Rabbi Menachem Froman on Accepting our Selves- Our Faces

Below is a translation of an essay by Rabbi Menachem Froman z”l of Tekoa done by Levi Morrow. We have a long prior post on this blog discussing Rav Froman’s ideas and a translation of some of his aphorisms here. The essay below discusses how we can remove the social mask we wear by an act of self-acceptance, showing a noted similarity to the thought of Rav Shagar.

Translator’s Introduction-Levi Morrow

Rav Menachem Froman (d. 2013) was a Religious Zionist rosh yeshivah, grassroots political activists, and all-around cultural figure. The narrative arc of his life moves from growing up secular and studied for a degree in Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University (though students inform me he never took the final exams that would have enabled him to graduate) to becoming religious and studying at Merkaz Harav. He became Rav Tsvi Yehuda Kook’s personal attendant. He would later become a teacher and rosh yeshivah in his own right, as well as a driving figure in the grassroots movement for peace between Israel and Palestine.

He also had a  deep and enduring interest in all forms of creativity–art, poetry, literature, theater, etc. Among his posthumously published writings and teachings, is a book of poetry entitled Accounting for Madness (HEB). His poetic, creative sensibilities, however, cannot be confined to his poetry. In one of his Torah teachings, he poetically equates religiosity with depth and suggests that depth–such as found in the writings of Franz Kafka and Amos Oz–is somehow divine.

This blending of the religious and the poetic may never be more clear than in the Torah teaching translated below, which meditates on the image of a face–and what it means to have a face. The face is the very nature of Torah itself. In this short piece honoring the anniversary of Moshe’s death, the 7th of Adar, Rav Menachem Froman explores the issue of identity through the metaphor of the face.

According to Rav Froman, our face is something we are essentially stuck with, yet it also plays a pivotal role in how other people identify us, and perhaps even in how we identify ourselves. As such, the face serves as a fitting symbol for the more inflexible aspects of ourselves, such as our families and cultural upbringings. Some people spend their entire lives trying to escape who they are, only to realize they’ve run directly into being themselves. We put on masks, trying on new identities, typically only to discover that the change is not even skin deep. Is real change–changing our face rather than simply putting on a mask–even possible?

Moses, Moshe Rabbeinu, drawn from the water, son to both Egyptian princess and Israelite slave woman, is a man of many faces and identities: prince of Egypt, hard-fisted seeker of justice, leader of thankless complainers, and prophet-legislator of God’s people. In many ways, the lion’s share of the Torah is dedicated to descriptions of Moses as he slips between these roles, or perhaps grows into each one in turn.

So how did Moshe relate to himself, to the constraints of his inflexible face? Rav Froman proposes two possibilities: First, perhaps Moshe simply ignored his face, refused to let it determine the course of his life. Given enough determination, we can create ourselves, choosing who we want to be rather than simply accepting ourselves as given. Second, perhaps Moshe recognized the force his identity exerted upon his life, and consciously accepted it. He “saw his own face from within rather than from without,” meaning that he was simultaneously able to appreciate his identity from a distance and still experience it as his identity–a paradoxical blend of freedom and attachment that Rav Froman suggests may not “make any sense to say.” Choosing to embrace a given situation can change it from a prison to a home, from dim fate into luminous destiny. This, Rav Froman suggests, may even be the deepest element of the Moshe’s teachings.

These two approaches correspond to two important ideas in the thought of Rav Froman’s long-time friend and colleague, Rav Shagar: self-creation and self-acceptance. Rav Shagar grapples constantly with the nature of the self and personal identity, oscillating between–or attempting to synthesize–the two poles of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and Jean-Paul Sartre. Sometimes Shagar wants us to recognize that we have a pre-existing identity and choose it freely, and sometimes he wants us to boldly choose to create ourselves, to shape ourselves into who we want to be without any thought to who we already are. So too in this piece from Rav Froman.

This text reflects Rav Froman’s sophisticated literary sensibilities. Most of it is an extended, playful discussion of what it means to have a face. On the more technical side, the text is also full to brimming with specifically chosen language, whether face-related metaphors, references to traditional Jewish texts, or instances that combine the two. I (Levi Morrow) have done my best to convey all of these linguistic elements into English to the best of my ability, but there was never a chance of perfect success. Many elements simply could not be recreated in this English version, and readers are therefore referred to the felicitous Hebrew original in Ten Li Zeman. I have attempted to smooth out or clarify any awkward instances and obscurities resulting from this poetic translation, but any that remain are surely the fault of the translator, not Rav Froman or any editors.

A Chosen Face- Rav Menachem Froman

We have known Moses since Egypt. We have known him face to face. Sculptors and artists of generations made use–like spies–of their greatest and freest creativity, making wild and far-ranging guesses. Ultimately, it is clear to anyone who looks that these artists depicted Moses in their own image–his face is their face (not that this devalues their art in any way). In contrast, we know exactly what he looked like. We don’t feel any need to try and depict him. What would be the result? That he had a big nose? A high forehead? Anything we could say wouldn’t actually clarify anything. And what does it matter anyway? Suffice it to say that he had a face just like each of us.

And just like each of us, Moses certainly suffered from his face from time to time. Who would tell such a bold-faced lie as to deny that they sometimes wish they could change their appearance? Having to wear the same face day after day, moment after moment–is exhausting. Some people face this duty with great enthusiasm–they smile broadly, full-lipped. Some consistently and intentionally take the two-faced path. These are the bold-faced revolutionaries who would see their own faces (and those of others) thrown back in either wild laughter or heart-wrenching tears. The heart can perhaps even be torn, but not the face. Acts of despair like these don’t change the way things look. In the best case scenario, these attempts result in a few more wrinkles. Only the light cloud resting over the frustrated face alludes to the heroism-turned-embarrassment.

Many put their trust in time. But with every journey, and with every stop, the hardships of the wilderness increasingly scorch our faces. Moreover, the years bring old age–as they always do, which is why we cannot uplift the face of the noble, nor give splendor to the face of the wretched (Leviticus 19:15; Job 34:19)–and begin to mark us with its signs. So you imagine that, at this heavy cost, perhaps you have at least had some success in that external realm that is as intimate as possible–more trenches in your forehead, more cuts around your disappointed mouth. You have a conversation with your contemporary about the ways you’ve managed to escape your fate, when your son comes up and your friend lets slip the unkindest cut of all: “Wow, he’s so similar to you! Like one face reflecting another in water! (Proverbs 27:19)!”

We have no choice but to lower our eyes and admit, ashamed, that we live in this terrible state of constant denial and avoidance (hester panim). Someone with a big nose will have it his whole life, no matter how wide his nostrils flare with anger. He can’t reduce his suffering by even a millimeter unless he avails himself of the surgeon’s scalpel.

Of course, there’s always the most radical path–you could wear a mask. The immediate result would no doubt be striking, but its protection wouldn’t last forever. It will immediately become clear that this winning ticket–which fell into your hand as if from heaven–comes with a heavy price. A mask, by definition, is something external, not internal. The problem I describe affects us all too deeply for some superficial fix. You can’t escape the claustrophobic constraints of your face behind the even harsher constraints of the mask, just like you can’t escape thick chains by fleeing into a dungeon. Someone persuaded to follow this path will ultimately tear off–in a fit of terror–the veil that surrounds him. This dangerous path necessarily brings confusion, and you will spend far too much time trying to remove your own face. When you finally realize your mistake, your face will blacken like the bottom of a pot.

These hardships–which are the fate of every person–affected our teacher Moses as well. Even after he went up to Mount Sinai twice and neither ate nor drank for days on end, and even after the rest of his miracles, Moses kept guiding us with the same bright eyes and kind face we always knew. However, certain events suggest to the unbiased mind that something here is different–the cord that connects all men has here been cut. We cannot forget that right after his encounters with the creator, when he brought us God’s holy words, we saw his face as simultaneously terrible and wondrous. It was as if the very skin of his face shone and became like a speculum that shines. In a manner defying all understanding, anyone who looked at Moses then could see that he had no idea that something special was happening to him; he was acting as though his face remained the same as always. My proof: Moses did not understand our fear and continued to address us and summon us before him.

The careful scoffers dismiss these contradictions by saying, “It was Moses! We can’t know anything about him!” But his faithful devotees claim that Moses merited that for which every man on the face of this earth hopes, and escaped his unfortunate constraints (metsarim). They add that he merited this because–in contrast to all of us–he never felt pinned down by the contours of his face.

Expert readers of the biblical verses explain that Moses hid his face from his face, meaning that he saw his own face from within rather than from without, if that makes any sense to say. This lack of self-awareness–which is both simpler and more complex–is why the Torah says that he was the humblest of all (Numbers 12:3), that no one had arisen like him who knew God face to face (Deuteronomy 34:10). The fact that he continues to appear as he had previously, they explain, was an act not unlike putting on a mask. Moses stepped free of the fate of his face, but he took it up again out of free will. Perhaps we should call this what it is: A chosen face. Some say this is the innermost aspect of the Torah of Moses.

Based on Hebrew from Ten Li Zeman (Maggid Books, 2017). Originally published in Davar, April 19th, 1987.

Rav Shagar on Shabbat Hanukkah- The Candle and the Sacrifice

Rav Shagar’s Hanukkah sermon brings together the debate whether the Hanukah candles are similar to a sacrifice as an act of destructive consumption or a moment of illumination. From there he weaves in a discussion of the difference between Shabbat guests and Hanukah guests.

This is our 19th post on Rav Shagar,  for #18 which was also on Hanukkah see here, Other entry points are herehere. herehere, and here.) The texts are first drafts from a collection of essays of Rav Shagar to be published by Levi Morrow and myself.

The first option of comparing the Hanukah candles to the Temple menorah and thereby the sacrificial service, Rav Shagar uniquely portrays sacrifice as destruction, destroying the object offered, and the need to be completely consumed. In this approach, Shagar, follows George Bataille’s book Theory of Religion in which we overcome the modern self by a return to sacrifice and destruction.  For Bataille, who died in 1962, religion is the search for a lost intimacy with animality and the cosmos. The ritual attempts to recovery the intimate original order through the violence of the sacrifice. Only by sacrifice can we destroys the functional utility of the object to return us to lost state of immanent being.

Making use of passages from Bataille’s theory allows Rav Shagar to portray Hanukkah candles as pure destruction which grants us liberation from thingness; it allows us to ascend to “nothingness and envelops itself.”

