Monologues from the Makom –Interview with the Editors

In 1996, Eve Ensler broke ground with a play called The Vagina Monologues, consisting of a series of episodic narratives. Based on over 200 interviews Ensler conducted with women, the play addressed women’s sexuality and the social stigma creating a new conversation about and with women. The play explores consensual and nonconsensual sexual experiences, body image, genital mutilation, direct and indirect encounters with reproduction, vaginal care, menstrual periods, sex work, and several other topics through the eyes of women with various ages, races, sexualities, and other differences.  Critics consider the work as one the most important pieces of political theater of the last decades.  In 2018, The New York Times stated “No recent hour of theater has had a greater impact worldwide”

Every year, the play is performed on hundreds of college campuses. Inspired by The Vagina Monologues, many colleges have gone on to develop their own version based on the life experiences of its students. Performances at colleges are always different, not always pre-written, and feature actors writing their own monologues. The Cardinal Newman Society has criticized the performance of the play on Catholic college campuses. Yet, in 2011 ten of the fourteen Catholic universities hosting the Monologues were Jesuit institutions. What would the Monologues look like if performed on a Modern Orthodox campus?

The answer is in the recently published Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity  (Ben Yehuda Press, 2020) by Rivka Cohen, Sara Rozner Lawrence, Sarah Ricklan, Rebecca Zimilover, and Naima Hirsch. The book has received a nice amount of media attention and follow-up sessions on zoom. See the wonderful JTA interview that was subsequently translated into Hebrew, the well written review in New York Gal, and the appreciate review in Stern College’s Jewish Observer. One reviewer called the Monologues from the Makom The Vagina Monologues Frummed Out.

The volume is a collection of 32 individual narratives by Jewish women on a mission to break the taboo surrounding female sexuality in their religious communities. Featuring a mix of poetry  and prose, all the pieces in the book are personal, raw, and enrapturing. They capture the that conversations about female sexuality have happened in Orthodox communities. Inside, dozens of stories, poems and musings — some anonymous — grapple with those conversations and their effects on women.

Makom is a Hebrew word that literally means place, but is also the common euphemism for vagina throughout the Talmud and rabbinic literature. The authors wished to reclaim the very word the Rabbinic sages used to sanitize the mention of our sexual organs.

The project is the brainchild of Sara Rozner Lawrence.  Rozner was a freshman at Stern College for women when she attended a production of The Vagina Monologues. Rozner found that though she related to many parts of the show, it did not fully speak to her experience as an Orthodox Jewish woman, she sought a place where her own identity would be represented. She also knew her friends would not be comfortable at the original The Vagina Monologues. The book grew out of three evening of personal narrative, none of them held on the actual campus of Stern College. The first one, held in a friend’s apartment, surprised her by having sixty people show up. The next two had many more show up at the auditorium venue.  

Sara Rozner Lawrence recounts in the book’s introduction “that she went to a pretty mainstream Modern Orthodox school and sex was just something that was never considered safe to touch. My mom assumed wrongly that I was getting the information at school and I wasn’t, and I graduated knowing basically nothing. Monologues from the Makom was born from a backdrop of silence.” Rozner narrates how, when she  “was a young girl growing up in the Orthodox Jewish community, sex was not something we talked about. While there were vague references to the shadowy world of “relations,” they were always accompanied with warnings and shaming terms so that we would know it was wrong. The well-intentioned educators in my all-girls schools made their best efforts to instill in us both a sense that our bodies were holy and that they were dangerous, a source of inadvertent temptation for men.”

Rozner describes how “silence and secrecy about sex breed shame. When something as developmentally central as sexuality is ignored by parents and educators, many children naturally come to the conclusion that there must be something wrong and shameful and embarrassing about it. Rozner, who is now a Clinical Psychology doctoral student, emphatically states that “many young adults in our community are left with a lingering sense of guilt about their sexuality even as they attempt to enter into fulfilling sexual relationships.”

The book is groundbreaking and will serve as a historic marker for a new generation of Modern Orthodox leaders. In order not to be mansplaining to anyone, I will let the editors speak for themselves. I would also appreciate women who have different views to write a response to be posted in future weeks.

Of the five editors, Rozner already gave her views in the book’s introduction. Below is an interview with three of the other editors. The three editors, Sarah J. Ricklan, Naima Hirsch, and Rivka Cohen answered my questions. Each editor contributes her own personal perspective. Their personal differences in content and style are consistent throughout.  

Sarah J. Ricklan is a third year medical student at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Her academic interests and research include human evolution, women’s health, and access to healthcare. 

Naima Hirsch is a student at Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox institution to ordain women as clergy. She serves on the leadership team of the Beis Community in Washington Heights.

Rivka Cohen is the Director of Partnerships and Strategic Development at Lissan, a nonprofit that promotes equality in East and West Jerusalem through language education.

1)     What are young Orthodox women doing reading Eve Ensler?

Rivka Cohen: I attended The Vagina Monologues during my sophomore year of college. While I grew up with many feminist values, it was not until I started college that I started associating with the label. By the time I learned about The Vagina Monologues during my second year of college, I had already become comfortable with identifying myself as a feminist, and understood that the The Vagina Monologues held an important place in the feminist movement. Many of my feminist friends were attending the play, and some were even performing in it. I felt a curiosity, and perhaps even an obligation to attend. 

More importantly, the group that performed The Vagina Monologues hosted a number of events during Vagina Week, the week leading up to the performance. Just a year and a half prior, I had chosen not to attend any of the sex-related sessions at orientation, because I thought that they did not apply to me. However, during Vagina Week, a sexologist came to speak, and as a 21-year-old struggling with the religious norm of not touching men (shmirat negiah), I felt like it was time to push my intellectual boundaries, learn more about sexuality, and explore my own. I remember feeling torn between the secular feminist culture that told me that I should be completely sexually liberated, and my conservative Orthodox culture that told me that I should be completely sexually repressed. However, I am very grateful for the opportunity that The Vagina Monologues offered me to think more deeply about my sexuality, which felt like a turning point for me.

Sarah J. Ricklan: I think some people are drawn initially to Eve Ensler’s work because of its place in the feminist movement and the initiatives that have grown out of The Vagina Monologues; her play highlights the multifaceted experience of womanhood across cultures. This play was the launching point for Monologues from the Makom events – which later gave rise to the book – because Ensler’s monologues, though broad ranging, do not perfectly capture the observant female experience. Perhaps one reason the Monologues from the Makom events were so appealing to young observant women is that, in watching or reading Ensler’s play, they realize just how much of their own experience is not captured.

For example, Ensler gives the female body – its actual body parts – a brash, explicit, unapologetic voice. Several of the women in this book do not feel the level of comfort, ownership, and understanding of one’s body that is required to write in that way. The first piece in this book, “Subjectivity,” discusses the alienation one woman feels from her own body, saying “…of course, it’s the soul that’s important/ But it’s my body that has me HERE/ And I’m living within the walls of a stranger’s home” (p. 1).

2)     This book is written as 32 first-person accounts. Why is first person narrative effective?

SJR: The role of narrative is critical. Within the framework of Jewish feminist thought, Judith Plaskow argues that narrative can be a way to reclaim Jewish women’s history. She argues that we need to focus on Jewish women’s stories in Jewish texts and history, to the point of even coming up with our own exegetical stories, or ‘midrashim,’ that reflect the female role. In this vein, in using narrative, the writers in this book claim their position within Jewish lived practice. The narrative brings their voices into practices and spaces that were not previously performed or occupied by women, or not previously spoken about in women’s voices.

But it’s not just about claiming a place within the community. The descriptions women use in this piece are vivid and at times incredibly painful to read. Narrative and storytelling, then, serve as media for descriptive writing that forces the reader to consider the emotional toll these experiences within the community have had. We are forced to question the systems we’ve created that can produce these experiences. 

Naima Hirsch: In her introduction to the book, Sara Rozner Lawrence writes about her concerns before the first Monologues from the Makom event: “I thought that at most 20 people would come and that I would have to beg my friends to share monologues” (xiv). After the performance where over 60 women attended and 17 women performed, “at least a dozen women approached [Rozner Lawrence]…to tell [her] that they had deeply needed this gathering, that it had spoken to the discomfort and shame that they were still grappling with” (xv). Coming together to hear individual stories about sexuality, gender, and body image helped women feel that they weren’t alone in their shame, nor do they have to suffer through it alone.

3) How does this book relate to #Metoo and consent?

SJR: We were already working on the book when the #MeToo movement became a larger part of societal conversation. We thought this was a critical moment of reckoning, so we decided to put out another call for submissions that dealt with themes relating to #MeToo and consent. In the final product, several pieces discuss rape and sexual assault within the community. 

Strikingly, several pieces talk about assault within Orthodox institutions — and argue that these institutions did not equip them with the tools they needed. In the piece “It’s Different Than the Movies,” the author talks about an early Modern Orthodox high school relationship that ended with a sexual encounter that was not consensual. As the author reflects on the experience, she notes that she “…didn’t learn the word consent until college” (p. 31) and “…”wish[es] [her] high school feared less about students having sex, and more about students being abused” (p. 31). In another piece, “Shame,” the author talks about how she blamed herself for a sexual assault at an Orthodox summer camp and how this experience affected her future relationships.

RC: I would like to add that this book also includes positive accounts of consent. Notably, in the piece “Love on the Brain,” the author offers a beautiful and poetic account of her first kiss, including the dialogue that transpired between her and her partner. She recounts how he asked her “Are you okay?” and “You have to tell me if anything makes you uncomfortable or if you want to stop. Promise?” (p. 83) giving us a positive example of what healthy consent and respecting boundaries can look like.

4)  The tensions around first kisses, first awakening of sexuality, first period, are all part of general American life. Why bother to bring in Judaism or Orthodoxy? 

SJR: This book is different from prior narrative works about growing into one’s female sexuality because it presents experiences of both being observant and being a woman; growing up female while growing up observant creates a new dimension of experience. 

For example, girls are encouraged to be “good girls”, which means they should be sexually conservative, avoid having sex young, and avoid having multiple sex partners. Observant Jews are given religious laws related to dress and modesty, as well as laws restricting touch between girls and boys. An observant woman who breaks the “rules” experiences sexual guilt for not being a “good girl” in combination with deep religious guilt. But these guilts are not merely additive – they produce a crisis that seems to exceed each individual “guilt”.  

The intersection of these two teachings is expressed well in the piece in our volume “I am.” The author writes, “This body,/ I was taught,/ Is holy, is sacred, belongs to God./ Keep it covered/ To protect my dignity” (p. 5). The author’s dignity – her status as a “good girl” – is contingent upon the modesty dictated by her religion. But preserving her “dignity” not only preserves the author’s social reputation — it also preserves her holiness. So when the author breaks the rules of modest dress, she feels “no longer holy” (p. 5) and engages in a harmful sexual relationship. As the author heals from this sexual wound, she must reclaim not just her sense of self-worth, but also her sense of holiness. 

NH: The tensions and expectations surrounding first kisses, sexual awakenings, and first periods have only relatively recently become part of general American life. It is because of young adult writers like Judy Blume that all of these tensions are common topics and themes in books, TV shows, and movies. Blume’s bestselling books Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970); Deenie (1973); and Forever (1975) and their frank portrayals of puberty, female masturbation, and sex brought the tensions teenaged girls were (and still are) experiencing into the public discourse, and gave Western media more tropes for their media set in middle and high schools.

There’s the ever-present cheerleader versus band geek dichotomy; the parties; the middle school dances and homecoming games. What does it mean to be a “good girl?” Does enjoying sex make you a slut? What’s the value in waiting until prom to lose your virginity? Everyone else has had their first kiss, so you might as well “get it over with…” You don’t want the other girls to see you change in the locker room because you’re still wearing a training bra, so you change in the bathroom stall and wait for them all to leave…

While many of those tensions and questions are present in Jewish culture, we have a different set of tropes that sometimes bring up different issues. For a number of reasons, environments like summer camp and youth groups become hypersexualized places where preteens and teenagers explore their sexuality, often in unhealthy ways. While camp is often a place for such experimentation, the subconscious messaging around Jewish continuity both at camp and in youth groups, especially outside of Orthodoxy, creates an even more hypersexualized environment. Additionally, the concept of a “nice Jewish boy” and “nice Jewish girl” (or NJB or NJG, as shortened on dating apps like JSwipe) become stereotypes and fetishizations; making even Judaism itself sexual.

This is often more fraught within Orthodoxy, because of the tension surrounding not being part of general American life that Orthodox Jews struggle with daily. We’re instructed not to be like average American teenagers: not to have sex or anything close to it, and to get married and have kids young. But we still exist in the world of general American life. We still watch the same movies and have the same bodies and desires. We still have friends who are boys (at least in the Modern Orthodox world), and we still struggle how to navigate the awkward situations when we start having feelings for those friends, or when they start having feelings for us.

There’s a lot of shame and stigma in the Orthodox world around these issues used to create silence and enforce complacency and conformity. But as the daughters of women who grew up reading Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, we can see how speaking up and writing about our experiences can be empowering. By creating ways to own our narratives, we can truly appreciate the universal experiences contained therein.

5)     How do you envision a sex positive approach in Modern Orthodox day schools and summer camps?

NH: Sex positivity begins with teaching consent from a young age. Toddlers and preschoolers need to be taught that when their friend tells them not to, they need to stop touching them, no matter what. Similarly, boundaries need to be honored and respected from a young age. If a preschooler is being tickled, and they say “no more!”, the adult tickling them needs to stop right away, whether or not the child is laughing. Additionally, kids need to know the proper names for all body parts from a young age. By using euphemisms to talk about penises or vaginas, kids will sense that their genitalia are something to be ashamed about.

SJR: I don’t think that sex positivity is the goal. Instead, I think reducing shame and alienation from one’s body and sexuality should be the goal. “The Girl Who Loved Masturbating/My Complicated Relationship with Masturbation” describes the problem of shame surrounding sexuality. In this story, the author talks about the first time she experienced an orgasm through masturbation and the shame she felt surrounding this pleasure. She says she “… quickly began to hate [herself] for having dirty thoughts” (p. 25). She expresses the “relief” (p. 26) she felt when she learned that sexual pleasure within marriage was encouraged — finally, a sense of sex positivity. 

As this story suggests, waiting until marriage to acknowledge sexuality can create feelings of self-loathing and guilt. Eliminating the taboo of pleasure does not necessarily mean encouraging sex in day schools and camps. Instead, it allows young people to understand their bodies in appropriate, healthy, and safe ways. Critically, within the framework of Jewish institutions, consent must be a focus. Even if things like consent are not taught from a young age, they should be taught in high school. 

RC: I think that we need to change the way we teach such topics as not touching members of a different sex (shmirat negiah), masturbation, and modesty (tzniut).

The often-all-or-nothing approach to shmirat negiah is unsustainable, in my opinion. The concept was codified for a society and dating scene that is far removed from our current reality. And when teenagers or even adults inevitably “break shomer,” they are not given the tools to set healthy boundaries for themselves and others. I think that tying the concept of shmirat negiah to consent, rather than “saving oneself for marriage,” is a much healthier approach. I would like to see religious education emphasizing the value of having ownership over one’s own body and setting healthy boundaries for different types of relationships, rather than shaming all physical contact that happens outside of marriage. 

I also believe that we need to do away with the outright shaming of masturbation. For women, this issue is even easier to navigate halakhically, and girls should know that masturbation is normal, healthy, and nothing to be ashamed of. They should be taught about their basic anatomy, even as it pertains to pleasure and not just reproduction. No girl should leave high school without knowing where her clitoris is, or which hole is which.

6)  Is this even feasible, since Orthodox institutions by their nature are socially conservative and not sex positive (at best neutral)?  

NH: I think it depends how we define sex positive. Right now, as I see it, Orthodox institutions (such as day schools and summer camps) are in active denial about the urgent need for sex education. I do think that schools need to teach about consent, boundaries, and healthy relationships. They need to acknowledge that their students will be sexually active in some way or another, not shame them for that, and make sure that there are resources available to keep their students medically and emotionally safe. I certainly do not think day schools should provide condoms, but I do think that they should teach about different forms of contraception.

SJR: I think it is also important for Orthodox institutions to realize just how harmful some conservative messages can be. In “Consent,” the author describes her abstinence education in school. She was told that “A diamond is most safe when it remains under key,/ Candy most desired when it is still in the wrapper” (p. 38). In the end, these lessons make the author create a distorted image of her own body. She writes the following about this distortion: “when I close my eyes, my body is finite/ it is a countable number of pieces I give away, in mouths and hands/ until I am left with nothing/ it has never belonged to me” (p. 39). The author’s abstinence education has not made her feel safe and in control of her body. Instead, she feels her body is not even her own — it belongs to whichever men she chooses (illicitly) to give it to. Even in socially conservative institutions, we should recognize that this result is tragic.

7) How do you envision modesty (tzniut) if one is sex positive?

SJR: I think we need to reframe the modesty (tzniut) discussion, especially in the context of the Jewish day school dress code. The dress code debate is an old one, but it’s worth seriously considering the messages we send about the female body when we enforce dress codes that are so different between boys and girls. I think this could be a chance to discuss professionalism — in all its complicated nuances — with young adults. What do we expect a Jewish day school student to look like? Why do we expect that? Disentangling tzniut and sexuality or sexualization is incredibly difficult, but it might help to start by being honest with ourselves and with our students about what these sorts of messages convey. 

NH: Tzniut and sex positivity don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but they can be. I think we have to acknowledge that for some people, being sex positive means not dressing in a traditionally modest (tzanua) way. There are also different ways to measure tzniut – I don’t think that a woman who wears pants or even shorts is automatically not tzanua. It’s about the context in which one wears those clothing items, and the genre of those items, for lack of a better term. There’s a difference between basketball shorts worn to run errands and tight shorts worn to attract attention, and similarly with dresses and skirts. There’s a fashion rule about wearing the clothing instead of letting the clothing wear you – and I think that applies here. Clothing is meant to be a way of expressing ourselves; our tastes and identities, not our bodies. 

SJR: I think when we discuss tzniut, even if we don’t veer towards sex positivity, we can eliminate the shame and alienation that often results. This is articulated well in the poem “I have been trying to write this all week.” The author, when discussing her decision to dress according to the halakhic rules of modesty (tzniut), expresses frustration that these rules have caused girls to feel shame about their bodies. She writes that these rules “…teach young girls that they are something to hide/ That their bodies are ugly/ That even their voices are promiscuous/ That they should not be heard, but not seen either” (p. 11). As it stands in many Modern Orthodox institutions, girls learn to develop bodily shame that can and should be avoided — without necessarily being sex positive as such. 

RC: Tzniut should not be about saving your body for your husband, nor should dressing “less tznius-ly” be about attracting others’ attention. I would like to see a sex positive culture that encourages girls and women to know and love their bodies, and to dress like they know and love their bodies – feeling comfortable in their skin and clothes for their own sake, and no one else’s.

We need to reevaluate how we teach the values of tzniut, taking care that we do not enter the realms of body shaming or slut shaming. I would like to see religious education emphasize knowing and loving our bodies and wearing attire that is both appropriate to specific settings and makes us feel comfortable. I find that the specific lines drawn for dress codes can often disadvantage bigger or more developed girls, and we need to be careful that we are treating everyone fairly and with respect, even if they have different body types. Additionally, I do not think it is that difficult to set dress codes in co-ed settings that fit both boys and girls (covering shoulders, shorts to your knees, etc.) I believe that having one set of rules for all can help minimize the shame that girls are often made to feel when they are given a special set of rules purely around their bodies.

Additionally, regarding summer camps, I think it is important to note that parents should be held accountable for the clothing with which they send their children to camp. I have encountered multiple girls who come to camp with clothing that does not fit the dress code, and therefore need to change their outfits almost every day. It is unfair of parents to send their child to camp with clothing that does not fit the rules, and we need to take care not to shame or blame the child, but to address the parents more clearly on this issue.

Addressing sexuality in summer camps is a critical issue. Camps are often ripe with bullying, shaming, sexual tension, and peers educating their peers. Moreover, children are supervised by teenagers, who are often in the process of their own budding sexuality and are not equipped with the tools to handle conversations about sexuality with their campers. In recent years, I am happy to note that there has been increased emphasis on sexual harassment prevention at camps, but I think we need to go beyond that. I strongly believe that pre-camp staff training should include conversations about sexuality, how to engage with your campers in a healthy way when they talk about sexual activity, and how to pay attention to potential bullying and shaming that may be happening specifically around sex. When I was a camp counselor, I was not given the tools to facilitate these conversations with my campers when they inevitably arose.

8) How does the book pay attention to an embodied female body?

SJR: Understanding female embodiment involves examining how the physical female body affects women’s experiences. Some pieces describe female embodiment of male religious settings. In “The Lady in Lime-Green,” the author describes the “stares” (p. 58) she endured for wearing a kippah as a woman. In “Bound,” the author describes the difference in physicality between her and her male counterparts as she is not expected to wrap tefillin. She writes that her arms are “smooth, unbound” (p. 63). When excluded from participating in Simchat Torah, the author of “Invisibility” describes feeling her lack of embodiment in the synagogue service, writing that, “…here in this balcony, in these most sacred moments, [she doesn’t] inhabit a body as [she] and the women around [her] participate in nothing at all” (p. 15). Participation requires embodiment — and in some religious spaces, there is no room for the female body. Women are left to either give female physicality to male rituals or not exist in those spaces at all. 

Some pieces describe what it is like to encounter another female body in a sexual way. In “An Empty Place,” the author describes her first sexual experience with another woman. She describes “…something thrilling about two of the same mold swaying with open-mouthed wonder at the majestic beauty of their own self-sufficiency” (p. 20). Her appreciation and reflection on the sexual female body — represented by both her own and her partner’s bodies, and their interaction — allows her to better understand how female bodies navigate their worlds. 

But such an acknowledgement of the sexual female body can be dangerous. In “Lucy, I Love You,” the author describes seeking out and enjoying pornography to satisfy her sexual desire for other women. She thinks about the actress’s “glorious body” (p. 23), but at the same time, she knows she “…cannot acknowledge the basic and simple joy, the beautiful life-affirming pleasure of exchanging caresses with [her] female lovers because to do that would be instant social death” (p. 23). As she discovers her appreciation for the female body, she realizes she must keep this desire quiet or sacrifice the life she has built. 

10)  How does your book relate to self-judging and identity formation?

SJR: Women in this book reflect upon how they formed their identity — how they came to be themselves. In doing so, their judgments about themselves often seem negative or ambivalent until they are able to reconcile conflicting thoughts and emotions. For example, many pieces in the book discuss sexual identity development. As sexuality and gender clash with other parts of their identities, particularly those dictated by their communities, some authors feel shame and negative self-regard.

RC: As I wrote in my own piece, “Touching Boy,” after touching my first boyfriend for the first time, “I still considered myself shomer negiah. The shame would be too much to bear otherwise. Being shomer negiah defined me.” (p. 80) Not touching men (shmirat negiah) had been a core element of my identity in unhealthy way, and when I didn’t uphold the expectations that I had for myself or felt pressured to uphold by the Orthodox community, I developed an extreme case of cognitive dissonance — telling myself I was keeping the rules even when I wasn’t — so that I did not have to deal with negative self-judgment or come to terms with my sexuality in a healthy manner.

Many other pieces in the book also relate to questioning and coming to terms with one’s own identity. In particular, two of the pieces that discuss menstruation contain such questions with a clear tie between menstruation and identity. 

The book also delves into identity-formation as it relates to how others perceive us. In “Synonyms,” the author grapples with how others view her identity as a woman in religious spaces: “I will never understand why my gender is a controversy/ Why my identity is a question/ Why the way I was born is unfortunate.” (p. 70).

11)  How does the book deal with an open discussion of menstruation? What is new here, haven’t there been 40 years of young adult books and after school specials on the topic?

SJR: Simone de Beauvoir famously argues that women experience shame as they enter puberty and begin menstruating. Fortunately, in general American culture, more open discussion of menstruation is on the rise. But the discussion surrounding menstruation in this book reflects the ways in which various aspects of observant life complicate the way women view their own menstruation — and suggests that a general American discussion of menstruation is simply not good enough. 

One major example of this phenomenon relates to laws of family purity (taharat hamishpaha). In “Welcome to Womanhood,” the author, noting that her “femininity and [her] Jewish identity were entangled” (p. 46), tells the reader that, “The crimson clots named [her] ‘woman;’/ [Her] religion named them ‘dirty.’” (p. 46).  A similar sentiment is expressed in my own contribution, “Private Places,” where I, upon preparing for ritual immersion for the first time, “felt that resentment, that sharp, debilitating sting that comes with realizing what womanhood in my world seemed to mean” (p. 103). Given the significance of menstrual periods in Jewish observance and the invasive ritual needed to purify oneself from one’s periods, it seems impossible that a woman would not feel shame and bodily alienation — and this cannot be alleviated by the general American discourse. 

But it’s important to note that some of the stories about menstruation do not feel unique to Judaism. In “Built-up Bravery,” one woman talks about the abnormal pain she felt during her periods. In “First Period,” the author discusses how she lost her period during her long-term eating disorder, and regaining her period allowed her to think about her sexual orientation.

Maybe these pieces show that the general American messaging surrounding menstruation has not seeped into observant life. More likely, however, it shows that observant women, too, still deal with shame and fear about our periods. We can’t shunt our communal responsibility to discuss these topics over to mainstream media — our girls deserve a chance to have their own conversation, even if their perspectives are not uniquely influenced by their religion. 

12)  I was deeply struck by the tension of those pieces that were healthy and moving forward and those that were confessions of unresolved trauma and pain. Any thoughts?  

RC: Some of our authors have expressed that being part of this book has acted as part of their healing process. Many have found writing about their experiences to be therapeutic and pushing themselves to publish their work – even anonymously – was an act of bravery that has helped them to heal.

Moreover, many authors were nervous in the lead up to publication of the book, but once they read the book in its entirety, they felt more seen and heard than ever. These brave women bared their souls on these pages, and in doing so, created a conversation between one another in the book without ever having met. These women have described a kinship with one another, feeling held up by the other pieces in the book and knowing that they are not alone.

SJR: The tension between these two types of pieces is deeply troubling to me. Clearly, some of the writers have emerged from their struggles stronger or at least wiser. In these cases, the conflicts they faced regarding sexuality served as a constructive force in their lives and their development. But on the flip side, many of the pieces express a devastating amount of pain — pain that is not fully resolved even if, in some cases, less acute. 

Many of the writers who seem to have moved forward talk about how much therapy, friends, and people outside the community have helped them emerge from their struggle. But those with unresolved pain seem very much alone, their pain hidden from view. I think there is a deep loneliness expressed in the pieces with unresolved pain. 

I think that, within the observant community, and particularly in Modern Orthodox intellectual circles, we romanticize the personal, private struggle — the internal tension. We emphasize the value of constructive tension in our religious and personal growth. We learn about Rav Soloveitchik’s “dialectical tension” and the superior religious and moral life that emerges from independently struggling with conflicting ideas. And it’s true — struggle and tension can produce deep thought that can shape our personalities and beliefs. 

But such tension about shame, abuse, and consent come at great psychological cost, especially when encountered alone. We should certainly work to reduce the sources of pain in our communities through a more robust discussion about sexuality and consent, for example. But if we cannot or are unwilling to completely eliminate the sources of tension, then we need to make sure our young people do not feel alone. Lonely struggle, as we have seen, is dangerous. 

13)      Are you not just an example of Modern Orthodoxy arriving at the same place that liberal Jewish feminists were at 30-40 years ago?

NH: While Modern Orthodoxy is only now beginning to acknowledge the marginalized voices of our communities as they are (namely women and LGBTQ people) and to have honest conversations about the challenges they face, I would not say the situations are the same. Yes, we have a lot of catching up to do in terms of empowering marginalized voices, but because the project of Orthodoxy is to live according to traditional Jewish law, the halakha; the results we are seeking are quite different. It is a more delicate balance to find a place of empowerment within a system of religious observance that is definitionally unequal – how far do we want to push the envelope?

I’ve always understood Orthodox feminism to be more like the liberal feminism of Gloria Steinem and Betty Freidan than the radical feminism of Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt. Whereas Steinem and Freidan tried to work towards equality from within preexisting socioeconomic systems, Firestone and Koedt felt the solution to sexism could only come from a total revolution against what they saw as an intentionally patriarchal society. Similarly, Orthodox feminism has to work within the traditional halakhic framework from the inside out to make space for women’s voices to be heard and valued as opposed to tearing down and redefining the whole system from the outside.

SJR: There are absolutely similarities between the desires expressed by the women in this book and the desires voiced by liberal Jewish feminists decades ago. This is most notable in the pieces about ritual and prayer — women who authored pieces in our book express a desire to belong, ritually, within the community in a way that I think echoes the cries for inclusion that even Modern Orthodox feminists (and not only liberal Jewish feminists) had decades ago. The fact that we are still hearing these voices, though, should be troubling. As far as observant feminism has come, women are still fundamentally excluded in many ways.

RC: I do not think that this book is exclusively about the Modern Orthodox experience; some of our authors do not define themselves as Orthodox. Women from more liberal streams of Judaism will also see themselves in this book. We are all grappling with many of these issues – especially around sexuality and consent. Perhaps the Orthodox community is further behind than others, but we all have work to do.

14)  Is this book a way station out of Orthodoxy for some of you? Rachel Adler sounded like this as a young Orthodox feminist in the 1970’s and then rejected the entire system.

SJR: This book is not a way out of observant Judaism,although it is a fair critique. Several pieces do note the kinds of problems feminists like Rachel Adler identify — the masculine language in prayer (p. 15, 68) and the patriarchal emphasis in scripture (p. 64, 66).

But I do not think this kind of thinking seeks to reject the system. To the contrary, I think the book shows a deep amount of love and respect for the observance system, to the point of wanting more than anything to be included. In “The Lady in Lime Green,” the author describes how her outward religious observance of wearing a kippah, though considered inappropriate for a woman, expresses her commitment to halakhic life. Other authors express appreciation of tefillin as a way to express religious commitments and struggles. The author of “Synonyms” describes that she wishes she could, as a woman, dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah. 

This yearning desire to be embraced by Orthodoxy is seen vividly in “Invisibility.” The author, when a teacher suggests that she leave Orthodoxy, finds herself in crisis. The pain the author pens as she describes being kept on the outside is heartbreaking. These women do not want to reject the system. They want their place within the system. This book tells the community — in the most poignant language — just how tragic it is to reject committed, devoted coreligionists. 

RC: In all honesty, this book definitely is a reflection of many women’s struggles with Orthodox Judaism. Not all of the authors define themselves as Orthodox, even if they were raised in Orthodox communities and are still observant. Many of us are still finding our communities and identities. I think especially for those of us who are single, there is a struggle to maintain the delicate balance of sex positivity, or even feminism, and Orthodoxy. The Orthodox community does not carve out a clear space for “older” single women in many ways, and it is difficult to balance competing values of halakha, feminism, and just being human. However, everyone who had a hand in making this book happen cares deeply about furthering these conversations within the observant Jewish community because we love and care about it and want to make it a better place.

Fall 2020 CTU -Shapiro Lecture- A Jewish View of Contemporary Ideas of the Trinity

What better way to take your mind off of the elections. I promise not to mention or even allude to the elections. Monday night, November 2nd. I will be speaking on the topic A Jewish View of Contemporary Ideas of the Trinity – it is 7:00 PM CST and 8:00 PM Eastern Time

The link to register is at

Interview with Prof. Sarah Hammerschlag on Modern French Jewish Thought

When the works of French Jewish thinker Andre Neher (d. 1988) were translated into English, for example  Exile of the Word: From the Silence of the Bible to the Silence of Auschwitz (JPS 1980), the work did not make a splash in the United States. When the Algerian born Henri Atlan, the brilliant polymath biophysicist and philosopher who combined systems theory with the Kabbalah of Rabbi Eliyashiv, had five of his works translated into English about eight years ago, the American Jewish community took little note of it. And the many works of Rabbi Betzalel Leon Ashkenazi, known as Manitou (d.1996), the French Algerian thinker have still not been translated into English.

