have intuited echoes of this intra-faith paradigm and these similarities have aroused a healthy debate regarding the relationship between Evangelical Christianity and religious Zionist communities in Judea and Samaria.

Not all mystical and messianic religious Zionists are as enthused by the close relationship – both pragmatic and philosophical – between their own communities and the many evangelical Christians who visit and volunteer within their West Bank communities. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner of the Ateret Cohanim Rabbinic seminary for example has forbidden accepting monetary donations from Christian organizations writing that, “It is there ticket into the nation of Israel to convert us”. Indeed, Rabbi Aviner went further and claimed that American Evangelical Christians who support Israel politically, also “love our souls, and want to bring us to them. Politics – yes. Business – yes. Friendship – no. Money – no.”

Conversely, in 2011, a hilltop community adjacent to the settlement of Har Bracha, objected to the presence of Evangelical Christian volunteers living and working within their neighborhood. The Rabbi of that settlement, Eliezer Melamed however, has come out in support of these volunteers. “Judaism does not intend to cancel or destroy other religions but to raise them up to the source of Israel [presumably a universal kind of divinity] …there is a process of transcendence that has not been seen yet in Christianity. Therefore, with all of the necessary caution, it is our spiritual and moral duty to relate to this process in the most positive manner possible”.

There is this great scene in the Frisco Kid, where Gene Wilder playing Rabbi Avram Belinski had just escaped from being accosted and robbed by two highwayman. He’s wandering around tired, lost and hungry in the wilderness. Suddenly in the distance he sees a group of farmers wearing black hats and long black frock coats. He runs towards them shouting “Landsmen! Landsmen!”. A they embrace and begin to speak a similar Germanic language that is unintelligible to both, he sees a book with a cross. With an “Oy Gevalt”, Reb Avram promptly faints. Sometimes that which seems most familiar can also feel the most threatening.

Jewish and Christian religious Zionists share certain political goals and have a common outlook on social and cultural life both in the United States and in Israel. It’s only natural that an alliance advancing conservative principles and policy goals would form between the two. But the relationship that Rabbi Wolicki describes as “intra-faith” is a world apart from this kind of policy pragmatism.  While he doesn’t like talking theology’, what he is actually describing are two extremely similar theological modes of understanding the divine role in the universe. It’s understandable that this might be worrying to some Orthodox Jews

I think there is much to be gained from a deeper engagement with Christian Zionism and with Christianity in general. Yet, I would however just like to offer a word of anthropological warning. Cultural dialogue is never a one-way street. It’s somewhat naïve to think that religious Zionists can open up ‘yeshivas’ for evangelical Christians, give presentations at churches, invite volunteers to live and work within Jewish communities without being at all being influenced by Evangelical Christianity. It’s never a one-way street.

Recently, a Neo-Hasidic research contact of mine in a Northern West Bank Settlement posted a Facebook status where he came out in favor of wishing Christians a ‘Merry Christmas’. “There is a brotherhood between us, and this shouldn’t alarm us”, he wrote. “I am happy to wish them a happy holiday, full of joy and brotherhood. That together we will move the entire world towards the eternal divine values of respect for others, love of man, and that we will defeat the darkness that covers the earth”. In this case who would object to the common values of respect and love for one’s fellow man? And what religious person would deny that these values have their source in some spark of divinity?

But here lies the catch. This formulation of common divine values assumes a common understanding of divinity. There is and will be increasing Christian influence from these Jewish- Christian contacts and commonalities. I’m not entirely sure that Israeli religious Zionism is ready for the immense repercussions that will come out of this. Religious Zionism can’t expect to influence, without something being reciprocated or transformed. What are we risking when our dialogue with Evangelical Christianity moves beyond pragmatism and beyond even abstract cross-cultural curiosity, to touch upon the experience of faith itself? Our answer might necessitate a little bit more of Reb Avram’s “Oy Gevalt”.

Rabbi Arie Folger Responds to Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Here is the first of a series of responses to Rabbi Pesach Wolicki’s Biblical centered Judaism that converges with Christian Zionists. Read the original interview first.

Rabbi Arie Folger is the Chief Rabbi of Vienna since 2016, prior to that he was rabbi of the Israelitische Gemeinde Basel in Switzerland since the beginning of 2003 and various other congregations including Munich and Frankfort.  Rabbi Folger’s semicha is from Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He also earned an MBA at New York University. Folger is heavily involved in Jewish-Christian interfaith work and could be considered Orthodoxy’s point man on the topic. My introduction will give some of his prior statements in order to contextualize his response to Rabbi Wolicki.

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Between Rome and Jerusalem

Folger was a major force in the drafting and editing on the 2017 Orthodoxy response to Nostrae Aetate Between Jerusalem and Rome Reflections on 50 Years of Nostra Aetate, a document that has not gotten enough publicity in the Orthodoxy community. Folger was appointed  by the Standing Committee of the Conference of European Rabbis to chair the committee and draft the document, with significant input from committee members. From the inception, the goal was to include also the RCA and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. It is the first such documents signed by major Orthodox rabbinic organizations. (Here is the document and here is his statement on how the document came to about). I was hoping to blog about it but never got to it.

The document has a strong Hirschian universalism of a single human family but God chose the Jews to be alight unto the nations. At the same time, it works to stay with the guidelines of Rav Soloveitchik. According to Rabbi Folger, the document was directly inspired by Sforno and Rav Menachem Leibtag on “You shall be a kingdom of priests”  as well as Rav Hirsch’s view on what the original Divine plan for humanity

The most important paragraph of the entire document is in the middle. When the document acknowledges that after fifty years, they are willing to acknowledge that it was not a stealth act of mission, rather a sincere change in the Church. Now they are our friends whom we share tolerance, respect, and solidarity.

They declare a new fraternal relationship with Catholics despite theological differences. “Therefore We Declare despite the irreconcilable theological differences, we Jews view Catholics as our partners, close allies, friends and brothers in our mutual quest for a better world blessed with peace, social justice and security.”

The  Hirschian sense that Jews are a light unto the nations which does not mean that all good is done or taught by Jews, rather that Jews have to foster humanity’s appreciation and their own performance of “holiness, morality, and piety.” Meaning that there can be holiness and piety among the Catholics and we should appreciate it.

The document at three points affirms the inclusivism of the medieval thinkers, that we share common beliefs Creation, Exodus, and the Bible and in another place in this short document it says we share the Bible and the idea of an ultimate redemption. “We acknowledge that this fraternity cannot sweep away our doctrinal differences;   it   does,   rather,   reinforce   genuine   mutual   positive dispositions towards fundamental values that we share, including but not limited to reverence for the Hebrew Bible.”

The next paragraph has a different language and instead of using the concept of “values we share” uses the word “common beliefs in the divine origin of the Torah.”  “Despite profound theological differences, Catholics and Jews share common beliefs in the Divine origin of the Torah and in the idea of an ultimate redemption, and now, also, in the affirmation that religions must use moral behavior and religious education — not war, coercion, or social pressure — to influence and inspire.”

However, the document reaffirms doctrinal differences that Rabbi Wolicki elides. Folger’s document on behalf of Orthodoxy writes: The theological differences between Judaism and Christianity are profound. The core beliefs of Christianity that center on the person of “Jesus as the Messiah “and the embodiment of the “second person of a triune God” create an irreconcilable separation from Judaism.

Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI article in Communio

This past summer July 2018, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI article in Communio that created ambiguities. Rabbi Folger became the Jewish community’s voice in response. Folger wrote an article entitles  Danger for the dialogue? [Published in Jüdische Allgemeine, July 19, 2018.]  The part needed for this interview is when the Emeritus Pope wrote that: “Insofar as Jews and Christians interpret the Torah differently and live their laws differently, this is due to other readings and theologies, but both are committed to the text.” Meaning that we share the Bible but interpret it differently, as if both are valid options. A progressive view for a head of the Catholic Church.

However, Folger responded: “This reinterpretation is neither acceptable nor meaningful to Jews nor does it correspond to Halacha. We are two different, independent faith communities. And yet we profess our brotherhood together…An important principle of interreligious dialogue is that we recognize each other’s autonomy and respect our respective boundaries.” This paragraph is the crux of the difference between Rabbis Wolicki and Folger.

And he reiterated that: “even in the sentences from the Vatican that are the most favorable to Jews, there is always talk of the covenant of Abraham and never of the covenant of Moses or of the covenant on Sinai. “

Emeritus Pope Benedict responded to Rabbi Folger about the need to talk theology not for the purpose of convincing one another but for understanding. He wants Christians to share christological interpretations of the Bible not because he hopes we will accept them, but because he hopes we will understand them.  Benedict states that we will not agree with each other until the end of history.  That is a major admission from a conservative Catholic theologian. As difficult as it is for him to commit not to missionize Jews, he found the words to do exactly that.

Rabbi Folger responded: “We share common values, ​​and both respect the Hebrew Bible. Even if we interpret several passages differently, we have a common foundation here.”

But acknowledge the importance of a dialogue of understanding between the faiths.

Although, as a student of several of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik’s students, I have much greater affinity for your third point (to engage the moral sensitivities of society and to better protect religious people and their religious freedom) than for theological dialogue, which Rav Soloveitchik rejected, I find your invitation to pursue a more modest goal potentially more appealing, since you do not advocate a dialogue in which we try to convince each other but a dialogue to understand each other

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(Rabbi Folger and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn)

Let’s Continue to Respect (and Recognize) Difference

I thank Rabbi Prof. Brill for letting me respond to a recent interview he conducted with Rabbi Wolicki, in which the latter professes a far greater openness towards interfaith prayer and towards Christians than Orthodoxy is comfortable with. Indeed, while I consider some of his ideas daring and even worthwhile, I must object to other ideas of his. (As a little aside I should add that I have never met Rabbi Wolicki, nor do I know his organization. I am engaging the issues purely on the intellectual merit as they were stated in the interview published on the blog.)

Interfaith Prayer

Rabbi Wolicki disagrees with the Orthodox aversion to interfaith prayers. Wolicki feels that we should revise our aversion to interfaith prayer. He is particularly keen to hold prayer assemblies with Christian and chant psalms together. To buttress this approach, he cites Maimonides that when the Beit haMikdash (the Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) stood, we were bidden to accept sacrifices not just from Jews, but from all people, including idolaters, along with citing a decision by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein allowing participation in neutral prayer in public school as long as the prayers were not camouflaged Christian texts.