Mizvot such as Hanukah bring us back to a primordial religious experience which “destroys or nullifies any existence other than the existence of the creator, and denies any possibility of understanding the creator and encountering him.” Paragraphs such as this should serve a warning to comparing Shagar’s use of philosophy and post-modernism as Torah uMadda and even more of a warning against asking how Rav Shagar helps your suburban Orthodoxy. This is a nullification of self and the material world.

Rav Shagar see exemplars in figures such as Rav Nachman who were willing to sacrifice their very beings as an non-utilitatian offering of the self to seek God. They never expected to understand or grasp God, all we can do is offer up our very existences.

Rav Shagar relishes the 18th and 19th century Chabad conceptions  of completely nullifying the self (bitual hayesh) and thereby completely nullifying the world into a state of nothingness. We negate the pleasures of this world and seek a complete liberation from all things to “return to a pantheistic state of simplicity and oneness with existence.” Rav Shagar express similar hope to be the moth to flame in his book on martyrdom and self-sacrifice. So please stop thinking of him (or having bad Facebook discussions of him) as an intellectual pulpit rabbi who reads postmodernism. For him, we commit our whole beings toward death to have a possibility of a divine encounter.

The second approach to Hanukkah candles treats them as “energy, movement, and light” illuminating our lives. “Lighting the candle does not express self-sacrifice but the powerful Eros of life.” The candles ignite our souls into passion, an Eros of existence rising from the darkness of the ever-present Thanos.  

This Erotic illumination “leads to nostalgia” and sense of how light out of darkness leaves us lonely when we sense its fleetingness, and how much the candle is a mere “illusion of eternity” because we return to darkness.  Even when we have moments of illumination, Rav Shagar feels how quickly it will fade.  

Rav Shagar sees this distinction of sacrifice and illumination as the numinous and the pleasurable. The numinous as in Rudolf Otto’s classic book The Idea of Holy and the pleasurable as Freud’s pleasure principle. Rav Shagar will devote 3 lines to associating Otto’s numinous to Levinas and Derrida who have concepts of “the other” and “the difference.” The pleasurable is shown in the meat and rich foods of the Sabbath. The richness of pleasure is for Rav Shagar, an essential of Judaism. He gives a nice vignette about how he tells his students who eat dairy of Shabbat in order not to be exhausted that Judaism is about pleasure.

From this distinction, Rav Shagar glides into the importance of the familial shabbat table with its pleasure and inviting of guests as opposed to the doorway of hanukkah. Holiness is a good meal overflowing with “good and grace for the participants.” As Rav Nachman of Breslav says hosting guests is like hosting the shabbat. The home is being with oneself and allowing the walls between self and other to break down. Rav Shagar has similar language of being at home or “at homeness” about the Yeshiva, the beit midrash, and one’s non-foundation acceptance of faith. One create a sense of at-homeness.

In contrast, we light Hanukkah candles on the liminal border between the home and the dark evil world, between self and sin. The guest of Hanukahh is a process of overcoming the self and comfort to embrace an otherness and thereby embrace the Other. We have no permission to use the light in a utilitarian way as things are normally used in the home.  On Shabbat there is a solidarity and interpersonal closeness; On Hanukah, at the space of the from door, the outside world does not play by the rules of our hospitality and the guest retain freedom. (These Hanukah ideas are based on uncited Rav Nachman ideas of Hanukkah as wondrous and abnormal.  Rav Nachman has a story where a householder lights the Hanukkah candles and the guest magically takes him flying into the sky to paradise as well as uncited Derrida on hospitality.)

Rav Shagar concludes the homily with a prayer, or a hope, that opening the door can create connections never before possible and in addition we “will not require the exclusion of Otherness but will include it without crumbling.  The idea of new connections never before possible was part of his homily on Greek wisdom and Torah for a different Hanukkah- posted here. The discussion of no longer being exclusive of the Other is behind many of his expansive socio-political homilies.

The entire 3500-word homily is below and available as a download below. It is still a rough draft. It is from the book of essay that Levi Morrow and I are producing. Some of the sentences and paragraphs still need clarification.

Enjoy – A freylekhe Khanuke!

The Candle and the Sacrifice: A Sermon for Shabbat Hanukkah

Life and Death

Nahmanides in his Torah commentary equates the Hanukkah candles with the candles of the menorah in the Temple. [1] Other commentators have a reverse approach that contrasts the menorah, which was lit only while the Temple stood, with the Hanukkah candles, which we light throughout the exile. Based on this distinction, I want to explore some of the different meanings of candle lighting and its holiness, the candle of the menorah, the Hanukkah candle, and the candle of the Sabbath.

While lighting the Hanukkah candles we say, “These candles, they are holy.” What is holy in a candle, the light or perhaps specifically the way the candle burns, consuming itself?

Lighting the candles of the menorah was one of the priestly services in the temple “Speak to Aaron saying: “In lighting the candles toward the face of the menorah, light seven candles” (Numbers 8:2). The nature of this service emerges with greater clarity when contrasted to bringing a sacrifice. The sacrifice returns the “thing,” the object-animal, to nothingness via its destruction and consumption, as clearly expressed by the Olah sacrifice that is burnt up entirely on the altar. “The priest shall offer up and turn the whole into smoke on the altar. It is an entire offering by fire, a pleasing aroma for God” (Leviticus 1:13). However, we need to be specific:

The principle of sacrifice is destruction, but though it sometimes goes so far as to destroy completely (as in a burnt offering), the destruction that sacrifice is intended to bring about is not annihilation. The thing–only the thing–is what sacrifice means to destroy in the victim.[2]

In other words, the sacrificial act returns the objectness (the thing-object) to the intimacy of existence, to a state where everything merges in everything else, like “water in water.”[3] The sacrifice is therefore not elimination and absence but “returning to nothingness.” A return from existence, from the world characterized by functional and instrumental distinctions that tear things from the deep intimacy of the divine world, to where there is no accounting.[4]

On the one hand, the death of the sacrifice is the concept of limitation. Death from the perspective of life ends the differentiation of the world of things. The idea of limitation grants a thing itself, its existence, because limitation is necessary for existence. On the other hand, death grants existence its unity with itself. Through the disintegration of distinguished things, existence becomes liberated from thingness, ascends to nothingness and envelopes itself.

From the perspective of the living thing, the sacrifice ends in defeat, as it leads to deadness and elimination. It is impossible to “destroy the animal as a thing without denying the animal’s objective reality… one cannot at the same time destroy the values that found reality and accept their limits.”[5] Now that death manifests, the animal no longer exists from the perspective of life in “the world of things.” The sacrifice therefore turns into an existence of emptiness.

The absolution annihilation of the sacrifice expresses one of the primordial religious experiences: rejection and nullification of the value of the world. Religiosity inherently bears within it an experience of destruction, [6] in that “it destroys or nullifies any existence other than the existence of the creator, and denies any possibility of understanding the creator and encountering him.”[7] Hasidic conceptions of nullifying existence, such as the Habad contemplation of “everything before God is as nothing,” ultimately take part in the nullification of the world.[8]

You can see the broad attention to the experience of destruction in Hasidic teachings in the descriptions of the yearning and consumption of the soul where they are compared to a sacrifice that burns the pleasures and enjoyments of this world. In Hasidut, the sacrifice represents “the elevation of feminine waters,”[9] a process of love at the center, a liberation from things and a return to a pantheistic state of simplicity and oneness with existence. Faith grows out of this state. Reality receives its spiritualization from death, which deconstructs the differences in existence, as found in specific aspects such as commitment to martyrdom upon going to sleep, or when falling by lowering one’s head in prayer.[10] These leads to liberation from the ordered laws of existence, yet [mizvot] are bound up in frustration and inner pain since our existence does experience death and the destruction of existence as liberation. That experience belongs to the intimate nothingness, what a person “sees only at the moment of his death.”[11]

The sacrifice in the temple resonates with the requirement of martyrdom “with all your heart, with all your life, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). “With all your life – even if he takes your life.”[12] “With all your might (me’odekha)” “In Rabbi Meir’s Torah scroll they found it written: “Behold it was very (me’od) good” (Genesis 1); behold death (mot) was good.”[13] A person must commit his whole world to death in order to open up to the divine absolute, as only in the consuming of life does there exist the possibility of encounter with the infinite.

In contrast to sacrifice, the character of lighting the menorah candles is different in that it leads to illumination and vitality. Certainly, the candle consumes itself, but this happens in the process of living, as a consuming that is itself part of living, as “the soul that I placed in you is called a candle.”[14] The consuming is also present in the oil and the wick consume themselves as they burn. However, lighting aims not at eliminating but at burning, kindling, and illumination that give life. The inanimate oil and the wick transform into energy, movement and light. Just as a person consumes his stores of energy when integrating the spiritual and physical parts of himself in the process of living, so too in the lighting of the oil and the wick they unite and shine, receiving life. From this perspective, the lit candle reflects the process of life, the activity of the soul.Lighting the candle does not express self-sacrifice but the powerful Eros of life.[15]

(The ancient custom mentioned already in the Mishnah (Berakhot 8:6) of lighting of a memorial candle is the act that best expresses the metaphor of the candle as the soul of man. With the lit candle, it is as if the person resurrects the departed in his memory, his soul shining in the candle. Due to its comparison with the soul, the candle becomes the medium for the embodiment of the departed’s soul.)

The role of the high priest in lighting the candles is therefore different from when he sacrifices the offering. With the menorah, his role is to illuminate souls, to ignite them, to give them the passion and the Eros of existence.With the sacrifice, his job is to bring a person to self-sacrifice and personal consumption; to give up on the finite nature of his existence by overcoming himself. This is a different manner of Eros, wherein “strong as death is love, hard as hell is jealousy, and its darts are darts of fire, a blazing flame” (Song of Songs 8:6).

The Eros that we find in contemplating the light of the candle is the same Eros of the soul of man, a consequence of this duality of light and consumption. This Eros leads to the nostalgia that we find in various Hanukkah songs. The lightness is the small and raw existence of the candle-soul, the dim candle that stands outside under threat of the great darkness. The loneliness, the quiet, and the monotony of the lit flame create the illusion of eternity, as if it will continue forever, that the candle and the soul will never go out. From this perspective, the Eros of the small candle is greater than that of the mighty, brazen, light of the torch.