In short, modern French Jewish thought is largely unknown in the United States. A recent anthology seeks to bring the richness of these writers to an American audience, Sarah Hammerschlag’s Modern French Jewish Thought: Writings on Religion and Politics (Brandeis University Press, 2018).

The author of the anthology, Sarah Hammerschlag has her doctorate from the University of Chicago is a scholar in the area of Religion and Literature. Her research has focused on the position of Judaism in the post-World War II French intellectual scene. She is the author of The Figural Jew: Politics and Identity in Postwar French Thought(University of Chicago Press, 2010) and Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida and the Literary Afterlife of Religion (Columbia University Press, 2016)  The Figural Jew received an Honorable Mention for the 2012 Jordan Schnitzer Book Award, given by the Association of Jewish Scholars, and was a finalist for the AAR’s Best First Book in the History of Religions in 2011. She has written essays on Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot. She is currently working on a manuscript entitled “Sowers and Sages: The Renaissance of Judaism in Postwar Paris.”

The volume Modern French Jewish Thought: Writings on Religion and Politics (Brandeis University Press, 2018) was one of my favorite Jewish books of 2018 with its twenty-four well-chosen texts to illustrate the length of French Jewish thought. The range of texts go from the early days of the French Republic with their emphasis on universalism as French Israelite of the Republic to the Jewish questioning of their status by the end of the 19th century. Then Hammerschlag gives ample attention to the renewal of Jewish thought after WWII in French. To her credit, she gives full attention to the role of Sephardic Jews and Sephardic universalism and includes the writings of the Jews of the Maghreb, specifically Algeria and Tunisia as part of French Jewish thought.

Modern French Jewry starts with the French Revolution’s emancipation of its Jewish citizens and  the Napoleonic Assembly of Notables (1806), and convening of the “Sanhedrin” (1807), along with the integration of the Sephardic Jews in the papal cities. Jews sought integration and acculturation into France. At the end of the century, the Dreyfus affair shattered for many French Jews that dream of integration. After WWII and the Vichy regime, there was a need for a rejuvenation of Jewish life. There was also a mass immigration of Jews from the Maghreb bringing their traditionalism into French Jewish life. The convening of the Colloque des Intellectuels Juifs de langue Francaise, a meeting of French-speaking intellectuals which met at least every two years beginning in 1957,become the source of many of the published lectures on Bible, Talmud, Maharal, and Kabbalah by Levinas, Andre Neher, Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou), Éliane Amado Levy-Valensi and others.

Among the wide range of authors included in this volume are Joseph Salvador, Edmond Fleg, Jacob Gordin, Vladimir Jankelevitch, Albert Memmi, Shmuel Trigano, Henri Atlan, Leon Ashkenazi, Helene Cixous, and Jacques Derrida. Hammerschlag provides a fine introduction to the volume and short introduction sketches to the texts. The volume focuses on the themes of the universal and the particular and identification and disidentification with France, bringing up the ancillary topic of Zionism. This book should be in all major Jewish libraries and should without question be read by those who teach modern Jewish thought.

The standard survey of modern Jewish thought, however, is almost entirely focused on German thinkers moving from Moses Mendelssohn to Zunz to Cohen & Buber, then reaching Franz Rosenzweig. Today, it also includes Heschel, Solovetichik & Feminism. If you are lucky, it also includes Emmanuel Levinas as the sole French Jewish thinker. The question is how to integrate the rich French Jewish thought into the study of modern Jewish thought. This morning, I spoke to a professor who teaches modern Jewish history and thought, who liked the book, but said it would have no affect on his teaching. He did not see where these thinkers fit in.

In order to be integrated into Modern Jewish thought, there would need to be a guide to French Jewish thought giving the instructor ideas for an alternate syllabus to the usual German centered one. Maybe an article and then a symposium of how create a course that contains both French and German thinkers. Or maybe some new textbooks. None of this takes away from Hammerschlag’s fine volume, but now it is up to members of the field to figure out how to best use it.

I especially appreciated her inclusion of Zadoc Kahn’s “Speech on the Acceptance of His Position as Chief Rabbi of France” and Sylvain Levi’s essay “Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU)” because many works on modern Jewish thought include a section on Geiger and Hirsch as the founders of Reform and Neo-Orthodoxy. Rabbi Zadoc Kahn as a paradigm of more universal form of a modernizing “Orthodoxy” serves as a contrast to the German experience in that  Rabbi SR Hirsch wrote a long essay criticizing Kahn’s approach. So too, the inclusion of the importance of the AIU shows the type of Jewish day school so influential in France and the Maghreb. These essays were included, but the book did not have a great concern for how these ideas created the traditional Jewish childhood education of many of these thinkers, especially the Sephardic thinkers, who attended the AIU schools.  

 I would have liked an essay from the scholar Salomon Munk, or another scholar, to serve as a contrast to German Wissenschaft des Judentums. In addition, Hammerschlag specifically included Stéphane Moses to show conduits from German thinkers to the French thinkers, but I would have liked a 19th century version also. The volume includes both Jewish philosophers and authors who write about Jewish identity creating resources for both a class in intellectual history and one in thought, which can at times seem like two distinct projects.

Finally, I hope someone else continues this project and produces an anthology of French Jewish thinkers on faith, Torah, theology, and Kabbalah. Much of the literary production of the Colloque des Intellectuels Juifs de langue Francaise was about faith and Torah. Noticeably different than Germany and the United States, the French Jewish intellectuals found meaning in Maharal, Nefesh Hahayyim, and Aggadah.

The American project of a melting pot and of peoplehood along with suburbanization and denominations created a very different form of integration than in France.

In Israel, these post-war writings have more traction and integration than in the USA. There have been conferences and symposiums on these works and many translations in to Hebrew. Some of these French authors retired to Israel where they gave lectures. These French authors also had students who moved from France to Israel who became rabbis including Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Rabbi Uri Sherki of Mechon Meir, and Rabbi Eliyahu Zini of Haifa. The writings of these French authors also serve as a base for further thought. For example, Rabbi Ream Hakohen of Yeshivat Othniel uses Andre Neher’s essay “The Jewish Dimension of Space” (included in this volume) to develop his own settler ideology of space and land.

We have to thank Prof Hammerschlag for this volume. As a book with twenty-four separate essays, you can dip into the volume to see the diversity of French Jewish thought. This interview is itself very rich providing an introduction to many aspects of French Jewish thought.  Maybe, if you will find something that speaks to you in the book or the interview, you might consider looking at the volumes of French Jewish thought that have been translated in prior decades.  

Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida, and the Literary Afterlife of Religion:  Hammerschlag, Sarah: 9780231170598: Books
  1. How was France a unique Jewish opportunity?

As the first modern European state to emancipate its Jewish population, it stood for the possibility of freedom and equality. The fact that the consistory system established under Napoleon made the nation’s highest Jewish leaders employees of the state didn’t hurt this perception either. 

2. What was the concept of Universalism in French Jewish thought? How did the concept of Jewish Universalism change?

It is constitutive of the very distinction between Judaism and Christianity that Judaism is distinguished as a particularlism from “Catholic” Christianity.  Christianity, after all, emerges to overcome the particularism of Jewish law.  But the French Enlightenment brought with it a new claim to universalism based on humanist principles and thus  held the promise of realigning this demarcation.  These principles are enshrined in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man whose first article declares that men are born and remain free and equal in rights.  Numerous Modern Jewish thinkers have argued that Judaism itself was the originator of this principle by virtue of its monotheism—one God entails a unified humanity.  Thus we find in French-Jewish thinkers from the 19th century a commitment to reveal both that Judaism was the original universal humanism and that its concept of universal humanism is consistent  with the French Enlightenment ideal.

The question of how to maintain this claim while explaining Jewish difference is the challenge that these thinkers faced.  Joseph Salvador, writing in 1860 in his book Paris, Rome Jerusalem, handles it by arguing that every idea needs an exemplar and Judaism and the Jewish people play that role, exemplifying peoplehood as the ideal form of universalism. It is the very fact that their peoplehood is constituted by virtue of a law, or a covenant that makes them paradigmatic for all peoples.  

James Darmesteter, writing in 1892 makes his case based on the books of the prophets. In both cases the claim was one of  arguing for an identification between Enlightenment humanism and Judaism. This argument for identification is perhaps clearest in the mission statement of Alliance Israélite Universelle: If…you believe that the influence of the principles of ’89 is all powerful in the world… that the example of peoples who enjoy absolute religious equality is a force…come give us your membership, your cooperation.” 

While there is some backlash to this way of thinking at the end of the 19th century,  both because of the emergence of Anti-Semitism and growing movements of nationalisms across Europe, including Zionism, the claim for a certain species of Jewish universalism never really disappears in French-Jewish thought.  In the post-1945 era one finds the explicit move to reformulate its expression. Emmanuel Levinas, for example, clearly describes the Jewish people as the carrier of a universal message, but one which is itself at odds with Enlightenment thought.  For if the Enlightenment thinkers formulate their universalism in rational terms, the Jewish people are the carrier of an ethical ideal, which precisely stops rationality in its tracks and makes it question its drive to assimilate difference.  One  finds different approaches in Léon Ashkenazi  and Henri Atlan, among others, but what they share is the move to distinguish Judaism from both Christianity and liberal humanism.

3. How did the Holocaust change French Jewish Thought?What was the purpose of the Colloquium in post-war French Jewry?

The Holocaust clearly changed Jewish thought for every community of survivors.  What makes France’s situation unique on the European continent is that its Jewish population fared better than any other nation occupied by the Nazis. Of the 300,000 present, 75,000 were deported, few of which returned. 

But perhaps more importantly WWII was a reckoning with the promise that France represented.  For many Jews, both observant and secular, the fact that it was the French government itself that instituted race laws against them in October of 1940 brought about a shattering of identity with the state and a movement to rethink what it meant to be a French Jew.  Judaism could no longer be conceived as one of France’s religions on equal par with Catholicism and Protestantism.  The reactions to this shift in identity, however, were multiple and the Colloque des Intellectuels Juifs de langue Francaise, a meeting of French-speaking intellectuals which met at least every two years beginning in  1957,  was one place in which various possibilities could be tried out.  At the first meeting much of the conversation was around the very subject of what Judaism was—a religion, a nation, a race, an order or alliance.

 From the beginning the colloque understood its mission as a reconceptualization of the Jewish intellectual. The prolific scholar and thinker André Neher ,  who served as president of the Colloque and  was among its most consistent participants, outlines this shift in the preface to the first volume of proceedings:  the Jewish intellectual needed to be transformed from one  whose identity as intellectual emerged from his or her (mostly his) concern to look outward beyond Judaism to one who used his education and training to examine his own tradition. 

What emerged was a series of conferences in which the colloquium participants addressed a question of contemporary significance by drawing on Jewish sources to show how these sources, whether Biblical, Talmudic or Kabbalistic could shed light on the current moment.  Themes ranged from “the question of the state” to the conception of femininity in Judaism to “Timidity and Audacity in Jewish Thought.” While the speakers and attendees shifted from year to year, Neher, Ashkenazi and Levinas provided the backbone of most meetings by presenting  biblical  commentaries (Neher), Talmudic readings (Levinas) and Kabbalistic interpretations ( Ashkenazi). Among the other participants were journalists, psychoanalysts, philosophers and political figures, usually including a range of religious and more secular figures. 

Each talk was followed by robust debate which is itself preserved in the volumes of the proceedings. In many ways these meetings were the  beating heart of the post-war French-Jewish intellectual renaissance and have recently been re-initiated by a new group of French-Jewish intellectuals.

4. What is the relationship of Asheknaz thinkers and Sephardi thinkers in French thought?

Because of its geographic position between Germany and Spain, France’s Jewish population has been a mix of Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities since the medieval period.  In fact the southern Sephardic communities in Bordeaux and Bayonne were emancipated before the Ashkenazic communities of Alsace and Lorraine because they were understood to be more enlightened.

The early 20th Century saw an influx of Ashkenazic Jews as a consequence of the Pogroms and then the waves of refugees in the 1930’s escaping Nazi rule.  These Ashkenazi newcomers brought a variety of levels of observance as well as  multiple political ideologies.  Among them were Zionists, Anti-Zionists, Bundists, Marxists and Hasidim, among others.

North African Jews are a very important part of the story of French Judaism both before and after decolonialization.  Algerian Jews were granted French citizenship in 1870 with the Crémieux Decree, although it was revoked during the Second World War. Even for Jews from neighboring countries such as Tunisia and Morocco, protectorates of France, the sense of identification with France before the war was inculcated by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, which ran schools across the Mediterranean basin. 

The influx of Jews from North Africa to France in the 1950’s and 1960’s, which was clearly accelerated by the process of decolonization and the Algerian war had a profound impact on French Judaism.  The arrival of North African Jews diversified the community even further. It also shifted the balance between the communities. 

By the mid-1980’s the Mizrahi Jewish community constituted the majority of the French-Jewish population.  They are often credited with adding new life and vigor to French Jewish cultural practice, but they also brought different styles of observance and different conceptions of Jewish identity, which sometimes caused friction with the established leaders of the French-Jewish community.   Despite the presence of the Alliance Israèlite Universelle in a number of North African countries, many émigrés were less assimilated than their contemporaries in the Metropole. They had maintained a connection to the traditional texts and styles of Jewish learning and tended, thus, to be less self-conscious about their observance, having not absorbed the same pressures to assimilate as their peers from the Metropole. The very division between nationality and religion which had developed within the French-Jewish tradition didn’t easily translate to the North-African Jewish experience. Their commitment to Zionism was often more militant, and less conflicted, which ultimately also helped solidify Jewish commitment to Zionism in France.

5. What was unique about the speeches of Rabbi Zadoc Kahn?

Rabbi Zadoc Kahn was the chief rabbi of France from 1889 to 1905, a time of great significance in France’s history and particularly in French Jewish History.  Not only did he have the opportunity to reflect on what the centennial of the revolution meant for France’s Jews, he then also had to lead the French Jewish community during the Dreyfus Affair and just up to the time of the 1905 law that separated Church and State in France.  It was a pivotal time, but he was also in many ways a pivotal figure.

From an Alsatian community, he served as chief Rabbi when Alsace itself was not a part of France as a consequence of the German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian war, which meant that the center of gravity for French Judaism itself shifted to the capital.  It was a time thus of loss but also the time in which French Judaism underwent its most extensive reforms since the Sanhedrin. This included changes in the Shabbat Services, such as further emphasis on French language, outreach to women, as well as an expansion of childhood religious education..

He was a leader of the movement to create an academic study of Judaism in France , creating the first French organization for Jewish Studies, the Société des études juives in 1880, which helped coordinate and promote the  science of Judaism in a  French key.  La Science du judaïsme was itself a direct translation and import from Germany, but its character clearly shifted in translation. 

Succinctly this difference can be summed up in terms of the host culture in relationship to which Jewish Thinkers needed to situate themselves. While in the German provinces this entailed understanding Judaism according to an account of historical development, the emergence of its idea. In France the task was to relate Judaism to the tradition of French universalism and humanism, to show that French Republicanism represented the reemergence  of a vision that was originally Hebraic.  Zadoc Kahn sought both to help develop the academic study of religion in France into one rivalling Germany’s, but at the same time to help it maintain its distinctly French character.

In all his efforts he was forward thinking in his sense of how Judaism could be strengthened by modernization, without at the same time embracing the Liberal/Reform tradition that had begun in Germany.  He was the quintessential embodiment of what it meant to be an Israélite–and thus of the possibility that one could be fully assimilated into the French nation and remain deeply observant, deeply Jewish, at least from the perspective of those who claimed it. I wanted to include him in the volume as a historical point of perspective.  He can help us to think both about what the past and the future of French Judaism looked like at the cusp of the 20th century, and to recognize what the culmination of a century of French-Jewish citizenship looked like in the persona of the community’s highest leader. 

6. Why was Sylvain Levi included?

Sylvain Levi (1863-1935) is in many ways an outlier in the volume, for his intellectual career was not primarily in the study of Judaism.  An expert in Sanskrit and Indian religions, he is certainly best remembered outside of the Alliance israélite universelle for his scholarly contributions to those fields.

I included him because I think of the Alliance israélite universelle as itself such an important contributor to the character of French Judaism, that I wanted to find a way to give it voice.  Levi’s reflections on its contributions in 1932 provide that perspective.  In addition, it is fascinating to me to see how the organization itself helped perpetuate a conception of Jewish universalism and how ambivalent it was about the Zionist project as a consequence. Levi’s comments after he had visited Palestine in 1918  encapsulate the anxiety that a Jewish state would compromise the perpetuation of that Jewish universalist vision, particularly in its French form:  “The French genius with its passion for universal humanity…is the closest parent of the messianic spirit; it is its natural safeguard against the sectarians who have never given up stifling it.”

7. What was the message of Jacob Gordon? What was his influence?

It is difficult, of course to sum up the thought, writing and teaching of Jacob Gordin (1896-1947)into a message. He is a fascinating and understudied figure. Besides his thesis “Investigations on the Theory of Infinite Judgement [Untersuchungen zur Theorie des unendlichen Urteils] in 1929, we only have unfinished manuscripts and articles—many of them entries in the Encyclopedia Judaica—and transcripts of his courses from his students. Partially that is a consequence of his dying young, at the age of 51, just at the moment when his influence began to take hold and partially it is a consequence of the tumultuous times in which he lived. He was in Saint Petersburg in 1917 for the Russian Revolution, in Berlin for Hitler’s rise to power and in Paris in June of 1940 when the Nazis invaded. At the same time, he was enormously influential on many important figures included in the volume: on Emmanuel Levinas, André Neher, Léon Ashkenazi and others.

What’s fascinating about his thought is the confluence of Hermann Cohen’s Neo-Kantianism with strands of Jewish Mysticism.  The result is a teaching that rests heavily on the notion that the Jewish people have a particular role to play in the universe.  In the text I included in the volume, which was itself pieced together from lecture notes, Gordin describes the Jewish people as les ménagères, the housekeepers of the universe and describes suffering as purification. This lecture was given at the end of World War II to Jewish youth contemplating what it meant to remake the post-war world.  He was at the time advocating for the importance of the Jewish diaspora in playing this role and thus resisting the pressures of Zionism.  However, Léon Ashkenazi, one of his most significant disciples, would later argue that he thought that if Gordin had lived past 1947 he would have embraced the Zionist movement.

8) What was Leon Ashkenazi’s early view of the diaspora?

Ashkenazi (1922-1996)  who was born in Oran, Algeria and came from a long line of influential rabbis on both sides of his family.  At Seventeen he joined the Éclaireurs israélites, the Jewish Boy Scouts and became one of its most influential leaders, so much so that he is often referred to for his scout name, Manitou, given to him for his dynamism and charisma.  He was partial to Kabbalistic interpretations of Torah, particularly to a reading of the tradition that centered on the claim that the Genesis stories of the lineage and generations of the patriarchs held the secret of human history. 

As for his early view of the diaspora, it  was close to his teacher Jacob Gordin’s,  a view clearly evident in his 1954 essay “Judah and Israel” in which he describes the diaspora as serving as the spiritual center of Judaism and the state of Israel as the physical center . “If the Levites had fulfilled the religious task of the Israelites in biblical times, allowing the other tribes to occupy themselves with temporal matters, now the Diaspora was to play the priestly role, thus allowing the Israeli Jews to be occupied with temporal concerns,” Ashkenazi wrote.    It was his 1956 encounter with Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook that changed his perspective and convinced him that a new era had arisen and with it a new task: to become a Hebrew in the land of Israel.

9. How  does Albert Memmi give an Existential reading of Jewishness?

Albert Memmi (1920-2020), who grew up in Tunisia, was himself a product of this history of French citizenship in North Africa and the school system of the Alliance Israélite Universelle.

 In Portrait of a Jew he describes being torn between multiple worlds.  His father, a harness maker was pious, but by his adolescence, as I write in the anthology, the sources of Memmi’s identification with Judaism had already began to shift. He describes himself in turn as a Zionist youth, a patriotic French Universalist during lycée and a Tunisian nationalist.  Each of these identities were thwarted in turn by the events of his lifetime and led him to an exploration of Jewish identity as “a fate.” 

Memmi was an interlocutor of both Sartre and Fanon and one can certainly see a certain overlap in their vocabulary and sense the parallels that emerge in Memmi’s portrait of the Jewish “situation.”   What one finds in “Portrait of a Jew” is an attempt to describe the Jewish experience without recourse to religious categories, but out of the experience of anti-Semitism, a task which might even seem to follow from Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew (Réflexions sur la question juive) (1946). He was ultimately an ethnic particularist and a Zionist, but not based on the claim of their being a racial or ethnic essence to the Jewish people, rather it is a consequence of  reckoning with centuries of exclusion and coming to the conclusion that the state of Israel was a historical necessity.  That said  he rejected the religious justification for the state’s existence and vocally supported Palestinian rights.

10. How did Richard Marienstras give a vocation to the diaspora?

As Richard Marienstras (1928-2011) himself describes in Être un people en diaspora (1975), paraphrasing Count Clermont-Tonnere, the promise of the revolution was to given everything to Jews as individuals and nothing to them as a nation.  The French offer of emancipation seemed thus itself to assume a dichotomy: either Jews were a nation, defined as a collective, or Judaism was a religion, thus an individual assertion of a belief system or une confession in French.  The later possibility is established in France as a counter-conception to national identity. 

Marienstras,, who was renown as a Shakespeare scholar  was also a polish émigré who had spent time in Palestine as well as in Tunisia. He  wrote to resist the dichotomy, particularly as it had itself been reinforced by the Zionist movement which itself reclaimed Jewish nationhood in Palestine.  For him, this choice was a false one, especially given the two millennia of diasporic Jewish existence.  Diaspora was a vocation in the sense that it offered the possibility of minority belonging, a form of political identity that resisted the hegemony of the nation-state.  Along with minority groups in the U.S. such as Native Americans, and African Americans, as well as regional identities in France, such as the Basque people, Marienstras saw diasporic Jews as playing an important political role, voicing resistance to both capitalism and statist politics. 

While the American civil rights movement was certainly something of an inspiration for him, he also saw the long Jewish history of diaspora as serving a paradigmatic role for other diasporic groups.  He envisioned a future in which diasporic peoples could work together as forces of resistance.

11. How did Henri Atlan present universalism? Can you say anything on his views on Kabbalah God, or Judaism?

Henri Atlan is an incredibly fascinating and multi-talented person.  A medical doctor, biophysicist and a philosopher, his works range across these fields.  He has described himself as something of a Spinozist.  

Atlan has a very interesting essay, not included here, in which he addresses his views on Jews/Judaism and universalism. The essay called “A chosen people” contrasts Jewish universalism, which Atlan describes as one that begins from Jewish particularity and achieves universality “by taking differences into account,” with the Christian and Islamic universal monotheisms which follow a model based on the election of believers.    Jewish election, he suggests is actually more in tune with ancient polytheisms, in which a god chooses a people and thus is fundamentally a tribal god.

For Atlan, Jewish election only becomes scandalous when read through the lens of the later traditions of Christianity and Islam.  Atlan’s familiarity with Kabbalah came originally by way of Léon Ashkenazi and the Chabad master Zalman Schneerson, brother of the late rebbe, with whom Atlan studied in Paris. 

Kabbalah, Atlan came to realize had its own logic, its own formal rationality.  In his work Les étincelles de hazard, for example,  the Kabbalistic retelling of the fall serves as a means to understand the human condition, not as a source for sin but as a mythological expression of a range of issues pertinent to human experience, from knowledge to sex to technology.

12 What was Helen Cixous’ view of her Judaism?

For Hélène Cixous (1937- ) her Judaism is closely tied to her experience as a woman.  She initially experienced both as sites of exclusion and marginalization.  It is clear however that her Jewishness is also a means of identification with a certain experience of uprootedness in modernity, an experience which is certainly not only of negative valence for her.  She has written lovingly about Kafka, Freud, Celan and the Brazilian Jewish writer Clarice Lispector,  and it is clear from these texts that she has felt a strong sense of identification with these figures. She saw these writers as teachers, who could show us how to mourn but also how to hope, a way of embracing, what she called, quoting Paul Celan, the Singbarrest, the singable remains. 

13. Are  there points you want the reader to know about how French Jewish thought differs from German Jewish thought?

More important to me than simply distinguishing the two is the possibility that French Jewish Thought can help us broaden how we understand what constitutes Modern Jewish Thought.

Certainly, German Jewish Thought has provided the fundamental paradigm for Modern Jewish Thought and to some extent has limited how we conceive of the genre.  From its earliest coinage, the canonical texts of Modern Jewish Thought—Buber, Cohen, Rosenzweig, Fackenheim among others—were understood as valuable for their edifying potential.  They were read as guides to how to understand what Judaism can offer the modern observer.

Without foreclosing on this possibility, I want to expand the genre to include texts that ask even about its very terms and engage in their historical-political constitution and negotiation. If we take Modern French Jewish Thought to have commenced with the Assembly of Notables, then we can think of it as a tradition preoccupied by the very terms of modernity and Judaism. French Jewish thinkers perennially had to deal with explicit political pressures coming from outside beginning with  the need to prove that Judaism was a religion and not a national identity, a pressure that is reversed by the end of the 19th century when they are accused of being the secret architects of the French Revolution. One can sense those pressures at work in the self-descriptions of Judaism, but this helped induce  the creative work of mining the tradition’s sources to address these pressures.

Of course, the other way to distinguish the two follows from their historical scope.  German-Jewish Thought essentially reaches an endpoint with the Holocaust.  But it was only in the late 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s that French Jewish thinkers became deeply familiar with the interwar German  canon, thus postwar French Jewish Thought provides a postwar chapter to the Weimar German story, even as it has its own history leading up to the Second World  War.  The French had to contend with how to think about Jewish diasporic existence in Europe after WWII in a way that was unparalleled in other nations.  

Interview with Ariel Evan Mayse on Speaking Infinities

Prof Joseph Weiss (1918–69) in a famous essay distinguished between the ‘Hasidism of Faith” and the “Hasidism of Contemplative Mysticism.” In the Hasidism of faith, typified by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the emphasis is on belief and faithfulness to a distant God, overcoming the absence via prayer, conversation with God, music, and personal words, our lacks, our melancholy and our fears are to be sublimated toward the divine. In contrast, the Hasidim of Contemplation, typified by Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch, know as the Maggid of Mezritch, is about ecstatic prayer to reach the infinite divine. One nullifies the self and reaches the mystical realm divine Nothingness.  

In the last few years, much of the Neo-Hasidut interest has been in the former, creating a psychological approach of hitboddedut, longing, desire, rejection, and abyss. But, some are  attracted to the latter, the contemplative merging with God. Prof Ariel Evan Mayse in his recent book returns us to focus on the approach of the Maggid of Mezritch giving us a lucid exposition of the role of language in contemplative prayer.

Ariel Evan Mayse joined the faculty of Stanford University in 2017 as an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies and serves as the rabbi-in-residence at Atiq: Jewish Maker Institute ( Previously he was the Director of Jewish Studies and Visiting Assistant Professor of Modern Jewish Thought at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts. Mayse holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from Harvard University and rabbinic ordination from Beit Midrash Har’el in Israel. He co-editor the two-volume A New Hasidism: Roots and Branches (Jewish Publication Society, 2019) with his teacher and colleague Arthur Green. Recently, his book was published, Speaking Infinities: God and Language in the Teachings of the Maggid of Mezritsh (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).

Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch was, in many ways, the architect of the Hasidic movement as a social organization. The Baal Shem Tov and others such as the Zlotchover Maggid, or Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Bar, were spiritualists or charismatic teachers who taught and exerted pietistic leadership for those they encountered. In contrast, between the Besht’s death in 1760 until his own death in 1772, Dov Ber created the idea of the Hasidic court and the importance of the rebbe for guidance. He also assigned future territories of influence to at least ten of his leading disciples. Hence, his disciple, Elimelech of Lizhensk received Poland, Aaron of Karlin received Lithuania,  Schneur Zalman of Liadi received White Russia, Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev received Northern Ukraine. These students created the Hasidic dynasties. Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch’s teachings were summarized as epigrams and short paragraphs which his students published as broadsides and pamphlets to attract disciples to this mystical teaching. Posthumously, Rabbi Dov Ber’s homilies were collected and edited.

The Maggid of Mezritch as he is known today, and in older literature he was known as the Maggid of Rovne, taught a doctrine of seeing God in all things. Everything contains divine sparks or reflects elements of the divine. Even physical pleasure should be considered as reflected divinity. One should know that no place is devoid of the divine and in everything one does one should make it into a form of worship. Some of his disciples occasionally overturned conventional religious categories by thinking that learning Torah takes one away from thinking about God or that God wants us to serve Him with our daily actions, not just ritual commands.

Rabbi Dov Ber’s view of prayer was that man loses himself and his surroundings through concentration of all his thought and feeling upon union with God. When a man becomes so absorbed in the contemplation of an object that his whole power of thought is concentrated upon one point, his self becomes unified with that point. So, prayer in such a state of real ecstasy, effecting a union between God and man, is extremely important. “The purpose of all prayer is to uplift the words, to return them to their source above. The world was created by the downward flow of letters into words and take them back to God. (Maggid of Mezeritch)

The Maggid has a specific language for this process of mystical contemplation of “divestment of corporeality” the world of limits, “world of speech” materiality, and the ego. One then enters in the limitless “World of Nothingness” and let oneself be a passive vessel of the divine.”

Prior to prayer he must cast off corporeality, characterized by finitude and limit, and enter into the aspect of Nothingness, which is without end.  For man must direct all the wishes of his heart  toward the Creator alone, and not do anything from his own self;  This is impossible unless he enter into the attribute of  Nothingness, to know that he does not exist at all, and then he will not turn to any thing of the  world at all, seeing as how he does not exist at all.(Maggid of Mezeritch)

The Maggid is also know for the sexualization of this mystical union. If joy is felt as two human bodies come together, how much greater must be the joy of this union in spirit! – (Keter Shem Tov 72b).

Decades ago, Joseph Weiss in his studies and Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer in her Hasidut Hasidism as Mysticism: Quietistic Elements in Eighteenth-Century Hasidic Thought (Hebrew 1968) focused their scholarly research on this via passive, quietism, and contemplative mystical union. Ariel Evan Mayse shifts the focus to the role of language and linguistic theory in the Maggid’s approach.

Mayse presents the idea that Hasidism saw a linguistic vitality echoing in the cosmos, in which Rabbi Dov Ber considered all human tongues, even in their mundane forms, to have the potential to become sacred when returned to their divine source.

The language of prayer is the “World of Speech” who origin is in the “World of Thought”; the mystic awakens first the realm of thought before the words flow from his lips. At the same time, the Maggid thinks God emerges from the silence of a pre-verbal inner realm that unfolds gradually through the structures of being. Words allow the mystic to bring down and articulate this realm of divine infinite and silence.

Especially strong is Mayse’s discussion of revelation. “The Maggid claims that the Torah is an expression of the sublime depths of God’s silent Mind from which it emerged…. God therefore constricted—or focused—this primordial Scripture into letters and words, an intricate latticework of narratives and laws. That’s what happened at Sinai.” According to Mayse, “this particular take on revelation has the utmost practical meaning for him, precisely because the Maggid understands the giving of the Torah matan Torah as an ongoing process rather than a historical event.” The Maggid draws a “parallel between God and the human teacher,” the Hasidic preacher. The ineffable wisdom flows through the preacher’s words into the mind of the disciple. Hence, the book makes a point of looking at the role of orality and mysticism in the creation of the Maggid’s own homilies.