I beg to differ. Wolicki conflates two different issues. When the Rambam writes about gentiles, even idol worshippers making offerings, he is not talking about an interfaith service. Even Rav Moshe, who discusses common neutral prayer in a setting in which participation is unavoidable, is not discussing an interfaith service. What people object to in an interfaith service, is that representatives of various faiths lead prayers, either solo or a public group. Interfaith prayer is generally less particularistic than what each faith would do on its own, a stripped down of forms particular to any specific faith. It is either still deeply connected to the different faith communities involved, or it is so bland as to no longer be recognizable as prayer.”

Let me restate that in more practical terms. I am quite involved in interfaith action and I oppose interfaith prayer. However, ever since becoming a senior rabbi sixteen years ago, I have consistently participated in prayer with gentiles, simply because gentiles also visit synagogues and some of them join with us in prayer. Sometimes clergy of other faiths, including but not limited to Catholic and Evangelical clergy, have visited synagogues where I have served and they have joined in to prayers as well. (My policy as to whether they may do so only in neutral garb or also in clerical attire differs based on event and based on what synagogue we are talking about, though mostly they attended in neutral clothing).

But all those cases were about gentiles joining in in Jewish prayer not a joint service. That is precisely what the Rambam writes about when discussing the offerings of gentiles. Gentiles may offer sacrifices in the Temple regardless of whether they are already monotheists or are idol worshippers, but when they bring such sacrifices, they do so on the halakhic terms of the Jewish Temple service, and though for close to two thousand years the Temple lays in ruins, when they join in with Jewish prayer, at least outwardly they do so according to halakhic decorum.

The kind of interfaith prayer we oppose, however, is one which each group offers its own prayers, or the leaders of each confession acts in turn as prayer leader, or we simply each demonstrate what prayer in our respective faiths looks like. Let’s face it, can you imagine the Rambam supporting a Hindu priest to act as the Kohen in our Beit haMikdash? How about a fully robed Cardinal as chazan for Mussaf? No? Didn’t think so, either. The Cardinals I know and with whom I have broken bread and shared a podium aren’t running to invite me to run the mass, either, nor to recite the Kedusha of Mussaf in church.

Wolicki will surely reply that the only kind of interfaith prayer he suggests accepting is one where the texts are shared such as Psalms and the setting neutral. Still, he’s having the gentiles as full participants, surely with leadership roles. That is patently not what the Rambam had in mind.

But I can offer him an alternative. Let him invite the gentiles to shul to silently join in with the public in the silent Jewish recitation of Pesukei deZimra. And I suggest that we open this experience to all gentiles, not just to Christians. (I share with him the expectation that Christians will be more likely to want to take up this offer, for some of the reasons he stated, namely that we share a holy text – even when we disagree how to read it – and we share some foundational values based on that shared text).

Christian Zionists

Rabbi Wolicki thinks that Christian Zionists’ support for Israel isn’t conditioned on their desire to usher about the Second Coming, nor is it in his opinion conditioned upon a desire to bring about the conditions that will make masses of Jews accept Jesus as savior, but it is rather what we may term in a good way a naive appreciation for the Hebrew Bible, which both Christians and Jews see as the embodiment of the Word of G-d. According to Wolicki, it is their love of Scripture and their conviction that the Bible is true and relevant that makes them support Israel and Jews, and they do so unconditionally, with no ulterior motives.

To that I may say that I have met a lot of fine Christians of various denominations who fill the above description of Christian Zionists, who simply celebrate the fulfillment of biblical prophecies, and have no afterthoughts. But I also met numerous other Christians who see this as a sign that they must step up their missionary activity. Even mainline churches that openly disavow mission to Jews still support church organizations that either directly or indirectly missionize Jews. The same Protestant and Evangelical groups that profess an undifferentiated love of Jews and Israel also fund Messianic Jews & Jews for Jesus either directly or (usually) a little less directly.

There is a reason that in the statement Between Jerusalem and Rome, we played up the statement of the Catholic Church’s Papal Committee on Religious Relations with the Jews disavowing missionizing Jews, because (a) it is a major achievement in our relationship with the Catholic Church, and (b) because we want other Christians to listen and understand what a truly respectful relationship entails.

Thus we wrote:

In its recent reflections on Nostra Aetate, “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable,” the Pontifical Commission  … proclaimed that “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.” Though the Catholic Church has not disavowed witnessing to Jews, we understand that it has nonetheless shown understanding and sensitivity towards deeply held Jewish sensibilities, and distanced itself from active mission to Jews.

And:

We ordinarily refrain from expressing expectations regarding other faith communities’ doctrines. However, certain kinds of doctrines cause real suffering; those Christian doctrines, rituals and teachings that express negative attitudes toward Jews and Judaism do inspire and nurture anti-Semitism. Therefore, to extend the amicable relations and common causes cultivated between Catholics and Jews as a result of Nostra Aetate, we call upon all Christian denominations that have not yet done so to follow the example of the Catholic Church and excise anti-Semitism from their liturgy and doctrines, to end the active mission to Jews, and to work towards a better world hand-in-hand with us, the Jewish people.

And frankly, though achieving support for Israel is important, I am not willing to do that at the cost of endangering Jews’ spiritual well-being. Giving missionaries more opportunities to prey on Jews, or just emboldening them by making them feel they are conquering more ground, is simply out of the question. Or as I put it sometimes, we have excellent relationships with some faith groups, but there are also numerous faith groups out there who either don’t like us, or love us too much.

On the other hand, probably like Wollicki, I am not bothered by Christians not adopting a dual theology. I do not engage in interfaith work to create a single warm and fuzzy common religion, but rather insist on respecting our respective differences. Some differences cannot be bridged. I refer you to the Document Between Jerusalem and Rome for some key unbridgeable differences between Judaism and Christianity. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI listed a few others in his famous summer 2018 paper, Gnade und Berufung ohne Reue (Grace and Calling with no Regret).

We highlighted that:

The theological differences between Judaism and Christianity are profound. The core beliefs of Christianity that center on the person of “Jesus as the Messiah“ and the embodiment of the “second person of a triune God” create an irreconcilable separation from Judaism. The history of Jewish martyrdom in Christian Europe serves as tragic testimony to the devotion and tenacity with which Jews resisted beliefs incompatible with their ancient and eternal faith, which requires absolute fidelity to both the Written and Oral Torah. Despite those profound differences, some of Judaism’s highest authorities have asserted that Christians maintain a special status because they worship the Creator of Heaven and Earth Who liberated the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage and Who exercises providence over all creation.

The doctrinal differences are essential and cannot be debated or negotiated; their meaning and importance belong to the internal deliberations of the respective faith communities. Judaism, drawing its particularity from its received Tradition, going back to the days of its glorious prophets and particularly to the Revelation at Sinai, will forever remain loyal to its principles, laws and eternal teachings.  Furthermore, our interfaith discussions are informed by the profound insights of such great Jewish thinkers as Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik,  Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, and many others, who eloquently argued that the religious experience is a private one which can often only be truly understood within the framework of its own faith community.

Pope emeritus Benedict XVI highlighted what is often termed Fulfillment Theology, the claim that Jesus fulfilled certain precepts of the Torah in such a way that they should now be fulfilled in a christological manner. Thus, Christians see the sacrificial service of the Beit haMikdash as being metamorphosed by the Crucifixion and now applying to Jesus. Needless to say, we Jews have no use for such reinterpretations. Indeed, in his letter to me, Benedict / Ratzinger acknowledged that he won’t convince Judaism to accept such readings as legitimate, and only wants to share them so we can understand how Christians see themselves, but without expectation of Jews granting legitimacy to christological readings.

When faced with the reality that most Evangelicals still hew to Replacement Theology, Wolicki bemoans that “the world of Christian academia is a problem.” He believes that many Christians would be open to a different theology that is less antagonistic to Jews and Israel. Wolicki also points out that many Christians hold an intermediate position – alas one we still take issue with – that does not agree that Jews were somehow superseded, but yet find that in many individual aspects of the Law, Christological understandings have superseded the Jewish understandings. In Rabbi Wolicki’s opinion, meeting live Jews and hearing us explain our positions will humanize Jews in their eyes and open up the possibility that they move away from Replacement Theology and even that they minimize the impact and extent of their Fulfillment Theology.

Here I am with Wollicki. Rejecting Replacement Theology and promoting instead a Fulfillment Theology is exactly the kind of thinking Benedict XVI / Joseph Ratzinger proclaimed in his summer 2018 essay.

I responded to Benedict in a private communication that was eventually published by Communio in German, French and some other language editions (the latest I obtained was in Slovenian), I did not take issue with his fulfillment theology, because I understand how difficult it is for the church to justify theologically that Jews have their own eternal and unbroken covenant with G-d. Even as I obviously disagree with the christological interpretation, I understand that Christians need to find a way to make their new philosemitic attitude be justified in terms of ancient scriptures and to make theological sense.

I only took issue in my earlier article Gefahr für den Dialog? (A Danger for Dialogue?) in the Jüdische Allgemeine with Benedict / Ratzinger’s desire to share christological readings with Jews, a desire he moderated in his letter to me.

Even as Cardinal Ratzinger, the pope emeritus, staked out claims I cannot agree with, he formulated them that way so as to fight against the legitimacy of replacement theology. In turn, I respect certain interfaith boundaries that prevent me from getting too involved in lecturing Christians how to understand their own theology. The only exception I make is for the kind of replacement theology that has practical consequences of fostering antisemitism.  Replacement Theology has birthed quite a lot of antisemitism throughout the ages, which expressed itself in violent ways, in deligitimization of Jews and Judaism (and now of Israel) and in missionizing Jews.

Hence, I am supportive of Wolicki’s reaching out to seminaries so they meet live Jews, get to talk to them and sensitizing them to the ravages of religiously motivated delegitimization of Jews and Judaism throughout the ages. Based on what Wollicki writes about his efforts at having Christians meet Jews, I have no issue with this aspect and even applaud the effort.

However, Wolicki puts in my opinion too much stock in the belief to Evangelicals that Scripture is more important than theology. To a particular segment of Evangelicals, that may be true, but other Evangelicals think very differently.

Rabbinic literature and Theology
When asked how he wants to read the Bible regarding the State of Israel, Wolicki not only sees in the modern state an affirmation of G-d’s eternal covenant with the Jewish People and particularly an affirmation of the covenant regarding the Holy Land, but rather as the definite onset of the Messianic Era. In order to be so sure and consider us so far along into the Messianic Era, Wolicki explicitly disregards the arguments from Jewish theology and Rabbinic Literature.

Rabbi Wollicki is clear in his wanting us to read Tanach without taking the writings of Rabbinic literature and Jewish thought into account. Protestants do that, but sola scriptura isn’t a particularly Jewish attitude. Our thought wasn’t suspended in a vacuum between the concluding canonization of Tanach and the establishment of the State of Israel. We instead have Mesorah, the tradition.