Two Holies

As a general principle, bringing a sacrifice and lighting the candles present two different types of consciousness regarding the holy: the numinous and the pleasant. This echoes a split found in the Bible, where the holy sometimes appears as the awful and terrifying mysterium tremendum, which demands the destruction from sacrifice, and sometimes as the illuminating good, replete and pleasurable. [16]

The holy arouses fear and brings with it the destructive. In the language of Levinas and Derrida the holy represents the “other” and manifests the “gap” and “difference” that cannot be bridged. “Anyone who touches the mountain shall die. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be either stoned or shot; beast or man, he shall not live” (Exodus, 19:12-13); “They shall not enter to see the dismantling of the holy, lest they die” (Numbers 4:20). However, the holy also appears as good and pleasing, overflowing its bounds: “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our Lord. Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in the Lord is the source of your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). The holy day is sanctified when it is called “delight,’ the lord’s day, ‘honored” (Isaiah 58:13), and seeking the favor of God through eating rich foods and drinking sweet drinks: “Then you can seek the favor of the Lord. I will set you astride the heights of the earth, and let you enjoy the heritage of your father Jacob; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Ibid. 14). The symbol of pleasure is oil – “You anoint my head with oil; my drink is abundant. Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life” (Psalms 23:5-6). Oil bears an erotic connotation in the Hebrew Bible: “Your ointments yield a sweet fragrance, Your name is like finest oil— Therefore do maidens love you” (Song of Songs 1:3), and it is holy “Make of this a sacred anointing oil, a compound of ingredients expertly blended, to serve as sacred anointing oil” (Exodus 30:25).

This facet of holiness is manifest on the Sabbath – when we light the Sabbath candles – in the Sabbath foods, which are generally rich, as the poet wrote: “to delight in pleasures / swan, quail, and fish;”[17] in the Sabbath sleep, which is pleasure; and in the command of marital intimacy for scholars, especially on the Sabbath.[18] All of these flow into the candle – the oil and the wick.

(It seems to me that the difference we find in the Hebrew Bible between the holy as the numinous other and the holy as harmony and pleasure is root of the debate that I sometimes have with some of my students about the Friday night meal. They are accustomed to eat a dairy meal in order to avoid eating rich and exhausting foods. Against them, I claim that this damages the holiness and pleasure of the Sabbath. In response, they say that each person’s pleasure is different, which is correct. Despite this, I answer them that the fact that they prefer dairy to meat, the light over the fatty, is a lack in their Judaism.)

The Sabbath candle is like the light of the home, gentle and pure, it does not impose a blinding otherness on a person, nor dread. It is also not part of the thunder and lightning of Mount Sinai, where anyone who touched the mountain would die.[19] The candle lights up its surroundings, the home. The holiness here is familial, the light belongs to the home and is meant for the home, like a good meal, overflowing with good and grace for the participants; the good and grace connect the participants one to another.

It is therefore not surprising that the holiness of the Sabbath is inseparable from the hosting of guests, as Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav asserted “hosting guests is like hosting the Sabbath.”[20] The pleasure of the Sabbath is manifest in the harmony of the body and the soul. The additional soul of the Sabbath, which Rabbi Solomon Yitzchaki explained it is “an additional soul that expands his consciousness for eating and drinking,”[21] leads to reconciliation between contradictory elements, reconciliation that is parallel to life, which connects body and spirit, oil and wick. The Sabbath candle is a candle of harmony in the home: “What is ‘My soul is removed far off from peace’ (Lamentations 3:17)? Rabbi Abbahu said: That is kindling the Sabbath lights”[22] because the candle provides the satisfaction and fullness of the home. This is also the origin of hosting guests on the Sabbath – a person has a homey dimension, a “being with himself,” and it is with this that he hosts guests. This is reconciliation of contradictory elements on a social level; the walls between a person and “the other” fall down for the sake of unity, subjectivity (nafshut), and fellowship.

Can we identify these characteristics in the Hanukkah candle? This is a candle of “each man and his family,”[23] rooted in feeling at home. On the other hand, “we have no permission to use them, only to gaze at them,”[24] since this light, the light of the candle, evokes the gap between it and the person who lights it. A person has no permission to use it, in that, he must keep his distance from it. Moreover, this candle is located “just outside the doorway of the house,”[25] and “sin crouches at the door” (Genesis 4:7). The candle does not only belong to the home and to the feeling of being at home, but also to an Other space, dark and outside the known, familiar, boundaries, the demonic space. This candle’s roots are in war, the war of the Maccabees, not in the harmony of the Sabbath. To sum up: the Hanukkah candle carries within it both facets: the sacrifice and the menorah; consumption of the soul and the Eros of life; the outside and the home, otherness and hosting guests.

Hosting Guests

Two different types of hosting guests follow this approach: that of the Sabbath, which is when a person opens the doors of his well-lit home, and that of Hanukkah, connected to the harsh aspects of the divine (gevurot), when a person transcends himself toward “the Other” who is outside the door, and brings him into his home as an Other.[26] Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Halevi of Homil, a student of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, describes it thusly in his Hanukkah sermons. The Sabbath is “specifically a person for himself, in his home, with his household who obey his will. In contrast, the behavior of Hanukkah, which is outside the home where there is authority besides him and his will is not sovereign. This is why you must behave differently there”[27]

Sabbath hosting guests is an outgrowth of a person “being with himself,” the solidarity of a person with himself and of his household with each other. The basis for hosting guests is the state suitable to reveal the familiar in a person and between people. He invites the “Other” into his home due to the fellowship and closeness that will exist, and perhaps already exists, between him and the household. He is invited to be a member of the household and to take part as a son in a home lit up by Sabbath candles and angels of peace. Ultimately, this mutual acceptance flows from the commonalities between people and it reveals what they share, the soul, which is a person’s good intentions, to which all sons and daughters of the home belong.

Hosting guests on Hanukkah is something else entirely because it requires self-sacrifice and inspires fear, rather than the harmony of the Sabbath. This hosting of guests requires a person to overcome himself and his “I”, as an absolute process, a decision, a revolution that he undergoes in relation to the Other, overcoming the otherness of the Other.[28] It is a process of consuming through self-overcoming and putting faith in the Other despite his otherness. It is hosting guests without depriving the Other of his freedom, and therefore not expecting solidarity and interpersonal closeness but simply otherness – often deep chasmal otherness – between guest and host. This lets strangeness invade the home, and therefore this hosting of guests destroys the feeling of being at home as the reality of the home loses its everyday familiarity. The candles are lit and shining – seemingly warm and familiar – but we do not have permission to use them, only to gaze at them – they estrange themselves from the person lighting them.

Hosting guests on Hanukkah does not occur in the lit home, but just outside the front door. Just as the sacrifice is a liminal concept (musag gevul) between the existence of things and their nullification, so too the Hanukkah candles stand on the border between the home’s feeling of familiarity – which has its rules, definitions, and distinctions – and the lack of feeling at home that crouches at the door. Hanukkah hosting guests does not force the guest to accept the house rules, and therefore it requires the host to overcome himself and allow the guest his freedom to be, without knowing what effects this freedom will have and without restraining him by the light of the candles of the home.

The Hanukkah candle therefore presents multiple facets. As a candle, its center is the home, but as a sacrifice, it lacks homey familiarity. Minimally, the head of the household is perturbed. The Hanukkah candle is exilic, the candle of a broken house. Only such a candle enables the wondrous Hanukkah hosting guests and opens the door to the abnormal, which can create connections never before possible. Hanukkah illuminates within us the time when concepts like the home and feeling at home will not require the exclusion of Otherness but will include it without crumbling.


[1] On Numbers 8:2.

[2] George Bataille, Theory of Religion (New York: , 1989), trans. , 43.

[3] Ibid., 19.

[4] Ibid. pp.44-45.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See: A. Sagi, Etgar HaShivah El HaMasoret (Hebrew), Jerusalem-Ramat Gan 2003, p.92.

[7] E. Goldman, cited in: Etgar HaShivah El HaMasoret, ibid.

[8] This mindset is rooted deep in the role of the religious utterance, which is ultimately meaningless in context of the divine absolute, the divine intimacy.

[9] See, for example: R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya (Hebrew), Iggeret HaKodesh, 28.

[10] See: “Sleep is one sixtieth of death” (B. Berakhot 57b); On the prostration of Moshe and Aharon when faced with Korah’s rebellion: “‘And they fell on their faces and said, “El, God of the spirits of all flesh’ (Bemidbar 16) – Come and see, Moshe and Aharon committed themselves to death… This is the tree of death, and every mention of prostration refers to this (Zohar III, 176b). Sleep and prostration are a form of suicide and return to a state of simplicity and oneness. Therefore, it is no wonder that, in Lekutei Moharan, I 35, Rebbe Nahman asserts that sleep is one of the ways to return existence “to the place from where it was taken.”

[11] Rav Tsadok Hakohen Rabinowitz of Lublin, Tsidkat HaTsadik (Hebrew), #127. Based on Pirkei DeRebbe Eliezer (Hebrew), ch.31.

[12] Sifri, Va’et’hanan, #6.

[13] Bereshit Rabbah 9:5.

[14] Talmud Bavli, Tractate Sabbath 32a.

[15] [The eros of life is a combination of eros and thanatos; death takes some part in in it. However, death’s presence appears as part of life itself, not as the absolute consumption of the sacrifice. If there is death, it is as part of life and serves as the background – the intensity of light emerging from darkness. – Y. M.]

[16] See Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational (London: Oxford University Press, 1936).

[17] From the song “Mah Yedidot,” sung in Ashkenazic communities on Friday night.

[18] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Sabbath, 30:14. See Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, “Mitsvat Onah,” in Vayikra Et Shemam Adam: Zugiyu Umishpahah Mimabat Yehudi Hadash (Efrat: Mekhon Binah Le’itim, 2005), ed. Zohar Ma’or, 193-233.

[19] Based on Exodus 19:12.

[20] Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav “Hakhnasat Orhim,” in Sefer Hamiddot, 4. Regarding hosting guests, see Shimon Gershon Rosenberge, Panekha Avakesh (Efrat: Mekhon Kitvei Harav Shagar, 2005), 53.

[21] Talmud Bavli, Tractate Ta’anit 27b.

[22] Talmud Bavli, Tractate Sabbath, 25b.

