Rabbi Barry Kornblau on the RCA’s “On Sanctity and Sexuality”

If I were writing an article on the relationship of institutional Modern Orthodoxy to the changes of this era, I would focus on the November 29, 2016 RCA document entitled  “Principled and Pastoral Reflections on Sanctity and Sexuality,” which mainly concerns same-sex relationships. This pastoral reflection opens up to a wide range of the changes to Modern Orthodox and to society of this decade. It can be used to focus a discussion of Orthodox support for the court cases of Hobby Lobby and Masterpiece Bakery along with the Evangelical churches as well as their political views. The document’s antecedent was the June 2015 Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges granting a fundamental right for same-sex marriages, I made a mental note that June night, and actually written notes to myself in the following weeks, on how the decision was going to have a strong backlash among conservative religious positions and define religion in the upcoming years.

Recently, Rabbi Barry Kornblau posted the 2016 RCA document on Facebook to elicit a discussion of what he thought was an important document. Over the next few days, Kornblau fielded a thread of more than 500 comments, most of them highly critical. He defended the document in detail and explained why he rejected all the criticism of it. Behind his answers, he displayed a clear vision of the “family values” theology of the document. From his thorough answers, we have a richer understanding of one of the creators of the current worldview of the RCA and institutional Modern Orthodoxy. Hence, I asked him to write up the thread as a blog post.

There will be several responses to the post to elicit a full discussion.  The first one will be by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz and the second by Shlomit Metz Poolat Esq. others will follow in the course of the next weeks. You may not agree with either side in this discussion, but it will articulate the current positions.

Barry Kornblau is graduate of Yale College where he studied music theory and music composition, and was ordained by RIETS.  He has served as rabbi of the Young Israel of Hollis Hills – Windsor Park since 2003, and served on the rabbinic staff of the Rabbinical Council of American from 2005-2017.He is the rabbinic adviser to Canfei Nesharim, an Orthodox environmental group.

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The acceptance of same-sex relationships in American society has been a major social change, which has been rapid speeding up in the last decade. In July 2010, a broad coalition of Modern Orthodox rabbis issued a Statement of Principles affirming tolerance and acceptance of Orthodox Jews with a homosexual orientation. The 2010 document rejected conversion therapy and encouraged hearing their emotion distress. There was a variety of other statements issued at the time, see here for more details.

For some background to this discussion from 1970 to 2000, there is a bibliography of Orthodox positions by Rabbi Uri Cohen and a review essay by the historian Yaakov Ariel on these decades. There are also many articles written by psychologists working in the field. Many of these sources have been collected on the website of the Orthodox psychologist Rabbi Dr. Bin Goldman.

The 2016 RCA document was done explicitly without reference to prior statements, such as the 2010 statement, but as their own vision of policy and society. This statement reflects the input of a variety of voices. Rabbi Kornblau’s conclusions are as follows:

They concluded that Orthodox homosexuals should be empathized with in “the struggles, loneliness, and alienation and communal marginalization. They also concluded, “Personal abuse, by words or actions, is forbidden.”  They regret that “some Orthodox rabbis and Jews use hostile language towards homosexuals in our communities.”

However, on the other hand, Rabbi Kornblau stated, “Halachah plays play hard ball with its adherents, insisting that they give up their lives before violating its eternal prohibitions against sexual immorality, idolatry, and murder.” The only halakhic position from an Orthodox perspective is heroic celibacy.

They also reject “personal identity based on sexuality”.  Kornblau notes that this excludes “gay” as an “identity” from a Torah perspective, and that a Torah Jew’s only “identity” is “servant of God”.  If some are not comfortable with that, then communal splintering may result.

They still sanction reparative therapy when an homosexual willingly participates in it, and when performed by a “licensed and trained practitioner” as sanctioned by local laws.

There is to be no public acknowledgement of same-sex relationships. “Regardless of the couple’s personal happiness, love, or mitzvot they perform together, there can be no “mazal tov”, no kiddush, no celebration, no joint listing on a membership roll…”
An abstinent homosexual has the same rights and duties as any other synagogue member, but an active homosexual may be restricted by a community’s rabbi from congregational leadership or ritual activity in proportion to other similar restrictions in his community””

What struck me most about Rabbi Kornblau’s presentation on Facebook and now in this article is his worked out theology of culture and society, not necessarily shared by all his RCA colleagues, but nevertheless reflective of a comprehensive worldview of how gay rights, as part of an atomized family, are opposed to the traditional family.

Rabbi Kornblau relies on works such as Carle Zimmerman’s Family and Civilization (1947) as accurate empirical data, as a reliable guide to history, and as useful to him for reflecting on the Torah’s viewpoint. Zimmerman’s work is a Spengler-influenced work showing the decline of the greatness of Western culture when the domestic family breakdown. Zimmerman revives the position of the 18th century author Edward Gibbons who famously wrote that the Roman Empire declined due to homosexuality. Zimmerman credits the strong families of the Barbarians as the cause of their victory over the decadent families of Rome and

Conservative and Evangelical authors treat this 70-year-old work as monumental and prophetic, especially that he advocates strict divorce laws, and the rejection of homosexuality in order to maintain Western greatness.  Therefore, many conservative op-eds, books, and editorials cite Zimmerman as the part of their reason for banning gay rights. For example, Rod Dreher made extensive use of Zimmerman in his book The Benedict Option in which he cautions Christians about having too much to do with society in that it is currently in decline from its values. For Dreher in this op-ed, and elsewhere, warns that “Civilization depends on the health of the traditional family.” Dreher claims that: “The late Harvard sociologist Carle C. Zimmerman believed it was true, but he also knew why. In 1947, he wrote a massive book to explain why latter-day Western civilization was now living through the same family crisis that presaged the fall of classical Greece and Rome… Religions that lack a strong pro-fertility component don’t survive over time, he observed; nor do cultures that don’t have a powerfully natalist religion.” (For Dreher on homosexuality and the Evangelical statements- see here and then here.) For Dreher, the West is unlikely to head Zimmerman’s call. But, Dreher thinks that those who do hear the call are traditionalist Catholics, “full-quiver” Protestants, “Orthodox Jews, pious Muslims and other believers who reject modernity’s premises.

Rabbi Kornblau has heard a similar call and used Zimmerman as a tool to understand Torah. He has little use for Zimmerman’s decline of Western civilization thesis but finds some of the ideas useful to explain the Rabbinic policy position by contrasting the atomised family structure with traditional family values.  Kornblau thinks: “Orthodox Jewry must explicitly articulate the details of the Torah’s “domestic” familial and societal vision, argue for its virtues in positive terms, and seek to embody and make visible that vision as much as possible.” For him, by itself the RCA’s statement “does little to win over and retain young and other Orthodox Jews immersed in an ever more “atomistic” society and its (unstated) assumptions and approach to sexual and family life and who therefore challenge the Torah’s views.” Kornblau concludes that the stakes are high and that we are playing for the very future of the community.

On Sanctity and Sexuality- Rabbi Barry Kornblau

In 2016, the membership of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) voted upon and formally adopted a resolution, “Principled and Pastoral Reflections on Sanctity and Sexuality,” to articulate some of its perspectives on changing sexual mores of our times in general, and regarding homosexuality in particular.   I am pleased to have been asked to share some perspectives into its genesis, purposes, and significance.

Since I have never been, nor am I now, an official spokesperson for the RCA, my remarks here are those of an individual, an American Orthodox rabbi, an RCA member and former employee; indeed, this essay has intentionally not been reviewed by any RCA official prior to  publication.

Prophecy is for fools, and mores regarding these and other matters within the Orthodox Jewish community and in Western society as a whole continue to change rapidly.  Nonetheless, I believe that the positions set forth in the RCA’s resolution can and will serve as an enduring intellectual and practical framework for a stable, honest, and mutually respectful relationship between Orthodox homosexuals loyal to halachah and Orthodox synagogue communities in contemporary Western cultures.

Genesis of an RCA Resolution about Homosexuality

Established more than 80 years ago, the RCA is the primary voice of the English-speaking, Modern Orthodox rabbinate, particularly those who serve as synagogue rabbis.  I had the privilege for a dozen years of serving on the RCA’s staff, working on a wide variety of matters until my departure, without rancor, in 2017. In particular, I worked closely with each year’s Resolutions Committee.  Adopted by direct vote of all its members, RCA’s annual resolutions are a primary vehicle through which it expresses views about a wide variety of contemporary matters.

The genesis of the “Sexuality and Sanctity” resolution was straightforward.  For decades, the RCA expressed its support (e.g., here, here, and here) for the nuclear family, and its opposition to increasing societal acceptance of homosexual relationships  In 2015, the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision of the US Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in all 50 states.  For this and other reasons, the 2016 Resolutions Committee – chaired by Rabbi Chaim Strauchler and including Rabbis Jeffrey Bienenfeld, David Brofsky, Jerold Isenberg, and Menachem Schrader – and others within the RCA recognized that the time had come for it to address comprehensively some of the challenges posed by changing societal attitudes towards homosexuality to Orthodox communities.

The resolution incorporates the input of people within and without the RCA, including men and women, young and old, lay and clergy, homosexual and heterosexual, Jew and non-Jew.  It underwent countless revisions, including a complete rewrite, in response to feedback received.  Each word and phrase was selected carefully, and the entire document is intended to be read closely; my present remarks assume the reader has done so.

The resolution reflects the diverse personal and professional experiences, policies, and general attitudes of RCA rabbis regarding homosexuality within their communities; their personal and professional experiences with homosexuals, their friends, and family; and, their understandings of the faith challenge that homosexuality poses to young Orthodox Jews and others who struggle to understand this Torah law.  Other American and Israeli rabbinic statements about homosexuality, including Orthodox ones by ad-hoc and other groups of rabbis, played little role in its drafting.

At its center is a four-point guideline relating to homosexuality in Orthodox synagogue settings.  It does not address sensitive questions relating to the yeshiva and Jewish day school education of children raised by homosexuals, leaving these matters to rabbis and others who run such institutions.

While understandable to all readers, the resolution’s language and conceptual categories are those of its primary audience, the Orthodox Jewish community.  It does not engage with the views of other Jewish denominations or non-Jewish faiths.

Finally, the precise relationship between Obergefell and related legal developments and the first amendment of the US Constitution remains an active subject of litigation, regarding which the RCA and other conservative religious groups continue to take stands.  Given its orientation towards synagogue-based communal life, the resolution briefly notes but does not delve into those issues. Instead, this statement about the theological and pastoral issues facing Orthodox synagogue communities complements the focus on legal issues that are the appropriate focus of many on the religious political right.

A Public, Positive Attitude Towards Sexuality; and, Rabbinic Confessions

Western culture has made overt discussion sexuality culturally omnipresent.  In the spirit of eit la’asot (“it is time to act for the Lord, as they have negated Your Torah”), this resolution sets aside traditional reticence to discuss sexual matters openly in favor of forthright, public analysis.

Rejecting ascetic rabbinic attitudes towards sexuality which persist among some in the Orthodox world even today, the RCA also openly embraces as normative a bold, modern view of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l that “our [positive] commitment to sexuality” is “partly carnal, partly existential”- i.e., that the physical pleasure of marital relations and the relationship-binding aspect of marital relations are positive.

The resolution also includes two remarkable rabbinic confessions.  First, the RCA “recognizes and regrets” Orthodox homosexuals and their families widely reject its rabbis.  Moreover, it “recognizes and regrets” that such individuals find “perceived and real hostilities” in Orthodox communities.

Three Contextualizations

The resolution contextualizes homosexuality in three ways.

First, it notes that homosexuality has existed in human societies throughout history.  This simple acknowledgment underlies its dispassionate analysis, tone, and language, all of which contrast strongly with the overwrought, charged language (“toeiva marriage”, etc) common in other contemporary Orthodox Jewish writing on this topic.  It also forms the basis of the resolution’s open respect for Orthodox homosexuals who struggle with the challenges posed to them by the Torah’s prohibitions.

This contextualization also minimizes the importance of the complex nature vs. nurture debate regarding the origin of homosexual desire – which the resolution intentionally omits.  These views, in turn, undermine the primary impetuses favoring reparative therapy, which the RCA sanctions only when an homosexual willingly participates in it, and when performed by a “licensed and trained practitioner”.  The availability of such licensed practitioners varies by local law.  They also reject the related theological view, held by some Orthodox rabbis, that God could not have created people with inborn homosexual desire since a good God would not test people in such a difficult way.  This accords with the RCA’s rejection, in other settings, of specific claims about how God runs His world.

Second, the resolution places some of the challenges faced by Orthodox homosexuals in the context of challenges and failures experienced by all Jews.  This is why, for example, the resolution devotes entire paragraphs to recognizing the exceedingly demanding nature of the Torah’s sanctified sexual restrictions for all Jews, and to recognizing the difficultly of fulfilling these requirements.  Although not mentioned in the resolution, consider heterosexual Orthodox Jews’ violations of halachic sexual requirements, including masturbation, yichud, negiah, improper gazing and pornography, violations of mikveh/nida laws, extramarital sex, sexual abuse or incest, the use of prostitutes, adultery, etc.

Third, the resolution contextualizes some experiences of Orthodox homosexuals by including them alongside “the struggles, loneliness, and alienation experienced by those who feel marginalized from the Jewish community and from Jewish life. This includes those who do not participate, for various reasons, in heterosexual marriage with children, or who believe that they do not fit into our communities which prioritize heterosexual marriage, children, and family.”  This is a large number of people, including some single and divorced people, childless couples, single parents, and widows and widowers.  At the same time, it specifically acknowledges and expresses admiration for Torah observant homosexuals living with the “extraordinary demand of lifelong abstinence as well as the absence of companionate love”.  Public recognition of these painful realities by a major Orthodox rabbinic organization is remarkable.

Eternal Prohibitions

The above points notwithstanding, the resolution insists that the halachic prohibitions against homosexual acts neither can nor will ever be reinterpreted or delimited by Orthodox rabbis in such a way as to permit them.  The “eternity of the mitzvot of the Torah” which are “not subject to reinterpretation” precludes, for example, historicizing the Torah’s prohibition in order to nullify or limit its scope.  This rejects the argument, for example, that the Torah’s prohibition applies only to once-common, domineering homosexual acts and its corollary that contemporary non-domineering and consensual homosexual sexual acts can therefore be permitted.

Permanent prohibition also explains why the resolution does not address whether these prohibitions are rationally understandable (and if so, what their reasons might be) or are rather a Divine mystery (chok) which a religious person obeys without understanding.  Regardless of rationale or Orthodox rabbinic interest (or lack thereof) in changing them, they are not subject to change.

Similarly, the resolution does not relate to the halachic distinctions between different types of homosexual behavior (male vs. female homosexual sex, different male homosexual acts, etc.) because, such distinctions notwithstanding, all homosexual acts have always been and always will be halachically prohibited.

A public rabbinic statement is neither a written responsum nor an oral reply to an individual’s personalized inquiry, where such distinctions might possibly be relevant. (“Rabbi, I am incapable of refraining from all homosexual sexual activity but wish to minimizes the degree of prohibition. How shall I proceed?”; “Rabbi, we are, in fact, a gay couple. Can/should we sit next to one another in shul?”; “Does the prohibition of yichud/seclusion or negiah/touch apply for me, a homosexual, with members of my sex?”)

Halachah plays play hard ball with its adherents, insisting that they give up their lives before violating its eternal prohibitions against sexual immorality, idolatry, and murder.  For example, if a thug threatens to kill a Jewish man unless he has sexual relations with a married Jewish woman, then the commandments to sanctify and not desecrate God’s Holy Name obligate him to allow the thug to kill him instead of committing adultery with her.  This duty for a Jew to sacrifice his life to uphold the Torah’s sexual prohibitions applies even if the married woman and her husband were to beg the threatened man to have relations with her in order to save his life.  This is true, as well, were the thug to threaten the Jewish man with death unless he has homosexual intercourse, even with a willing man.

A Deep Philosophical/Religious Conflict.

There is a complete contrast between the above halachic view and the dominant secular view in the contemporary West regarding homosexual sex. The prevailing Western view is basically that state laws and hence, to a great degree, morality, justly impinge on individuals’ otherwise absolute autonomy only when one person’s action damages another person; this is J. S. Mill’s famous ‘Harm Principle’.  Particularly in the years since the sexual revolution in the West, this has come to mean permitting – and eventually celebrating – all consensual activities between adults that do not harm others.  Hence, this view strongly affirms gay identity, gay legal rights, and gay marriage and offers no reason to oppose it.

Given the acculturation of many Modern Orthodox Jews who strongly embrace Western culture in so many other ways, it is easy to see why many have adopted Western moral reasoning in this area. Hence, some contemporary Orthodox Jews are not only homosexual (as has always been the case), but also personally identify as gay, in the contemporary Western sense of that term which includes definitional aspects of personal identity, pride and public assertion of that personal identity and group affiliation, political activism and cultural and legal advocacy for rights implicit in such an identity, and more.  Along with many heterosexual Orthodox Jewish allies, gay people are “facts on the ground” in many Orthodox families, social circles, institutions, and communities.  Many young Orthodox Jews have never known a world without these realities.

The resolution recognizes all of this, even devoting an entire paragraph to a detailed history of the contemporary gay rights movement.  However, it also explains why Orthodox halachah can never accommodate these facts while remaining true to its essence, which is the quest for kedushah (sanctity, as defined by God’s revelation) in every area of life.

Liberty for a Torah Jew is not, as it is in the West, freedom from outside coercion in order to accomplish one’s own purposes in life.  Rather, it is the freedom to adopt, and then freely act upon, the only religiously legitimate “identity” that exists from the perspective of the Torah’s truths: the complete identification and subordination of one’s self as an eved Hashem (servant of God) who happily and wholeheartedly seeks to fulfill His Will.

Each of one’s opinions or traits – whether inborn or consciously adopted (including sex, race; intellectual, physical, artistic, or medical or physical conditions; political, socioeconomic, national, and cultural affiliations) – is acceptable in a Torah perspective only to the extent it does not contradict and is entirely subordinate to one’s only ‘true’ identity as an eved Hashem.

This is why the RCA’s resolution rejects “founding personal identity upon sexual desire” and hence the category of “gay” (in the cultural sense defined above) as an independent “identity”.  They cannot be recognized by halachah or by Orthodox institutions and their representatives – even as it recognizes, as a human “fact on the ground”, the equally true reality that beloved Orthodox homosexuals exist, including some who identify as gay.

Guidelines for its Communal Negotiation

Negotiating these conflicts is the heart of the RCA resolution, its four-point guideline.  Building upon the three contextualizations mentioned above, it provides a framework for proper relations between Orthodox synagogue communities and their homosexual members.  It achieves this with a fourth contextualization: namely, noting how Orthodox communities in free societies relate to all Jews whose personal conduct may not “fully reflect Torah standards of sanctity” in a variety of other areas (Shabbat, mikveh, financial dealings, kashrut), and applying such standards to homosexuals.

Some applications of these guidelines include:

  • “Personal abuse, by words or actions, is forbidden.” Unfortunately, this statement is necessary due to the aforementioned commonplace reality that some Orthodox rabbis and Jews use hostile language towards homosexuals in our communities.
  • “Torah institutions and their lay and rabbinic leaders must not, in any public venue, sanction or acknowledge any relationship or marriage between two individuals prohibited to marry by Jewish law; this includes homosexual relationships and marriages.” This is similar to Orthodox synagogues’ existing practices regarding, say, a marriage between a member and a non-Jew, or a marriage between a kohein and a woman prohibited to him. Regardless of the couple’s personal happiness, love, or mitzvot they perform together, there can be no “mazal tov”, no kiddush, no celebration, no joint listing on a membership roll; indeed, no public mention of such a relationship at all.
  • “[B]ehavior or words [that] demonstrate public disregard for halachic strictures against homosexual behavior or romance, or who seek communal approval or acknowledgment of the same” is “unacceptable [and] has no place in Orthodox institutions.” This is similar to Orthodox synagogues’  welcome of Jews who do not observe Shabbat in their private lives while concurrently prohibiting them from smoking or using their cell phones in shul on Shabbat: individuals are welcome, public non-halachic behavior or words are not.
  • Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l made precisely this point in remarks about New York City’s annual Israel parade: “The mechallelei Shabbat [Sabbath violators] of America don’t want to march in the parade under the banner of “mechallelei Shabbat of America” – they… march… as the Rotary Club, the junior high school of Great Neck, or whatever, and that will pass muster [with Orthodox groups who will march with them] – they will not flaunt. The homosexual community today has created such a ferment because it is very aggressive.”
  • An abstinent homosexual has the same rights and duties as any other synagogue member, may discharge communal duties on behalf of the congregation, and may serve as a communal leader. Rabbis or others must not interrogate individuals who keep their sexual desires and actions entirely private.
  • An active homosexual may be restricted by a community’s rabbi from congregational leadership or ritual activity in proportion to the synagogue’s restrictions, if any, upon other violators of halachah (Shabbat, the many sexual prohibitions list above, or kashruth).
  • “Many other circumstances are more complex, requiring wise, individualized decision by a community’s rabbi.” The complexities of communal life, in this area and many others, are beyond the scope of a resolution, and are subject, like other local circumstances, to individualized rulings by a synagogue’s rabbi.

The above applications and interpretations of the resolution’s text are mine.  If other responsible readers think they mean something else, so be it.

Although unrelated to communal settings, it is unfortunately necessary to emphasize that every human being is made in God’s Image, and that every Jew is one of His beloved children.  A person with same-sex desire is neither disgusting nor contagious.  Harassment, threats, sexual or physical assault, etc, against such individuals are outrageous.  (How awful that reality requires the recitation of obvious facts!)  Family members and friends must not cut off relations with such individuals but, even more than other Jews, must love them.

Finally, the vast corpus of halachah applies fully to homosexuals.  Even if they transgress sexual prohibitions regularly, they must fulfill all other mitzvot; an “all or nothing” approach to mitzvah fulfillment is not the Torah way.

Orthodoxy and Homosexuals: Plenty of Work Ahead

Much work lies ahead regarding this defining challenge for Orthodoxy in this generation.  Orthodox Jews and institutions must emphasize that the only legitimate identity for its members, young and old, is ovdei Hashem (servants of God)for whom sanctity as defined by God’s Truth and Will, not contemporary Western morals, is its lodestar in every area of personal, communal, and national life.

Some homosexuals and their Orthodox allies must realize that gay identity and pride cannot be incorporated with integrity into Orthodox synagogue communities, and, in some cases, abandon fruitless thinking about the possibility of changing unambiguous halachic prohibitions.

Some rabbis and communities need to cultivate a deep understanding of the profound, existential challenges faced by sincerely pious Jewish homosexuals.  In this way, instead of homosexuals experiencing abuse and discomfort among their own communities and clergy, they can find in them the warm, loving home they, like all Jews, profoundly need.

We all must humbly recall the degree to which we all fail in striving towards sanctity and so act and speak with love, kindness, and decency towards others who may also sometimes fail as we do.  Finally, because in free society homosexuals can and do leave the Orthodox community, Orthodox Jews must learn to take quiet pride in our community’s contemporary heroes – homosexuals who, despite all the struggle and pain required to “subdue their desire” (cf. Pirkei Avot 4:1), nonetheless remain loyal to God, Torah, and the pursuit of sanctity in their lives.

Some Additional, Personal Perspectives

Until now, I have elaborated upon the RCA’s resolution while hewing to its approach to the best of my ability.  Below, I offer my own perspectives about the issues at hand.

Changes in the West?

Attitudes and laws regarding homosexuality in Western countries, including in Israel which is quite gay-friendly overall, have changed dramatically and rapidly in the past decades.  In principle, political, philosophical, scientific, or other critiques or shifts within the West could reverse those changes, leading to more restrictions on gays, and pleasing some conservative people, including some religious conservatives.

I believe that such changes are very unlikely because the position of gays in society is founded upon basic ideas of contemporary Western moral and legal reasoning as a whole.  The primacy of the individual and his/her self-identity, freedom of personal belief and action, the language of rights and equality, and so on – these are foundational for the entire West, not only gay rights.  Reversing progress made by gays would require a fundamental moral reordering of the West, signs of which are presently absent.

Once the gay rights movement adopted an equality- and rights-based approach, protests against the “normalization” of the “gay lifestyle” within American and Western society by numerous conservative groups, including the RCA, had no chance of long-term success.

I remember back in the early 1990s when gay rights were heating up as a political issue in the US, a middle-aged, secular, Jew with conservative political views told me that he opposed such rights.  I replied that his opposition made no sense from his secular perspective, that gay rights would surely win the day, and that his opposition was either a matter of personal discomfort or leftover Biblical sensibilities that, inconsistently, he had yet to expunge from his worldview.  I’ve made similar points from the pulpits of Orthodox synagogues where I’ve served, often to the consternation of conservative congregants.

Nowadays, young people of all political and religious persuasions who live within the West’s moral framework increasingly accept and celebrate gay rights and marriage as unremarkable and fundamental.

A Civilizational-Familial Framework-Carle Zimmerman

One longstanding, unsuccessful argument against “gay rights” is to favor “family values” which assert that “marriage is one man and one woman”, that children are best reared by their biological parents, one of each sex.   A typical rejoinder is that plenty of contemporary gays embody “family values” by marrying and even raising children, often adopted ones.  Besides, how does gay marriage damage heterosexual marriage?  The argument continues from there, likely in ways familiar to many readers.

In thinking about that dispute, I find helpful the historical perspective and analytic framework of Carle Zimmerman, in his book “Family and Civilization”.  In enormous detail, he describes changing modalities of family life (primarily in the West, with references to other civilizations, as well) from ancient Greece through the mid-20th century.  It describes three primary approaches to family life, the “trustee”, “domestic”, and “atomistic” family systems.

The “trustee” family system is dominant when central authority and institutions are weak.  Most societal powers and functions, include marriage formation and child-rearing, reside in extended tribal families which maintain strong identities across multiple generations.  (Early Greek, early Roman, and Europe of the “Dark Ages” included such families.)

Often after great social conflict, the “domestic” family system develops from a “trustee” system.  It thrives in somewhat more commercial settings.  Significant societal powers and functions reside in centralized institutions and laws.  Autonomous strong nuclear families, consisting of a distantly related husband and wife and their children, constitute the foundation of society and its institutions, and are supported by its laws, customs, and mores.  (Later Greek, Roman, and Renaissance Europe saw the flourishing of this family type.)

In recent centuries, contemporary Western society, like late Greek and Roman societies before it, champions an increasingly “atomistic” conception of family  Populous cities and centers arise, and societal power resides almost entirely in a centralized state which concerns itself primarily with individual residents and their mutual relations.  The transition from “domestic” family structures is more gradual and less traumatic than transitions from the “trustee” to “domestic” family systems.  “Domestic”-style marriage continues to exist but declines in status, duration, and strength as more flexible and varied household structures flourish, and exist primarily to fulfill the needs of its individual members.  Similarly, previously unaccepted, more permissive sexual activities (specifically including, as Zimmerman documents in chapters 15 and 16, homosexual sex) become increasingly prevalent and, eventually, culturally normative.

Zimmerman argues that this “atomistic” family structure is too weak a foundation, over the long term, to sustain a civilization.  Describing “the decay of the family into extended atomism”, he argues that “the disease is not divorce, adultery, homosexuality, etc.  These are but symptoms of the final decay of the basic postulates upon which the ‘human’ part of society is built.”  Those “basic postulates” and “fundamental value systems…upon which society is built” include the supposition that “basic human relations are considered as products of a system of values coming from the infinite world…”

Zimmerman’s analysis further allows one to see how essentially ineffective, it is, in the context of our ever more “atomistic” society to advocate for “family values” that are rooted in a minority “domestic” family system of homosexual sex.

The RCA resolution makes a similar claim: “We reassert our belief in the central importance and value of monogamous heterosexual marriage as the foundational norm of civilization.”  This position may provide a deeper meaning for the midrash [Bereishit Rabbah 26:9] that connects the celebration or legalization of male homosexual marriage with the world’s destruction.  (The Seven Noahide laws which embody halachah’s requirements for non-Jewish society also prohibit and punish homosexual sex and couplings.)

Generations from now, future historians of Western civilization will debate the degree to which such current predictions were correct.  Regardless, I think such claims are definitional and true regarding the civilization the Torah seeks to foster for the Jewish nation, and what it expects, to a lesser degree, from non-Jew nations, as well.  I cannot see how halachah and the Torah’s values, overall, can conform with an “atomistic” family system and its worldview.  Instead, I think its overall vision for Jewish families and society is essentially a “domestic” system that also includes elements of the “trustee” system which likely characterized settled, agrarian tribal life during much of the Biblical period.

I hope to develop these ideas fully on another occasion, and to respond some obvious potential criticisms about them.  But for now, note that the RCA resolution’s language asserts that precisely this view is normative: “Heterosexual marriage is a critical foundation of Torah law and society built upon many factors, including the differences between men as a group and women as a group. It is the normative institution through which men become fathers, women become mothers, children are created and loved, and the Torah tradition is passed from generation to generation.”

Five Practical Consequences

This above analysis has many consequences.

First, Orthodox Jewish communities seeking to thrive in the West must continue work – as the RCA resolution rightly notes – to secure, and maintain once secured, religious liberty protections for themselves (and other conservative groups) to the extent possible under various local laws.  Barring the unlikely (see above) event that the West changes direction, this will become increasingly difficult as it continues progressing along its “atomistic” path.

Second, the increasing Western acceptance of transgender people, gender fluidity, and polyamory (marriage between three or more adults of different sexes) for interested individuals, all accord well with the West’s “atomistic” approach to families and related matters.  While problems intrinsic in these developments may limit their appeal or cultural acceptance, I believe that protests against them from Western conservatives advocating for “domestic” family values will be just as ineffective over the long term as were their past protests against gay rights.

Even if one agrees that such protests are unlikely to lead to social change, one still might choose to make them in order to clarify Torah law and values for its adherents, or for other reasons.  When doing so, I believe that their formulations should expressly recognize the internal coherence of the “atomistic” view they critique (just as the RCA resolution does, though unlike most other such statements), and note where and why they dissent from it.  This is especially true if such protests are intended (quixotically, as per my above view) to engage contemporary societal interlocutors.

Third, this analysis provides a framework for “answering” some vexing questions.   A society or worldview built upon and devoted exclusively to a “domestic” family structure (such as the Torah’s, in my view) has no need to “explain” its prohibition or even punishment of homosexual sex or couplings, even if homosexual desire is natural; it is simply obvious.  I think this is the most straightforward way to explain “why” homosexual acts are prohibited and punishable according to Torah law and other similar, non-”atomistic” systems of law throughout history, as well.

It also provides a framework for “answering” the question, “What harm does homosexual marriage inflict upon heterosexual marriage?”  Identifying such “harm” is necessary under the West’s prevalent, sexual morality which, as noted above, is rooted in J. S. Mill’s “Harm Principle”.  No such obvious direct or even indirect “harm” can be identified – for otherwise such marriage would never have achieved such rapid acceptance in the contemporary West at all.  As posed, the question effectively includes its own answer; no serious retort is possible.

The only credible response is to advocate for a completely different, “domestic” vision of society.  This is my fourth point: Orthodox Jewry must explicitly articulate the details of the Torah’s “domestic” familial and societal vision, argue for its virtues in positive terms, and seek to embody and make visible that vision as much as possible.

Consider, for example, how the RCA resolution rightfully declares that Torah Jews are proudly indifferent to current Western epithets such as “bigoted, discriminatory, and judgmental”.  Their sting, after all, derives primarily from the West’s own moral vocabulary which differs greatly from the Torah’s.  Yet this approach convinces and fortifies primarily those who already believe. those to whom “they can’t push me around!” may appeal, and those who, for whatever reasons, are not bothered greatly by these questions.  But it does little to win over and retain young and other Orthodox Jews immersed in an ever more “atomistic” society and its (unstated) assumptions and approach to sexual and family life and who therefore challenge the Torah’s views.

To date, the families, institutions, and leaders of Modern Orthodoxy and other conservative religious groups readily criticize the “atomistic” family structures around them.  Rarely, however, do they articulate and elaborate upon the Torah’s entirely different, compelling, and comprehensive vision of Divine sanctity permeating every aspect of an entire nation.  (The RCA resolution briefly asserts this.)

This is a monumental task and one which, frankly, is beyond my imagination for all but the most insular diaspora Jewish communities who shun their surrounding powerful cultures to the extent possible.  Building such a comprehensively wholesome, sanctified society and family/tribal life for the Jewish people in contemporary Israel also seems, at the moment, impossibly distant – but as a religious Zionist, I pray that if He and His people together will it and work towards it, it will be no dream.

My final points relate, in the meantime, to here and now.  Different homosexuals and others respond to the RCA’s resolution differently, probably in keeping with their respective views of their own sexuality, of homosexuality in general, and other considerations as well.  Many will object to it strongly.  Yet others clearly find that it represents their view.  One Orthodox man, for example, even confided his struggles with his homosexuality to me as a result of the resolution – just as others have similarly confided in me and other Modern Orthodox rabbis in the past.

Some Orthodox synagogue communities have already splintered over issues described in the resolution. Although regrettable, the intensity of the human, faith, and even societal stakes at play in these issues mean that more such splits are likely, particularly in societies with strong religious freedoms. When a given rabbi/community and its resident homosexuals (and their allies) cannot find a way to abide by some variation on these (or similar) guidelines even after good-faith discussions, then each will need to decide how to proceed.

For now, though, I conclude as I began: “I believe that the positions set forth in the RCA’s resolution can and will serve as an enduring intellectual and practical framework for a stable, honest, and mutually respectful relationship between Orthodox homosexuals loyal to halakha and Orthodox synagogue communities in contemporary Western cultures.”

Joshua Shanes responds to Eliyahu Stern on Jewish Materialism

Joshua Shanes is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston. He received his B.A. from the University of Illinois and his Ph.D. in History from the University of Wisconsin. Professor Shanes’s research interests focus on Central and East European Jewry in the 19th and 20th centuries, specifically turn-of-the-century Galicia and the rise of Zionism as a counter-movement to the traditional Jewish establishment. Dr. Shanes became the Associate Director of Jewish Studies in Fall 2017. He is the author of Diaspora Nationalism and Jewish Identity in Habsburg Galicia (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

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Response to Eliyahu Stern

Thank you for the invitation to respond to Eli Stern’s important new book and his interview on your blog. Following your prompt, rather than offering a comprehensive book review, I’ll highlight what I think constitute the most salient contributions of the project, point to some pitfalls that need to be avoided in assessing its value, and then offer some personal reflections on the contemporary implications that Stern raises in his interview.

Non-Territorial Zionism

Historians are particularly prone to choose subjects whose absence from contemporary discourse distorts our understanding of a particularly personal contemporary issue. To this end, for example, frustrated at prevalent myths about Jewish national uniqueness, my first book (Diaspora Nationalism and Jewish Identity in Habsburg Galicia) documented how early Zionists engaged in precisely the same national project as their non-Jewish peers, with whom they closely interacted. I traced how Zionists at the end of the last century pursued a radical and secular project to nationalize Jewish identity. The concept of Jews constituting a modern nation that warranted national rights – not a territorial state, but rather national minority rights in Europe – was a tough sell, but eventually won the day.

Stern’s book likewise seems to be countering a contemporary narrative that Zionism has always been a project focused on that particular land and political statehood. Stern is revisionist in this sense, though he acknowledges there are others, such as the Israeli scholar Dimitry Shumsky. I have likewise documented how few early Zionists cared about the actual land of Israel, beyond the mythic value it worked in propaganda. I argued that Zionism is best understood as one of the many innovative models (denominations) of Jewishness competing on the Jewish street following the disintegration of the autonomous community and pre-modern traditional Judaism.