Rav Soloveitchik argues in his relevant homily “Two Banks of the River” in Chamesh Derashot (in English The Rav Speaks) that we constantly risk substituting new ideas for what has faithfully remained with us and nourished us and kept us existing as a community for thousands of years. But discarding the old for the new isn’t what we traditionally faithful Jews do. Instead, as Rav Soloveitchik writes, we build bridges between the two banks of the river, or try to.

Wollicki rejects the relevance and the appropriateness of engaging in theology, including the traditional categories of  hashkafa, machshava, aggada etc. But Rav Soloveitchik is more important than ever.

On the role of miracles in our lives, Wolicki proclaims that “a miracle is a deviation from the laws of nature for God’s purposes. … What’s trickier is identifying those contemporary events that qualify. … The role of miracles is what we choose it to be.” Here, too, in general terms, I am with Wollicki. There are miracles and we are often blinding ourselves before their existence.

But this raises thorny theological issues such as, what do we expect a miracle to be like I don’t like the excessive emphasis on the supernatural quality of miracles. But I am basing myself on Rabbinic thought and Jewish theology.

On the contrary, the miracles performed by Moshe, Eliyahu and Elisha are unique, unlike other prophets. Maimonides states, it is not miracles that convinced our ancestors; prophecy did. Clearly miracles are not reasons to believe, but they are reasons to be thankful and can serve the purpose to breaking non-belief.

Wolicki considers atheism to be very similar to paganism, in that both consider us subservient to forces of nature and find discussions about morality and virtue irrelevant to this relationship with nature. I agree. Right and wrong are a product of ethical monotheism. G-d being the one and only power and expecting us humans to act in a certain manner is what made a universal morality possible. This is a Torah teaching, something we spread in the world. My teacher, Rabbi J. David Bleich, likes to emphasize that atheism possesses some of the very same problems are paganism, for both are kofer be’ikar.

Biblical Partners
Wolicki thinks Christians are our biblical partners with whom we are to rebuild the world in accordance with the biblical blueprint, even though they read the bible as modulated by the New Testament and end up reading Tanach often very differently than we do. I agree that we have a special relationship with Christians, but I cannot see how the extent to which Wolicki wants to take this special relationship makes any sense.

In my conversations with Catholic bishops, cardinals and theologians, I have found that they agreed with my analysis (actually David Berger’s), that for all their rejection of superssessionism and their profession of acceptance of Jews’ eternal covenant with G-d, there are limits to how far they go. They only ever accept such matters that they can successfully incorporate theologically. For example, they profess that the covenant of Abraham is eternal, but they are almost entirely quiet about the covenant of Moses or Sinai.

I’d expect Orthodox Jewish thinkers to be no less aware of the limits of how far we can reasonably go. Christians share with us the veneration of Tanach as the Word of G-d, but we fundamentally disagree how to read it. Christians share with us a number of biblical values and draw inspiration from some of the same stories. We both agree that there is one G-d, Creator of heaven and earth and Who took the People of Israel out of Egypt.

But we disagree as to the nature of G-d, whether He would or could ever be incarnate in the flesh, and these are among the unbridgeable differences between our faiths. We call the Catholics in Between Jerusalem and Rome “our partners, close allies, friends and brothers in our mutual quest for a better world blessed with peace, social justice and security.” But we are not going to be building the Beit haMikdash together.

Wolicki believes that his attempt to get Christians to recognize G-d’s ongoing covenant with the Jewish People and to get them to praise Him for the miracles of the Return to Zion would be appreciated by Rambam, were he alive today. To buttress his argument, he cites the passage where Rambam says that Christianity and Islam, though wrong about many theological truths, are nonetheless playing an important role in preparing all of humanity to accept monotheism and the truth of Torah.

I see no significant problem with the above. However, Wolicki, and I will of course disagree how to fulfill the ideas in this section.  As we write in Between Jerusalem and Rome:

As God chose Avraham, and subsequently Yitzchak and Yaakov, He entrusted them with a dual mission: to found the nation of Israel that would inherit, settle and establish a model society in the holy, promised land of Israel, all while serving as a source of light for all mankind.

Islam
I must disagree about his portrayal of Islam. Whether or not Islam believes in the same G-d as we do, is a halakhic question, to be analyzed with halakhic tools and methodology. The poskim disagree with Wolicki.

Wolicki, however, cannot bring himself to see anything positive in Islam. I beg to differ. Just because some or many Muslims adhere to their own kind of replacement theology and just because some or many see themselves as in conflict with Jews over the sovereignty over the Holy Land, does not mean that they are devoid of positive impact.

Maimonides’ positive attitude towards Muslims is because Rambam believes theology to be very important. Their theology is closer to Judaism, especially their view of God. His hope was apparently that Islamic theology would spread understandings that would lead to people rejecting some aspects of Christian theology, thereby bringing people closer to Jewish theology. Just like Rambam expected Christian respect for the Hebrew bible to make people more receptive to the Hebrew Bible’s message.

Wolicki reads Psalms as poetry, as holy poetry, and finds that by approaching Psalms that way, he can access additional layers of meaning. I agree. When I worked on the RCA Siddur, we approached Tehillim pretty much the same way. We drew on Rav Hirsch and Malbim, but also on Daat Mikra and the luminaries of Michlelet Herzog. But we always checked with our Jewish theology, with our Mesorah, to make sure we do not mistakenly go out on a limb.

Explaining Judaism to Christians 
In reaching out to Christians to make them discover Jews and revise any negative attitudes they may have, Wolicki “don’t spend much time or energy explaining Judaism. That’s not my goal. … the goal is really to connect over what we share.” I do not think it is possible to be “making Christians think differently and more respectfully of Jews and Judaism” without explaining how we Jews read the Bible, which is absolutely through the lens of our living and uninterrupted interpretive tradition and its legal application through Talmud and Halacha.  On account of the Rambam cited above, I only reluctantly discuss the Oral Law, which is a corpus that is not held in common by Jews and Christians, but some of it must be shared to allow them to become acquainted with who we are and what we stand for.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I want to highlight the importance of theology. It is all to easy to get high on account of some positive development in Christian theology and exegesis that appreciated some Jewish insights or respects some Jewish sensibilities. But by ignoring the real differences between different faiths, we neither respect each other properly, nor do we do our own faith justice. In the process, we also fail to maximize the potential of the interfaith relationship, which lies not in some warm and fuzzy ecumenism, but rather in using a strong vector for living out our common values for the betterment of society. Rather than deceive myself by singing psalms together in the mistaken belief that this is what Rambam meant regarding accepting sacrifices from gentiles, I much rather fight poverty, fight for religious freedom, defend the rights to shechita, mila, freedom of access to worship and freedom for religious education, fight for peace, against potentially violent religious extremism and against secularist prejudices against religious people.

Interview with Rabbi Pesach Wolicki of CJCUC –Cup of Salvation

Three years ago, I read an op-ed By Rabbi Pesach Wolicki justifying the creation of a joint Jewish -Christian liturgical service “The Day to Praise,” an event where Christians were invited into an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem to partake in a Hallel service to celebrate Yom Haatzmaut.  The service was conducted by members of the Jewish community affiliated with the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) under the auspices of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. The op-ed fully clarified their approach. Wolicki in the following years wrote more op-eds on related topics including an op-ed justifying a Christmas tree in the Haifa University cafeteria.  I found them a wonderful resource clearly explained for use in an interfaith context.

Earlier this year, Rabbi Wolicki published a book on the Hallel Psalms (113-118) as a theology for Jewish-Christian understanding entitled Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David’s Psalms of Praise. The book discusses an approach to religion of praise and worship for all that God does in our lives. Prof. Brad Young of Oral Roberts University wrote a glowing review. “It is the praise given for the miraculous deliverance at Passover and now for the establishment of the State of Israel. It is meaningful for the Christian community because it is connected to the hymn sung at the Last Supper.”

This interview has elicited several responses. The first of which is by Rabbi Arie Folger- here  The second by Dr. Nechemia Stern is here.  And the third response is by Tomer Persico.

wolicki -cup

I enjoyed Wolicki’s book and consider his approach as important as an exemplar of one of the new models of Religious Zionist/Modern Orthodox thinking. Many are concerned with the Modern Orthodox ideology of this decade of the culture wars, gender issues,  or Neo-Chassidus, however there is a large contingent  turning to a direct reading of the Bible for its prophecies of return to the land. They are creating Jewish Bibles modeled after the Scofield Bible with the prophecies in a different color, they are creating a yeshiva for Christian Zionists with a full schedule of classes, and they are creating joint projects in the West Bank. including some staffed by Christians. One of Wolicki’s colleagues at the CJCUC, David Nekrutman recently did a degree at the fervently Evangelical Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma on the Holy Spirit guiding our Biblical ancestors. And of course, there is the Christian edition of the Jerusalem Post geared for Evangelicals.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as the Associate Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding & Cooperation, CJCUC along with David Nekrutman, the Executive Director. He attended York University and his ordination is from the Chief Rabbinate. Prior to joining CJCUC, Rabbi Wolicki served for twelve years as Dean of Yeshivat Yesodei HaTorah, a post secondary program. Previously, Rabbi Wolicki served as a communal rabbi in the Orthodox synagogues in Fairfield, Connecticut and Newport News, Virginia.  He was raised in Montreal, where his father Rabbi Yosef Wolicki served as a pulpit rabbi. Rabbi Wolicki and his wife Kate live in Beth Shemesh with their eight children.

Wolicki is part of The Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation a division of Ohr Torah Stone. CJCUC’s activities include lectures and Bible studies with visiting Christian tour groups. They do about 150 of these per year. They also visit churches and seminaries throughout the world. These visits usually involve a Bible study or talk relating to the State of Israel. They also host leadership trips to Israel. They also act as  advocates on behalf of the Christian minority in Israel. This includes speaking out in the media when Christians and Christian sites are vandalized by Jews, and by writing op-eds designed to sensitize the Israeli population to the Christian minority. And most notably they host a major “Day to Praise” worship event on Yom Haatzmaut every year at which Jews and Christians come together to sing Hallel and celebrate the State of Israel.

The CJCUC produces a podcast called Cup of Salvation and I recommend starting with this overview podcast from last year on their view of Jewish-Christian relations. 