[23] Ibid., 21b.

[24] Tractate Sofrim, 20:6.

[25] Tractate Sabbath, ibid.

[26] We can understand the particular Hanukkah type of hosting guests from Rebbe Nahman’s story “Ma’aseh Me’oreyah,” which takes place at the time of candle-lighting. Rebbe Nahman depicts hosting guests in this story in a manner entirely un-Sabbath-like. Rather, it is full of fear and terror of the otherness of the unknown that the guest brings with him. See Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Leha’ir Et Hapetahim (Alon Shevut: Mekhon Kitvei Harav Shagar, 2014), 125-135.

[27] Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Halevi of Homil, Hannah Ariel (Ashdod, 1998), Genesis, 57b.

[28] See Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, “Simha, Solidariyut, Ve’ahavvah,” in B’tsel Ha’emunah (Alon Shevut: Mekhon Kitvei Harav Shagar, 2011), 107-111.

Interview with Prof. Ephraim Meir- Faith in the Plural

With classes finished for the semester, I need to catch up on my reading. On my table are several recent books, all of them of the last four years, explaining the recent turn to interreligious studies. The current trend is to replace the word interfaith with interreligious since the term faith is a Protestant understanding of religion. And to place greater emphasis on the prefix “inter” to show that we are interconnected, with interreligious moments all around us. Diversity is continuous factor in our lives playing a role even in law, politics media, athletics, and education. Another part of this trend is to replace the survey of world religions class with a class on interreligious moments in our lives. Students learn more about Judaism by discussing why Satmar representatives went to an open casket memorial in a funeral home but won’t go to a church funeral than studying random snippets of Genesis and Leviticus compared to the Vedas and Koran.

A recent Jewish book to deal with this new interreligious moment is Prof Ephraim Meir’s Faith in the Plural (Idra Press, 2019), which is brand new and surprisingly not on Amazon or even available as of now in the US. The book has a great cover by Utah artist Suzanne Tornquist. (The cover art is also available as a talit or tefillin bag).

Prof. Ephraim Meir is Professor emeritus of modern Jewish Philosophy at Bar-Ilan University. His PhD is from KU Leuven in theology and he taught for decades at Bar Ilan University. A prolific author his recent works are Levinas’s Jewish Thought between Jerusalem and Athens (2008), Identity Dialogically Constructed (2011), Differenz und Dialog (2011), Between Heschel and Buber (2012; with A. Even-Chen), Dialogical Thought and Identity (2013), Interreligious Theology. Its Value and Mooring in modern Jewish Philosophy (2015) Becoming Interreligious (2017) and Old-New Jewish Humanism (2018). From 2009 until 2017, he was the Levinas guest Professor for Jewish Dialogue Studies and Interreligious Theology at the Academy of World Religions, University of Hamburg. He is President of the International Rosenzweig Society.  

Prof Meir’s latest book Faith in the Plural (Idra Press, 2019) along with his prior works Interreligous Theology (2015) and Becoming Interreligious (2017) are his views on this change. Meir affirms the social fact of religious pluralism and also a theological view of pluralism based on John Hick. To give my reaction upfront, I accept the former and not the later. In addition, I don’t think Meir himself needs to affirm the later based on his own theory of trans-difference and testimony.

In the 1960’s, interfaith events, the Jewish-Christian reconciliation, and Church’s renewed encounter with Asian religions changed the theological climate. Alan Race created theological categories Exclusivist, Inclusivist, and Pluralist for the spectrum of positions taken at the time.

By 1970, John Hick the world renown philosopher argued that we must undertake a Copernican Revolution and assume one ultimate Reality and all religions are just attempts to grasp the Ultimate. Hick was widely influential and respected. Yet, in recent decades he received much criticism for thinking his was the only correct opinion, for his lack of empiricism, and for actually precluding interfaith understanding since religions are only metaphors and symbols for the ultimate Reality. In the 21st century, much of the field has turned to various acceptance models that differ with Hick. Mark Heim argues that religions do not offer the same goals. For example, Christian redemption has little to do with the Yogic conception of perfection. George Lindback argued that each religion is a closed system, with different non-comparable rules. And the most common method now is comparative theology, where I compare my faith to another and seek understanding but without making any major claims about the relationship between my faith and the world’s faiths. (I find myself within these 21st century approaches.)

Ephraim Meir’s book assumes John Hick’s position as his starting point to argue for a philosophy of dialogue. Not dialogue in the 1960’s sense of comparing theology, but a 21st century definition. We dialogue as an act of encounter and knowing the complexity of the world, we dialogue in a Levinas sense of the other religion breaking into our world and making demands, and we dialogue to produce social justice and reduce violence. For Meir, dialogue moves the pluralistic position forward.

Meir gives five characteristics or requirements for dialogical theology, and this is one of the strong parts of the book. His five are humility, translation, uniqueness, hospitality and learning. Here Meir is seemingly building on the interreligious approach and comparative theology of the last decade including those of Francis X. Clooney, Marianne Moyaert, Catherine Corneille and many others. Yet, they are not cited or referenced

Meir, however, specifically is steering clear of developing a theology. And he does not think he needs to address comparative theology. He maintains a clear focus on dialogue both inter-religious and intra-religious.

Meir’s major point is that we understand and relate to other religions through what he calls trans-difference. His dialogical approach is not a meeting or in-between like Buber’s rather we belong simultaneously to the broader world and to our own framework. We are part of the specific and the general.

Another one of his concepts is testimony. I reveal the divine by my own self contraction and listening to the other. This concept is an outgrowth of his reading of Rosenzweig, Heschel, and Levinas.  His reading of the modern classics to produce his concept of trans-difference is how he deals with contemporary issues such as identity, authenticity, otherness, and understanding.

The book has several chapters on his deriving his views from the Jewish thinkers. The book also has a chapter comparing Jewish & Christian views of freedom as well as an interview with Ephraim Meir on the relationship of Jews and Christians.

Finally, and as theoretical grounding for his project, Meir approaches Perry Schmidt-Leukel’s interreligious work as contained in his recent Gifford lectures as a valuable means of interpreting religious diversity.  John Hick created a pluralism in which only the Ultimate Reality is real and religious systems are not, thereby reducing the importance of the differences between religions. Perry Schmidt-Leukel approaches the issue in a new manner using the concept of fractals. Here each religion is a fractal of the Ultimate Reality, recapitulating its structure and at the same time each religion has a fractal relationship to other religions. Each religion is a part of the whole and almost everything reappears in some way in the different religions. Think of a cauliflower, if I break off a floret it has the same basic structure as the entire cauliflower, similarly each floret is similar to the next floret. Applied to religion, the religions are similar in structure therefore one religion can understand another. The pluralism respects the differences between religions as florets but sees a unit in the repeating pattern combined to make a larger pattern.

If you think one religion is a floret and another is an eggplant and a third is a carrot, then this fractal model would not work. Meir’s movement away from the fractal model is two -fold. First, there are many cases of impossibility of dialogue, of fundamental theological differences, and of lack of understanding. All aspects that can only be overcome though dialogue. Secondly, Meir wants to emphasize the ethical, social-relations, and seeking to mend the world more than any philosophic truth claim. Hence, Meir formulates his trans-difference as an ethical alternative to a truth-claim approach.

Which brings me back to my opening. If Meir is basically about social and ethical relationship then the other interfaith models could also work, including comparative theology.  I really liked the book in its understanding of dialogue, especially his use of Jewish sources to derive the approach. The book has  good Jewish ideas about religion as trust not intellectual assent. There are many gems in Meir’s valuable book, which can be picked out and used elsewhere. I was struck by the value of the book because I am in the middle of collecting my interfaith talks into a small volume and found his Jewish formulation of general interreligious ideas very helpful. I will definatley be using many of his ideas particularly in his reading of Jewish texts in future talks and papers.

I thank Meir for discussing my books for a few pages. He is one of the few who understood my Ricoeur influenced position in those books correctly.  However, a Ricoeur position is able to maintain particularity without becoming pluralist while still being comfortable with translation, hybridity, hospitality, and the impact that an encounter with another religion has on a person or system.

The former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in the first edition of his Dignity of Difference presented a pluralism in which each religion has its own covenant, its own religious path and morals. God does not want a single unified path, rather we are broken into tribes and peoples. Rabbi Sacks quoted Nathanial ibn Fayumi’s idea that God sent a prophecy to each nation. Ephraim Meir writes that as a philosopher, he is less interested in concepts such as revelation and covenant and more interested in dialogue and pluralism. But most interested in these topics of inter-religious meaning either seek the theological, the wisdom of other faiths,  or the explicit social application.  But those who want a philosophic approach thinking with and around Levinas will enjoy the work.

Interview with Prof. Ephraim Meir

1)      Please explain the concept of Faith in the Plural.

“Faith in the Plural” has a double meaning. First, it is faith in plurality: a plurality of voices and lifestyles is celebrated. One does not just note the existence of the plurality but rejoice in it. Others are approached in a positive way and recognized as different and equal to each other : one may appreciate their unique particularity and learn from their perspective and lifestyle. If you believe that we all live in one world, characterized by diversity, the acts of communicating, translating and extending hospitality become possible.

Secondly, it is faith in plurality: faith exists in the plural. Consequently, different expressions of faith are appraised as revolving around the Transcendent, approached in different ways.

The title of my book “Faith in the Plural” implies, therefore, honoring plurality (faith in the plural)  and, more specifically, honoring religious plurality (faith in the plural).  The first is appreciating the diversity of the world and the second is a fundamental commitment to a philosophic and theological pluralism, similar to John Hick.   

2)      What is a dialogical approach?

Dialogue follows Peter Berger to embrace the complexity of the world; following Levinas it interrupts one’s monologue, and similar to Paul Knitter strives for social justice.

A dialogical approach allows that the other interrupts one’s own monologue. In a genuine conversation or meeting, what the other says or does may become relevant for one’s own position. Dialogue is necessarily transformational. Although dialogue is not always possible, it remains a challenge and opens unexpected perspectives. With their unique make up, persons are also interconnected.

 A dialogical or interreligious theology goes beyond sameness and otherness, beyond radical dissimilation and radical assimilation, through respect for different lifestyles and the reality of communication. In search for meaning, dialogical theology is essentially pluralist and, as such, this pluralized theology is an alternative for age-old religious conflicts. Fear of the religious other has been an obstacle for the shaping of a heterogeneous, democratic society. Dialogue overcomes this fear by working with deep listening to others with a view of mending a fractured world by getting involved with them. 