Mayse qualifies the antiquated William James idea that mysticism is beyond words, solely as an ineffable experience by showing the immense role of words and language in the Maggid’s mysticism. Mayse used Wittgenstein, Michael Sells, the scholar of Islamic mysticism, and others for this conceptualization.

However, this year also witnessed the publication of Moshe Idel’s Vocal Rites and Broken Theologies: Cleaving to Vocables in R. Israel Ba‘al Shem Tov’s Mysticism, who only sees the words and goes to the opposite extreme and denies the mystical element in many Hasidic texts. Idel see these text as a form of vocal linguistic magic and ritualized vocal linguistic practice for power and not contemplative mysticism. In the coming years, the term paper for many a graduate class in Hasidic thought will be to compare Ariel Evan Mayse to Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer on one side and to Moshe Idel on the other.

In sum, this work is a fine historic-literary analysis of the Maggid’s abstract theory of language. A detailed look at the different ways that language is mentioned or used. Even though the book was clearly written with passion for the subject, the topic is explored as part of the academic study of the history of Kabbalah, a study of tropes and images. Personally, I would have wanted to see ritual studies, psycholinguistics, or performance studies play a role in the analysis.  I also found its modernist views of language could have benefited from the richness of post-structural ideas. The interview ends with two questions on the contemporary application of these ideas – to environmental concern and to our lives.

  1. What is the thesis of your new book?

The book offers a comprehensive intellectual biography of Rabbi Dov Ber Friedman, the Maggid of Mezritsh I argued that his innovative theory of language is the singular key to unpacking his abstract mystical theology, and suggest that Dov Ber must be considered one of the foremost architects of the emergent socio-religious movement that developed into Hasidism

It is commonly assumed in the study of religion that mystical illumination is necessarily beyond language. The homilies of the Maggid demonstrate otherwise. His sermons portray language as a divine gift, referring to the faculty of language as nothing less than an aspect of God dwelling within the human being.

I did not set out to write a comparative book about mysticism, and throughout the book I note the significant dangers of interpreting the Maggid’s teachings through the broadly-construed lens of “mysticism.” Nevertheless, natural conversation partners for the Maggid would include ibn Arabi, Meister Eckhart, John of Cross, Teresa of Avilla, Farrad ud-din Attar, to name just a few. But that is a project that must be left for a different day.

2. What is the role of language for the Maggid?

The Maggid understood the process of redeeming language by “raising it up” to its source in the Divine to be the crux of religious service and key to cultivating a life of contemplative holiness. What does the Maggid really mean? Can language truly be “returned” to God without annihilating it, thereby essentially undoing the project of creation? . Rather than negating the power of word or retreating into meditative silence, the Maggid’s argues that the process of elevating words to their divine source requires a full and unreserved embrace of language. God formed the cosmos through a series of creative utterances that continue to saturate the fabric of existence with sacred life-force. Moreover, all acts of revelation—divine, but also human—are driven by the urge to break forth from silence and cast one’s wisdom into words.

A tsaddik whoworships through the [divine power of the] letters becomes connected to the supernal wisdom (hokhmah)… He enters the gateway of Naught (ayin), concentrating on the fact (ma‘aleh ‘al libo) that, were it not for the power of God in him, he would be nothing at all.

That being the case, all [that he is and does] derives from God’s power. Human speech is the divine World of Speech, through which the world was created. The World of Speech proceeds from [God’s] wisdom. This is the source of pleasure and delight that God receives from the worlds.

Even now, the worshipper should speak only for the sake of divine pleasure, thus returning the letters to their ultimate source in hokhmah.  (MDL 60 pp 94-95)

The primary goal of divine service, says the Maggid, is properly aligning the stream of language from the deepest realms of the mind to the spoken utterance.

This is accomplished through uniting a  dyad found throughout the Maggid’s homilies: ‘olam ha-dibbur (“the World of Speech”) and ‘olam ha-mahashavah (“the World of Thought”). This symbolic pair plays a critical role in the Maggid’s theory of language. Spoken language expresses an idea that first appears in the mind, but the Maggid also intends it as a prescriptive instruction: the worshipper must constantly seek to unite the World of Speech and the World of Thought in every utterance (MDL, no. 34, p. 53). ‘Olam ha-dibbur and ‘olam ha-mahashavah are linked as the oral elements of language are aligned with the realm of cognition and contemplation within the speaker’s mind.

The Maggid follows the position of the Kabbalists, who describe Hebrew as a divine tongue holding unlimited cosmic secrets. But his theory of language goes deeper yet, since he suggests that all human speech may become filled with divine life-force and power.

One’s every utterance is filled with God’s power because the name Y-H-V-H is, by necessity, “garbed in every word and expression.” (LY 264, fol 81a)  The Maggid’s homilies suggest that all languages—even their mundane forms—become redeemed when returned to their divine source.

3. How can the Maggid not refer to the Besht? What then is his authority?

Why should the Maggid have needed to refer to or quote the BeSHT? The latter had not yet been crowned, anachronistically, as the “founder of Hasidism.” From what we know, they only met a few times, though the hagiographical accounts describe their meetings in electrifying terms. If we are to believe Rabbi Shlomo of Lutsk’s account, they studied some rather obscure books of medieval Kabbalah (Raziel ha-Malakh, Maayan ha-Hokhmah), and the BeSHT taught him the language of the trees and the birds (a common Kabbalistic trope inherited from rabbinic literature).

But rather than absorbing a large body of particular teachings and then passing them on to his own students (or readers, in the case of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye), what the Maggid took from the BeSHT is best described as an ethos, a sensibility or an approach to the religious life. The BeSHT emphasized joy and the paramount value of ecstatic prayer, but he also taught that God’s vitality is omnipresent, animating all physical phenomena and thus transforming even the most mundane tasks into opportunities for divine service.

The Maggid took this legacy and developed it further, reshaping and reinterpreting key aspects of the BeSHT’s teaching in light of his own religious personality and philosophy. His introspective and contemplative religious path was markedly different from the approach suggested in the teachings of the BeSHT, and the Maggid continued to espouse a religious ethos defined by a deep fear of sin and a distrust of physicality. But taking the BeSHT’s notion of God’s immanence as a kind of linguistic vitality echoing in the cosmos, the Maggid developed a theory of language in which all human tongues have the potential to become sacred.

The Maggid also combined the new spiritual orientation with a new social structure, including the emergent Hasidic court. For this reason, the Maggid must really be considered one of the foremost architects of the emergent socio-religious movement that was developing into Hasidism  in the 1760s and which happened further in the lifetime of his students. The tale of the Maggid’s life is the story of an introspective mystic, painfully shy and utterly confident in equal measures. Wary of the company of others and alert to the boundaries of language, the Maggid was a religious intellectual for whom God is revealed through the innermost reaches of the mind and heart. But the Maggid was pulled toward a life of public teaching and leadership and thus took a central role in the formation of Hasidism.

4. What is the relationship of Silence and Words in the Maggid’s thought?

God emerges from silence through the pathways of language. All divine revelation originates in a pre-verbal inner realm that unfolds gradually through the structures of being. The cosmos was formed through the divine word, perhaps even through the Torah itself. God’s creative utterances continue to inhere in the cosmos, animating all existence and causing the world to shimmer with divine linguistic power.

This process took on a different form at Sinai, as God’s endless wisdom became cloaked in the mantle of words. Summoned by the prophet Moses from the reservoir of infinite silence, the Torah became a garment of letters for this boundless divine life-force. Rather than one-time events whose significance is relegated to historical memory, these processes continue as God—and God’s language—are reborn through the power of human speech.

The Maggid, an introverted religious type, understands full well the power of contemplative silence and his homilies describe a contemplative realm beyond even cognitive language.But the primary thrust of his teachings consistently underscores the enormous spiritual power of human words. Silence may allow the worshipper to reach for the highest rungs, yet wordless contemplation threatens to leave the cosmos devoid of God’s vitality. Silence is only a transient moment in the service of returning the language to God. Raising up the letters through the various cognitive worlds and thus reinfusing them with sacred life-force, is immediately followed by drawing them back down—our summoning them forth—so that the influx of divine vitality may be revealed in the world

Language is a divine gift, one that demands great responsibility and commands human action; we have a religious duty to engage with and redeem language.

The tsaddikim could create a world if they wished to do so. (Sanhedrin 65b) “The heavens were created by the word of Y-H-V-H” (Ps. 33:6), and it is written “and He breathed into him the soul of life [and man became a living soul]” (Gen. 2:7), which is rendered by the Targum as “a speaking being.”

One cannot refer to parts when speaking of God, for God is endless (ein sof). One cannot describe the Infinite as blowing only His speech into his nostrils. Therefore, [all of God’s essence] was included in this speech. (271 fol 89b)

Words afford an opportunity to overcome the limitations of world defined by particularity and multiplicity through revealing the ineffable. All speech, although its letters and words appear separate, unites the speaker with the infinite Divine as they are raised up and returned to their root in God. Moreover, the Maggid’s embrace of language extends to his approach to pedagogy as well, since the riches of the intellect—as well as the depths of one’s inner experience—cannot be revealed to another without the mediating power of the structures of articulated speech.

5. How do you use the conceptual categories of Michael Sells?

Michael Sells, the scholar of Islamic mysticism who also discussed nonplatonic themes of mysticism, factors so prominently in my work because he tries to tilt to conversation around kataphatic (language-embracing theology) versus apophatic theology (negative theology in which God may be described or known only through negation rather than positive attribution). Sells moves them from a strict binary in which mystics either embrace words or disregard them, seeing these impulses as existing within a dialectic rather than an either/or, showing that language can be used in paradoxical and performative ways to overcome its own limitations. Thus the worshipper or spiritual educator maintains a foothold in the world of language and in the ineffable beyond at the very same time.

6. How does your work relate to the prior studies of Gershom Scholem?

Gershom Scholem was initially electrified by issues of language in Kabbalah and thought to write his dissertation about this subject. He chose to work on the linguistic theory of the Bahir; language and Kabbalah became the subject of his life’s work. He insisted on the linguistic nature of Kabbalah vis-à-vis all other mysticisms, offered in response to Martin Buber and the other universalizing scholars, since Jewish mystics encounter God takes place within the words of the Torah and the language of being itself.

Scholem’s reading of Kabbalah and its theology was shaped by Benjamin’s “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man”—and both he and Benjamin were deeply influenced by the German philosopher and Christian Kabbalist Johann Georg Hamann, whose influential “Aesthetica in Nuce: A Rhapsody in Cabbalistic Prose” (1762), argues for the existence of a divine language that is constituent of being. Poetry, he argued, is the most elevated form of language, a tongue closest to the divine source from which all human speech emerges. This interweaving of divine and human language, of God’s word as interpreted and translated into human speech, is key to Scholem and Benjamin’s understanding of language “as such.”

It is therefore really interesting that Scholem could not, or would not, apply this way of thinking about mysticism and language to his studies of Hasidism. He rejected Buber’s existentialist reading of Hasidism and his reading of Jewish mysticism in general, but on this point, it seems that Scholem was himself deeply influenced by Buber’s interpretation of the mystic quest as a journey toward wordless silence. The work of Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer, the first and only scholar to devote an academic monograph to the Maggid and his school, reiterates this thesis in greater depth

That’s where my book comes in. I argue that Schatz-Uffenheimer and Scholem have, in many respects, missed the key to the Maggid’s theory of language and thus to his theological project. Setting this right will teach us something about the integration of human and divine speech in the teachings of the Maggid, but also the place of language in mystical religion more broadly.

7. What is the role of orality and oral teaching in understanding the Maggid?

I draw upon the conceptions of orality in Walter Ong, Deborah Tannen, William Graham, and others who note that oral speech is often distinguished from its written counterpart by its rhetorical style, linguistic register and semantic structure. But oral speech, from public sermons and political orations to hushed whispers, includes another dimension: the experience of hearing—or uttering—the words. Hasidic sources understand this element as part and parcel of a homily’s spiritual significance and the meaning of the sermon as a religious event, often describing the words of a tsaddik as a theophany akin to the revelation at Sinai.

Idel has pursued this line of thought regarding the BeSHT’s emphasis on spoken words, and, although Haviva Pedaya has argued that the Maggid’s approach to language is primarily visual, it characterizes the Maggid’s ethos and ideas as well. Hasidic teachings—including those of the Maggid—generally favor oral speech over the written word, but the picture is more complicated because Hasidism was essentially a hybridized culture, one in which spoken words and written language interface in complex and often surprising ways.

8. How does Wittgenstein help in understanding the Maggid?

Wittgenstein’s early writings are useful precisely because of their similarities of his linguistic theory to elements of the Maggid’s mysticism but also their significant differences. At the end of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein describes philosopher’s brush against the limits of language and the eventual move beyond words, entering a realm of non-sense that is utterly indescribable. This attempt to confront irresolvable mysteries is described as climbing a ladder rising above even the most succinct and precise philosophical statements. There, language buckles under the inscrutable paradox and the ladder of logical propositions must be cast away.

The Maggid’s teachings, by contrast, offer a very different perspective on the contemplative’s encounter with the ineffable. Rather than the rungs of philosophical language, the Maggid’s seeker of God climbs the ladder of words and letters in an inward journey toward the infinite pool of divine wisdom concealed in his heart and mind. But far from retreating into contemplative silence or casting away latter, the words remain in place and the worshipper’s sacred speech transforms the people around him and allows the world to shine with renewed divine vitality.

9. Your last chapter on prayer and the role of silence in prayer seems very similar to Rifka Schatz. You make a big deal of your going beyond her work, but it seems you return to her basic analysis, regardless of your greater mentioning of the concept of words.

The chapter on prayer is where my analysis does come closest to that of Schatz-Uffenheimer, since so many of the Maggid’s teachings on tefillah focus on transcending the self and the journey into the innermost seat of contemplation. Now, Schatz-Uffenheimer admits to certain differences that separate early Hasidism, her book focuses on the Maggid’s teachings on wordless rapture as similar to those of the Christian mystics who emphasize silent repose in worship.

Rather than “greater mentioning of the concept of words,” as you put it, I’m trying to show that devekut, cleaving to God in prayer, is attained precisely as worshipper articulates the words of prayer and concentration. This, taught the Maggid, awakens the divine vitality within the letters of the liturgy. In such moments of illuminated worship, the divine word (shekhinah or ‘olam ha-dibbur) speaks through the worshipper, revealing once more that human language embodies the divine quality of sacred speech. Awareness of this power, linguistic as well as contemplative, brings the worshipper to a state of humility and self-transcendence, allowing one to pray for the needs of shekhinah  instead of his own personal desires. In certain moments of contemplative prayer, one may venture beyond words. But this elation is followed closely by the worshipper’s return to the structures of language.

The mussaf prayer on Shabbat includes keter. We raise the World of Speech up to the World of Thought. There the illumination is so great that no distinctions are visible. But according to this, no vitality would remain in this lower world. This world exists because of a divine need, for there can be no king without a people. Therefore, we immediately recite, “Where is the place of His glory.” “Where” (ayeh) refers to the three initial sefirot, where there are no divisions. Then we say, “From His place may He turn in compassion,” to bestow his goodness here, since there can be no king without a people…

The life-force of all things comes from the World of Speech, meaning the letters. Now the letters long to connect to their source. It is their vitality. But when some change is required, then the letters of speech are lifted up beyond the attributes (middot). [The one praying] falls silent and cannot speak until the transformation has been accomplished. Then song may be recited once more. (LY no. 224, fol. 66b; and see MDL, no. 118, p. 192)

Only through the medium of words may one’s illuminated experience be concretized, expressed and shared with others. These dimensions, core parts of the Maggid’s legacy, are some of the things that Schatz-Uffenheimer discuss.

10. Why is it important that letters are auto-emanated?

What’s important is that the letters represent a stage in the unfolding of the Divine, a process that transpires across the name Y-H-V-H. The build-blocks of language – all languages – are right there in God’s self-emanation. So, the early Kabbalists describe the emanation by means of the letters and words of divine speech as a manifestation of the Godhead within a finite structure. God is embodied within the speech through which the world was created, much as the Divine is expressed through the framework of the sefirot. The Maggid takes this paradigm and applies it to the font of human language within the mind and expanding through the levels of cognition and articulation, suggesting even that all languages can become a manifestation of this divine name.

11. What is divine vitality?

Divine vitality (hiyut) is one of many parallel terms (like shefa, ruhaniyut), which emerged in the works of medieval Jewish thinkers writing under the influence of Sufi devotion literature, used by the Maggid to describe the divine immanence that pulses within creation. It’s related to his concept of the ayin, the infinite divine Naught, or hokhmah, God’s wisdom, that represent the infinite potentiality hidden within each and every thing in this world.  

12. What is the Maggid’s view of revelation?

The Maggid claims that the Torah as an expression of the sublime depths of God’s silent Mind from which it emerged. Scripture, he suggests in a clever reinterpretation of rabbinic traditions, predated creation as an endless expanse of divine Wisdom. Perhaps the primordial Torah was even beyond language, a surging font of sacred illumination undefined by words. The Maggid concludes that this limitless Torah could not be apprehended by the human being. God therefore constricted—or focused—this primordial Scripture into letters and words, an intricate latticework of narratives and laws. That’s what happened at Sinai.

Scripture could only have been given by someone who grasped the most intimate and powerful divine name, the one that animates all others and signifies the aspect of God that sustains all existence.

Our teacher Moses grasped the essence of divinity, which is the vitality of all the names [of God], where there are no distinctions and all is utter oneness. Therefore, the Torah in all its breadth (bi-kelalutah) was given through him. This was not the case with the other prophets, who grasped the essence of divinity only [as it was projected through] the divine attributes and names (middot ve-kinnu’im)…

Moses grasped [divinity] through the name Y-H-V-H, the all-encompassing vitality, such that the entire Torah, in general and particular, including all that a faithful student would innovate, was given through him. (MDL, no. 132, pp. 228)

Now Torah that predated the theophany at Sinai was, perhaps, pre-linguistic and without specific content, and the Maggid suggests that Moses may have taken an active role in shaping the textual fabric of the Torah..

This particular take on revelation has the utmost practical meaning for him, precisely because the Maggid understands the giving of the Torah matan Torah as an ongoing process rather than a historical event. This happens in several different and interrelated ways.

In turn, sacred study reenacts the intimate encounter between God and Israel at Sinai – through it one becomes linked to the pre-linguistic realm of divine thought, ushering a flood of creative inspiration. BecauseGod’s wisdom is continuously contracted into the words of Scripture, this revelatory act of divine self-limitation enables one to pierce the mantle of language and reclaim the sacred vitality within its letters. And, drawing a parallel between God and the human teacher, the Maggid suggests that ineffable wisdom flows through the preacher’s words—and, in particular, through parables—into the mind of the disciple.

“A teacher should always teach his student succinctly” (derekh ketserah). (Hullin 63b) If a master wants his disciple to understand his expansive wisdom, but the student cannot receive it [in its current form], the teacher must focus his mind (metsamtsem sikhlo) into words and letters. For example, when one wants to pour something from one vessel into another and is afraid lest it spill, he uses another vessel called a funnel (mashpekh). The liquid is contracted into it, and therefore the [second] vessel can receive without any of it spilling outside.

The matter is just the same with a teacher whose intellect is contracted into words and letters. He speaks them to the student, and through them the student can receive the master’s expansive mind. (MDL, #101, p. 178. See also OT, be-shalah, #92, p. 128.)

The task of the discerning student, claims the Maggid, is to reverse the process of revelation by reaching inward to the ideational core concealed in his teacher’s words.

13. How does this connect to an environmental ethic?

In short, global climate change and the impending environmental disaster represent one of the greatest moral and existential crises of our day. Developing a Jewish language for meeting this challenge requires rethinking categories of Torah and finding ways to reformulate Jewish obligations in light of the Anthropocene, but we also need to find new ways of thinking about sacred narratives and theology (aggadah) that create a poetic language to motivate and inspire. The innumerable rabbinic teachings that expound the values of environmental stewardship should be developed, such as the following well known passage:

 “Consider the work of God; for who can heal that which is damaged?” (Eccl 7:13). When the blessed Holy One created the first person, He took him and showed him all of the trees of the Garden of Eden, saying, “Consider my works—how beautiful and wonderful they are. All that I have created, I have created for you. Pay heed to this! Do not damage or destroy my world, for, if you do, who will heal it after you? (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13).

The teachings of Jewish mysticism—and of Hasidism in particular—will be particular helpful in championing the cause of environmental ethics. The radical understanding of divine immanence in these sources unabashedly describing the physical world as saturated with God’s presence:

The blessed Creator made everything and is everything. In each moment, without ever ceasing, God bestows blessing upon His creatures and upon all the worlds above and below… constantly forming, revitalizing all of life, moment to moment; all is from the blessed Holy One, who is perfect and all-inclusive (R. Levi Yitshak of Barditshev, translated in Arthur Green, Speaking Torah Spiritual Teachings from Around the Maggid’s Table, with Ebn Leader, Ariel Evan Mayse and Or N. Rose (Woodstock: Jewish Lights, 2013), vol. 1, 80).

In my contemporary application of this passage, we see how the cosmos shimmers with sacred vitality, a creative divine life-force that unites all being. This divinity is manifest in the beauty of each flower, bird, and waterfall.

As David Seidenberg and Arthur Green have argued, such a world is surely not meant to be thoughtlessly trodden upon or slowly destroyed through relentlessly mining its resources. This vision of God’s presence in the physical world, incorporated into our rich legacy of mystical aggadah, shows us how to ask new questions of ancient Jewish legal literature in search of relevance to environmental concerns. Re-grounding these values in the language of halakhah thereby demands that we act with conviction in light of the theology and moral claims expressed in the Jewish mystical sources.

14. How does this focus on mystic language contribute to our lives?

“The renewal of man,” claimed Abraham Joshua Heschel, “involves a renewal of language” and rethinking our relationship to the word is a crucial step in reckoning with the nature of what it can mean to be human. Like all teachers, I struggle with the limits of language as a finite medium of communication. My time is the classroom includes frequent pauses—even on Zoom!—allowing students to gaze beyond the surface in an effort to consider the pulsing heart of the text. This can be uncomfortable, but thus we enter the quiet liminal zone of interpretation together, stepping into the echo chamber that surrounds its words as white spaces upon the page.

But, like the Maggid, my refusal to sink into permanent silence represents an embrace of the quest to share my inner world with my students. Choosing speech over silence links us to other human beings, forming an intimate conduit of communication between masters and disciples, parents and children, and experts and novices These words serve as vessels, channels through which the possessions of one human mind and soul are shared with others. In spending the past decade with the teaching of the Maggid, starting with my first semester of graduate school and now into my years as a faculty member at Stanford, writings about his life and thought has become a kind of spiritual practice. In what follows, I have attempted to share something of that with the readers of this book.

The Maggid’s contemporary relevance is a means for deep appreciation for the immense power of language, and an understanding that words can be debased and misused. Choosing speech over silence links us to other human beings, forming an intimate conduit of communication between masters and disciples, parents and children, and experts and novices. This is not automatic, however, and the repercussive, vital dimensions of language can only be awakened through presence and intention. It takes much work—and much practice—to cultivate these qualities in our words, no matter which language we are speaking. The Maggid’s teachings can give us a vocabulary and a paradigm for thinking about the potentially sacred nature of even the most ordinary language. 

We are, as Charles Taylor notes, a language animal. The specific scholarly interventions of my book have much to do with the intellectual history of Kabbalah and Hasidism, but there are deeper questions at the heart of the book that are not restricted to this particular academic field. How do we create meaning through language? How do we forge relationships with other people through words, and what are the limitations of such communication? How does the experience of oral speech differ from human connections via its written forms? And, what’s the nature of spiritual education? These are the same kinds of questions I try to get my students to ask in the academic classroom through studying Jewish texts. The Maggid’s sermons seem arcane and opaque, but they provide concrete answers to these questions and, more importantly, they serve as textual anchors for classroom discussions.

Rabbi Elinatan Kupferberg responds to Prof Aaron Koller on the Akadah

In July, I posted an interview with Prof Aaron Koller on his book Unbinding Isaac (JPS, 2020), his book took issue with the Kierkegaard’s approach to the story of the binding of Isaac, and he rejected the influence Kierkegaard had on the thought of Rabbi Soloveitchik and Yeshaya Leibowitz. This was, in turn, used rejected a Judaism that he required us to suppress our sense of morality. He showed that it was not the true reading of Genesis or the predominant one of Jewish history nor does it fit Maimonides view of prophecy.   

Three days later Rabbi Zach Truboff  responded with The Things We Do For Love: A Response to Aaron Koller, which defended the role of passion, compulsion, desire, and projections in religion mediated by Julia Kristeva, Eric Santer, Yishai Mevorah, and Maimonides on passionate love of God.

We gain another response to Koller written by Rabbi Elinatan Kupferberg who defends the role of submission to the law and not following our ethical intuitions, defense of Yeshivish Orthodox thinking as found in the Hazon Ish and Rabbi Hayyim of Brisk. Kupferberg argues that Rabbi JB Soloveitchik did not need Kierkegaard for focusing on submission, rather his direct Rabbinic antecedents already emphasized the need for submission to the divine will, and more than that, the Divine will is assumed to be moral even if we do not see it.

Rabbi Elinatan Kupferberg is the Rabbinic intern at the RJC in Riverdale, NY. He currently learns in the Beren Kollel Elyon in Yeshiva University. His learning includes the Telshe Yeshiva of Chicago, Yeshiva Zichron Moshe in South Fallsburg., Brisk in Jerusalem, and Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood.He has an MA from BRGS.

Rabbi Kupferberg divided his essay into four parts.

In the first part, he shows how Jewish thought, as exemplified by Rabbi Isaac Arama’s Akadat Yitzhak considered God’s word as intrinsically ethical even if it appears immoral. Rabbi Hayyim of Brisk felt the same way and hence Rabbi Soloveitchik did not need Kierkegaard.  

In the second part, he presents an Orthodox worldview in which Jerusalem must take precedence over Athens.  Kupferberg present an Orthodox reading of Leo Strauss, where morality is not from reason or human understanding but entirely from listening to God.  He also presents an original homily based on a leit-motif of the word ‘eikev as showing how the Akadah’s idea of obedience is the very core theology of Deuteronomy. And he presents Maimonides on the sublime as showing a limit to the human intellect.

In the third part of the essay, Kupferberg shows how the Hazon Ish does not acknowledge any moral criteria in understanding the law. While in Kupferberg’s view and own self-understanding, he as a Centrist Orthodox rabbi does acknowledge, similar to Rabbi David Hartman but not as firm, that the ethical played a role in Abraham pleading for Sodom. he does note that he finds Rabbi Hartman’s readings questionable. Furthermore, Kupferberg is willing to recognize that the Talmudic desiccation of the laws of the rebellious son was done for ethical concerns.

More than this, he sees Orthodoxy as having a tension of obedience and moral concerns. But the moral concerns are always tempered by the obedience. For Kupferberg, who exemplifies many in Orthodoxy, ethical concerns end when they “bump up against the facticity of the text” Meaning that the system and the status quo are already taken as a factual reality, which limits moral concern to small moments in the system. Kupferberg see himself as engaged in independent moral reasoning but recognizes that it is restricted by the norms and ideals unbudgeably established by Torah and halakha.

Identifying the biblical text or halakha with moral rationalism is itself an act of moral surrender, since it assumes a position not arrived at or subject to autonomous moral thought.Personally, Kupferberg identifies with Telshe thought as essentially the position sketched out.

He concludes the third part with a sharp dichotomy of those autonomous rational people without prior commitments to facticity of the text, in his mind they treat the Bible as immoral, archaic, and irrelevant. Rather, the correct approach is to have a commitment which is heteronomous, about obedience, and following the Biblical text as understood to support the halakhic worldview. At this point, Koller’s entire thesis or concern with increasing moral concern in Modern Orthodoxy has been rejected before a stricter approach about obedience the text, albeit one with some moral concern.

Kupferberg contrasts his understanding of Telshe approach to the Hazon Ish to say that he does indeed have a significant moral element compared to the Hazon Ish’s formalism. For Kupfererg, this is a solid qualitative difference between his approach and Hazon Ish. But the thesis of Koller’s book and Koller’s argument was against a Centrist Orthodoxy that already had a greater moral element, this difference seems more rhetorical than substantively. Those who find Centrist Orthodoxy as not morally concerned are already discussing a Centrist version of Rabbi Soloveitchik, not a Haredi version. The false dichotomy would also place Levinas’ heteronomous Biblical vision, used by Koller as a conclusion, as somehow on the side of autonomous rational self.

Finally, in fourth part of the essay he gives a contemporary example of the firm need for ethical submission and heteronomy, the case of Israel/Palestine. For Kupferberg, he can have unencumbered ethical concern for the Rohingya genocide or the Uyghur genocide. But he has to temper his ethical concerns when it concerns Palestine because in his Centrist Orthodox view the facticity of the text restrains it. Kupferberg may have moral concern for the situation in Palestine. He trusts, however, that his relation to the land is God’s covenantal command. He concludes with a paean to the Akadah paradigm as the basis of his reading of Torah and of the religious life.

In the end, Kupferberg offers an alternative religious worldview to take of Prof Koller. I am not sure that there can be much give and take between the opinions. When many in the current generation feel a need to reclaim a moral sense over fidelity to the text, this essay goes in the other direction.  He excludes those Jewish thinkers who emphasis the moral rationalism of the Torah such as Rabbis Saadiah Gaon, Shmuel David Luzatto, SR Hirsch, or Rav Moshe Shmuel Glasner to name a few. In fact, just this week a new book of Rav Menachem Froman Z”L quotes, including one that starts “Religious obligation is a disaster.”

This division of worldviews is part of a bigger divide. I received many emails from Centrist Orthodoxy educators after I posted the interview with Professor Koller wanting to defend fidelity to the law over what they saw as the immoral anarchy of human reason.  Many who defend Prof Koller’s position would see the position of fidelity to the law without only minor ability to be moral as the height of immorality and suspension of the ethical.

Either way, I have to deeply thank Rabbi Kupferberg for coming through with flying colors and writing a substantive essay defending his position showing the position of post-Brisk Centrist Orthodoxy, and its fellow travelers.

Rabbi Elinatan Kupferberg responds to Prof Aaron Koller

Part I

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard challenged the readers of Abraham’s Binding of Isaac (the Akedah): There were countless generations who knew the story of Abraham by heart, word for word, but how many did it render sleepless? It appears my teacher, Professor Aaron Koller, wants to help us sleep more satisfactorily.

In his recent book, he argues that the prevailing Modern Orthodox interpretation of the Akedah is of distinctly Kierkegaardian origin. Abraham’s suspension of his ethical instincts and unquestionable submission to God’s will are both morally troubling and inconsonant with Jewish tradition, where faith does not supersede ethics and Abraham’s remarkable act of faith is not meant to be normative. Instead, he offers an erudite explanation of the revelation not to sacrifice Isaac, arguing that it is the core teaching of the Akedah. The lesson of the Akedah is ethical.

Koller defends his reading on the grounds of its cogency as biblical interpretation and its coherence with traditional Jewish perspectives on the Akedah. Though I find his literary interpretation of the unbinding compelling and insightful, I want to argue that it is precisely on those grounds that his approach to the Akedah’s ultimate significance should be rejected.

Koller is correct that Judaism, which considers morality a basic obligation, cannot accept a Kierkegaardian interpretation of the Akedah which translates Abraham’s faith into a general obligation to obey the Torah at the cost of being morally monstrous. However, Jewish thought does not need recourse to Kierkegaard to account for Abraham’s seemingly absurd act of faith.