The interview accidentally did not include a discussion of the basic premise that Rabbi Wolicki accepts that Avodah Zarah- foreign worship “as it pertains to Jews is different from what constitutes Avodah Zarah for a non-Jew.  The normative position of Halacha is that Christianity is not forbidden Avodah Zara for non Jews according to Tosafot, the Rema, and the Shach.” For the Rema, when they refer to G-d, they mean G-d. Hence, for Wolicki Christianity is not foreign worship, Yet, he notes “that these opinions were rendered centuries ago. Christian theology and doctrine have developed significantly since the Rema’s time.

Wolicki’s defense of the Christmas tree said that for the sake of argument even if Christianity is pure idolatry form the standpoint of Jewish law, why would it be forbidden to sit and eat in the presence of a Christmas tree?” Jewish law only prohibits benefiting from Icons and idols that are worshiped, or items used as adornment, or used in worship.  For Wolicki, “A Christmas tree is neither worshiped nor does it serve any function in the context of worship. It is not an icon representing the deity and it does not adorn any idol.”

Despite all this sincerity and effort, Rabbi Wolicki has been the object of attacks in the newspapers by Rabbis who see these activities as idolatrous. “The Day to Praise” Hallel service was “branded by one Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem as” a worship that “sickens his stomach” and a “strange fire.” To which Wolicki politely responds that

Given the 2000 year history of Church antagonism to the Jewish people, the shock of Christians coming into synagogue to partake in a service understandably evokes powerful visceral responses. Many people had the gut reaction that this must be wrong and that there certainly must be some Halacha prohibiting it. The consensus among those critical of the event is that inasmuch as Christianity is Avodah Zarah it is forbidden to pray with together with Christians. Others simply said that interfaith prayer is generally forbidden without even inquiring about or even being willing to hear what exactly was done at the event. Some accused me of blurring the lines between Jews and Christians, which could lead to assimilation, as well as endorsing and enabling Christian evangelizing of Jews.

Wolicki own position shows the commonality of the two Biblical faiths. This is a new era. The 20th century produced many works on their differences and lack of commonality including Abba Hillel Silver, Leo Baeck, Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, Emmanuel Levinas, and Rabbi Soloveitchik.  In my childhood, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits’ rejection of Christianity was widespread in which “Judaism is Judaism because it rejects Christianity, and Christianity is Christianity because it rejects Judaism.” Wolicki is important as an Orthodox exemplar of this new era, a change from opposites to commonality.

The return to the Bible has had many forms in the modern era. The Reform movement returned to a Biblical prophetic ethical monotheism, the secular Zionists read the Bible as a cultural treasure and in praise of realistic politics of battles, heroes, and strategy, and the Enlightenment read the Bible as a model of language and poetry. I cannot emphasize enough how much this interview is reflective of a return to the Bible as a Biblical form of religious Zionism that I see growing in Modern Orthodoxy with its treating Israeli history as miraculous and a fulfillment of prophecy in a way akin to Christian Zionism,. This view of living in a millenarian end time focused on a Biblical understanding of the Israeli state is growing.

I am not comfortable with this worldview that almost seems a different religion than my Judaism. I live in a world of Jewish theology in tradition, an overarching rabbinic culture of Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah, of continuity of community and interpretation, as well as many ways of knowing God besides scripture. His rejection of eight hundred years of Maimonides interpretation in favor of excluding Islam is perplexing. The hermeneutical certainty of an author who claims in the interview to love semiotics and Russian formalism is naive. But his speaking regularly to Christians without reference to the Talmud, halakhah or post-Biblical Judaism is against the grain of my role as to informing non-Jews of the Rabbinic tradition and its differences from Christianity. If anyone wants to write a sustained intellectual response, then please contact me.

The interview below presented so much more than I anticipated. I expected a discussion of how to accept Christianity in a post- reconciliation era in which the discussion would focus on a universal commonality or a focus of Christmas trees and other cultural symbols. I also expected a précis of the book on how to read the Psalms as describing a living force in our lives and history. Based on Wolicki’s op-eds, I expected an updated version of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who considered  that the family celebration of Christmas eve should be recognized by Jews as an “echo of Jewish bliss” (Echo jüdische Seligkeit) and not problematic to a Jew with a solid Jewish education. (Jeschurun 4. Jahrgang (1858), 399).

Instead, I received a fully worked out Biblical worldview, which dismisses post-Biblical Jewish thought and experience.  Wolicki presented a Biblical centered worldview of fulfillment of God’s promises, miracles, personal prayer, and  deep relationship to Evangelical forms of Christianity, even to the point of explicitly considering the relationship to Christian Zionism as an intra-religious discussion more than an inter-religious one.

1) Why are you in favor of interfaith prayer? What should that prayer consist of?

Let’s start with the end of the story. For every Bible believing Jew the ultimate goal is the redemption of the world. This redemption is described differently by different prophets, but the basic idea is the same. In Isaiah’s words, the goal is to reach a state wherein “knowledge of God covers the earth as water covers the sea,” or in the words of Zephaniah, when “all are calling on the name of the Lord and serving Him shoulder to shoulder.” The goal is for the entirety of humanity believing in and worshipping the same God – the God of Israel. That’s the game that we’re playing.

Joining in prayer with those who are not Jewish is not a deviation from our mission. In its ideal form, it represents the realization of that mission.

The question, then, is whether or not we embrace expressions or realizations of this idea that are, from a Jewish theological perspective, imperfect and incomplete. Is the complete cleansing of gentile theology of any hint of anything problematic from a Jewish perspective a precondition for shared worship?

Rav Moshe Feinstein has a fascinating responsum on the subject of gentile prayer. The question asked of him was whether or not it is permissible for Jewish students attending public school to participate in the prayers that are recited in school together with the general population of non-Jewish students. He makes the case that it is a mitzvah for non-Jews to pray, inasmuch as it is a basic expression of faith in God in which they are obligated. Hence, so long as the liturgy being recited is not overtly Christian, there is no problem whatsoever with the joint prayer. He states that the nature of the belief on the mind of the gentile as opposed to the Jew during that shared prayer is of no concern to us. Rav Moshe prohibits the joint prayer only in a case when the liturgy was composed in a specifically Christian manner. Neither is he concerned with problematic appearances – mar’it ayin – as he states, “Jews are not suspected of praying to other gods.”

In this responsum, Rav Moshe was discussing a prayer that was composed by gentiles in a gentile context. So why would there be an issue for Jews and gentiles to praise God together using the text of Psalms or a liturgy composed by Jews for the occasion and conducted in a context controlled and orchestrated by Jews?

This responsum reminded me of the Rambam’s ruling in Mishne Torah regarding sacrifices. When discussing offerings in the Temple that are permitted to be brought by non-Jews, Rambam explicitly states that a non-Jew may bring an offering “even if he is an idol worshiper.” Meaning that regardless of how one would define Christianity, regardless of one’s position on the status of Christianity as avodah zarah, were the Temple to be rebuilt today, there would be no problem for Christians to offer their sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem.

When I speak to Jewish audiences about my work, I often quote that Rambam and ask them a simple question. I say to them, “You pray every day for the Temple to be rebuilt. Are you prepared for the Temple to be rebuilt? Are you prepared to come to Jerusalem to bring an offering and find busloads of Christian tourists lining up to bring their offerings? Are you prepared for the vast majority of people worshipping in the Temple being non-Jews?”

Isaiah spoke of the Temple as a ‘house of prayer for all nations.’ Isaiah knew that there are a lot more of them than there are of us. If you have a problem with this, you have a problem with Isaiah.”  Now obviously, Jews and gentiles do not bring the same offerings and are not doing the same things in the temple, but then, neither are Kohanim (priests) and non-Kohanim.

The Jewish people are called upon to be a “kingdom of priests.” If we are the kingdom of priests, who is the flock? I think that Jews are uncomfortable with this aspect of our identity. I think that this is a result of so many centuries of circling the wagons and carefully passing the baton of survival to the next generation. We forgot who we really are.

Rav Moshe was dealing with a prayer in schools. He wasn’t concerned about what definition of God the gentile students had on their minds, so long as the prayer was not overtly Christian. What about a worship service set by Jews, framed by rabbis, led by them? What about a prayer for a shared purpose?

We conduct joint Christian and Jewish praise and worship events on Yom Haatzmaut. There is separate seating and everyone wears head coverings. The format of the event is as follows: a short explanatory dvar Torah on the Psalm was given by a Jew, a Christian read the Psalm in English or Spanish, followed by a musical interlude referencing the Psalm. Six psalms, six divrei Torah, and six songs, with Rabbi Riskin opening and concluding the service with messages stressing the importance of Christian support of Israel and the miracle of the State of Israel in our lifetime.

Both the Jews and the Christians in the room are there for the same reason. All present see the State of Israel as the work of God in fulfillment of the Biblical promise to return His people Israel to their land. All present are praising the God who made those promises for the same reason on the same day. The words they are using are from Psalms. What’s more, one of those Psalms explicitly speaks of “all nations and all peoples” praising God for his abundant kindness to Israel. Frankly, I am surprised by Jews who have a problem with it.

2) Are your views of politics similar to the Christian Zionist pre-millennial dispensation? For both you and them, the messianic events are starting now and we encourage an active role and a dominionism.

Christian Zionists and Jewish Religious Zionists share a definition of the modern State of Israel. Deuteronomy 28-30 describes a lengthy dispersion of Israel followed by an unprecedented return to the land where they will become “more numerous and more prosperous than [their] ancestors.” Recognition that these are no longer prophecies of the future but describe the reality of Jewish history in our time is the basis for any shared view of politics.

The UW Madison historian Dan Hummel touched on this in his excellent essay published by Aeon. The Christian Zionist – Jewish Religious Zionist relationship is not really an interfaith relationship in the traditional understanding of the term. It’s not a relationship based on the liberal idea of tolerance for and acceptance of the value of the difference of the other’s faith system. It’s more of an intra-faith relationship; it seeks and expands upon common points of faith and builds the relationship around what is shared. My understanding is that Christian Zionism is not primarily a political movement. It’s a theological redefinition of Christianity which leads directly to a Bible based Zionism which then produces political activity.

It’s funny, there is a lot more talk of the Christian beliefs in rapture and the millennial kingdom from Jews who are suspicious of Christian motives than there is among Christian Zionists. Christian Zionism is a lot simpler than people make it out to be. God has kept His promises to Israel. The modern State of Israel is the embodiment of that, hence prior supersessionist theology must be mistaken.

What follows from that is a desire to be on board with what is happening with Israel. I don’t think that Christian Zionists think about the Book of Revelations end game nearly as much as Jews think they do. Christian Zionists, as a group, are much more drawn to the Hebrew Bible than their fellow Christians.