Dialogue as I conceive it is not easy. It aims at creating a relational I and a dialogical society in which one strives for equality and social justice.  There are limits to dialogue. People can become so entangled with evil that transformation is impossible. With such persons, not dialogue, but justice is needed. With radicalized extremists and (religious) fanatics dialogue is impossible.

Dialogical theology emphasizes interaction between religions in view of the creation of peaceful societies. It is a pluralized theology, in which interreligious dialogue  interrupts one’s own religious narrative and in which interreligious dialogue  is transformational, as  every authentic dialogue.

Dialogue embraces the complexity of the world, interrupts one’s own monologue and strives for a democratic society and social justice.

3)      What are the characteristics of dialectic theology?

Dialogical theology has a number of characteristics:

  1. A first condition for dialogical theology is to be humble. Since there are many religious others who organize their lives around the Ineffable, one has to recognize that one is not the only one to talk about what cannot be defined. Humility is required once one realizes that one’s own religion is only one color in the multicolored garment of Joseph.
  2.  Translation is a second characteristic of dialogical theology. It is an important criterion for a successful interreligious dialogue. Translating is not only a possibility, but also a duty because of the valuable “trans-different” relationship with religious others. In a good translation, one avoids radical assimilation without links to what is outside as well as radial dissimilation without bridging that allows for contact. In translation, uniqueness and bridging paradoxically belong together. It implies openness, crossing borders and bridging. Translation is an act of peace because one communicates the own in terms of the other. Because we live in one, shared world, translation and communication are possible and necessary. No religion is so unique that it cannot be understood by people, who do not belong to that religion.
  3. Respect for the uniqueness of religious others is a third condition of my dialogical theology. Religious others are incomparably unique. There are many ways to the Transcendence. In deep listening to religious others outside and inside our own group, one may learn a lot. There is no other way than one’s own way. That is true for all those in one’s own group and for the many others outside our own group. In dialogical theology, uniqueness and translatability are not opposed.
  4. In dialogical theology, one welcomes the other and allows her to enter into one’s own world. Extending hospitality to the other and paying visit to the other’s home are lofty human possibilities that bridge between worlds. Passing to the world of the religious other or allowing the other to visit our world necessarily change us. It may lead to critical questioning of the own tradition and to enriching our personal religious existence. Welcoming the other is basic in all real dialogue.
  5. Last but not least, learning from the religious other is crucial in interreligious theology. Religious persons who meet religious others may enrich their own spiritual life, reread their own home tradition and creatively shape it. 

4)      What is the concept of trans-difference?

The concept of trans-difference is central in my dialogical theology. It lies at the heart of the interreligious dialogue. The term brings together differences and a bridge between differences. By using this term, I avoid the danger of a closed identity that does not recognize one’s belonging to the entire world as well as a kind of universality that absorbs particularity.

In trans-difference one belongs to a specific group as well as to the general world. Belonging indicates pertaining to a particular group. It also designated relatedness to universal mankind. The relation between belonging to a singular community and to the broader circle of human kind is sometimes harmonious. Frequently it is characterized by tension and conflicts. Trans-difference combines both realms of belonging.  

“Trans-difference” respects different, specific, contextualized viewpoints and, at the same time, promotes connectivity and communication. It affirms differences and goes beyond them in non-indifference. It creates an open, dynamic identity that has otherness in itself.

5)      How is interreligious dialogue testimony (or witness)?

The recognition of the other and the care for her are a “testimony.” Testimony  is a fundamental category in the meeting with the religious other. Through the tact of contraction of the I before the other and through deep listening to her,  the glory of the Most High.

Listening to religious others without an agenda is in itself a testimony to the Infinite. By enlarging our religious worldview, we come to a fuller appreciation of the Transcendent. Interreligious dialogue could promote a religiosity based upon human rights and a shared humanity and testify to the intimate relation between divine revelation and mending the world.

Testimony or witness is a clearly religious notion. In my understanding, testimony interrupts a violent way of being, it is a sign, pointing to an elevated, non-violent world. Different religions testify in different ways to the Transcendent and may become a “sign” for each other. “Testimony” (‘edut) and “sign” (nes) are Jewish categories that fit a dialogical theology from a Jewish vantage point.

Inspired by Levinas, I deem that in responding to the other and in the ethical meeting with her, the ‘I’ testifies to the Infinite. In Levinas’s philosophy of the other, the one who says “Here I am” before the other testifies to the glory of the Infinite. The ‘I’ becomes a witness of the Infinite in taking infinite responsibility of the other. Applying Levinas’s ethical metaphysics to the field of interreligious dialogue, I conceive true dialogue as a testimony: in openness and non-indifference to and care for the religious other, one bears testimony.  Holiness resides in testifying to a God who hears the cries and sees the tears of oppressed people.

6)      What happens to truth claims in your approach?

I suggest not to focus upon truth as a complex of sentences with which one has to agree. In Hebrew èmèt, truth, is rather related to trust and confidence. One could focus upon peace, which is higher than truth.

In a dialogical theology, truth comes into being in dialogue. “Truth sprouts from the earth” (Ps. 85:11), from beneath, in the pursuit of justice and a good life for all and in dialogue and loving relationships with others. In Jewish thinking, one does the truth. Instead of searching for abstract truth, one may search for a meaningful life and for cross-bordering values. The aim of truth is peace and peace conditions the search for truth. Recognition precedes cognition. Attitudes more than words give access to the Transcendent. In my view, truth is relational and linked to the transformation of the human being. 

More important than truth claims is the praxis of ethical behavior. The tree is known by its fruits. A rigorous position of the defenders of the gate easily becomes aggressive. We do not know God as He/She/It is. John Hick who created the modern pluralistic position, thought all religions are just attempts to grasp the Real.

The Transcendent – what John Hick calls the Real – is “known” within human values and within one’s ethical way of living. All religious traditions have human concepts about the Real (Adonai, the Trinity, Allah, or Vishnu, Brahman, Tao or Nirvana) which are not the Real itself, but rather human responses to the Real. In this perspective, it is forbidden to absolutize any experience of the Transcendent.

Absolute truth claims led, and lead, to much violence and intolerance. History shows that much violence has been done if one defends the exclusivity of one’s religion or its superiority over other religions, which are seen as false or less true. Absolute truth claims disregard intra- and inter-religious plurality. Dogmatic thinking with a lack of openness may become coercive and exclusive and block the way to a religious search.

The problem with religious people is that often they consider God as their God, without recognizing that their God is also the God of others and that “no religion is an island,” as Heschel felicitously phrased it. Another great thinker, Franz Rosenzweig, noted that God did not create religion, he created the world. This makes religions relative; they all exist in view of mending the world. He also adds that God is the truth, in which human beings participate. Truth is always truth-for-us and therefore relative, without relativism.   

7)      Is this relativism?

John Hick and the pluralist position does not say that all religions are the same. Hick, and followers of the pluralistic position, are not relativists. Hick merely says that the Real is not what is known from it through our conceptual apparatus and that also others have salvific paths to the Transcendent.  He  disagrees with the position that one presents one’s own religion as the only true one. Rather, all religions are an approach to the Transcendent.

One does not have to leave one’s own religious narrative in order to recognize that diversity has to be accepted and celebrated. Excessive love for the own makes us forget the other. The own religious love story does not prevent one from appreciating the religious love stories of others. It is not relativistic to recognize, as did the Yemenite Jewish theologian Nathanel ben Fayyumi in the 12th century, that God sends a prophet to every people according to their own language. More psychologically phrased: different religions correspond to different human needs. 

Before my mixed public of Orthodox and non-Othodox Jews I explain that cultures and subcultures have different ways of relating to the Most High

8)      What is Schmidt-Leukel’s fractal position?

John Hick was a pioneer who made a Copernican revolution in theology to sees all religions as attempts to understand the transcendental Real.  Theology is a form of poetics and symbols to express the Real.

Perry Schmidt-Leukel’s interreligious theology continues Hick’s pluralism. However, Schmidt-Leukel  conceives of theology as “science,” in search for truth. His emphasis is more upon the cognitive dimension of the diverse beliefs.

Perry Schmidt-Leukel discerns fractal patterns in the various religions following Benoît Mendelbrot, who used the term “fractals” for patterns that display self-similarity across various scales. 

With his “fractal”‘ interpretation of religions, Perry argues that there is a fractal face also in cultural and religious diversity. His fractal interpretation of religious diversity is on the inter-religious, intra-religious and intra-subjective levels. He claims that the diversity among religions is also present within the religions and within the religious orientation of individuals. If one follows his argument, the different religions (and cultures) are less separated than might be thought at first sight: they have regular structures that return, but also irregularities that point to different contexts and arrangements.

Already Wilfred Cantwell Smith called for a world theology or global theology. Perry’s creative, pluralist “interreligious theology” perceives fractal structures in the religious diversity and encourages interreligious comparisons and learning.

Perry Schmidt-Leukel’s model is unity in diversity, unity in difference. He claims that “[r]eligions resemble each other, but they resemble each other in their diversity.” His main point is that, if religions are not intelligible to each other, we could not understand other cultures at all: religions are never totally other. He assesses diversity and complementarity. Different religious types are all part of the human experience. This phenomenological view allows for comparability.

Perry Schmidt-Leukel’s model of interreligious theology greatly contributed to the pluralist revolution in theology in offering a theory that explains the interconnectedness of religions and the possibility of interreligious learning.

9) Where do you differ from Schmidt-Leukel’s fractal position?

I agree with Perry that comparability is possible since our own experience is part of the experiences of humankind. With my “trans-difference,” I interpret religious uniqueness differently.

First, in my view, this does not mean that everything is comparable. Certain incommensurabilities preclude the translatability of all things into something else, as well as the reduction of all otherness to structurally identical or analogous elements. My point is that, just as languages possess words and expressions that are idiomatic, religions have an otherness that is not reducible to sameness.

Perry looks for compatibilities in order to create a communication platform. To my mind, some elements in religions are not compatible with each other, not overlapping and not parallel, but rather radically different. I agree that translating religious categories is a possibility and even a necessity, but should less than complete comprehensibility and complete transparency not be possible? The Jewish love of the Law, for example, greatly differs  from the Christian freedom as free from the Law. From a Jewish vantage point, the Christian recognition and appreciation of this Jewish specificity is vital in the Jewish-Christian encounter.