Stern’s new work significantly deepens this story. The key intellectual transformation for Stern was the impact of materialist philosophy discovered by Russian Jews in the 1860s and 1870s, who then blended this worldview with Judaism itself, drawing upon biblical, kabbalistic and Hasidic sources, especially Chabad monism. Their categories, Stern repeats often, were above all “land, labor and bodies.” He contrasts this theology with Western denominations that transformed Judaism into a Protestant model focused on spiritual ideals.

By going back to the materialism that was critical for some Zionists – but not all – we also rediscover the centrality of Diaspora for Zionism itself! The point of “land” was not mythic, but rather practical; where could a healthy Jewish economic existence be assured? Thus it is no surprise that Zionists could support even emigration to the United States, where they saw the material structure to support Jewish national life.

Stern dutifully acknowledges scholars into whose work he is integrating his own contribution, but I notice a tendency of his to claim greater innovation than is warranted. To be sure, this is a critical piece of the puzzle that has been ignored for too long. I believe the argument would be strengthened, not weakened, though by narrowing the claim of his innovation. In a sense, Stern is less discovering something new – although I am not familiar with any work that traces this intellectual pedigree so thoroughly – then returning us to the materialist interests of some early Zionist historians themselves.

Post-war scholarship has trended against such materialist focus, and Stern’s work brings us back to this fundamental transformation of those early decades. He’s telling us that we have overreacted and are missing something important thereby.

When understood this way, it actually opens up new avenues of thinking. For example, my own work proved that Zionists were far more interested in building Jewish national consciousness and securing national minority rights in Diaspora than they were in any state building project in Palestine. This was an inherently secular project, focused above all on this world, not the world to come. Materialism lets us focus on land as a physical space.

Indeed, one of Smolenskin’s most remarkable comments noted the sand quality in Palestine for glass manufacturing, emphasizing it was not the Garden of Eden but an actual place on Earth. Focused on economic viability and healthy bodies. Smolenskin is a great figure to include, as he exemplifies the bridge between the Haskalah and its successor movements in the East, what Israel Bartal and others call the “National Haskalah.” Indeed, I think Stern’s distinction between post-maskilic Jewish materialism and the ideals of the Haskalah itself is overstated at times.

Limits on these Claims

First, any intellectual history bears the challenge of proving influence, both within the intellectual biography of an historical figure, and beyond that elite circle into a broad social movement. In some cases, this can be easily solved by intellectual genealogy. For example, Mordechai Kaplan was clearly quite influenced by his teacher, Joseph Sossnitz, and thus Stern’s argument for connection between the latter and the development of American Jewish notions of peoplehood is quite strong.

Actually, this book serves as a terrific prolegomenon to Noam Pianko’s Jewish Peoplehood: An American Innovation, perhaps suggesting it wasn’t quite so American after all, as well as Pianko’s earlier work on Kaplan in Zionism and the Roads Not Taken. I note that Stern intends to continue to pursue this line in his future work, which I eagerly await.

But other connections are more tenuous. I don’t recall a single leading Zionist – or Orthodox figure – in my own study of Galicia whose political philosophy connects to Jewish materialism in this way. Their attraction to Zionism came from other influences, although I imagine with this new perspective I will find evidence of it in some cases when I return to look for it. More fundamentally, proving the connection between an intellectual elite and a broad social movement is virtually impossible, even if intellectually exciting to consider.

I will leave it to specialists in Russian intellectual history to evaluate the accuracy of his portrayal of his pantheon, although the book was meticulously documented and is quite persuasive. However, his comments in the book and especially in the interview expanding beyond that elite group to explain the entire spectrum of modern Jewish politics – indeed even just to explain Zionism itself – overreaches to my mind. For example, Stern’s description of Ahad Ha’am as focused on “spiritualizing the idea of Jewish land, labor, and bodies” strikes me as a problematic reading of Ahad Ha’am.

Stern’s work should be used to enrich our understanding of the variant paths of Zionist leaders, rather than seeking to fit them into a single mold. For example, Gideon Shimoni famously distinguished between “disillusioned integrationists” – highly acculturated Jews who came to Zionism after experiencing anti-Semitism – and “modernizing ethnicists,” Jews who came out of a thickly Jewish cultural milieu but sought in Zionism a form of Jewishness that was modern, secular and still felt authentically Jewish. The latter category tended towards models of cultural Zionism that were far more interested in Jewish cultural questions than material existence, while the former tended towards precisely those material issues.

This is the distinction famously made between Theodor Herzl and Ahad Haam, but I found precisely this dichotomy in almost the entire leadership of Galician Zionism in its first decades. So stark was the distinction that a century before Gideon Shimoni ever noticed it, they were already discussing the phenomenon. Modernizing ethnicists were not especially interesting in Jewish materialism, in the Jewish body, and even less so in the Jewish land.

Perhaps the classic Zionist leader from the “disillusioned integrationist” category is Max Nordau, Herzl’s number two, but far more famous in his own day. No discussion of the Zionist obsession with remaking the Jewish body can avoid addressing Nordau and the Zionist Turnbewegung, or gymnastics movement. But even here, I personally don’t see how Nordau and the Jewish Turnbewegung comes out of the Jewish materialists of the 1860s and 70s, rather than the zeitgeist of nationalist sports clubs. In any event, it’s an elephant in the room that needs discussion.

I don’t imagine most of the non-academic readers excited by the implications of Stern’s ideas from the interview will find in the book the exploration that they seek. It is a hardcore technical intellectual history, closely and comprehensively tracing the intellectual development of a dozen key figures and following another dozen slightly less comprehensively. It will be required reading for all specialists. That said, the interview – and to a lesser extent the book itself – does raise some exciting questions:

American Jewry and Modern Orthodoxy

Stern argues that his research proves the “deep spiritual background to [American Jewry’s] progressive character.” The question of the anomalousness of American Jewish political behavior continues to vex specialists. This was immortalized in Milton Himmelfarb’s quip that Jews “earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans”, that is, they maintain a liberal politics despite achieving economic success. Certainly, Stern’s research suggests that the intellectual legacy of Judaism as demanding “fair distribution of the social surplus” and the protection of laborers warrants serious attention. But there are many other factors at play, and this pedigree alone hardly suffices to explain it all.

I am especially interested in Stern’s musing on contemporary Modern Orthodoxy. He cautions us to focus on the economic implications of religious life, as his subjects did 150 years ago. That wealth or the willingness to live off charity are critical aspects of choosing a modern Orthodox life in America is incontrovertible and warrants serious discussion. And this does have political consequences, above all in regards to the endless struggle for private school tuition vouchers.

But Stern’s penchant for broad statements misses the mark. He declared that Orthodox, “vote for Trump for the same reasons that they support school vouchers and day schools; it advances the reproduction of their wealth.” No, this explanation of recent Orthodox voting patterns is avoiding the critical role of Modern Orthodox culture and ideology, and there are many signs that point to this.

First of all, non-Orthodox Jews are not poorer than their Orthodox counterparts. Indeed, with more disposable income they should be even more inclined towards conservative candidates. But they are not. Non-Orthodox Jews voted against Trump in higher numbers than any demographic, besides African-Americans. Moreover, poorer Haredim were more likely to vote for Trump than their modern counterparts.

The economic argument only goes so far. People vote and act against their economic interests all the time. Countless studies have emerged since 2016 documenting that race and racial identity was the most consistent marker of voting patterns in 2016. To ignore Trump’s white nationalist politics – and the studies that demonstrate its effectiveness – is to repeat the mistake of Marxists a century ago who confidently predicted no world war could break out because socialists would prevent it. Instead, even the socialist parties themselves voted for war. Nationalism – tribalism – cannot be reduced merely to economic motivations.

I have written at length elsewhere about the crisis in Orthodoxy today in its embrace of Trump; evidence is widespread, and not just in dark red islands like Boro Park, Flatbush and West Rogers Park.

Thus the Orthodox Union, for example, swooned over Trump – a hate-mongering demagogue – for withdrawing from the Iran agreement. But they had nothing to say about the erosion of CHIP funding; about the deliberate separation of children from their parents *legally* seeking asylum in America; about Mike Pence praising Joe Arpaio as a man of law; or about countless examples of Trump’s hate-mongering, dehumanizing rhetoric, just to name a few examples in the week prior to the Iran decision. The exaltation crested in America and Israel during and after the opening of the embassy office in Jerusalem, a christening ceremony blessed by purveyors of hatred and even anti-Semitism John Hagee and Robert Jeffress.

“Political tribalism has trumped decency,” I wrote at the time of the inauguration, “as Orthodox Jews turned out in droves for a man who ran on xenophobic hatred, gross misogyny, race baiting, calls for violence, ignorance and conspiracy paranoia, an alliance with neo-Nazis and white nationalists, and a narcissistic cult of personality unlike anything in American history.” In the 18 months since that appeared, the situation has sharply deteriorated. And Orthodox support for Trump has sharply increased. It is not an economic issue, even less so than it is for the country as a whole.

Without minimizing the need to address the economic crisis, I believe instead that this moral crisis in Orthodoxy is far more essential to the meaning of Orthodoxy and its future. Our relationship to Trump and Trumpism is the single most important moral issue of our generation, and Orthodoxy is largely failing it. This will have a lasting impact on the meaning of Orthodoxy, as it will on Evangelical Christianity as well. We can’t escape ideology, identity and, yes, racism by focusing on economics and materialism.

Israel

I likewise reject explanations focused on Israel, per se, because it too is based on cultural assumptions and selective memory. President Obama, flaws and all, was a solidly pro-Israel president. On a personal level, he was almost certainly the most believing Zionist. (I urge anyone who has not yet seen it to watch his eulogy for Peres, which he personally wrote on the plane to the funeral.) His widespread rejection by the Orthodox reflects a broader American trend of Evangelical politics, to which Orthodoxy is increasingly connected, as well as racialized space of discourse that at least passively believed this black man could not have Israel’s interests at heart.

It also reflects the fact that he was a believing liberal Zionist, and even Jews who profess such ideals are often attacked as anti-Israel, and even anti-Semitic. What I wrote last year remains true today: personal attacks, comparisons of the president to Antiochus (and calls for both to be blotted out), explosive vitriol totally divorced from reality, racist attacks, “stab in the back” rhetoric and horrific iconography remain widespread today in many Orthodox circles. This is not about economics; derision of Obama and slavish praise of Trump have become integrated into much of Orthodox religious culture.

Finally, returning briefly to Stern’s reflections on Israel and Zionism. Stern’s observations that the religious fetishization of the land is relatively new are spot on. However, I think he exaggerates the extent to which Zionism was focused on achieving greater economic equality, although that was a goal of the Labor Zionists most responsible for founding the state. The key ultimately was Jewish self-realization, understood in starkly secular terms.

But there is a broader connection between contemporary Zionism and its earliest decades in the nineteenth century, and Stern points to it in demonstrating how his thinkers reconfigure Judaism itself to reflect their materialist ethos. Zionism has always constituted a range of “religious” denominations, forms of Jewishness.

Zionism answers the same basic questions as its Liberal, Haredi, and other competitors: What are a Jew’s essential obligations? What are its most important “holy” days and rituals? Who is a member of the community in good standing and who, by their actions or beliefs, has moved beyond the pale? What texts and traditions are most important and how do you interpret them? What texts and traditions are ancillary and can be discarded? Contemporary rhetoric that outs anti-Zionists – and that term has become quite elastic in the hands of the current Israeli government and its supporters – as “heretics” and “enemies of the Jewish people” reflects this reality.

In any event, I applaud Stern’s call to recognize the economic consequences of a modern religious life and to create spaces, and forms of Judaism, that break this pattern. I would hope that the search for new models of Orthodoxy would consider the moral crises outlined above.

As a religious denomination, Orthodoxy should easily be able to separate from this Judaism of right-wing politics. We supposedly have a world of Torah depth – notions of God’s presence, or at least daily prayer, study and mitzvot – on which to base our Jewish communities and identities. And yet in many communities, the “heresy” of supporting Liberal Zionism – or God forbid advocating for a binational democratic state — brings greater social consequence than outspoken atheism or even openly violating Shabbat. We should be able to build a religious community as committed to the prophets as it is to the Code of Jewish Law Orach Chayim, as committed (as Jewish values) to condemning racism and hate-mongering as it is to learning, as committed to legislation and social policy that protects the vulnerable as it is to shabbes and kashrus observance.

And, finally, a community that does all of this without setting those values aside when it comes to Israel, and without replacing any of those core pillars of Judaism with the civic religion of nationalism, which so easily becomes a form of idol worship, elevating land and stones over people and God. For myself, in any event, it should avoid confusing our relationship to Torah and God from the political goal of Jewish democratic sovereignty. It can recognize the importance of Israel and its legitimacy and avoid demonizing language against Jews that privileges Palestinian sacred narratives over Jewish ones. At the same time, it can understand that project as a secular enterprise without exploiting Jewish symbols and eschatological language out of their original context for secular purposes. And can recognize the validity of competing Palestinian narratives, their right to equal treatment, and the immorality of the occupation.

Scattered communities of Jews approaching this model do exist, although they tend to blend progressive opposition to racism and social injustice with a messianic Zionist theology – and a commitment to Israel’s presence in the West Bank – even more radical than most.

Perhaps academic research such as Eliyahu Stern’s can help us challenge the myths, the sacred narratives, that block us from seeing these possibilities, assuming the community can accept its findings.

I’ll conclude with my final thoughts on why these matters on not just economic but also cultural with a quote from an op-ed that I wrote 18 months ago:

Recently, the iconic Orthodox superstar Mordechai ben David – performing in Jerusalem – shared his joy that the “kushi” would leave the White House, a Hebrew term that in this context best translates as the n-word. The audience cheered, comfortable with the racist slur and blending their rightwing Israeli and American political agendas with their identity as “Orthodox” Jews. The singer assumed (safely) that his audience agreed with the sentiment and with his manner of expressing it. We have work to do.

Interview with Eliyahu Stern- Jewish Materialism.

Several years ago after he finished his book on the Vilna Gaon, Professor Eliyahu Stern thought he was going to write a book about trends in Russian Jewish entry into modernity, a book reflective of a survey course.  There was going to be Mitnagdim and Hasidim as well as Zionist and secular. However, the more time he spent with Russian Jewish ideas, the more he found that the shift in the 19th century was not to secularism and Zionism but to materialism. When Stern found Mitnaged Orthodox rabbis who were Marxists and Darwinists and simultaneously Kabbalists, he knew he was onto something. Therefore, Eliyhau Stern recently wrote a book on this important aspect of Russian Jewry entitled Jewish Materialism: The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s (Yale 2018)

materialism cover

Elli Stern is Associate Professor at Yale University. He received his Ph.D. from University of California, Berkeley in 2008 having studied with Daniel Boyarin and Martin Jay. Prior to that, Stern was ordained by RIETS. From 2009-2010 he was Junior William Golding Fellow in the Humanities at Brasenose College and the Oriental Institute, University of Oxford. His first book entitled, The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism  (Yale University Press , 2012). He has served as a term member on the Council on Foreign Relations a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and a consultant to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland. Most importantly, he now has tenure at Yale. Accordingly, some people should be afraid; he will not suffer fools lightly.

Jewish Materialism: The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s is a tour-de-force of rewriting the history of Russian Jewish thought away from intellectual issues- that parallel Western Europe- such as Enlightenment, haskole, nationalism, secularism, or Zionism- and toward their own 19th century Russian concern with materialism.  The volume shows mastery of Russian and Yiddish sources as well as important bibliographic sleuthing showing how 20th century Zionist editions of 19th century works removed the Russian literature and the materialism and replaced with Zionism

Example of his cast of characters include: Rabbi Isaac Baer Levinsohn (RIBaL) (1788–1860), who should not be situated just in the enlightenment project, rather he should be seen as dealing with questions of economic base and productivity.

The father of Jewish socialist Aharon Shemuel Lieberman (1843–1880), should not be seen as secular but as materialist, in that, he combined the Lurianic Kabbalah of Ramhal (Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto) with Karl Marx, a move of materialism not secularism.

Rabbi Joseph Sossnitz combined Kabbalah with Darwin; the innovation is the materialist turn to Darwin while remain an Orthodox rabbi who wrote Kabbalah.   In someone else’s hand, this might of become a rouges gallery of obscure kabbalists and Jewish scientists, but in Stern’s hands, the book become a major study of the Jewish entrance into modernity.

Why should I care about this materialism? First, it changes the narrative of Russian Jewish modernity.

Second, as an analytic category it has vital uses to explain many diverse aspects of contemporary Jewish life. For example, the best way to explain the difference between the creation of Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism is that the former was a cultural middle class project while the latter was a materialist project of jobs and self-sufficiency.

Or one can reframe much of the Russian Jewish immigrant experience as a materialist movement creating Lower East side socialism, or even modern synagogues with names such as Hebrew Alliance or Hebrew Institute were originally aimed to uplift the working class. They do not fit into our current denominational models. It is also worth noting that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan received ordination from the religious Zionist Rabbi Reines and studied with the scientist Darwinist kabbalist Sossnitz allowing for a reconceptualization of the project of early 20th century modernizing rabbis.  Or that the cultural project of Ahad Haam was relying on these prior materialists.

Third, it opens up new ways to read other works. Contemporary historian Jeffrey Veidlinger notes in his Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire (Indiana, 2009) that the books most read by late 19th century Jews in Jewish public libraries were the materialists Nikolay Chernyshevsky & Dmitrii Pisarev. Zionism, Jewish worker’s movements, the musar movement, Mitnagdut, and early 20th century Hasidism were all responding to Russian materialism. After Stern’s narrative, we can go back to these movements and see what they were responding to in their works.

Stern’s book is however incredibly restrained and terse. The writing is so clipped that one needs to look up the biographic details as well as the philosophic details elsewhere.  A reader unfamiliar with Russian materialists such as Nikolay Chernyshevsky, Dmitrii Pisarev, or Nikolai Dobroliubov would not know the oblique references about Narodism or materialist theories.

And more tragically, the classics of Russian Jewish intellectual life have never been translated into English and are nearly forgotten compared to common knowledge of German Jewish thinkers. The books of Isaac Baer Levensohn, Rashi Fuenn,  or Moshe Leib Lilienblum are unknown today despite their importance in their own time. A reader of translations is sorely needed to create a canon of Russian Jewish intellectual history to correspond to the German one. However, Stern tight prose assumes great familiarity with these works and does not offer introductions or extensive translations.  Stern also does not directly deal with the bigger issues of Werner Sombart or Jews and capitalism.

In order to keep a crisp narrative on materialism, Stern has already spun off two side articles from his research. The first is entitled “Catholic Judaism: The Political Theology of the Nineteenth-Century Russian Jewish Enlightenment” which deals with how Russian Jews – focusing on Levinsohn and Fuenn- defended the Talmud as tradition, the same way Catholics defended their reliance on the teachings of the Church. And the other article is “Marx and the Kabbalah: Aaron Shemuel Lieberman’s Materialist Interpretation of Jewish History,” which was removed to be a separate article because he was not writing a history of the Kabbalah in Russia.

This interview concludes with some application by Stern of his ideas to contemporary forms of Modern Orthodox and Zionism. His views on Modern Orthodoxy in Question #10 is meant to challenge those who ignore materialism.

stern-eliyahu-1425658942

  1. What is the thesis of your book Jewish Materialism? And how does it change the way we see 19th century Russian Jewish history?

The book tries to answer what accounts for Jews’ over-representation in late nineteenth and twentieth century political-economic movements such as Communism, Capitalism, Socialism, and Zionism.

Jewish Materialism argues that before we look at immigration patterns (to Palestine and the United States) class, anti-Semitism or marginality, we need to take into account the way in which Judaism itself in the 1870s was redefined around a new set of categories, namely around land, labor, and bodies. It was this conceptual shift that laid the groundwork for Jews’ involvement in movements ranging from Zionism to Communism to Bundism and in some instances capitalism and minority rights.

Jewish Materialism challenges the narratives of modern Jewish politics and modern Judaism by overcoming the bifurcation of “Judaism” as a religion and “Jew” as a secular political description. Scholars of modern Judaism have largely focused on the way Jewish metaphysics, eschatology, revelation, and ethics were reinterpreted to reflect models put forward by modern Protestant and German idealist thinkers. On the other hand, modern Jewish historians have studied the secular nature of modern Jewish politics and labor movements. This division between Judaism as a set of religious ideas and beliefs and Jews as a secular historical-political category is pronounced in the way the modern Jewish experience is most commonly divided in the American academy between departments of Religious Studies (Judaism) and History (Jews). The new agenda put forward in Jewish Materialism challenges this distinction and in so doing explains the experiences of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Jews more accurately. It also wagers that such an approach will better illuminate the historical underpinnings of the major contemporary markers of Jewish identity in United States and Israel.

Instead of concentrating on Western European lands, where the division between “Jew” and “Judaism” was conceptually developed and economically reified through a set of institutions and practices, Jewish Materialism focuses on the Russian Empire, where these categories were often employed interchangeably. By focusing on Russian Jewish thinkers, the book returns Marx and Darwin’s economic and scientific writings (rather than the various forms of idealism and ethics promulgated by Immanuel Kant and his followers) back to the center of modern Jewish thought. It was in Russian lands where Jews began to read Marx and Darwin through a specifically Jewish lens. Conversely, it reveals the kabbalistic, Hasidic, and biblical sources for today’s supposedly “secular” modern Jewish politics. Jews in Russia read Marx as part of a Jewish prophetic tradition and identified the project of historical materialism as reflecting a new form of tikkun olam.

2)      If your book is about a revolution in the 1870s why do you begin in 1795?

The material condition of Jews living in Russia in the 1870s was a by-product of political events that occurred at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1795 the Russian Empire, along with the kingdoms of Prussia and Austria, completed the third and final partition of the early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Russia acquired large swaths of territory spreading east of the Nieman River and down into Volhynian Ukraine. With its territorial expansion it also gained a number of new religious and ethnic groups. Now, Russia ruled over not only Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Catholics but also over roughly one million Jews. This Jewish community had existed for two hundred years as a corporate entity–a state within a state. Under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Jews were allowed to establish their own courts and civic institutions in return for taxes paid by leaders of local Jewish corporations. The corporate leaders negotiated these taxes, as well as the Jews’ legal and residential rights, with the Polish aristocracy. The Polish-Lithuanian Jews did not fit into any preexisting socioeconomic category of the Russian Empire. Their customs, dress, and languages appeared foreign and strange within the largely Christian, agrarian world. Jews were for the most part not agriculturalists. And as Jews they were barred from owning property or joining Christian guilds. The empire struggled to determine how best to rule its new population.

Russia was not the first state to be confronted with a seemingly independent Jewish population. For at least two decades, France and Prussia had been taking decisive steps toward dismantling medieval corporate institutions and assimilating their Jewish populations into new confessional and economic structures. In France and Prussia, Judaism would be increasingly restricted to family law, rituals practiced in the home, and services conducted in the synagogue.

In contrast to their coreligionists in Paris and Berlin, Jews residing in Russian lands in the second half of the nineteenth century remained landlocked, sidelocked, and locked out of major labor markets and state offices. Unlike Jews living in Prussia, France, and Britain, Jews living in the Russian Empire did not experience any material improvement to their lives. In fact, Jews in the Russian Empire were still denied basic access to land and labor markets even late in the nineteenth century. The state identified Jews as a foreign entity. Jews dressed in different clothes from those of other Russian subjects, they worked in circumscribed labor markets, and, for the most part, they resided in designated lands. They were not alone in their polarization: the Russian Empire also discriminated against Catholics and Muslims at various times.

The Russian Empire was not simply unable to provide basic material necessities for Jews well-being; increasingly, it began to appear that it was precisely because Jews were Jews that they were being materially discriminated against. For Jews living in Russia “the Jewish Question” quickly turned into a material question:  Would Jews ever be able to obtain the necessary means for ensuring their survival.

3) What happened in the 1870’s in Russia that warrant the focus of your book?

In the 1870s there was a reevaluation of Judaism through the material & physical world:We can point to at-least three factors.

  1. When the serf population was emancipated in 1861, Jews, for the most part remained circumscribed and limited in their professional options. By the 1870s, the stagnant Jewish population begins to experience the economic repercussions of the emancipation of the Russian serfs. The newly emancipated serfs flooded Jewish handcrafting markets creating a glut of laborers and fierce competition for jobs. Jews began to become acutely aware that being Jewish in Russia meant that you had a limited economic profile.
  2. Jews begin to experience increased physical threats and decreased access to resources. In 1871 the Jews of Odessa suffered a pogrom. Their bodies were being marked and punished for being Jewish. Anti-Semitism was not something social; it was becoming something physical and violent.
  3. Marx’s and Darwin’s writings begin to be translated into Jewish languages in Russia. The reception of Marx among Jews in the 1870s was unique. Marx made Jews see themselves as political actors through their labor. One did not have to be a citizen of State to see oneself as a political actor with the capacity for revolutionary activity. Russian Jews read Darwin through a uniquely Jewish prism and attempted to redefine Judaism through the struggle for survival.

4)      What are the three types of materialism, social, scientific, and practical?

As the Jewish memoirist Pauline Wengeroff remarked, a “whole new set of household words” emerged in the 1870s. These included, “nihilism, materialism, assimilation, Anti-Semitism, and decadence.” The term materialism was used to describe various intellectual movements and likewise, when employed in Jewish contexts materialism meant a range of different things.

Even in the 1860s and 1870s there was no consensus about what the term materialism meant. Scientists, social commentators, economists and philosophers all used the term in multiple and often competing ways. For example, F.A. Lange’s grand work The History of Materialism–praises “scientific materialism” in the context of critiquing L. Büchner’s “philosophical materialism.”  In my work, I explore the various discourses in which the term materialism was employed, using each as a locus of discussion.

For Moses Leib Lilienblum, being a materialist meant promoting “a materialistic perspective on life,” in which social practices and religious institutions were scrutinized according to universal scientific principles of efficiency and utility.

For the Darwinian Rabbi Joseph Sossnitz, it translated into being a proponent of a “materialistic religion” based on reading the Bible and Kabbalah through the works of Darwin and Vogt.

For the Marxists Aaron Shemuel Lieberman and Isaac Kaminer, being a materialist entailed practically transforming the world through a critical analysis of history with “labor being the first principle of life.”  All these social, scientific and practical definitions of materialism circulated throughout Europe in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, often overlapping with monistic and certain strands of positivistic thought. What is unique, however, about this book’s protagonists is the way in which they connected these forms of materialism to their identity as Jews. Their Jewishness was defined by the way they related to physical world, to land, to labor and bodies.

5)      Why do we do we need to know about Lilienblum, Sossnitz, Shur, and Lieberman?

Jewish Materialism addresses people’s biographies only insofar as it illuminates something about their political and intellectual significance.

Moses Leib Lilienblum’s role as the founder of Zionism in Eastern Europe turns on his conversion from a melamed to the political upstart who said “in taten aryin.” His break with the rabbinate and critique of the Jewish enlightenment was based on the fact that in Russia both were equally impotent at helping him to procure the necessary means of survival.

The father of Jewish socialism, Aaron Shemuel Lieberman’s embodied the very political revolution he helped to put into motion. His transformation from a husband and supporter of the Russian State to an outlaw and a bisexual occurred while he was turning the pages of Marx’s Capital and Moses Hayyim Luzzatto’s 138 Gates of Wisdom. Lieberman’s life expressed in bold relief the radical sexual and political impulses in the kabalistic tradition and allows us to see why the concept of tikkun olam animated Jewish revolutionary activity.

Joseph Leib Sossnitz’s path from Habad Hasidism to proponent of a materialistic religion laid the groundwork for the idea of Jewish peoplehood developed by his American student, Mordechai Kaplan. Sossnitz’s own crisis with Habad’s acosmicism brought him to identify God in nature and to see the Jews as a distinct species.

Finally, the future Communist revolutionary Hasia Shur’s experience of being pelted with stones for taking a Shabbat walk hand in hand with Eliezer Tsukerman provides a window onto the way sexual and social liberation went hand in hand with political liberation.

The book tries to explain why these colorful vignettes in fact reflected a crucial turning point in Jewish politics.

6)      How did this effect Zionism?

Zionism was first and foremost a movement that redefined what it meant to be Jewish: Judaism went from being understood as a religion focused on rituals, reason, and study to a collective identity whose touchstones were the protection of Jewish bodies and the fair and equal distribution of resources. It is for this reason that Leon Pinsker and Judah Leib Levin and even Moses Lilienblum originally saw the immigration of Jews to the United States and Palestine as being part of the same movement. Zionism was not founded on the fetish for a particular parcel of land in the Middle East, it was directed at ensuring Jews physical protection and diversifying their labor profile. For the Jewish materialists, the choice between Palestine and the United States was rather minimal; the viability of one or the other was based on a cold and rational calculation of what option would offer greater forms of material protection and opportunities.

Zionism, as understood by the Jewish materialists, stood in opposition to Orthodox economics and politics: the shuls, yeshivot, hechsherim, and rabbanim, and the idea that Jews should be passive subjects to rulers of the various nation-states and Empires in which they resided. Lilienblum made Jews aware that they were starving because of a religious lifestyle and a set of values that drained their resources, and because of their support for a Tsar who could not adequately protect them.

7)      How have people read Klausner incorrectly?
Joseph Klausner is the scholar who came closest to identifying my thesis, but ultimately he also became the largest stumbling block to my research. Klausner was the first to recognize the novel historical impact Marx and Darwin had on eastern European Jewish thinkers in the 1870s. He knew that the Jewish reception of Marx and Darwin (and for that matter Chernyshevky and Pisarev) had radically changed the way Jews understood Judaism and related to their surroundings.  But Klausner submerged these insights into a broader theory of Zionism.

In his writings Klausner consistently insinuated materialism into ancient Jewish sources making it difficult to see the ways in which the materialist idea emerged in Jewish circles in the 1870s. “What do you mean Jewish materialism is a new idea?” Klausner might say, “look, here it can be found in the Bible!” To be sure, Klausner knew that Marx and Darwin could not be found in the Bible. but due to his own disputes with Marxist Zionists and Bundists, he asserted that the conceptual provenance of Zionism could be traced back to the words of the biblical prophets. It was only a matter of time until the writings of Marx, Darwin, and Chernyshevsky would be passed off by Zionists and Bundists as a form of “biblical messianism.”

In this regard Klausner followed in the footsteps of Asher Ginzburg, Ahad Ha-Am (who followed in the footsteps of Smolenskin). Scholars often forget that Ahad Ha-am’s insistence that Zionism was a spiritual movement was built on the material premise first put forward by Lilienblum and Lieberman via Chernyshevsky, Darwin and Marx. In other words, Ginzburg in the 1880s and 1890s was not secularizing ideas that could be traced back to Hasidic or Biblical sources; rather, he was spiritualizing the idea of Jewish land, labor, and bodies first articulated by the Jewish materialists in the 1870s.

8)      How does this change the way we see the breakdown of the religious world?

This is one the most important claims made in the book: the breakdown of the religious world did not come through what are often identified by scholars’ as a secular Jewish modernity:  the rejection of God and religious reform.

It came through the rejection of Orthodox economics and Jews’ revaluing the physical world. The Jewish materialists explained how the resources Jews were putting into yeshivot, synagogues, schools, and rabbis had come at the expense of protecting their bodies and developing their labor capacities.

As the founder of Zionism, Moses Leib Lilienblum explained in 1871, “[Jews labor profile primarily consisted of] the professions of preaching, religious adjudication, teaching, cantoring, matchmaking, writing, kabbalistics, synagogue work, psalm recitation, prayer recitation, seminary studies, asceticism, those who make their living from dowries, creditors, the fear of heaven and thievery.” Lilienblum’s answer to this problem was not to reform the Jewish soul-changing Jews beliefs reinterpreting Scripture or reforming Jewish rituals–but rather to see the Jewish body—its sustenance, maintenance, and protection—as the primary site of identity and then to ask how Jews might go about healing that body.

9)   Is this a book just about the 1870s, or does it have a message for contemporary Jewry?

The book concludes with a cliffhanger: Lieberman, Smolenskin, and Lilienblum debating the pros and cons of joining Russian revolutionary politics, immigrating to the United States, or traveling to Palestine. This debate, of course, foreshadows the big story of modern Jewish politics and present day debates over identity politics and economics and I touch on some of those issues in the Conclusion.

But for American Jewry, the most important takeaway is the deep spiritual background to its progressive character.

The poverty stricken Russian Jewish immigrants who followed in Lieberman and Winchevsky’s footsteps and arrived on these shores became leaders in progressive, socialist, communist, and other left wing political and economic movements. Inevitably, these movements were directed at rectifying America’s discriminatory economic system. From progressives (such as the future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis) to socialists (such as Forward founder and publisher Abraham Cahan) Jews advanced a political agenda for the fair distribution of the social surplus and the protection of citizens’ rights as laborers. “The labor question is and for a long time must be the paramount economic question in this country,” Brandeis once remarked.

Their investment in these movements was not simply an attempt to be American or a rejection of their Jewish backgrounds. It reflected the kinds of sensibilities and assumptions about Judaism that were first outlined by the Jewish materialists. As I have detailed elsewhere, for these thinkers there is a clear line that runs from Luria to Luzzatto’s kabbalah to Lieberman’s Marxism. The American Jewish Left’s employment of Tikkun Olam to describe their commitment to social and economic equality was rooted in a long tradition that runs back to the very first yeshiva bochruim who read Marx in the 1870s and became the founders of Jewish socialism, Zionism and Communism.

10) …And what would the Jewish materialists say about contemporary Modern Orthodoxy?    

Jewish materialists, like Lilienblum and Lieberman, would have chuckled at a recently published 100-page sociological survey on Modern Orthodoxy. Its authors asked participants every ideological, halakhic, and theological question that you could imagine. But they forgot to ask them the most simple and basic question about their own lives: What do you do? What is your profession?

Lilienblum and Lieberman remind us that it is a mistake to examine Orthodoxy’s beliefs and spiritual positions independent of its adherents’ class profile. As I detail in Chapter Two, Lilienblum wanted Jews to realize the full implications of what it meant that religious life was an economic choice.

That means instead of understanding Orthodoxy by asking its adherents about their beliefs regarding God, Jewish law, and Torah U-madda, they should first ask them what kind of labor they perform. The Jewish materialists insist that if we want to understand Orthodoxy, we should not begin with its scholastic debates over the status of philosophy or secular knowledge. Instead we must look at its adherents’ marital patterns, zip codes, and the maintenance of boundaries (membership and conversion) that ensures a certain kind of social economy.

By starting with questions surrounding class, you will be able to better understand the cost of day schools, shul membership, and the adoption of various halakhic stringencies far better than if you begin by asking people if they accept or reject a certain paragraph in Karo’s Code. If the Judaism being promulgated by Modern Orthodoxy costs too much it is not Maimonides or Karo fault; it is because ultimately, Orthodoxy’s adherents are invested in it costing that much and want to ensure that only certain individuals can afford to be Orthodox or Jewish.

Applying Lilienblum’s insights to contemporary Modern Orthodoxy we might entertain the possibility that the high tuition fees at Jewish Day schools exist to enforce a desired socio-economic boundary: to be Modern Orthodox one must be wealthy. We might ask, do the schools ensure that only wealthy people (or those that willing to be charity cases) can be part of that community? To what extent do those who support the study of Torah together with secular subjects (Madda) do so because it costs double and ensures that only people who can afford to pay double can be part of their communities? We need to understand why only wealthy people can convert to Orthodoxy Judaism. Generally speaking, the RCA tries to convert only people that can afford to be Orthodox.