I should point out that not all Christian Zionists are pre-millenial dispensationalists. Yes, that’s the largest most vocal group, but there are many different kinds of Christian Zionists. I speak to traditional Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, even Catholics who would call themselves Christian Zionists. They work through the theological issues differently from the stereotypical Evangelical flag waving Zionist. It’s in this more traditional Christian world that I believe there is the most work to be done developing support for Israel. The theological and social issues are different, but there is a lot of depth to their search for answers. For all thinking Christians in virtually all denominations, the State of Israel filled with millions of Jews from every corner of the earth is a theological challenge that must be faced. I believe that Jewish participation in that journey is critical to steering it in a positive direction.

To answer your question directly, yes. We have a similar framework of understanding the reality of Israel today and the role that people of faith play in historical processes. To me, the real question is for those Jews who profess faith in the God of the Bible but do not share this view. Do they not take the prophecies of the restoration of Israel seriously? Do they think that the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 30 is not underway?

I think that many people of faith are afraid of eschatology. I think that many see eschatological thinking as quaint at best, delusional at worst, especially among my friends in the more intellectual Orthodox Jewish community.

3) How do you see following the Bible regarding the State of Israel?

I believe that the issue lies at the heart of the divide between those who recognize the State of Israel as the fulfillment of God’s Biblical promises to Israel and those who do not.

When those people of faith who do not embrace the State of Israel as a fulfillment of God’s Biblical promises make their case, what arguments do they make? They say that it can’t be the redemption because of X or Y in the Rabbinic literature or in Jewish thought. They point out that it makes no sense. For example, “How could the redemption come through non-believing Sabbath violators?” They don’t make their case based on scripture. They reject the eschatological view because it does not sit well theologically.

In contrast, listen to religious Zionists. The case is primarily a Biblical and prophetic one. They’ll directly quote Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Zechariah; regardless of logical flaws that would seem to mitigate against it.

In the more modern Orthodox camp there is a weight given Rav Soloveichik’s interpretation of the State of Israel and the ingathering of exiles, which is very problematic. I refer to his discomfort with identifying the state in Biblically redemptive terms. Rav Soloveichik passed away 25 years ago. He wrote his opinions on the state decades before that. A lot has happened; a lot of prosperity, a lot more population growth. Are we bound by an interpretation of the current reality based on a perspective from close to seventy years ago? Must we turn every perspective from great theologians of the past into an unassailable axiom?

It’s the same on the Christian side, in which, they argue from theology. Paul called God’s continued relationship with Israel a mystery, but supersessionists think they have it all figured out. They laugh at Christian Zionists for being theological simpletons. They’re not simpletons. They see things through a scriptural rather than theological lens. So, what do you do when historical processes seem to be clearly fulfilling Biblical prophecy and it upsets the apple-cart of your theology? Do you reinterpret the events in a way that compromises the integrity of scripture to keep your theology intact or do you revisit your theology because of what God is doing on earth? Is Biblical prophecy subservient to theology or the other way around?

Intellectual people think in terms of theology. But what is theology? Theology is the human attempt to understand, explain, and systematize God. But God is not a theologian. God does not speak that language. God communicates with us in two ways; prophecy and history – what He says and what He does. Theology tries to take everything that God says and does and make sense of it. But here’s the problem. God never promised us that we can figure Him out. In fact, He says just the opposite. “My thoughts are not your thoughts; My ways are not your ways,” doesn’t mean simply that God knows things that He hasn’t told us yet. It means that His ways and thoughts – what He does and what He says – are to some degree incomprehensible to us. At the very least, they are beyond our full understanding. To my Christian friends I make this point by quoting Augustine’s definition of theology; faith seeking understanding. We delude ourselves when we start thinking that theology is more than that; that we have achieved certainty.

On the Jewish side, we ought to remember that the rabbinic idea of lo bashamayim hi – it is not in heaven – refers only to matters of Jewish law. God is not bound by our theology. Why not just look at reality and ask, which opinion in chazal looks like it’s playing out? We don’t get to pasken on the course of history.

4) Most Evangelicals like Oral Roberts University still assume an exclusivist position that salvation is only through Christ as a personal savior, they still hold a replacement theology that when Jesus came, he replaced Judaism, and that Jews are still responsible for the crucifixion.  How can you ignore that and have you made any progress in their changing their views?

The world of Christian academia is a problem. There has been a fair amount of media attention given to polls that indicate that younger generation Evangelicals are less inclined to be pro-Israel. Many think it’s because of the influence of mainstream media and popular culture. I disagree. These same younger Evangelicals are still Republicans and are still pro-life. Those views are not from mainstream media.

A few years ago, we started noticing that the Christian Zionist community was aging. A standard stereotype that we found was that we’d go into a church and the senior pastor, typically in his 50s or 60s, would be staunchly pro-Israel. His younger associate pastor, on the other hand, a recent seminary graduate, would be more stand-offish in the relationship. We did some research. We collected the reading lists for the theology departments of 100 Evangelical seminaries. What we found was that even in the Evangelical world, even in denominations that we would think would be the pro-Israel soft spot, the reading lists were dominated by replacement theology. Jews don’t realize that whether or not a Christian is going to be pro-Israel is not primarily a political question. It’s theological.

We have since made it a priority to try to develop relationships with as many seminaries as we can. I regularly lecture at Evangelical seminaries where they will let me in. Thankfully, as an Orthodox rabbi who knows how to speak to Christians, I am an exotic creature. So, they are usually happy to have me.

The relationship is where it begins. I know this may sound strange to Jews. Why would someone change their theology based on a relationship? Well, it matters a lot. Supersessionist thinking is not taught in this direct “God is done with the Jews. We’ve replaced them” kind of way. It’s more subtle than that.

They don’t call it replacement or supersessionism. They call it fulfillment; that Jesus fulfilled the Torah and therefore the law is no longer binding. They don’t talk too much about Judaism. This subtlety is important. It leaves the door open for nuances and modifications in their thinking. Most importantly, when I speak and teach a piece of Scripture, sharing insights from the original Hebrew, with the professor giving me respect, it changes the way those students see Jews and Judaism.

At CJCUC we just began a very important program. Part of our research revealed that the vast majority of Christian academics teaching theology and Bible have never been to Israel. They have never come face to face with the realities on the ground. It’s impossible to overstate how critical a visit to Israel is in changing a Christian’s thinking about Israel and the Jewish people. We decided to start bringing these academics to Israel. These are the people who are training the next generation of pastors and leaders. In January 2019 we will host our first group. Besides seeing the important Biblical sites, they will be meeting with numerous leading Jewish scholars. Not to mention, that our staff will be with them, developing those personal relationships throughout the trip.

Is the theology taught in the classroom a problem? Yes. But in the end of the day, Scripture is more important to most Evangelicals in the pews than theology.

5) What is a personal relationship with God?

I love this question. As a Jew who spends a lot of time with Christians, I find myself discussing this issue quite often. I also love the question because no Christian would ever ask it. It’s a very Jewish question.

I think the best guidebook for our relationship with God in all of its facets is Psalms. Elation, theological contemplation, suffering, praise, nationalism, fear, love; the entire range of thoughts and emotions relating to God is expressed in Psalms.

To keep things simple, we live our lives of faith in different dimensions; thought and emotion, fear and love. These different dimensions require balance. We have a personal dimension to our faith; our prayer experience, our own private struggles, our own personal moral standing before God, our own mortality; these are things that concern every person of faith.

At the same time, we have a broader context in which we connect with God. History, covenantal relationship to the nation of Israel, the repairing of the world to bring all humanity to knowledge of God. There is a universal mission and goal.

You can count the lines in our daily liturgy that speak in the singular on one hand. Everything is about we, the Jewish people. There’s very little personal. But it’s all over Psalms. Read elohai netzor recited after the Amidah three times a day. It’s deeply personal. The danger in all of this is that for so many Jews there is very little development of a personal relationship. And we need it.

6) What is the role of miracles in our lives?

What is a miracle? A miracle is a deviation from the laws of nature for God’s purposes. That’s the easy part. What’s trickier is identifying those contemporary events that qualify.

I remember during the 1991 Gulf War when the scuds were raining down on Israel there was a lot of talk of miracles. There was a news item on Israeli TV that I’ll never forget. A building in Tel Aviv, or thereabouts, was hit by a missile. The building was mostly destroyed. But there was one piece of the building that somehow was untouched. There was an elderly woman who had not made it to the bomb shelter who was in that part of the building at the time. She came away without a scratch. She was not a religious woman. She made that abundantly clear. When asked on camera for her reaction to what happened she was adamant. “Zeh lo nes! Zeh LO NES!” She was insistent that this was not a miracle. It gave new meaning to the rabbinic dictum, ain baal hanes maker beniso (the one who benefits from a miracle does not recognize the miracle) – in other words, the last one to recognize a miracle is the one that it’s happening to.

And this is the key to answering your question. The role of miracles is what we choose it to be. Here again, the more intellectual set gets uncomfortable. Miracles in Tanach? Fine. Miracles in our lives, in modern Israel, in the history of the last 100 years? Skepticism. As long as it’s not too close to home people are more willing to embrace God’s actual activity in the world. It’s almost as if so much of the Modern Orthodox intellectual set is really Spinoza in orientation with an allowance for an inner spiritual life  of neo-Chasidism. But a God who is actually alive and active in history? Not so much.

7) How is atheism and secular culture the new paganism?

In the introductory essay to the classic academic work on the Ancient Near-East, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, Henri Frankfort described the difference between the ancient pagan and the modern secularist. Ancients and moderns alike see man as “imbedded in nature and dependent upon cosmic forces.” The difference between them, in Frankfort’s words, is that, “for modern, scientific man the phenomenal world is primarily an ‘It’; for ancient man it is a ‘Thou’.” Later in the book, John Wilson and Thorkild Jakobsen make the point that the concepts of morality and ethics as we know them – the idea that there is an objective “right” and a “wrong” – did not come into being until very late in the game in ancient cultures. The relationship with the gods – the governing forces – was one of crass pragmatism. If I do this and this, my crops will grow and the gods will leave me alone. If I do that, they will be angry and there will be suffering. “Right” and “wrong” were really just about what is practically wise or orderly vs. what was ineffective or chaotic.

This is the crux of the issue. Are we subservient to the forces of nature; forces that do not seek our well-being and do not direct the course of history? Or are we in a worshipful relationship with a God who has a plan, who loves humanity, and has endowed us with the ability to master nature for higher purposes; a God whose traits we seek to emulate?

Today, it’s no longer the “Thou” of the pagan gods, but the world view is essentially the same. It ends up in the same place. The forces of nature are all that there is. These forces neither care about us nor do they imply any moral necessities; only pragmatic ones.