Perry too recognizes limited incommensurable elements in religions, but his emphasis is more on comparability and translatability than on incomparable uniqueness. Consciousness of uniqueness does not necessarily lead to feelings of exclusivity or superiority. In fact, recognition of the uniqueness of religious others is a constituent in my dialogical theology, which combines uniqueness and sharing a common world.

Second, my interreligious dialogical theology is much more deed-centered than Perry’s. I interpret interreligious pluralism in an ethical way.    

My dialogical theology comes closer to Paul Knitter’s soteriocentric model, which combines a theology of religions with a strong commitment to mend the world. In my dialogical theology, I put the emphasis upon genuine, transformational dialogue, in which the question whether theological utterances are compatible with each other is less important than the moral quality present in the various responses to the inconceivable reality.

10)  What is an ethical interpretation of interreligious pluralism?

With his creative and sophisticated fractal interpretation of religious diversity, Perry Schmidt-Leukel conceives theology as a “science,” in search for truth. His emphasis is upon the cognitive dimension of the diverse beliefs.

My dialogical theology is more about trust than about truth. Dialogical theology involves deep listening and perfecting society by getting involved with (religious) others. In this pluralized theology, peace is more elevated than truth and does not have to retreat before truth. It is rather the result of the common search for meaning, which is present in different religious groups. 

I emphasize the ethical dimension in the different religions. From my perspective, the aim of truth is to bring peace. To be attentive to the other and take care of her is above the rational order of truth.

Perry has a logocentric fractal interpretation of religious plurality. My interreligious theology is characterized by a deed-centered approach to religions.

A pluralized theology is not primarily the result of knowing more religions or knowing them better (although that is important too), it is first of all about recognition of the other. Being present to religious others and listening to them without hidden agenda is a “testimony” to the Infinite. By enlarging our religious world, we come to a fuller appreciation of the Transcendent, approachable in care for the other human being.

11)  You quote a wide variety of Jewish pluralists, are you basically in agreement with them? Your list includes among others the diverse approaches of Kogan, and Zalman-Schachter-Shalomi?

One may cherish and love one’s own religion and, at the same time, take seriously the encounter with religious others. Travelling in a multi-religious world does not diminish in any way love for the own religion, in which and from which one lives. We shape our identities, but we are also shaped by others, intra- and inter-religiously.

Michael Kogan in his Opening the Covenant (Oxford 2007) seeks to include Christianity within God’s covenant with Jewish people.  He quotes Paul in 1Cor. 9:22 who claims that he became “all things to all people so that by all means some might be saved” and asks “why cannot God do the same thing?” For Kogan, “all faith are true that lead us from egocentricity to participation in the infinite life with all its ethical and spiritual blessings.” I am in agreement with his pluralist view that God reveals different truth to different peoples in different historical circumstances. Kogan opens up the covenant and develops a multiple revelation theory, which states that others too have a covenant with God. He is also right in writing that Catholic ecclesiolatry, Protestant scriptolatry and Jewish ethnolatry want to replace the infinite with finite forms. Kogan formulates his pluralism in this way. I do not work with different revelations or covenants, but with the term “trans-difference,” which is a philosophical notion, more fitting for a dialogical theology.

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi develops Jewish theological insights on Jesus. A Jewish look at the Gospels is relevant for those Christians, who want to understand Jesus better in his Jewish historical and cultural setting. For instance, Buber’s view on Jesus, as developed in his Two Types of Faith, is useful for Christians, who frequently interpret Jesus in light of later dogmatic developments. Buber situated Jesus in the series of Suffering Servants. Schachter-Shalomi goes beyond the historical Jesus who preached good moral behavior and see him as “axis mundi” for his followers. According to Schachter-Shalomi, Kabbalah offers a model of divine embodiment. In this perspective, Jesus is an “incarnate of Torah.”  

Schachter-Shalomi’s view on a more transcendent Jesus differs from the classical Jewish one, which takes distance from the divinization of finite human beings. Yet, what is forbidden for Jews can be allowed for non-Jews. The views of Kogan & Schachter-Shalomi go beyond a confessional Jewish theology. They interact with Christianity and engage in a dialogue with Christians.   

12)      What happens to a fixed religious identity in your approach?

In my view, “trans-difference” creates an open identity that has otherness in itself. The loftiness of the human being resides in the realization that the I is always linked to the non-I and that interconnectedness ruptures one’s totalizing tendencies. Interconnectedness brings us out of our cocoon, in humble service of the other. This a life long task.

However, frequently, religious persons define themselves in contrast to others. Religious others are often met with animosity and a-priori assumptions instead of sympathetic listening. The alternative for such a fixed religious identity is a dynamic identity, open to others. In a dynamic religious identity, one discovers that one belongs to the entire world, in which a plurality of religions testifies to the Transcendent. 

A dialogical theology is about crossing borders and leaving fixed identities in openness to others, without losing one’s own embedment in concrete cultural and historical contexts. In dialogue with religious others, one may become conscious that many other traditions also approach the Transcendent in their own way. 

Religious identities are linked to religious traditions. However, these traditions are ambiguous. Ideally, they are a dynamic process and develop continually. Practically, they are frequently absolutized. Traditions should be conscious that they are not the divine source itself, but only a response to it. As other human realities, they may reflect divine realities that become manifest in human connectivity. They may also become inhuman, violent and cruel. The million dollar question is if religious traditions will be able to exercise self-contraction and give room to each other. Traditions may instrumentalize the Transcendent in function of the own interests, producing shaming, blaming, exclusion, discrimination, violence and war. They may serve themselves as particularistic traditions, divorced from values. Alternatively, they are particular expressions of a universal bond in favor of a unified humanity. The choice is between love of the own by excluding the other or cultivate a universal belonging in one’s own unique way.  

The success of dialogical theology depends upon the elasticity and willingness of (the adherents to) traditions to connect to the Divine through peaceful and dialogical relationships. One may creatively revisit and reimagine the own tradition in light of what one learns from others. A critical participation in a religious tradition allows for experiencing, experimenting, creativity and change. A non fixed, dynamic identity avoids making a caricature of the other and creates the possibility of an expanded “we.” It places relationality again at the heart of the religious experience.

13)  What does the Rabbinic concept of chosen people mean?

Chosenness is something positive: it is the privilege of having duties. In traditional Jewish life and thought, God loves the Jewish people “with great love.” Before the reading of the Torah, we bless God “who has chosen us from all the nations.” Love is always linked to chosenness. One is chosen in order to be responsible for others. In this sense, every human being is chosen to be there for others. Chosenness is not haughtiness, it is rather an election to be in dialogical relation with the (religious) others.  

Rabbi Yakov Nagen Interview part 2- Torah Study, Zohar, and Interfaith

Here is the second part to our interview with Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen (formerly Genack) he is Ra”M in Yeshivat Othniel.  (Part 1 is here) This one comes after his successful American book tour.

This second part presents the topics that some consider Nagen’s greatest contribution, his approaches to Torah study. Much of this interview pertains to his book  —Water, Creation and Divinity: Sukkot in the Philosophy of Halacha [Hebrew] (Giluy 2008, forthcoming in English) as well as his interfaith encounters with Palestinians in the Holy Land.

Rabbi Nagen is part of the trend that coalesced starting in the 1980’s around, but not limited to, Rabbi Shagar z”l. The rabbis sought to move beyond learning in a formal manner to learning for meaning. One can compare Rabbi Nagen to others in this approach including Rabbis Dryfus, Dov Zinger, and Yehudah Brandes. For all of them, there are many methods of learning and many approaches to study Talmud. We should not be locked into a single method. (See the discussion in Rabbi Yuval Cherlow’s book on Torat Eretz Yisrael, 1998).

Rav Nagen’s emphasis is on the integration of Aggadah into the study of Talmud and into halakhah. Below are some examples pertaining to Sukkah and Arba Minim. I am not sure how clear they are to  someone who has not studied the tractate.

With great hyperbole, back in 2000 Rabbi Yuval Cherlow declared Rav Nagen as the new Rabbi Soloveitchik for our time in that the latter brought Kant and Existentialism into Torah and Rav Nagen is bringing comparative religion. While clearly and embarrassingly overstated, it does show a world of Roshei Yeshiva who see methods of learning as changing and as open to the wider world.

Rav Nagen also has integrated study of Zohar into his Talmud shiur. They do not study it as a side activity of knowing the world of the sefirot. Rather, Rabbi Nagan uses it to teach about contemporary relationship and to derive new customs. For example, he encourages his students to say when dating: “For the sake of the unification between the Holy Blessed One and His Shechinah” and that couples should say the evening shema together. A burst of new ritual creativity worthy of 16th century Safed.

Finally, this interview is his discussion of his work with local Palestinians and his visit to Al-Azhar University to share a common belief in one God. Nagen was a friend and student of Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa z”l, well known for his emphasis on interfaith and peace.

Torah study

1)       How does your Beit midrash seek meaning and spirituality beyond the more analytic Litvish approaches?

I think what is most exciting about Beit Midrash is its constantly evolving dynamic nature. When the Litvish approach was first developed in the late 19th and 20th century, it was an innovation. Rav Chaim Volozhin in Nefesh Hachaim stressed  Torah Lishmah, for its own sake.

I see the methodologies that I use not as replacements but further developments.  Classical lamdanot focused on a conceptional analysis that is often deliberately formalist and abstract. Distinctions in Brisk deal with defining the “What” and not asking the “Why.” For me there were two distinct phases of my development beyond classical lamdanot.    

A major thesis of Rav Shagar’s book “Uvetorato yahaga”  is his distinction between two basic approaches to the relationship between Torah and life- Brisker abstraction and his approach of meaning.

The first, the Brisker approach, views the Torah as divine and eternal in which the Torah is abstract and autonomous, and thereby disjoint from life and reality. The Torah being alienated from the nature flow of life is, in most aspects, a Brisker dogma and ideal. They created a closed language of lamdanut, denigration of “baalabatish” reasoning, and seeing a divide between how people think and how the Torah thinks. They view the Torah as devoid of emotional or human elements, thus claiming that the mitzvot lack reasons.  