Materially speaking you cannot be part of a Modern Orthodox community and be poor; you cannot identify as a Modern Orthodox family and be working class.  To be sure, sometimes this approach will still fail to explain the full range of people’s behaviors. Checkbooks alone do not fully account for commitments.

Today’s Orthodox, however, in their voting patterns, ideological beliefs, and religious practices, reinforce a very defined class profile. They vote for Trump for the same reasons they support school vouchers and day schools: it advances the reproduction of their wealth.  It is certainly interesting and important to study the ways in which various ideas and beliefs –“love of Israel” and “halakha”—reinforce and shape this class structure. However, what Lilienblum reminds us is that if we want to understand why a group votes the way it votes, educates the way they educate, and resides where it resides (in the wealthiest zip codes in the United States), we need to first see its adherents in material terms. We must look at their labor profile and per capita income, and ask in what ways their cultural institutions and political proclivities support a certain class profile.

Lilienblum would insist: there is no such thing as “a conversion crisis” or “a Day School crisis.”  Instead, he would demand that we ask how the high cost of Day School tuition and conversion reinforce Modern Orthodoxy’s class profile. How many poor Modern Orthodox Jewish families do you know (a net income beneath $25,000)? It is a chutzpah for laypeople and rabbis to blame that on Karo or Maimonides, however it is educational malpractice for scholars and academics to continue to perpetuate these “crises” by ignoring the issue of class when examining Orthodoxy.

Channeling Lilienblum and Lieberman, I find it deeply troubling that Orthodox Jews think it costs so much be Jewish. Every time I go to a Shabbat table in an Orthodox community someone inevitably talks about how expensive it is to be Jewish. Do people really believe that Judaism was meant to be given only to rich people or that Jews are allowed only to engage in a few niche professions. Wasn’t the Torah given to the poor?

Once we understand the class profile of Modern Orthodoxy the next step would be to go about creating a space for Jewish practice that would not be classist.  We should develop forms of Jewish observance and culture that are accessible to civil servants, janitors, artists, and chefs, a Judaism for a public-school teacher or a struggling musician. That means ensuring that whatever is being taught does not require one to be able to pay a fortune or be indebted to the largess of philanthropists. We want an educational system that helps people tap into their full capacities. This does not mean that there will not still be lawyers and accountants; it means ensuring that the Judaism being promoted would be one that reflected the full range of people’s labor abilities.

11)   What is economic Zionism? What does it have to do with contemporary Israel?

Economic Zionism was an antidote to Orthodox economics and imperial politics. It attempted to ensure that people did not need to pay double to be Jewish.

Its goal was to ensure that Jews could explore the full range of their human capacities and protect themselves without recourse to institutions outside of their control. Specifically, economic Zionism promised Jews that they could be observant without necessarily being wealthy or recipients of charity.

From Lilienblum and Pinsker, to Herzl, to Borchov and Ben Gurion, Zionism was first and foremost about ensuring greater forms of economic equality. As Herzl stated in the first sentences of the Jewish State: “It is astonishing how little insight into the science of economics many of the men who move in the midst of active life possess. Hence it is that even Jews faithfully repeat the cry of the Anti-Semites: ‘We depend for sustenance on the nations who are our hosts, and if we had no hosts to support us we should die of starvation.’”

There are deep contradictions between the economic and political programs of the Zionism put forward by the Jewish materialists and that proffered by contemporary Israeli and American Jewish political actors. This is confirmed by other recent studies on related subjects. Most notably, James Loeffler has shown in his work, Rooted Cosmopolitans, the strong ties between the early twentieth-century Minority Rights Movement and early twentieth-century Zionists.  According to Loeffler, Zionism and international law were conceived of, and built, alongside one another as complementary protectors of endangered and oppressed ethnic and racial groups.

Similarly, the Israeli historian Dimitry Shumsky has revealed the way in which Zionist thinkers (from Pinsker to Ben-Gurion) stood in opposition to the fetishizing of land and the nation-state. One of the points that emerge from these new histories of Zionism is the deep discontinuity between much of historical Zionism and contemporary Israeli and American Jewish politics. The latter, unfortunately, is largely based around the fetish of a specific landmass, messianic aspirations, Orthodox economics, and the promotion of capitalistic industry and maximalist definitions of a Jewish nation-state.

It is more than ironic that a movement that was founded on the principle equality and the protection of Jewish bodies has flourished into an Israeli State with one of the highest poverty rates in the Western world.

Likewise, a movement that justified itself through an argument about economic mobility and the fair and equal distribution of resources to all groups of people has given rise to a State that seems incapable of applying the same principles to its Palestinian inhabitants.  Finally, and perhaps most shocking it not only tolerates the economic unproductivity of its Orthodox citizens, it encourages such behavior through a vast network of state-based welfare.   It makes one wonder what if any relationship there is between the current version of the State of Israel to the Zionism of Smolenskin, Lilienblum and Pinsker. But that’s a subject for a different book.

12)   What are your next projects

A small-pamphlet on the relationship between Jewish Orthodoxy and the Right Wing of the Republican Party. A large-scale history of the reception of Marx as a Jew. And I will explore the continuity of the ideas in the book in the formation of 20th century American Jewry.

Interview with Rabbi Bradley Artson on Process Theology

Welcome CESJDS High School- Oct 6th, 2020

What sort of philosophy of God do you have? Theist, Pantheist or an Ultimate Reality or Cosmic Force? Is God all-powerful or limited? Concerned with our daily lives or not? Last week, the Pew foundation released statistics that a third of Americans treat God as a cosmic force and half of America are Biblical theists. These results should not be taken as anything new because much of American religion- from the Deist founding Fathers to the 19th century Transcendentalists, to the 21st century New Age- has always treated God as a cosmic force. However, the more important question is what are the properties of this ultimate reality? Pew, as usual, did not ask any follow up questions to determine the nature of the Ultimate Reality. Is it a disembodied Mind, a theopoetic metaphor for our own best selves or inspiring us with love and justice? Rabbi Bradley Artson has recently developed over several books a Jewish Process theology of love, compassion, and justice to address those who seek a religiously robust Ultimate Reality.

Bradley Artson holds an A.B. Degree from Harvard College, ordained by Jewish Theological Seminary and received his D.H.L. at HUC-JIR in Contemporary Jewish Theology, Artson served as the rabbi of Congregation Eilat in Mission Viejo. In 1999, he started at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University) where he is currently Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University and University Vice-President. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College at the University of Potsdam in Germany, ordaining Conservative/Masorti rabbis for Europe. Among his many books are the recent works of process theology Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit (Jewish Lights, 2015); God of Becoming and Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology (Jewish Lights, 2016).

artson- becoming

Already thirty-three years ago, while still in Rabbinical school, Artson defined his view of God as ethical and simultaneously based on Torah.

Credo – Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson 1985

The two core assertions of  traditional Judaism, assertions  which I cannot prove but upon  which I stake my life:

The first axiom is that God is loving, compassionate, wise, and passionate about justice.

The second is that the Torah and  rabbinic tradition is the preeminent  vehicle for Jews to articulate a sense  of God’s will and to concretize that will in our daily lives and our social  structure.

I refuse to read halakhah or the Torah in such a way that it makes  God seem cruel, nor will I sever the  intimate connection between God’s  will and God’s Torah.  God is just, and halakhah embodies  God’s love and justice.

From these two points, a Torah of compassion and social  justice emerges organically.

Compare this to the other Jewish Gods available in the 1980’s. Some chose a God that demanded an intellectual mastery of a corpus of halakhic books with a concurrent remaking of reality to match the vision of the books, others chose a territorial God on the verge of a messianic return to a Jewish kingdom, and still others chose an experiential and emotional God found in the personal heart. How many would have chosen this moral deity if given a choice?

Artson felt the need to develop a Process Theology of God when his tacitly assumed prior orthodox theistic theology failed, as explained in the interview.

Process theology is a form of theistic naturalism developed by Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) in which God is located in the natural order as a panentheism, ever changing and affected by temporal processes. Unlike traditional theism, God is not all knowing, not all-powerful, not engaged in supernatural acts. God is temporal, mutable, and affected by the world.

To get to today’s views, I am skipping over many subsequent thinkers such as Charles Hartshorne (1897–2000) or Henry Nelson Wieman (d. 1975). In later decades, the theologian John B. Cobb (b. 1925) wrote many works applying these abstract metaphysical ideas to a working practiced religion, religion of prayer and compassion, which emphasizes event, occurrence, or becoming over against substance. Many moderate and progressive members of liberal religion in the United States find Cobb’s view a viable religion. They find it a theology able to preach, teach, and inspire an integration of spirituality, social action, and care for the earth.

In this post-Cobb version, process theology presents a dynamic interdependent universe, congruent with the insights of quantum physics, biology, and the ecological movement. Second, experience is universal, valuable, and variable. Process theologians believe that we live in an organic lived universe in which all things have some level of experience. Third, creativity and freedom are real for God and us. God does not, and cannot, determine the experience of any creature or the future of the planet. God does not determine our lives, have a plan for the details of our lives, or respond to events in our lives. Finally, God is creative-responsive love. God and the world constitute a dynamic synergy of “call and response” in which God inspires and energizes each moment of experience and, conversely, embraces the ongoing history of the universe as part of God’s own experience.

Process theology of the Whitehead variety used to be popular in American liberal rabbinic theology.  In the 1950’s Rabbis Max Kaddushin, Milton Steinberg and Levi A. Olan, and Harry Slominsky were influenced by process theology. Olan was publicly committed to defending in the Jewish journals the concepts of process theology. In later decades, William E. Kaufman and Harold Kushner shared much of this view of a limited divine.  Mordecai Kaplan is famously quoted as defining “God as the power that makes for Salvation.” Whatever Kaplan actually meant by that phrase, Milton Steinberg, a rabbinic theologian sharply and publicly differed with it by affirming a theism, a process theism in which God acts in the world through inspiration and the creation of possibility, and not by miracles or violations of the laws of nature. He claimed that the universe is dynamic, creative, rational and purposive and contains consciousness: “The entire universe is the outward manifestation of Mind-Energy, of Spirit, or to use the older and better word, of God.” On these older trends, see Jewish Theology and Process Thought eds. Sandra B. Lubarsky and David Ray Griffin (1996); William E. Kaufman, A Question of Faith: An Atheist and a Rabbi Debate the Existence of God and The Case for God.

Rabbi Brad Artson’s position is, in many ways, similar to that of Milton Steinberg but with the influence of Cobb, Clayton, and many later process thinkers who emphasize experience, compassion, and creativity. However, more importantly, Artson is deeply invested in ethics, ritual, and devotional life. When one compares Artson to Steinberg or Levi A. Olan, besides the greater systemization, one sees Artson’s commitment to a life of justice, compassion, and love as well as the importance of prayer, Torah study, and mizvot.

As a coincidence, this week I inherited a copy of Levi A, Olan from an older colleague cleaning out his office.  When perusing the old volume, Olan seems more abstract with a weaker theism, almost deist, allowing only basic universal values. In contrast, Artson’s Torah is robust with many classes, lectures, articles, and dvirei Torah bringing out the ethical meaning of Torah, parasha, or a Rabbinic passage. Artson finds rabbinic texts that support his position and reads them as process theology. This interview is one of the cases where, if I could, I would have redone the interview to focus on Artson’s ethical and Torah views instead of his metaphysics.

Here are three samples of his thinking. Love and Justice, Ethics and Ritual- Achrei Mot-Kedoshim, Justice –Passover. For those who want more, Artson has dozens of divrei Torah and videos online.

An earlier version of his process theology was published eight years ago and is still online as a primer for his thought. BA-DEREKH: On The Way —A Presentation of Process Theology. This is a good place to start his thought after reading the interview. There was also a special issue of Conservative Judaism (Vol. 62 No. 1-2 Fall-Winter 2010-2011) dedicated to this preliminary version, comparing his thought to already known entities such as Milton Steinberg, New Age, Kabbalah, and Heschel. There was a solid discussion by Rivon Krygier  “The Force of Bradley Artson’s “Process Theology” and Its Limitations.” Here is a nice excerpt from God of Becoming & Relationship.

When all is said and done, process theologies may have little appeal in broader discourse and all the more so for a Jewish audience. The patriarch of process theology John Cobb was recently asked in an interview: why process theology has gained little traction? Cobb answered “The worldview that dominates most universities excludes both subjects and values a priori… Because this exclusion is a priori, no argument is needed. It is this metaphysics that still runs the world.”

Maybe, but a Jew who does not want a supernatural God but still wants a theism may be happier, and more comfortable, with neo-Hasidic, spinozistic, or New Age conceptions of God, not process theology. In addition, many Jews choose not to believe in theism altogether and prefer a secular humanism. Artson also does not engage the alternatives in a rigorous manner, of why his approach is better than weaker open theisms, than immanence, or than a non-personal God of peoplehood. Other Jews speak of God as a healer of shattered hearts, as having a plan for his people, and as experienced in mysticism. If one already has a theology then one would not be drawn to this. Artson assumes, just like Cobb, that everyone needs a metaphysics, so his is useful and adequate. However, many Jews just do not seek a metaphysics.  And those that do seek metaphysics, may be in the 50% of Americans comfortable with Biblical theism. In addition, his scientific worldview is optimistic, unlike those who sense a forthcoming global catastrophe.

Could there be an Orthodox version of process theology? I have met many Orthodox who interpret their Neo-Hasidic or Kabbalistic worldviews in process terms. But could one make a sustained theory?  (There is already a shallower version of process theology done by a contemporary Orthodox rabbi who adds Tony Robbins to produce a more gnostic New Age Secret Life of God. But he shows his complete lack of seriousness by concluding a 200-page book of process theology by tacking on a disingenuous two page affirmation of Kuzari theism).

In the end, both in this interview and the two recent books, Artson presents a Jewish process theology of God, focusing on the novelty of his process theology ideas of God. However, his ideas would have more traction if he stopped focusing on process theology and instead used these ideas to form a new narrative of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, especially an ethical covenantal narrative of the Jewish people, in which the process ideas are implicit rather than explicit. He should also concern himself more with alternatives to his approach, such as open theism and transcendental theism, and defend his position. He has all the elements of Torah, worship, and acts of loving-kindness in his books, but they get lost in the novelty of process theology. As a prolific author, Artson may already be writing the needed volume of Jewish narrative.

artson - creation

1) How did you get involved and discover process theology?

I grew up an atheist and turned to belief in God in college as a result of ethical philosophical questions (is morality reducible to majority consensus or is there a ground for what is good?) and then as a result of personal experience of the divine.

My theology was conventional for liberal theology (God was more or less the same God as the Orthodox but didn’t sweat the details quite so much). That carried me through college, working as a legislative aide to the Speaker of the California State Assembly for two years after college, rabbinical school, and into my new congregation in Southern California.

After about 5 years, my wife and I had twins and it soon became clear that my son Jacob struggled with a pretty intense form of autism. That threw my conventional theology (everything happens for a reason; it’s all for the best) into a tailspin. I could no longer affirm those platitudes without betraying my son. For two years, I simply avoided talking to or about God. I never stopped believing in God’s existence; I just felt it was better for both of us if we took a break from each other. But after that time, I needed to confront how this reality was possible: what kind of universe do we live in?

I knew I needed an organized program to see this investigation through, so I enrolled in the doctoral program at Hebrew Union College with Rabbi Dr David Ellenson as my supervisor. My first task was to read broadly in scientific literature to get to know the universe we actually inhabit.

I read in cosmogony, quantum physics, relativity theory, explorations of Dark Energy and Dark Matter, evolutionary biology, cognitive neurobiology, among other areas. I started to develop an understanding that the world isn’t made up of solid components that react against each other externally, but rather is made of recurrent patterns of energy that react both internally by responding to the shifting realities around, and externally by exerting an influence on other patterns of energy.  That means that the universe is profoundly dynamic and relational, and that the divine is not radically separate from creation but permeates creation and impacts it from within (naturally, persuasively). Creation impacts the Divine in the same way.

I was reading a book on different approaches to panentheism (the idea that God and the universe permeate each other but are not reducible to each other) when I came upon a chapter on Process Panentheism and discovered that my invention of Process Thought had been preempted a century earlier by Alfred North Whitehead and others. I started reading Process Theology writings and found a ready fellowship of people who share my core convictions and were personally among the warmest and most encouraging theologian/philosophers I have ever encountered.

2) You speak of the impact of your son Jacob’s struggle with autism on your emerging understanding of Process Theology. How has his autism influenced you?

I’m sure that I am not at all the same person I would otherwise have been. Having Jacob as a son has touched every aspect of my life. In terms of Process Theology, I can think of three areas of particular impact:

(1). Jacob is only moderately verbal, although he is able to type deep and sophisticated thoughts. Process Thought directs our attention deeper than rational, verbal expression, holding our deepest insights as “prehensions.” Jacob lives that reality and he has guided me past our Western obsession with words and analytical critical thought as the only, or primary, road to understanding. Seeing the necessity of knowledge for wisdom, but recognizing that the goal is wisdom, not knowledge, is a gift I got from my son and then found in Process Thought.

(2) I adore my son and see God’s love and generosity in the gift of being his father. Jacob took my commitment to diversity and different ability and vastly deepened it by sharing his life, his struggles and his triumphs every day. Walking through life with him has opened my soul to human and non-human diversity in all its beauty, courage, and resilience.

(3) For Jacob to forge a life of meaning takes such strength, such determination, such refusal to surrender. I see the ways that God is also self-surpassing in my son, as I also see God’s lure to Jacob to join in also being self-surpassing. When Jacob surprised all his doctors and experts by earning a high school diploma and walking across the stage to claim his certificate, I saw the finest example of God’s persuasive power, of listening to the lure, and of naturalist theology capable of gracing us with an additional measure of understanding, courage, and achievement. Jacob says that Torah saved his life, and that Process Theology saved Torah for him. It did for me too.

3) What is Process Theology?

Process Thought understands reality not as the bumping together of solid substances in absolute space and time, but as a cosmos of shimmering particles of energy which interact constantly and eternally. Every creature is really a resilient pattern of interlocking energy, each in a developing process of becoming.

Because “becoming” is concrete and real, and “being” is only a logical abstraction, the distillation of becoming in pure thought, Process Thought focuses on becoming as the central mode of every creature, of all creation, and indeed of the Creator as well.

The universe is recognized to be a series of interacting recurrent energy patterns, but not one that endlessly loops in the same repetitive patterns. Instead, the surprising miracle of our universe is that it seems to generate novelty with each new moment of continuing creation.

Process theology recognizes every “thing” is really a series of events across time, a process, that emerges in relationship. We are each a process, and creation is a process. God is a process, revelation is a process. All emerge in relationship, meaning that no thing can be understood in isolation. Each event has an interiority in which it integrates the reality around it with its own choice about how to proceed. In addition, an exteriority in which it has an impact on the choices of every other event around it.  We are all part of something interactive and dynamic.

In such a worldview, God is not outside the system as some unchanging, eternal abstraction. Instead, God permeates every aspect of becoming, indeed grounds all becoming by inviting us and every level of reality toward our own optimal possibilities. The future remains open, through God’s lure, to our own decisions of how or what we will chose next. God, then, uses a persistent, persuasive power, working in each of us (and all creation at every level) to nudge us toward the best possible outcome. But God’s power is not coercive and not all powerful. God cannot break the rules or unilaterally dictate our choices. Having created and then partnered with this particular cosmos, God is vulnerable to the choices that each of us makes freely as co-creators.

4) Is Process Theology Theist or Panentheist?

Process Thought sees itself as theistic. God has personal and impersonal aspects, eternal and timely manifestations. What most Process thinkers affirm also is that God permeates creation but is not reducible to it (panentheism) and that the two are mutually-influencing. We also reject the notion that God uses coercive power or can break the rules.

Can one ignore God or have a meaningful understanding of life without belief in God? Sure, but ignoring this force doesn’t mean it isn’t a force. One can choose to ignore gravity, but gravity manifests whether we attend to it or not.

Process Thought sees God not just as a character in a novel (with specific lines or actions), but more akin to the presence of the author of a play. Shakespeare, for example is never manifest in particular scenes or as a distinctive personality within one of his plays, nonetheless he permeates the entire drama, every line and as a whole. So, with or without a self-conscious sense of God’s impact or presence, a non-theist lives and moves in a cosmos in which God permeates the entirety of creation and powers its unfolding within and among each of us.

I am a panentheist not a pantheist. A classical theist believes that God is completely separate from the world. I don’t believe that. I believe that the world Is marinating in God, and that God is marinating in the world. If I were a pantheist, I would affirm that God and the world are one and the same.

I believe that both permeate each other, but that there are aspects of God that don’t involve the world, and aspects of the world that don’t involve God. Both have an irreducible reality beyond the other, but both permeate and influence and constrain each other. God influences the world by holding all potentialities, by keeping the future open, by offering lures to each created event, and by forever retaining our choices and all reality. The world influences God by the choices we make, which can either give God pleasure (when we rise to choose the Lure) or pain (when we do not). God’s memory becomes a permanent aspect of God, and it is shaped by our choices and behavior.

5)      How is God relational? How is God loving, caring and wise?

Every reality has an inner aspect (its own self-determination) and an outer aspect (its connection and relationship to the rest of creation. God is no exception: what God shares in common with all creation is a dynamic relationship that responds to the choices and becomings of others, which in turn shapes and constrains divine choices and becomings too.  That means that God influences creation (as I described above) and creation has an impact on God by providing the content of unfolding reality that God will eternally know and remember.

So, God has an internal aspect, choosing how to respond to the newest shiftings of reality. And God has an external aspect, impacting and shaping the Lure that makes our own choosing possible. Because God has timely aspects (ways in which God interacts within time and in the world) and eternal aspects (required by logic to be outside of time), God’s manifestations are beyond our own. One of the ways that God differs from the rest of reality is that God is able to relate to all of creation as a whole (that is part of God’s eternal attributes) and to every entity within creation (as the unifying ground of all becoming), and that God forever holds our choices and journeys in the divine memory (integrating the unfolding our choices into God’s eternal being). Nothing real is ever lost for God.

God’s goodness (love, care, wisdom) is absolute in all frames of reference. God is forever luring us (and all creation) to make the optimal choice facing us at the present moment (optimal in terms of love, experience, compassion, justice). God never gives up on us, never stops offering us the optimal possibility and empowering us to implement that lure if we so choose.

One of the great achievements of Process Theology is to declare that God is a force for good, but not the author of our suffering. As the Book of Genesis recognizes, there was tohu va-vohu (chaos) when God began the work of creation, of inviting the chaos to become cosmos. That chaos always exists, always threatens to destabilize cosmos. And God is always working to bolster the cosmos – the order, patterns, and reliability of creation. God is that force within nature allowing us to thrive, to grow, to surpass ourselves. That is the root of my religious optimism (and of Judaism’s): that our God is a God of righteousness, of justice, of hope. The Holocaust was an eruption of the tohu va-vohu and the outrage of the German nation choosing evil and rejecting the Lure.

6) What is the right way to read the Bible with process theology?

Process thinkers read the Bible as revealing deep wisdom, but not necessarily on the level of literal, historical facts. The stories and guidelines are divine in their insight and capacity to further human thriving, regardless of whether or not they actually happened. In this reading, Process Theology shares a great deal with other non-literalists.

A God who is not outside of time and space is one who can bubble up within human consciousness, removing the false dichotomy of the Bible having to be either God given or a human product. God works in, with and through us. We wrote the Bible together, our ancestors distilling the Lure into words: paradigmatic stories and wise behavioral guidelines that reflect our listening and distillation of a divine/human conversation across generations.

Revelation is the recording of the prehensions (intuition) that God inspires and which, in turn; Israel’s prophets and poets record in writing. That writing is both temporal and involves a series of events across time, making revelation both an ongoing series of punctuated events (the oracles of a particular prophet or the teachings of a particular sage, for example) and also a process that moves through time (hence, the open and ongoing nature of torah sheh be-al peh, the Oral Torah).

7)      How is your approach better than a generic agnosticism or being a “none”? Most Jews don’t care about God and don’t care about any theology, why process theology for these Jews?

One of the fatal challenges of contemporary Jewish thought is the segregation of scientific information and theory from cultural memory and practice. Among today’s Jewish thinkers, Judaism is just a culture, which means it does not help us in relating to the actual physical world, nor to addressing any real existential questions outside of a sophisticated notion of “myth.”

Most people find that approach barren and broken, and I believe that is one powerful reason by so many Jews reject the idea of God or divinity: because it is often presented in contradistinction to (and ignorance of) science. I teach my students that they must cultivate scientific literacy if they hope to be able to say something relevant to the actual world.

Science itself is an ongoing research method and a process of investigation, so it isn’t enough to read up on a field and then stop. Contemporary findings in astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, cognitive sciences, to name a few unfold in a dazzling array of new insights and challenges.

I have given this general presentation to research scientists at NIH, who affirmed my scientific claims and descriptions as accurate. Both of my books are grounded in speculating on contemporary scientific data and research, for example the significance of Higgs fields (a relational process) rather than the insignificance of particular Higgs bosons (a thing).

8)      What is gained in your approach compared to other theological views of God?

I think we lose people to Judaism if we can’t provide a single coherent narrative that explains the universe from the beginning to our own cultural emergings and an agenda to make our own future meaningful and worthy. Contemporary people need an integrated description of reality and their place in it and guidance for how to live lives of beauty and purpose. That renewed unified story has to include all we know from the natural and social sciences, which will in turn shape new readings of our tradition and new ways of living that integrate Torah in our communities and our lives.

Process Thought offers several benefits:

(1) It integrates our scientific knowledge with our speculative thought and cultural heritage, Process Thought makes it safe to be rational again, and invites people beyond a false vision of religion as a shortcut around science or science as eviscerating morality. It allows us to know everything we know about the world and to take inspiration from that knowledge.

(2) A God of persuasive power is no longer the bully who torments us or torments our loved ones. That means that theodicy (why bad things happen) is no longer either an intellectual trap or a moral monstrosity that makes religious people blame the victims.

(3) God becomes our cosmic companion, seeking our thriving and making that thriving possible. Just as God is always luring us to an optimal choice and giving us the strength to choose that lure, so we can renew our hope and our strength in the light of this realistic faithfulness,

(4) Finally, a process faithfulness allows us to put our energy into this world: the work of building inclusive compassionate communities, living in harmony with creation, doing the work of justice.

9)      If you say God is our GPS then how does this work? What is gained by process theology that guides our life more than any other non-supernatural approach?

God lures us by an immediate perception or intuition (Whitehead calls that “prehension”) of the optimal next choice for each of us (“lure”). That lure is unique for each one of us, the integration of our own past, personality, character, talents, and possibilities. This is not a specific method, it is a comprehensive explanation of why the future is open, why we have agency and choice, and why some choices allow us to thrive better than others. We can discern the lure through prayer, meditation, therapy, nature, study, mitzvot, and  a host of other paths. They are dipolar too: meaning they are complementary rather than mutually exclusive.

What is certain is that we all have the prehension within, and we need training and discipline to be able to discern its content above the clatter and din of modern life. Religion is such a training and discipline; a life of mitzvot can offer such access, if approached with an open heart and a willingness to discern.

Process Theology prioritizes actual events above speculation or conceptions of those events. That prioritizing of real life also elevates a naturalist view of the world, as opposed to a supernatural realm somehow outside of space and time.

Why does that reconfiguration matter? We now know that the cosmos is pretty super all by itself, and it continues to reveal wonders previously unanticipated. Nature itself is super, and wondrous (one might even say, miraculous!). There is neither need nor room for another realm.

10)      It seems you are basically a liberal theologian since you do not take God, Revelation, or reward literally. Are you not just a Jewish Unitarian?

There is a difference between taking something literally and taking it seriously. I affirm that God is real, not simply a useful fiction in my life or our culture. I affirm that God communicates with us and seeks our good (revelation) even if I don’t think that the mechanism God used was dropping a Hebrew book on us around a mountain one day. So, can we clarify: Process thinkers are God lovers, striving always to discern God’s message and God’s will. And we turn to our respective scriptures, to creation, to conscience to distill that message in our own lives and times. That’s pretty religious, isn’t it?

artson

11) Can I just be an ethical ethnic Jew with theology?

I have no need to argue someone out of ethnic Jewishness. But ethnicity doesn’t guide how to live, to rise to what is right, to stand against injustice. So it seems to me a rather trivial goal, one that many contemporary Jews justifiably abandon as marginal. I think many people want to know what is asked of them now, this moment. And they want to live lives of significance and uplift.

Process Thought opens Jewish scriptures (Bible and rabbinics) to help today’s people renew their strength and clarify their life purpose while enlisting the best of today’s knowledge and information into that worthy effort. For others, what it might offer would be a coherent explanation of the cosmos and life that includes what western thought divides up into science, social science, and the humanities. .

12)   You cite the musar masters as process theology, but they used Maimonides and Kabbalah to express and develop hesed.

Finding scattered quotations doesn’t replace the need for a coherent system. And an overarching systemic understanding would then seek instantiation in the insights and sources of a wisdom tradition like Judaism. The metaphysical system of Process can deepen and clarify how a value-concept (to quote Max Kadushin, an early Process influenced rabbi) like hesed works in a way compatible with our scientific and contemporary understandings.

And if that metaphysics is “True” (in the sense of explanatory, predictive, coherent) then we would expect to see multiple Jewish sources that would reinforce its assertions and provide examples of its interpretive utility.

Many have recognized that Aristotle himself was a proto-Process thinker (explaining the world as dynamic, interactive, responsive), and that would entail that the medieval neo-Aristotelians (like Maimonides) also prepare a path that later explicit Process thinkers can extend.

13)   Where do mitzvot fit in to process theology? Your theory of authority of the tradition, a traditional Conservative position, is not itself generated from your process theology. 

In Process approach, the doing of mitzvot as a manifestation of God’s presence and concern would be of greater importance, not less.

Judaism is not reducible to an abstract set of principles, because it has to be lived in actual relationships – between real living entities, between us and other peoples, between humanity and all the earth, between contemporary Jews and Jewish tradition, between Jews and God. Science can inform us about the physical aspects of reality, but the making of meaning is a human action, mediated through culture and character. Hence the humanities are the proper address for that decision making and affirmation. Talmud, in this case, not test tubes.

Of course, bringing a cosmic, Process perspective to our Jewish practice will make that practice more pluralistic and fluid. Some will resonate to a fairly traditional and halakhic Shabbat. Others might discover Shabbat community and connection in a less traditional framework, or outside of any halakhic reference whatsoever. A Process approach won’t adjudicate between these possible Shabbat days, other than to continue to insist that our practice enhance experience, justice, love, relationship (hence, community). The authority of the system is the wisdom the system manifests, not simply how it came to be written down.

14) What is prayer in this approach?

Prayer can engage hope, reminder, struggle. It can be a pouring out of words, song, postures, and crying out. It can be solitary or communal. Maybe the key Process tool here would be to recognize that “prayer” isn’t a thing to be measured against some objective criteria. It is a name we give to range of human activities. People pouring out their hearts, articulating their hopes and pains and aspirations, affirming or smashing assumptions of power, utilizing established liturgies or sitting in silence, dancing to music  or sitting in silence have all been prayer acts in different times and places. I refuse to choose among them.

15) Where do you go beyond Whitehead? What do you take from other Process theologians? Should your readers read them?

One place where I deliberately go beyond Whitehead is to prioritize morality. Whitehead was reacting against the moralistic fundamentalisms of his day, but I think he pushed too far. He correctly saw God as portrayed in Tanakh as moral and the prophets of Israel held an ethical yardstick to their assessment of religious authenticity. We need to restore that priority today as well, so I specify the lure in those terms (love, experience, compassion, justice) to make that moral voice primary.

John Cobb is the living grandfather of Process Thought, and as fine a human being as I have ever met. His introductions to Process Thought (two volumes of Q&As) are worth their weight in gold. Phil Clayton is also a first rate mensch and his scholarship on emergence and on panentheism opened doors for me that I traverse daily. Catherine Keller is my favorite theologian ever! Her audacious heart and her soaring use of English are simply unparalleled. Reaching her book On The Mystery is itself a religious experience. Jay McDaniel has written a great work on the place of animals in a creation theology and a great anthology introducing Process Thought. He has also created a raucous Web site of Processy articles from all faith traditions (http://www.openhorizons.org/home.html). All of these wonderful people have become my treasured colleagues, mentors and friends.

Mordechai Kaplan in his later thinking surpassed his youthful naturalism (a more mechanistic view of nature) into a richer transnaturalism that has more than a few explicit references and hints of Whitehead and Process.  Steinberg and Kadushin also acknowledge the impact of Process thought and manifest it sporadically, but none of these great thinkers addressed themselves in a systemic way to a comprehensive and underlying metaphysics.

Pesach Sheni as a therapeutic holiday

This is an update of a short 800-word post from 2010, now it is seven times larger. It is another one of my loose observations of lived religion. 

It seems that before our eyes Pesach Sheni became a holiday of second chances, reminding everyone to make sure that everyone is included and that no one is excluded. This folk practice has connections to Chabad, contemporary American sociology, and current trends in theology

Traditionally, Pesach Sheni was a minor vestigial day, which some especially Hasidim treating it as a minor festival. The practice of Pesach Sheni was originally a day for those who could not bring the Passover sacrifice to be allowed to bring the sacrifice a month later. There are customs among some Hasidim to eat a piece of matza on this day or to hold a seder – a tisch for Hasidic Torah.

The homiletical Torah in later centuries for this day was about those who carried Yosef’s bones. In the Middle Ages it was the last chance to see the miracle of the Exodus and bask in how God is above the natural order. And there is some Polish Hasidic Torah about hametz and matzah being at the same time. There was an important section in the Zohar and it was the holiday of Rabbi Meir Baal Hanes charity (see below).

A decade ago, about 2008 there was a burst on the scene of this Pesach Sheni practice within the broader Jewish community. This day became a day when all those who need a second chance have their holiday. Almost any metaphors of 12 step, broken pieces, therapeutic religion, or shattered lives have made their way into Pesach Sheni Torah, from all sorts of outreach/kiruv and self-help sources. (There is enough for grad student to collect and sort it out.)

Originally, it applied to those released from prison, recovering from addiction, or having mental health issues. In the last five years it was further extended to broader questions of diversity to include feminism, LGBTQ. In 2010, Kolech – the Israeli Orthodox feminist organization and initiated by Bat-Kol, the organization of religious lesbians, proclaimed it a day of inclusion of all. The holiday picks up steam in 2016 year when was a widely circulated blog post discussing it as a holiday for GLBT exclusion. In addition, Rav Cherlow gave a Pesach Sheni talk on the need to confront the other and this year on the need to accept gays in the community. In 2017, Pesach Sheni was a declared religious tolerance day.

But what I am noticing on this one is that the individualism of the kiruv organization, yeshivish self help and Neo-Hasidism is overlapping in metaphors and folk holidays with the liberal voices of diversity. There is a social reality of exclusion needing homilies of inclusion and a reality of therapeutic Torah.