8) Does your book teach a universalism in which all the nations work to build God’s kingdom or is there a special relationship with Christianity to the exclusion of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhists, or Agnostic-secular Westerners?

I believe that there is a special relationship with Christianity. I don’t see how there can be a place for non-Biblical faiths in the building of God’s kingdom as described by Zechariah, “And the Lord (YHVH) shall be king over all the earth. On that day the Lord (YHVH) shall be one and His name shall be one.” If someone professes belief in a god other than the God of Israel, the God of the Bible, how are we partners in building His kingdom?

I categorically reject the notion that Islam believes in the same God as we do. I think the explanation is quite straightforward. What do we know about God? How do we define Him? We are not a faith system based on some Aristotelian derivation of the concept of a Higher power. We have never actually seen God face to face. Our religion is based, first and foremost, on the authority of Scripture. We know Him through Scripture. If I say something about God – what He said or what He wants from us – that contradicts Scripture, then I am wrong. Outside of the scripture we have no description of God.

It follows that a religious system that rejects our text cannot claim to believe in the same god as we do.

Sure, they can say it, but it’s meaningless. Muslims and Jews believe in the same God. Really? But my book has God doing, wanting, and saying A, B, and C and their book has Allah doing, wanting, and saying X, Y, and Z. How is that the same God? Again, we only define and derive who God is by what He told us about Himself. If you have a different list, it’s not the same God.

The fact that Muslims assume that Allah is the God of the Bible – a theological position taken by Muhammad – does not obligate me to accept their assumptions. Let’s say, for example that someone decided that Zeus is actually the only god, and guess what? – he’s the same god as the Jews worship, I would never accept that.

This is where the relationship with Christianity is different and more complicated. We share the Bible with Christianity. Christians, like Jews, believe that every word of the Bible is divinely inspired. They share our belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of Sinai, or Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel.

9) How is this supported by Maimonides? Isn’t your reading against the grain of others?

Quite frankly, I don’t think that what I said represents a Maimonidean way of thinking. Maimonides saw theology as primary, not necessarily Scripture. He pretty much says this in the Guide. At the same time, while Maimonides is certainly the most famous and most studied Jewish theologian, much of mainstream Jewish theology is decidedly not Maimonidean. Accordingly, while I wouldn’t claim that my thoughts on Islam are consistent with the Rambam that does not inherently invalidate my thinking.

That said, it is certainly worthwhile to look at this issue through the lens of Maimonides. I believe that even in his writings on Christianity and Islam there are nuances that are often overlooked.

Of course, theologically speaking for the Rambam, Judaism is closer to Islam than it is to Christianity. Rambam ruled unequivocally that Christianity is avodah zarah and that Islam is not, distancing Christianity from Judaism in a way that is not applicable to Islam.

But the Rambam discusses Christianity and Islam in other contexts apart from their theology. For example, in Mishneh Torah Hilchot Melachim ch. 11, Rambam famously discusses Jesus and Christianity. After explaining why Jesus was clearly not the Jewish Messiah, he goes on to say that despite the disaster that Christianity brought upon the Jewish people in the past, the purpose of Christianity and Islam are,

“solely in order to pave the path for the king Messiah and to repair the entire world to serve Hashem together… How so? The entire world has now been filled with the concept of the Messiah, the concepts of the Torah, and the concepts of the commandments. These matters have spread to the most distant lands and to many primitive nations.”

Whenever I share this passage with a Jewish audience, I get surprised reactions. People are aware that the Rambam held Christianity to be idolatrous. They find it counter-intuitive that he would say that a religion that is avodah zarah exists “solely in order to pave the path for the king Messiah.” But this passage is not about theology. We make a mistake if we conflate theology and eschatology. The Rambam clearly had no problem putting Islam and Christianity on equal footing eschatologically regardless of the fact that one is idolatrous and the other is not.

I believe that this same conflation is in play when people read the well known responsum of the Rambam permitting teaching “the commandments and commentaries” – mitzvoth uperushim – to Christians while prohibiting such teaching to Muslims. The Rambam is not talking about theological closeness. He’s talking about how productive or counter-productive such teaching would be. These are not the same thing.

His reasoning is fascinating. Since Christians share a faith in the authenticity of our Bible, there is a possibility that they will respect what they are being taught as an explanation of the text. Perhaps it will open their eyes to a new understanding and bring them closer to us. Muslims, on the other hand, do not share our scripture and therefore will reject anything that differs from their own beliefs. There is nothing to gain in the process.

In this specific context, whether a religion is idolatrous or not is, frankly, irrelevant to the ruling of the Rambam. He’s talking about effectiveness in helping to cleanse these religions of their mistakes.  Since Christians respect and share faith in our Bible, there is more to be gained in the teaching. What the Rambam is saying is that even though Islam is closer to us theologically, Christianity is closer to us Scripturally. So, when it comes to teaching Scripture there is greater chance for positive effect than there is with Muslims.

To put what I see as a special relationship with Christianity another way, Psalms 126 and 117 both speak of multitudes among the nations praising the God of Israel for restoring the nation of Israel to our land. Why and how would there be multitudes among the nations who would praise our God for that? How would they even know about Him? Why would they see our in-gathering as the fulfillment of a divine promise? Obviously, the premise is that they must know about Him and His promises to us. Well, here we are. We’ve been restored.

The exile is winding down and sure enough, there are multitudes among the nations that praise the God of Israel for restoring us to our land. And it isn’t multitudes of Buddhists, Muslims, or Noahides. It’s Christians. I think that if the Rambam were alive to see this he would say, “That’s exactly what I had in mind.” I know he included Islam as playing a similar role as Christianity, but he didn’t explain how that works. He did refer to the spreading of the Bible, obviously referring to the Christian role. How the Muslims “pave the path” for the Messiah is less clear to me.

10) What is the meaning of the Psalms?

Psalms was written with prophetic inspiration. These are not just the personal laments, prayers, and praises of individuals. They speak a universal language for all people in all times. When there are Psalms that are overtly eschatological, they are painting a picture for all the generations to come of what the end game looks like. The history in Psalms is a description not of the events themselves but of the human reaction to the great unfolding of God’s plan. Psalms describes our experience in faith of what God does in our lives and in the world.

What is uniquely me about the book is the analysis of Psalms as coherent poetry. I have always loved studying Psalms and always felt that the classical commentaries did the Psalms a disservice by using basically the same exegetical approach that they use for the rest of Scripture. Psalms is a very different book.

Psalms are poems. They are meant as poems and ought to be treated as poems. Most commentaries ignore this fact. For example, when an unusual word is chosen over the more common alternative, all of the classical commentaries will be satisfied by simply making it clear that the word means what it does. Not one of the traditional commentaries that I found address the simple question, “Why was this word chosen over the more common word? What nuances does this word carry from its other uses?” These are poetry questions. Poetry assumes multiple layers of association in the choice of words. It assumes a certain flow of ideas from beginning to middle to end of a poem. None of these issues are addressed by the classical commentaries. The Malbim and Rav Hirsch approach these issues at times but not consistently or thoroughly.

I was a literature major. I enjoyed the classes that most literature majors hate; literary criticism, semiotics – I loved that stuff. I particularly connected with the approach of the Russian formalists and their emphasis on both seeking repeating motifs and divorcing the text from writer’s intent. Interestingly, Rav Kook, in his brilliant introduction to Ein Ayah makes the case for this approach to Aggadata. My approach to exegesis was profoundly affected by this part of my education.

11) The Christian Zionists know almost nothing about the Talmud, Rabbinic Judaism, and halakhah. Is there any goal of correcting this lack or pointing out our differences?

I don’t spend much time or energy explaining Judaism. That’s not my goal. When I am asked a question or am faced with a misconception, I respond. But the goal is really to connect over what we share; to recognize that we share a lot more than anyone on either side realizes. Along with that is the goal of helping Christians to think differently and more respectfully of Jews and Judaism.  I think that this is an important objective.

Over and over again, I have seen how the inclination to proselytize Jews is weakened the more they build a relationship of respect with Jews. When a Christian begins seeing us as a source of teaching, as an authority that they want to learn from, it makes it much more difficult for them to keep thinking that they need to change me. In many cases, the relationship challenges them and I consider that a good thing.

 

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan on Experience, Consciousness, and Method

In this post, we will look at Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s views on consciousness, experience, and visionary mental images. His broad view of altered states of consciousness incorporated 4-D and 5-D space, hallucinogens, and learning to form steady mental images. In his discussion of forming a mental golem, he puts many of these ideas together.  He also describes the goal as seeking spiritual energy though mizvot or through attaining the non-verbal consciousness of hokhmah. His discussion of Ezekiel incorporates many of his broad views on the topic of consciousness incorporating removing the static of the mind, sensory deprivation, the flood of past memories, bright light, and then the state of nothingness and synesthesia.  Finally, we discuss his rejection of non-Jewish meditation even as he is busy mastering books about it and we conclude with his willing to re-script the Kabbalah for women.

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

aryeh kaplan pic
(Oil painting by Rabbi Kaplan)

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan during one of his classes mentions how as a child he saw colors when people spoke, a common altered state of consciousness called synesthesia. In his book Jewish Meditation, he mentions his own eureka moment of figuring out a physics problem while taking a bath, and elsewhere he discusses how he uses “rebbono shel olam” as a mantra (he really meant japa). All of these, Kaplan called meditation. In general, he called any altered states of consciousness, synesthesia, telepathy, psychic powers, hypnosis, and opening the door of perception as meditation. Mediation is not mindfulness but the higher states of consciousness.

This is similar to the classic Moody Blues album, In Search of a Lost Chord (1968) where the lost chord of meditation is about attaining a higher state of consciousness, which includes music, art, LSD, philosophy, spiritual states, Eastern religion, and visualization.  Writing with a sense of this counter culture, Kaplan proclaimed that his works on meditation is only to be practiced by those pure and elevated. Yet, “we are living now in a time of breaking barriers. Everything that people always assumed to be impossible is becoming possible in our time. God may be teaching us a very important lesson with this: we are capable of doing things we never thought possible.” (Innerspace 167) Our age needs to know about the higher wisdom, the lost chord.

Kaplan treats Kabbalah as a meditative state, by which he means an altered state of consciousness. This generally means, for Kaplan, the ability to form mental images, whether in physics or kabbalah. Hence, his discussion of visualizing the divine name in his book Jewish Meditation becomes a synecdoche for a wide range of mental imagining.