Traditional Jewish thought did see a clash of God’s word and rational ethics at the heart of the Akedah. But, instead of embracing the absurd, it prescribes the conviction that, despite its impenetrability, God’s word must be reasonable. It was this ethos of submission to God’s will that thinkers such as R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik drew on in their interpretations of the story.

Four hundred years before Kierkegaard, the 15th century Maimonidean philosopher-exegete R. Isaac Arama (in his coincidentally named Akedat Yitshak, Sha‘ar 21) described the essential conflict of the Akedah as the clash between faith in the wisdom of God’s word and human rationality. The intention of the trial was

to actualize [Abraham’s] perfection and thereby complete his reason and knowledge… it should completely elevate him from the tier of a natural philosopher to the superiority of divine Torah, since this is the greatest philosophical absurdity, and it is evident that no one would do so unless the compulsion to obey the insight and command superior to human reason endured in his soul with both love and fear…

The significance of the Akedah is that Abraham’s faith in God’s word triumphed over his reason. Abraham persevered because he recognized that God’s words represented a pattern of thought that human reason can’t reliably master. And, precisely because the sacrifice of Isaac was considered absurd by any rational philosophy, and it was only sensible for Abraham to comply if he had faith in divine wisdom, did the trial elevate him above the limits of human rationality.

The religious experience of the Akedah, applied to us, generalizes as submission to the divine wisdom as manifest in the entire Torah. The lesson of the Akedah is that the same submission “is a standing obligation for every person.” Completing the analogy and further anticipating Kierkegaard, R. Isaac Arama adds that the Akedah teaches that one must follow this divine wisdom even at the cost of committing what society would consider a patently abhorrent crime (Akedat Yitshak, Sha‘ar 27).

In the 19th century, the intellectual sovereignty of God’s word emerged at the forefront of the Orthodox Rabbinic consciousness. R. Hayyim Soloveitchik, building on the theological groundwork laid by his father R. Yosef Dov (author of Beit Halevi), developed his method of Brisker halakhic analysis founded on the belief that Torah is epistemically independent of science or the natural realm. It can only be understood and expressed in its own terms, with its own discursive tools, defying the reach of academic or other distinctly human modes of understanding.

And for R. Hayyim, this was epitomized by the Akedah (Hiddushei Maran Hagriz Halevi Hahadashot §37). R. Hayyim begins his analysis of the story with the midrash which describes Abraham’s response to the news that Isaac was not to be sacrificed.

R. Abba said: [Abraham said:] Yesterday You told me: “For through Isaac your seed shall be recognized.” And then You tell me: “Take your son.” And now You tell me: “Don’t extend your hand to the boy.” God responded to Abraham: “I do not violate My covenant… (Ps. 89:35).” When I told you “take your son,” I didn’t say, “sacrifice him” rather “bring him up.” [I mean:] Bring him up and then take him down. (Bereshit Rabbah 56:11)

R. Hayyim questioned why Abraham only challenged God’s conflicting statements after Isaac was released. Why did he act in solemn subservience rather than immediately addressing the conflict? R. Hayyim explained that, in theory, it is actually forbidden to entertain doubts regarding the logic of God’s words. Human rationality is not a standard by which the Torah is measured. However, one of the traditional principles of Biblical exegesis is: Two verses that conflict with each other until a third verse arbitrates between them, which sanctions questions asked within that framework. Working in the opposite direction of R. Isaac, R. Hayyim applies this hermeneutic to Abraham’s engagement with God’s statements. When God spoke to Abraham at the beginning of the Akedah, there was no “third arbitrating verse” yet, so questions were as yet forbidden. And so, at first, Abraham was silent and solemnly complied. Only once Abraham received the third statement (Don’t extend your hand…) was he able to use this method to inquire after God and clarify the previous statements. Throughout the Akedah, Abraham’s actions and thoughts were guided by the strictures of Torah.

The idea of the Torah’s philosophical independence was passed down to R. Hayyim’s grandson, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik. It shaped his halakhic thought, (conspicuously motivating the thesis of his early essay, The Halakhic Mind), and it informed his reading of Abraham’s obedience during the Akedah. While Kierkegaard influenced R. Soloveitchik’s approach, the distinctly Brisker hue of his understanding of the crux of Abraham’s faith has been overlooked. When addressing this central problem, his interpretation eschews Kierkegaard and echoes his grandfather, R. Hayyim.

Yet how did Abraham take this divine command? Did he argue, beg for mercy and clemency? Did he ask God the dreadful question: “If I am to sacrifice my son, what is to become of the great promise?” We marvel at Abraham’s sedateness, complacency, and peace of mind. The enormous feat of the knight of faith was demonstrated not in his actual compliance with the divine order but in the manner in which he behaved in the face of the most puzzling divine absurdity. The blood-chilling fear of meeting the nonsensical did not overcome Abraham. Abraham’s performance is not to be equated with a compulsory submission to a tyrannical power who overwhelmed it; nor should it be understood as an act of fatalistic despair… Abraham did not realize the absurdity and paradoxality of the divine order… Naively, almost irrationally, did he conceive of the demand as somehow compatible with the whole… By acting the way he did, Abraham unconsciously relieved the tension and reconciled himself with God.(The Emergence of Ethical Man, 156-157).

R. Soloveitchik refuses to see Abraham abandoning his reason in favor of the Kierkegaardian absurd. Instead, he adopts the Brisker conviction that God’s word is in some way sensible despite its defiance of rationality.

Seeing R. Soloveitchik as a Kiekergaardian exegete of the Akedah obscures how he read the most conspicuous part of the biblical story itself. The existential drama of Abraham’s inner world takes place between the lines of the text. The Abraham we directly encounter, the one presented to us for reflection, is serene, unquestioning, and eager to listen to God. In biblical terms, he fears God. While Kierkegaardian explorations into Abraham’s psyche may be religiously fruitful, it is the understanding of how Abraham’s silent faith triumphed that is salient for the Akedah’s religious message. When it comes to this crucial picture, R. Soloveitchik avoids Kierkegaard and colors it in accordance with his Brisker heritage.

Part II.

A careful reading of the biblical text bears out this Abraham-centric reading. Beginning with the Torah’s opening self-description, the text informs us that what follows is to be a test of Abraham. The nature of the test is not spelled out, but the angelic speeches make clear the basis upon which Abraham was evaluated. The first speech – “now I know that you are fearful of God and you did not withhold your son… from Me” – indicates what the trial has revealed (Abraham truly fears, or reveres, God) and why (he didn’t refrain from sacrificing Isaac).

As Maimonides describes, fear of God is the experience of the limits of one’s rational mind when encountering the majestic wisdom of God (MT Yesodei Hatorah 2:2; GP 3:52). Recognizing the boundless, cosmic, wisdom of God causes man to shrink back in fear and awe, suddenly conscious of his mortal deficiencies. Leo Strauss, in his essay Jerusalem and Athens, has argued that this idea is, in fact, the Bible’s core teaching about wisdom, as encapsulated in the verse: The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. Attaining wisdom begins with first recognizing that limited human reason is transcended by God’s wondrous wisdom. Natural human rationality is insufficient for true wisdom, which consists of apprehending the divine wisdom that God has revealed, namely, in His commands and His Torah.

Adapting Maimonides’ explanation of fear of God to the Akedah, the description of Abraham as fearful of God means he was not moved by his embrace of the absurdity or irrationality of God’s word but, as R. Isaac Arama interpreted, by the recognition of its supra-rationality. Within the bounds of his own rationality, God’s words remained inscrutable. But Abraham had faith in the divine intellect beyond the reaches of human reason.

This interpretation enables us to understand Abraham’s cryptic response when he was asked by Isaac about the whereabouts of the lamb. Abraham was unable to articulate what he believed – it was entirely unintelligible to him. The only certainty he had, and therefore the only answer he could give, was “God will see to the lamb Himself.” Only from God’s perspective was the identity of the lamb knowable.

The significance of this obedient faith is underscored in the angel’s second speech. Because of Abraham’s obedience, the angel reinforces God’s promise of land and progeny with a divine oath. The significance of the oath should not be overlooked. Not only does it appear at the climax of the Akedah, it is the apotheosis of Abraham’s own narrative. After a life of recurring promises, it is the first time that God finally secures His word to Abraham with an oath and it is also the final dialogue between God and Abraham. Effectively, the ordeal of the Akedah marks the culmination of the God-Abraham relationship and the election of Abraham as the patriarch of God’s chosen people. It’s hard to imagine that we are meant to see the unbinding of Isaac as the high point in the drama.

Abraham’s obedience to God also resurfaces again in the Torah. In the narrative, the oath is accompanied by the peculiar phrase “since [you] listened to My voice (‘eikev ’asher sham‘ata bekoli).

The phrase only reappears in the Torah first when God repeats the oath to Isaac in chapter 26 and then again in Deuteronomy chapter 7. Moses tells the Israelites that if they listen to God, (vehaya ‘eikev tishme‘un), God will guarantee them the oath He swore to Abraham their ancestor. In other words, just as Abraham received the promises on account of his listening to God, his descendants who inherited the promises must likewise listen to God to benefit from them. By describing Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac and the people’s observance of Torah in the same, highly specific, terms, the implication is clear: we should be emulating Abraham.

Part III.

Koller writes that Kierkegaard’s glorification of the knight of faith, who overcomes his own natural thinking to suspend ethics, has no place in Judaism, a religion whose operative assumption is that religion ought to agree with ethics.  Granted, this is an important theological distinction between Judaism and Kierkegaard’s Lutheranism regarding the place of ethics in religion. However, the conceptual agreement of religion and ethics doesn’t preclude an ethos of submission to God’s will. It simply means that part of surrendering to God’s will means accepting that it is ethical. 

The purest exponent of this theology was the Hazon Ish. The notion that halakha is determinative of ethics formed the backbone of the Hazon Ish’s veiled critique of the Mussar movement’s ideas of general spiritual and ethical self-development in his Emuna u-Bitachon. The Hazon Ish took the fact that halakha necessarily entails ethical judgments to its extreme logical conclusion: Halakha makes decisive and thoroughgoing ethical claims which are prone to contradict the discernment of even the most perfected moral conscience. Polemicizing against Mussar’s independence and lack of reliance on halakhic strictures, the Hazon Ish articulated an alternative ethos of submission to the ethical code implicit in the norms of the Torah. The only way to improve oneself morally from a Jewish perspective is to study and surrender to the ethic of the Torah.

However, accepting the lesson of the Akedah as surrender to God’s word does not necessarily entail following the Hazon Ish in the abandonment of moral reasoning when faced with challenging religious obligations.

The Akedah is not the only story where Abraham is positioned in moral tension with God. The counterpoint to Abraham’s submission at the Akedah is, of course, Abraham’s moral courage on behalf of Sodom. Koller addresses this contrast through David Hartman’s analysis (A Heart of Many Rooms, 12-14). Hartman placed both religious paradigms alongside each other and argued that both submission and moral courage are operative in Jewish tradition. God both demands unconditional surrender to His command and invites moral initiative.

Hartman stresses the tension between the two paradigms, between unconditional surrender and moral initiative, informs the range of Talmudic interpretations of the biblical law of the rebellious son. The Rabbis morally questioned the justice of stoning a child for juvenile acts of gluttony. Their responses range from invoking an Akedah mode of argument to accept the literal meaning and forfeit moral justifications; to offering a justificatory interpretation that the Torah foresaw more heinous crimes the child will inevitably commit; to accepting the critique and concluding that the law is entirely theoretical and meant only for study. (though I find this reading very questionable). From Abraham at Sodom we learn that when parsing God’s word, one does not leave morality outside and approach the text as an empty receptacle.

Nevertheless, Koller, similar to Strauss, is unconvinced, arguing that the paradigm of Sodom is unhelpful for tempering the religious message of the Akedah. The stories do not reflect different religious models – but different realities. In the story of Sodom, God engaged Abraham, offering an implicit opening for his initiative. Whereas in the Akedah, Abraham is confronted by “a blunt and unambiguous command.” The paradigm of Sodom is unrelated and, therefore, incapable of saving us from the austere demands of the Akedah.

Here I must disagree with Koller. Granted, the realities are different, but the story of Sodom still importantly contextualizes and qualifies the religious force of the Akedah. Taken on its own, the Akedah presents a categorical response to all contact between God’s word and ethical sentiments, namely, total surrender. Reading the stories together, however, Abraham’s obedience at the Akedah is recontextualized as a response that actually exists at one end of a spectrum of this type of conflict. On one end of the spectrum are clear, direct, and personal divine orders, and they claim unconditional obedience. This is the paradigm of Abraham at the Akedah, when God spoke to and commanded him personally. But God’s voice does not always materialize with such peremptory authority. Jumping to the other end of the spectrum, we find the paradigm of Sodom: God implicitly inviting man into a moral dialogue with Him. And, in between the two, are all the instances where God’s word is not so transparent or directly personal nor His invitation so unequivocally open. In other words, where the examples of real-life struggle of faith and ethics are.

Not all moral dilemmas are as binary as the sacrifice of an innocent child, where moral surrender automatically violates Judaism’s commitment to morality. Most encompass shades of gray, with multiple possible resolutions, where giving up some moral autonomy does not necessarily mean acting unethically.

In fact, integrating Koller’s reading that the command not to sacrifice Isaac was an ethical revelation makes the traditional interpretation of the Akedah less morally troubling. If the possession of children by their parents was conventional moral logic until the revelation at the Akedah, then up until that point Abraham was not in conscious violation of the moral law. Abraham’s faith that God’s command was just didn’t come at the cost of consenting to murder.

The Talmudic dispute about the law of the rebellious son is instructive here. The passage in the Torah is textual case law, it is not a direct, personal command from God. Rather, the rebellious son is somewhere in between the paradigms of the Akedah and Sodom, enabling the range of views regarding the strength of the opposing moral questions. But, since it is God’s word, the surrender of the Akedah paradigm can’t be totally avoided. Even in the most extreme option, when the Rabbis deny the application of the law in practice, they don’t allow their moral confoundment to suppress the passage or deny its wisdom. God forbid. Instead, their commitment to God’s word – the Torah – leads them to conclude that it is meant to be studied.

And herein is the inescapable moral surrender that we do learn from the Akedah. Commitment to the Torah creates a dialectical tension between heteronomy of God’s word and the autonomy of man’s moral reasoning. With no prior commitments, a moral reasoner appalled by the obedience demanded by the biblical text would be free to dismiss it as immoral, archaic, and irrelevant.

The Rabbis demonstrate how a committed Jew cannot escape this tension. However far he is carried by the power of his moral questions, he will inevitably bump up against the facticity of the text. He cannot escape his commitment that it is, at the very least, educative and worthy of study.


Much of Orthodox Jewish thought, in my case typified in Yeshivish Orthodoxy by Telshe, does not take halakha’s ethics to be as exhaustive and defined as the Hazon Ish did, allowing more room for independent moral reasoning. But there is nonetheless a more nuanced, but very real, surrender of autonomous moral reasoning inherent in the acceptance of the authority of the Torah. Even identifying the Torah with moral rationalism in the vein of R. Saadiah Gaon or Maimonides is effectively moral surrender since it accepts a position not produced by, or subject to, autonomous moral thought. Overlooking the surrender to God’s word epitomized by the Akedah ignores what is a vital element of religious life even for modern communities who champion critical thought and independent moral reasoning.

Examples of this surrender are more ubiquitous in halakhic life than one might think. Accepting the authority of halakha introduces competing moral and religious responsibilities that, subtly but pervasively, prevent one from living a wholly autonomous ethical life.

When a committed halakhic Jew works through an ethical question, he doesn’t face an uncharted moral landscape. The Torah has already established obligations, priorities, and inviolate boundaries that restrict and readjust the paths his reasoning can take.

Moreover, even if we put aside consideration of the Torah’s express moral claims, there is still a degree of ethical heteronomy entailed in the elementary acceptance of the Torah’s conceptual framework. Here, I will speak personally, but I imagine I am not alone.

Suppose I was asked to weigh in on international territorial disputes and two virtually identical cases were brought before me for my assessment. One was the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the second was an entirely isomorphic case, with identical histories and religious beliefs, but the Kurds replaced the Israelis and the Swedes replaced the Palestinians. I confess I would judge them differently. And not simply due to my individual biases, though not overlooking ethical concerns (nor justifying any specific course of action). Whichever moral assessment I made about territorial rights in the abstract, and then applied to the latter dispute, would necessarily be somewhat adjusted (in whichever direction) by my faith that God made a covenant with my ancestors in which He promised us the land of Israel. My faith in the covenant would be incorporated into the broader calculus. (In fact, one who subscribes to Satmar theology, for whom the eschatological conditions of the covenant shift the moral balance toward Palestinian territorial rights, is equally complicit in moral surrender).

If someone asks me how I could alter my moral judgment on the basis of faith, I will respond that it was on the basis of this type of surrender that God originally sealed the election of my ancestor Abraham.

And, indeed, Jewish tradition recognizes that are instances where the Akedah paradigm comes to the fore and the force of God’s command subdues man’s ethical instincts. An example of this clash of faith and ethics is presented in Yoma 22b:

Rabbi Mani said… When the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Saul: “Now go and attack Amalek,” he countered: Now, if for one life the Torah said to perform the ritual of  breaking the heifer’s neck (egla ‘arufa), all the more so [must I have pity on] all these Amalekite lives. And if the men have sinned, in what way have the animals sinned? And if the adults have sinned, in what way have the children sinned? A Divine Voice then came forth and said to him: “Do not be overly righteous” (Ecclesiastes 7:16).

Drawing on Ecclesiastes, R. Mani asserts that Saul must surrender his moral instincts in face of a direct and unambiguous divine command. The choice of Ecclesiastes here is deliberate. Ecclesiastes joins the Akedah paradigm with its trenchant skepticism and despair about the fruitfulness of man’s reliance on his own wisdom or notions of virtue. And yet, like the Akedah, Ecclesiastes’ message is also balanced. Its skepticism is met by the constant confidence of Proverbs that the wise and discerning man can live a good and ethical life.

The Akedah, however, has a different lesson. Its message is one of fearing God, acknowledging the unassailability of His wisdom, and surrendering to His command. Or, to put it the way Ecclesiastes would:

The end of the matter, everything having been heard: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the entirety of man.

11 Years of the Blog

I am still here after 11 years of blogging. The blog spans three published books, many countries of travel, and, most of all, 1000 blog posts. If you appreciate this blog, then in lieu of any payment or contribution, please post at least one of my posts for 2020-2021 on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other social media. I would be even happier if you post two or more of this years upcoming posts over the course of the year.

Interview with Joseph Davis- Ten Questions of Eliezer Eilburg

Can one be an atheist without the vocabulary for it? Seventy years ago, the great French historian Lucien Febvre introduced the study of how people thought in different ages, argued that a 16th century person could not have been an atheist, any more than he could have been a Freudian or a Marxist. The world around those who lived in the 16th century from the divine right of kings to the physical order having God as a first cause to religious calendar precluded being an atheist. There were no terms for the concept, there was no social meaning to the word. Hence, even if you were a skeptic or non-believer, the non-belief had to be integrated into the philosophical worldview of the era. By extension, we all are limited to the language of our era. Febvre focused on what he called mentalite, or the thoughts and feelings of people and groups.  In The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century, he uses the mentalite of sixteenth century writers to show how they thought differently that we do. Lucien Febvre. The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais.  trans. Beatrice Gottlieb. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass.; London, 1982. (Le problème de l’incroyance au 16e siècle : la religion de Rabelais. Albin Michel: Paris, 1942)

When turning to the study of the Jewish world, the study of the mentalite history of Jewish religious beliefs is rarely done, before either the whiggish or presentism models of understanding.  Losing one’s belief in the established orthodoxy of the era was not uncommon in the pre-modern world,  but it should not be understood in contemporary terms. Azariah deRossi was a renaissance textual critic but not a modern agnostic and medieval radical Maimonideans were not Reform Jews.

Twenty years ago, Prof Joseph M. Davis, published an article entitled “The ‘Ten Questions’ of Eliezer Eilburg and the Problem of Jewish Unbelief in the Sixteenth. Century” about a 16th century Jewish thinker who denied the divinity of the Bible or its value, and who also denied creation, miracles, prophets, resurrection, and the idea of the chosen people. I told him that this was the most important thing he published and that he should turn this into a book. Here we are twenty years later with the book version- Eliezer Eilburg: The Ten Questions and Memoir of a Renaissance Jewish Skeptic (Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College Press/ University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020).


Joseph M. Davis attended Brown University. Professor Davis’s teachers include Professor Jacob Neusner, Rabbi William Braude, Rabbi Saul Leeman, and his grandfather, Professor Rabbi Louis Finkelstein.  His Ph.D. is from Harvard University in the field of medieval Jewish history and literature under Professor Isadore Twersky and Professor Bernard Septimus.  Professor Davis teaches at Gratz College where he is the director of the MA program in Jewish Studies. He lives in Bala Cynwyd with his wife Susan and Dustball, the cat.

Professor Davis’s first book was Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller: Portrait of a Seventeenth Century Rabbi (Oxford: Littman Library, 2004).  Most recently, with Magdalena  Janošiková, he has published an edition and translation of two important sixteenth century Hebrew texts, titled Eliezer Eilburg: The Ten Questions and Memoir of a Renaissance Jewish Skeptic (Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College Press/ University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020).

I thought Davis’ first book on Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller was one of the best portraits of a rabbi written under the guidance of Prof Twersky clearly written, avoiding presentism, and being familiar with contemporary scholarship of the study of general religious history. This new book of Davis is a wonderful piece of academic scholarship combining textual analysis along with historical imagination opening new vistas for the study of Renaissance Jewish thought.  In a similar way, this interview does not disappoint for a clear presentation of the issues in his new book.

In general, we do not give enough attention to the Jewish thought of Renaissance Italy (including Renaissance cities of Prague and Krakow). Prof Davis expertise is on the nexus of the rabbinic rationalist Yom Tov Heller, the skeptic Averroist Eliezer Eilburg, the textual scholar Azariah deRossi, and the defense of the rabbinic tradition against these trends by the Maharal, who based much of his defense on renaissance trends and his teaching of gentiles.  If we add the thinkers of the prior two generations, Ovadiah Seforno, Yohanan Alemano,  Eliyahu Delmedigo, Judah Abrabanel, and David Messer & Judah Messer Leon, then we have an important world of Italian Jewish thought with a strong humanistic element. If many now include a knowledge the 18th -19th Eastern European Jewish thinkers as essential, so too this world should be better integrated into our thought.

Despite being a very clear book, the book remains an edited text with most contextualization in citations in the footnotes. Workable for me, but for most people there should be a separate volume about Eilburg and his thought the same way there is a separate narrative volume for Abraham Farissol, Leon deModena or Anthony Grafton’s Cardano’s Cosmos: The Worlds and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer. My most serious complaint about the book is that the autobiography does not translate or even transcribe Eilburg’s kabbalistic writings; they are skipped over. If Eilburg writes that the true meaning of Torah is to be found in his own Abulafia inflected commentary on thirteen exegetical principles used by rabbinic texts to understand the Torah, then I cannot synthesis or evaluate what Eilburg thinks until I have seen it. In the meantime, the volume opens up many doors of research requiring an academic conference to explicate them.

Jewish skepticism is not new, and this book deserves its place in the center of the history of Jewish skepticism. You can gain by comparing him to the Averroism of Ibn Kammuna who accepts revelation and the value of revelation, and the naturalist approach of the 13th century Maimonideans. After you read the interview and book, think how much a few quotes from Eilburg would add to a classroom worksheet on the topic.

Interview with Prof Joseph Davis

  1. What are the Ten Questions of Eilburg?

The Ten Questions is one of the most radical documents written by any Jew before the modern period, challenging practically the whole theological structure of Judaism.  Or at least, the whole structure of Jewish belief as it was understood before the modern period.   Eilburg challenges the entire idea of a religion based on the Bible as a revealed religion.

The book is not just ten questions, it is a series of ten essays, that start with questions, and end with questions, but in the middle, the essays offer arguments.

The first question  (or argument) is that there is not any basis for believing that the Torah was written by God or given by God to Moses.  You could say the basis for believing this is faith, but Eilburg argues that “faith” here is just a name for not having any basis, not any rational basis, but also not any other objective basis; he argues that “faith” is based mainly on social pressure.  You could say miracles can be adduced as proof, but how do you know that the miracles stories are true ?  How do you know that any of the stories are true ?  You could say prophecy, but how do we know that God spoke to Moses ?  And so on.

Eilburg wrote all this about 1565.  Some of these arguments are pretty familiar to people in 2020, but in 1565, this was incredibly radical.  People got burnt at the stake for saying less than half of the things that Eilburg writes here.  This is a century before Spinoza who got excommunicated.

And this first question is just the beginning; Eilburg is just getting going questioning the edifice of Jewish thought.  Why aren’t the Gentiles in the Bible more scared of the Jews, if they could do all these miracles?   If Jews believe in the Bible, then why is Judaism today so different from Biblical religion?  Why do Jews believe that the Torah is letter-perfect, that it is letter for letter the same book that God gave Moses at Sinai?  Are there any other books from ancient times that claim not to include scribal errors ?   Why couldn’t part of the Torah have gotten lost?  Why couldn’t part of it have been added later?   Why do we say that the heroes of the Bible – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob – were such saints?  They don’t seem to be spiritual people at all.

In addition, Eilburg rips into the idea of a chosen nation.  Why do so many Jews believe (this was in 1565 or so) that Jews all go to Heaven and non-Jews do not?  He mocks the idea of resurrection.  He argues that it is theologically sound to not believe in a creation.  Most surprisingly, he is skeptical that observing the Torah is as useful or as beneficial as Jews think.

Eilburg was pushing the boundaries of what people could possibly think about the Bible, let alone say or write, in his time. Perhaps never had such an intense barrage of attacks, specifically on the Bible, been collected together by a single Jewish author.  Eilburg attacked not only the veracity of the Bible, but also its utility; additionally he questioned its authorship; he questioned its morality; he questioned its authenticity; and he challenged not only whether it is the basis of Judaism as it is currently practiced, but also whether it should be.  Medieval attacks on the Bible, whether by Muslim intellectuals such as Ibn Hazm, or Jewish scholars like Hiwi al-Balkhi, or by the Aristotelian philosophers, seem relatively limited and almost mild by comparison.  There is no one else like Eilburg until Spinoza, and in certain ways, Eilburg is even more skeptical, about the Bible, than Spinoza is.

2. Why is his autobiography interesting and important?

Eilburg’s autobiography is one of the very first Jewish autobiographies.   It might not even be an autobiography; it depends what you mean by that word, and some scholars would definitely not call it that.  The modern autobiography hadn’t really been invented yet.  But it is – let me put it this way – closer to a modern autobiography than anything written by practically any Jew before Eilburg for a thousand years, since Josephus.  It is a collection of writings about his life that was put together by a man who desperately wanted to talk about himself and his life, or the parts of his life he wanted to reveal, and to tell his story.

His story is like this.  The Protestant Reformation came along and the Lutherans came to power in Braunschweig (Brunswick), in Germany, where Eilburg’s family lived, and they expelled the Jews from Braunschweig.  Some of his family moved to the land of Israel, but Eilburg moved first to Poland, and then to Italy, and in Italy, Eilburg decided to become a doctor.  He had been a businessman or a banker, but his business went sour while he lived in Poland, and he spent time in prison, probably for debt.

And in Italy, while he was studying medicine, he was discovered philosophy.  He writes that he met Jews from Greece (maybe from Salonika), who were living in Italy, and he studied Jewish philosophy with them, and medicine, and kabbalah.   All in Hebrew.   He includes a book list of some of these books, such as Maimonides, ibn Ezra, and Isaac Arama, among Jewish philosophers; and Abraham Abulafia among the kabbalists.    Eilburg became enlightened.  It is like the stories of the yeshiva students in the 1800’s who would read German philosophy in secret, and who become Maskilim, “modern” “enlightened” Jews.  Eilburg even uses that language of enlightenment-such as maskil, haskala- to explain his new knowledge. He saw the light.

Now, the autobiography is very different from the Ten Questions.  The Ten Questions is a work of radical religious rationalism.  In his autobiographical writings, by contrast, Eilburg portrayed himself basically as a kabbalist.  He includes stories of how kabbalistic secrets were revealed to him in by angels, who visited him in dreams.   And his booklist is selective.  They don’t appear in his booklist, but by the time he wrote the Ten Question, he had also read a few works of Averroes, Avicenna, and probably some other Muslim philosophers, and also some Jewish philosophers whom he did not mention in his booklist, notably Narboni and Gersonides.

Eilburg’s journey was the opposite of Luther’s journey.  Luther visited Italy in 1511, and the whole experience seems to have set him against the Papacy, and sent him back to the Bible; Luther became a professor of Bible, and his whole notion of reformation involved returning back to the pure teachings of the Bible.  Whereas Eilburg went to Italy, discovered Maimonides, philosophy and Kabbalah, and wrote a whole attack on the Bible. Eilburg even mentions Martin Luther by name.  He makes a little pun and calls him Lo-tahor, “impure” in Hebrew.

3. How common do you think Jewish skeptics were?

I think that skeptics were common.  Philosophical skeptics were rare. That is, I think that a lot of pre-modern Jews had a lot of experiences that caused them sometimes to question and rethink their Jewish beliefs, or even their Jewish identity.   And I think that probably a lot of them responded by being privately skeptical.

This is similar to pre-modern Christians.  A lot of them were not so orthodox and not so pious.   Shakespeare is a famous example; it is anybody’s guess if Shakespeare believed in God.  But he was a respectable Christian and he was buried in church.  On the other hand, Jews (or Christians) who had studied philosophy and became skeptics of that particular rationalistic type, like Leon Modena, were much less common.  And someone like Modena was orthodoxy personified compared to skepticism of Eilburg.  Eilburg was a rare bird.  He was probably not unique, but the only Jewish author who put his skeptical thoughts into writing.

And by the end of the 1500’s, they were becoming even less common.  People think that every generation is less religious than the one before it.  But in the 1500’s, the trend for Italian Jews was the other way to becoming more religious.

4. How is Eilburg an Averroist?

An Averroist, as a follower of the Twelfth century Muslim philosopher Averroes, is a particular type of medieval Aristotelian.   However, Averroism became a term for those followed medieval Aristotelian philosophy leading them to deny the truth claims to medieval religious doctrines.

Averroists emphasized three teachings of Averroes.  First, is that there was no Creation.  The universe has existed for an infinite length of time, and it will always exist, and has only changed and only ever will change in small ways.   The universe has a permanent nature.  Second, the individual human soul does not survive death.  Only the Universal Soul is immortal.  Both of these were regarded as arch-heresies in the Middle Ages.

Third, the Averroists believed that the stories of the Bible in general, and religion in general – is to be taken literally to mean exactly what it says, but it isn’t true according to philosophy. Scripture is solely for the philosophically unlettered masses.

And of course, the Bible begins with a very detailed description of Creation.  So what about that?  Some Aristotelians such as Maimonides, who also believe in Creation, went with the idea of allegory: the story of Creation is not literal; the Bible does not literally mean that the world was created literally in seven days.

But not the Averroists. For them, religion serves a crucial social function in its literal non-philosophical form. In their view, without religion and its stories motivating obedience, society would fall apart.  Philosophy and rationalism cannot replace religion; they are too effete.  Philosophy is never going to convince Joe in the diner to remain faithful to his wife, or to pay his taxes, or not to beat up his brother-in-law.  Religion can convince him to be ethical, but it does that by telling Joe stories to follow scripture and religious law, even though the stories that scripture contains are not true.

Eilburg was a Jewish Averroist.  He was in fact the very last Jewish Averroist, as far as anyone knows, the end of a three or four hundred year tradition of Jewish Averroism.  By 1565, Aristotelianism was fading, Averroism was disappearing, and Jewish Averroism was practically all gone.