Since the practice of Pesach Sheni had little current actual practice except for the pietistic custom of eating a piece of matza. It was an ideal underdetermined date with underdetermined practice ready to be filled in by a contemporary cosmology. Much of the language for this holiday comes from Chabad sources.

rebbe-pesach sheni

Origins in Chabad Theology

The Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn arrived in the United States, first as a visit in the 1929 and then permanently in 1940. Already from his first trip the United Sates, he emphasized the piety of the common person over the Rabbinic elite. In his sermons from his visit to Chicago, he categorically stated that the simple Jew who burns in his heart is greater than the intellectual scholar who is religiously cold. He also produced many stories of holy people who appear as sinners or ordinary people. He taught about how simple unlettered Jews are not far from God – in contrast to the rigid hierarchy of Lithuanian Jewry. He was showing inclusiveness for those whose journeys took their personal narrative far from the imagined ideal in contrast to the Rabbinic establishment seeking to exclude.

In 1944, the Rebbe Riyatz (Rebbe Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn) wrote that Pesach Sheni is a second chance for all those who were far away. It was a noble message for an era of immigration and dispersion. This concern for simple yidden and their probelms, however, went out of fashion in the post WWII era.

In his diary of daily advice (edited by his future successor Rabbi Menachem Mendel) he wrote:

Iyar 14, Pesach Sheini, 29th day of the omer 5703

The theme of Pesach Sheini is that it is never too late. It is always possible to put things right. Even if one was tamei (ritually impure), or one was far away, and even in a case of lachem, when this (impurity etc.) was deliberate – nonetheless he can correct it.

Rebbe Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn in his sermons was dealing with actually displacement of war, famine, and struggles to survive. Now we have an acute sense by many in the community that many people are excluded and need to be made welcome again.

In 1978, his successor the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneersohn told over the teaching of Pesach Sheni from the prior Rebbe as an opportunity for a second chance.

Pesach Sheni gives those who did not offer the Pesach sacrifice the first time the opportunity to do so a month later. Its message is that nothing is irretrievable, that a Jew can always rehabilitate himself.
One clear lesson from Pesach Sheni is that a Jew need never give up hope. In the words of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe: “The idea of Pesach Sheni is that nothing is irretrievable; we can always rectify our behavior. Even one who was ritually unclean or who was on a distant journey – even willingly – can still rehabilitate himself.” A Jew is intrinsically good, his soul “a part of G-d Above.” Sin is completely antithetical to his nature. If he does transgress, it is an aberration that cannot touch his essential self. He may be temporarily unclean, but he is of the loftiest levels. Thus no sin, no omission of service to G-d, is irretrievable. A Jew can always return to his real identity. Likkute Sichos XII 5738, emor 216-220

In later talks, as paraphrased on the Chabad website, the holiday is an opportunity to change our lives. However, this opportunity is available specifically to those fell from the envisioned path. Their fall is the catalyst for greater growth. A form of spiritual decent for the sake of ascent.

Pesach Sheini embodies the approach of teshuva. In order to return to the proper path, it is not enough to merely avoid impropriety; the individual must address the fact that he has succumbed to the forces of evil and use this fact to strengthen the weak point in his relationship with G‑d. When he does this, he transforms the power of evil into holiness and his previous sin into a source of merit, thereby obtaining G‑d’s forgiveness for his misdeed. This capacity – the ability to change that which is already done and to overcome wrongs that have already been perpetrated – is drawn from a source of transcendent spirituality, a level beyond merit or iniquity. It taps into the essential relationship between man and G‑d, which is not predicated on our obedience to His will. This connection can never waver, for it is intrinsic in nature; the essence of the Jewish soul is one with G‑d whether they obey His will or not.The leaven need not be banished, since we are ready to elevate it…

Because Pesach Sheini, is an exercise in transcendence, it does not require the methodical preparation required by the regular Pesach. The leaven need not be banished, since we are ready to elevate it, too. Earlier impurity no longer matters, for it cannot destroy this intrinsic connection. And one day is enough, for this connection transcends time as well as behavioral issues.

If, as has been explained, Pesach Sheini embodies a higher degree of divine service, why is it reserved for those who became defiled? Why could one who brought the sacrifice on the first Pesach not enjoy the sublimity of the second? How was he to achieve the advantages of transcendence?

It was only those who had deviated from the proper path and had never begun a proper journey of growth that needed to skip directly to the transcendent. They required a catalyst, an offering to be brought in the second month, because without that “jump”, they would have remained helpless and unchanged.

Why do we celebrate the Pesach Sheini nowadays? We were not obligated to bring the sacrifice on the first Pesach. Why do we mark the secondary choice?

The answer is that we celebrate its spiritual meaning. We celebrate the added capacity to achieve a higher degree of spiritual connection. And, we celebrate its lesson: no matter what may have happened in the past, no matter what we may have spoiled, it’s never too late. We still have the ability and opportunity to change – not only our futures, but even the effects of the past.

Typically, Chabad spirituality since the Tanya has stressed the proper path of Torah teaching that one should avoid sin or things that take one from the path. In Chassidic language. It is overcoming temptation (itcafya). However, here we have the other Hasidc option discussed more in other groups of transforming the spiritual energy of the deviation to a higher service (ithafcha). This is closer to an Izbitz of transforming sin into merit teaching than popular Chabad approach.

Nevertheless, this homily follows from the other homilies of Rebbe Menachem Mendel teaching there is a transcendental place, a higher connection, that can transcend ordinary approaches. In most places, the Rebbe calls this Kesser (keter), the point of pure devotion and giving of the will higher than medieval sefrotic hierarchies or specific mizvot. Here we have an ordinary day in which we can work and eat leavened bread that is paradoxically higher then Passover itself.

There is also speculation that the Rebbe’s Pesach sheni teachings are somehow also connected to the yahrzeit of Yisroel Are Leib, the Rebbes brother, who left the religious path.

Reb Shlomo Carlebach added these ideas to his repertoire of stories from Rebbe Riyatz on holy sinners, ordinary people, and deepest desires as a path to a high service. The Carlebach Torah for Pesach Sheni was already on the web back in the days of Web 1.0 and majordomo mailing lists letting the ideas diffuse widely.

By the new millennium these ideas had migrated into English Breslov, outreach literature, and web Torah, but as part of other homilies. It was turned into a day of second chances for convicts, addicts, abuse, sexual and gender alienation, divorce, second marriages, and GLBT identity.  It seems to have happened very quickly both here and in Israel.

Prison and Released Prisoners.

The first group to make use of these ideas was for Chabad organized conferences for prison chaplains. Prisoners and those families touched by cycles of incarceration needed a second chance.

But there is a deeper story here; once again a Chabad story.  Chabad under the Rebbe Riyatz and Rebbe Menchaem Mendel reached out in their outreach to prisoners, mentally and psychologically challenged in mental hospitals, the elderly and infirm, the substance addicted, the handicapped, soldiers, and the deeply assimilated.

I recently supervised as an outside reader an Israeli social work MA on the principles of inclusion of the Rebbe. Whereas, most Jewish communal work is focused on the core of those committed or bringing people into the core, Chabad as expressed in the Rebbe’s talks includes everyone. They can fill an empty synagogue space by going door to door and inviting the elderly and infirm, or bring people from a local institution or assimilated merchants. They can ask tattooed musicians or intermarried storekeepers: “Are you Jewish?” Many say they want to learn from Chabad in doing outreach but then miss the point by doing outreach only to comfortable and well-organized suburbanites. Then you are only doing marketing and not imitating Chabad who are doing inclusion. I am not saying that Chabad always has the knowledge and professional skills to handle the problems of these constituencies, but they include them.

Hence, one of the first groups to make much of this day were the Chabad groups engaged in outreach to prisoners.

It’s a most opportune day to change for the better, notes Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, the executive director of the northeast chapter of the Aleph Institute, an international organization that aims to help incarcerated Jews and their families, in addition to Jewish service men and women in the U.S. military.

The nonprofit entity will host its seventh annual Re-Entry Symposium, a training program for Jewish chaplains who serve people in prisons, hospitals or group homes. “The way forward is to teach” people who are incarcerated, emphasizes Vogel, “and give them the rehab they need to become productive citizens.”

“We all trip in our own ways, and we have to know that there is a second chance,” says the rabbi. “We can always repent. We can start off life anew. We can fix the errors that we have made.”

Here is where this blog post comes in. These concept of second chances and these activities of inclusion are mainstream in the 21th century among many Americans. When the Chabad chaplains were organizing, so too the Christian and non-affiliated groups have been organizing for the last decade. Most of you are probably unaware that in April 2017, the month of April was adopted in a bipartisan action as “Second Chance Month for those affected by Crime and Incarceration.” The United States has institutionalized April as a time of Second Chances and it coincides every year with Pesach Sheni

In 2017, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution declaring April “Second Chance Month,” a time to focus on giving those who have committed a crime, done their time, and have been released back into the community a second chance to be productive and contributing citizens. The 65 million Americans with a criminal record experience limited access to jobs, education, housing, and other things necessary for a full and productive life.

Make your church a welcoming place for people affected by crime and incarceration with a message on redemption and a special prayer time for impacted families.

Someone even wrote a speech for President Trump on this theme of reintegration in society after incarceration.

During Second Chance Month, our Nation emphasizes the need to prevent crime on our streets, to respect the rule of law by prosecuting individuals who break the law, and to provide opportunities for people with criminal records to earn an honest second chance.  Affording those who have been held accountable for their crimes an opportunity to become contributing members of society is a critical element of criminal justice that can reduce our crime rates and prison populations, decrease burdens to the American taxpayer, and make America safer.

pesach sheni

Further Extensions to the Holocaust and to Acceptance of our defects.

As noted, this idea of a second chance moved to many directions. There are dozens of applications online, but I only want to note a few.

It has been extended as a way to understand how Holocaust survivors were given a second chance, helped by the proximity of Holocaust Remembrance day to Pesach Sheni. There are stories online connecting Pesach Sheni to the liberation of Buchenwald and the Passover eating of matza held that year on Pesach Sheni. “All Jews were invited by Rabbi [Herschel] Schacter to attend services and to eat Matza, since it was Pesach Sheini that day. The second Pesach, for Jews that couldn’t observe the holiday of Pesach at the proper date…The prisoners of Buchenwald never dreamt they would be given a second chance.

Here is one where the Holocaust theme become a model for accepts our defects and moving beyond things that hold us back.

The Gift of Second Chances 

Some apply the concept to their personal narratives as children of Holocaust survivors and their own having to learn compassion as second generation of survivors. “My parents’ lives were replete with second chances. My mother lost her entire family, yet she was able to pursue her life-long dream of becoming a physician. My father survived numerous dramatic encounters with death…”  Yet this author notes they became critical and perfectionist with their children.  “My parents survived on second chances, but they were unable to offer me (or my siblings) the same. Perfectionism ruled our home. Mistakes were not an option. Compliance was survival. Criticism was the language of lullabies; I was nursed on negativity.”

Today I have compassion. I know that my parents could not have done any differently. With their pain, they built the best lives they could. They endured unimaginable horrors. They lacked the gift of faith.

In their plea for a second chance to bring the Passover offering, our ancestors gave expression to our own inner truths: Just because we have inherited traits and adopted behaviors that do not serve us well, why should we miss out on the joys of life? We, too, want fullness and richness and serenity in our lives, true closeness in our relationships.

The same author then extends this framework of not  missing out on the joys in life to brader issues of Judaism and serving God with our imperfections.

The gifts of recovery stem from our connection with our Creator. Biblically, bringing offerings was about coming close to G‑d. In our days, we, too, bring our offerings as a way of coming close to G‑d. We present our defects of character. We offer our addictions, our passions, our habits. We beg G‑d to remove the obstacles to our spiritual, emotional, and physical well being.

Many recovery groups study Step Five this month. We admit to G‑d, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. This is Pesach Sheni/Second Chance work! In admitting our shortcomings in this manner, we have another opportunity to renew our relationship with G‑d. We can become acquainted with our true selves.

Pesach Sheni as a holiday for Feminism and LGBTQ inclusion

Pesach Sheni can represent the inclusion of women for example using the daughters of Tzelophechad as an example.  This Year JOFA is hold a women’s seder on Pesach Sheni as part of a message of inclusion. An example of an Orthodox feminist application is the following:

Nowadays Pesach Sheni is a symbolic date on our calendar, but we can imbue it with contemporary significance by lending it to the ongoing debate around the inclusion of women in rituals from which they have traditionally been exempt. The debate, comprised of numerous elements, both halakhic and hashkafic, would be richer if it included the sociological role of belonging that many of these rituals invoke.

It may well be that in strict halakhic terms a woman is exempt from a particular ritual, but as Pesach Sheini informs us, exemption often comes at a cost. In the case of women and ritual, the cost can be alienation and disconnection from the sacred community. The important question then is, can we afford to bear this cost?

An analogy between the celebration Pesach Sheni and the allowance of same sex marriage as an act of inclusion. Several online statements argue that this Torah portion tells us God instituted a new holiday to enable all people to be involved even if they were different.

They usually connect this inclusion to general diversity issues related to gender and sexuality, but also race, ethnicity, and class

Our Torah portion tells us God instituted a new holiday to enable all people to be involved even if they were different. Putting this notion into modern times makes it easy to believe God wants us to be able to marry if we choose to, since today, marriage can be perceived as analogous to Pesach observance for our ancestors many millennia ago: it demonstrates a kind of “fitting in” or adherence to “expectations” and we all deserve to be able to do this if we feel so inclined.

Second, all people, according to the Torah, are held to the same standards no matter when they celebrate Pesach. Similarly, no matter whether a marriage is same or opposite sex, God expects the same level of commitment, respect, etc. within the relationship; simply being different doesn’t mean we are held to a different-no matter whether it’s lower or higher standard than other people are.

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American Popular Psychology Applications of Pesach Sheni

This topic of second chances is playing a bigger role in American culture. For example, there is a journalistic pop psych book “The God of Second Chances,” by Marcia Z. Nelson in which the author traveled the United States in search of people whose lives were transformed by religion.  She found people who returned to religion as a second chance after drugs, after tragic loss of family in premature deaths, after involvement in extreme political groups.

None of her stories told how everything has been wonderful since they found God, the struggles continue, even after divine presence has entered into their lives and transformed them. Rather the book showed that shows something that American organized religion tends not to see: “the extreme highs and lows that characterize the lives of many people, including people of faith.” And it showed the complex ebb and flow, the forward and backward movement of divine transformation. “Sometimes, there are permanent scars. The Jewish man, for example, lost his once-powerful voice to throat cancer – an experience he understood as God taking him by the throat and insisting, “Shut up. Stop talking. Start listening.” The important thing about second chances is that the past can and will influence your life forever. A person uses their struggles to fuel the second chance.

In a similar manner, there are human-interest stories from Jewish journalists about their second chances and their overcoming a sense of disconnection. Websites such as Aish can sanctify people getting their lives in order as part of the Torah concept of Pesach Sheni.

Pesach Sheni: The Holiday of Second Chances Karen Wolfers Rapaport

Disconnection is often a byproduct of unconscious living. When we let our conditioning be our compass so that our paths never change, neither will our landscape. Whether it’s in relation to ourselves or to others we will feel disconnected from the inroads that lead to our essential self.

But life gives us many second chances. And each time we choose to live consciously and move from judgment to compassion, apathy to care, idleness to activity, we begin to reconnect and travel towards home… Pesach Sheni, the Second Passover, thus represents the power of rerouting to our core, to our Divine connection.

American Society and Second Chances

Prof David Newman, a sociologist at DePauw University delivered a paper on “The Practice and Promise of Second Chances in American Culture” and will have a forthcoming book The Promise, Practice and Price of Second Chances in American Culture (Lexington Books), projected to be published in 2019 (Lexington Books). He shared his unpublished paper delivered at the ASA with me.

Newman notes that the news is filled with stories of high-profile people making serious mistakes, crimes, or acts of bad behavior, followed by apologies, then a period of non-visibility (in rehab, in prison, on the disabled list, under suspension, or simply in seclusion). The conclusion is inevitably the individual claiming to experience an epiphany about the misdirection of his or her former life and promises to be a better person from now on, allowing him or her to make a comeback.

But our American lives are filled with adults shifting the trajectory of their lives, divorces remarrying, or fortunate patients overcoming a life-threatening medical condition. According to Newman, “in every facet of our lives” including “intimate relationships, academic performance, occupational choices, financial well-being, run-ins with the law, spiritual happiness, physical health” Americans “expect and seek out opportunities to overcome past misfortune, fix past mistakes, amend past transgressions, or correct past failures.”  Newman notes that the concept of a second chance is a “quintessential cultural paradox,” which represents “individual hopes for redemption, while at the same time it reminds us of our harshest proscriptions and darkest suspicions about the intransigence of human nature.

We find the concept of a second chance “in some form, in societies around the world, it has an especially American appeal.” It combines “Judeo-Christian tradition’s allowance for sinners to repent or atone for their sins and be fully redeemed” with American “therapeutic ideology, providing a progressive, optimistic, curative setting for individual rehabilitation while simultaneously rebuffing the notion that people are inherently, permanently flawed.”

Newman counted over 2,000 listings in the Library of Congress “for novels with “Second Chance” or “Starting Over” in the title.” In addition, “second chance imagery is especially strong in our popular cinema.” We use the phrase second chance in diverse aspects of our life ,” there are second chance checking accounts, second chance credit cards, second chance auto loans, and second chance low-rent.”

In short, we want each phase of our lives to lead logically and progressively to the next… By connecting past transgressions or mistakes to future opportunities for a second chance, we allow our life stories to unfold in a comprehensible trajectory. We are thus able to create order out of a life that might appear on the surface to be muddled and aimless.

When you combine this sort of cultural ethos with the equally powerful western value of individual achievement and the drive for success, it is not surprising that a narrative has taken hold that rhetorically and pragmatically provides people who have somehow fallen short with opportunities to reboot and start over. The second chance serves as road repair—renovating the cracks, filling the potholes, and ultimately smoothing the route to future accomplishment and fulfillment.

As the therapeutic second chance industry has grown, it has become highly specialized. Yet Newman’s analysis of these agencies revealed that they are split roughly equally between those that exist to help people whose misbehaviors have gotten them into trouble, including ex-prisoners, former substance abusers, rebellious teens. And those that seek to help people who are victims of some unfortunate life turn that they couldnot control, including homeless people, transplant recipients, cancer survivors, domestic violence victims.

Newman notes with surprise “that a significant number of agencies… make no distinction at all between the various types of suffering that lead people to a point where they need a second chance… “Indeed some agencies pride themselves on the fact that they attempt to serve the needs of anyone who needs a second chance, no matter who or why.” The philosophic and theological concept of a  second chance takes precedence over the causes of that need. Hence, troubled teens, substance abuser or ex-criminals are treated together with cancer survivors, homeless, and violence victims.

Newman contrasts this new narrative with the concept of the permanent stigma narrative. One cannot have any do overs or second chances in this model. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression. This more traditional alternative stress that  “Once a ________, always a ________,” for Newman this model “resonates in this culture just as much as the redemption rhetoric.”

Contemporary Theology

These popular ideas of second chances and finding a means for inclusion of those who were excluded is also important in contemporary theology. There are dozens of books on the topic and American theological schools and seminaries offer courses on inclusion and second chances. Courses teach about offering hospitality to those in our population considered strangers and to enable students to use that moral framework in developing a pastoral response to contemporary issues of diversity and inclusion in church and society.

Persons with disabilities help theologians to rethink theological assumptions about God, humanity, and the church. They are also helping ministry practitioners to make worship more inclusive and hospitable to all people. For example, religion cannot only be for the smart, able, and wealthy.  The courses discuss diversity, race relations, homelessness, refugees, migrant workers, and persons with disabilities.

The goal of these courses is to teach that we are not our limitations and our limited bodies, or conversely we are our bodies and limitations. The community has to learn to be accepting without being patronizing, rather the fundamental anthopology has to be inclusive.

Here are some examples:

On Disability read Nancy Eiesland, The Disabled God  and Amos Yong,  The Bible, Disability, and the  Church. Then discuss How do contemporary perspectives about disability change how we think of human nature? How does our view of disability affect pastoral care and welcome for those with disabilities?

When I read these theological works on physical disability, I wanted to blog about how that changes our views of Maimonides, of Soloveitchik, and of Modern Orthodoxy but never had the chance. If most of our conceptions of our prior conceptions Torah are intellectualist then where do the mentally challenged, the person with cerebral palsy, or the deaf fit in? Not the question of whether they can be called to the Torah for an aliyah but what is our religious anthropology?

On Gender read Sarah Coakley,  God, Sexuality, and the Self,  then discuss how do women’s voices change discussions of gender and sexuality? What is the relationship between theology and pastoral care in matters of gender

Older classics from twenty years ago on these topics that won awards include:

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace.  Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.; Bernard Adeney, Strange Virtues: Ethics in a Multicultural World. InterVarsity Press, 1995;Brett Webb-Mitchell, Unexpected Guests at God’s Banquet: Welcoming People with Disabilities into the Church. NY: Crossroad, 1994.

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Traditional Sources on Pesach Sheni not related to Second Chances

Pesach Sheni is the Yom Hillula -Yahrzeit of the Tanna, Rabbi Meir “Baal HaNess” (“Master of the miracle”), on which the charity Kupath Rabbi Meir Baal HaNess Kolel Polen, founded in 1796 in Poland named after the tanna Rabbi Meir.  The charity was founded by Rabbi Abraham Kalisker, leader of the Hasidim in Tiberias. He secured the assistance of Rabbi Mordecai of Nieschiz, who issued a proclamation urging all Jews of Poland regardless of age, gender, or living conditions, to pay a fixed sum every week for the support of their countrymen who had settled in the Holy Land. The amount was to be paid quarterly, in addition to special donations at weddings, circumcisions, and other religious rejoicings.

In the Ra’aya Meheimna (The Faithful Shepherd) section of the Zohar, an early 14th-century work that makes Moses the faithful shepherd, not Shimon bar Yochai as the hero and protagonist. In this reading the divine Matron descends to be seen in her full regalia for a full month which ends on Pesach Sheni. (It is like a darshan of Shakhti in Hinduism). This second passsover is from the left-handed side of gevurah from binah in which all human impurity is burned off in the fire of gevurah.

It is a commandment to make a second Pesach for those that were unable or were defiled by any other uncleanness. If the secret of Pesach, which is the secret of the faith in which Yisrael entered, dominates in the month of Nissan and then it is the time for rejoicing, how could those who were unable to prepare it on time, or were defiled, make up for it in the second month, seeing that its time had already passed?

Once the Congregation of Israel is adorned with its crowns in the month of Nissan, she does not remove these crowns and adornments from herself for thirty days. The Matron sits in her adornments all these thirty days, beginning with the day of the exodus of Israel since the Pesach lamb and all her legions are in a state of happiness. Whoever wishes to see the Matron may look.

A proclamation calls: Whoever did not get a chance to see the Matron should come and look before the gates are locked. When is this proclamation proclaimed? It is on the fourteenth day of the second month, since the gates remain open from then on for seven days following. Following that, they lock the gates. Therefore, this is the second Pesach.

The Shekhinah is the first Pesach from the right side, and the second Pesah from the left. The first Pesach is from the right where Hokhmah prevails. The second Pesach is in the left where Binah prevails. In Gevurah all foreign fires are removed, which are like straw and chaff in relation to the fire of Gevurah. The unclean are delayed until the second Pesach.

For an example of a non-hasidic homily, I offer Rav Gedalia Schorr who read Hasidut including Izbitz and Rav Zadok, yet treats the holiday as our chance to show our yeshivish effort and earned merit unlike Passover itself which was God’s hand.

Rav Gedalia Schorr in Ohr Gedalyahu explains that Pesach is a great gift from Hashem.  Normally for us to get something from Hashem we must make the first move towards Hashem and then he reciprocates by opening the floodgates.  You open up a miniscule opening for Hashem and Hashem will open a gigantic opening for you.  We didn’t make the slightest move towards Hashem in Egypt yet Hashem ignored that and came our rescue anyway.

Sefira is a time where after having received Hashem’s great chesed on Pesach we go back slowly and earn it day by day… When we demanded Pesach Sheini Hashem opened up the Heavens and graced us with this wonderful opportunity.  The whole point of this second Pesach was that the inspiration come from us below.

Finally, as I was writing this blog post a lecture with a restrictive message of not missing the boat appeared on YUTorah on Pesach Sheni. It was given in Israel by an Ivy League law graduate and former law partner whose entire emphasis was about exclusion or a narrow life boat. We need to find a way to submit to the fixed system in order to be counted, the opposite of all these recent trends. The lecturer basic showed how without keeping Passover you are entirely excluded from the Jewish people and without believing in God’s miraculous hand in the Passover story, you are excluded and deserving of excision from the people (karet). If one is excluded, then one is outside the foundations of Torah and hence excluded regardless of the reason. Pesach Sheni is way to make sure you don’t miss the boat in submission in thought and action and find yourself excluded or cut off (karet).

Shlissel Challah, Bread Baking, and the Relief of Anxiety -An Update

This is an update of a post from 2016 with revisions based on extensive Facebook discussion. New posts are coming within a few days.

For those who do not know, in recent years there has been a revival of the folk practice of baking a key into Challah (Shlissel Challah) during the week after Passover as a charm to insure successful livelihood.

In short, I will treat the ritual as modern home ritual focusing on baking bread after Passover, not as a magical act, and sometimes as an act done to relieve the anxiety for making a good livelihood because people are very concerned about paying their bills and making a living especially after the economic downturn.  But, it is more connected to the trend of challah baking parties and contemporary spirituality. It has become a form of annual symbolism, the same way one buys a round challah for Rosh Hashanah, one buys a key challah this week.

This post is not about the Hasidic community or  those who were doing it thirty years ago. It is only about the progress of the custom in the modern community within the last dozen years. If you were from a community doing it thirty years ago, then I am not addressing you. 

Malinowski in Teaneck

For more than decade, I have wanted to do an article entitled “Malinowski in Teaneck.” This is just the tip of the iceberg of many related observations on this topic. I do not think one needs to accept all, or even most, of the functionalism of Malinowski, but the insights are valuable.

Already fifteen years ago, I was taking note of the huge amount of magical acts, healing practices, segulot, and rituals to affect or change bad situations that took place among the modern Orthodox Jews of Bergen county. Keeping track and documenting of the magical practices was easy through the local community shul list serve, currently at over 14,000 members, where invitations to practices were openly posted.

The famed anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski  (d. 1884-1942) wrote seminal articles in the 1920’s and 1930’s showing that people turn to magic when they are doing everything right but things are still coming out wrong.  For example, when a person did everything right in one’s farming or fishing, but one still had well-placed anxiety about this year’s harvest since life is never certain. One released the tension through magical practices. One did magical practices to ensure a good catch even though you still knew it was based on skill and hard work because life remains fragile and contingent.

My original intention was to post about the magic practices by those in Teaneck stricken by illness. Last decade there was a boom in these new practices. They know they have to go to doctors and specialists, along with second and third medical opinions; they know it depends on modern science and the best procedures. But when that fails they turn to magic to deal with the anxiety about the failure and that they have exhausted all possible means. In addition, in their minds they did everything right religiously, they went to the right gap year programs, they followed the rules for social and professional success-so they are left the question: why did this happen? The halakhic universe of duty and obligations does not address their anxiety. Telling them it is nonsense or forbidden is beside the point in relieving anxiety and fear. They will just seek the relief elsewhere.

According to Malinowski:

Wherever there are situations of danger or uncertainty, rift between ideals and realities, or human crisis and resulting in anxiety and fear, religion and magic steps in and attempts to resolve, mediate and/or lessen, and provides chart and procedural knowledge to give order and control.

He must admit that neither his knowledge nor his most painstaking efforts are a warranty of success. Something unaccountable usually enters and baffles his anticipations…Man feels that he can do something to wrestle with that mysterious element or force, to help and abet his luck.

There are no peoples however primitive without religion and magic. Nor are there, it must be added at one, any savage races lacking in either the scientific attitude, or in science, though this lack has been frequently attributed to them.

Malinowski wrote that: “Magic therefore, far from being primitive science, is the outgrowth of clear recognition that science has its limits and that a human mind and human skill are at times impotent.”  These practices are non-pseudo- science; people know what they have to do rationally.  Rather, they are means to deal with the frustrations of real life.  Malinowski confirms the Talmud when it says: “Most sailors are pious, He that will learn to pray, let him go to sea,” (Mish. Kid. iv. 14).

Magic is to be expected and generally to be found whenever man comes to an unbridgeable gap, a hiatus in his knowledge or in his powers of practical control and yet has to continue in his pursuit. Forsaken by his knowledge, balled by the results of his experience, unable to apply any effective technical skill, he realizes his impotence. Yet his desire grips him only the more strongly. His fears and hopes, his general anxiety, produce state of unstable equilibrium in his organism by which he is driven to some sort of vicarious activity.

Malinowski still acknowledges the rituals of social order and heightened tension but some are the result of psychological anxieties. What he is rejecting it the approaches of the 19th century E. B. Tylor who developed the evolutionary scheme where people need to be taught to move past their superstitious past based on a lack of knowledge of science and accept the rational world of science.  For Tylor, magic is attempt of bad science cause-effect For Malinowski, magic reduces anxiety and is integrated within proper knowledge of procedures for success, hence it is still part of the life of modern scientific people.

According to Malinowski, the ritual eases stress, mental conflict and possible psychic disintegration. In addition, magic serves not only as an integrative force to the individual but also as an organizing force to society when the stress is collective.

Most practitioners of anxiety magic are middle-class professionals. To take a noticeable case that has been subject to several studies is the great American pastime of baseball . Most baseball players , similar to Talmudic sailors, engage in various magical practices because one can still have bad days despite their training, hard work, and skills.  They have million dollar contracts, managers, and coaches. Yet, they engage in many magical rituals to relieve the stress of winning. They are not following Hasidic customs or pagan practices; they are not ignoring their training or thinking that is all they need. Rather, they are attaching their hope and fear onto a practice as a way of relieving anxiety. Many professions, even those in the upper middle class, or maybe especially those in the upper middle class, partake of a variety of magical practices.

Alternately, Michael Taussig, the Australian anthropologist,  points out the role of magical ritual in capitalist production of wealth, in that, wealth is a limited commodity and requires magic and contact with the devil to obtain a share of it. Michael Taussig’s discusses how societies that come into contact with capitalism for the first time tend to find this fetishistic process pretty weird, and associate it with magic and sorcery—Columbian rural farmers, when introduced to capitalist agriculture, developed myths about how one could, by dealing with the devil, plant money in hope that this money will grow, a practice which only strikes outsiders as strange because the would-be devil worshipers weren’t going about it the right way, using savings accounts, mutual funds etc. The observant life style would be be a form of creation of capital. The desire for wealth creates a need to perform magical acts. This would be a fruitful alternate line of thinking to Malinowski.

Shlissel Challah and Segulah

Now to the segulah of Shlissel Challah, which is to either bake a key into a challah, or to form the challah in the shape of a key for the first Shabbat after Passover . The key is supposed to allow the opening of the gates of heaven for money and making a living. The custom has early 19th century roots in a custom of the Ukrainian Hasidic Rebbes, Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz and Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apt, popularly known as the Apter Rebbe (d. 1825).  (For the current Ultra-Orthodox debate on the topic, see here.)

In addition, there are scores of practices involving the connections of the sacredness of the twelve loaves  of show-bread, the manna in the desert and sacred eating go back to Second Temple times and are further developed in Midrash and Zohar. These themes of the holiness of sacramental bread have not been emphasized in recent history.

Segulot are the Jewish magical and folk charm and remedy practices, of which there are thousands.  Some date back to Second Temple times and the tradition of using them continued unabated through two millennium of Jewish life. They collected in large volumes with names like Sefer HaSegulot, Sefer Ha-Refuʾah Ve-HaSegulah, and Sefer haZekhirah. The Talmud advises that Psalm 91 wards off mazikin (evil spirits or demons), the priestly blessing has been seen as having healing powers since antiquity, and there are dozens of segulot to help retrieve lost objects, prevent fire, remember Torah, to use as love potions, or ward off wild beasts.

A widely accepted magical practice in Judaism is to spill wine while reciting the ten plagues of the Passover seder as a means of either inflicting punishment on our enemies by sympathetic magic or as a general prophylactic against evil forces. For those who want a catalog of thousands of medieval Jewish magical practices from the Ashkenaz lands, one should see Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion (1939), dated but still offering a window into traditional folk Jewish practice.  (The book is available online here.)

For a wonderful up to date book on magic in the Talmud and rabbinic Judaism, see here in my interview with Yuval Harari on his excellent book Jewish Magic Before the Rise of the Kabbalah (2017).

Non-Jews also do magic, have symbolism in their baked goods for the holidays, and have folk customs, not only Jews. There is no reason to assume influence. These practices go back at least a millennium. And Gruenbaum’s Kosher bakery in the Heights used to bake a variety of Christian symbolic cakes and breads during Holy Week for their Christian customers.

In the early 20th century, the most common Jewish magical practices were done to ensure a successful pregnancy, to ward off small pox, and to prevent croup, crib death, and other dangers to infants.  Every child’s room had a talisman to ward off childhood illness. With the rise of modern medicine they receded from common practice.   But the practices returned in the twenty first century.  Much of it is due to the loss of faith in progress and science conquering all. Susan Sered, in her book Women as Ritual Experts (1992) noted the role of amulets for infertility in 1980’s Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, a current sociologist notes that there has been more magic in the West in the last 35 years than the entire 200 years prior in the age of Enlightenment

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So Why Shlissel Challah?

Shaping challah into seasonal shapes was a regular family practice in the old county as part of weekly baking. Ukrainian Jews shaped the challah before Yom Kippur in the image of birds for an ascent and that sins should fly away, they shaped them into a hand for Hoshanah Rabbah for our fate to be sealed, birds also for shabbat shirah, a key for Iyyar in that the manna stopped falling, and a ladder for Shavuot for a ladder to heaven (and sulam numerically equals Sinai).

Of all the varied traditions of baking, only the custom of the challah in the shape of the key returned about 12 years ago as a quaint custom but caught on about five years ago. It became widespread 2011-2012 and continues to be mainstreamed.  Of all the various Challah customs, this one was specially chosen and the others ignored because of the anxiety about making a living and as a transition back to bread baking after Passover

All of the well-rehearsed discussions of the high cost of Orthodox living show the anxiety about making a living, This ritual acknowledges the very unspoken knowledge of people unemployed or underemployed or have lost their homes.There is a real anxiety about making a living even among those with good jobs, even dual income with six figures each.

(As a 2018 update, the staying power of this custom has more to do with the return to chametz after Passover. People are looking forward to Challah this week. Now Bagel stores and bakeries make key-challah this week for the symbolism. You do not see Bagel stores engaged in other segulot, this custom has now become like the symbolism of round challot for Rosh Hashanah, not like the segulot done by faith healers.)

I must point out that this is not a general turn to Hasidic customs. People are not picking up the very traditional and pious ritual practice of celebrating the seventh day of Passover as a holiday of God’s power, or dancing through water to celebrate the splitting of the sea, despite the hundreds of sources nor are they following the dozens of other post-passover segulot.

Challah and Home

But why choose Challah? The contemporary books of segulot list many practices to insure a livelihood and most of them can also be given Hasidic approbation.

Segulot for making a living include sharpening knives for the Sabbath, buying a new knife for Rosh Hashanah, putting Havdalah wine into one’s pockets, letting Havdalah wine overflow in abundance, and not to throw out any bread. The table and Rosh Hashanah are the traditional locations where the anxiety to make a living plays itself out.

The most famous practice to make a livelihood as quoted in the Shulchan Aruch is to say with intention the section on the giving of the manna every day after prayers, a practice fallen in observance.