The previous section explained how to use the letter arrays together with the divine Name as a meditative device.  One of the manifestations of higher meditative states (as well as some drug-induced states) is hallucinogens, where one can voluntarily form mental images.  These mental images appear to be real and substantial.  When a person is in a normal state of consciousness, he may be able to form mental images, but they are weak, transient, and blurred by mental static.  In contrast, the images formed in a meditative state appear solid, substantial, and real. (Sefer Yetzirah 133)

Kaplan’s works repeatedly refer to hallucinogens, which he does not primarily mean drugs, even though they are mentioned, but the ability to reach these states of forming images. He even asks at the start of Meditation and the Bible, whether prophecy is due to hallucinogens. Kaplan claims hallucinogens give the ability to “voluntarily form mental images.” For Kaplan, forming images is best done in a meditative state

However, when Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan was teaching Sefer Yetzirah, he said of the images of the kabbalah “it’s like tripping on LSD, grooving on black. If you do not have familiarity with these states of consciousness, then you wont understand what I am saying .” Several of those attending the class called out that they had familiarity. (taped class with psychologists – Jan 22, 1979). . Then, in such a state, one can imagine arrays of letters and divine names.

Jeffrey Kripal, the Rice University scholar of religion describes the approach to religion of the Romanian scholar of religion, Ioan Couliano (d. 1991) who taught at University of Chicago,  in ways very similar to Kaplan’s approach. For Couliano, the study of these practices has to be done from within, which means the leaving of three dimensional space toward four dimensions and beyond, these phenomenon brake our normal categories of time and space, leading us to the fantastic, complex, and strange. Kaplan consistently described kabbalah as five dimensional space and giving powers

The study of Kabbalah is a study of consciousness not a study of cultural texts, hence Kaplan gathered around him a core group of psychologists to understand these texts, not textual scholars or rabbinic scholars. And his method was to read a passage in a Kabbalistic text and translate it into terms of psychological and paranormal consciousness without seeking to contextualize that passage in the rest of the medieval kabbalistic book or in other kabalistic books.  His working assumption is that the original fantastic prophetic meanings were lost and the only way to find them was by discussing the passage with people who knew about consciousness.

Kaplan found the texts of the Sefer Yetzirah, Rabbi Abrhaam Abulafia, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, Isaac of Acco and Hayyim Vital’s Shaar Ruah Hakodesh and Shaar Gilgulim as most valuable for this project. He did not find early kabbalists or much of the theosophic kabbalah as spiritual. Surprisingly, he did not find Chabad as mystical or meditative because, in his opinion, it had no higher wisdom or working with spiritual energy. In his classes, he claims to be able to derive all of Zoharic from Sefer Yetziarah. He also said in one of his 1979 classes that he had not looked at the Ari’s Etz Hayyim since 1970.

Golem of the Mind

The prime example of a meditative use of imagery is the creation of a golem. Moshe Idel in his book, Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid describes how for members of the ecstatic school of Kabbalah, most notably Abraham Abulafia, the creation of the golem was a mental act of creation. Kaplan uses the ideas of Abulafia and applies them to texts elsewhere that took the creation of the Golem literally, such as Rabbi Eleazar of Worms. Kaplan uses this imaginary approach of Abulafia to describe the creation of mental images, the most important one being a golem, which he identifies with the astral body, as described by Eleazar of Worms and Hayyim Vital. Kaplan actually gives instructions for this process based on his idea that hokhmah is non-verbal and binah is verbal and confused. One enters the real of Nothingness at the height of hokhmah, there one can create things.  The magical is a sign of entering the higher states of consciousness.

It is out of this Tohu, this state of confused Binah consciousness, that one must create a palpable image.  There are many images that can be produced, but the most common is the mental Golem, the astral body.  The initiate thus “forms palpable substance (mamash) out of chaos.”  This implies attaining a state of Chakhmah consciousness.  The Kabbalists thus note that the word Golem has a numerical value of 73, the same as that of Chokhmah. In the process one visualizes the sefirtot by a process of carving hem in one’s mind as a form of visible air. Notice again the point that I am making that he treats the word meditation as the activity of carving sefirot in the mind.  The golem is the background for the carving of the sefirot.

In order to accomplish this, one must enter fully into the realm of Nothingness.  This is the highest level of Chakhmah consciousness, bordering on Keter.  One therefore begins with “nonexistence,” which is Nothingness.

When one reaches this level, he can actually make something “that actually is” (yeshno) or “existence.”  He can actually bring about results in the universe of Asiyah, which can then be reflected in the physical world.  In making a Golem, this would correspond to the state of consciousness required before the metal image could be imposed on the clay, bringing it to life. (Sefer Yetzirah 134)

]It is in this state of consciousness that one can visualize the Sefirot as “great pillars.”  One “carves” them out, this meaning that the image of the Sefirah is seen separately, totally filling the consciousness.  Even though the Sefirot are totally ineffable and indescribable, when a person is in this state of consciousness, he can “carve” them out.  They are then perceived as solid pillars, made of transparent air.  Like the air, the Sefirot are still invisible, but in this state of consciousness, even the air can become visible. (Sefer yetzirah 135 )

For Kaplan, in this process of visualization, one mentally forms each of the 22 part of the body culminating in putting them together as a golem. Kaplan thinks the ultimate goal is to combine the 22 visualizations into a full body. Notice that he turns Abulafia and Eleazar of Worms into a sense that these are instructions for today and he describes how to do it. One carves letters int he mind, the way he descbied carving the Tetragrammaton in other places in his writings. He concludes with the potential for still creating a physical golem.

He used each of the 22 letters to form a mental image of a different part of the body.  Each part of the body can thus be formed separately.  The ability to complete separate parts, however, does not prove mastery of the method of Sefer Yetzirah.  The final proof of mastery is the ability to assemble all these 22 objects into a single body.

This is the process of completing a mental Golem.  The initiate must not only form all the parts, but he must actually assemble them.  This means that while he is engaged in the meditation to create one part, he must not lose his mental image of the parts that he formed earlier.  As each part of the image is formed, it must be retained in the mind, with subsequent images added to it, part by part.  The amount of mental discipline, as well as the advanced nature of the meditative technique required for this, is virtually beyond description.

The creation of a mental Golem is therefore a culmination of the arts of Sefer Yetzirah, as well as a test to determine if one has mastered them.  This did not involve the actual creation of a physical Golem, sine this was only done on very special occasions. (Sefer Yetzirah 136)

For many, Kaplan’s writings were an Orthodox version of Moshe Idel’s ideas about Abulafia’s views.  Kaplan clearly did not rely on Idel because of the older and inferior texts used and the many weak readings of Abulafia in Kaplan. But an example of a an Abulafia truism, quoted in the name of Kaplan, is that for Kaplan similar to Abulafia and Idel divides “the kabbalah is divided into three categories, the theoretical, the meditative, and the magical.”  Thereby rejecting Scholem’s focus on the symbolic sefirot. Once again note the definition of meditation used by Kaplan, “meditative kabblah deals with the use of divine names, letter permutations, and similar methods to reach higher states of consciousness, and as such, comprises a kind of yoga.” (Sefer Yetzirah ix) But Kaplan delivers excitement for his readers through also using descriptions similar to the Tibetan material about an astral body made in mental visualization described by W. Y. Evans-Wentz. Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines (1935).

Spiritual Energy

In general, Kaplan is looking for the power and spiritual energy of the Kabbalah, the way that 1950’s American books on Indian thought picked out the passages on kundalini and chakras. When he was writing, the then current English writings on kabbalah did not emphasized these aspect of spiritual energy at all. For example, Kaplan notes that the position of uplifted hands played an important role in the priestly blessing. As a source, he gives the Bahir, which explains “that the reason for this is because the ten uplifted fingers parallel the ten sefirot and can therefore draw spiritual energy from them. This same position is also used by Rabbi Abraham Abulafia…”  (Meditation and the Bible, 70).  Elsewhere, he reiterates this as  “raised hands to focus spiritual energy.” He translates the theurgy and concern for sefirot into a more generic “spiritual energy”  moving quickly from sefirot to meditative kabbalah allowing the reader to think of kundalini or tai chi.

This is also the way Kaplan paints Rabbi Isaac Luria. “Very often, the Ari used to take a passage from the Zohar and meditate on it, perhaps repeating it over and over like a mantra, until the inner meaning was revealed to him.” (6) Kaplan skips from Abulafia and Rabbi Isaac of Acco to the writings of Rabbi Hayyim Vital, with little attention to the Zohar and theosophic Kabbalah which he finds too poetic and too anthropomorphic, but he credits this poetry to our not understanding its secrets. For him, Zohar is only poetry without the Ari. “The Ari’s teaching could be called the atomic theory of the Zohar: everything begins to make sense. One can go deeper and deeper, as far as the human mind can delve, and it will always yield new treasures. “(6)

Even the concept of sefirot, or the sefirah of malkhut, he makes into spiritual energy. Based on a passage in the Pseudo Raavad (Yosef ben shalom Ashkenazi) commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, he considered the word sefirot and the Livnat haSapir under the divine throne as based on the jewel sapphire, which is the jewel of the third eye, where humans can see visions.

Reaching Non-Verbal Consciousness

In all of his discussions, he accepts the known opinion of Aldous Huxley that the goal of altered states of consciousness is to remove all the noise of everyday life blocking the higher wisdom, a super normal perspective. The goal is to get to non verbal hokhmah consciousness that is higher than verbal binah consciousness.

Try for a moment to stop thinking.  You remain completely conscious, but there are not verbal thoughts in your mind.  If you are an average person, you may be able to maintain such a state for a few seconds, but immediately your mind begins to verbalize the experience.  You might say to yourself, “I am not thinking of anything.”  But as soon as you do this, of course, you actually are thinking of something.

For those few second, however, you have experience nonverbal Chakhmah consciousness.  If you work at this exercise, you can gradually learn how to extend the time in which you are in this state.  It is like a heavy pendulum, the longer you push it back and forth, the further it will swing.  Similarly, the more you learn to oscillate between verbal Binah consciousness and nonverbal Chakhmah consciousness, the deeper you will reach into the latter, and the longer you will be able to maintain this state. (Sefer Yetzirah 40)

It is very difficult to experience pure, nonverbal thought.  As soon as a person attempts to clear his mind of thought, he immediately begins to think, “Now I am not thinking of anything.”  The state of Wisdom or Chakhmah consciousness is one of pure nonverbal thought, which is very difficult to attain.