5. What sort of universal religion did he expect or envision?

There isn’t any universal religion.  Eilburg has a passage in which he muses sort of wistfully that it would be nice if there were a universal religion, and then people would not hate each other on account of their religions.  Christians wouldn’t hate Jews, for example – that would be nice.  Why did God create different religions, he asks.  Was that fair ?  But he hints at the answer, which is that people are wicked in all kinds of ways, and they would hate each other even if they all belonged to the same religion.  In fact, they would hate each so much, they would probably split up the religion.  Eilburg lived through the Reformation, after all.

6. What did he mean when he said that every nation tell stories of its religion? 

Eilburg has a whole theory of how religions start and how they work.   He believes that religions are begun by successful magicians or magician/legislators.  Some are about reward and punishment- people who bad things are punished, or who do good things are rewarded.  Punished and rewarded not just by people but by God or gods.

Some have stories are about the founder of the religion, and that he was great, and about the Scripture (he thinks all religions have scriptures) and how they were revealed.  Some of the stories might even be true, but some are not.  Some stories are about the importance of having faith.  Stories that are not true are often just as effective as stories that are.

There is also one passage which is really remarkably universalistic or tolerant, but in a way that involves magic.  Eilburg seems to suggest in one place that copies of all Scripture, of all different religions, have magical powers.   All different Scriptures, of different religions.  Magic is in its way a universalistic religion for Eilburg.   He apparently believed that all religions, including Judaism, are ways of “drawing down” the powers of the planets and the stars.  Different groups and regions need different religions, because astrologically they are different, but they all work roughly the same way.

7. How can a person question the Bible but accept magic? Is this a Renaissance thing?

In the Renaissance period, almost everybody believed in magic.  For example there are interesting parallels between him and the Aristotelian philosopher Pietro Pomponazzi.  Becoming skeptical of the Bible did not shake Eilburg’s belief in magic.  Why should it?  What happened was the opposite.  The same medieval philosophers, whose books he read, who shook his confidence in the Bible, reinforced his belief in magic.  Many of the medieval Jewish philosophers, such as Abraham Ibn Ezra and Moses Narboni, were very into magic.  Narboni also interpreted Maimonides as believing in astrology and magic, and so does Eilburg.

8. How can one be both a skeptic about the Bible and still accept Kabbalah?

I am not going to try to reconcile everything that Eilburg writes in his Ten Questions, and everything he writes in his kabbalistic writings.  Perhaps he changed his mind – the kabbalistic writings seem older.  Maybe when he wrote his kabbalistic stuff, he was hiding some of his true views, as radical Maimonideans do, even Eilburg.   He proclaimed himself, in his autobiographical writings, to be a follower of Abraham Abulafia, and he also wrote how much he cherished the kabbalistic Torah commentary of Bahya ben Asher.  But his arguments against the Bible don’t really fit well with the idea that everything in the Bible has a secret kabbalistic meaning.

But it is also true that he probably managed to combine Averroism and Abulafian kabbalah to a large degree.   In one place, Eilburg casts doubt on the idea that the teachings of kabbalah are the original meaning or the only true meaning of the Bible.  But that doesn’t imply that kabbalah is useless or not full of wisdom.  Just for example, Eilburg very probably believed in using kabbalistic techniques to attain visions of angels.  He believed that angels exist, and that the techniques to see them worked.  However, he probably did not believe that the techniques were secretly coded into the Bible by Moses or by God.

9. How are mizvot only appropriate for a certain period or a certain place ?

Eilburg shows a real awareness of the process of change in history, similar to a lot of intellectuals in the 1500’s.  The most famous one was Luther who saw the differences between the Bible and current Christian practice.  For Luther, the Reformation is all about the differences between Catholicism today, and the religion of the Bible.

One of the ten questions is about the differences between Biblical religion and Judaism as it was practiced in his own day.  The prayers are different, and the holidays are different, and the laws (he noticed) seem to have become much stricter.  And at the same time, a large part of Biblical religion has vanished.  The Temple is destroyed, and there are many other differences.

None of this was exactly a secret in 1565, but people resisted the logical conclusion that Judaism had changed a lot.  I mean it seems logical to us, because we are surrounded by historical change.  It seemed much less logical in the Middle Ages when societies and cultures seemed much more stable.   Maimonides, I am willing to bet, could not point to a single technology that (as far as he knew) was invented since ancient times. There had been some, but he probably didn’t need to account for it.

Anyway, unlike Luther, Eilburg does not  propose going back to the Bible.  Not unless the Jews return to their land and rebuild their kingdom. Spinoza will say a similar statement 100 years later. Until then, Eilburg was willing to assume that many of the changes had been instituted wisely, by the wise legislators of the times.  His theory of why rules should change was astrological, but he associated it with the rules of medicine.  You don’t give people the same medicines in the winter as in the summer.  His theory of medicine was also astrological, so he would have said Capricorn and Gemini in place of winter and summer.

10. According to Eilburg, how did the Torah accept Egyptian and pagan practices?

Eilburg talks about the two cherubim, the two statues of angels, that were in the Temple.  Eilburg took a suggestion that Maimonides  made in the Guide of the Perplexed about the ancient context of Jewish practice, and expanded it.   Maimonides’s argument is that many commandments in the Bible, including animal sacrifices, makes sense when you keep in mind that all of the other ancient religions did the same, that is, they also sacrificed animals. Eilburg applies this also to the cherubim – the Egyptians worshiped idols, and the cherubim are idols.  Eilberg argues that there are quite a number of holdovers of Egyptian worship in Biblical Judaism.  This did not bother him much; he thought of the Egyptians as very wise.

11. What does this work say about Azariah de’ Rossi? And Eilburg’s relationship to him?

Azariah de’ Rossi was an Italian Jew in the 1500’s, a contemporary of Eilburg.  He was a doctor, an intellectual, and in his spare time, he was a historian.   His book, The Light of the Eyes, was he most impressive example of the new sensitivity to history among 16th century Jewish intellectuals.

Eilburg seems to have been in some sort of contact with de’ Rossi.  He might have read some of the chapters of de’ Rossi’s book in manuscript before it was published.  I think that the Ten Questions strengthens the argument that De’ Rossi pretended to be much more orthodox that he was.  That is what you would expect a radical Maimonidean or an Averroist to do.  Eilburg is out there, letting the cat out of the bag, arguing against the Bible.  De’ Rossi, like Maimonides himself, was much more discrete.  He swore up and down that he believed in every Jewish belief.   Between the lines, de’ Rossi does not actually seem to believe in Creation, and he was skeptical about miracles, and he may even have had some suspicions that our text of the Bible is not letter-perfect, and  maybe other beliefs that were heretical in the 16th century.  But he only drops hints about this.

Maharal, for example, who was then the rabbi of Prague, wrote that de’ Rossi’s book should be burned.  He might not have meant it literally.  De’ Rossi does signal, not in hints but quite clearly, that he did not believe in everything in the Talmud.  That was enough to get into hot water in the Jewish world of the 1500’s.

12. What was Eilberg’s relationship to Maharal ? Did Eilburg want to convince Maharal or was he looking for answers?

The Ten Questions are in the form of a letter addressed to Maharal of Prague.  Maharal was not famous yet.  This was before he had written any of his books.  He wasn’t even in Prague yet, he was still in Austerlitz (today, Slavkov), a much smaller town.  But somehow Eilburg had run into him during his years wandering around central Europe, and Eilburg had him in mind as the man who needed to be convinced that the philosophers are right and the Bible isn’t what people think it is.

I think he was trying to convince him.  The questions assume that the reader is a Jew who thinks of himself as a follower of Maimonides, but a follower who also believes in Talmudic aggadot and in all of the basic medieval Jewish dogmas.  The questions are supposed to move a reader like that into a much more radical interpretation of Maimonides, a much more skeptical view of the Talmud and midrashim, and a much more skeptical view of the Bible.

So we don’t actually know whether Eilburg ever actually sent the letter, or whether Maharal ever read it.  But I think he might have.

I even think that this might have been part of what made Maharal into the extraordinary thinker that he became.  I mean if you get a book like this in the mail, it makes you think.  It didn’t make Maharal into a skeptic, but maybe the opposite.  Maybe Maharal read it and he said to himself, these are questions that need to be answered.

If Moderate Maimonideanism had set up all these questions, Maharal might have said to himself, Maimonideanism has no way to answer them because one cannot start out with the idea that you are going try to reconcile Aristotle and Judaism, or make a compromise between them.   You have to start out with the idea that these are opposite ways of viewing the universe, and each one has its own separate logic.

So when Maharal read Azariah de’ Rossi’s book, he could see Azariah has started down a path, and that Eilburg’s radical Maimonideanism shows where that leads.   And so Maharal says, no, Judaism has a whole different logic, the logic of faith in the Torah, and the authority of the rabbis, and belief in miracles and so on.

13. It is not an academic question or provable, but do you think Eilburg was observant? Why would he stick with mizvot?

It is just a guess, but I would assume that Eilburg was quite observant of the mitzvot.  He might even have been very devout.   He criticizes Jews who are lax about the laws against wine made by non-Jews.  He was trying to become respected as a doctor and a scholar in the Jewish community; being lax in his observances would undermine that.  Being pious would support it.  Also, as we just said, it is not that he did not believe in performing the commandments.  He thought that there are important magical as well as practical benefits that flow from the mitzvot.  He might have cut himself some slack, but probably just privately, on some mitzvot that might have seemed less beneficial to him, or customs that he was not familiar with.

14. How does this book change the way we think of early modern Jewish life? How is Lucian Febvre relevant to the book ?

The book pushes the envelope of what early modern Jews could possibly believe.  As a historian, I have thought a lot about a book that was written in 1937 by a great French historian, Lucien Febvre. The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais.  trans. Beatrice Gottlieb. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass.; London, 1982. (Le problème de l’incroyance au 16e siècle : la religion de Rabelais. Albin Michel: Paris, 1937, 1942)

The book is about the French writer Rabelais, who was a little bit older than Eilburg, or at least Febvre starts out with Rabelais, and he asks, could Rabelais have been an atheist ?  And he argues that Rabelais couldn’t possibly have been an atheist, any more than he could have been a Freudian or a Marxist.  There was literally nobody in the 1500’s (this is Febvre’s argument) who did not believe that God existed.  Not believing in God, would have been (at that time) like not believing that there is such a thing as a king; it literally wouldn’t make any sense to them at all.

So Eilburg believes in God, the God of Aristotle like the medieval philosophers, but in that way he fits Febvre’s argument that atheism was not an option for a person with medieval education.

But without Eilburg,  we would have said, you couldn’t be a Jew, living in the Jewish community, functioning as a Jewish scholar, and not believe in the Bible.  What would possibly lead you to that kind of skepticism ?  And Eilburg shows us: it was possible.  Maybe a lot of other Jews, who were less vocal than Eilburg, or more discrete, had some of the same thoughts.  A century before Spinoza.

15. How does this book change the way we think about Biblical criticism?

The book changes the way we think about the story of where Bible criticism came from.   It makes Maimonides and the Aristotelians and Averroists part of that story, as they should be.

Bible criticism, the way scholars study Bible in academia, goes back to 16th century writings of Spinoza and Hobbes. But where did they get it from?  The usual way to tell the story is to trace Bible criticism back to Erasmus, who looked at manuscripts of the New Testament and started to argue that our Bibles are not letter-perfect.  And also back to Luther, who argued that many current day religious traditions aren’t rooted in the Bible, and the Bible doesn’t mean what tradition says it means.  And certainly Erasmus and Luther were crucially important, but that Aristotle and the Aristotelians were also important, in a way that usually is not recognized.   If you look at the standard ways of telling the story pf Biblical criticism, the Aristotelians never appear in it at all.  Scholars mention everybody else, the Platonists even, the skeptics naturally, Descartes even – but everyone thinks that the Aristotelians all gave the Bible two thumbs up.  And many did.

But for the really serious Aristotelians of the 1500’s, especially in Italy, philosophy does not really allow you to believe in a book that is Divine.  A magical book maybe.   If you are a serious Aristotelian, you believe that all books are human.  A sixteenth century Aristotelian would hold that all books have human authors, who lived in particular times, and who were, like all humans, imperfect and changing.  The Bible itself, the physical Bible, is imperfect and changing, and religion is imperfect and constantly changing.  The Bible includes imperfect laws, because all laws are imperfect; and imperfect heroes, because all heroes are human and imperfect.

Interview -Rabbi Everett Gendler’s translation of Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamares

The early decades of the twentieth century were a time of great upheaval in the life of Eastern European Jewry. The overthrowing of the Tzar, the Russian revolution, WWI, pogroms, poverty, and plagues left a Jewry bereft of the old but without a replacement to a new modern form of life. In this time period, we find fierce debates in the Yiddish (as well as Russian and Hebrew) journals. The Orthodox rabbinical world was alive in discussing socialism, civil rights, anarchism, Zionism, spiritualism, nationalism, and militarism. Much of this Rabbinic debate is not well known. One of the important figures in these debates was Rabbi  Aaron Samuel Tamares (1869-1931), a near contemporary of the better known Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Rabbi Tameres studied in Volozhin Yeshiva four years after Rav Kook and was one of the greats who studied at the Kovno Kollel. He was asked by Rabbi Hayim Tchernowitz to head the Religious Zionist Yeshiva in Odessa which he declined.


Rabbi Tameres attended the fourth Zionist congress in 1900 and started his slide away from political nationalist Zionism seeing it as just another form of materialist political machinations and self-justifying violence. He became a life-long pacifist preaching that the way of Torah is ethics, peace, humanism, and spiritual growth. According to Tameres, “for us, the Jewish people, our entire distinctiveness is the Torah and Judaism; the kingdom of the spirit is our state territory. Tameres called himself “the sensitive person” who feels the pain of the world.

Tameres was the emblematic image of the rabbi who would seek the leniency for the poor widow who cannot afford another chicken or who allowed an elderly Torah reader to not be corrected to save his honor. He called many of his contemporary Orthodox colleagues as “Jesuitical” in that their goal to use frumkeit as a weapon for the public persecution of others.

Rabbi Tameres wrote a Yiddish autobiography but most of his writings are in the style of a Litvak pulpit rabbi, similar to Rav Kook, interpreting Aggadic statements to make his point. Nevertheless, despite the similarity of form, Rabbi Tameres thinks war is always bad while Rav Kook in his essay on war in Orot wrote that war prunes away the weak and allow others to show their virtue.

We approved the naturalistic outlook… that it throws the primary blame for war upon the class that holds power. For however much the ugly clay of war may be imbedded in the hearts of the mass of people, yet those who busy themselves with this nice material, moistening and shaping it for their goal and bringing it to completion—these are surely “the ruling classes.”

Rav Kook thought secular nationalism will be redeemed in a religious dialectic, for Rabbi Tameres, nationalism can never be redeemed.

From that point on the children of Israel became “political,” and the Torah became merely a kind of constitution, similar to those constitutions from “cultured nations” that we today know all too well: on paper, drafted and signed, but in practice, the complete opposite. Corruption begets corruption. The corruption of the ethical sense, which followed in the wake of the invasion from without by the spirit of “political nationalism,” soon brought them to request that a king be set over them also, “like all the nations surrounding them.

Rabbi Tameres published his essays in the same journals in which Rav Kook published his essays, but the latter is widely known while the passivist approach of Rabbi Tameres has been eclipsed.

Ehud Luz in his Wrestling with an Angel: Power, Morality, and Jewish Identity translate some portions of Tameres’s writings. We also had a variety of pieces translated starting in the 1960’s by American pacifist rabbi Rabbi Everett Gendler which were widely copied and posted. Rabbi Gendler, who is turning 92 this week, recently finished a project of translating the writings of Rabbi Tameres as A Passionate Pacifist: Essential Writings of Aaron Samuel Tamares, Edited, translated and with an introduction by Everett Gendler (Ben Yehudah Press, 2020)  (Amazon)The book is an essential work to understand 20th century Eastern European Orthodoxy and should be read by all those who study and teach Rav Kook. But for those who seek a Torah of compassion and pacifism, a Judaism not tied to 19th century political nationalism, and a vision of Jewish spirituality outside of political thinking this book will be essential. For those sensitive souls, this book will be a source of sermons and classes and inspiration. To those whom I taught some of this work this past week, they found the work offered a chance to personally work through issues on war, politics, and nationalism in Torah since Rabbi Tameres was there at the start of Religious Zionism and his writings articulate issues still alive a hundred years later. The book contains Rabbi Tameres’s autobiography, his early essays and sermons of 1904- 1906 continuing up to his developed thought of the 1920’s.

This blog introduction to the book has two divergent responsibilities, almost as two separate introductions, because the translator Rabbi Everett Gendler’s world is not part of the Volozhin rabbinic elite. Rather, he was the leading voice of American Jewish pacifism, progressivism, enviromentlaism, and civil rights, for more that half a century.

Rabbi Gendler was the voice of Jewish pacifism since the Korean war. During my childhood, Gendler was on the radio and in the newspapers as the Jewish voice of non-violence.  (his articles) He was also deeply involved in the civil rights movement since the mid-1950’s, During the 1960s, he played a pivotal role in involving American Jews in the movement, leading groups of American Rabbis to participate in prayer vigils and protests in Albany, Georgia (1962), Birmingham, Alabama (1963) and Selma, Alabama (1965), and persuading Abraham Joshua Heschel to participate in the famous march from Selma to Montgomery (1965) Gendler was among the founders of the egalitarian Havurah movement and he is the “father of Jewish environmentalism”.

Gendler was involved to change our society with his colleagues -Martin Luther King, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Thomas Merton. Gendler was instrumental in arranging Martin Luther King’s important address to the national rabbinical convention on March 25, 1968, 10 days before King’s death, conducting what was to be the final interview with MLK. There is much archival material about Gendler online. Even in a quick search, I found that he wanted to create a Parliament of World Religions together with Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan in the early 1960’s. There is a 60 page archival interview with him as one of the founders of the Jewish counterculture. Much of his environmentalist essay are available online. His 400 pages of collected essays Judaism for Universalists came out five years ago but is already out of print.

Rabbi Everett Gendler earned a B.A. from the University of Chicago in 1948 and was ordained as a Conservative rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City in 1957. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Rabbi Gendler served as rabbi to a number of congregations throughout Latin America – including in Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, and Havana, Cuba. In 1962, he became rabbi at the Jewish Center in Princeton, NJ, where he remained until 1968.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Gendlers were involved in several alternative residential communities, including Centro Intercultural de Documentación in Cuernavaca, Mexico (1968-69), and the inter-racial, inter-religious living center Packerd Manse in Stoughton, MA (1969-71). In 1971, Rabbi Gendler became rabbi at Temple Emanuel of the Merrimack Valley in Lowell, MA, and in 1977, he was appointed as the first Jewish chaplain at Phillips Academy, Andover as part of a Catholic-Protestant-Jewish “tri-ministry.” He remained in both of these positions until his retirement in 1995.

Following “retirement” together with his wife Mary, they became involved with the Tibetan exile community which had followed the Dalai Lama to India.  At our suggestion, and with his blessing and supervision, we spent good parts of the next 22 years helping the Tibetans learn more about strategic nonviolent struggle.  This involved many trips to India, where we conducted seminars and workshops for Tibetans all over India.

Unfortunately, the disparity of worlds of translator and author shows in the work. Gendler’s comments and discussions in the book all concern Gandhi’s thought and his own American life of pacifism and progressivism. These comments are definitely interesting and worthwhile but far from the Yiddish debates of Volozhin graduates after the Tzar is overthrown. However, a scholarly annotated Hebrew edition of Rabbi Tameres is coming out later this year by the experts in this time period Hayyim Rothman and Tsachi Slater. The former has a forthcoming book by Manchester University Press on anarchist Orthodox Rabbis who were reading Tolstoy including Tameres but also dealing with Abraham Yehudah Khein & Yaakov Meir Zalkind. The latter has written has a PhD on Rabbi Shmuel Alexandrov, who most only know through his Buddhist Schopenhauer inflected letter to Rav Kook. The world of Rabbi Kook and Tameres was awash in Yiddish translations of contemporary philosophic works – including Tagore and Tolstoy, and this erudition added to clashing views of each other’s essays.

In the meantime, buy this edition  (amazon) and read it for its vision of Torah. As he wrote in his Passover sermon of 1906.

We can see difference between the methods of “taking one’s freedom” of the European political parties, and our way of achieving freedom. They took freedom, for example, during the French Revolution, by “barricades” and by throwing bombs upon some despot or another. And we try to achieve freedom by making a seder, eating matzah, singing hallel…that is to say, by means of repeating on our lips the memory of the freedom of the Exodus, the Godly flame will be fanned within our souls and we will remember His kindness and His actions.


1) What do you like most about Tameres?
Two of Tamares’ winning qualities for me are his independence of spirit and his love of nature.

First, Tamares remarkable independence of spirit. In the late 19th century, when most of his Orthodox colleagues opposed the political Zionism of Theodore Herzl, Tamares supported what he thought was a movement for the liberation of the Jewish people and improvement of its living conditions.

Later, at age 31, Tamares attended the fourth Zionist Congress in London in 1900 as a delegate. He was appalled to find what he saw not so much as a movement to liberate people but a movement to liberate territory. After a year of silently absorbing this discovery, he found the courage to denounce Zionism publicly because he saw that its goal was to be another European Nationalist Movement, rather than follow the Jewish mission of Torah and ethics. This independence of spirit and his fresh outlook you find throughout his writings.

Second, His love of nature. In 1912 he was urged to apply to head as the lead rabbi the major yeshivah headed by Rabbi Hayim Tchernowitz in Odessa. Prominent cultural figures such as Hayim Nahman Bialik were his supporters. Less than half way through the interviews, Tamares withdrew his candidacy and headed back to Mielyczyce to return to his beloved friends, the trees of the forest. Tamares lived literally across the road from the southern reaches of the Bielewieza Forest, the last remaining primeval forest in continental Europe. Thoreau spent one year at Walden Pond; Tamares was a forest dweller for nearly forty years.

2) Are there any quotes of Tameres that keeps you company?
Tamares would not do well in a sound bite civilization. He specializes in overarching phrases, lengthy paragraphs, and embellished prose. Here and there are some of my favorite brief quotable lines. For example

“The Jews remember always that their God is the God of Truth and Justice who shattered the yokes of their oppressors. They must plant deep in their hearts absolute faith in the power of Truth and Justice to triumph finally…this idea, when firmly rooted in their hearts, will itself serve to defend them from all violent and lying persecutors.”

One other telling quote

“Every single human being on the face of this earth was created and endowed by the Lord with the capacity to look after his own life….and to worry about death and perishing; each was created for his own sake. The breath which the Lord breathed into the nostrils of Rueben is for the sake of Rueben. It is for him to live and exist and not be a bloody sacrifice for the sake of someone else.”


“The culture of creation in the Book of Genesis: Life, tangible life, the life of the blood and the spirit, this is the need which must first be sought. The life and secure existence of the individual: these are the basis of life on this earth; from them all comes, and in them all is included!”

3) Why does he call himself “the sensitive rabbi” and “one of the passionately concerned rabbis”?

Already by the young age of six, Tamares noticed that he reacted with greater feeling than his classmates to stories of pain and misfortune. He was also captivated by the natural sight of trees and meadows and could not tear himself away from them. He also became aware that he naturally prayed with greater fervor than his classmates. Throughout his life, he also reacted passionately to perceived injustice. When Tamares felt the need for the protection of anonymity in writing some of his denunciation of movements and participants, he chose the pseudonym of the Sensitive Rabbi or the Passionately Concerned Rabbi (the Hebrew term margish has both meanings). He had seen too many examples of other critics in the community who suffered loss of reputation and livelihood because of their unpopular stance.

4) How is Tameres a pacifist?

I prefer to call Tamares a Genesis Realist. That is, he proclaims the value of each created human being while at the same recognizing that evil actions occur and imperil our continuing existence. For Tamares, this requires watchfulness and action; the action must respect the human being perpetrating evil even as action is taken. Pacifism is waging war by nonlethal means.

When Tamares talks about absolute faith in the power of truth and justice, I hear anticipation of Gandhi’s truth force (Satyagraha) and Martin Luther King’s unarmed struggle for justice. Tamares was unwavering both in insisting on action (protest, economic boycott and hundreds of others) and insisting that it not be the ultimate indignity of organized warfare. Tamares, similar to Tolstoy, points us toward the remarkable revelations this past century of the power of non violent action.see the work of the Albert Einstein Institution, the International Center for Non Violent Conflict, and Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephen’s Why Civil Resistance Works.
Tamares sees war as the ultimate human indignity. In war, the precious product of creation, the individual human being of flesh, blood, breath and spirit is conscripted without consent and trained to murder a fellow human being. Additionally, valuable resources such as food, scientific inventions, railroads that could improve living conditions for all, are squandered in the mass destruction that is war.

5) What does he think is the task and mission of the Jew?
Tamares understands that the task of the Jew is to strive for a justice that will embrace the entire world.

This is the implication of “I am the Eternal” that concludes the mandate, “You must love your neighbor as [you love] yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Look toward the Eternal, toward the Source of all existence, the First Cause, and you become aware that you and your neighbor are equal in God’s eyes; that insight validates the commandment. The power of Torah to incline human beings toward the good derives from its putting us directly in touch with the Creator of all, the Source of goodness and generosity, thus rekindling the spark of our Divine awareness.

The prophets, whom he quotes so often, repeatedly emphasize justice, speaking often of economic justice: fair wages, no excessive concentrations of wealth, basic necessities for all human beings. Tamares sees the realization of this vision as the primary task of Jewish existence. Thus the intimate local community must live by these values so that its example inspires others to adopt and live by them.

Tamares sees the global mission of Judaism as creating conditions for full development of the individual human being. This means the purification of life within the Jewish community. Domination of people by others (unjust distribution of wealth, etc,) must be guarded against.

Even a cursory examination of the singular purpose our nation is destined to fill, namely, the purpose of spreading Torah, can cause the hypnotic power of nationalism to dissipate, and we can gaze without fear into the eyes of the nations who are so proud of their territories and monarchies.” Since National Territories have been the cause of mass slaughter, a crucial mission of Jews in the world is to prove, by example that a people can survive and thrive without a National Territory. There is an alternative to survival by the sword.

6) How is Tameres against nationalism?
Tamares is not against peaceful nationalism; he respects the rights of local groups of people to organize for their common welfare. He supports their trying to improve their living conditions and he recognizes human limitations. People in a defined country have the right to focus their efforts. However, it is that rivalrous nationalism that Tamares condemns, the Bismarck Nationalism as opposed to Liberal Nationalism. Tamares contrasts Bismarck and Junker Nationalism with Liberal Nationalism at the time, and affirms the liberal proclamations of individual human dignity and rights as reflecting the true meaning Genesis.

7) Why was he against Zionism?
Zionism at the time had many meanings; one of them was establishing a European model Nation State in Palestine as a National home for the Jewish people.

The Balfour Declaration specified that the rights of persons living there would be fully respected. How was this to be achieved? Tamares feared that the European inspired Zionism of Herzl would betray the world mission of the Jewish people, to demonstrate a non territorial Nationalist model. He was also concerned about the rights of those already living in the land.

Tamares Zionist vision was of a territory inhabited by Jews and Palestinians with no dominating group. He recognized and identified with the historical Jewish connections to the Holy Land. This was to be fulfilled by Jews immigrating to Israel and forming communities that lived harmoniously with others living there. Such a non dominant Zionism is nicely explored in Noam Pianko ‘s Zionism: The Roads Not Taken.

8) What of the traditional attachment to the Land of Israel?
Tamares retains attachment to the historic land of Israel but rejects the imposition of a European Nationalist interpretation on this historic connection. He criticized those at the Zionist conference of 1900 who wanted the Jewish people to be like all the other nations, for him, it was a departure from Judaism’s emphasis on justice. He retains affection for the historic land of Israel, but he rejects the historical imposition of modern European Nationalist idea in shaping this attachment.

The Jew will always seek to return to Israel and live there; Israel is vital and extant in his memory and in his very veins, it is this Israel which he has preserved in his memory at all times, it is this Israel that he yearns to see with his eyes…. Between this ancient Zionist yearning and the new Zionist yearning lies a chasm of difference, both in theory and in practice, both in the reason for this yearning and in its goals.
The political Zionists yearn for a land upon which our nation shall be “a nation like all other nations”—whereas our people yearn for a land upon which our distinctiveness from all other nations shall be further emphasized…The new Zionism hopes to revive in Zion what ostensibly died in exile: Namely, they wish to create in this Jewish homeland and in the heart of Jews, this coarse feeling of sovereignty, of which they had been divested in exile.

Tameres encouraged Jews who felt personally moved to go and live in the historic land of Israel. He insisted, however, that Jews had a world mission beyond reentering their historic land. Jewish fulfillment of this mission did not depend on establishing dominance in historic Israel.

Tameres understood Exile to be not punishment but purification. In addition, the Jewish mission is unlike the mission of the nations “We must reveal to them that between our world and their world lies a deep and terrible chasm…The means to achieve their success is the sword, whereas as ours is the book—ours is the study of Torah. The nations who don’t have the Torah cannot cast their swords aside.”

He argues that the experience of dominating sovereignty in both the first and second ancient Jewish Commonwealths showed the necessary corruptions of commonly understood National Sovereignty. Therefore, connecting attachment to the historic land of Israel with modern European Nationalism was a modern invention not dictated by tradition.

9) What was his view of the messianic age?

Tameres understands the Messiah as “a term for the redemption or liberation of the spirit of humankind for the expansion of ethical awareness and the knowledge of God in the world.”
He further associates this with Isaiah’s vision that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation” and “the whole earth shall be filled with the knowledge of God.” Tamares messianic vision is a world in which no human being exploits or dominates another human being, where human beings cooperate that all may share equitably the fruits the earth, and where the organized mass murder and destruction of war has been ended.

10) Have you had any second thoughts about any of his many ideas?
How would Tamares have reacted to the unimaginable nihilistic destructiveness of Nazism? Would he have supported a Nation State especially as a haven for persecuted Jews? It is a haunting, unanswerable question.
Despite this, is he still relevant? More so than ever I would argue. Tamares’ cautionary words, uttered more than a century ago, about the problems of settling new arrivals amidst people already living in the land, were constantly relevant and constantly ignored. His warning that place of refuge might become place of domination over others is the very specter we confront today.

11) What is you advice for younger progressive rabbis who work among colleagues in the mainstream who generally are not progressive?

In the late 1950’s, I felt somewhat isolated as a conscientious objector to US participation in the Korean War. In the 1960’s, for several years I experienced warm camaraderie in the civil rights struggle. By the end of the 60’s isolation returned when my relief at the survival of Israel during the Six-Day war was accompanied by alarm at the consequent conquest and spirit of domination. I’ve come to recognize, accept, and appreciate my marginality, and on reflection find that my childhood experience of being one of only three Jewish families in small Iowa farm town of 5,000 was excellent preparation. Over time, I became increasingly involved with the Reform Movement, but again I feel both mainstream and marginal. But that is probably true for anyone of us.

My advice for younger Rabbis is to try to clarify your vision, then live it. What lies ahead is a marathon, not a hundred yard dash, and none of us has perfect vision or adequate answers. Pray for the right combination of humility and courage, and plunge ahead in this great, marvelous adventure we call human life on this God given planet.

12) What do you see as your greatest achievement as a progressive pacifist rabbi?
Its too early to say. I might hope that I contributed something to enhance environmental awareness and engagement within the Jewish community, including in the life of prayer. I might also hope that the practical political potential of active non violent struggle is a little more widely known because of my involvement with Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr. and with the Dali Lama, but it’s too early to know. I’ll not be here for a more definitive assessment, so I’ll resist the temptation to calculate and instead try to keep on living.