Rather, than these traditional practices that are in the Shulkhan Arukh, people are picking something home based and originally gendered as a woman’s activity. The anthropologist Tamar El-Or in an article  “A Temple in Your Kitchen” notes the treating of the separation of challah at home as a Temple service, as a special new collective ritual activity beyond just the need to make weekly bread

She argues that there is currently an inversion in the categories associated with the Temple sacrifice: “The placement of the Temple and the kitchen side by side in the public hafrashat hallah ceremony challenges the division between the public and the private, between male and female…” The Biblical commandment of sacrifice meant to be carried out in the public space of the Temple, moves into the home. “Instead of a private act accomplished by each woman inside her house, the ceremony offers a public spiritual event.”

The renaissance of hafrashat hallah is an “event.” A halakhic practice… has been refashioned to suit contemporary audiences. It has become a celebration of womanhood, an opportunity to shop, to pray, and to learn new recipes. The mass hafrashat hallah ceremonies are policing entertainments, fun targeted toward education and discipline, and a good traded in a bustling and competitive spiritual market. These ceremonies mark a gendered old-new realm of action and a creative initiative within the teshuvah industry.

In the busy schedule of America, this is a chance to create a home ritual in the context of the recent return to cooking and being a foodie. The baking of shlissel challah is an artisan endeavor and part of the new custom of the large group challah-baking events, which I see as a related phenomenon. Far fewer people bake or cook consistently compared to a half a century ago but they like episodic cooking and baking. The bread is not baked out of necessity rather a sense of do it yourself.

This leads to the ritual being picked up on Kosher cooking and Jewish family interests blogs  even for a wider Jewish audience who do not have the anxieties. It becomes a once a year nice Jewish home activity. The internet has played a tremendous role in the rapid spread of this custom in the wider community, which in turn normalizes the activity. Synagogues now have events this week for a collective baking of challah.

Some have made claims that this is a return of chassdic custom but as stated above chassidc practice was to make special challot many times in the year since they had to bake every week. And there are thousands of other chassidc customs that modern orthodoxy is ignoring.  I even have found several who say this is a way to reconnect to almost world of Europe in that it cannot be a “coincidence that Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Rememberance Day, falls around the time of the shlissel challah.”  They are using the Chassidc label to create an aura of authenticity to a do- it-yourself artisan activity.

The custom also points to the role of women in needing to generate income and take on the struggles of the family. But this week, they take the time to bake a challah symbolic of making a living.

challah-MJE

Passover

There is another element -the new found binary relationship between Chometz and Passover. A clear demarcation of donut and matzah.

In our age of Passover plenty and also weekly plenty, few are looking forward to the Passover treats. Rather we like our routines.  No, I should say that we love our routines. There is a new widespread folk ritual in local modern Orthodoxy of specifically going to Dunkin Donuts for one last Coolatta  and donut, or to the bagel store for one last everything bagel with a smear. You see the new Jewish ritual of waiting in the long lines at Dunkin Donuts, then sitting with the little kids on the curb in a strip mall or walking in circles around the block as one eats one’s last leaven bread.

On the other side of the holiday,  the transition back to normal life after Passover  is an anticlimax and involves a great deal of work in returning the house to the normal non-Passover dishes. People need a transitional ritual of a return to leavened bread and what could be a better practice than baking challah. (Update- there is an increase in pizza parties and Maimouna among Ashkenaz Jews on the night after Passover. As noted above, people are looking forward to challah this week.)

Most busy people ran back to work and had little sense of closure so challah is a treat after two weeks without fresh bread.

Meanings

I received this week from two rabbis statements of the meaning of the ritual for their congregants in both cases the message is connecting to God.

The first one addressed the critics of the ritual and the second one made a spiritual case for it.  “I think if you are the kind of Jew who thinks – ‘what does working have to do with earning a living, G-d will provide, especially if I do shisel chalah?’ – then they you should NOT do it. But if you are the kind of Jew who thinks ‘What does God have to do with earning a living, I have a great job?’ then you should do it!”

The second one said the purpose was  spiritual engagement . One takes something mundane and elevates  it to a higher level. The Biblical, Rabbinic and Hasidic sources connecting  this challah making to a form of self-sufficiency and helping others as part of a community. The key message is how to improve our connection with the HaKadosh Barukh Hu (the Holy One Blessed be He)and use this as a moment to be spiritually engaged.

The Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah teaches us that on Pesach we are judged on how much grain we will have for the coming year. The Apter Rebbe connects this to the Shabbos after Pesach to wit baking the challah in the sharp of a key. When Israel finally arrived in the land  after Pesach the manna stopped and they ate from the produce of the land. It was at that point that they had to make their own food . So the Apter Rebbe said now they had to move from passivity and complete reliance on Hashem to actually being productive with the ability to create things and support things and move towards self-sufficiency. Parnassa then means taking the wheat and making the bread-taking what G d gives us and then in partnership building on that.

The Forward posted a nice piece on the topic similar to the second rabbi based on the need for self-sufficiency. It concluded:

The movement from manna to bread, the movement from Egypt to Israel and the movement from Passover to Shavuot are all linked through the commitment to human activity. I’m putting a key on my challah this Shabbat to remind myself of that moment, that first communal moment where we stopped waiting for bread to fall from the skies and started making it ourselves — and perhaps to remind myself that the keys to those gates may be in my hands.

Another homily was found on the Aish HaTorah website in the name of Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller. It should be noted that during her long and successful career she contributed to making many long forgotten midrashim,  wild aggadah, and kabbalistic legends into mainstream Torah. She makes ordinary activities fraught with spiritual meaning.  The reader should notice in this excerpt of a long article how she moves from the universal to the feminine and then to why this is not idolatry.

Everything is in its essence holy, kodesh, and always will be. God gives us permission to use His world for a “mundane, chol” purpose, under one condition: that we preserve its holy essence…”Ordinary” life has a holy source, and it is our responsibility to use it well. This is especially true in regard to bread. Nothing is more “ordinary” than eating. Yet on an intuitive level we can connect to the mystic energy of the earth itself while making bread, in its feel and texture. It is meant to touch us deeply, and halacha (literally, “the way to walk”) tells us how use its power well.

Humans, as a combination of body and soul, flour and water, are like a dough.

The Shlah explains that everything we observe in this world has a spiritual parallel…  The Torah is telling us that while bread alone may sustain the body, it is the word of God — concealed within the physical properties of the bread — that sustains one’s soul. And separating challah initiates this process of spiritual nurture.

It is instructive to note that in the biblical text (Numbers ch. 15), the mitzvah of challah is juxtaposed to the laws prohibiting idol worship. What possible connection exists between uplifting bread and polytheism? The nature of idol worship is to see the Creator as being removed from His creations… By taking challah, we are saying that God is here! He is the source of our souls, bodies, and the forces that sustain them. He is One, and nothing is separate from His transcendental unity.

Our matriarch Sarah achieved this level in her own lifetime. The Talmud tells us that her bread stayed fresh from Friday to Friday. The life force that she was able to identify — the Shechinah presence of God — did not depart. In her role as matriarch, Sarah laid the foundations for the future of every Jewish woman’s spiritual journey. God allowed her to experience a miracle week after week — leaving an indelible imprint not just on her, but on each of her future descendants.

In the last few days there have been posts from Reconstructionist rabbis and new age-Chabad rabbis and cooking blogs all giving spiritual and symbolic interpretations of the new practice.

The Best of Physicians is destined for Gehenna

The same Talmudic passage above about the the piety of sailors (and baseball players) continues by decrying  that “the best of physicians is destined for Gehenna.” Why? The most common answer is because they see their lives as not dependent on God. They trust their skill and personal talents to solve problems without seeing anything higher.

The public face of Modern Orthodoxy is very professional and ordered -trusting in its skill as doctors, lawyers, accountants, and IT personal to solve problems.  They do not say I wont become a physician because the Talmud condemns doctors. Their religion is very self-sufficient and not magical. But how does this play in an era of spirituality and placing greater emphasis on the spiritual self over the organizational?

Ordinary people, for whom the anxieties of life are still the traditional concerns of “children, health, and livelihood” still need to turn to divine help. They need something to relate to their fears and hopes against a backdrop of the age of spirituality. For them the magic and supernatural and the possibility of faith remains a concern, even if they live in a scientific non-magical world. For many, if not most, ordinary people, religion is about having God in their lives life.

As a side observation, last decade there was a local synagogue based drive for better prayer. They mailed everyone an Orthodox book that said that the way to pray is to ask for all your personal needs to God: health, children, job stress, cooking stress, laundry stress, computer problems, burnt food.  It had follow-up by speakers teaching the same points. One turns to prayer in order to solve daily problems. In a ritualized world, it was inevitable to generate ritual. This was one of the many moments of the last decade that laid the groundwork for seeing God in one’s daily problems.

It is interesting to note that members of both the right and left of the Orthodoxy world unite in having written articles condemning the practice as superstition  For them, their deep anxiety is over the boundaries and purity of Orthodox. The left is anxious  about the perceived right wing distortion of Orthodoxy and the right is worried about the left wing distortion of Orthodoxy. For both of them, the practice of turning to God does not relate to their concern for the future of Orthodoxy.  And for both of them it does taint their rational visions of a legal centered Orthodoxy that keeps direct experience of God out of their lives.

The critics mistakenly think  that the performer of segulot is practicing bad science and superstition in the nineteenth century E. B. Tylor patronizing way of telling the natives that their practices were just bad science. It also similar to the 19th century works ascribing Jewish rituals such as dietary laws to bad science.

The same 19th century anthropologists such as Tylor and Frazer cited to show the cross-cultural phenomena of such practices also showed the pagan superstitious totemistic sources of tefillin, shofar, and four species. Many books of the early twentieth century use these arguments to show that all Jewish ritual is just pagan. The current Orthodox rationalist critics of the practice are selectively using sources that undercut the very roots of any observance.  There are magical aspects to spilling drops of wine at the seder and many other practices.

The critics think that the person baking a key in the challah needs to be demeaned by being told that if they want a job they should learn to polish their resume or get job training. They are oblivious that every modern Orthodoxy article and sermon viewed it as a holiday of self-sufficiency or as only symbolic. They are not using it as magic, just a nice shape of challah. At most it is the need for the relief of anxieties of making enough of a livelihood done in a spiritual content. The critics are projecting magical thinking onto others when those who do it only treat it as a symbol, and even a symbol of self-sufficiency.

In addition, many of the critics have a clear sense of mansplaning against gendered women’s challah practices and practices outside of communal synagogue life.

There are similar phenomena among Evangelical Christians who create a rational understanding of their faith and then decry the popular practices of Christmas and Easter with their eggs, bunnies, and magical practices, which they reject. These Evangelicals separate out a core rationalist belief from their personally perceived popular and pagan elements. They assume that if one removes these practices as non-rational then the rest of their belief system becomes rational. One sees the same trends here. In both, the rationalism of their personal views overrides the imaginative, symbolic, and human.

In the end, I do not think one needs to accept all the functionalism of Malinowski and almost no one takes it as primitive science the ways the critics portray it. All we have is a ritual of challah baking, new women’s customs, and using the mundane a a way to turn to God, nice for families, and a special event of challah after Passover done in an age of anxiety.

h/t and deep thank you to all those who responded to my FB call as I was writing this and the two years of FB comments that modified the original.

Still Here- Will Resume This Week

Yes, I am still here.  People were beginning to contact me asking me what is the story with my three months of blogging silence. Basically, I had the horrible flu that you heard about on the news combined with a very busy speaking and travel schedule. Every time I returned from a trip, I started coughing again. Only to have to prepare for my next speaking gig.  (Don’t worry, I am under medical care & I know about things like Ayr for the flight). Now, I am better and Passover is done.  So I will resume blogging.

Among blog posts that have been waiting since January include a book review of Rav Dov Zinger’s book on prayer, a look at the Orthodox Rabbinic statement Between Jerusalem and Rome: Reflections on 50 Years of Nostra Aetate, an interview with Alon Goshen-Gottstein, an interview with Prof Eliyahu Stern about his new book Jewish Materialism: The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s,   another half dozen interviews in the pipeline, some pomo process theology, maybe some Jewish reflections on Billy Graham, and much more.

Among the activities that kept me busy, sick, and away from blogging include a fun popular talk on Judaism and Hinduism.”Rabbi on The Ganges” or directly here at the Valley Beit Midrash. 

A talk at the Center for Catholic Jewish Studies at St Leo’s in Tampa on the recent Vatican document “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable–  “Can the Vatican Recognize Rabbinic Judaism?”

A presentation on the theology of Peter Berger at a conference at CUNY as well as a whole bunch of Shabbat Scholar in Residences.

BERGER poster 3-page-001

 

 

 

Interview with James Kugel – The Great Shift

Why do we not see God anymore? Why does He not walk around our neighborhoods the way He did in the Bible? Why do Biblical figures not ask what the law should be? James Kugel seeks to answer these questions in his new book The Great Shift, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2017). 

great shift

In graduate school, instructors spoke often spoke of the Axial Age shift (approximately  8th-6th century BCE, but sometime stretched out from the 8th-3rd BCE), a term first coined by Karl Jaspers in 1949.  The Axial Age was when ancient consciousness of eternal religion gave way to a new consciousness based on an internal self. For Jaspers, the sacrifice of Leviticus gave way to the prophetic call,  the sacrifices of the Vedas became the theology of the Hindu Upanishads and Buddhism, and when Confucius and Zoroaster arose.  It also includes the shift between the many gods of the Greeks to philosophic Platonism.

In the classes I attended, the theory was mentioned to explain the shift between the Biblical descents of God to humanity as opposed to the visionary ascents of heikhalot. The Midrash itself senses the changes when it asks: What should the sinner do? And portrays Leviticus saying to offer a sacrifice and the rabbis saying to repent. Interestingly enough, the 19th century Hasidic thinker Reb Zadok Hakohen of Lubin has a version of it when he notes the change from Biblical religion to Rabbinic religion parallels the shift from ancient pagans to the philosophers of Greek, with the Torah responding correspondingly. (zeh leumat zeh). However, Jasper’s theory is, at best, only a heuristic tool since the theory is somewhat of a shaggy beast in that it does not have clear dates or causality.

James Kugel in the exciting new book The Great Shift discusses a great change, similar to the Axial Age theory, between the era when God walked with people and the era when he no longer did. Kugel quotes the Catholic author Flannery O’Connor “I do not know You, God because I am in the way. Please help me push myself aside.” For Kugel, our modern selves get in the way of our knowing God and, more importantly for this book, understanding the Bible. Biblical people had very different semi-permeable senses of self, different than the modern self, that allowed a direct experience of God. This is the thesis of the book. But conversely, our modern sense of the self causes us to misread the Bible as if it shared modern concepts of the self.

Accepting this shift, Biblical religion was entirely an external affair. Biblical figures do not have internal soliloquies debating whether to follow God. Obedience to God, love of God, and rejoicing before God are all physical and external activities of obedience. The classic work  Mimesis by Erich Auerbach is, therefore, incorrect about the Bible. The Biblical narrative is not fraught with background waiting to be fleshed out by the reader. The early reader did not expect such a background. Rather, it did not play any role.Abraham and Homer’s protagonists have a common worldview.  In addition, the modern concept of faith does not play a role since God is part of one’s cosmology.

In other later parts of the Bible,  Kugel shows that God has changed into a long range planner of human destiny so on-the-spot intervention by the Divine is unnecessary. The future has already been planned and determined. There is also a shift from monolatry the worship of a single God while not denying the existence, and efficacy, of other deities toward monotheism. There is also a shift toward following a fixed law as a means of obedience to God.

During the Second Temple era, conversing with God gave way to the presence of angels and demons, and then in later centuries even the divine messengers stopped. (Reb Zadok also notes this shift).

This is the fourth time Prof Kugel has graced this blog. The best and longest was the third time, a precis of his book  The Kingly Sanctuary (2014).  For those interested in the larger vision of James Kugel then read the first interview followed by the second. (For those, who want a window into contemporary Protestant Biblical criticism, I refer back to my interview with David Carr.)

Kugel leaves us with a deep divide between the world of the 21st century religious  reader of the Bible and the world of the Bible. At the end of this interview, Kugel acknowledges that this  approach is not for the pulpit or day school. Our current understandings are discontinuous with the Bible in context. Flannery O’Connor’s Catholic apologetic  is quoted a second time in the book as a way of rejecting 20th century literary readings of the Ancient Near East that made the Bible inner psychology and symbolism. “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it!”

But where does that leave us 21st century folk who willy-nilly cannot return to an 7th century BCE understanding of the world? Theologians insist on integrating later canonical interpretation into our religious understanding of the Bible. For example, Cardinal RatzingerWalter Brueggemann, Michael Fishbane, and  Benjamin Sommers. For them, each in their own way, assume a text is read with tradition. In contrast, anthropologists defend that we may never be able to return. For example, Lucien Lévi-Bruhl, Jonathan Z. Smith, Evans Pritchard, Marshall Shalins and Clifford Geertz. In this book, Kugel clearly comes out on the side of the anthropologists. Our 21st century sense of self and the Biblical self remain unbridgeable.

As usual, this book is well-written. But this book  offers an especially wonderful capstone to the world of James Kugel’s views of the Bible.

1) What can you tell us about the subject of your last book?

My field is the Hebrew Bible, but for the past six or seven years, I have been working in an area more familiar to anthropologists (as well as psychologists and neuroscientists) than to biblical scholars, namely, the “sense of self,” that is, the idea that different peoples have about themselves, about what a human being consists of and what constitutes his or her “self.”

2) What does this have to do with the Bible?

All humans have a sense of self, but that self differs greatly from society to society and from period to period. For example, our own, modern sense of self is very different from the one that most non-Westerners today think they have. We tend to view ourselves as unique individuals, whereas elsewhere on the globe, people see themselves principally as part of larger group—a tribe, a clan, a kinship group—and they also believe that they are basically the same as all the other members of the group. We prize our individual achievements, whereas others consider such things as secondary, focusing more on family prosperity and wellbeing.

In fact, some scholars refer to our mentality by the acronym WEIRD, that is, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic—all of these being traits that are not characteristic of the rest of humanity today, and almost certainly were not common in the West until a few hundred years ago. So we are probably misreading a lot of the Bible if we think that the biblical self was basically the same as ours.

3) What difference would this make to our understanding of biblical texts or biblical religion?

Scholars know that there is nothing physical in our brain that acts as its central clearinghouse, nothing that a brain scientist can point to and say, “This is the part that puts together all a person’s sensory inputs and memories and so forth to make up ‘I,’ the person speaking to you right now.” Almost all agree that our self is basically a construct, something with no particular physical reality, but something that we construct in our own minds. Some elements of this construct seem to be universal: we all think of ourselves as continuing to be the same person minute after minute and decade after decade (although we might have good reason to conceive of ourselves otherwise). We also seem to believe that we have a body, but that somehow we are not identical to that body; “I” is some floating entity that is somehow distinct from the body and mind that the self “owns.”

But then there are other things that make people’s sense of self in one society radically different from others’. Now, what interested me is how some of these differences are expressed in biblical texts. Perhaps the most striking thing in early biblical narratives is the relative lack of reference to a person’s insides, the thoughts and emotions that people experience. Everything important happens out there or comes in from out there.

So, for example, when God tells Abraham to kill his son Isaac, Abraham sets out the next morning to do it. What was Abraham thinking, and what was Isaac, the intended victim, thinking? Apparently, these inside things are not important: it’s the outside that counts, the fact that Abraham is willing to carry out this commandment.  It’s not that Abraham doesn’t think. It’s just that, at this relatively early stage of things, everything important still happens outside, so what Abraham thought is just not important.

The same thing is true of Abraham when we first meet him: God commands him to leave “your homeland and your kindred and your father’s house [i.e., your immediate family] to the land that I will show you.” No doubt this wording was designed to stress the difficulties Abraham would face: far from his homeland and kindred and even his immediate family, he would become a homeless alien, with no one to protect him. How did Abraham react? He did what he was told to do. We know nothing of what he thought about all this (on the inside)—it was just not important. What was important was that he did it (on the outside).

But when the Jewish historian Josephus retold these same events many centuries later, he felt he had to do what the Torah did not, namely, turn this departure into Abraham’s decision: “he, thinking fit to change his dwelling-place, at the will and with the aid of God, settled in the land of Canaan.” (Josephus was not alone, by the way; other retellings of Abraham’s departure in the book of Jubilees, the Apocalypse of Abraham, the writings of Philo of Alexandria, and other texts from the end of the biblical period all feel the need to tell what Abraham was thinking.)

But in earlier times, things still needed to take place on the outside. In another incident from Abraham’s story in Genesis, God comes to him disguised as three strangers stopping off at his tent; still later, his grandson Jacob wrestles with an “angel,” a divine emissary, all night. These things are also depicted as happening outside, even if they seem to be altogether visionary.

  1. Was there something special about biblical narratives, or was this preference for the outside demonstrated in other parts of the Bible as well?

This may be another manifestation of the same phenomenon in biblical law: What does it mean to love someone in the Bible? Sometimes it seems to means love in our sense: for example, Jacob loved Rachel (Gen 29:18).

But I was always curious about the fellow in the law described in Deut 21:15-17. He has two wives, one of whom he “loves” and the other he “hates.” I used to think, “What a coincidence! Two wives and two exactly opposite emotions!” (And by the way, if he really hates the other one, why doesn’t he seek to divorce her?) But this text is not talking about (internal) emotions; these two terms are used to represent the wives’ (external) standing. So the husband may rank the “loved” wife above the “hated” one in all sorts of external behavior, giving her all manner of benefits, but when it comes to passing on his inheritance, he is not allowed to favor the son of the loved wife over the hated one’s son.

Again, this is not a reflection of his feelings toward one or the other—the text couldn’t care less about that!—but the external matter of status, namely, which son gets the firstborn’s share of the inheritance. Though she may be the less favored wife in other external matters, the “hated” wife’s son comes first in inheritance.

My former colleague at Harvard, the late Bill Moran, wrote a famous article about the use of “love” in ancient Near Eastern vassal treaties. There too, emotion has nothing to do with it. When the Assyrian overlord Essarhadon commands his vassal, “You shall love Assurbanipal like yourself,” he is surely not telling the vassal to fall in love with his son’s winning personality. Love here, Moran said, is not the inside emotion but the outside expression of loyalty. The same is true of “love” in Lev 19:18, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The text is not talking about the internal emotion, but external behavior.

Then what about the obligation to love God “with your whole heart and soul and power”? This may be a more complicated example, but when love of God is mentioned elsewhere in Deuteronomy, it is coupled with “keeping His charge and His laws and His statutes and His commandments” (11:1), “serving Him with your whole heart and your whole being” (11:13), “walking in all His ways” (11:22) “walking in His ways at all times” (19:9) “to keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules” (30:16)—clearly, these passages are all talking about “love” in the sense of external performance, not internal emotion. In short, for much of the biblical period, the focus is not on what people felt on the inside, but what happened on the outside.

5) Then what is the “great shift” of your title?

Gradually, things shifted from “out there” to “in here.” So, as in the above examples, people at first are not said to think; instead, they say, an outside event, even when the text probably means to tell us what they were thinking. Sometimes the text says that someone said something  in his heart, and this is clearly a kind of thinking: for example, Esau “said in his heart” that “when the days of mourning my father are here, then I will kill my brother Jacob” (Gen 27:41). Strange to tell, however, , this internal thought of Esau’s somehow was heard by his mother Rebekah, as reported in the very the next verse.

How could that happen? But it could, because important things still somehow belong on the outside. Lots of Jews nowadays are puzzled today by the commandment to be happy on a festival (Deut 16:14). How can you command someone to be happy? But vesamachta doesn’t mean to be happy—an inside thing—it means to celebrate or rejoice, on the outside.

All this began to change in later centuries. On the one hand, God was now deemed more remote; it is His angels who intervene in human affairs. Even prophets stop hearing from God directly; angels deliver God’s words to them. At the same time, people now had minds, and saying what was going on inside them became a necessity. It’s not that they didn’t have minds before, but the way that they conceived of themselves had come to involve this inner self much more than before. This is evident in late biblical psalms, and still more in the prayers and hymns of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Once you know this, I think, your whole way of reading biblical texts has to include the possibility that Abraham, Moses, earlier biblical psalms as well as biblical laws suddenly acquire a very different sense.

6) How did you, James Kugel, get involved with this stuff?

But as I mentioned, I’ve been reading anthropologists and neuroscientists for some years, and what I’ve been saying so far is really not controversial to them. Everyone agrees that the human self is a construct, and that this construct differs greatly from period to period and from one society or civilization to another. So it’s pretty clear that throughout the biblical period, ancient Israelites did believe that their minds were open to penetration from the outside, by God or by demonic spirits. For example, God inserts His words into the prophet Balaam’s mouth, making him say the exact opposite of what he wants to say. This should not be a minor item for biblical scholars: here is an operating assumption in the biblical sense of self that is very different from our own conception of the human mind, its fundamental permeability.  I’ve always thought that the scholar’s principal task is to try to enter into the world of the Bible, to get inside the head of these people and live their reality. And all this, I think, is very important to that task.

7)      What did you agree with in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, and what do you disagree with?

Jaynes’s book covered some of the same ground that I have in the “Great Shift”—that is, he tried to explain what seems to be a basic shift in the way human beings perceived the world— including the divine—and themselves.

But Jaynes (who, incidentally, wasn’t much interested in the Bible; he was a psychologist and brain scientist) tried to argue that the shift was attributable to a fundamental change in brain function, suggesting that originally there were two independent speech areas in the brain’s two hemispheres. But that this feature of the “bicameral mind” ultimately gave way to the unified, modern consciousness.

It was an interesting idea, but I agree with most scholars today, who doubt that the change was one of the brain’s hardware or basic functioning. Rather, it was a matter of “software,” that is, of the gradual emergence of a new way of conceiving of the human self. What I tried to do in my book was specifically to document this shift via the different ways that God is represented in the Bible.

8)      How do you disagree with the chapter on the Bible in Mimesis by Erich Auerbach?

I love Auerbach’s book—except for the first chapter, the one about the Bible, where he describes the biblical account of the Akedah (Genesis 22, when Abraham is commanded to offer Isaac as a human sacrifice) as “fraught with background.” Auerbach relates to the text as if it were Western literature: there are thus three “characters,” God, Abraham, and Isaac; “their speech does not serve, as does speech in Homer, to manifest, to externalize thoughts—on the contrary, it serves to indicate thoughts which remain unexpressed.”

I’m afraid I have to disagree. This narrative isn’t fraught with background at all. For all we know, Abraham may be some kind of automaton: God commands him and he sets out to obey. The text says nothing about what Abraham was thinking because thinking, that inside the brain activity, is still not on the map, at least not very often.

9)      How is Abraham really like Homeric heroes?

Well, in the story of his nearly sacrificing Isaac, Abraham behaves (contra Auerbach) very much like a Homeric hero. Actually, the person who investigated this (a few decades before Jaynes) was the German classicist Bruno Snell, in his book The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature.

9)      How did biblical figures not worry about faith since they encountered God?

People in the Bible have faith in God in the sense of trusting that He will come to their aid or save them. But they don’t have faith in God’s very existence—no one even raises that issue. It’s not that ordinary people had all personally encountered God, but that God’s existence was simply obvious to everyone, like the rising and setting of the sun or the regular changes of the seasons.

Little by little, however, things did change. It’s as if the center of gravity was slowly migrating from outside to inside. People now interrogate their own souls while lying on their beds late at night; in fact, they come to be “in search of God”—something people  weren’t in earlier times. They pray to God not because they need something, but simply to “establish contact,” and they sometimes pray regularly far from the Jerusalem temple. Now, retellings of biblical narratives—such as those of the 2nd century BCE Book of Jubilees, or the Genesis Apocryphon found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, or Josephus and later writers—have to give some account of what motivates human beings or how they react to changing developments. All these seem to indicate the emergence of a different “sense of self.”

10)      What is the revelatory state of mind? Why do you say biblical were only surprised by an encounter with God, but not flabbergasted?

This is another striking difference between us and ancient Israelites. In those biblical stories of people meeting up with God or an angel, at first all the people see is an ordinary human being. They converse for a while, and then, at a certain point, the people suddenly realize that their interlocutor is really an angel or God Himself. At that moment, they are surprised but not altogether bowled over; such things do occur, apparently.

Nobody says, “Wow! This just can’t be happening!” Usually, they bow down in reverence, not surprise. Similarly, prophets may not want to be prophets, but when God summons them, they don’t think something’s wrong with their brains. As one biblical scholar put it, they are already in the “revelatory state of mind,” in which such things are possible.

11)      How is the biblical God different from the God of later generations?

My overall theme is that God’s nature—or rather, the way that He is depicted—changed strikingly within the biblical period itself. There is a gradual move from the outside to the inside. People’s inside souls become the true meeting-place of God and humans (the old meeting place was the outside temple).

In addition, God is no longer described as having a human-sized and human-shaped body; He becomes more abstract and, eventually, omnipresent. An omnipresent God must exist on a completely different plane: He no longer enters or moves about, so (I also tried to show this in the book) all those earlier stories about Abraham or Cain and Abel or the Tower of Babel had to be reconfigured by later commentators or interpreters to accommodate their new notion of who God is.

12)      How in other places is God a long-range planner? 

Eventually, God ceases to intervene directly in human affairs: when intervention is needed, it is accomplished by God’s angels, while He remains in heaven. In keeping with this, He is sometimes represented as having arranged everything in advance, sometimes for centuries and centuries, so on-the-spot intervention is unnecessary; He, and we, can just watch the divine plan unfold.

This understanding of God is in part anticipated in the biblical story of Joseph. Joseph’s narrative presupposes that dreams (his own and his interpretation of others) are essentially a peek into a future that has already been planned and determined. Thus, Pharaoh’s dreams inform him of events that are to take place over a period of fourteen years in the immediate future (seventy years of plenty followed by seven of famine). In later times, the book of Jeremiah represents Jeremiah as saying that seventy years will have to pass before the end of the exile (25:11, 29:10). Still later, Daniel is said to revise the understanding of Jeremiah’s seventy years: what he really meant was seventy “weeks” of years, that is 490 years (Dan 9: 24).

The book of Jubilees, written still later (the early second century BCE), divides history into chunks of seventy years apiece: there will thus be exactly 50 jubilees from the time of humanity’s creation until Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land. All these present God as a long-range planner—more and more so!

13)      How was the Bible an enchanted world of monolatry? 

Biblical scholars have shown that monotheism only came to be espoused as such somewhere toward the middle of the biblical period. Before that (and, in some places, after it as well), monolatry seems to define biblical religion, the worship of a single God while not denying the existence, and efficacy, of other deities.

The Bible makes no secret of the fact that other peoples had their own gods—indeed, the book of Deuteronomy (4:19) at one point suggests that God had assigned to ther nations the worship of deities associated with the sun and moon and stars; that just wasn’t for Israel.

14)   Was the Law always important in Biblical religion?

Well, it is striking how little reference to keeping biblical laws there is in early times. Why don’t the various people in the books of Judges or Samuel or Kings keep the Sabbath? When David commits his great sin with Bathsheba, why doesn’t the prophet Nathan say to him, “David, you’ve just violated two of the Ten Commandments,” instead of giving him that parable of the poor man’s lamb? But after a while, keeping God’s laws becomes the whole focus of Judaism, not only in the Bible, but in all of post-biblical religion. The service of God, or what is called ‘avodat ha-Shem, truly became the essence of Judaism—as it is to this day.

You might see this as part and parcel of the great shift from the outside to the inside. After all, who is going to police laws commanding you not to hate your brother in your heart, or serve God with all your heart and soul, and dozens of other rules that have no outward manifestation? Keeping them was a matter between you and God, carried out—or not—in that inside world.

15)   Why read the Bible in its original context if the biblical God is not ours, and their sense of self is not ours? And their view of religion is not ours? What happens to canonical context?

You might as well ask, “Why bother with the Bible at all?” But the Bible depicts the reality out of which all of later Judaism developed. That’s why studying it—and getting inside the heads of ancient Israelites, as I said earlier—is crucially important.

16)   Do you believe in the God of the Bible? The God of the 5th century BCE? The God of Yalkut Shimoni? Or a 20th century God? 

All of the above. But I generally try to keep myself out of the discussion.

17)   Should Rabbis teach the content of your book from the pulpit? Should the contents be taught in day schools?

Definitely not. But maybe in an adult education class.

 

Interview with Elchanan Shilo

Think of the many blogs of the last decade in which an Orthodox person publicly documented his or her loss of faith in Orthodox dogmas and the equally large number of blogs in which people questioned the halakhah. In many of these discussions, the people discussing theology had never read Spinoza, Hobbs, or Hume and without any sense that philosophers disproved the theistic arguments centuries ago or of the corrosive to religion naturalism of the Enlightenment or modernity.. They also argued without any knowledge of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, or modern Jewish philosophy, or any history of Jewish thought.

Elchanan Shilo has a PhD and was trained in Jewish thought, Kabbalah, and Jewish literature, as well as having attended Yeshivat Har Etzion. His first book was The Kabbalah in the works of S. Y. Agnon [Hebrew] (2011) and he has written on Lithuanian Mitnagged Kabbalah, with articles on Rabbi Isaac Haver and Rav Kook. He put out a volume called Yahadut Kiyumit  (May, 2017) [Heb.] a Judaism of Existence, that we can live by. In this book, he tackles all the perennial issues discussed on the blogs. but with PhD.

(The official translation is Existential Judaism, but he uses the word the way Netanyahu uses the word when he says Iran is an Existential threat, meaning directly connected to  existence, not as influence by Camus or Sartre.)

In the volume, we see his loss of faith in Orthodox doctrine and his loss of faith in Orthodox halakhah as well as his attempt to create a new Jewish movement, the same issues as all those American Bloggers, but with a PhD.

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I blogged about Elchanan Shilo’s ideas already seven years ago, when he proposed having a continuous Judaism between religious and secular, in which everyone could work together as part of one community. A noble idea in an age of polarization. That is still a good part of the book.  His article elicited a full response from Rav Dovid Bigman of Yeshivat Maaleh Gilboa.

In his recent book Yahadut Kiyumit, he collects his thoughts and newspaper articles of the last few years into a single volume. The book has been widely received in the Relgious Zionist world included a positive review by Prof. Ron Margolin of Tel Aviv University as well as by Hagai Hoffer.   Here is an hour long youtube interview he did last month about his book. 

The book has two parts. The first part contains his articles about faith from the newspaper in which he moves from his Religious Zionist position to the acceptance of Biblical criticism and the human elements in the Bible, the keeping of mizvot without believing they are commanded by God and a denial of providence because of the Holocaust. Needless to say, he was fired from the religious school (ulpnana) in which he taught becuase of these non-Orthodox ideas. He also rejected the authority of the halakhah because of it attitude toward modern life, legalism, and oppressive laws of personals status. In its place he wants the keeping of Judaism as a voluntary practice, each person taking as they see fit.

Unlike the American bloggers who either leave the fold or want to remain “Orthoprax” (their own self-defining neologism) of full observance despite not believing, Shilo seeks to also reject halakhah. He wants a full spectrum traditionalism without law or belief. Shilo does, however, like Jewish ethno-nationalism.  In many ways, his book has much in common with Yoav Sorek’s The Israeli Covenant (Hebrew), but this book is more about the impossibility of maintaining faith, than a new nationalism. I did not find myself concurring or consenting with the first part of the book. I found it distancing and derivative.