It is in an attempt to attain the state of Chakhmah consciousness that the various meditative methods are used.  Thus, mantra meditation attempts to clear the mind of reverie by filling it with the repeated words of the mantra.  Similarly, contemplation pursues the same goal by filling the mind with the contemplated object. (Sefer Yetzirah 39)

Theosophic Kabbalah is really about consciousness of knowing the harmony or resonance of sefirot and the word.  He gives a method or path of meditation-magic. First one binds oneself to the object, then one perceives its spiritual nature and evaluates the object.

When a person has an awareness of the Sefirot, he can then “examine” anything in creation and determine the Sefirah to which it pertains.  As he becomes proficient in doing this, he can use various things to strengthen his attachment to their associated Sefirah.  When the Sefer Yetzirah was first written, each individual had to do this on his own.  Now, however, there are many lists which associate various things and ideas with their appropriate Sefirot, and these can be used as aides in binding oneself to them.

The Sefer Yetzirah is also indicating here that when a person perceives the true spiritual nature of a thing, he also elevates that thing spiritually.  “Standing” refers to such elevation.  The expression, “make each thing stand” therefore says that when one “probes from them,” he elevates the thing that he probes. (Sefer Yetzirah 40-41)

kaplan-ncsy 1975-shelly lang
(At a 1975 NCSY Shabbaton with Shelly Lang)

Turn on, Tune in, and become a Prophet

One has to go within to activate one’s neural equipment in order to become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness. One needs to “Turn on” to the higher consciousness, and then one is to “Tune in” to interact harmoniously with the world around you – externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. He reflects Aldrous Huxley description of the need to “Turn on and Tune in” (using Leary’s phrase).

Meditation does two things: it relaxes the mind’s reactions to all external stimuli and thus quiets down all the internal thought processes and normal reverie. In an ordinary state of consciousness the mind is filled with static. If you wish to see this static, just close your eyes for a few minutes. You will see a rapidly changing series of superimposed images which constitute a steady stream of internal stimuli. As long as you are seeing and hearing your own reveries, as long as you are talking to yourself, you are not going to hear God’s voice.  You have to quiet down all the mind’s internal messages to itself, which is a very difficult undertaking…

This is like trying to get a very weak radio signal and picking up a lot of static. If you have a good radio, you can tune it, cut down the static, and pick up a clear signal. Similarly, high-level meditation requires that you first eliminate all mental static. You may then be able to pick up a very faint signal that you cannot really hear. The next step is to carefully start tuning up the volume. Now imagine what will happen if your mind is not controllable yet when you turn up the volume. You will get your signal…the static will actually cause a devastating shock. (Innerspace 149-150)

Kaplan gave classes on the opening chapter of Ezekiel based on this approach. “Ezekiel saw five things: a storm wind, a great cloud, a fire, a Glow and Chasmal. According to the Zohar, the first four were Klipot, husks or barriers that Ezekiel had to experience before getting the vision. (Innerspace 149). For Kaplan, the storm wind is the aforementioned static.

The cloud  is sensory deprivation and the deautomation of complete focus. The psychologists Charles Tart and Arthur Deikamn were in their research working on these states in the 1960’’s.

“You have to quiet your mind even more. What do you see, then, when you get rid of all internal stimuli and quiet down the mind completely? Nothing, A very frightening nothing, an empty nothing.” “A sensory deprivation that is amplified a million times. You feel this overwhelming frightening nothingness.” (Innerspace 151)

It has been said that the best way to describe absolute nothingness is to speak of it as “what you see behind your head.”  Since vision does not exist in the back of the head, what one sees there is absolute nothingness.  If I ask you what you see behind your head, you answer that you see nothing.  Contemplating on what one sees behind one’s head is therefore a good way to learn how to visualize absolute nothingness. (Innerspace 89)

The fire is the experience of being flooded by all of one’s past memories; once again ideas based on Huxley.

Imagine you start feeling a closeness to God and realize that God knows everything about you and everything you ever did.  You are standing naked before God, with your memory wide open, completely transparent, without any jamming mechanism or reducing valve to diminish its force.  You remember everything you every did and see it in a new light.  You see it in the light of the unshaded spirit, or, if you will, in God’s own light that shines from one end of creation to the other.  The memory of every good deed will be the sublimest of pleasures and most delightful bliss imaginable. (Innerspace 151)

But your memory will also be open to all the things of which you are ashamed.  The wrongs you committed burn; they are very painful, but it is worse than physical pain.  It is not even like a psychological pain that you could hide or run away from.  There is no possibility of rationalization, no dismissing it, no escaping it.  It is a pain that is there. (Innerspace 152)

The glow is according to Kaplan, a brilliant black light

Imagine a black that is as vivid as a blinding sun.  Now in an ordinary state of consciousness you could not imagine it.  In a meditative state you can.  You can imagine a black that becomes deeper and deeper and glows and radiates and becomes blindingly bright. (152)

Finally, the vision of the Chasmal  is the speaking silence of the top of hokhmah, which is keter as a speaking silence  or the often discussed synesthesia, or the Buddhist Nothingness, (which I discussed in the last post). Most discussions place synesthesia at a lower stage of consciousness, but Kaplan places it at top. He situates his own childhood experience as within the prophetic.

Meditative Mathematics

A completely different form of meditative experience are his forays into the visualization of complex analysis in math, his discussions of the topological concept of a Rieman Sphere. As a given throughout his writings, Kaplan assumed that the Kabbalah was up to date about the physical world and working with five dimensional space, in practice four dimensional. Math problems and topology were treated as meditations and a vital form of forming mental images.

When we view the Sefirot as being ten directions in a five-dimensional continuum, we can also interpret this in another manner.  Every pair of Sefirot defines an infinite line, extended infinitely in both directions.  The end points of such an infinite line, however, come together and meet once again in the “point at infinity.”  This is a fact recognized by mathematicians, and considerable use of the “point at infinity” is found in complex analysis, the calculus of complex numbers.

In our three-dimensional continuum, we can likewise extend all lines outward infinitely.  The end points of all these lines would then be an infinite sphere surrounding all space.  However, each opposing pair of lines would meet at the point at infinity, and therefore, all ongoing times must meet at this point. Thus, in one sense, the entire three-dimensional space continuum can be seen as surrounded by an infinite sphere.  In another sense, however, this entire infinite sphere can also be represented by a single point- the point at infinity.  A point, however, is infinitely small.  Thus the point at infinity can be seen as being both infinitely large and infinitely small at the same time. (Sefer Yetzirah 58- 59)

One can use this as a meditation.  Try to imagine the sphere at infinity and the point at infinity, and attempt to perceive how they are actually one.  You will then see that your usual conception of space and extension are not as simple as you believe. (Sefer Yetzirah 59)

Other Religions and Meditation

Kaplan was adamant and unyielding to all those who asked him about TM and other Eastern techniques that they were “foreign worship” (avodah zara).

Kaplan, however, saw the practices of other faiths as deriving form Judaism. He popularized the statement of Rabbi Menashe ben Israel (17th century Amsterdam) that the gifts of Abraham to his concubines were the Asian religions. He thought that the ancient Canaanite practice of worshiping a sacred grove or asherah was based on the Kabbalistic tree. Or that Rav Hai Gaon’s statement that the hekhalot were done by placing one’s ead between one’s legs became the ancient pagan worship of dust.

Realizing the importance of the tree symbolism in prophetic meditations, the idolaters attempted to emulate it. They actually planted trees which would serve as the object of their meditations and visions…. Through such Asherah trees, they hoped to ascend the spiritual Tree, which they most probably saw as the Tree of Life.” (107) In his speculative etymologies, Ashera is from the root shur- to see or have a vision of the tree.  “This ‘tree’ is often said to refer to the entire array of the Sefirot…ascending through this array plays a key role in prophetic meditation.”

“We often find counterparts of prophetic methods in idolatrous practices, since in many cases, the idolaters attempted to emulate the prophetic schools. A possible hint that this position was used among the idolatrous prophets is found in the Talmudic teaching that certain pagan Arabs used to “bow down to the dust of the feet….However, it would appear that some pagans viewed the prophetic position, where the great mystics sat with their head between their knees, and assumed that they were contemplating their toes, or the like. They adopted this practice and it gradually degenerated to the worship of the “dust of their feet.” (71)

Yet, Kaplan held that “Idolatrous and other occult practices often shed light on the prophetic methods.” (Innerspace 109, 115). Hence, he often used books about practices in other religions to figure out Jewish practices. We read books about Asian religions to reclaim Jewish practices which were primary.

Gender

Finally, Perle Besserman, one of his long time students, and the one who promoted him for his radio and TV interviews, asked him about the role of gender in these experiences in that it always was a male mystic who identified with the male zeir anpin making love to female shekinah. Kaplan answered that after we figure out the visualizations for men, we can figure out a useful visualization for females. It should be noted, that in the 1970’s, Kaplan was one of the few teachers within the Orthodox world who regularly taught women and encouraged them to study the Talmud, Oral law, and Kabbalah.

As a side point, Perle was among the cadre of his students who complained that Kaplan was more interested in theory than meditative practice, that he was not teaching meditation rather explaining Ezekiel. She therefore  returned to Eastern practices becoming a Buddhist practitioner and teacher.

Judging from the overtly sexual language reminiscent of a Tibetan tantra text, I noted that the Sefer Bahir seemed to suggest that the union of male and female sefirot not only be visualized but literally enacted in sexual intercourse. Informing Aryeh that I was uncomfortable with the idea of a female Kabbalist visualizing herself reflected in the “great bearded male continence” and making love to her husband in the form of the shekhinah, I asked if there was a way we might re-configure Rabbi Nehumiah’s meditation for women.

“Sure,” Aryeh replied. “But it’ll have to wait until we’ve deciphered all the meditations in their original form first.” (Perle Besserman, A New Kabbalah for Women 73)

Coda

Kaplan interprets the four elements of medieval thought- fire, water, air, and earth-in modern terms. Fire is the electromagnetic force, water is the strong nuclear force of mesons, air is the weak nuclear force, and earth is gravity. For him, these, in turn, correspond to the four letters of the Tetragrammaton. The forces of physics are the meditative forces. (Sefer Yetzirah 145-146). How does he make such leaps of connection?

This is not just our question, but was already a question when he was giving the classes. When discussing the Kabbalisitic image of the “Black Fire” of the Torah, Kaplan explained it as a black hole of negative energy. To which, one of the psychologists in the class asked: “Where are you finding this in the text?”

In the next class this question comes up again to which he answers with a verbal wink. Kaplan defined the sefirot as a three-dimensional spatial continuum of spiritual, time, and space implying that our goal is to get to the four dimension.  After this definition, he was asked: “Is that your own original analysis? To which Rabbi Kaplan answered: “A little bit  …. But it is Sefer Yetzirah”