Now, still blessed with the precious gift of life and some remnant of wit, albeit with diminished energy, I was able to focus once again on the seminal writings of Rabbi Tamares, a cherished companion for over half a century.   Truly ashreni, ma tov helkeini, how fortunate am I, how goodly my portion.

The Things We Do For Love: A Response to Aaron Koller- by Rabbi Zach Truboff

Here is the first response to the Interview with Prof Koller.As of now, I do not know if I will receive more responses and if I do, how many. I have many people who want to have private conversations with me about the interview. But when it comes to writing, they all say “I would write a response if they had more time.”

Rabbi Truboff’s response wants to hold onto the drives and passions that make us religious while also being vigilant to remain moral. We should be unwilling to deny our ethical responsibility to the other, but at the same time we should be unwilling to deny the love that  makes us truly human. We have to take responsibility for our very human drives and passions, and own them. We cannot project them onto others as if to say we have superseded these drives. Torah is supposed to be a way to deal with these drives, rather than deflect them through historicism.

Rabbi Zachary Truboff is the coordinator of the International Beit Din Institute, which seeks to educate rabbis about halakhic solutions to the agunah problem. His writings on contemporary Jewish thought and Zionism have appeared in many venues. His forthcoming book, Torah Goes Forth From Zion: Essays on the Thought of Rav Kook and Rav Shagar, will be published in the fall. Before making aliyah, he served as the rabbi of Cedar Sinai Synagogue in Cleveland, Ohio.  He received semikha from Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.


The Things we Do For Love

The Akedah is a hard story for modern Jews. We tend not to look too kindly on people who claim God demands the lives of innocent children. For good reason, we call them fanatics, zealots, and extremists. According to Kant, Avraham’s response to God should have been obvious:

That I should not kill my good son is absolutely certain to me. But that you who appear to me as God is not certain, and cannot become certain, even though the voice were to sound from the very heavens. (Conflict of the Faculties, 115)

For many, the Avraham of the Akedah is an aberration to be rejected, while the Avraham who argues with God on behalf of the innocent of Sodom is to be emulated. I often find myself deeply sympathetic to these points and I therefore found myself nodding repeatedly while reading the interview with Professor Koller.

It was particularly thrilling to see him reference an interpretation of Maimonides I had never heard before. Perhaps Avraham had received a prophecy from God that he must sacrifice his son, but this prophecy ultimately lacked the philosophical clarity that he would later ascertain when the angel told him not to do so. The implication is clear: Perhaps the Torah we received from God contains mitzvoth or halakhot that appear immoral to us now, but as we reach greater levels of insight, we will recognize that God’s will must be understood differently and in a more ethical fashion. Who better than Maimonides, the paragon of Torah u’Madda, to offer an interpretation of the Akedah that is so consonant with the ethical-rational worldview many of us in Modern Orthodoxy hold so dear.

But then I remembered something important about Maimonides. For Maimonides, Abraham is the quintessential example of a person who serves God out of love–he is called ‘Ohavi,’ God’s beloved. Perhaps this–love–is the lens through which we should attempt to understand Avraham’s actions during the Akedah and their implications for us today. After presenting Avraham as the example all Jews should aspire towards in loving God, Maimonides describes what this love is supposed to look like in practice:

A person should love God with a very great and exceeding love until his soul is bound up in the love of God. Thus he will always be obsessed with this love as if he is lovesick. One’s thoughts are never diverted from the love of that woman. He is always obsessed with her; when he sits down, when he gets up, when he eats and drinks. The love for God should be even greater than this in the hearts of those who love Him and are obsessed with Him at all times as we are commanded “Love God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Yesodai HaTorah, Teshuvah 10:2)

Maimonides describes the intellectual pursuit of God as charged with an overflowing sense of eros, a claim made possible by his comparison to romantic love. Loving God means pursuing knowledge of God endlessly in all that we do. But if we are honest with ourselves, Maimonides words should also be cause for concern. In my a years as a synagogue rabbi, if a young man or woman had come to me and told me that their girlfriend or boyfriend was so in love with them that they obsessed over them constantly and could never leave their side, my first reaction would be that something is deeply wrong.

It is from the midst of this dilemma that Yishai Mevorach–a student of Rav Shagar, primary editor of posthumously published writings, and important thinker in his own right–offers a compelling psychoanalytic interpretation of the Akedah in his book Theologia Shel Chesed (Resling Press, 2016), [and see our interview with him] one that challenges the ethical-rational worldview put forth by Professor Koller.

Is Maimonides telling us that all love–human and divine–is a sickness; That every relationship that is “very much excessively strong” brings with it a curse, a crisis? In the language of psychoanalysis: “there is no love worthy of its name without connection to discomfort” (Theologia Shel Chesed, 119-120)

As Koller mentions in his interview, Jews have long understood the Akedah as an act of love on the part of Avraham, the Rabbis even stating in regard to Avraham’s actions that “love makes a person do crazy things” (ahava mekalkelet hashura). Whereas Koller mentions this only in passing, Mevorach’s contends that the craziness of love cannot be separated from how we understand the story. Further than that, the attempt to neutralize this dimension fundamentally misunderstands what it means to be human. Mevorach cites the approach of Buber, though not for support but rather to demonstrate the danger of reading the story selectively. Buber makes a fundamental distinction between religion and religiosity. Religion, and all its negative baggage is to be rejected while religiosity is to be embraced. Mevorach explains that for Buber:

Religion contains the harmful primitive and perverse elements that religious believers incorrectly attribute to God, whereas religiosity is the experience of divine faith purified of all the dross placed on God by human beings. Through this distinction, the divine realm is cleansed from elements such as hatred, jealousy, desire, and fixation, and what remains are elements such as dialogue, peace, harmony, morality, wisdom, and innovation. The role of the enlightened believer is to walk between the pieces, to choose religiosity and to escape from religion. (121)

The problem with this is that Buber’s distinction is falsified by “the religious experience of believers throughout millennia, who were and still are immersed up unto their neck in blood, sweat and tears.” (121) Rather, we must recognize that the Akedah “teaches us that violence, perversity, desire, and discomfort are found in God, and not only this but that these elements are the foundation of religious life” (123).

To a person who affirms the ethical-rational worldview, such words are heresy, but they get at a fundamental truth about love, one that Maimonides clearly understood. In Mevorach’s words, “Love is first and foremost a response to an extreme situation, to be at the edge of desire, to be demanded of and disturbed by the yearning of the other.” (126) One cannot have true love without also having its darker elements. Anger, jealousy, desire, and obsession are inextricable from the experience of love and cannot simply be excised from it, at least not without changing the very nature of love.

How then is the Akedah to be understood? In a fashion similar to Buber but preserving relgion, Mevorach offers his own distinction between two typologies, what he calls “the pagan” and “the Hebrew (ivri).” Avraham begins the story as a pagan but ends the story as a Hebrew (ivri). The pagan “gives up everything to the voice of God that demands and desires–word for word. Opposite him, the ivri is carried away in the rivers of death of loving God but in the last moment deviates and interprets them differently” (123).

Avraham initially accedes to God’s command that he sacrifice his son, because a wild and passionate love is built upon sacrifices, something even our contemporary culture understands. In every romantic comedy there comes a moment where the main character must take a giant risk or engage in an absurd act if they are to finally be with the one they love. Without such irrational behavior, the appeal of love would be incomprehensible to us. What Avraham demonstrates is that love requires a person to be carried away with desire–just not to the extent one inflicts brutal violence on another person. A person must not give up on love, but an appropriate alternative has to be found that allows one to sublimate one’s desire in a more suitable fashion. In Avraham’s case, he is unwilling to reject God’s call to sacrifice, but he finds a suitable replacement in the ram he offers in Yitzchak’s place.

For Mevorach, Avraham’s example serves as the classic model for how the rabbinic tradition continually find a way to allow religious passion to have its place without allowing it to devour us entirely. He points to the example of chametz on Pesach.

…the same chametz that a Jew is not supposed to see for perhaps he will come to sin…- it is as if we are speaking about Lilith or Satan himself. Behold, this is how God-fearing Jews act before Pesach. They clean their homes, scrub with bleach and cleaning solution. They even search for the demonic chametz in ‘holes and cracks,’ and yet they take one of the cabinets in their kitchen and place inside of it all the forbidden products, and they write on it in big letters ‘chametz’ and they go to the rabbi, who sells the chametz to a mysterious non-Jew… the hard spirit of the law remains but not the action; it is neutralized. (127-128)

In the end, Mevorach’s psychoanalytic approach is unwilling to deny our ethical responsibility to the other, but at the same time, it is also unwilling to deny what makes us truly human. While Kierkegaard may ask us to give up our ethical subjectivity, something we see as fundamental to our humanity, the ethical-rational approach asks us to do the same by denying that love and desire emerge from the most irrational but essential parts of who we are. It is these parts of ourselves that often constitute the deep commitments we feel towards religious life.

The connection that a person finds between themselves and their partner–whether it be divine or human–does not appear only in a heartwarming description of reality, but also and maybe most essentially around the inner squeals, pressures, and tensions… that are incomprehensible and even threatening. For example, when a person stands before their tefillin and feels that the last thing they want to do is put them on and then added to this is the uncomfortable recognition that one is unable not to put them on, it is this recognition which places the burden of wearing the tefillin upon him, and this moment is a moment of deep connection. (129-130)

I am sure there are those who recoil from the psychoanalytic approach laid out by Mevorach who see it as nothing more than a psychologizing of Kierkegaard. Perhaps it eliminates some of the moral blindness, but the place of prominence that it grants to feelings of obsession and compulsion as essential to love still leaves open the door to sacrificing one’s ethics on the altar of religious faith. There is some truth to this, but a critical moral insight emerges from this approach that must be acknowledged.

Mevorach’s book, Theologia Shel Chesed, is heavily indebted to psychoanalytic work of Eric Santner’s On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life (University of Chicago, 2001), a fascinating work that tackles the question of religious tolerance through the thought of Franz Rosenzweig and psychoanalysis. In it, Santner notes:

Psychoanalysis differs from other approaches to human being by attending to the constitutive ‘too muchness’ that characterizes the psyche; the human mind is, we might say, defined by the fact that it includes more reality than it can contain, is the bearer of an excess, a too much of pressure that is not merely physiological. (8)

The ‘too muchness’ of the human psyche, what Freud would call the unconscious, is the source of the urges we find so troubling, urges on full display in the story of the Akedah. Nevertheless, denying their presence within us is not an option, and any attempt to do so will only cause us to push away others who express them. This important psychoanalytic insight was first made prominent by Julia Kristeva in Strangers to Ourselves. She explains that it is all too often the case that

…we externalize that which is ‘strange’ within us onto an external ‘stranger.’ The result is a denial of the fact that we are strangers to ourselves, a denial which takes the form of negating aliens. To the extent that we exclude the outsider we deceive ourselves into thinking we have exempted ourselves from estrangement. (73)

For Santner and for Mevorach, Judaism is meant to be a way of life that liberates us from these projections and allows us to take responsibility for the compulsions and obsessions that emerge from our unconscious while finding a way for their legitimate expression. According to Mevorach, the Akedah shows us that loving God and experiencing God’s love means accepting a certain amount of neurosis, but we can still learn from the example of “Avraham, as one who responds to aggression and moves towards it, he is able to discover that it is possible to reorient its meaning.” (126)

While most would say that the ethical-rational worldview strives to put morality at the center, it can lead us to exclude from our moral concern those who appear strange, irrational, or bizarre. If we cannot see ourselves within Avraham in the narrative of the Akedah, if we are forced to reinterpret the text to such a degree that his passionate love is denied, we will have no choice but to do the same for those in the real world whose faith manifests in desires and behaviors that generate a deep sense of unease within us.

On this point, Professor Brill’s comments about Koller ignoring the emotional turmoil of Avraham and Isaac in Caravaggio’s paintings are apt. If we cannot recognize that such emotions are central to who we are, we will find it nearly impossible to do so in others who exhibit them.

All said, I do want to be clear. Koller has done important work and the ethical rational worldview reflected in his interpretive approach to the Akedah is not one we can do without. As long as the Akedah is used as a cudgel to inflict pain upon others demanding their sacrifice but not our own, his book will have enduring importance. But what it fails to grasp about the Akedah is worth paying close attention to.

Interview with Aaron Koller- Unbinding Isaac

I repeatedly hear from a generation of Modern (or Centrist) Orthodox youth, who grew up at the end of the twentieth century, that they were told that Torah Judaism is about adopting a posture of submission in which one’s individuality and moral intuitions are suppressed. Representative students of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik publicly taught in the 1990’s and beyond that to accept divine authority one needed to sacrifice individuality for the sake of the tradition.  This sacrificial religiosity was in origin based on Rabbi Soloveitchik’s use of Soren Kierkegaard’s ideas from Fear and Trembling on the need for a teleological suspension of the ethical as exemplified in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac as a divine command despite the violation of the command not to murder. But after Rabbi Solovietchik’s death, it became globalized to the prosaic.  To affirm the divine and follow the true nature of the halakhah meant that one must be prepared to override their ethical judgement.

This ideology trope was, and is, so pervasive in some sectors of Modern Orthodoxy pulpit rabbis who never read Fear and Trembling exhort their congregants that one needs to consider the entire halakhah as above ethical concerns or moral critique. All discussion of the morality of the law is precluded. Rather than limiting the sacrifice of Isaac to an extraordinary one-time prophetic event, the suspension of the ethical in order to follow halakhah becomes incumbent upon all of us. Many who came of age in this era, felt this lack of moral self-scrutiny was one of their burning theological concerns. Enter  Prof. Aaron Koller, whose learned book Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Jewish Thought (JPS/University of Nebraska Press, 2020) explores and critiques the influence of Fear and Trembling on Orthodox Jewish thought.

This blog has two responses to the interview with Prof Koller. The first is by Rabbi Zach Truboff – in praise of religious passion and second response by Rabbi Elinatan Kupferberg.

Koller -book

Aaron Koller is professor of Near Eastern studies at Yeshiva University, where he is chair of the Beren Department of Jewish Studies. He works on Semitic philology, and is the author of Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Jewish Thought (JPS/University of Nebraska Press, 2020) and Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2014) , among other books, and the editor of five more. Aaron has served as a visiting professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and held research fellowships at the Albright Institute for Archaeological Research and the Hartman Institute. He lives in Queens, NY with his partner, Shira Hecht-Koller, and their children.

Koller in the interview below was exceptionally clear and concise about his personal goals in this book and his direct programmatic agenda. The book opens by presenting the problematic reading of the sacrifice of Isaac as necessitating that we submit to the system even if it seems unethical. The next chapter shows the rich and varied Jewish interpretive tradition of Isaac’s binding that never included the very recent Kierkegaardian version. Covering two millennia of exegesis, Koller reveals Jewish interpretations of the sacrifice that deserve greater attention and provide more theological compelling models. The chapters that comprise the core of the book presents the Kierkegaardian approach, followed by a chapter on the modern Orthodox acceptance of the Kierkegaardian approach by Yeshayahu  Leibowitz and Rabbi Soloveitchik, and finally a critique of Kierkegaard’s approach.  The next chapter is Koller’s rational Maimonidean approach to hearing the divine will. Koller, however, considers Leibowitz’s reading of Maimonides as “tenuous” so he does not directly refute it. The book concludes with two superb chapters on the role of sacrifice in the Ancient Near East in order to situate the original message of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac.  The book is urbane, erudite, and a pleasure to read. It is an essential book on a Jewish reading of the sacrifice of Isaac, on the shelf with Shalom Spiegel’s The Last Trial and Jon Levenson’s Inheriting Abraham. Koller’s book will generate valuable discussion about the basic themes of the story and Jewish life.

The book focuses on the Modern Orthodox tension between submission to an unchanging system of halakhah and ethics, not the broad canvas of modern Jewish thought. Hence, the book does not deal with the diverse approaches of Berkovits, Fackenheim, Heschel, Rosenzweig, Ronald Green or the sacrifice of Isaac in post Holocaust thought. In addition, the book only uses Buber, whose dialogical ethics was the prime locus of the Jewish ethical critique of Kierkegaard, when he serves the modern Orthodox question. To be sure, the central problem addressed in this book has been felt by others, we have several signature shiurim by Rabbi Ethan Tucker on the tension of obedience and moral discourse- here and here. We also have responses in Israel by Rav Shagar, Rav Yehuda , and Rav Yuval Cherlow, to this issue. And Rabbi David Hartman discussed the topic often.

The issues Kierkegaard raises for Judaism are many and would fill an entire course. My own formulation of the topic goes back to when I was in rabbinical school and an undergraduate organization asked me to give a talk on Kierkegaard’s yahrzeit. They named their organization YID (Yeshiva Intellectual Discussion group), a name deemed offensive in that decade, to make sure YU public relations would not take credit. At the time, I did not have Koller’s ethical dilemma. Rabbi Soloveitchik as a living presence would speak of ethics in shiur, in private conversations, and in his varied writings as would his students Rabbi Walter Wurzburger and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. One of my points at the time was that the Jewish approaches were like Judge Wilhelm in Kierkegaard’s book Either/Or in that they combined cognitivism and noncognitivism, ethics and inwardness, law with marriage metaphors. The Jewish positions avoided the single focused monstrous approach of Kierkegaard’s Abraham, in that they always combined multiple elements including ethics, rationality, and tradition. The binary drawn by Kierkegaard between ethics and faith was far less of a concern for Jewish thought and practice than it was for Lutheran Christianity.

Kierkegaard’s reception into European letters was wide and deep.  He was translated into German between the 1880’s until the 1930’s. Kafka used Kierkegaard for a story of an absurd antihero impious Abraham; Adorno used Kierkegaard as a rejection of Hegelianism; Jaspers used him to develop the idea of individuality; Karl Barth used him as a need for objective revelation in lieu of subjective liberal religion- Rabbi Soloveitchik’s and Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s approaches owe much to this reading of avoiding subjectivity. Eventually, in the phenomenology decade, Kierkegaard is hailed – along with Nietzsche and Dostoevsky- as the antecedent to Existentialism.

Unfortunately, Koller’s book misses the intellectual history of Kierkegaard. It presents the Danish thinker as a general modernist, subjectivist, and an isolated voice. Besides the fact that subjectivity had multiple meanings and many used Kierkegaard to better understand the nature of objectivity, everyone in philosophical circles in the 1930’s was reading Kierkegaard. The new Existentialist movement was seen as a way past the impasse of modernity. Instead of a contextualizing Jewish Existentialism within a broader philosophical milieu Koller tries to examine these issues by exploring the possibility of Rabbi Soloveitchik being present at the Davos debate between Ernest Cassirer and Martin Heidegger. Where did Soloveitchik learn about Kierkegaard is an interesting question but one hardly needs to run to Davos and Heidegger for the answer. These ideas were widespread in not only newspapers but even on the pulpit.  Finally, scholars of modern Jewish thought might find the chapter on the 19th century difficult to accept with the equation of Kantian inwardness, Hasidic intuitionism, Uber-Orthodox sectarianism, and Kierkegaard. He describes Mendelssohn to be a pillar of modern inwardness, a description that has no ostensive meaning. But these difficulties should not detract from the rest of the book or its message.

As noted above, the book has a vision, a drive, and an ethical-rational worldview. Koller sees an immoral monster in Kierkegaard’s teachings as presented by Modern Orthodoxy. Kierkegaard himself considered his position monstrous. “But Abraham in a low voice said to himself, “O Lord in heaven, I thank Thee. After all it is better for him to believe that I am a monster, rather than that he [Isaac] should lose faith in Thee.” Koller saw the monsters in modern Orthodoxy theology; among those educators willing to teach a monstrous idea so that, in their mind, students should not lose faith. His book seeks to slay those monsters and offer up a more Jewish and ethical reading of the sacrifice of Isaac. I highly recommend the book as worthwhile engagement with a learned dragon slayer fighting in the name of morality.


Interview with Aaron Koller

  1. What motivated you to write the book?

Around 2014, several things happened that that led me to think that I should try to write this book. I had taught the interpretive history of the Akedah a few times, so had worked on many of the texts and started various projects of collecting and classifying. But the motivation to write it came from realizing that this text – perhaps more than other texts – matters to people, and matters in the contemporary discourse.

A friend wrote a political article in which he argued, “Genesis 22 depicts Abraham as what we would call a religious fanatic,” and therefore any responsible Jew would have a hard time condemning others for religious violence. He continued, “What stories like Genesis 22 can never do is exonerate us from our own responsibilities toward any victim of that violence.”

At the same time, I read an article (there are many) that included the claim that “the essence and purpose of Torah observance is submission to God,” and that this is the lesson, as Rabbi Soloveitchik taught, of the Akedah. It was not that I agreed or disagreed with the details – although I do not agree with either – as much as that I realized that sacred, canonical texts really could affect the way members of a community think about issues.

Since I had some ideas about what the text may mean, I started to think more carefully about it.

A couple of years later, I was going to Jerusalem for a sabbatical with my family, and a colleague, Prof. Israel Knohl of Hebrew University, recommended that I ask the Hartman Institute for an office and some help. He said I would need to submit a research proposal, and that they like “meaningful things” – not like the stuff I usually work on! So I thought that was a good chance to work on a proposal for this book, and I spent a lot of time that year reading and researching, although I did not finish writing the first draft of it until a couple of years after that.

2. How did Jews traditionally see themselves as living the Akedah?

Most Jews over the past couple of thousand years were not troubled by whether the Akedah is ethical in large part because, as you said, they lived the Akedah rather than philosophizes about it. This is a big point I try to hammer home in the first chapter – and it’s thanks to a suggestion of my partner Shira’s that it is the first chapter.

The sheer quantity of texts of every genre – plays, chronicles, piyyutim, midrashim, interpretations, poems, epics, narratives – and visual art that reflect on, make use of, interpret the Akedah is staggering. I’m sure I didn’t survey it all, although I did try hard over the past decade or so.

In the first chapter I lay out past uses of the Akedah. I don’t try to map it out exhaustively, and instead focus on four themes that I think are particularly poignant and keep coming up in Jewish reactions to the Akedah: (a) the merit of the Akedah for the children of Abraham; (b) Isaac as the exemplar martyr; (c) love as a driving force; and (d) cynicism and humor.

The texts discussed for (a) and (b) are quite central to Jewish thought, and I will not say more about them here. (c) Love is an interesting one. I begin that section with a well-known passage from Bereshit Rabbah about “love upsetting normal behavior,” juxtaposed with John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son.” A verse well known to all sports fans (and Christians, and others). Both talk about the love of the father driving towards the sacrifice of the son. I find that fascinating, and somewhat horrifying, but it turns out there are other texts about love as well.

(d) The fourth section of the first chapter, about criticism, cynicism, and humor toward the Akedah, was probably the most fun to collect and distill. We tend to think that earlier people were pious, and then around 1865 critical attitude towards the Torah was born.  But there are classical piyyutim that explicitly criticize Abraham for not doing more to save his son, and ancient Aramaic (Jewish and Syriac) that go in similar directions. Also cynicism, it turns out, was not born in 1950, but existed in Yiddish epic poems of half a millennium ago,

3) What did Kierkegaard say about the sacrifice of Isaac?

Kierkegaard said a lot about the Akedah. His book, written under the pseudonym, Johannes de Silentio, Fear and Trembling is poignant and powerful, and actually opens many avenues that it does not fully explore.

The crux of what he says in his central chapters is summarized as follows:

  1. The crux of the clash of the Akedah is “the ethical” (i.e., all universal, general considerations of proper behavior) vs. faith, which is individual, just between God and the person of faith.
  2. There are other people who are willing to kill their children for a higher cause, e.g., Brutus (of Rome), Agamemnon in Euripides’ play, Jephthah in Judges, and Mesha in 2 Kings 3. But those people could all explain why they were killing their children. They could articulate that the greater good was being accomplished in their actions, whereas Abraham could only say he was doing it “for faith.” Kierkegaard explains this position as the “teleological suspension of the ethical”: a suspension of the ethical for the purpose of faith alone.
  3. Such a person, the “knight of faith,” is perfectly balanced in their faith, and Abraham was blissfully prepared to sacrifice Isaac and also entirely happy to receive him back. He was not “resigned” to sacrifice Isaac, but somehow balanced in both sacrificing him and getting him back.
  4. This faith is entirely incommunicable, so it is impossible to find out about someone else’s faith, or to communicate about one’s own. Therefore, there is no way of knowing who is or is not a knight of faith, and faith is always by definition beyond scrutiny.
  5. In all of this, Kierkegaard does not assert that Abraham is a knight of faith – because he cannot know! He concludes that either Abraham is a knight of faith, or he is a murderer and he (and we?) is damned.

4) How did Jews readily accept this piece of Christian theology?

There is no single answer to this. For most of the nineteenth century, people did not pay much attention to Kierkegaard. However, in the early twentieth century, the rise of the subjective perspective (“existentialist”) philosophy became clearer, and necessarily, Kierkegaard’s star rose.

Some Jewish thinkers reacted harshly against it. Rabbi Milton Steinberg, for example, wrote: “Nor does anything in Judaism correspond to Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical.  From the Jewish viewpoint—and this is one of its highest dignities—the ethical is never suspended, not under any circumstance and not for anyone, not even for God.  Especially not for God!”

Other Jews – particularly Orthodox ones – essentially adopted Kierkegaard’s reading, and in the book I discuss Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in some detail. It is not an accident that Orthodox thinkers responded this way; they were looking for a way to articulate the interaction between the binding obligation of halakha and the norms of the modern nation-state. Kierkegaard provided them with the categories for a religious life that was not reducible to universal principles – it is the polar opposite of Kant’s attempt to describe “Religion Within the Bounds of Bare Reason.” For a minority that was increasingly out of step with the conventions of the liberal modern world order, Kierkegaard was crucial in showing how religion could (and perhaps must) stand against such universal ethical standards.

5) What are your four critiques of Kierkegaard?

Despite my being enthralled by Kierkegaard’s writing, I think it falls short there are a number of ways in which. First, textually speaking, it only focuses on Part 1 of the story, the command to sacrifice Isaac. Kierkegaard has nothing to say about the command not to kill Isaac.

It also (relatedly) ignores the less than happy ending; as numerous readers has observed, Abraham does not receive Isaac back easily, and in fact there are good grounds for thinking that Abraham and Isaac part ways after the Akedah; the Bible never depicts them in conversation, or even together, again. More poignantly, whereas Isaac is identified with three epithets at the beginning of the chapter (“your son,” “your only one,” “whom you love”), he is identified with only two of those after the binding: “your son,” “your only one.” It may well be that the “love” relationship has been irreparably ruptured by the Akedah.

Second, philosophically speaking, Kierkegaard erases Isaac from the story, and speaks as if the sacrificial victim were an inanimate object rather than a living breathing human being.

Most importantly, and as I said earlier, it seems to leave us with no good argument against someone who says, “Look, I think it’s unethical to fly airplanes into buildings, but my faith dictates that I do so anyway.” This is because its radical subjectivity, the very point that makes Kierkegaard so attractive to many modern people of faith, is incredibly dangerous. Rabbi Soloveitchik, who is so profoundly Kierkegaardian in so many ways, also writes presciently at the end of Halakhic Mind about the dangers of unfettered subjectivity, and the need for objective standards to fetter religious experience.

From a Jewish perspective, the focus on the individual’s religious experience seems to be problematic, as well. To trade in generalizations, there has long been a focus on monastic isolation in Christian life, but this has not been a Jewish ideal; Kierkegaard quotes Luke, where Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” In contrast, Judaism has privileged the religious life embedded within human relationships – the family, the community. So, the picture of Abraham alone on the mountaintop as the ideal model for religious faith may be more plausible for a Christian reader than for a Jewish reader.

Finally, I argue that Jewish readers (and probably) others did not take the Akedah to bespeak a clash between ethics and Torah, because the tacit assumption was that God and the Torah were ethical. There were problems to solve – Amalek, etc. – but they were supposed to be solved precisely because of this assumption. So while the Akedah was always seen as an exceedingly difficult trial and the supreme demonstration of Abraham’s and Isaac’s faith, it was not faith as a opposed to ethics. In that sense Kierkegaard’s reading is anachronistic.

6) What is your reading of Maimonides on the Akedah?

My reading of Maimonides – which is not original, and which I was clued in to by a short, brilliant book by Omri Boehm, an Israeli philosopher who teaches at the New School – depends on two passages in the Guide. In 3.24, which is explicitly about the idea of a trial (nissayon) and about the Akedah in particular, Maimonides makes the point that the prophet experiences the prophetic experience as true. However, he seems to be very carefully avoiding saying that all prophecies “are true.”

This opens the possibility that prophecies may be experienced as true, but actually are misleading. And I argue that this is necessary for Maimonides because there are different level prophecies, which he describes elsewhere in the Guide. It is then relevant to find out that the command to sacrifice Isaac in 22:2 was a “seventh level prophecy,” whereas the command to desist was an “eleventh level prophecy” – the highest level there is short of Moses.

I think Maimonides is doing the same thing that Joseph Ibn Kaspi does later, based on the names of God. Ibn Kaspi notices (as did many others, of course) that the command to sacrifice Isaac comes from Elohim, but the command to desist comes from “the angel of the Lord” (shem Hashem). Ibn Kaspi argues that in general in biblical narratives, the name of God that is deployed indicates the type of divine understanding the character has at that moment. So when Abraham hears the command from Elohim, he has (only) an abstract, distant understanding of the divine will. But when he hears the command to desist, he has a more intimate, and accurate understanding of the will of the Lord.

Maimonides seems to be saying the same thing with his levels of prophecy. The upshot is that Abraham correctly but incompletely understood that God wanted him to sacrifice Isaac. This is not false, but it is also not the whole truth: God does want him to sacrifice Isaac, but he more wants him to not sacrifice Isaac.

7) Why did you not deal with the rejection of Kierkegaard by Buber, Milton Steinberg, Derrida, and others?

Well, Buber is discussed in the book, but I do not find all of his writings on the subject compelling, but he said some profound things about the Akedah, and about the flaws in Kierkegaard’s reading, which I do try to build on. When teaching, I use Steinberg, whose short chapter on Kierkegaard in Anatomy of Faith is Exhibit A for a liberal Jewish approach that rejects the idea of the teleological suspension of the ethical.

But there’s a lot that just didn’t make its way into the book. This actually may be interesting to talk about. I struggled a lot – for a few years, in fact – with how to turn some of these ideas into a book. It took a lot longer for the various texts, ideas, questions, and suggestions to come together as a book, and as it did so, many of the texts and thinkers I particularly liked found a place – but not all.

In the case of Derrida, I can’t say I was enamored of his Gift of Death, but I also couldn’t quite figure out in the end if he did or did not like Kierkegaard’s general approach, and getting into the weeds on his reading wouldn’t (I think) have helped my argument.

8) Is the rejection of child sacrifice the peshat of Genesis?

I think so, but I put it out as a hypothesis. Let me start by stating my hypothesis as briefly as possible. On my reading, the text says the following:

Part 1 of the story: God does want child sacrifice. Phoenicians practiced it, and bespeaks an admirable piety and sense of sacrifice.

Part 2 of the story: God even more does not want child sacrifice, despite the piety and sacrifice involved, because it violates the autonomy of the child as a human being.

There are some theoretical problems here. I do have textual reasons for thinking this is the peshat. It accounts for the entire story – whereas most other readings focus on only Part 1 or Part 2. It also takes history into account, thinking about the experience of child sacrifice in the region of ancient Israel, and how that has to affect the way we read Genesis 22. And it includes a consideration of the different names of God that appears in the chapter, following some medieval interpretations of that data.

The reading suggests that the philosophical teaching of the chapter is complex. Some modern biblical scholars reject complexity, seeing it as the result of textual development. My argument is that the complexity is intentional, because the biblical thinking on child sacrifice is philosophically complex.