The second part of the book, however, is a contradictory collection of ideas that were quite interesting. They are his personal reflections which he compares to Rav Kook pensées, but to me seems like all so many blog posts or Facebook statuses. They are clearly the best part of the book.  They are all designed to elicit response. If you saw them on Facebook, and you were interested in the topics you would likely be compelled to respond, to amplify, or to reject his thoughts. Here are some selections to give you a taste. Any thoughts on these?

The rhetoric of the using the word “avodah zara” (idolatry) for all sorts of modern phenomena and for other religions is demagoguery and the whole way one can laugh along. Isaiah Leibowitz used this phrase often but one can claim that Leibowitz himself is idolatrous because he does not worship God, rather the halakhah.” (165)

Rav Shagar discusses the Hardal position on women. He says that the negation of the values of modernity is denial of the self…He gives the appearance of being torn. I say “appears” because being broken and including both sides can only exist in the realm of thought.  In the practical realm, one needs to decide and Rav Shagar already decided. He decided against modern values and for the halakhah when there is a conflict between them. He prays in synagogues that exclude women. (162)

[…] Rav Kook’s Kabbalah remained in isolation and its students remained “Lonely men of secrets” but to the outside world he appeared as if the wellsprings burst forth. (188)

Combining the study of Bible in a religious university (Bar Ilan) with liberal a Yeshivat Hesder education, brings on the positive side– aspects of scholarly analysis and critique of things without historicity, on the negative side it brings blindness to the theological aspects of scholarly study. They bring sublime pilpulim to justify the traditional positions and present scholarship as lacking logic. (142)

Dividing society based on praxis – who goes to the beach on Shabbat and who goes to synagogue, or those who do both- is shallow and does not say anything about ones inner life. (144)

The 21st century practice of liberal [Religious Zionist women] to cover their hair symbolically- for example with a bow-has a symbolic function of status similar to a wedding ring, rather than actually covering the hair. (149)

The request of Rav Bigman for the simple Jew to sit and wait for “a new generation of rabbis” more than it changes reality, silences it. The redemption of the people and the return to the land did not come from people who waited. Rather it came from people of action who broke through what was accepted in their time. So too in the halakhic plane, a simple person has to work below without waiting for miracles from above. (154)

What appears in my eyes as God appears to another person as Satan. The God who commanded to kill the one who chopped wood (Numbers 15) is not God in my eyes, rather Satan…. From an external perspective it seems that people who pray together are all worshiping one God, in practice they are all worshiping their own God. What one calls God, the other calls Satan. (178)

I have found many Haredim and Baalei Teshuva, but I have not even one percent as many of those who seek the truth. This is proved by the small number of students in University Bible departments. The number is negligible compared to the  multitude who seek yeshivot. (175)

I want to propose a less radical solution to the conversion problem [in israel] that does not require a conceptual change from the accepted methods of conversion. This solution was told to me by my father Z”L who heard it from Rabbi Moshe Tendler, Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS, afterwards I head it directly from him.

Since infants have no data (awareness), their conversion does not require the acceptance of mizvot, just mikvah and circumcision. Therefore, we need to build permanent mikvaot in courts and hospitals. After every child is born to a couple considered an “Other” in their identity papers, we should do this process. The Rabbinic judge should immerse the child in front of the mother before they leave the hospital, and be registered as a Jew. If it is a male, the parent will also be obligated to circumcise him. This way we solve the problem of conversion… I want to return to the halakhah. The Rambam wrote, pace the Talmud, “We immerse a minor who seeks to convert based upon the guidance of the court. For it is an advantage for a person [to convert]. (Forbidden Relationships 13:7) (189)

Shilo sees his book as a manifesto and his ideas as the start of a new movement. However, I see his book as part of a bigger trend of Israeli traditionalism. I could give an entire course, or create a reader placing Shilo’s book on the shelf with a number of similar works including: Yoav Sorek’s nationalist vision that is conservative socially but religious liberal with Meir Buzaglo’s defense of the Sephardi mesorati position, with Dov Elbaum’s presentation of the tradition for those outside, the studies of mesorati Jews by Yaacov Yadgar, and with Tomer Persico’s religion and spirituality for those coming from the secular perspective.

Yet, Shilo’s thought in the first part of the book most reminds me of the liberal Conservative Mordecai Kaplan influenced authors of the 1940’s and 1950’s- Jacob Agus, Ira Eisenstein, and Milton Steinberg, with an emphasis on peoplehood over dogma or halakhah. There were many articles in the Reconstructionist journal, in its prime, about commandments without a commander. Or see the Israel educator, Mordechai Bar-On, “The Commandments and the Commander” (Reconstructionist, 1977).

I did not find myself in much agreement with Shilo, but his book reflects the debates in Israel today and it is important to note that his book is reviewed within the Religious Zionist world. It is an enjoyable quick read and worth reading, However, while covering similar ground it is not a classic like Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization, rather editorials and blog posts.

1)   What is the story of your book

In the second half of the 1990s, I began to write aphorisms – fragments of thoughts, similar to the style of Rabbi Kook, Pascal and Nietzsche. At that time, I considered naming my book: “The Song of Thoughts”.

At the same time, there were parallel processes developing in society such as plans for the establishment of joint religious-secular pre-military preparatory programs.

When I began to write, I felt as if I am a voice calling in the desert. When I finished my writings, I found myself in a new social movement, Called “Israeli-Judaism,” which includes pluralistic Batei Midrash, and pre-military religious-secular preparatory programs, see in this link:http://www.panim.org.il/en/organizations

For many years I was worried that publishing my thoughts could harm my relationship with my workplaces. And that’s exactly what happened. Two days after the publication of my article on Biblical criticism, (“Divine revelation in human text” Makor Rishon 6/19/2009), which edited some of my aphorisms related to this subject into an article; I was notified by telephone that my work at Orot College (a religious college) had ended.  At the Nezer David Institute, that publish the Nazir writings, (a disciple of Rabbi Kook), my work was stopped when I finished publishing the Nazir’s commentary on a book attributed to the Ramhal book Kalach Pitchei Hokhmah. I was told that only if I retracted what I had written in Makor Rishon, I could continue my work. I could not acquiesce to their offer. since I could not go back to Orthodox dogma even if I wanted to.

Volition does not bring belief.  Belief is outside of freewill- Shadal in the name of Crescas Or Hashem 2:5:2. Many people want to believe, but cannot. (Site editor’s note Cardinal Newman says the opposite, that belief is entirely volitional.

The burning of the bridges with these Orthodox institutions liberated me to write what I had in my heart. After that, continuing for six years, from the beginning of 2009 until the end of 2014, I published some more articles in Makor Rishon. This ended when I submitted the article “The Question of Evil and the Ability to Believe” (the fifth chapter in my book). It was not accepted, since the paper was bought by Sheldon Adelson, and he made the editorial position of the paper more conservative. This is the point I moved to the next step, preparing my articles in a book form.

2) Why did you create the book in two parts, a regular book and then aporhism Resesei Mahshavot? The first part 120 pages and the second 80 pages.

My meditations are like poetry raising ideas from different points of view. It is not always possible to unify all points of view that I present within my chapters. My reflections contain complexity, in which the resolution cannot always be ascertained at first glance. For example, regarding the subject of abortions, in my aphorism. I wanted to show that despite my liberal views, I am not captive by the liberal discourse, and can criticize it.

There are short passages that belong to some of the chapters, but reflect a point of view that I have once experienced, but not anymore. Another example: when I become aware of internal contradictions in some of the miracles in the Bible, I wrote it under the heading “Epicurus (Heretic) against his will”. “I really want to believe that miracles are possible, that there is truth in the miracles recounted in the Bible, that there is justice in the world, and that God intervenes in the world and changes the laws of nature when he wants, but these desires break on the rock of reality.” I discussed these issues in the main chapter. Yet, it is important to show that there was a genuine search for truth and I did not mark the goal in advance, it was forced upon me.

The inability of Orthodoxy to provide a real and not apologetic answer to the proofs of biblical criticism, compelled me to abandon the traditional position with which I began to explore the topic, with a surplus of self-confidence in the justice of its path. I then adopted the historio-critical perspective on the Torah, as a text written by many authors, written hundreds of years after the events described in it.

When I submitted the book to the publishing house, I placed my short thoughts at the end of each chapter, but the editors did not like the leap from genre to genre, and this is the reason why all the short thoughts are in one section and all chapters in another one. Every decision has pros and cons. There were people who like the short thoughts, which sometimes are thought-provoking and suitable for study groups. ( In the review of my book by Prof. Ron Margolin in Makor Rishon, (4/10/17, “Saving the faith from itself”) more quotes were taken from the second part than from the first part.

 3) What does it mean to create a continuity between halakhah and secularity?

This means that instead of a society divided into sectors of religious and secular, there should be a continuous Jewish society ranging from secular to religious. In which each individual can find his own place according to where he comes from and according to the root of his soul.

The philosophical basis has two assumptions (1) The Jewish way of life today derives from a process of human development and creativity throughout the generations, and therefore it is not absolute. Not every person at any time and place can fit to this lifestyle. The awareness that this is a human development leads to the conclusion that seeing the observance of the commandments as a divine command is fiction. The meaning of the Mitzvot must be constructed from the content itself, and not from a belief in God who commands them. 2) There are different types of people. Some people are religiously inclined and for some people the religious world is alien to them. In the middle, there are people who are partially suited to a Jewish lifestyle. They feel it intuitively, but they lack a philosophical basis, and that’s what I’m trying to do with my book. To present a model that is softer than the halakhic model, and to show the meaning it contains.

4)      How are you different from  Israeli mesorati or the Israeli Reform movement?

Judaism of Existence” (Kiyumit) suggests double states of consciousness, religious and secular. For example: entering into a state of religious consciousness while praying and entering an atheistic state of consciousness while facing evil. This is even more left than what the Reform movement that see itself as a religious movement that believes in God.

In terms of the everyday life, the model of Sabbath observance, of using electricity in certain need or distress, is practically close to the Orthodox model, and differs from the characteristics of the Reform Sabbath, which is a model of a “secular Shabbat” + prayer, lighting the candles and Kiddush.

With regard to kashrut, non-eating some non-kosher animals takes on significance because it identifies with the moral ideal of vegetarianism. Since it is morally problematic to eat animals, reducing the types of meat to a small number of animals is an intermediate state between the celebration of flesh and vegetarianism. This form of keeping kosher is a softer model than the halakhic model, which forbids eating from vessels that are cooked with unkosher flesh.

Most of the traditional Jews in Israel do not experience a crisis between traditional beliefs and their modern world. Their perceptions of religion are Orthodox, but their lifestyle is different. Traditional existence is a will to continue the legacy of our Fathers, whereas for the Jew of Existence (Kiyumi) this is not enough. He must identify with the content itself. The difference is not limited to a certain lifestyle – like another model of Shabbat, but also to matters such as kashrut, in which the Jew of Existence will be similar to the traditional Jew, but In terms of his inner world, his consciousness, will be completely different.

5)   What is the weakness of Neemanei Torah veAvodah?

The weakness of the liberal wing within religious Zionism is that it is still bound within the halakhah, which often reflects an ultra-Orthodox world view.

To use sexuality as an example. Why does the liberal Religious Zionist complain about the need for separation between boys and girls in order to prevent halakhic prohibitions of “transgressions”? Halakha, and the ultra-Orthodox society, sees a sin in every erotic expression that is outside of the framework of married life, and calls it yetzer hara (evil inclination). Halakha forbids all forms of art that contain erotic elements, or alternatively, a touch of affection or even a touch without affection, between men and women. The liberal national religious are in conflict, between their modern conception of sexuality and their commitment to halakhah.

Another example, attitude toward general culture. Liberal Religious Zionist see the figure of a rabbi who has a broad general education, but according to the Shulchan Aruch, “it is permitted to study by random external wisdom, only so long as there are no species books of heresy (Yoreh Deah, 247,4). That is why the Liberal Religious Zionist is inferior to the more conservative parts of religious Zionism.

The liberal religious parents will have to submit to these stricter decisions because of their commitment to halakhah. What I am trying to do is to liberate the liberal religious from their commitment to halakha, so that they can present their positions without having to apologize. If my book convinces them to abandon their commitment to halakhah, they can feel comfortable standing up for their positions.

6)      How can you have mizvot without a commander?

The question is not how to perform mitzvot without a commander, rather  how do people continue to deceive themselves, and to identify with a way of life that has been developed by ordinary people over thousands of years into a divine command. In addition, the model of man as subordinate to God, is contrary to the consciousness of the modern free man.

The observance of mitzvot without a commander stems from a will to continue the Jewish culture and national heritage that is a part of you. My starting point is the will to connect to the practical level of observance, and I turn only to those who are interested in it and try to give it a philosophical foundation. I am aware that a large part of the secular population is not interested in this, and therefore my vision is to create a continuous Jewishness, between halakhah and secularism.

7) What is your view of revelation as from heaven but creating a human text?

There are two questions. 1) The emergence of the texts. 2) Dealing with immoral things written in the Torah.

The ignorance or apologetics of the Orthodox in dealing with biblical criticism, and the failures of it which I show in my book, creates a softening that enables us to deal with moral questions as well. The strict faith in “Torah from Heaven” is crumbling, which also create moral damages, such as the prohibition of homosexuality, which causes a life of suffering for homosexual religious people. Some of them remain in loneliness and do not have sex, because they think that God dictated this commandment to Moses.

The dissolution of the traditional concept enables a softer conception of God’s revelation. The groundbreaking moral concepts and ideas that we find in the Bible can be seen as ideas inspired by God. As opposed to other content, which is human, especially when it has negative aspects.

8) How should we view God in the new age?

The awareness that all the perceptions of divinity over the ages are human ways to perceive what is beyond all perception, brings to choose one of many perceptions, one that is best suited to the modern era, and to give it dominance. The concept of mystical divinity, as developed by Rabbi Kook, is the most appropriate because the divinity is not a personal God that commands, but as all of reality perceived as divine abundance. In this perception, the rupture between the holy and the secular consolidates and unites, and the secular values ​​become an expression of divine abundance.

9) You seem like another datlash (formerly observant) who does not believe anymore and does not accept all of halakhah anymore? Lots of Israelis are like that.

You can call me a “former Orthodox,” but my attempt to connect to the  world of prayer and to softer model of Shabbat, which is close to the Orthodox Sabbath, distinguishes me from the datlash, whose religiosity is a thing of the past, a “former religious.” I am not only a person who has lost the innocent faith, and then would become a secular Jew. I am a person who in addition to the loss of his innocent faith tries to build and to connect to tradition from a new point of view, which will enable me to maintaining important and essential parts of the Jewish tradition, and to make them meaningful and relevant.

10) You seem very similar to the American liberal movements such as Conservative or Reconstructionist?

The Conservative Movement sees itself as halakhic, whereas “existential (kiyumi) Judaism” is not halachically obligated and I observe the commandments according to my ability to connect to their content.

One of the major innovations of my book is breaking the division between religious thinkers and secular thinkers such as Brenner, in whose world God does not exist. And at the same time still working with Heschel, Soloveitchik and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who deal with different types of a believer.

I present a new position between them, which places the ontological issue of God’s existence in brackets (on the side), and focuses on the subjective experience. My goal is not to deny our various emotions and to allow the possibility of entering a state of consciousness of faith in the living God when you pray or celebrate Independence Day the ingathering of the exiles to the Land of Israel. At the same time, to be able to enter an atheistic state of consciousness when facing the blindness of evil and death, such as earthquakes.

11) Are you just a liberal form of Yoav Sorek?

You are not the first person to similarities in our visions. Nevertheless, we have many differences. I would like to accentuate three of them: )1) Sorek speaks of a discourse of commitment to halakhah, even if it is a “soft” halakhah. Whereas “existential (kiyumi) Judaism” is not halachically obligated and observes the commandments according to the ability to connect to their contents. (2) His thought gives no room for total secularism and atheism, which will continue to be part of the mosaic within the various possibilities it offers. (3) In addition, I claim that on many  values ​​of Western-modern culture which are against traditional Jewish values, the Jewish values should be rejected. In many cases, we should accept Western-modern culture over Jewish values.

12) You claim to be a new movement. But, you do not have an organization, money, institution, speakers? If so, how are you a new movement?

In one of the letters that  I received from one of my readers, I was asked: “Do you intend to establish a stream/Beit Midrash/party?, I would be happy to be a partner and hear more.” Since there is no such stream, I leave things in the open deliberately, and write about it only in one of the inner pages of the second part of the book: “If there are enough people who identify with the idea of ​​existential Judaism, a website will be set up, and if it is joined by people with economic capabilities, a Beit Midrash or pre-military academy will be established in the spirit of these ideas. I am  aware that a movement will not be established without it.

The vision of establishing a movement or institution in the spirit of the ideas of this book is a dream that will probably not materialize, but maybe in another twenty years or in another generation it will arise, who knows?

Rav Shagar and Secular Studies: On Translation and Living in Multiple Worlds

What did Rav Shagar think about secular studies? He answers in a twenty page, 7000 word homily on Hanukah On Translation and Living in Multiple Worlds.  – go read the 20 page essay.  I provided a guide to the essay below to be used alongside the original text.I  planned on posting this essay the week for Hanukah already in August, without connection to the recent spate of free floating op-eds about the idea of a Rav Shagar. If you have not grasped his vision yet, this 20 page essay is one of the best places to see what he is trying to achieve.

We have once again to thank Levi Morrow for his translation of the essay. Please let me know of any errors. (For links to our more than 18 prior posts on Rav Shagar,  see herehere. here, here, and here.) As an important side point before you start the essay. If you were looking for an Orthodox postmodern theology, then the Sephardi Algerian thinker Rabbi Professor Marc-Alain Ouaknin wrote such a work twenty years ago, The Burnt Book: Reading the Talmud (Princeton University Press, 1998). Rav Shagar is not that; see my excursus on Torah Umadda below.

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On Translation and Living in Multiple Worlds

A Sermon for Hanukkah

Shagar starts his homily as follows. The Chanukah candles are placed in the doorway between one’s home and the outer world, which for Rav Shagar means we cannot retreat into the safety of our homes of just having Torah. In Shagar’s view “we have no choice but to exist in the space between inside and outside, between identity and strangeness.

The homily works with the Chanukah tension between the Hellenistic Greeks and the Jewish world of Torah. Shagar assumes that “to Jew” and “to Greek” are two fundamentally different attitudes to life. His question is: how to bring the two together? He offers (1) Rav Kook’s idea of translation, (2) Rav Nachman’s personal grappling with the evil klipot of the haskalah, in which he distinguishes between idolatrous language and holy speech. and (3) his own view that we are all now Rav Nachman and we are all now required us to decent into klippot.

Rav Shagar claims that the “wisdom of the Torah and the wisdom of Greece, along with the holy language and Greek language, were originally clear and distinctive signifiers.” Over the course of history” they no longer “signify specific languages or books, rather ways of learning and existing. Greek wisdom, therefore, is… able to exist even within the walls of the traditional Jewish study hall.”

The term “Greek wisdom” changed over the course of history to the term “external wisdom” which is knowledge that lacks the intimacy of “being with itself,” and at its source is an objectification of the knowledge. Hence, the conflict [between Torah and Greek Wisdom] does not have to focus on the context of the wisdom or the language used, but on intimacy and personal identity, the intimacy and identity that are the eros of the wisdom.” A distinction between “wisdom that is beautiful and effective, but lacks all passion and intimacy” and “a wisdom overflowing with meaning and intimacy, a revelation of existence and substantive content.” Notice that the term Greek wisdom could just as well apply to Torah, or Torah uMadda, while Torah as the wisdom of existential meaning that touched one’s identity may apply to any wisdom.

Rav Shagar on Secular Studies

I will start with his own opinion before we return to how he used Rav Kook and Rav Nachman. He says Rebbe Naḥman’s guidance toward naiveté and simplicity does not respond to our form of life.” Further,  Rav Shagar applies Rav Kook’s bold statement about spirituality to secular studies: “anyone who does not suffer from spiritual descents has no chance of religious ascent.” There is danger in this decent “but only this descent-endangerment can lead to ascent.” He seeks a decent into secular studies for the sake of religious ascent.

Rav Shagar thinks that we have to accept the inevitable and acknowledge that we live in multiple cultures and not fight it with sectarianism by blocking out the wider world of knowledge. “For better or worse, we are citizen of multiple cultures and we live in more than one world of values. We are not able to deny this situation, nor would we deny it if we could. Denying it would be self-denial, leading to deep, radical injury to our religious faith itself.”

Rav Shagar thinks that the confrontation with the Greek, even in Israel, is not at the university level but already from an early age via the media, literature, and our culture. “We therefore need a substantial religious-spiritual-Jewish alternative.”

Rav Shagar is firmly against the bifurcation of religion and secular into compartmentalized identities, like that of Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz who opened “an unbridgeable gap between them; he would never bring them together. Leibowitz lived with a contradiction.” Instead, Rav Shagar wants everything to reach “his subjectivity or personal identity.” In contrast to compartmentalization, Shagar wants the Religious Zionist soul to live “not in one world but in many worlds, which it likely cannot integrate. It does not compartmentalize them -Torah versus labor, faith versus science, religion versus secularism- but rather manages a confusing and often even schizophrenic set of relationships between them.”

In his essay: “My Faith: Faith in a Postmodern World” Rav Shagar suggests that the believer in modernity such as Rav Soloveitchik and Yeshayahu Leibowitz live in what he calls a “two-world approach.” “This approach establishes a boundary between the internal and the external, between one’s faith and the world in which one resides.” He argues that this worldview is  “at its core [it] is an attempt to fend off modernism’s criticism by isolating faith from the world and its values.” Within this modern worldview, “faith is not perceived as a substantive assertion about reality.”

However, in his view this “belief” in knowledge and its bifurcation from faith has collapsed, and in its wake much of what modern Jewish theologians taught, including Rav Kook, has now become “obsolete.” Not obsolete as a subject of study but obsolete as that which can adequately inspire a religiously devotional life today.

I will quote fully a paragraph of what Rav Shagar envisions as way of offering clear contrast to the modernists or Torah uMadda.

A new type of religiosity has therefore developed nowadays, one that cannot be defined by its location on any graph; it is scattered across many different (shonim), you could even call them “strange” (meshunim), centers. This religiosity does not define itself with the regular religious definitions, but enables a weaving of unusual identities, integrating multiple worlds- in a way that is not a way. [Rav Nachman of Breslov] presents a deep personal faith that, in my opinion, carries the potential for religious redemption. Where does this capacity for integrations and combinations come from? Answer: that very same deep personal faith. This faith is not faith in something, rather an act of self-acceptance. It recognizes a deep core of covenantal eros, which enables the freedom to translate and to make integrations, combinations, and connections that our fathers never dreamed of making.

A person accepts their thrown situation of life embracing it fully to make new integrations and connections, however strange or disjoined they seem. It is not located by any one rubric rather similar to Gilles Deleuze’s ideas of rhizome or  chaosmos, it avoids categorization.

To this base, Rav Shagar returns to his core ideas of seeking faith through accepting life in its complexity.

The existence of faith is not dependent on some sort of faithfulness of a given individual, because its roots are much deeper than the consciousness of its bearers. It is present as a fact, and this gives rise to the covenant. Only thus can a person accept his faith and his way of life, a necessary condition for the novel religious phenomenon we are suggesting.

For him, faith is not an assent to doctrine or affirmation of halakhah, nor is faith a Hasidic  or Rav Kookian “essence that a person discovers after removing all the excess, superficial layers around his true, stable identity.” Rather, for him, faith is “a leftover excess that a person cannot remove or digest, which destroys “dichotomies and definitions of identity, readying them for encounter and creation.” Reframing Rav Kook’s essentialism using the Lacanian term of remnant (not in its original meaning) he thinks our innate inner Jewishness still exists despite not having a stable definition or identity.

Compare the milquetoast bifurcated cognitive idea of Torah uMadda to Rav Shagar’s vision below of his ideal as ecstatic, primordial depths, and psychoanalytic.

Ecstatic and multivalent figures are sprouting up before our eyes, and they cannot be located at any one place in society, for their faith comes from a much deeper place, from times gone by. This faith is a remainder, a psycho-theological symptom manifesting as inexplicable stubbornness, as a willingness to be on the losing side of the world simply because “this is who I am and this is who I want to be,” without conscious justification… [It is] the harmony of an individual with who and what he is, without locking himself into a specific identity; he can be who he is, whoever that may be.

I will add that self-acceptance opposes attempts by a religious community to enforce observance of yarmulke, prayer, fringes, phylacteries, etc. These attempts makes religiosity forced, cowardly, and alienating, one of the causes of the spiritual superficiality of the religious community. A religion that sees itself as at war for its survival is a religion without depth and roots.

Instead of this religious enforcement, Shagar wants “a religious reality overflowing with eros. “I am who I am, which is the innermost aspect of the highest will.” He associates this eros with a dimension described in Hasidic texts that exists “beyond and in excess of its meaning.” Ḥabad discourse says that this dimension “cannot be named, nor alluded to by any extraneous detail of the conventions of language at all.” He concludes the essay stating that this is about self-revelation. “This is not the type of identification that compares the concrete manifestation of a person to a picture, symbol, or idea that exists “outside,” beyond him, but the revelation of the person as he is, without any “beyond” – this is me.”

I jumped to the last part of the essay first in order to present his view of worldly knowledge. I will now return to the other parts of the essay on Rav Kook and Rav Nachman.

Rav Kook: Greek Language on its Own

I was once at a major Israeli academic conference of Jewish studies that allows open submission of proposals. In one of the sessions devoted to Rav Kook, there were papers on his mystical diaries, his kabbalah, and his rejection of secular studies for his closest followers. There was also a paper by a clueless American frum attorney who presented on Rav Kook’s Torah uMadda. The audience did not receive his paper well.  Afterwards, he complained to me when he returned to his seat about all this misplaced focus on mystical and pietistic nonsense, when we know that Rav Kook was a modern Torah Umadda Jew, as presented by Norman Lamm in his book of that title. The attorney grumbled: how could Rav Kook be against secular studies when that is not the way he is presented in the English works he read?

This is part of a wider misreading of Rav Kook in American Modern Orthodoxy as less haredi than he was, and it certainly does not take into account his explicit instructions to his close students to minimize secular studies. More importantly, it ignores the historical trajectory created by his student Rav Moshe Tzvi Neriah who forged a committed core of Merkaz students already in the 1950’s who avoided secular. And it ignores that the interpretations of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook by his son Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook are totally against Western culture. This view of Rav Kook as anti-secular studies is the approach of Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva is what Rav Shagar is responding to in his talk.

The Rav Kook text that Rav Shagar choose to look at was given at “the inauguration of the Mizrahi movement’s study hall (beit midrash) for teachers, during Hanukkah 1932. In the talk, Rav Kook cautioned against external knowledge but language, even conceptual language, as a means of expressing ideas.

 Greek language on its own and Greek wisdom on its own” (Bavli, Baba Kamma, 83a). We see that the main intent was to distinguish between content and style. Greekness as wisdom, as a worldview – harshly injures holiness, profanes it and defiles it. Greek language, however, the language in terms of its expressive capacity, in terms of how richly it describes things – this is an entirely different matter. In the latter, there is no clash between the contents of frameworks of beliefs and ideas. Rather, only an external improvement, which in and of itself does not make contact with or impinge upon internal matters […]. The content we need not accept other than from our holy Torah […]. This is not the case when it comes to style, to the external beautification of things […].

Rav Shagar presents Rav Kook as delineating a boundary between using the Greek as the content and the container, between the medium and the language. For him, “Greek language on its own and Greek wisdom on its own.” a rabbinic phrase “means that the emptying of the light of Torah into the Greek container cannot damage and change the light of Torah, but it is capable of contributing an external improvement, which does not make contact with or impinge upon internal matters.”

Shagar presents Rav Kook as allowing the tools of Greek culture, meaning Western culture writ large. “These tools are, for examples, the tools of the academy – the reflection of research, philological and historical investigation, philosophical, literary, and linguistic richness, which Rav Kook was not afraid to make use of in writing his inspirations.”

In this statement, Rav Shagar rejects the approach of Rav Tau and the Yeshivot HaKav, a breakoff from Merkaz against all secular influences, including influence of modern educational psychology, historical and philological tools, and modern approaches to the study of the Bible.

Rav Shagar then works with Rav Kook’s text to come closer to his own view of seeking personal meaning. Rav Kook asserted in his book Eder Hayakar that the thinking individual can be trusted in his personal searches for truth.

Any idea or thought that comes from research, investigation and critique in its own right, in its pure freedom, could never come to evil, not in the general faith shared by all straight of heart and knowledgeable people […] nor in the foundation of eternal Israel and its connection to the God of its strength […]. Only an evil heart, a licentious heart […] is what causes all the disturbance. (52)

Rav Shagar says that Rav Kook’s

 thought should be seen against the background of the Hegelian understanding according to which the spirit clarifies itself and advances by way of reflection. The spirit, which is the Jewish jug of oil, clarifies itself by way of Greek language, which examines it from an external perspective, investigates it, gives it definitions and conceptual characteristics, but does not defile it internally. According to his position, the problem of Greekness only appears when we try to import an “idol” into the temple of God, meaning the content itself, attempting to integrate with the wisdom of Greece.

Notice both the historicizing of Rav Kook as seeing the theory as spirit (geist) which is crucial for Rav Shagar’s declaration that in our era is the end of Hegalian thinking and its needing to be replaced.

But Rav Shagar also notes and does not develop that Rav Kook thought that sometimes universal ideas needed to be translated and embedded in Torah. In Rav Kook’s case, he thought the ideas of freedom, nationalism, and universal morality needed to be translated into Torah. For Shagar, there are elements within Existentialism, psychoanalysis, and post-modernism that have to be translated into Torah. But the same way, Rav Kook is not trying to write academic essays about Hegel and Schopenhauer or even worried if he is reading it correctly, Rav Shagar is not concerned with the secular fields of philosophy or psychoanalysis.

Rav Nachman

The second position that Rav Shagar looks at is the anti-intellectual position of Rav Nachman. Notice that Rav Shagar did not choose to consider the more intellectual or more cultural positions about secualr studies of of Maimonides, Vilna Gaon, Hirsch, or Reines. He chooses Rav Nachman because he wants to create a path to a deep relationship with God using the secular.

In contrast to Rav Kook, Rebbe Naḥman of Bratslav identified any external wisdom or Greek knowledge as a deep threat and attacked those who connected the two. “Someone who, God forbid, learns books of research and philosophy introduces doubts and heresy into his heart […] therefore we do not find any person who was made fitting and God-fearing by books of research.”  (Sihot Haran 5) Rav Nachman “exhorted his devoted followers toward naiveté (temimut) as a way of life.” Rebbe Nachman proclaimed:“Fortunate is one who does not know at all from their books [=of research] and only goes naively… It is wisdom and great service to be like an animal,” meaning naiveté and simplicity.”

Rav Nachman limited the study of the world only to the true Zaddik. “In truth there is a great prohibition against being a scholar, God forbid, and against teaching books of wisdom, God forbid. Only the very great tzadik can enter into this.” This entering into heretical ideas is permitted to the Zaddik in order for him to extract the fallen souls that fell there into their traps, due to the knowledge and skepticism of the enlightenment.

[I am skipping over a section in the homily about language in Rav Nachman compared to Wittgenstein and Walter Benjamin because Rav Shagar’s views on language deserve their own discussion.]

Rav Shagar turns to Rebbe Naḥman’s book, Likutei Moharan (I:19), where he teaches about three languages: the holy language, idolaters’ language, and the language of translation.  The first language, the holy language is entirely self –referential without any connection to the outside world as its own reality, which

 can be experienced through the practice of Bratslav or Ḥabad-style learning, with their various jargons, intuitions, movements, and deviation. This practice reveals that this is not study that refers to reality but study that itself becomes reality. It does not have an object, but rather exists in itself – existence as a Bratslav world or existence as a Ḥabad world.

The second language, the idolaters’ language of “the seventy nations” corrupts the covenant. According to Rav Shagar in his interpretation of Rav Nachman as anti-capitalist, anti-Neoliberalism and anti-instrumental, the language of the idolaters is about  capitalism, profit, and instrumentalism. “The will to conquer and control via the word leads to corrupted sexuality.” This language creates gaps between the self and world, between meaning and activity and between the individual and reality. This type of speech presents itself as beautiful, wise, and refined, but does not get to the core or a person.

Quoting Rav Nachman, Shagar accepts that “this is the language of the demon-scholar (shed-talmid hakham), who uses his linguistic aesthetics and rhetoric to create an impression on the other and dominate him via language:  (LM 1:28:1)”  Much of the cognitive gestures of American Torah uMadda would fall into this category.

In his essay on the disengagement that I posted last year, he followed this line of thinking and proclaimed that secular studies are corrupting and we have to do jihad against secular studies. But he wrote there following the idea of dispute in Rav Nachman combined with Franz Rosenzweig  that in the conclusion of the battle the secular should be integrated into a revitalized religious life.

The Third Langauge: Translation

The third language for Rebbe Naḥman is the language of translation, which is an instance of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that contains both holiness and the impure spiritual entities (kelipot), and between the holy and the idolaters’ languages. This knowledge can go for either good or bad depending on who uses it. One must eat the good of the tree and avoid the bad.  Rav Shagar when following this line of thinking, explicitly rejects the idea of a clean distinction between language and ideas. Language always unavoidably contributes something, so what language you use matters.

Rav Shagar portrays Rebbe Naḥman’s teaching on translation as effecting a change from a concrete language to a signifier of reality used to create holiness. The language of translation is born in the sin of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which is not  the wholesomeness (temimut) of the holy language. Rebbe Naḥman teaches that, from this position, it can turn in one of two ways. “It can make you smarter (maskelet) or it can make you bereaved (meshakelet), knowledge of good or knowledge of evil.”

However, it is important to note that this is not “in a meager instrumental manner, rather the translation “illuminates the letters of the holy language.” A quest for holiness.

Rav Shagar on first thought said “This seems similar to Rav Kook’s Hegelian outlook” of an eternal spirit placed in new vessels. But then, Shagar reverses and says that “Rebbe Naḥman… does more than this. It also transforms the holy language itself, changing its primary sense.”  Making him a paradigm for transforming Judaism by grappling with the ambiguity of the Tree of Knowledge.

The interesting example given by Shagar is Rebbe Naḥman’s telling of fantastic tales “of kings and princesses, fantastic lands and wondrous creatures, including giants, spirits, men of the woods, and a prince made entirely of precious stones.”  For Rav Shagar, “Naḥman’s main purpose with his stories is to translate to transport the listener to a magical, mythical, world “from the days of yore.”  Rebbe Nachman takes stories without a “Jewish or religious characteristics at all” and uses them to serve God by exposing “the listener to a world of experiences, which is entirely disconnected from the religious experience and its normal, accepted, forms in the traditional Jewish world.”

In a lecture Rav Shagar gave in 1987 about Hasidic stories, on which I was asked to speak about this past summer, Shagar pointed out that in the 18th century Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye used a ribald story from the Decameron to teach hasidut through finding a message in a adulterous story. Rav Shagar used the ribald story and its Hasidic retelling as a way to speak about the role of eros, sin, journeys, and confession as a way of meeting God. This is a good example of his idea of secular studies.  We use films, stories, postmodernism, psychoanalysis, and anything else needed to wake people up for the needed teaching of Torah.