The approach that Rav Shgar propounds, is one in which Torah can illuminate life’s questions and challenges. One creates a linkage between the flow of life and the Torah. Is God’s will manifested exclusively within the realm of halakha, or can God be found within life itself? The return to Eretz Yisrael and the fact that they live as part of Medinat Yisrael has led many in the Dati Leumi community in Israel to choose the latter approach.

2) How did you personally find Meaning beyond Abstraction?

In the first stage, while still a student as Yeshivat Har Etzion, I began working on an approach to “Halakhic thought” (machshevat Ha-Halakha), which remains conceptional but is more philosophic than classical lamdanut. The articles I wrote then eventually evolved into my doctorate “Sukkot in Rabbinical Thought – Motifs the Halacha of Sukkot in Talmudic Literature”.

In 1997, a later stage in my development, I joined the Beit midrash of Otniel founded by Rav Shagar’s students where there is a stress on seeking meaning. A meaning which finds existential and personal significance.

To give a short example of how I apply the differences: the default chakira in classical lamdanut it to asking whether “cheftza or gavra“, is it in the object or the person. In contrast, in my class it’s often the distinction explained in my book between “Doing” and “Being”, an action or a state of mind. Recently in Yeshiva we studied the mitzva of Tefillin, and I argued, based on both the Biblical sources and halachot, that the fundamental difference between the Tefillin of the head to that of the arm is that the first is sanctifying our “Being” and the latter our “Doing”. These are concepts that touch on life and opened discussions about what and how tefillin can transform.

3)   Is there a connection between the Aggada and Halacha?   

Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook often cited the Hatam Sofer that mixing Halacha and Aggada is forbidden as a forbidden mixture (kilayim). Indeed, Halacha and Aggada are distinct genres. Lack of recognizing of the uniqueness of each can lead to a mishmash.

However there is an organic connection between that makes each essential to understand the other, in which the proper integration can bring a deeper understanding of both. 

As a friend of mine pointed out, Kilayim itself isn’t a blanket prohibition, the clothes of the kohanim in the Beit Hamikdash were made of kilayim. For the record allow me to point out, the original quote of the Hatam Sofer dealt not with halacha and Aggada but rather with mixing halacha and kabbalah.

Rav Zvi Yehuda’s statement diametrically the opposite of statements by his father, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, who has issued the most vocal call to integrate Halacha and Aggada.

I begin my book on Sukkah by quoting Rav Kook from Orot Hakoda 1:25  “The Halacha and the Aggada must unite with one another….”.  When my efforts on the interplay of Halacha and Aggada were challenged by a colleague who quoted to me Rav Zvi Yehuda about kilayim, I countered by the quote from Orot Hakodesh. To which my critic responded: “No, no. you don’t understand, in Orot Hakodesh it  is referring to an abstract truth in the upper worlds, not something connected to the reality that we are living in.”

Rav Kook the father is motivated by his holistic and nondualist worldview that seeks to uncover the One underlying all with a connection between Halacha and Kabbala,  I would view this connection as based not only on theological but on academic, literary and historical grounds.  As Yonah Frankel, a pioneer in the study of Aggada and midrash. has pointed out, all of our sources from the Sages contain both Halakha and Aggada – the Bavli, Yerushalmi, Midrashei Halakha and, to a lesser extent, the Mishna and Tosefta. Furthermore, the same sages engaged in both genres

The idea that Halakha and Aggada are unrelated would belie all we have learnt from anthropology and comparative religion – rituals have significance and meaning and often reflect a value system. The burden of proof is on anyone who would argue that Judaism is the exception.  Yair Lorberbaum, in his book, Image of God has a marvelous chapter on the relationship between Halacha and Aggada in the Sages.

4) How do you see this relationship between Aggada and Halacha  in the context of your work ?

The field of the relation of Halacha to Aggada is relatively new.. In my doctorate  and book on Sukkot, I grapple with this challenge of working in a new field, but there is still a long road ahead. In my work the focus would be best called “machshevat Ha-Halakha“. I study the halakhic for its ideas based on its sources, definitions, literary structure, and contexts within the back and forth of the halakhic discussion.

In addition, through my doctoral work, I was exposed to additional fields that contributed to my research. The study of ritual and symbolism in anthropology and comparative religion, can lead to insight into Halacha. This method does not necessarily lead to “parallel-mania” between Judaism and other traditions. Often, quite the opposite results – comparison highlights what is unique about Judaism.

5) How does this apply to learning Sukkah? Can you offer examples?

 The Aggada  in Sukka 11b brings an opinion that the Sukkah parallels the Divine clouds that encompassed the Jewish people in the desert. The meaning and scope of the idea is uncovered by studying the halachic parameters of Sukkah.

In Tannaic sources eating in the Sukkah is compared to eating of Korbonot(Mishna Sukka 2:6), and other laws derived from the seven days in which Aaron and his sons lived in the Mishkan during the process of its consecration (Sefra Emor 17).

In the Amoraim the Sukkah emerges as an abode of the divine, highlighted through its connection to the Kodesh Kedoshim, the inner sanctuary. The minimum size of the Sukkah is derived from the lowest level that the Shechina manifested above the Ark, or from the size of the space between the Ark and the wings of the Cherubs above it.  The intricate sugya in which these  laws appear is in fact examining the relationship between heaven and earth (Sukka 4b – 5b).

Looking at the totality of the halacha calls us to see also the theme of Sukka as the home during the course of Sukkot. Rav Yuval Cherlow once told me that in wake of my approach of Sukka as Temple, I presumably would identify with the position that frowns on marital relations in the Sukkah. I argued that the whole point of the interplay between the Sukka as Temple or as home, is a vision to connect the home and life to the holy, and the sukkah encompassing life and not dividing it, as Tosphot points out (Sukka 43b), in the mikdash it is forbidden to sleep, whereas on Sukkot one is obligated to sleep in the Sukka.

6) What insights can you offer about the Araba Minim?

I see the Arba minim as both reflecting the divine and as a sacrifice.

I point out that Rabbi Akiva’s halachic opinion that there is only one of each Min, is reflective of his approach that each of the Arba Minim is a symbolic representative of the divine, thus one of each. An interesting historical point made by Professor Sperber is that the coins from the Bar Kochba revolt have a picture of the Arba Minim in accordance with Rabbi Akiva’s approach, which reflects the tradition that he was the Rabbi of Bar Kochba.

The dominant approach, however, in the Mishna and Talmud relates to the Arba Minim with many of the parameters and categories of sacrifices The Aggada explicitly makes the comparison between Arba Minim, and sacrifice.

Both of these approaches to Arba Minim, as representing the divine or as sacrifice fit well with the above conception of Sukka as Temple. In general Sukkot is the primarily holiday of the Temple. Sukkot is the time in which Solomon dedicated the Temple. I argue that the nightly celebration in the Temple, Simchat beit hashoava, is a reenactment of the events and ceremonies behind the story of the Temple, such as David’s wild dancing in front of the ark as a procession leads it to Jerusalem. In the future too, the time that humanity comes to the Temple is designated as Sukkot (Zecharia 14).  


7)       What is the role of Raphael Patai and Mircea Eliade in your work?

Patai was a pioneer in  comparing Jewish ritual and those of ancient cultures and religions. Ideas of each person being a microcosm, and of the Temple microcosm. The cosmic significance of the water libations is illuminated by the parallels he brings. One flaw is that he notes similarities but what often is most interesting to me are the differences.

More significant for me was the work of Eliade, to which Professor Moshe Idel, who together with Professor Moshe Halbertal was my doctoral mentor, encouraged me to study.Eliade, who was one of the twentieth century’s foremost scholars of religion, contrasted two different approaches to time: the cosmological and the historical. In the cosmological model, time is cyclical: what was is what will be. Time flows backward, in a constant, recurring return to a mythical age. This conception of time is derived from, among other things, the phenomena of the natural world, which repeat every year without fail. For instance, in the spring the flora bloom, during the year the plants dry out, and in the following spring they grow anew. Eliade contrasts this conception, which pervades the pagan world, with the historical view of history instilled by Judaism. According to which time and the world are always marching forward.

The importance of the historical approach in Judaism lies in the fact that it makes room for morality and values. Were that not the case, nothing could change, and man’s actions would be meaningless. Eliade himself, it bears noting, identified with the cosmological model: as a fascist and an anti-Semite, he was not much enamored of the historical approach.

In my book on Sukkot, I argue that the Jewish tradition did not supersede the cosmological approach, but rather added to it, maintaining a unique synthesis between the cosmic and the historical. Sukkot has both historical components, in the context of the story of life in the desert and cosmic in terms of the renewal and return to nature, a theme that also appears through laws of sukkot.

8) What is the goal of Torah study from a universalistic perspective?

 I believe that the role of Torah study for the Jewish people is so fundamental, touching on our deepest identity, essence, and destiny. My universalism leads to a greater emphasis on the significance of Torah study. As I don’t see the Jewish people as having different DNA or different soul as non-Jews, but rather as sharing a common humanity and image of God  (tselem Elohim), therefore it is the Torah that makes us unique,  who we are and who we can become. The blessing we say on the Torah “God…who has chosen us from all the nations and given us the Torah” tells us that it is the Torah that gives us our status. The richer, deeper and more significant the Torah is, the more we grow. As a result, to fulfill our role I see the value in reaching new realms, and see openness to the world as opening up pathways to this expansion of Torah.

This belief reflects for me my hashkafa (worldview) of Modern Orthodoxy. Openness to the world has a value and but also a price. I see the challenge and obligation of Modern Orthodoxy as working to ensure that the price we pay for our exposure to the outside world to be justified by the ways we are blessed by this engagement.

Another reason why universalism leads to this imperative is the vision of the Jewish people as continuing to  contribute to humanity through the venue of Torah – in the words of Isaiah 2:3 “From Zion will go forth Torah and the word of God from Jerusalem” . This challenges us to develop a Torah that can speak to humanity as a whole and be transformative for their lives and for their connection to God.

Interfaith Work

9)    Why do you engage in interfaith work with local Palestinian imams and sheikhs? What is accomplished?

The return of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisroel, and the birth of a Jewish State is not the end of the story but the beginning. After two thousand years of untold suffering and determination, we have a moral responsibility to create a state that will realize a vision that justifies this journey of the Jewish people. We need to heal the relations between the Jewish people and humanity, and to connect with other followers of God in order to serve him from a place of connection and brotherhood. The state gives us an imperative to try to make the other into a brother.