I said “I think so” because there is explicitly another set of considerations: it is important for me that the reading proposed be an ethical reading. That is, I think Kierkegaard is not (in Fear and Trembling, at least) a careful exegete, but I also think that his interpretation opens to the door to a terrifying reality in which people of faith can justify unethical behavior on the grounds of personal, subjective faith. In other words, I’m not sure there’s any philosophical daylight between Kierkegaard’s Abraham on the one hand and terrorists beheading heretics in the desert, or gunmen mowing down worshipers in a mosque (Baruch Goldstein and Brenton Tarrant) – who might say that they know what they’re doing is unethical, but it’s mandated by faith – which you can’t (by definition!) understand.

Now, I would argue that a reading of the Akedah that licenses such an understanding of faith must be wrong. The alternative is to condemn the Torah as unethical, and I’m not willing to go there. On the contrary, I think it’s clear that, as Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein put it, “the substance of natural morality [was] incorporated as a floor for a halakhic ethic.” I argue this a little bit in the book, in criticizing the view of Yeshayahu Leibowitz.

9) What do you answer to those who say the general use of Kierkegaard by Orthodox rabbis is just Rashi’s “yoke on our neck” and Rashi’s ideology of submission?

There is undoubtedly an ethos of submission in pre-modern Jewish thought. I hope it did not sound from my writing or previous answers that no one until 1843 had thought that people may have to sacrifice their own desires, quash their wills, overcome their temptations, in the service of God. However, two crucial aspects of the modern view are new.

First, Kierkegaard innovates the idea that the clash is not between a lesser good (my consuming a cheeseburger) and a greater good (obedience to God), but between all of ethics (don’t kill, take care of children, etc.) and faith. That is not a formulation, as far as I know, that we find earlier in Jewish literature (although in the book I argue that the Hatam Sofer and the Malbim are there at roughly the same time as Kierkegaard).

Second, the twentieth-century thinkers, Rabbi Soloveitchik and Professor Leibowitz, then take Kierkegaard’s idea and turn it from a once-in-a-lifetime world-altering event to just the regular life of a halakhic Jew. And this really is radically new. Avi Sagi writes in an article, “In the whole history of Jewish thought, until Soloveitchik and Leibowitz, there is no evidence of any attempt to make the Akedah a life-shaping ideal.” I do not have the beki’ut necessary to make such a bold claim, but it sounds right.

10) How does your thesis connect to your letter in support of the LGBTQ  community at YU?

This is a tough question. I do not think there is a simple answer (i.e., “writing this book made it clear to me that we should not discriminate against the LGBTQ community.”). Nevertheless, here are a couple of ways in which the two are connected:

  1. Working on the book made me attuned to some of the dynamics in the rhetoric around LGBTQ within the Orthodox community, and elsewhere, that I don’t think I would have noticed otherwise. Ronit Irshai, a lecturer at Bar Ilan and a fellow at the Hartman Institute, has actually drawn attention to what she calls “Akedah theology” – as a general Orthodox phenomenon and in particular in the Orthodox discourse around LGBTQ issues. Her point is that Orthodox rabbis (and only Orthodox rabbis) have tended to say, “We know it violates basic ethical norms, but we have no choice but to submit to the inscrutable will of God as expressed in Leviticus 18.” And this, Irshai argues, is the legacy of the Akedah as understood by Kierkegaard and transmitted to twenty-first century rabbis by Soloveitchik and Leibowitz.
  2. It helped me to see the clash between “faith” and “ethics” as a live one. What to do with that clash – well, that’s the tough part.

However, my own views on inclusiveness do not come from studying the Akedah, but from listening to actual people over the years.

11) What do you tell a student who thinks following Kierkegaard’s concept of submission is essential for Modern Orthodox thinking?

For Modern Orthodox thinkers of the twentieth century, Kierkegaard provided a crucial argument for isolating religion from universal moral standards. The value of that is clear, but so is the potential for abuse. It worries me a lot that Kierkegaard has become the standard view of religion in Modern Orthodoxy. This is relevant for current events in at least two ways.

First, the place of religious values in a nation-state striving to be ethical is a question that is on the front burner these days. Religious exemptions for vaccinations, denial of contraceptive coverage in health plans, the banning of sheḥitah, religious camps asking to be allowed to open even during a pandemic – all of these are cases where religious groups have turned to the government and said, “Look, in general we try to be ethical, and we appreciate that you do, too. But here is a case where ethics and faith collide, and we would like you to recognize that when faith and ethics collide, Kierkegaard taught us to be knights of faith.”

This is of course a move that Kierkegaard himself would not recognize. He never argued that the state should exempt knights of faith from ethics, and on the contrary, if the state recognizes it, it is no longer such an act of faith. But the ethos stems from the clash that Kierkegaard diagnosed in modern society.

Second, Modern Orthodox rhetoric often starts with the notion that we do not expect to understand the will of God, so if it appears unethical to us, we should submit and not worry too much about it. Again, there are lots of precedents for such an attitude in earlier Jewish thought, but it’s become central in modern times in particular. (Earlier thinkers wondered about mitzvot that seemed senseless, but not mitzvot that were unethical.) And this has led to an attitude among many religious people that they do not even expect religion to be ethical anymore. That is a far cry from traditional Jewish thought, and it’s also very disturbing. It means that the idea of wrestling and grappling, with difficult and challenging obligations has been replaced by simplistic surrender with little critical thought whatsoever. The great thinkers of the Jewish past, on the other hand, struggled mightily to resolve the ethical challenges of mitzvot that seemed in violation of basic moral principles. The answers are not the point, but the struggle is.

There used to be a profound assumption that religion and ethics were partners in making the world a better place. And that has been lost in many Orthodox circles, where “ethics” is now looked at suspiciously or religion is looked at as something other than ethical.

12) Why is there no chapter on the role of Isaac in the Jewish reading?

That’s a great question. In a sense, many of the chapters are about Isaac. Chapter 1 actually does have a section about Isaac as the ur-martyr. And one of the primary arguments in the book is that any reading that erases Isaac from the story is unethical and also wrong. However, outside of the first chapter I really did try to keep the argument as streamlined as possible, so as I said before, there is a lot that just did not find a place in the book.

13) What do you gain by concluding with Levinas?

I don’t think I gain any credibility from that. I just found his idea – and in particular, one reformulation of a couple of his ideas – to be a rhetorically powerful place to end. The core teaching for which he is most famous is that ethics begins by seeing an other, because by recognizing that the face of the other person reflects an independent, autonomous human being just like me, I am forced to grapple with the fact that I deserve no more (and no less!) than that other person. This is such a simple idea, but actually so remarkably profound, that every great religious tradition has been trying to teach this for a few thousand years. And I say “trying” because while it’s so simple, it’s also incredibly difficult to really absorb this, and even more difficult to live it, so it’s an ongoing effort.

One interpretation inspired by Levinas suggests that the “angel” (the word in both Greek and Hebrew really means “messenger”) of the Lord that tells Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac is nothing other than the face of Isaac himself. In other words, when Abraham perceives the face of Isaac, he realizes that it cannot be that God wants him to sacrifice his son: how could his own religious obligation involve the murder of another human being?

I don’t think this is peshat in the story, but I think it beautifully captures the ethical teaching of the story.

14) You used two Caravaggio pictures. Most know the Caravaggio picture- that you label as about Isaac- as John the Baptist and Christ. Where is you counter narrative about that painting from/about? So too in the other picture Binding of Isaac- the innovation was the inner turmoil and emotions on the faces of Abraham and Isaac. Why did you ignore the basic emotional innovation of the painting? So too, the important element was beam of light on the angel and Lamb as the salvation from Christ.

There are serious scholars of Caravaggio who have argued that the painting is actually Isaac, depicted right after he is released from the Akedah (the binding). To me this seems tempting, somewhat far-fetched, but powerful and tantalizing, so I used it on that reading (including all the uncertainties), to illustrate what Unbinding Isaac actually looks like artistically. Hence, the second Caravaggio in the book, the one usually identified as John the Baptist, is used midrashically at the end of the book as well.

The first Caravaggio, one of the two famous ones, is used not midrashically, but selectively. It’s truly magnificent, and there’s a lot to unpack in his use of color, imagery, background, perspective, etc. However, I was only interested for the purposes of that chapter in one point: the eye of Isaac. So nothing else was discussed. Maybe I should have included more about the painting, for context, at least.

Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch on Philosophy of Halakhah

Last month, Rabbi Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch, the dean of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Maale Adumim, passed away at the age of 92 years old. As a tribute to him at the end of thirty days of mourning, I will devote a post to his philosophical writings about Jewish law. He had a unique Maimonidean intellectual perspective of rationality, autonomy, historic situation, and applying the law to achieve its uplifting purpose. We will look at three of his essays, two of which were written in Hebrew as part of his 1991 book The Way of Torah (Darkhei Hatorah) and one in English.(You may want to download the three essays before we start- Way of Torah, EmunatHakhamim, Rambam Science Taamei Mitzvot)  We will conclude with some quotes from his recent Hebrew lectures to students. (I am always happy for lists of typos)

Most of Rabbi Rabinovitch’s thought has been edited into a single Hebrew volume Mesilot bi-Levavam- this is the volume to buy.

But first, a little background the life of Rabbi Nahum L. Rabinovitch, a giant of a rabbinic figure. Born in Montreal, Canada in 1928, He studied under the Pinchas Hirschprung, who ordained him at the age of 20, afterwards he studied at the Ner Yisroel yeshiva in Baltimore, Maryland. He served as a congregational rabbi, first in South Carolina and later in Toronto, where he dealt with the nuts and bolts of basic congregational life even teaching primary grades in the day school he founded. While in Toronto, he completed a doctorate in the history of science at the University of Toronto specializing in Rabbinic probability and statistics as well as the mathematics of the medieval Jewish thinkers Gersonides and Crescas. In 1971, he accepted the spectacular offer to become principal of Jews’ College in London. He could have been the head of any institution in the North American or the UK. In 1983 Rabbi Rabinovitch immigrated to Israel  to accept an offer to become dean of the hesder yeshiva, Yeshivat Birkat Moshe, in Maaleh Adumim. For those who read Hebrew, there is a FB page collection of tributes from his students, including many entries from Rabbi Yoni Rosenzweig, an interesting one from Dror Bondy, and many others-here 

The best tribute to Rabinovitch was penned two years ago by Prof. Allan Nadler as “Maimonides in Ma’ale Adumim.” Nadler points out the Maimonidean nature of Rabinovtch’s thought in its emphasis on rationality, purpose, and close readings. Specifically, that “Maimonides must be interpreted through Maimonides” and not through the later commentaries encrusting Maimonides’ shine.  Nadler describes how Rabinovitch’s public reputation for some is as a liberal universalism and for others as hardline ultrarightist.

As a universalist liberal has praise for “both Christianity and Islam as movements that spread the originally Judaic principles of monotheism, morality, and even messianic hope to the entire world. He has praised the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council, even citing the text of Nostra Aetate as correcting what he regards as the historical perversions of Paul’s true attitude toward the Jews, which was in the end one of love.” Rabinovitch has a principled break with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate on their intolerant approach to conversion. Nadler wrote: “Rabinovitch’s works as a practicing halakhist have always aimed to make traditional life as livable as possible for his fellow Jews.” 

On the other hand, “after the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995,” a false report “was widely reported that Rabinovitch was among those who had applied the “laws of the rodef” (a lethal pursuer whom one is permitted to kill in self-defense) to Rabin.” Nadler thinks the report is entirely erroneous, but the damage was done and public opinion is less kind. (For more on his views of politics and religion- see here)

Rabinovitch is known for completely removing Christianity from the category of foreign worship. He also gave permission for Jews to contribute to the rebuilding of the Tabgha Church of the Loaves and Fish after an arson attack by Jewish extremists. He allows using electronic keys in hotels and considers allowing electricity, even turning it off, on Yom Tov. He allows disappearing skin lotions on Shabbat. He allows inviting guests who will drive for shabbat meals. He thinks non-Jews in Israel should have full equality and equal rights the way are treated in the USA. They should have been fully integrated into the culture.

Most notably, and in contrast to many other Orthodox rabbis, Rabinovitch is in favor of women learning the same rabbinic curriculum as men, he supported women in leadership roles, and affirmed their capability to decide Jewish law on any topic a man can decide.

Rabbi Rabinovitch developed a historical reading of Maimonides combining rationality with autonomy and historical development. He believed the Bible had a clear telos for both the individual and the community that we can know if we study the Bible correctly. The study of the Talmud and halakhah has to be done with this Biblical vision clearly in from of one’s understanding in order to derive the divine purpose.  In a Maimonidean way, he saw Talmud as conceptualization and mitzvot as having an intellectual-ethical purpose. Rabinovitch rejects the Brisker conceptual approach as swerving  from the direct meaning and intentions of Maimonides. Halakhah is less formalistic and more about purpose than other rabbinic figures. He could be compared to other Maimonides halakhic approaches such as those of Rabbi Yosef Kapach, Rabbi Yosef Rozin (Rogochover), Rabbi Prof Isadore Twersky, and various approach of the older generation of Kibbutz Hadati.

  1. The Way of Torah

In the 1970’s, there was a conference volume Modern Jewish Ethics that published Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s famous essay about how the rabbinic scholar has to incorporate ethical values in decision making and Prof Akiva Simon’s essay of a universal Jewish ethic of love they neighbor. Yet, it also contained an intriguing early adumbration of Rabbi Rabinovitch’s ethical thought “Halakhah and Other Systems of Ethics” where he presented his ethical system. In it, the Bible has an ethical aspiration to improve humanity, however each age has to rethink the implementation of the ethical goal afresh. He claims an ethical evolution as part of God’s plan whereby it is incumbent upon us to understand Torah anew in every age of history. Rabinovitch   demonstrated that there is  no   halakhic  or  spiritual  reason  to  deny  a  higher  ethical realization in the historical unfolding of the halakhic process.

Rabinovitch develops his ideas fully a decade later in a Hebrew essay (1988) and then a short book  (1999) by the title of “Darkhah Shel Torah,” Me’aliyot: Jerusalem, 1999), and reworked in his 2015 book. Fortunately, several pieces of the book have been translated. The entire volume deserves to be translated along with his other conceptual essays. As you read it, think how it compares to other halakhic methods. (If anyone wants to write a conceptual analysis, let me know.)

The essay translated as “The Way of Torah” begins by defining the image of God (Tselem Elohim) in each person as free choice to choose good without any coercion. Intellectually informed choice is the goal of the Torah. Just as knowledge accumulates in science, so too it accumulates in Torah. And just as science is a universal, making the entire world better, so too the Torah

Each generation acquires knowledge  and  power  from  the  efforts  of  its  ancestors, and, like a dwarf perched on the shoulders of a giant, its vision  can  penetrate  a  bit  farther  into  the  distance. Sometimes,  a  generation  will  advance  beyond  its  predecessors and thereby become equipped to teach its descendants  to  advance  even  further

The nation of Israel, which has already succeeded in producing such choice individuals, serves as a vehicle for this process, whose goal is to establish a society in which the kingdom of heaven will be realized on earth

Section Two- Progress

From that beginning, Rabinovitch makes the leap that there is an evolution of moral values in history, i.e. from polygyny to monogamy, from slavery to human rights of the individual, from war to peace, and from coercion to liberty.

There were original Torah ideals which were always applied based on the standards of a given era. Many of the Torah laws as expressed in the Bible or Talmud were only an accommodation for that time because that was the best they could achieve. Some Torah laws are given in accordance with minimal standards of the era, some for study alone to teach Torah values, and some for realization of moral and spiritual ideals.

Punishments and the system of legal coercion function heuristically to fashion social improvement without having any practical application today. However ideally the Torah should not be kept because of coercion and punishments are only allowed on an ad hoc basis when there is demonstrable communal benefit along with the consent of the entire community.

In  the  time  of  the rishonim (rabbinic authorities  of  the  mid-eleventh  through  mid-fifteenth centuries),  R.  Gershom,  Beacon  of  the  Diaspora,  saw that his generation was ready for a ban on divorce with-out  the  wife’s  consent and  for  eliminating  polygyny,  at least  within  the  communities  of  Western  Europe.By now,  his  enactments  have  spread  through  all  Israel.

Thus, from Creation itself the Torah teaches us that all men are truly equal. Maimonides read  it  as  follows:  “‘The  mold  of  primeval  Adam’  –  the form  of  the  human  species,  within  which  lies  man’s humanity and in which all human beings share.” However,  humanity  went  astray.  Men  subjugated  one another  and  distinguished  between  slaves  and  masters. These  distinctions  of  status  lack  substance  and  are  not grounded  in  reality,  for  the  Creator  regards  them  all  as equal.

Despite  these  limitations,  the  institution  of  slavery remained, for the prevailing conditions precluded its abolition The Sages directed so much attention to remedial legislation related to slaves, and the doctrine of equality so penetrated  the  national  consciousness,  that  these  attitudes eventually became characteristic of Judaism and oppressive  regimes  attempted  to  uproot  them.

The Torah’s intent was originally against slavery as shown in the emphasis on how we all have the image of God. But already in the Torah, there were concession to allow it. The Rabbinic sages saw the original intent and restricted the application of slavery. In modern times, scientific and technological discoveries made slavery irrelevant. [AB Editor’s note- except we have more slaves globally than ever and even more prison slaves in the US than the 19th century.]

Was  this  “Jewish  religious  precept”  an  innovation?  Of course  it  was;  but  it  was  born  of  and  nourished  by  the Torah, and its origins are rooted in Scripture, though the world at the time of the Bible was not yet fit for it. Over the course of time, knowledge increased throughout the world,  new  scientific  and  technological  discoveries  produced sources of energy far mightier than human labor and  opportunities  for  leisure  grew.  Divine providence then  led  to  the  abolition  of  slavery  nearly  everywhere.

The abolition of slavery is simply a partial realization of the  exalted  ideal  taught  by  the  Torah;  and  the  history  of the West makes it clear beyond all doubt that one of the decisive  factors  in  that  process  was  the  widespread knowledge  of  the  Torah.

His third example is the concession of armies despite the value of peace. [AB- editor’s note -In the 21st century, the post WWII sense that warfare was on its way out does not have the same force anymore.]

The  final  example  bears  on  international  relations.  “R. Joshua  said: Great  is  peace,  for  the  name  of  the  Holy One blessed be He is called peace, as Scripture says, ‘And he called it “the Lord is peace.’

A nation not prepared  to  defend  itself  and  its  land  will  be  unable  to maintain  itself  and  will  quickly  pass  from  the  world…All the commandments related to war were given in order to restrict the scope of warfare and to replace an attitude that  glorifies  war  and  its  heroes  with  one  that  longs  for peace

Section Three – The importance of study of seemingly obsolete topics to understand the Torah’s value system of building a kingdom of heaven on earth.

The Torah’s 613 commandments fall into two categories. Some commandments  are  destined  to  endure,  in  their present forms, at the end of days; and as a person rises higher  in  character  and  intellect,  he  becomes  aware  of broader opportunities for fulfilling those commandments and  understanding  their  meanings.  But  there  are  other commandments  that  are  primarily  a  mechanism  for  bettering society and moving it toward the formation of circumstances that  permit  carrying  out  the  purposes  for which  man  was  created  –  the  Kingdom  of  Heaven on earth. These commandments apply only in certain situations, and our aim is to move beyond them, to a state in which we will no longer be bound to fulfill them

These commandments are presented in detail in the written  Torah,  and  the  oral  Torah  supplements  them  with  a multitude of additional rules and laws. Nevertheless, we have  learned  three  surprising  baraitot:”The  stubborn and  rebellious  son  never  existed  and  never  will  exist”;” The wayward city never existed and never will exist”; and” The  afflicted  house  never  existed  and  never  will  exist.”

Schoolchildren who are aware of the laws of the  stubborn  and  rebellious  son  will  never  become  one. A  community  whose  adults  study  the  laws  of  the  way-ward city can be assured that it will never give rise to the “root  bearing  gall  and  wormwood”  of  idolatry.  And  one who has learned to recognize the hand of God in natural phenomena  and  natural  disasters  will  no  longer  need afflicted  buildings  to  inspire  in  him  thoughts  of  repentance. Similarly for all the commandments whose object has  already  been  achieved  in  the  betterment  of  life  in practice; they retain their heuristic force. Even if human-ity has progressed and risen above the minimal level that certain commandments were given to ensure, continued study of the laws associated with those commandments can refresh the intellect and direct it to even higher levels, while preserving its existing accomplishments.

Over the course of generations, students of Torah develop  modes  of  critical  thinking  that  can  slice  through issues,  distinguishing  illusion  from  reality,  imaginings from  truth,  vain  puffery  from  glorious  responses  to God’s voice.

Coercion and Punishment: Means or Ends?

Lastly, the essay argues that legitimate governmental authority is based on consent of the community with no jurisdiction over religious matters. The government is therefore barred by halakhah from legislating and religious coercion.  In general, one should seek compromise and not the strict law, except as needed to prevent criminality. In this section the Torah is explained as requiring today a John Locke, US legal theory approach of governance by consent in contrast to the Torah’s seeming acceptance of the divine right of kings.

One should seek compromise even if it circumvents the given law because the Torah’s ways are peace. “Does  compromise  circumvent  the  entire  array  of  laws pointing toward a given determination? It certainly does; but  all  the  ways  of  the  Torah  are  peace.”

In this, Rabbi Rabinovitch follows one side of a Talmudic debate that he thinks is an “elevation of the judicial process to a higher level.”

It  thus  turns  out  that  the  source  of  the  leadership’s authority  lies  in  both  the  Torah  and  the  community.  The consent of the community must be expressly granted to specific individuals recognized as authoritative. It is clear that  if  the  community  votes  unanimously,  or  even  by majority,  to  confirm  specific  procedures  through  which compulsory measures may be adopted, the usefulness of those measures will be apparent to all. And in that case, the Torah as well will confirm them. There  is  an  ongoing  tension  between  aspiring  to  the Torah’s social ideal of undisturbed peace and recognizing reality, with its very real need to do battle against the dangerous  manifestations  of  a  few  undisciplined  evildoers. Even if the majority of a nation is suffused with a love of truth and peace,  it  cannot  give  up  the  power  to  block criminal tendencies at its margins… The  key  to  resolving  this  tension  is  to  make the  will  of  the  people  an  anchor  of  the  government’s authority to compel. Those whom “the masses have recognized as authoritative” enjoy authority, and that authority does not detract from the principles to which we aspire.

[T]he  king’s  juridical authority  is  confined  to  interpersonal  (i.e.,  non-ritual)matters,  where  he  can  act  to  remedy  society  through righteousness and judgment. But this authority is rooted as much in the consent of the nation as in the king having  been  chosen  by  God’s  prophet… One  of  the  rishonim summed  it  up  nicely “Whatever honor the masses are willing to give him, thatis  the  sovereignty  he  will  have,  to  the  point  that  if  they wish to take away all honor from him, all sovereignty will be taken away from him.

Two forms of authority: Torah and Govt authority

In Judaism according to Rabbi Rabinovitch, there is a separation of secular and religious authority. Even the authority of the Rabbis is only granted by the consensus of the laity. Even in Israel, the government is only by the will of the people. Major issues should have a referendum [AB- For Rabbi Rabinovitch, democracy is only consensus of the people. The rest of democratic structure such as a bill of rights, guaranteed freedoms and representational government are not discussed.] His thought should be compared to that of Rabbi Hayyim Hirschenson and other

As  a  practical  matter,  most  large  communities  through most  of  history  have  had  two  types  of  leadership.  The community appointed a rabbi and judges who were greatly  learned  in  Torah,  excelling  in  “the  quality  of  Torah scholarship” to the extent now possible. In addition, they appointed  a  community  leader  and  council  –  the  select-men  of  the  town  –  to  manage  the  various  matters  that required  attention.  Even  the  appointment  of  the  rabbi and other religious functionaries was up to them, subject to the approval of the community.

The  Knesset  should  deal  solely  with  matters related  to  the  improvement  of  society,  the  arrangement of  relationships  among  citizens,  and  matters  of  security and foreign affairs…The power to compel by force is essential  to  the  existence  of  a  sound  social  order,  but  that power  is  given  to  the  government  only  in  accordance with the will of the people, and it should be used as little as possible. If there is a need for far-reaching changes in the tax  laws,  in  the  military  draft,  or  in  other  matters involving  compulsion,  the  desirability  of  submitting  the matter to referendum should be weighed, and the principle of majority rule is widely recognized

The  Torah  authority  should  never  use  compulsion,  except  with  the  consent  of  the  community  that accepted  it  as  authoritative  and  granted  it  that  power. Even then, compulsion should be used only in instances where harm may be inflicted on others, such as in family law matters related to divorce, support, and the like. It is desirable that the Torah authority never employ force

Value of liberty

The punchline to this essay is that our age of individualism and personal liberty is better for the development of the Torah’s spiritual goals than prior age despite having less religious observance.

Our age  is  characterized  by  the  widespread  view  that individual liberty is a value greater than any other human need.  There  is  much  that  is  good  about  that  phenomenon,  for  only  one  who  values  free  choice  can  come  to recognize  how  that  choice  should  be  used  to  advance lofty  spiritual  goals.  And  even  though  our  generation compares poorly to its predecessors with respect to faith and religious observance, its deepening sense of individual liberty represents definite progress over past achievements. Until modern times, there prevailed an authoritarian  worldview,  which  regarded  discipline  as  the  highest value.  Today, liberty  enjoys  the  highest  priority.  Only a person conscious of his power to choose can act entirely out of free will.

God’s  kindnesses  overpower  us.  We  now  can  illuminate Him  as  He  illuminated  us.  The  nation  returning  to  its land  has  the  capacity  to  renew  the  eternal  covenant through  its  own  free  will,  and  now  only  the  personal example  of  faithful  adherents  of  the  Torah  can  exert influence and cause the Torah to be spread throughout all segments of the nation.

Text #2 The Talmudic Term Emunat Ḥakhamim

A different section of the book on Emunat Hakhamim was translated in a different journal. Here the concern was the meaning of the Rabbinic idea of having to have faith in the sages.  The style of the translation differences greatly than the first piece. I left each essay in the translator’s style.

For Rabbi Rabinovitch, belief in the Rabbinic Sages means that their texts have deep significance and that it is incumbent upon us to comprehend the deep meanings of those texts. It does not mean giving contemporary rabbis authority or seeing them as having special powers of understanding. We keep the functions of the Biblical prophet who hears a direct divine voice separate than the Sage who authority is based on knowledge.

Emunat  ḥakhamin  thus  has  two  parallel  planes.  On  the  one  hand   is   the   faith   that   the   words   of   our   Sages   contain   deep   significance and truths that are worth seeking out. On the other hand is  faith  and  self-confidence  that  with  one’s  G-d-given  mind  it  is  possible  to  comprehend  the  wisdom  hidden  in  the  words  of  the  Sages.

Rambam  carefully  and  clearly  explains  the  difference  between  a  ḥakham  and  a  prophet.  The  authority  of  an  established  prophet  derives  from  the  commandment “To him shall you listen” (Devarim 18:15). We are not to  ask  him  for  reasons  or  explanations.  The  main  purpose  of  a  prophet  is  to  guide  those  to  whom  he  was  sent,  in non-halakhic  matters.

 The   authority   of   a   Sage   is   different.   Although   we   are   commanded  to  honor  and  fear  him,  it  is  only  because  of  his  Torah  knowledge, which can be evaluated with straightforward logic. Unlike a prophet, a ḥakham is obligated to provide a reason for what he says.

Citing Nahmanides, he reiterates that Torah is subject to debate unlike mathematics. In the end, we have to follow truth not authority. Even ordinary students of the Torah have an obligation to seek the truth and not rely on codes or authority.

Since   the   wisdom   of   Torah   is   unlike   the   study   of   mathematics, there is room for opposing opinions. One ḥakham sees one  aspect  prevailing,  while  a  second  sees  the  opposite.  It  is  clear,  however,   that   both   sides   justify   their   position   on   recognized   principles and criteria. To this person, a particular component carries more  weight,  while  to  the  other,  it  carries  less.  Therefore,  even  one  who disagrees with a certain ḥakham still has emunat ḥakhamim that the words  of  this  ḥakham  are  not  meaningless,

If at the  end  of  this  process  it  is  necessary  to  choose  between  differing  opinions, emunat  ḥakhamim  places  upon  the  decider  the  weighty  obligation to act according to truth—to the degree that he is capable of perceiving it.

The Responsibility of the Individual

Rabbi Rabnovitch opens up the search for the meaning of the text to anyone with sufficient background and to go back to the original sources rather than rely on codes or formalism 

This  obligation  to  work  at  achieving  and  clarifying  the  truth  is  not  limited  to  those  who  are  on  the  level  of  deciding  halakhah.  The  Torah  was  given  to  all  Jews,  each  of  whom  is  obligated  to  learn  the  Torah sufficiently to be capable of arranging all his actions according to halakhah

For  this  reason  many  [poskim]  prohibit  issuing  halakhic  rulings  out  of  books  which  summarize  the  laws  without  providing  reasons  or  background.  It  is  therefore  not  permitted  to  postpone  studying  the  reasoning  behind  the halakhot….”

Finally, a notable characteristic of Rabbi Rabinovitch cited by many of his students is that he encourages he students to understand the reasoning of a decision and more importantly to ask themselves how they would have answered.

Yet,  even  when  one  asks  a  rav  to  rule  for  him  and  the  rav renders  a  psak,  he  is  not  relieved  of  his  responsibility  to  understand  the  reasoning  behind  the  psak.

Thus, one who consults even an outstanding rav is considered negligent  if  he  does  not  attempt  to  clarify  and  confirm  that  the  psakhe  received  is  indeed  correct.  This  is  how  great  is  each  individual’s  responsibility  for  his  actions;  this  is  how  effectively  he  must  clarify  the  correct  ruling,  as  well  as  what  Hashem  expects  of  him  in  each  situation

True emunat ḥakhamim obligates one to delve deeply to find the reasoning behind the ḥakhamim’s words while at the same time requiring the student or inquirer to be critical and to investigate rigorously,  in  order  to  verify  that  there  is  no  room  for  dissent.  

He rejects the Ultra-Orthodox use of the term to ascribe prophetic status to rabbis.

Recently,  some  have  begun  applying  the  term  “emunat  ḥakhamim”  to  something  else  entirely,  something  that  Ḥazal  never  discussed—that  ḥakhamim  also  have  prophetic  authority  in  divrei  reshut. There  are  those  who  label  such  childish  behavior as “emunat ḥachamim” while in reality it is a distortion of this great  attribute.  Instead  of  acquiring  true  Torah,  those  who  cling  to  this  distorted  “emunat  ḥakhamim”  distance  themselves  from  the  light  of  the  Torah  and  are  ultimately  incapable  of  distinguishing  between  right and wrong.


Here is one of his articles from 1997 called Rambam Science Taamei Mitzvot a topic he wrote often about in the 1970’s. In this one, he emphasizes the importance of freedom of inquiry and the compatibility of Torah and science but then connects it to the very project of Torah. He also cites approvingly T H. Huxley’s idea of seeking perfect intellectual freedom guided by reason. Rabinovitch affirms evolution, the artificial creation of life in a laboratory and that one can accept the scientific negation of human uniqueness. These are not against Torah because what matters is scientific proof.

Others Rabbinic scholars has given the same esteem to science but in the second part of the essay he compares scientific method to Torah. For the most part, both science and Torah are about observation and seeking the reasons of the rational system. He shows how Maimonides used the scientific thought of his era to understand Torah, meaning that they have similar structures. Unlike Rabbi Soloveitchik’s characterization of science as forming conceptual schemes, Rabbi Rabinovitch see observation, cause & effect, and functional application.