The goal is not to discuss secular studies or post-modernism or be intellectual. The contemporary goal of Greek wisdom is for the religious seeker to be exposed to new experiences that are not part of the current religious world- such as music, art, psychology, literature, India, movies, science fiction- and use the non-religious material experience to embrace a richer experience of the divine

Appendix: Excerpt from Lecture on Lekutei Moharan I 19

In the above lecture he quoted his own lectures on Rav NahmanLekutei Moharan I:19. The quote below from Rav Shagar in the hasidic lecture is important for this Chanukah homily.

Rav Shagar asks is this activity of translation ideal? And answers that we have no choice today. But he also says that academic language is generally not the language to be used for translated, rather we should seek items something that will help the holy language of Torah bloom.

Is translation less than ideal, only for those who have fallen to low places, or is it an ideal project? This question is irrelevant for us, who have no other option; we have no choice but to translate if we want to turn the Torah we learn into a Torah of life. Every person and student must ask himself what is his place. For example, we cannot study Rebbe Nahman’s writings the same way that Rav Koenig learned them and taught them in his lectures. If we tried to do so, we would just end up with a poor imitation that misses the whole point. On the other hand, it is possible that a Bratslav hasid would not feel the deficiency of staying in the world of the Holy Language. Furthermore, we must note that not all languages external to Torah are fitting to serve as a language of translation. Academic language is not necessarily a language of translation, because it is often superficial, and constrains the Holy Language rather than encouraging it to bloom. Every now and then, there is a flicker, but in general it cannot express the world of holiness.

shagar6

Torah Umadda

A few words of his view of Torah uMadda, his relationship to the late 20th century modern Orthodox idea of studying secular studies.

TL:DR Rav Shagar is not Torah uMadda.

Shagar’s approach is not a cognitive gesture of combining contemporary thought with Torah, nor is he just another interesting book to be discussed in a once a week class in Jewish thought. Some have been forcing Rav Shagar into their procrustean bed of the familiar by framing him in American terms as just the latest rabbi in long series of formulations of synthesis of Torah and secular knowledge. He is not.  Rather, he is offering a different approach to the observance of Judaism after being straightjacketed by the ideology of forbidding Western knowledge. Shagar’s approach does not fit the usually categories of a theology of synthesis nor a humanistic model.

Another misreading of Rav Shagar’s thought reads him as a Fundamentalist position of their own device. Some Evangelical Christian theologians, such as Stanley Grenz, claimed that postmodernism supported faith in religion since it destroyed foundationalism and through it denuded the critiques of religion. Therefore, one can be a firm Evangelical believer without worrying about critiques to religion. Therefore I was surprised to see one op-ed treat Rav Shagar the way Evangelicals treat postmodernism, as if Shagar was claiming in a postmodern age we don’t worry about questions and critiques to religion anymore and can just fortify our dogmatic Orthodoxy using postmodernism.

Rav Shagar, however, explicitly said that in our age without fixed answers one has a sharp choice. Either seeks greater certainty like the Hardal in Israel who have Fundamentalist certainty, or one has to be open to new ideas and accept the new paradoxes. The old synthesis approach is not applicable in our age. There is no compartmentalization of Torah and secular.

Another way of denaturing him is to say that just like in the past there has been Torah uMadda with Neo-Kantian categories, Hegelian syntheses, and Kierkegaardian faith, now we apply postmodernism for the cognitive gesture. However, it is not so simple. Unlike Modern Orthodoxy, Rav Shagar followers can, and do, study the Yoga Sutras, Derrida, Spinoza, and Talmud criticism in the beit midrash as part of the Yeshiva seder or they can study film making or critical Bible in the University. They have changed the study hall and the religious life. They have gone places that Modern Orthodoxy never went. They go headlong into the big questions, they just dont worry about answers or resolving contradictions.

If one applied his ideas to a United States day school, then one would change one’s school to go headlong into Hasidut, Agadah, Kafka, yoga, and Franz Rosenzweig for a month instead of Talmud and halakhah. One would also bring in experts to lecture on Biblical and Talmudic scholarship, who are not engaged in apologetics. Then, after that month, return to Talmud but bring questions of 21st century meaning and values to the Talmud study.

Finally, to sum it up clearly. Rav Shagar used worldly knowledge to expand his life not create a text. He is in the person (gavra) and not a text (heftza).

The only recent current English article who understood and had insights into Rav Shagar was by Julian Sinclair, who was able to do because he spent time studying with Rav Shagar.

 

 

Thanksgiving Prayers

Happy Thanksgiving -Here are the links to  three of my prior posts in which I posted Thanksgiving prayers.  I am posting tonight to give everyone a chance to print out before the holiday. In future years, I hope to post a few more historic Thanksgiving day services from earlier in the century.

Service for Thanksgiving Day 1940 – Rabbi Joseph Lookstein (2014)

Rabbi Joseph Lookstein’s Thanksgiving prayer was exceptionally universal and was picked up from my blog by several widely read online sites as a wonderful universal prayer- ideal for Thanksgiving reading. Here is a pdf of just the service.Thanksgiving Service at KJ 1940

Service for Thanksgiving Day 1945 – Rabbi David de Sola Pool (2009)

Here is the 1945 Minhat Todah- Service for Thanksgiving Day, Congregation Shearith Israel, NY by Rabbi David de Sola Pool. A version of this service is still done at the synagogue. (If anyone wants to send me a pdf of the current version, I would appreciate it.) Thanksgiving Service- 1945 Rabbi de Sola Pool (pdf of service)

Service for Thanksgiving Day 1905- In Commemoration of 250 Years of Jews in the US(2016)

There was a special convocation in 1905 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the settlement of Jews in the United States. It was held the Sabbath before Thanksgiving and the prayer was written by Rev H. Pereira Mendes of the Spanish- Portuguese synagogue of NY.

thanksgiving-prayer

Elsewhere on the Web

1789 Sermon Gershom Mendes Seixas

There is also the historic sermon from 1789 at the start of the US by Rev Gershom Mendes Seixas 40-page sermon for the first national Thanksgiving (1789) or an easier to use version here.

To jump forward to contemporary prayers. Here are two contemporary prayers. 

A Thanksgiving Prayer by Rabbi Naomi Levy  of Nashuva in Los Angeles via RitualWell

A Prayer for Thanksgiving by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi via Opensiddur.org

Here are two sermons 50 years apart.

America, Bless God — A Thanksgiving Day Sermon by Rabbi Norman Lamm

THANKSGIVING SHABBAT 2011 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein Valley Beth Shalom with a Thanksgiving prayer or as she calls it, a kavannah, by Ina J. Hughes

Traditional Judaism: The Conceptualization of Jewishness in the Lives of American Jewish Post-Boomers

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a photo of himself giving his baby daughter a century-old family heirloom, a kiddush cup, which he said belonged to her great-great-grandfather, also named Max. Nearby is a marble kitchen counter topped with two lit Shabbat candles and challah under a white cover.

“For shabbat tonight, we gave Max a kiddush cup that has been in our family for almost 100 years. Her great-great-grandfather Max got it after our family immigrated here and it has been passed down through our family ever since,” Zuckerberg wrote in the post. He felt strongly that he was following the tradition in his family. In this case, we have the observance of Jewish ritual with concern for the ideology, halakhah, or meaning. There is no concern whether one is technically Jewish, with God, or any concern about denominations. The observance itself is meaningful as traditional.

Zuckerberg’s approach has been documented is recently published study called Traditional Judaism: The Conceptualization of Jewishness in the Lives of American Jewish Post-Boomers by Ari Y. Kelman, Tobin Belzer, Ilana Horwitz, Ziva Hassenfeld, Matt Williams.  Jewish Social Studies, (Volume 23, Number 1, Fall 2017, pp. 134-167- requires subscription) I saw it because Matt Williams posted it on FB.

zuckerberg

In the new study, they show that post-boomer Jews do not look at Judaism as a religion or as an ethnicity, rather as the pull of traditional practices, yet without any sense of being either voluntary or binding.

In 2000, Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen, a demographer and a historian of modern Jewish religion respectively, wrote an important work called The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America, which showed that for baby boomers, American religion is now individualistic, a market place, focusing on personal journeys, spiritual moments, self-help, and the inner self. Cohen and Eisen conclude that Jewish life is entering the era of a breakdown of a grand narrative of Jewish peoplehood. Their refrain for the last seventeen years has been to proclaim that the denomination identity through belonging to a shul has broken down. Therefore, the sky is falling. How do we put people back into the post-war era of belonging to a synagogue?

Their focus on identity through religious denomination obscured the role of the non-religious aspects of Jewish culture in Jewish life such as Jewish literature, politics, summer camp, social action, Federation work, Sephardic culture, Yiddish, art, and family connections. Hence, someone who did not believe in theism or have a synagogue membership, but spent their time professionally and socially in Jewish life would still be listed as a “none.”

In this new study on Jewish traditionalism, the authors of the article limit their scope to ritual without connecting it to all those other forms of Jewish life. Nevertheless, they show that even those who keep religious ritual, go to synagogue, or pray may still be among the “nones.” Those post-boomers whom they studied referred to themselves as not religious, even when performing mitzvot as a ritual.

These post-boomers reject religion and  “described themselves explicitly as not  religious  typically associated  religion with wisdom or  expectations that came  from  a divine source  manifested in legal formulations.” For them, “Religion,  they held,  existed  “out  there,”  in the  realm  of the  divine, the  faithful,  the  biblical,  the  legal,  institutional, and  prescribed.” Those post-boomers whom they studied tended to offer a stricter definition of religious than  those who identified as religious.

The important point of the study is they they are not weak forms of the 1950’s which are petering out but a full affirmation of the ritual reconfigured to work and be meaningful for the 21st century.

Both  the  1990  National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) and  the  2013 Pew report on American  Jews used  religion as a key indicator for determining whether a possible interviewee might  qualify for  inclusion in  the  study.   The  Pew Research  Center foregrounded distinctions between  “Jews by religion”  and  “Jews not  by religion,”

Despite  the  persistence of religion as a term  that  might  describe them,  on  the  whole American  Jews do  not  actively or regularly  participate  in  activities  or  institutions that  look  terribly  religious.  Just over one-quarter (26  percent) of American  Jews say that  religion is very important in their lives, whereas 56 percent of the general public makes that  claim.  American  Jews also attend religious  services with far less frequency than  do other Americans;  only 23 percent of Jews attend religious  services once  a month or more,  whereas  62 percent of Americans  in general claim to do so.

As incoming college  students, Jews were among  the  least  likely to score  strongly on  measures   of  both  religious  commitment and  religious  engagement,   scoring  in  the  single  digits,  alongside Buddhists,   Unitarian Universalists,  and  those  incoming students who  have  no  religious preference… Sociologist Nancy Ammerman found that Jews were also outliers in the use of theistic  and  spiritual  discourse”, in which only 30% used theistic language. The next lowest group was at 60%

The majority of those they interviewed described themselves as not religious. They avoided God language and public worship, but still performed ritual. Notice how much of their findings could also apply to those who do actually belong to synagogues, even to Orthodox synagogues.

Here are some of the vignettes they present:

Sam, who was involved  in  Jewish youth  groups through high  school,  explained, “I didn’t  really believe in what most people would call God,”  and  “I still very much  enjoy songs and prayers, the experience, and I still connect  to the  community, and  I still feel connected to friends  and  family, especially [those] who are  Jewish. That’s  a part  that  wouldn’t  be there without the religious  aspect, but to me, it doesn’t  feel religious  anymore.”

Jacoba  explained, “The religion itself means  very little to me. I wouldn’t  say that I’m a religious person at all; I would say that  I practice certain  observances,  but the  reason  I do them  is not  out  of belief  in God or belief  in halakhah [Jewish law], no. . . . It’s more  out  of being  part  of a community that’s very warm, and  being  part  of a family that  has some  positive attributes in itself, like having a day to rest and  hang  out with your family. I think it’s great.  And the  holidays can be lovely because  you spend  them  with family, so it’s really more  about  a family community for me, in terms of Judaism now.”

For Diana,  “Judaism  offers a lot of tools for us to discuss important things,  and  you were born into a family where this is the language that they have and these are the tools that you were born  into that you have that we can use to help talk about the universe, ethics, culture, identity, and let’s find out what this culture says about  those  things  and  how we can look at them,  and  then you can decide  what your place is in that and if you want to continue.

So how do these post-boomers explain what they do? They don’t. But they don’t like the expectations of established denominations.

Regardless  of whether our  interviewees  described themselves  as religious  or not  religious,  they all generally  rejected the  notion of a meaningful framework  emerging from their  understandings of faith, law, the  Bible, and  direct  divine intervention.

[T]hey referred to religion as something abstract,  judgmental, and irrational. They shared  a common sense that religion had limited authority over  their  lives, regardless of how  personally  meaningful they found it. To be not religious was to reject  the authority of rabbis and Bible, liturgy, Hebrew,  obligatory  laws, empty rituals, and unrealistic expectations of prayer and the like. Yet rejecting religion did not require them  to abandon Jewish rituals,  holidays,  or other practices that they called tradition.

Traditional Judaism

But they do like ritual. The performance of ritual is up. Once upon a time, when Marshall Sklare did his Lakeview studies of the 1940’s, he found that only 6% thought ritual was important to be a Jew. Now, ritual is seen as an important part of religion and for many the most meaningful part. This was already noted in Tom Beaudoin,Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (1998), that compared to the Boomers, post-boomers like ritual. The trends documented in the article help account for the success of methods of Chabad offering discrete ritual without asking for belief or commitment such as giving shumarah matzah to a non-kosher seder, or encouraging lighting candles without asking further question.

The point of the article is that their informants called what they do- “tradition” to describe  the  elements of Jewishness that  they incorporated into their lives. They themselves use that word “tradition.”

Michelle explained how she and her  fiancée  were “figuring  out”  how to incorporate Jewish ritual  in their  lives… [Lighting Shabbat  candles] would have meaning for me, I guess, not necessarily because it’s this religious thing. . . . We do want it. We are both into tradition and  sentiment and  family, and  that comes in hand with all this religious  stuff. You know what I’m saying? We’ll take it because  that’s the tradition, and we care more  about  it as a tradition, I guess.

Yair  offered  a similar  description of his observance of Yom  Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which for him included fasting but not attending synagogue.  “I don’t fast on Yom Kippur because of religious reasons  . . . I view it as a tradition.” With perfect  ambiguity.

Generational Connection

The  generational-connection trope  allowed  interviewees  to connect their  actions  and  beliefs to a past and to an envisioned future, as in the case of Zuckerberg above.

Sarah,   “Religion  is not  a way I connect to Judaism,  but  tradition is. So it’s the  sense of pride  for me to do things  that  are part  of tradition that has been  happening for generations. I feel like they’re  part  of carrying that  on to the  next  generation.”

I just  don’t  give any  thoughts to  things  like  biblical  stories,  [or] the [dietary] laws of kashrut. . . . I don’t  want to know what [Hebrew prayers] mean.  I hate  when  we translate them  into  English  ’cause  I don’t  like talking about  the “Almighty God” and all of that. But I really like lighting candles.  I really like celebrating Jewish holidays. I like those traditions. I like the idea that  people all over the world, for thousands of years, have done  these  traditions, that’s what they mean  to me. They don’t  mean  to me like whatever they’re supposed to mean  about  God.

Brian shared  one of the most illustrative stories of someone whose commitment to tradition rests not on religion but on his connection to the future.

To give you an  example, my girlfriend’s  not  Jewish. The  other day for Hanukkah, I decided to light the  candles.  She asked me, “Why are you lighting  the  candles?”  I said, “Well, it’s Hanukkah.” She’s like, “I know it’s Hanukkah, but you’re not really religious.” I said, “I want to do it for myself. I just want to know that I know the tradition, the ritual.  I want to do it for myself just to reinforce it.” I’m not  doing  it because  I want to make  sure that  God is listening,  that  He knows that  I care. I’m doing  it because  I want to be able to tell my kids, “This is how you light the candles on Hanukkah.” I guess that’s kind of how I look at it.

Despite the good-natured teasing of his girlfriend, Brian lit Hanukkah candles with all of the religious overtones and content intact, provided… that  he made  sense of his performance as tradition and  did not take the formulaic blessing or its theological content to heart.

Getting Together

Besides tradition, they also identified ritual with contemporary social and  familial  networks.

For Elizabeth,  the ritual  of a Friday night  dinner proved  especially appealing. Friday night  marks  the  onset  of the  Jewish Sabbath,  and Elizabeth  approached the  ceremonial dinner as an  opportunity for socializing and education but not for religion.

For us [her and  her  husband], a lot of it is educating our  friends,  both Jewish friends and our non-Jewish friends.  We are sort of that couple  that always has like people over for like Shabbat  dinners and  holidays,  and like I said, Jewish and  non-Jewish. It’s not  meant to be like an outreach kind of thing or try to make people religious because we’re not religious. It’s just like a way to sort of make  everybody stop for a second  and  put down their  phones and  like have a proper dinner and  have like proper conversation.

Penelope and  Sally pointed to their  affinity for synagogues  as important sites for connecting to Jewishness, though not necessarily  with religion. Both  women  described themselves  as not religious,  yet both  explained that they seek out synagogues  and  their communities when  traveling  for work. Penelope enjoys the  “cultural traditions” of Jewish life, “but  not  necessary  the  organized religion aspects of it.” Still, “when I go to places where I don’t  know anyone,” she said, “I still go to the Jewish community. That’s my way of meeting people.” Likewise, Sally, who used to travel for work a great deal, made a habit of going to synagogue  on Saturday mornings no matter where she  was.

I did continue to go to synagogue  in every city. I found some  beautiful temples. I still am close to people I met for one Shabbat  in the middle of the  country.  It really kept  me grounded. I was really grateful  for it. Just the feeling  of prayer,  not religious. . . . Not being  religious  but a celebration  with food  and  with music…

Penelope and  Sally approached synagogues  as centers for socialization,  for  grounding, and  for  finding   community while  away from home.  The  traditional elements and  established space  and  time  of synagogue  practice helped them  locate  Jewish connections in unfamiliar places.

Not Nones

The article argues that these younger Jews might be considered as religious “nones,” or excluded from demographic of Jewish life since they claim to be not religious, not synagogue members, and not theists. These Jews claim an affinity for religious tradition, but avoid religion as they define it. This opens up the bigger question of the very possibility of a Jewish “none.” The idea of faith and synagogue membership as defining belonging is very Protestant, but does not work for Jews (as well as Muslims, and Hindus). The article cites those who seek to differentiate Judaism from Protestant categories, but without the broader historical sense of historians or global sociologists who would show how much of this would apply in other ritual based faiths.

The study offers as a conclusion.

First, the  preference for the  language of tradition suggests that the  sociological  distinction between  Jews by religion and  Jews of no religion emphasized in studies  like the  1990 NJPS and  the  2013 Pew report creates  a sharp  distinction between  groups  that  are,  in reality,  more  fluid.

This argument against  the  use of religion as a meaningful way to understand distinctions among  American  Jews should  not  be taken as a case for the rise of secularism.  What appealed to so many of our interviewees  was not  an explicitly or independently secular  realm  of Jewish life but  a way of making  Jewish life enjoyable  and  meaningful. Casting such occasions  as traditional instead  of religious  allowed our interviewees to activate those associations  while disregarding any theological overtones or  moral  finger-wagging.

Similarly, their  almost total avoidance  of the term  ethnicity suggested  that  it had  even less significance  in their  conceptualization of Jewishness, insofar as they did not offer it as a meaningful or useful term  to describe  their  Jewishness.

Eisen & Cohen understands this quality of tradition to be problematic because it is a breakdown from the 1950’s-1960’s..  Eisen framing  it in between  “the way of being Jewish as determined by God and by age- old  authorities” and  that  epitomized by more  “fragmentary, variable,  and  individualized” engagements.”

Yet this study shows that despite Eisen’s imagined future, the tenacity  of tradition that  holds  a kind  of authority, albeit one  rather distant  from  the  external and  eternal kind  that  he seems to  both  imagine  and  prefer.

For post-boomers, tradition may offer  a way of conceptualizing “the  only authentic response to the past,” but it should  not be mistaken  for a weak version of a strong central  Jewish religious  authority. Instead, it should  be understood as a mechanism for retaining connections to Jews and  Jewishness over time, within which change is a reasonable expectation and adherence is flexible.

Our  interviewees  revealed  no  such  deal  and  expressed no  such tension. They  seemed  largely uninterested in “elites of the  center” and were quite willing to engage  with the authority of tradition, even when  it did  not  make  immediate sense  to  them…  The  inconsistencies that  so bothered Eisen,… did  not  seem  to plague  our interviewees, who were well aware of the contradictions and tensions inherent in almost any commitment—ideological, interpersonal, cultural,  or otherwise.  Tradition, in their  view, offers a way to accept  an authority that one already understands has no power to enforce itself.

Paradoxically, as Jews beyond ethnicity, ritual allow them to open up Judiasm beyond the tight bonds of organized religion. For example, Zuckerberg’s Shabbat candles, challah, and kiddish with his daughter and wife.

Our  interviewees, many of whom have non-Jewish parents, peers,  and  partners, offer no  such  connection between  the  traditions that  they embrace and their sense of a normative, ethnonational identity. Instead, tradition affords  a way of opening up the  exclusivity of ethnicity  and  easing the  limitations of religious  obligation. Rather  than  reinforcing a boundary, tradition offers a kind of cultural resource that  could  be shared  with everyone  in their  social circles, Jewish or not. Tradition offers  all  of  the  positive  valences—occasions  for  gathering, and structures for  socializing  that  are  often  associated  with religion— without  any of its prescriptive obligations or its limitations on who can participate. It is neither as commanding as their  notion of religion nor  as exclusive as associations  with ethnicity.

One final point, the authors note that this is not the traditionalism of Israeli mesorati who have a  ‘thick’ sense of ethno-national (Jewish)  identification.” Here they can be non-traditional and without the ethno-national identity.

Rabbi Pamela Barmash on Rabbi Ethan Tucker

I originally asked for a wide variety of responses to Rabbi Tucker’s book and my interview with Rabbi Ethan Tucker.  We already received a nice series of responses so far. The first response was  by Dr. Malka Simkovich, the second response was by Yoav Sorek, the third response was by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, and the fourth response was by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper. The fifth response was by Rabbi Professor Yehudah Mirsky. I sought diverse responses including ones from the OU and from a Sephardi perspective, they never arrived. However,  below is a sixth response from a Conservative movement perspective.

Last week, I received one from the Conservative movement written by Rabbi Prof. Pamela Barmash who is a professor of Hebrew Bible at Washington University in St. Louis. She received a B.A. from Yale University, rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Ph.D. from Harvard University. She is the author of Homicide in the Biblical World (Cambridge University Press). She is finishing a book on the Laws of Hammurabi. She has served as the rabbi of Temple Shaare Tefilah, Norwood, MA.  She has served on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly since 2003 and has served on the Joint Beit Din of the Conservative movement since 2008. She has written many teshuvot for the movement.

barmash-cover

In specific, she wrote a recent responsa for the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards entitled “Women and Mitzvot” asking the question:  “Are Jewish women responsible for observing the mitzvot from which they have traditionally been exempted?” To which she answers on behalf of the assembly: “We rule therefore that women and men are equally obligated to observe the mitzvot. We call upon Conservative synagogues, schools, and camps to educate men and women in equal observance of  mitzvot and to expect and require their equal observance of mitzvot.”

So the question in all of this for some of my readers is where is the push for egalitarianism among liberal Orthodox, Israeli liberal Religious Zionism and halakhic egalitarianism is different than the Conservative movement? This post will allow the reader to decide.

Particularly important is Rabbi Barmash’s special note about the role of women in society, in that, it touches on some of the prior responses that were posted here. It was an aside, a special note in the responsa, but the focus of our discussions here.

A Special Note

It is the case that learning to integrate the performance of mitzvot into our daily routines  takes time and reflective effort for all of us, both women and men. For those in our communities  who are in their beginning steps in the journey of mitzvot, and even for those of us who have  integrated many mitzvot into the path of our lives, it must be emphasized that we are all trying to  increase the holiness that mitzvot bring to our lives and that each mitzvah observed causes  holiness to suffuse our lives more and more. Each mitzvah allows us to walk another step in the  journey toward and with God. In the process of learning the observance of mitzvot, no one is  expected to learn to fulfill every mitzvah all at once.

For many women who grew up in a different atmosphere regarding women’s roles, the  call to observe mitzvot heretofore closed to them will be inspiring and deeply spiritual. They will  feel ready to fulfill many mitzvot, and they will eagerly learn new habits. But for some women  who were raised in a non-egalitarian or not-completely egalitarian atmosphere, it is  understandable that they may be hesitant to take on new mitzvot. Learning new mitzvot may be  challenging, and some women may find certain mitzvot daunting for a significant span of time.  However, it is the calling of our communities, synagogues, schools, and camps to teach men and  women to consider themselves equally obligated to fulfill mitzvot and to educate them equally in mitzvot.

Rabbi Pamela Barmash on Rabbi Tucker

I largely agree with Rabbi Ethan Tucker’s assessment of the unfolding of halakhah. I have written three teshuvot that I would like to bring into conversation with his interview.

In his discussion of the changing social status of women, Rabbi Tucker points to an analogous development in the assessment of the deaf. I wrote two teshuvot dealing with the deaf who use sign language, here and here.

I argue that the rabbinic categorization of the heresh (deaf-mute) together with the shoṭeh (mentally incapacitated) marginalizes the deaf.(Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 2b) By contrast, those with other physical disabilities are restricted only when their particular physical limitation prevents them from participating in a particular act: their impairment hinders them from specific practices. For the deaf-mute, their physical disability disenfranchises them completely. They are thoroughly excluded because their disability is associated with a mental incapacity, not solely a physical limitation. The rabbis categorized the deaf-mute in such a way because the rabbis were unable to determine their mental functioning. A person must have sound cognitive ability (דעת) in order to be a fully functioning individual in the realm of halakhah.

The ruling about the heresh arises from the rabbi’s inability to determine the mental function of a deaf-mute person as illustrated in Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 113a-b. Two questions are analyzed: 1) Terumah must be intentionally separated from other produce. The question arises as to whether terumah separated by a deaf-mute remained unconsecrated produce. 2) If a man had intimate relations with the wife of a deaf-mute, would he be required to offer the sacrifice of asham talui because the marriage of a deaf-mute was valid only according to special rabbinic enactment. A number of rabbis contended that if a deaf-mute separated terumah from other produce, even though he was prohibited ab initio from doing so, his separation of terumah could be considered valid ex post facto because it could be that he did so with the proper intention. Therefore, the terumah cannot revert back to unconsecrated produce. In regard to the second issue, the marriage of the deaf-mute, the rabbis were unsure about its source of authorization. If the deaf-mute were allowed to marry only by special rabbinic enactment, then another man who was intimate with the deaf-mute’s wife did not transgress a biblical prohibition and therefore did not have to offer the sacrifice of asham talui. However, some rabbis argued that the offender does need to offer that sacrifice because the source for the deaf-mute contracting a marriage might be the same as for all Jews because the deaf-mute has the same mental capacity as other Jews do, and no special rabbinic enactment was necessary.

Rav Ashi asked: What is Rav Eleazar’s reason [for not permitting the terumah that a deaf-mute has separated to revert to unconsecrated status and for requiring an asham talui for intercourse with a deaf-mute’s wife]? Is it obvious to him that the deaf-mute is weak in cognitive ability? Perhaps, he is doubtful as to whether [the deaf-mute’s] mind is sound [and therefore the deaf-mute can understand the proceedings and so his separation of terumah is valid and his marriage is not only valid according to rabbinic enactment] or not sound [and therefore the deaf-mute cannot understand the proceedings and so his separation of terumah is invalid and his marriage is at most valid through rabbinic enactment], though [in either case] his cognitive ability is always in the same condition [the deaf-mute’s mind is always in the same condition, unlike the mentally incapacitated who might be lucid at times].

Or perhaps, he has no doubt that the [deaf-mute’s] mind is weak and never lucid. [Rav Eleazar’s doubt] here is due to this reason: Because [the deaf-mute] may sometimes be in a normal state and sometimes be in a state of mental incapacity.

In what respect would this constitute any practical difference? [It makes a difference in respect to] releasing his wife by a letter of divorce. If you grant that his mind is always in the same condition,  his divorce [would have the same validity] as his betrothal.  If, however, you contend that sometimes he is in a normal state  and sometimes he is in a state of mental incapacity, he would be capable of valid betrothal, but he would not be capable of giving divorce [because he might be of weak mind at that time, in which case his divorce would be invalid]. What [then is the decision]? This remains undecided.

The confusion of the rabbis about the mental capacity of the deaf-mute extended to divorce. In extending a divorce, the deaf-mute must be in the same mental state as when the marriage was contracted.( Mishnah Gittin 2:6 ) If the deaf-mute were only intermittently impaired, the divorce could not be executed because it would be unclear whether at the moment of divorce the deaf-mute was lucid. The quandary the rabbis faced was that they could not determine the mental state of the deaf mute and, therefore, could not decide the questions before them.

Starting in the nineteenth century, significant advances were made in the education of the deaf-mute, and their soundness of their cognitive ability became evident. Nonetheless, the assumption that deafness was evidence of flawed intelligence continued to prevail in the general community. Sign language was maligned as a broken version of a spoken language. Only in 1960 did a professor of linguistics at Gallaudet University (then College), William C. Stokoe, Jr., publish the first analysis of a sign language as an ordered system governed by syntax.  In 1979, two linguists, Edward S. Klima and Ursula Bellugi, demonstrated that sign languages are as complex, abstract, and systematic as spoken languages: they are controlled by the same part of the brain as spoken languages and are mastered in developmental stages like spoken languages.

A number of Jewish communities began to establish schools for the education of deaf children. Among halakhic authorities there has been a slow drift toward recognizing the cognitive ability of the deaf.

My teshuvot rule that 1) the categorization of the deaf-mute as mentally incapacitated is to be revoked and that they are to be considered completely lucid, and 2) sign language may be used in matters of personal status (such as weddings and divorces) and may be used in liturgy This is mandated by a new understanding of the cognitive ability of the deaf. Their social status has changed due to two factors: a transformation in the understanding of hearing people, who now comprehend that the deaf who use sign language have sound cognitive ability, contrary to the assumptions made in the past about them, and the increased educational and societal opportunities for the deaf.

An analogous developed has occurred with regard to women, the topic of another teshuvah of mine.  Cultural attitudes have shifted dramatically in society in general, and doors into business and the professions formerly closed to women are now open. Women participate in public life in ways unimaginable a century or two ago, or even a few decades ago. This is an intellectual and psychological transformation in how women perceive themselves and are perceived by others. Women are now seen as equal to men, in social status, in political and legal rights, and in intellectual ability by both men and women. A new world-view has resulted in new roles for women.

It must be emphasized that the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud did not doubt the intellectual abilities of women. Women were charged with responsibility for certain domestic mitzvot, mitzvot whose breach incurred serious consequences for the members of the household, including the (male) head of the household. Women were given responsibility for separating hallah from dough at home. (The mitzvah for bread baked outside the home was fulfilled by men, who served as professional bakers, and the Mishnah does mention dough prepared by herdsmen, such as in Mishnah Hallah 1.8) Women were given the responsibility for the preparation of matzah, and despite the seriousness of the preparations for Passover, they were not supervised by men. The (male) head of the household had the responsibility, according to the Mishnah, to make sure that food kept warm on the Sabbath was done without violating the Sabbath. The Talmud shows that women took care of this task, with many references to women knowing the many details on keeping food warm on the Sabbath.

Women were given responsibility for ritual tasks that took place in the home without any concern for any lack of knowledge, reliability, or intellect on the part of women, according to the Mishnah and Talmuds. At the same time, women did not serve in public ritual roles, nor were they required to perform the mitzvot to be performed by those of highest social standing.

The exclusion of women from public ritual roles was due to two principles. The first is that an individual who is not obligated for a specific mitzvah cannot satisfy the obligation of another individual who is obligated for a specific mitzvah.(Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8) The second is that social standing matters and that those of higher social standing would lose their dignity if some of lower social standing functioned on their behalf. In the case of the public reading of Scripture:

A minor may translate for an adult (who is chanting from Scripture in public) but it is beneath his dignity for an adult to translate for a minor.

(Tosefta Megillah 3:21)

The reader’s social status mattered: a woman or a minor was eligible technically but nonetheless could not represent the congregation, and to do so would infringe on the dignity of the congregation. A woman could not fulfill the obligation of a man because she had a lower social status.

Often, the discussion of women’s status vis-a-vis the mitzvot revolves on the traditional exemption of women from what were deemed time-triggered positive mitzvot. The problem with this exemption is that women were required to perform many time-triggered positive mitzvot. Moreover, many of the time-triggered positive mitzvot did not have to be performed in a narrow window of time. They can be performed at home, and a number of them require only a slight amount of time to fulfill. Women were exempted, for example, from hearing the shofar, a mitzvah that could be completed at any point during the day and one that does not take much time to fulfill.

Women were put into the same category as minors and slaves with an essential difference: minors could grow up and slaves could be emancipated, but women deemed to remain in the same social status.(Babylonian Talmud Bava Kamma 88a and Berakhot 47b)

Women were exempted because the acts of those who are subordinate to an earthly master honor God in a lesser way. It must be emphasized that the subordination of women was about their social status, about their place in the hierarchy of family and society.

When social customs change significantly, the changed social reality requires further unfolding of halakhah. I argue that women are now to be held as equally responsible for the mitzvot as men have been and that the social status of women entitles them to participate in public ritual and may fulfill mitzvot on behalf of others.

Other significant social changes need to be considered: if both men and women are now taking responsibility for infants and young children as well as for frail relatives and friends, it may be that they should be released from the mitzvot that interfere with care-giving for the duration in which they bear those duties. An essential principle of rabbinic tradition has been that an individual who is busy with one mitzvah is exempt from another.(Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 25a). Caring for the young and the elderly and frail are religiously significant tasks, and if a person is busy caring for those in need of care, s/he ought to be released from specific mitzvot that might interfere. It must be noted this exemption should be limited to that particular span of time when an individual care-giver is occupied with care-giving and that otherwise that care-giver would retain the responsibilities and privileges that he/she would otherwise have. This exemption would apply only to individuals during the time they are fulfilling a mitzvah and would not be applied across the board to them as a class. Care-givers would be included in the minyan because they still are obligated for prayer, even if at times they may be exempted. This exemption would be a powerful statement of the importance of care-giving.

Rabbi Tucker’s interview concludes with a discussion of a number of Conservative/Masorti movement teshuvot from the 1980’s, so I would also note a number of more recent teshuvot. The teshuvot of Rabbi Myron Geller and Rabbi Susan Grossman on women and edut (testimony) were approved in 2001, and Rabbi David Fine’s teshuvah on women and the minyan was approved in 2002.

Barmash’s own Summary of her Responsa (from the end of the Responsa)

Summary

The general exclusion of women from many mitzvot is based on the characterization of those mitzvot as positive and time-bound. A number of reasons have been devised for the link between this category and the exclusion of women from those mitzvot. However, it turns out that this category was devised for exegetical (formal interpretive) purposes, and only later was the category extended to other mitzvot from which women had already been excluded. It was never a generative principle.