More and more it is recognized in Israel the significance of religion in reaching these ends, including even the political. The great insight of Rav Menachem Froman, my friend and mentor, was that if religion is part of the problem, then it will have to be part of the solution. Belief in God has the power to separate people, but it also has the power to connect them.  For those who believe that the other worships a different God, faith will drive a wedge between the two parties. However, for those who believe that we both love, cherish, and pray to the same God, belief will only draw us closer together.

When it comes to Judaism and Islam, the two primary religions in the conflict, their theology binds far more than it divides. Jewish rabbinic literature values Islam for its belief in the unity of one God. In the Koran, Islam grants a special status to Jews as “Ahlul Kitab” – People of the Book. However, while these theological tenets may lay the foundation in principle, peaceful relations between peoples can and will only be built through direct encounter, through laying down the bricks one at a time. The work comes through real life meetings between persons of different faiths, opportunities to acknowledge and encounter the Other’s religious and ethnic identity.

For years I have been active in interfaith meetings both in Israel proper and the West Bank, largely under the auspices of two organizations – the Abrahamic Reunion (AR) and the Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA).  I see the power of these sessions as twofold. First, such meetings have the power to change what the attendees think about the Other. Second, and perhaps more significantly, these encounters take those truths one already knows cerebrally and brings them down from the head to the heart, turning them into a living existential reality.

Human connections alone cannot be a substitute for political solutions, but they create fertile ground for solutions to develop and ultimately flourish. These connections can help ensure success of any future resolution and open up new possibilities to finding an optimal solution for all parties.

10) Why did you visit Al Azhar in Egypt?

On several occasions, I hosted my friend Dr. Omer Salem at Yeshivat Otniel who lectured to our students. At one point he offered to host me in Cairo at his University, Al Azhar University. Al Azhar was founded more than a thousand years ago and is one of Sunni Islam’s most important institutions. I realized that there is ongoing debate in Egypt about who are the Jewish people and thought that be going there an ability to impact on this discussion, so together with Dr. Joseph Ringel and Rebecca Abramson (a haredi journalist) we set out for Cairo.

Omer wrote his doctorate at Al Azhar University, on the topic of the status of Jews and Judaism according to Islam. This is the same topic that the former Grand Imam of Al Azhar Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, wrote his thesis, on Ahlul Kitab, the people of the book.  They however reached opposite conclusions. According to Tantawy, Islam has a negative attitude toward the Jews.  

“[The] Qur’an describes the Jews with their own particular degenerate characteristics, i.e. killing the prophets of Allah, corrupting His words by putting them in the wrong places, consuming the people’s wealth frivolously, refusal to distance themselves from the evil they do, and other ugly characteristics caused by their deep-rooted lasciviousness … only a minority of the Jews keep their word. … [A]ll Jews are not the same. The good ones become Muslims, the bad ones do not.” 

In contrast, Omer took the opposite approach and saw as what he believes is the positive conception of the Jews in Koran as the key to reconciliation in the Middle East as he argues in his book, The Missing Peace: The Role of Religion in the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

There are, however, Jewish believers with whom Islam has no problem. Surah 3 says that there is ‘a party of the people of the Scripture [who] stand for the right, they recite the Verses of Allah during the hours of the night, prostrating themselves in prayer.’ The Quran praises the Jews for obeying the Torah.”

 “[If your ways are pleasing to Allah], even your enemies will become your lovers. Remember that you are the chosen people. You may doubt that Islam appreciates and respects the Jews, but when Muslims ruled the world they were the protectors of the Jews. My vision is to restore this attitude. I want to say to my Muslim brothers and sisters: You are not the enemies of the Jews, you are their protectors.” 

11) Who did you meet with while at Al-Azhar University ?

We met with some of the professors there.

Dr. Bakr Zaki Awad, the dean of the School of Theology whose specialty is the relationship between the Torah, the New Testament and the Quran, yet he had never met a rabbi in his life. He had a lot of powerful questions to raise about Judaism. One issue he raised was that Muslims want everyone to be Muslims, but Jews don’t seem to care who becomes Jewish. He saw this as Jewish antipathy towards other people. I told him that the Torah starts with our common humanity in the story of Adam, where we are told that all of humanity is created in the image of God. Judaism sees itself as having a role to play in the story of humanity, but not that everyone should be Jewish. Our role is to awaken certain values and a connection from God to humanity, which we see for example in the seven Noahide laws. We see in Islam a fulfillment of that vision.

When we visited the University of Fayum where we met another professor of Omers’. When he heard we were Jewish, he told us a very sweet story:

One day someone came and knocked on the gate of the palace identifying himself as the brother of the Caliph. The visitor is ushered in, but the Caliph isn’t able to recognize his brother. The Caliph asks, “Are you my brother through my mother?” “No” is the reply. “Are you my brother through my father?” Again the answer in negative. The caliph continues to think and finally asks again, “Are you my brother in Islam?” The visitor answers, “I am not a Muslim. ”“So how are you my brother?” asks the Caliph. “I am your brother as all of us are children of Adam and Eve.” The Caliph responds: “You are right. I will treat you as my brother to demonstrate this to the world.”

Integrating Zohar into our Lives

12)       Why is Zohar study important for today’s yeshiva?

 I mentioned in the previous interview Rav Kook opening statement to “For the Perplexed of the Generation”– “That Humanity is created in the image of God,

this is the essence of the entire Torah” I see the connection of the human and the divine as the fundamental idea of the Kabbala, the heart of which is the Zohar.  I see the power of this concept as sanctifying and empowering all human life and interpersonal relations as well as human endeavors.

13) How do your current shiurim on Zohar focus on love in the Zohar?

The love songs of Shiur HaShirim between the male and the female, which is in the words of Rabbi Akiva, the holy of the holiest (Mishna Yadaim 3:5), is an allegory, but the question is for what? The traditional answer is for the love between God and the Jewish people. Within the teachings of Rabbi Akiva it is clear that the realm of the divine includes also the earthly love between man and wife (Sotah 17).

The Zohar adds a third dimension to these love songs, as the love and yearning within the realm of the divine, between HaKadosh Baruch Hu and the Shekhinah. What is critical and often missed is the dynamics and interrelation between these three dimensions. Or as I tell my students that before going on a date to say “For the sake of the unification between the Holy Blessed One and His Shechinah “”לשם ייחוד קודשה בריך הוא ושכינתיה .

Often passages that the commentators see as abstracting dealing within the divine realm, I will ask what this could means when actualized in the human realm and applied to our interpersonal lives..

There is a beautiful teaching in the Zohar at the beginning of  Shir HaSHirim, that a kiss of love has four spirits, ruchot,  in it. It can be explained abstractly about the interaction between heavenly sefirot but also as an insight our interpersonal relations.  Two people in a relationship are really four spirits. Each person has their own individuality but in time each encompasses something of the other, and gives it a new form, thus in a relationship there are four spirits connect.

Another teaching in the Zohar on love is in Parshat Teruma that the source of the four letter name of God, the tetragrammaton is the very similar four letter Hebrew word, Ahava, love, which the Zohar states the letters of which  “above and below are dependent” (Zohar Teruma 146a). So love increase God’s presence.

14)    Explain how do you think the Zohar wants us to do Shema as a couple?

The earliest time of Shema in the morning is when there is enough light for one to see his friend (Shulchan Arukh 58a).  Rav Reem HaKohen once explained that the reason is that Shema is accepting God’s majesty upon us and in Judaism, as by Sinai, this should not be done alone but with others.

My first thought was that the corollary should be that at night, the Shema said before going to sleep should be said with ones’ spouse.  I later discovered many passages in the Zohar stressing the great unity of Shema is the unity between male and female. For example the Zohar terumah (133b) says that the first phrase “shema…ehad” is the inner unity of the groom, the second “Baruch….Voed” is the bride entering modestly into the huppah and thus this is said in a whisper. Or “all mitzot each reflect either the masculine or of the feminine, the exception being Shema which is unity as thus has both (Zohar Hadash Ruth 110a)  The explicit meaning of these passages is that this is about the unity between those aspects of the divine, but in my approach to Zohar I see this as actualized also in the partnership of a couple together accepting God.

Rabbi on the Ganges- New Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaplan (right side) at an NCSY Shabbaton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evolution      

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neanderthal- Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Days of Creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hence, the seven days of creation are as follows:

Day 1 Electromagnetic force

Day 2 4-D space/time matrix

Day 3 Warping of matter, beyond Euclidian space

Day 4 Inorganic matter

Day 5 Organic matter and life

Day 6 Evolutionary potential of higher mammals and primitive man.

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

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

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

Miriam Feldmann Kaye Responds to the Responses

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

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

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

Miriam Feldmann Kaye – Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claire E. Sufrin responds to Miriam Feldman Kaye

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

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

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

Claire E. Sufrin – Response

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

Postmodernism

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

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

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

Postmodernism and Judaism

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

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

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

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

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

Tamar Ross and Postmodernism

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

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

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

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

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

Zohar Atkins responds to Miriam Feldmann-Kaye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concerning Postmodernism and Jewish Thought-Zohar Atkins

Defining Postmodernism

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


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


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

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

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

Postmodernism and Judaism 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non-Foundationalism 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Use of Heidegger and Derrida in the Interview 

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

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

Conclusion 

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Postmodern Theology from the Writings of Rav Shagar?

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

Understanding Rav Shagar’s Context

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

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

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

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

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

Sartre and Existentialism

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

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

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

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

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

Updating the References

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

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

Is Rav Shagar a Postmodern?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Are you actually discussing postmodernism?

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

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

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

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

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

2. Is ambivalence towards Postmodernism justified?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. What is Cultural Particularism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. How does Rav Shagar deal with Cultural Particularism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having internalized the epistemological uncertainty characteristic of the postmodern critique.

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

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

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

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

8. Is Cultural Particularism relativism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Does Language affect Reality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indonesian Sufism

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islamic Colleges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Years of the Blog

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

 


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Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen- Be, Become, Bless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

רישיקש 004

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

1) What is spirituality?

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

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

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

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

2)  How did you turn to spirituality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) What is the distinction between doing and being?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6) How is your approach about accepting the other?

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

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

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

7) What is your connection of OM and shalom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11) How can we compare Moses and Buddha?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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?