The first principle of science assumes that there are natural effects which can be observed. So too there are observable consequences of obedience to the Torah. Naturally, there are some laws with effects that can be foreseen, and even human legislators could design such rules in order to achieve desired ends.

Many of the commandments can be broadly described as concerned with ethical character-traits, On this issue, most of the commentators have made the most of the fact that Rambam adopted the Aristotelian ideal of the mean in its entirety. Both in his. early discussion, in· the Commentary ‘to the Mishnah, and in the later development; in the  Mishneh Torah, in many passages the very language used is reminiscent  of the Nicomachean Ethics. After a· discussion of what constitutes utility or useful ends withreference to human behavior, Rambarn cites extensively from a treatise by Galen,  On  the Utilities of the Parts of the Body. Then he proceeds to point out an analogy with respect to human psychology. There is a parallel between the psychological and physical functions of the human being both in structure and development. (195)

From this parallel of science and Torah, Rabinovitch asks about applying contemporary psychology to understand Torah and helping it lead to our betterment. There are always new vistas.

Can psychology today cast more light on this basic issue? What can modern theories of the subconscious add to our understanding of the function of ritual in maintaining and restoring mental health? Can the observance of [mitzvot],to help to generate spiritual and mental energy to sustain the individual and society

These and similar questions arise naturally out of the Rambam’s discussion… In astronomy, for example, the search for new data must continue unabated as new vistas constantly open up for investigation. So too “The judgments of the Lord are true, they are righteous altogether” (Psalms 19:10). Yet much of that truth and righteousness are hidden from us, “and we do not know the manner

Quotes from Lectures

A distinctive trait of Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch was that he would ask his students of “What do you think?”  He wanted to instill in his students the lesson that it is not enough to be given an answer or know the answer.  Rather, one must master the ability to think for yourself. He stressed independence rather than submission.  This in turn lead to many of his students, even relatively young, writing their own responsa to answer contemporary questions based on their own understanding the logic of the text. The approach is to test a hypothesis through experimentation as in science, a realist approach. Here are some quotes from classes on his approach to Torah study (freehand translation). Sources –Here andHere You can compare this approach to that of Rabbi Lichtenstein and others.

We have to think about how we arrive to truth. A person can only arrive at truth through experimenting how to understand according to the best of his ability the matter. This is Torah Lishmah, learning to understand the matter to understand the meaning of the text that one studies…But if at some point, one discovers that what one thought was a mistake, it does not mean that all the Torah one learned… were a waste of time. … One needed to test the possibilities…if one tries several interpretations and proved that they are not correct, at least you know where not to look. This too is understanding.  (freehand translation)

“A major principle in understanding in learning and every quest for  truth. Everyone who loves truth needs to be prepared to work for many years…only to discover that everything one thought was not correct.”

“God wants us to take responsibility. God gave us intelligence to understand what true responsibility is. Dogs and cats should be trained for obedience. But a human is not for obedience training. A person has values which are the source of his motivations. These establish his path in life.

The Torah attempts to instill in us values before enumerating the commandments…To understand true values we need a common sense. Someone who thinks they are not required to evaluate anything with their own mind but think all correct action is the results of an explicit text is making a grave mistake. We do not need Torah for an explicit text.

The principle of the Torah is to act with responsibility. To act with responsibility means to act according to the correct value of human responsibility to oneself, one’s surroundings, to one’s family, to one’s nation, and to the entire world. This is what God wants from us. Someone who thinks that one single factor of what one should do is what is written in a book falls into one of two types of ignorant thinking. If the book is a true book, then he does not understand what is written there, and if the book is not true, then he is doing nonsense.

Interview with Tzvi Langermann about Ibn Kammuna

What books influence the theism of 20th century United States? Obviously, William James on religious experience, Rudolph Otto on the tremendum, Martin Buber on I-Thou, and Paul Tillich on ultimate concern. These are the works that color the theological language of modern theism beyond and before any specific allegiance a person may have to their Judaism or Christianity. Alternately, the sociologist Christian Smith, describes the American God with the phrase moralistic therapeutic deism. Even if one has affirms a specific denominational position, the average person regardless of religion would reflect the general theological language.

What would have been those works in the 13th century Judeo-Islamic world? It would probably have included Ibn Sina, Al-Ghazali and some Sufism. A good window into 13th century theological language are the writings of the Jewish author Sa’d ibn Mansur Ibn Kammuna (d. 1284), who provides an exemplar of  “Abrahamic Philosophic Piety, a theological pious theism that transcends the specific of Islam,  Judaism, or Christianity.

Last year, Prof. Y. Tzvi Langermann, translated Ibn Kammuna’s book entitled  Subtle Insights Concerning Knowledge and Practice (Yale University Press, 2019). Professor Langermann is a hidden gem of a scholar. He earned his doctorate in history of science at Harvard and teaches in the Department of Arabic, Bar Ilan University. He is expert in medieval Judeo-Arabic science able to explain the astronomy, astrology, physics, math, medicine, Sufism, and philosophic piety in the medieval classics. I sat in on one of his courses many decades ago when he focused on Andalusian astrological works. (He would not remember me).  The class helped me though my teaching career in my ability to explain the cultural world of Ibn Ezra, Yehudah Halevi, and Bar Hiyya. The recently deceased Maimonides scholar Prof Joel L. Kraemer (d. 2018) wrote that he always learned something new by speaking to Tzvi Langermann.

In recent decades, Langermann has turned East, working in texts from Yemen, Ottoman Empire, and the Mongol empire. Besides Ibn Kammuna, he translated and edited Yemenite Midrash: Philosophical Commentaries on the Torah: An Anthology of Writings from the Golden Age of Judaism in the Yemen, a medieval philosophic midrash.

Below in the interview, Prof Langermann describes his study with the great Yemenite rabbinic scholar Rabbi Yosef Qafiḥ (also spelled as Kafach or Kapach, d. 2000). Rabbi Kafah taught how to study Talmud without the Ashkenazi influence of Rashi and with an understanding of Torah dependent on the philosophic religion of Saadiah and Maimonides. Through this interview, I also learned that recordings of some of Rabbi Kafach’s classes are available.  

In other projects, recently Langermann published a new responsa ascribed to Maimonides on selling of Chametz on Passover (Shut says Rabbanu Hagadol but probably the Rif). Langermann is skeptical of the recent trend of finding Al-Ghazali’s influence on Maimonides. I recommend watching his 13 minute lecture on Islamicized Yoga in Yemen Jewish thought. And his free U of Penn course on medical manuscripts.

To return to our topic, Ibn Kammuna, a Baghdadi Jew, wrote an analysis of the three major monotheistic faiths based on excellent knowledge of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This work, Ibn Kammuna’s Examination of the Three Faiths: A Thirteenth-Century Essay in the Comparative Study of Religion was translated by Moshe Perlmann (1971) offers a window in how comparative religion would have been approached in the 13th century Ibn Kammuna quotes copiously from Hadith and Islamic traditions. Naturally, Judaism wins as the best of the three. As noted by others, the book feels like a modern book in its candor and appeal to common sense logic & religious experience.

The new work, Ibn Kammuna’s Subtle Insights Concerning Knowledge and Practice (Yale University Press, 2019).is a gold mine of ethics, ritual, piety, and religious thought of the 13th century. It is the sort of work that someone like me finds valuable quotes about the medieval Jewish experience and its culture.

Written for the newly appointed Islamic governor of Isfahan, this compact treatise and philosophical guidebook includes a wide‑ranging and accessible set of essays on ethics, psychology, political philosophy, and the unity of God. Here too, Ibn Kammūna, accepts the commonality of all monotheisms, both prophetic and philosophical.

In medieval society as presented in the book, society had two elements the common person who followed religion based on the authority of prophecy and the philosopher intellectual who has a philosophic religion. This book presents what  Langermann calls “Abrahamic Philosophic Piety”, a world where everyone accepts the two principles God and prophecy. God is the same for all and is referred to as first cause, creator, and deity. Allah, Theos, and Hashem are automatically assumed to be the same universal God. Ibn Kammuna’s universalism is sympathetic to the idea of a pre-existent soul and possibly even gilgul (reincarnation).

The medieval classics of Abrahamic Philosophy Piety are not just an abstract Platonic-Aristotelean philosophy, rather a pietistic path to God. As noted above, if the late 20th century spoke an Existential language of seeking God in dialogue and as meaning in life, the 12-14th century sought God through an inner focus of God. This volume presents repentance- applying equally to all Abrahamic religions- as turning to focus on God, to settle the mind on God. Prayer is the intentional act of placing God on the heart. Gratitude toward God and offering thanks to God are important parts of piety. Ritual law is kept as self-restraint, but the focus is on God. The piety of the book shows ordinary Sufism without belonging to a sufi order (tarikah) or chanting God’s name (dhikr).Ibn Kammuna’s discussion has parallels in Bahye Ibn Pakudah’s Duties of the Heart and Maimonides in the Guide.  The universal goal is the happiness of loving God as in Maimonides (Yesodei Hatorah, chapter 10) in his Mishnah Torah. And as Maimonides presents it, prophecy is an outgrowth of philosophic perfection(Yesodai Hatorah chapter 7).

Ibn Kammuna advocates kindness towards all creation and kindness toward animals, offering several choice lines about kindness toward creatures. In the book, Langermann speculates of possible Buddhist or Indian influence on this position, but in this interview, he is more cautious, viewing the kindness as an outgrowth of the Abrahamic Philosophy Piety. Usually, authors that I interview are cautious in their published writing and more speculative in unofficial interviews. In this case, it is the reverse. Langermann is more cautious in this interview but proffers in several places potential influence on Ibn Kammuna of Patanjali’s Yoga sutras (19) and in several places the possibility of Buddhist influence. (62, 148).

Ibn Kammuna is also important because he helped spread the thought of the Islamic thinker Suhrawardi (1151-1191) by writing a commentary on his work and integrating his though into this work. Suhrawardi taught a concept of illumination through luminous intuitions, divine sparks, and mental flashes into the pure heart. This experiential element is one of the factors giving Ibn Kammuna a modern religious flavor, looking a personal experience and mental flashes. (As a side point, David b. Joshua Maimonides (Egypt circa 1335-1410), last known nagîd belonging to the famous Maimonides’ dynasty wrote a Judaeo-Arabic work Guide to Detachment influenced by Suhrawardi).

Another vector of this book is the court of Mongol Khan where Indian and East Asian works were read and sometimes integrated. For example, the Khan’s vizier was Jewish born Rashid al-Din who wrote a survey of the culture religions of Asia for the Khan, showing his knowledge of the various 13th century schools of Buddhism.

Finally, Professor Langermann’s scholarship has brought to light the scholarship of Yeminite Jews, including pietistic and Sufi commentaries on Maimonides as well as the influence of Yoga ideas on medieval Yemenite Jews.  Yoga texts could be integrated into Jewish thought the way Islamic philosophic texts could.

All these points, make his book a major contribution to the study of medieval Jewish religious culture. As soon as I read it, the book’s groundbreaking content struck me.  The content of any given paragraph or page may not be new; it may just be citations from other works. However, the glimpse into the richness of ideas available to a Jewish reader at the time and the way they formed a theology of theism, akin to Tillich or James in our day is the innovation. Most surveys of medieval Jewish thought still follow Harry Wolfson’s trajectory from Saadiah to Cresacas without a glance at lands further East or towards the science, ethics and piety. This book could be assigned to help remedy the situation. Alas, the unfortunate problem with this volume and with much of Professor Langermann’s scholarship is that it takes a scholar to read them, they are treasures of philology. But they need to be brought to the educated philosophic Jewish reader.

One final note on the concept of “Abrahamic Philosophic Piety” as a philosophy of religion. I taught in Muslim Java in Indonesia this past summer, where the country accepts a form of this “Philosophic Piety.” All recognized religions had to affirm a monotheistic God, prophecy and scripture. Not just the three Abrahamic religions as in Ibn Kammuna’s books, but also Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucians also sincerely affirm monotheism, prophecy, and scripture. They all fit into a global theistic philosophic piety.  Langermann’s edition of ibn Kammuna and my Indonesia experience leaves me wondering about the potential of a 21st century Jewish version of this universalism.  

Interview with Prof Langermann

1)   How are you a disciple of Rav Kafah?

My late father purchased for me the set of Kafah’s translation of Maimonides’ commentary to the Mishnah; this was in the late seventies, when I was still in graduate school. I was very impressed and made it a point to try to make contact with the rabbi upon my aliyah in late 1979.

Eventually I found his synagogue and began to attend regularly his “shiurim”, or study sessions: Sunday evenings we read philosophy texts, mostly by Maimonides and Saadya, and Thursday evenings we studied Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (halakha). I attended regularly for about twenty years, until the rabbi’s demise. I also learned a good deal of Talmud in his synagogue; for the first time I realized that one could make sense of the Talmud without Rashi! I also would ask from time to time to meet with him privately in his home study

2)   What is unique to Rav Kafah’s translation style of the Guide?

Every translation of the Guide is unique in its own way. Rabbi Kafah stands out in that he came to the Guide as part of a still living tradition of studying it in the original, beginning with his grandfather’s classes when he was not yet bar mitzvah. He must have read the Guide from cover to cover dozens of times before he began to translate. There is a certain feeling for the language that cannot be learned; you have to grow up with the language as your mother tongue and the language of the place where you live. The only other translator who had such a native command for the language was Harizi, and that’s why Harizi’s translation is so important, despite its well-known issues. There are certain mistakes that a native speaker would never make.

Rabbi Kafah’s notes are also invaluable, especially the many references to Saadya. Though Saadya is never mentioned by name, he looms large behind the scene, but you have to be expert in Saadya to detect this. Most trained academics know how to find Saadya in discussions of divine attributes and such matters. However, the rabbi could detect where Maimonides is responding to Saadya’s translation of biblical verses, because he seemed to know Saadya’s translation by heart! Many times, as we studied texts, I heard Rabbi Kafah cite Saadya’s Arabic translation of a verse right off the cuff. By the way, a complete set of recordings of one of the cycles of his lessons on the Guide has been uploaded to

3)      According to Ibn Kammuna what are the fundamentals of religion that all agree upon?

From his book on the three faiths (Ibn Kammuna, Examination of the Three Faiths, trans. Moshe Perlmann, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1971)  it is clear that the one thing all three so-called Abrahamic faiths agree upon is the truth of prophecy, which in fact has two components: that prophets receive divine revelations on all sorts of issues, and also that some select prophets reveal to us the code by which God commands us to abide. Therefore, he has a section on the general phenomena of prophecy which is separate from the individual chapters given to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Elsewhere, including the book whose translation I have just published, he displays a list of tenets that are agreed upon by “the masters of traditional religions” and those who are masters of “intellectual tenets” agree upon. These are the existence of the deity, the end of days, and doing good works.

Clearly the ideas are the same, it is their source that differs: “religious” people receive them from prophets, whereas “intellectuals” (that is, those whose tenets ultimately derive from reason alone) arrive at them by some type of discursive reasoning. Medieval philosophers, in one way or another, considered the acquisition of essential truths to be not just a laudable action, but the telos of human existence. There were debates or worries about the limits of human knowledge, but, even though there are things that we cannot possibly know, this does not detract in the least from our obligation to pursue knowledge.

It is not hard to see how the religions could agree on the existence of some supreme being or the requirement to do the good. As for the end of days, there is some traditional support for this in revealed scripture, though to varying degrees: not that much in the Jewish scriptures (though perhaps more in rabbinic tradition) but strongly emphasized in Christianity and most especially in Islam.

 “Intellectuals” (as defined above) for their part  would have held cosmological or astrological ideas that the universe as we know it will come to an end; it will exists for only a finite (if “astronomically” long) period, though it may regenerate in infinite cycles.

Religion is perforce traditional, since prophets come infrequently, and so the communities that form around the prophet must pass on the prophetic revelations from generation to generation.

In contrast, “intellectual” tenets can in theory be rediscovered and reconfirmed (or refuted) at any given time. To be honest, though, we should admit that tradition and authority play a decisive role in “intellectual” communities as well; contemporary academia being just one avatar of that phenomenon.

4)      Why did Ibn Kammuna create an almost de-Judaised and de-Islamisied philosophy both here and in his other writings?

That is a very complex question. First of all, he did not do this in all of his writings. His famous “Examination of the Three Faiths” has a distinctly pro-Jewish bias, which was not lost on Christian and Muslim readers. It is not overtly polemical; he does not attack any other religion—and believe me, the polemical writings such as those by Ibn Hazm and Shmuel ha-Maghrebi are quite toxic. However, Judaism does come out looking the best of the three in that book. Similarly, his relatively unknown treatise comparing Rabbinites and Karaites (an internal Jewish schism) clearly favors the Rabbinites.

Suhrawardīs Talwīḥāt is a book of basically Aristotelian philosophy with no “religious” identity and so is Ibn Kammuna’s commentary on that book.

“Subtle Insights” is a much more delicate work. In my reading—and maybe some will disagree—Ibn Kammuna has very cleverly included enough Islamic references so as to make the book appealing to his Muslim patron, but not so much as to cause a Jew, Christian, or even an unaffiliated intellectual to feel that the book is not addressed to him.

5)      Why are the different names he uses for the deity?

 He will use Allāh occasionally, but that is very commonly used in Jewish writings, even in Sa‘adya Gaon’s translation of the Torah into Arabic. I am sure you know that today, it is Muslims—specifically, more recently, some intolerant people in Malaysia—who objected to the use by Christians of the name Allāh.

He also uses the very common wājib al-wujūd, or “necessary existent”, and other appellations that are found in philosophical texts; after all, “Subtle Insights” is a book of philosophy. He occasionally employs al-ilāh, which is etymologically the closest in Arabic to the Hebrew Elohim. On the other hand, he is generally (though perhaps not always) careful to avoid cognomens that imply a Creator God. He will use terms like mubdi’ which means something like “source”. I think that he wished to avoid taking any stand on the issue creatio ex nihilo, which not all philosophers were comfortable with.

Using more than one name for the deity is not unheard of. The Torah does it; “critical” scholars claim that different writers chose specific names, for whatever reason, but the traditional approach has always been that God has more than one name. After all, how can one name capture an infinite being? Even today, and in English, we say “Heaven” as in “Heaven forbid!” or “The One Above”, the “Creator”, and more.

6)      What is his view of a pre-existing soul and of the stability of the individual soul?

Ibn Kammuna accepts the notion of the pre-existing soul; in doing so, he breaks with Avicenna, the foremost authority in his historical setting.

He also seems very much to accept the related doctrine of transmigration, since a soul that enters the body after having already lived a life in a different body is pre-existent. That doctrine—which many (unfortunately) now take to be a cardinal belief of Judaism—was frowned upon, let us say, and so Ibn Kammuna never quite commits to it openly.

He definitely held to the idea of a stable self, some “package” that identifies the individual and can even remain intact as it moves from one person (who has just passed away) to another (who has just been born). However, this cannot be simply the soul, since the soul is and must be susceptible to substantive change and improvement (or, heaven forbid, degeneration) as one lives one’s life. The soul and the self have different names in Arabic, but it is not clear to me—and may never have been fully worked out by Ibn Kammuna—just where and how they differ.

7) How does he explain repentance? How does he explain worship?

Repentance is the starting point of the voyage whose ultimate goal is the return to God. It’s a state of mind, a combination of the pain felt from past mistakes and the resolve to do better. To use a different analogy, it is the decision to leave the path that takes one away from God and to take the path that takes one to Him. This resolve is considered today, I think, to be the sine qua non for the possibility of teshuvah, whereas teshuvah itself consists in strict observance of the Law.

But for Ibn Kammuna, repentance consists in resetting the mind and consciousness, devaluing things of this world (i.e. material possessions and bodily pleasures) and giving value to what exists beyond the material world, i.e., the eternal abstract truths that allow a glimpse of the Truth. Hence even people who are punctilious about the Law need to repent if their minds are focused on this world. (Maimonides is very much of this opinion too.)

Worship consists in “devotion and presence of the heart”; the heart should always be primed to do what is good. He endorses prayer, even supererogatory prayer. Prayer is a combination of intention and recitation, with primacy given to the former. He also speaks favorable of certain bodily postures which, however, are useful in funneling “lights” directly to the heart. Good intentions can take precedence over worship; sleeping with the intention of restoring one’s strength to do the good is better, he says, than praying in a state of fatigue.

8) What is the role of the law and ritual duties for Ibn Kammuna

I think that he, like Maimonides, considered the chief purpose of the Law to be setting our personal and social lives in order. On the personal level, this means basically restraining our appetites by setting limitations on food, sex, and other matters. He seems to be in line with those (both Jews and Muslims) who felt that the details—for example, what specific foods you eliminate from your diet—are not essential; there is nothing intrinsically better for a Jew or Muslim to abstain from pork than it is for a Pythagorean to abstain from beans. I am not sure that he would have felt that any religious commandments are pure “ritual”, whatever that means.

I have no idea how observant Ibn Kammuna may have been with, say, sabbath observance or tefilin; I would suspect that he saw value in maintaining the tradition, but I have no idea how all this played out in real life. I would like to make one more point that I think is important: Ibn Kammuna, like Maimonides before and Rashid al-Din al-Hamadhani afterwards, were all Jews who served potentates in some capacity; and they all paid the high social and political price for being Jewish, even if (again I don’t know) in their outwards demeanor—how they dressed, what they ate or didn’t eat—they were no different from Muslims (or Christians, Zoroastrians and others) with whom they associated. Everyone knew that they were Jewish or, in the case of Rashid al-Din after his conversion, formerly Jews.

9)      What is his unique approach of compassion to animal ethics? Does it show Buddhist influence?

He says that the divine command to be compassionate towards all things extends to animals insofar as we are enjoined to exploit them in the lightest manner possible and to slaughter them only for nutrition or our safety (presumably he is excluding the hunt for the pleasure of hunting which was so popular among the nobility of his day).

However, he takes a fairly extreme position—again, seen against the backdrop of the thought of his time—in hinting, though not quite declaring, that animals possess an immaterial soul, and not just the soul that was thought to be part of the body; I means the soul that basically manages and regulates the body.

Buddhist ideas of compassion towards animals certainly made inroads into the Ilkhanid realm, and one cannot rule out the possibility that Ibn Kammuna took something from them. However, I have found traces of discussions of the ideas about the souls of animals  in Avicenna and his disciples, and that would certainly be more likely to be a source for Ibn Kammuna—if we need to identify a source. Ibn Kammuna invested the greater part of his intellectual energies in studying the soul, and some of his ideas about animals may come out of his original research and speculation.

10)      What is the influence of Suharwardi, Sufis, and Ismaeli thought on Ibn Kammuna?

Ibn Kammuna commented on Suhrawardī’s Talwīḥāt. In fact, his was the first and one of the most penetrating commentaries on that book, and played a significant role in bringing Suhrawardī to the attention of the medieval scholarly public.

In a paper published about twenty years ago, I suggested that Ibn Kammuna discovered Suhrawardī’s writings during his stay in Aleppo, to which city, along with many others, he fled from the Mongols. The Talwīḥāt is rather tame compared to some of Suhrawardī’s other writings, but it still gives some indication of the direction that he was taking. Ibn Kammuna clearly read some of Suhrawardī’s Sufi writings, from which he quotes. For example, his definition of the thanks that we must offer God looks to come directly from Suhrwardi. The same holds for his paragraph on the love for God as the happiness or felicity that comes with envisioning the presence of the beloved deity.

Now to the Sufi’s. I have a lot to say. Though I have hardly published on Sufism, I’ve taught a number of courses. The first thing is this: the type of Sufism I encountered in “Subtle Insights” is by and large what one may call fairly standard piety, turning away from this world and devoting oneself to God. He does assign a great deal of value to knowledge of God, but this is no less a part of the philosophical tradition than it is of Sufism. The many similarities between Sufism and so-called philosophical mysticism are not given enough attention.

Not a few scholars rail against “binary” approaches, then forget their own preaching when they get down to the business of writing. It is not just a question of “terminology”. The type of experience that one may arrive at—that one hopes to arrive at—at the culmination of the philosophical quest is, viewed as a phenomenon, not different from the one that which mystics claimed as their own.

That ultimate experience is by definition indescribable, so how can you say that the “stupefaction” of the philosophers is different from that of “mystics”? In what way can you say that is, if neither is describable? (Maimonides would say that the trance of the mystics is a self-induced delusion, vertigo rather than a true religious experience, but let’s not get in that.) 

In the book Ibn Kammuna compares the special powers attained by some Sufis with those possessed by the prophets. But don’t forget, many philosophers thought that prophecy would follow automatically when someone attained “perfection” in philosophy. Trying to untangle the threads of Sufism and philosophy in thinkers like Ibn Kammuna is unwise, in my opinion. Suhrwardi was equally at home in both, because they both aimed at the same goals; ditto for Ibn Sina, and even, to some extent, al-Ghazali, as we now know. And don’t forget Plotinus!

Getting back to Ibn Kammuna: he does speak of maqāmāt, the way-stations used by Sufis to check their progress. There is no denying that this is a word used by Sufis, who have a whole system of identifying and describing the different stages; some of this is in the book that I recently translated. Still, there is no denying that philosophers such as Maimonides warned initiates to take stock constantly of their progress, and not to try to reach beyond their capacity at any given moment.

My point is that whatever Ibn Kammuna takes from Sufism—and it is a lot—is well integrated into his Weltanschauung, which we may call Abrahamic philosophical piety—if we have to give it a name.

Though Ibn Kammuna clearly quotes from Suhrawardī, he could have gotten the same ideas from any number of sources (as Suhrawardī surely drew on earlier sources). None of the elaborate ideas of Ibn Arabi and his school are to be found in Ibn Kammuna, as far as I know. Moreover, I find nothing in Ibn Kammuna to indicate that he owes any special debt (or debt at all) to the “Jewish Sufis” who preceded him: Bahya, the descendants of Maimonides, or even Yehudah ha-Levi, whose Kuzari is a major source for the “Examination of the Three Faiths”. One last point: the type of piety urged by this sort of Sufism is very similar, in places indistinguishable, from the philosophical ethics of people like Miskawayh or Maimonides for that matter, with roots in Hellenistic thought. Ibn Kammuna has nothing to do with Sufi ceremonies such as the dhikr.

Finally, you asked about the Isma‘ili’s? That would be about as politically incorrect as you can get under the Mongols. The Mongols captured the Isma‘ili fortress at Alamut in 1256 and did not go about it gently. Moreover, Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, who was an associate of Ibn Kammuna and a very powerful figure at the Mongol court, was at one time an Isma‘ili, one might even say a “verbrennter”  Isma‘ili, but wisely de-Isma‘ilized his religious philosophy after the fall of Alamut.

11)  Was there anything unique about philosophy and theology under Ilkhanid rule? Can you make any statements about the role of Hindu, Buddhist, and Asian ideas on Jewish thought in this context?

The only thing I would mention is the compilation of encyclopedic works—encyclopedic in the sense of covering many fields of knowledge though not necessarily in depth. Ibn Kammuna’s “New Wisdom” is one example. It could possibly be the case that people feared that the Mongols would destroy the written heritage of centuries; after all, they did destroy most of the great library at Alamut, and a lot more. I think that some intellectuals felt that they better summarize—but also develop—the knowledge that had been painstakingly amassed over centuries in the hope that some of it would survive. But this is pure speculation on my part.

As for Asian ideas and the Jews—well we should speak of Rashid al-Din al-Hamadani, born Jewish in 1247, though he converted to Islam by he age of thirty. He was vizier to the Khan, had very ample resources, and made a monumental effort to make Chinese medicine available in Persian; one book on this topic survives, Tansuqnamah. However, he seems to be pretty much unknown to Jewish thinkers. Ibn Kammuna did not have that much of an impact on Jewish thought, but there are manuscripts of some of his writings in Hebrew letters (though in the Arabic language); but Rashid al-Din is unknown to Jewish readers.

12)   How did Yemenite Jews have an Islamic version of a Yoga text?

Yemen was the major entrepôt on the very busy trade route between Egypt and India, so there was constant contact. However, the yoga text that was read by Yemeni Jews has a very complicated history, not yet completely unraveled. It was called in the Yemen Mirʾāt al-Maʿānī, “The Mirror of Ideas”, or perhaps “The Mirror of Meanings”. The text has been studied by Carl Ernst, who also promises an edition; for now, see some of the chapters in his Refractions of Islam in India. The Arabic text is compiled from an otherwise lost Sanskrit text on yoga, a Gnostic text (“The Acts of Thomas”), and a text by the same Suhrwardī that we spoke about earlier. It was copied into Hebrew letters, and I have identified some fragments in various collections.

It was cited, for example, for its discussion of the twelve-chambered heart in one of the philosophical midrashim that came out of the Yemen. Some of the extant fragments describe yoga postures, including one for levitation or flying. One Yemeni writer thought to connect this with the midrashic phrase, “qaftsa ha-arets”, literally “the land jumped”, used to describe the case where a long journey takes a very short time, or what seems like a very short time.

13)   Can you describe the Yemenite commentaries on the Guide? Are they published and available? Do they show Islamic Influence?

There are two major commentaries, one by Hoter ben Shelomo, perhaps the most prolific writer on philosophy produced by medieval Yemeni Jewry, and a long anonymous commentary, which I am in the process of editing and translating (simultaneously) into English and Hebrew. 

(There is also a very rich, dense set of marginalia to the Guide written by a Muslim; that is a whole other story). All three commnetaries date to the fifteenth century, roughly, as does most of the extant science and philosophy produced by the Jews of Yemen.

I do not think that  commentaries by Jewish writers are all “Islamic” in some sense, even if the source is a book written by a Muslim. For example, one of the commentaries has a very long gloss on Guide II, 40, which begins by quoting Aristotle (not named) that man is a social being. The political philosophy that the glossator endorses, which is also that of Maimonides, is based on the idea that without a strict law code, we would eat each other alive. This is the view attributed to the Shi‘a by Jāḥiẓ; but it is not proper to call it Islamic, since it has roots in antiquity and continues through Hobbes and beyond.

However, the same commentator describes the prophet as khalīfat Allāh fī arḍihi, “God’s deputy on His earth”. That is a Qur’anic phrase; the commentator does not note this, and he may have been unaware of its origin. Some Qur’anic phrases were thought to be philosophical or sapiential maxims. I published this gloss in a Hebrew article a few years ago; an English version will be included in a book that I am due to submit by the end of 2020, called In and Around Maimonides.

Influence is one of the most overused, and misused, terms in the publications on Jewish thought that I have seen. The philosophically inclined Jews of Yemen read books written by Muslims, books with a decidedly Islamic tinge if not substantial Islamic content; they found these works interesting and useful for articulating their own outlooks, which are avowedly and self-consciously Jewish. If the truth of this sentence suffices in your view to pronounce Islamic influence, then such influence cannot be denied. I am of the opinion that there is much, much more to the word “influence”, both as an historical-cultural process which must be characterized as precisely as one can, and as an expression of the political and social climate within which we—the scholars working now on these subjects—live and work. I am not much of a theorist, so I try to contribute I can by example, that is, by putting into practice my understanding of what influence is and what it is not, etc. etc., in my own work. I should stop here. 

Blogging Again & Book Sale

This was a difficult season of Zoom classes and Teams meetings. My blogging will resume tomorrow night and continue though the Summer and Fall. I will be back to full time writing and blogging is an natural outgrowth of my full time writing. For the blog, I have interviews, reviews of new books and discussions lined up.

In the meantime, if you dont own my books Judaism and Other Religions or Judaism and World Religions- Palgrave is having a flash sale – they are $19.99 in the USA and 19.99GBP in Britain and € 19.99 in the EU.

But only until tomorrow May 11- In the USA you only have a day to order from this URL–It is a special link for the textbook sale. Try this

See you tomorrow with a blog post.

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.