Instead, women were excluded because they had subordinate status. They were exempted from the mitzvot that Jews are obligated to observe in the normal course of the day, week, and year because the essential ritual acts should be performed only by those of the highest social standing, those who were independent, those who were heads of their own households, not subordinate to anyone else. Only males were considered to be fitting candidates to honor God in the most fit way. The acts of those who were subordinate honor God in a lesser way and,therefore, women were excluded from them. Furthermore, social standing matters in relations between human beings, and those of higher social standing would lose their dignity if some of lower social standing functioned on their behalf. Women were endowed with ritual responsibilities for others inside the home because the rabbis thought that women had the intellect and reliability to do so. It was social status alone that determined whether women were exempted from certain mitzvot. Women were also not involved in public ritual ceremonies because of their position in social hierarchy.

The involvement of women in Jewish religious and liturgical life has changed significantly in the past century and even more in the past few decades. Jewish women are aspiring to the privileges and responsibilities enjoyed by Jewish men through the millennia. The halakhah has recognized that when social customs change significantly, the new social reality requires a reappraisal of halakhic practices. The historical circumstances in which women were exempted from time-bound positive mitzvot are no longer operative, and the Conservative movement has for almost a century moved toward greater and greater inclusion of women in mitzvot. In Jewish thought and practice, the highest rank and esteem is for those who are required to fulfill mitzvot.

For other reactions and responses to Rabbi Barmash’s opinion- see these links, especially for the discussion here one should see the abstentions and dissents.

Pamela Barmash, “Women and Mitzvot” YD 246:6.2014a

 

 

 

A Jewish Reflection on Peter Berger’s Theology   Part II – Mysticism and Interfaith

I will continue with my tribute to the work of Peter Berger as a theologian from a Jewish perspective. I dealt with question of theology and the sacred canopy in the first part- here. read that post first for the basic insight into his value for Judaism.  This second part deals with mysticism, interfaith miracles, and the return of non-pluralistic religion.

However, before I do that, a few topics came up in the FB discussion that are worth dealing with. First, someone asked, if he is a sociologist, then does he agree with Feuerbach’s reduction of religion to human projection? The answer is no. In fact, he is explicit in his rejection of Feuerbach, claiming the converse that the  world is a projection of God. The “World is a fragmented face of God.” He has been called a Christian humanist and a Lutheran Rabbi, reflecting about himself that  “I’ve always had a weakness for divinity”

Many sociologists, such as Bryan Wilson did not approve of Berger’s theology and sociology mix. Berger considered the functional sociology of the Chicago school as the human condition, while theology is outside of human condition. Berger sought faith, transcendence, hope and seeking a confrontation with God, he nevertheless considered institutional houses of worship as social in orientation, as following Durkheim. He considered most houses of worship and their followers as inauthentic and self-serving. At points, he even considers organized religion and socialization as Weber’s iron cage or as original sin.

Berger’s goal is to relativize the relativizers and show that atheism of Western sociological functionalism was itself a product of a narrow plausibility structure.  He rejected the late 1990’s Fundamentalism project thinking that the only people who don’t know that the ordinary public take their religion seriously are the sociologists.

Another thread thought that Peter Berger’s ideas were just Mordecai Kaplan’s sociological naturalism, but that misses Berger’s original ideas of the sacred canopy of existential meaning, his quest for transcendence, his thinking naturalism is reductionism, and his thinking that Jewish Centers are iron cages.  Berger’s writings have been positively used in the full spectrum of rabbinic seminaries, and as one FB commenter noted: to account for the changes in thought since the 1930’s someone else in the 1970’s should have updated Mordecai Kaplan’s ideas.

other side God Berger

Mysticism

Berger’s views on India and mysticism were the parts that I felt the need to respond in a blog post. To understand his views on mysticism, we need to return to the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s, when a new series of books appeared- The Classics of Western Spirituality, which produced nicely edited translations of Western mysticism. The series included for the first time as part of the same set works by Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Native American authors. The idea was partly an outgrowth of the counter-cultural turn to mysticism of the 1960’s, but more importantly for its conceptual frame and the frame of the volumes of World Spirituality was a rejection of Peter Berger’s denial of mysticism in Western culture.

Berger, in his early writings present a sharp divide between two types of religion, the religion of Jerusalem or the religion of Banaras.  Western religion based on Jerusalem is a religion of divine confrontation. Eastern religion based on Indian culture is a religion of interiority.

Berger’s chapter in The Heretical Imperative “Between Jerusalem and Benares: The Coming Contestation of Religions,” posits two major forms of Divine encounter. A confrontation with the divine (epitomized in the West with the monotheistic tradition, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam); and the interiority of the divine, exemplified in the East with such religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. For Berger, these two forms of divine encounter are antagonistic to each other. Western monotheism has a transcendent God, while Eastern interiority have a merger into divine immanence in which human consciousness dissolves into a greater oneness.

Berger was not concerned with empirical studies of mysticism or religious experience, rather with theology. The Protestant theologians of the 20th century dialectic movement such as Karl Barth rejected “every form of mysticism as unbelief, it was converting God into an object. They considered it self-serving and not based on God’s demand.

Berger follows this theological trend in general, and in particular relies on the Protestant theologian Freidrich Heiler whose work Prayer A Study In The History And Psychology Of Religion. The latter work made a sharp distinction between prophecy and mysticism, or more specifically between Biblical prophetic prayer of confronting God and/or petition to God, as opposed to mystical prayer of enthusiasm and absorption into God. Heiler’s two groups are the proper Lutheran prayer as opposed to pagan and enthusiastic prayer such as German spiritualists or Shakers. Berger included in Western prayer two aspects -confrontation and personalist identity- corresponding to prayer in Soloveitchik and Heschel respectively.

It is important to note that this same distinction about prayer used by Freidrich Heiler was eagerly adopted by Jewish studies. Jospeh Heinemann in his Prayer in the Period of the Tannaim and the Amoraim, & Prayer in the Talmud  presented rabbinic prayer as prophetic and confrontational as opposed to the mythic-mystical prayer at the margins of the rabbinic world. Moshe Greenberg presented Biblical prayer as prophetic without myth or mysticism.

Actually, Jewish prayer may be neither of these categories, or at least has more than these two, in that it is also adoration, doxology, magic, theurgy, contemplation, and chant. There are many Jewish educators, and even Talmudists, who because of their lack of interest in theology are still stuck using only Heiler’s Protestant categories.

Berger accepted this dichotomy and globalized it as the West as prophetic and East as mysticism. Nevertheless, Berger does concede that there are Western mystics but says that we have to distinguish mode from content. There is a mystical mode in the West but Western mystics do not have oneness of reality, while Eastern religion can be faith without any mystical experience but their essence is oneness of reality even without the experience.

The Other Side of God

In order to investigate the divide between the religion of the East and of the West, Peter Berger hosted a series of seminars for several years, starting in 1978, called “Monotheism and the World Religions.”   The papers were published in 1981 as The Other side of God: A polarity in world religions.

Berger asked: how can we reconcile these mystical traditions with our firm monotheistic confrontation. Berger’s fellow-scholars criticize this theological dyad of confrontation and mysticism in the light of their own phenomenological research.  Among those invited to attend included Ewert Cousins, the general editor of the new Classics of Western Spirituality (and my doctorate advisor), as well as the quite young Jewish representations, Michael Fishbane and Arthur Green.

Michael Fishbane adapted this distinction to the Bible as similar the distinction of the nature worship of Baal and the goddess as opposed to the worship of the Biblical God.  He supports Berger in showing that the vision of Ezekiel was transcendent and not one of merger. Yet, he then boldly reversed the dichotomy by saying that the Bible exaggerates the battle of God and Baal. On the popular level, the people mixed the cults and practices. Nevertheless, the mythic element comes back, as a return of the repressed, in Midrash and Kabbalah. In the kabbalah, once again god-man- world become one. Kabbalah has the mythic and mystical aspects.

Arthur Green presented Hasidism as a mysticism outgrowth of Judaism in which there is indeed an interiority and absorption into God. Green presented Hasidism as beyond the strictures and institutions of Judaism. A direct outgrowth of their experiencing oneness with God in their minds and within the natural order. Green cites Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Epstein of Homel who clearly expressed their pantheistic view that “all is God” (als iz Got).

Parenthetically, Berger repeatedly misquoted this in the name of Rav Nachman and credits him with Chabad organizational zeal. “The famous Kabbalist Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810), corresponded with kindred individuals all over the Jewish world from his obscure locale in Ukraine.” Berger’s version compared Hasidism to the pantheistic heresy of the Islamic mystic al-Hallaj, in which, “that “everything is God”, an idea obviously blasphemous in Jewish law.” Nachman  of Bratzlav “wrote this sentence in one of his letters, but he did not dare to write it in Hebrew, the sacred language of Torah—so he wrote that one sentence in Yiddish.”

Fishbane established the approach of treating the Bible and Rabbis as mythic and both Fishbane and Green gave an emphasis to experiential God consciousness and mysticism to their studies of Kabbalah.

Ewert Cousins in his response to Berger used the medieval Neo-platonic tradition to show that a mainstream Western mystic such as Francis of Assisi had a unified vision with natural realm, a nature mysticism without pantheism or absorption into God. Cousins showed how Francis saw a divine plenitum in the world as a unity in the difference. For Cousins, the Neoplatonism tradition, long buried finds mysticism in the plurality of this world.. After the series of seminars, Cousins was the major drive behind the Classics of Western Spirituality and World Spirituality volumes. Only recently, have Jewish scholars such as Adam Afterman returned the study of Jewish mysticism to Neoplatonic concerns

Yet, Berger continued to treat Neo-Platonism as mythological more than Western, the way Protestant theologians such as Barth did in some of their writings. Berger understands Rudolph Otto’s sense of mysterium tremendum”/”ganz andere” as supporting the Western idea of confrontation and not the concept of mysticism.

Turning to Hinduism and my intest in Banares, there was a nice article by John Carmen on Hinduism as a theistic interiority and showing that the Bhagavad Gita presents a confrontation with God. Nevertheless, Berger never retracted his position to see Hinduism as devotion to a theistic God in which one seeks God help in prayer and to attain merit.  (See my forthcoming book for more on this.)

In his introduction to the volume, and in later essays, Berger treated Gershom Scholem as the reappearance of mythological forms in Judaism despite Judaism as being the most anti-mythological. He concludes that myth is a primordial human experience.  He places Eliade in the same group. Berger acknowledges that his own idea of a sacred canopy bears commonality with the mythic vision of Scholem and Eliade, but thinks the sacred canopy is meaning and plausibility, not myth.

Gershom Scholem saw mysticism as just a symbolic understanding of an ultimate reality, a universal phenomena that plays itself out in non-reducible languages and systems. However, in this case Peter Berger’s phenomenology, based on Alfred Schutz, can be more useful to explain diversity. Berger is willing to consider the various phenomena of mysticism, psychoanalysis, demonic possession, magic, ascents of the soul, meditation, as different plausibility structures. There are different and non-reducible ways to experience reality. Berger acknowledge the diversity of actual people. However, he speaks as an advocate for Western confrontational religion.

Unlike Scholem, Berger does not think that relgion should be reduced to its mystical core or “what William James called the “mysticism of infinity” in which self, world, and divinity merge in ecstasy.” For Berger, mysticism is only a relatively small area within the vast array of human religion.

Finally, as recently as this decade, Berger questioned the compatibility of Yoga with Western religion because they share different views of human destiny. Yoga is self-liberation and Berger’s reading of Western culture is a need for revelation and redemption outside the self. He acknowledges that many just do Yoga as an exercise but he asks “Could one say the Lord’s Prayer while sitting in the lotus position? Conversely, could one seek “emptiness” while receiving communion? The short answer is: One could, but it would be awkward.” Once again, Berger lacks a sense of Yogic Kabbalaists like Abulafia or Hindu theist yoga.

Interfaith to Seek Truth

Berger advocated a non-pragmatic motive for engaging in interfaith activity, which is, quite simply, to engage in a renewed search for truth. For him, “Obviously, such a statement contains an implicit theological assumption, one that is, broadly speaking, liberal. Which is to say, it will make no sense to any orthodoxy holding to the belief that, short of the eschaton , everything has been revealed that is going to be and therefore there is nothing new to be learned of religiously relevant truth.”

For Berger, this is the dialogue between Jerusalem and Benares, between the faiths that descend from the biblical tradition and the faiths of South and East Asia, which to him is the most promising and most challenging questions intellectually.

Nevertheless, Berger cautioned about interfaith and intergroup activities  that harmony will always come from a better understanding of each other. Intergroup tensions and conflicts are based on hard vested interests, on ancient and newly invented hatreds, and on emotional and ideological needs. However, he was in favor of pragmatic purpose in helping to reduce tensions through mutual understanding and empathy. But bearing in mind that it will not effect  the more determined bigots.

Despite being a sociologist and advocating that we have to acknowledge that, we live in an age of pluralism. Berger thinks that the pluralistic situation forces us to choose our religious belief, and every religious affirmation we then make is the result of choice, even if we choose this or that orthodoxy. It becomes very difficult to say innocently, “we believe”; even if we use such words, what we are really saying is, “ have chosen to identify with this we .” At the same time, I must remain faithful to my own experience, even though I know this experience to be relativized by my historical and social location.

According to Berger, the first insight makes it impossible for him to be “exclusivist,” thinking his religious views are the only way. The second insight make it impossible to be a “pluralist.” Because relgious truths are contradictory or some of them are. They cannot readily be put together into a better picture like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; some of them belong to different pictures.

Berger sees three broad interfaith challenges. The first challenge to Western monotheism is the experience of the mythological matrix . Anywhere in the world, if one goes back far enough, one comes upon a worldview that can be described quite adequately as mythological, characterized by fluid, permeable boundaries between the realms of men, of nature, and of the gods. The radical rupture of this world that took place in ancient Israel and is at the root of the biblical tradition almost certainly served to reinforce these boundaries. He never did accept Michael Fishbane’s ideas.

The second challenge of the religions of South and East Asia is their experience of Buddhist emptiness of nirvana, an-atta, shunyata, satori .  Here he learned something from his seminars from Ewert Cousins and Arthur Green, acknowledging those who “tried to reconcile the insights coming out of this experience with the monotheistic affirmations of biblical faith”such as Isaac Luria, the principal theorist of the Safad school of the Kabbalah…or Bonaventure, who sought to retain the speculations of radical Franciscanism within the fold of Catholic orthodoxy…”

Finally, Berger thinks there is the third challenge: the experience of other particular revelations because of the particularistic and historicized character of Israel’s understanding of God’s revelation. “ If God chose Israel, could He have chosen any other people and if so, how are these two elections related to each other?”  Speaking in a Judeo-Christian voice, Berger asks: “Is there any way in which a Jew or a Christian could understand God as speaking in the Quran?” He was the issue with Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s Dignity of Difference, the award winning first edition said yes. While the revised safer second edition removed those lines.

In conclusion, Berger writes about maintaining religious differences: “I am convinced that interfaith dialogue, while acknowledging areas of agreement, must also be frank in stating disagreements. In other words, it is as important to say no as to say yes .”

Lutheranism, and the Heretical Imperative

In my prior blog post, I noted that in his book The Heretical Imperative, he distinguished between the Orthodox deductive position and liberal reductive position, between the positions of a return to certainty despite modernity and the position of accepting the rationalism of modernity. Instead he advocates, a theological pluralism of always seeking to balance the extremes using social science.

However, in some of his later works, he surprises us by crediting his pluralism scheme directly to Lutheranism. On the orthodox side, Catholics have “the miracle of the Mass,” where the “transubstantiation” was supposed to occur.  On the other hand, there was the Swiss view of Zwingli  that the Eucharist was a simple memorial. These are the extremes of reductionism and deductionism, while only the Lutherans understand that the Eucharist, Christ is present in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine: neither transubstantiation nor a simple memorial, rather a balance.

Returning to our opening about Berger’s mixture of theology and sociology, for him the Church is a thoroughly human institution, with all the vices and follies of such an entity, possessing no intrinsic authority and certainly not the power of infallibility. God’s revelation is communicated in, with, and under an all too fallible institution.

In many ways this also fits, the middle range of contemporary Jews who treat mizvot not as supernatural nor as merely a symbol. Rather, they are the ways we come to God. Modern Orthodoxy is in its classic mid-20th century form approached Berger’s Lutheran middle position. Moreover, even now when it leans more to the deductive side, it still rejects the miraculous for a Weber sense of rationality, or even Lutheran balance. Therefore, until the recent influx of magical ideas in Modern Orthodoxy, it avoided the miraculous in daily life.

Two years ago, I gave my talk on the “Varieties of Modern Orthodoxy” at a major University. They arranged for a Catholic professor to respond to my talk. She responded that modern Catholics share many of the issues of Modern Orthodoxy Jews, including that both combine their faith and secular studies. However, she added that Catholics have a third element besides the modern and the Orthodox, that of the miraculous.  For her, one must always balance faith with both modernity and with the miraculous. The Catholic Church has been supernaturalist in principle, but cautious in practice: Saints are expected to perform miracles, but these are juridical investigated and bureaucratically regulated; miracles outside these procedures are frowned upon.

This struck me because it was never a Jewish perspective. However, with the return of Neo-Chassidus and magical thinking to Modern Orthodoxy, it may play a bigger role in future thinkers.

However, what is noticeable is that in some issues like the origins of the BIble, Modern Orthodoxy is unlike Lutheran middle  rather closer to the Evangelical deductive. Right wing Conservative is closer to Berger. According to Berger’s “Lutheran view, in which the Bible is a collection of texts produced by human beings under specific historical circumstances, neither directly inspired nor inerrant. God revealed himself in, with, and under these contingencies of history.

Modern Orthodoxy has traditionally been closer to the Protestants who have been more wary of the supernatural: God speaks to us through the kerygma , the proclamation of the Word, yet keeps the miracles  of the past open. Modern Orthodoxy, in some ways, has a similarity to American Evangelical theologians (very non-Pentecostal ones) who have developed a doctrine called “cessationism”: Miracles have ceased because they are no longer needed, or after the canon was completed.

Pentecostals, New Age, and the turn to Ultra-Orthodoxy

Berger writing from a personal biographical perspective of Lutheranism has never been attracted to  Pentecostalism. But as a sociologist he have been fascinated by it. And furthermore, he sees that it improves people’s lives by providing comfort and community for people. It preaches a morality that encourages sobriety, discipline, and devotion to family. Those who do, begin to experience social mobility and will indeed improve their lives. Pentecostalism is itself a modernizing movement in the developing world.  This is an important point for those Modern Orthodox authors who have an animus against the more right wing Yeshivish or Chabad and do not see their value in modernizing, in social mobility, and in producing a disciplined life.

On the other hand, Berger originally supported the need to bring religion into the public sphere as part of conservative trend of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, founded in 1989 by Richard John Neuhaus. Yet, he subsequently broke with them over their obsessions with abortion and same sex relations.

On the other hand, Paul Heelas, one of the leading scholars of the new age movement, points out how Berger never really understood the turn to spirituality. scholars of 21st century religion, note that Berger is not useful for dealing with the new age, therapeutic, and the immanence of religion in our lives. And Berger certainly has fewer insight to apply to the return to non-pluralist religion. Berger understood interiority- the lonely man of faith-  but not how people find God in social activities of helping other, of therapeutically helping themselves, in use of Asian religious ideas, in small groups, and in the arts. He could not see the current immanent form of religious humanism, in which the homeless religious mind found a new home in the immanence of daily life. Berger had too sharp of a sacred and profane distinction. He would not be helpful in understanding the plethora of new age and therapeutic forms of Chabad and yeshivish.

Modern Orthodoxy

Gerald Blidstein  notably compared Rav Soloveitchik’s constructivist  approach of  “world-building and world-perceiving” to “certain  facets  of  the  work of people like [Peter] Berger, [Clifford] Geertz, [Charles] Taylor,  [Michael]  Walzer,  and  others..”  An important point.

But by the time, Blidstein wrote those words, Modern Orthodoxy stopped caring and in an undereducated and frightened but belligerent way thought  Peter Berger was post-modern, and therefore oppose to religion. However, Berger himself had to clarify occasionally his own positon before the misreading of his pluralism and constructivism. Berger’s pluralism is a form of realism in which the modern believer has to have discernment to choose between the options and  not rely on dogmatic deductivism or reductionism. However, the word pluralism twenty years later by other thinkers meant that we have no truth or that all truth is just a subjective construct.

A different distortion seemingly common among Modern Orthodox is to misread Berger’s pluralism and heretical imperative as if he was the first to discuss the voluntary nature of religion after the Enlightenment and Emancipation, as if he is a liberal affirmer of individual conscience. (Get ready for a short screed.)

There is an Orthodox interpretation of Peter Berger, almost a meme, crediting him with the Enlightenment saying that we are all freethinkers today and not locked into a socially imposed religion, as were the pre-moderns. Therefore, these modern Orthodox think he is similar to the Hazon Ish’s statement that there is no heresy today because the social-religious framework cannot the taken as a given. The Hazon Ish notes that in Jewish modern life after the Emancipation if one chooses a non-observant life, it is not an act of deep rebellion. There also seems to be some sense in which these meme users think this misreading distinguishes themselves from Haredim.

However, the Hazon Ish is just responding to the 19th century. Almost any thinker from Locke, Lessing, Hume, Jefferson, Mendelssohn, or Kant says we no longer have an established religion and follow our own conscience. Jews after the Enlightenment and Emancipation can choose to remain Jewish or to leave. Many 20th century books on the modern Jew make a statement to that effect in the first chapter.

In contrast, Berger’s pluralistic choice is about the believer needing to forever be mediating and negotiating using current academic study. Berger was a firm conservative believer against freethinkers since they are giving up the needed pluralist negotiation and seeking of transcendence. For Berger the need to choose is not the decision to be religious or not. It is a philosophic position of a need to create a sophisticated faith- choice means sophistication and the need to apply critical methods, especially of sociology.  Think of his position as the need to affirm Torah Umadda or Tradition and Modernity, or a critical modern faith. Berger is not about autonomy and finding one’s “religious preference”. He is not Rabbi Eugene Borowitz and is against such liberalism. As noted above in the interfaith section, Berger simultaneously affirms that all choices are personal, but we then fully accept them as our Existential choose. Those who follow the meme comparing the Hazon Ish and Peter Berger are themselves guilty of not have a heretical faith informed by social science.

Conclusion

In conclusion, what was the attraction of Berger’s writings for Jews? In a Jewish context, his ideas were generally formulated his ideas as a tension to be negotiated, a hallmark late 20th century of Jewish religious thought. Among the specific Jewish tensions are autonomy and rabbinic authority, between legitimation by personal choice or by Rabbinic tradition, between identity and status in a Jewish community, and critical studies and rabbinic tradition. Different Jewish denominations resolved the tension in different ways.

There were, however, Jewish critics of Peter Berger who bristled against his definition of Judaism as a religion and faith commitment, when they instead defined Judaism Jewish peoplehood or the Jewish historical experience, especially the Holocaust. Yet, the Reform movement even consulted Berger when they considered a campaign of outreach to non-Jews. (I did not deal with these aspects in this essay.)

Nevertheless, Berger remains the model for attaining clarity about a certain form of 1960-1985 form of middle point religion. Jews used Berger’s socio-theological faith as a way to show how to negotiate religious options in tension with each other.

Prayer without Hoping- Rav Shagar  

Rav Kook described prayer as a means to “deepen our feelings of holiness and our sense of closeness to God.” It will be so intense that the “immediacy can be felt by others due to the “exalted sense of Divine immediacy.” And from the midst of all its influence upon the world in the past, present and future.”Rav Kook assures us that “When that prayer of the people of Israel comes, the entire world will be astonished at its glory and splendor, its strength and grace.  It will come from the midst of that perfect will that makes the entire world one bloc of holiness, that turns all of life into one chapter of supernal song, a new song, a song of Hashem upon the land of Israel, a song of Zion redeemed and filled with eternal redemption.” (Orot Hakodesh III, p. 227)

However, what happens when your prayer life and the prayer life of your friends and seemingly your entire generation no longer senses the promise described by Rav Kook? What does one do if the hope of a transformed reality through prayer has vanished? What if prayer does not seem to offer benefits and all one has is silence from the act of prayer leaving one without any hope?

To answer this problem, Rav Shagar turns to the thought of Jacques Derrida, the Algerian -born French Sephardi thinker, via a Hebrew secondary source, to respond to the current impasse of  prayer without hope.  (For links to our more than 17 prior posts on Rav Shagar,  see herehere. here, here, and here. We have once again to thank Levi Morrow for his first draft of a translation. Please let me know of any errors.

derrida prayer

Rav Shagar acknowledges that for many their prayers are without benefit or hope. To offer a path of continuing to pray despite this lack of  hope, he finds a parallel to Derrida’s prayer as without hope in which Derrida nevertheless  says despite the despair and lack of hope, there is always a possibility of that one may be answered.

Shagar interprets the traditional Hasidic concepts of offering as prayer without hope. Shagar equates Derrida’s prayer without hope to Rebbe Nachman’s Void, the Halal Ha-Panui, which is seemingly empty without hope. However, according to Shagar, prayer has the possibility to cut through the void. In addition, God must be in His seeming absence. Not because of a holism in which everything is God, rather because there is always the possibility of breaking though the void. In the meantime, prayer is an imposibilty, yet we still pray.

Shagar compares the negative theology of Derrida to the negative theology of Maimonides and kabbalah. Yet, Derrida himself said negative theology was precursor to his concept of différance but clearly differentiated his thought from medieval thought in that medieval negative theology was still tied to a higher reality. Derrida was especially adamant that différance was not God.

In contrast, to the actual thought of Derrida, or his major interpreters, Shagar make Derrida into a mystic and treats deconstructionism as similar to the kabbalah. He also thought Derrida’s différance is God as a higher reality and it is our higher self in the transcendental and existential senses sthat Derrida rejected. In this, Shagar was probably just following the Israeli presentation by Michael Govrin, who combined her own kabbalistic views with those of Derrida in the same volume. Shagar’s usage of Derrida is basically a few unexplained quotes that are contextualized in his own Hasidic thought.

Shifting back to Rebbe Nachman, Shagar considers all prayer as a grace of God  and all the words are a grace in that they are not guaranteed in a natural way.  Here Shagar shifts Rebbe Nachman’s ideas of divine gift and divine miracle into the ideas of possibility, or even without hope.  There is no transcendence, we do not experience the promise of the Kabbalah or Rav Kook, only the possibility.

The essay ends on a more radical note claiming that God lacks independent meaning of our prayer or any transcendence. God is not outside standing above, rather God is  our deep self or in the language of Hasidut, it is the root of our souls. This harkening back to the end of the introduction to his work Kelim Shevurim (2002) where he reads Rav Zadok HaKohen in this manner. He concludes by identifying God with the Lacanian Real, thereby collapsing self, God and divine immanence. (see his Hanukhah homily for more on this.) Shagari s using Lacan’s  idea that at one stage of development the “I” is an empty signifier within the field of language and one enters via language into the symbolic order. In order essays Shagar identifies Torah with this self-creating symbolic order.

In the 1980’s Shagar used modernist existential themes to interpret the alienation from prayer. For example his student, Rabbi Dov Zinger, head of the yeshiva high school, Mekor Chaim has the students do Buber I-Thou dialogue with their classmates and then has them turn to God with the same I-Thou intimacy. Another student, Rabbi Benny Kalmanson of Yeshivat Otniel, reflects a more frustrated Existential moment by speaking of Elie Wiesel’s concept of the need to argue with God even if one does not belief or expect an effect. Prayer is like story telling it is a form of witness and memory. In this essay, we see Rav Shagar use of postmodern language from the last decade of his life.

It is worth noting that in all of his work Rav Shagar identifies with the breakdown not the solution. When Buber, Heschel, and Soloveitchik use Existentialism, they all see prayer and faith as an answer to the absurdity, meaningless, and futility of life. In contrast, Shagar accepts that our thrown situation is absurd, meaningless, and in this case hopeless. His goal is to explain this hopelessness and absurdity as our religious life, then to channel it back to a religious perspective.

To conclude as we started by returning to Rav Kook, one can still use the words of Rav Kook but now we can relate to them in a new Rav Shagar post-Derrida understanding. “When we pray to find our purpose in life and our path to serve God, such a prayer is an authentic reflection of the soul’s inner desires… prayers express our true inner will.” (Olat Re’iyah vol. I) Prayer, in this new reading, becomes the Lacanian Real and the inner self of Hasidut, both of them only a possibility.

Interlude on Prayers of Derrida as needed for this essay.

For those not familiar with Derrida, here are his ideas of prayer and atheism that will add to understanding this essay of Rav Shagar. If you wish, you can skip this interlude and go directly to Rav Shagar’s essay below.

Derrida, the “father” of deconstruction, was nothing like the stereotypical caricatures. The philosopher/theologian John Caputo in his many works especially for this essay The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida (1997) presents a religious use of Derrida and in Caputo’s recent works (2011-2017) of the last few years, brings us a position that is similar to what Shagar is struggling to articulate this  essay.

Caputo writes on Derrida’s prayer:

The religion of Derrida, is quite paradoxical. He considered himself an atheist, but yet he would pray at least nightly, sometime to the point of tears. What is so interesting to me is not so much the atheism, nor the fine intricacies that Derrida went about to define his religion as a “Religion without religion” and who prayed to a “God without God.”But rather what has been so moving to me is the sincere humility Derrida went about his religion and prayers…

In short, Derrida realizes first and foremost, that he is human. and thus he is fallen and fallible. And the human tendency is to think that our world revolves around each one of ourselves. But yet, we know the world doesn’t revolve around us, and we are not the center of the universe. Thus prayer in a way, is a way Derrida seeks to rid himself of self. He wants to love people, and thus in prayer he attempts to repent of himself so that he won’t get in the way of love.

Thus, for Derrida,  prayer is not just a lifting up of God, but it is also just as much a repositioning of one’s self in relation to God as to not distort our view of God.

“My prayers have more than one age, one layer, in the same instant. There is something very childish, in the imagery, iconography of God as a stern grandfather and at the same time as a mother who thinks I am innocent, who is ready to forgive me. God is just and forgiving at same time. This is the childish layer of my prayers.

“On top of this layer there is another layer: my culture, a very critical, experience of religion, referencing the philosophers and scholars I have studied… In this layer of sophistication, I ask who is praying and who is receiving the prayer.

Thinking about the unnameable, etc.: it is a very skeptical prayer. Skepticism is part of the prayer. The suspension of certainty is part of the prayer.”

My assumption is I must give up any expectations regarding The One or the more than One to whom I address this prayer if this is still a prayer.”

There is at the same time some suspension of any calculation. I’m not hoping. It’s a ‘hopeless’ prayer. Hopelessness is part of what a prayer should be.There’s hope, calculation, economy.

Caputo on theism/atheism

Derrida has continually drawn attention to the “porous boundaries” between atheism and theism. He speaks of a certain type of “theism” that “at times so resembles a profession of atheism as to be mistaken for it,” as well as a certain form of “atheism” that has “always testified to the most intense desire for God.”

Derrida is drawing attention to the “structure of belief/unbelief” itself, as that which always underlies any particular claim, including atheistic and theistic claims. In this way, Derrida was avoiding and critiquing the “dogmatism” that applies equally to any “strong atheistic” or “strong theistic” claim that fails to honor the fact that whatever one believes, belief and unbelief are always inextricably linked.

Prayer and faith are based on  “trust,” in God and trust always demands a certain level of “risk.” In this sense that a confessing believer can admit that at times she “quite rightly pass[es] for an atheist.” (For more on this topic, see this NYT interview

Praying without Hoping 

Translation by Levi Morrow & Alan Brill  Here is a downloadable version of Praying Without Hoping in Word to create handouts for synagogue and classroom. At 1500 words it can be covered entirely in a single class. The original Hebrew is here The Redemption of the Postmodern- On the Messiah of the Matrix. This essay on prayer is an appendix at the end of a longer essay on the movie The Matrix. If you have suggested improvements to the translation, then please let me know

 

Both Rebbe Naḥman of Bratslav and Jacques Derrida taught that prayer, as well as faith, are only possible through absolute renunciation, praying without hope or future.

Rebbe Nachman wrote: “This is when you pray without any intent for personal benefit, without thinking about yourself at all, as if you did not exist. Following the verse, ‘It is for your sake that we are slain all day long’ (Psalms 44:23).”[1]  Derrida’s version: “Prayer does not hope for anything, not even from the future.”[2]

Prayer without hope does not demand the typical religious self-sacrifice (mesirut nefesh), in which a person nullifies (mevatel) his self and his needs in favor of God. Rather it embodies self-sacrifice, in that the purest prayer is located in its impossibility, as total self-sacrifice, purposeless suicide.

[According to Derrida,] Prayer turns “to the other without future hope, only towards the past. It returns, without a future. However, despite this, you pray. Is this possible?” If this is so, we might ask: why, indeed, should you pray?

[Derrida answers:] Is it possible to pray without hope, not just without any request, but while renouncing all hope? If we agree that this prayer, pure prayer, cleansed of all hope, is possible, would that not mean that the prayer’s essence is connected to this despair, to this lack of hope? […] I can imagine a response to this terrifying doubt: even then, at the moment when I pray without hope, there is hope within the prayer. I hope, minimally, that someone takes part in my prayer, or that someone hears my prayer, or someone understands my hopelessness and despair. Thus, despite everything, there is still hope and future. But perhaps not. Perhaps not. At least perhaps. This too, in regards to the terrifying nature of prayer.[3]

Prayer is empty mechanical speech, but in some form or another, it cuts through what Rebbe Naḥman called the void [lit. empty space] (haḥalal hapanui) thereby overcomes the gap, even though it remains in the negative space of complete silence:

It requires you to affirm two opposites, Aught (yesh) and Naught (ayin). The empty space comes from the contraction (tsimtsum), as if God had removed himself from that space, as if there was no divinity there, otherwise it would not be empty […]. But in the absolute truth, there must be divinity there despite this […] and therefore it is impossible to understand the idea of the void until the future yet to come.[4]

Even though both of them recognize the impossibility of prayer, Rebbe Naḥman and Derrida do the opposite – they pray. Paraphrasing Maimonides’ statement that God “exists, but is not in existence,”[5] Derrida and Rebbe Naḥman ask if the Naught cannot also be Aught? Is it possible to pray without hoping? Is it possible to despair of hope and thereby to receive it, as a despairing hope? Then there is a hope and a future, and someone hears my voice. The connection to Maimonides is not incidental. Derrida saw the idea of negative attributes, Maimonides’ negative theology, as the basis for deconstruction, and thus also for prayer. [6] Similarly for Rebbe Naḥman: “this is prayer, for when we call to God with the attributes of flesh and blood, and it is improper to describe and call to God with attributes and praises and words and letters.”[7]

Some found Derrida’s statements about prayer incredibly shocking for “the philosopher who for years was considered the standard-bearer of anti-metaphysical radicalism, the guru of believers in materialism lacking any ‘beyond.’”[8] Indeed, Derrida was forced to defend himself from criticism by thinkers including Jurgen Habermas, according to whom he was nothing less than a Jewish mystic.[9]

Is this claim not correct? Derrida’s worldview is far from rationalist or anchored in philology. His deconstructive games sometimes seem, not coincidentally, like Kabbalistic-Hasidic homilies. He defended himself, claiming that his project was “a deconstruction of the values underlying mysticism,”[10] and in this, he was correct. However, Habermas’ accusations are not wiped away or confronted by Derrida’s claim since the passage from deconstruction to mysticism is not just possible, but is, perhaps, obvious. Derrida’s project denied all positivity, but this goal clears the way for the mystical leap, for the hope “that someone takes part in my prayer […] At least perhaps.”

The difference between Derrida and the mystic is a matter of pathos. Someone once said that the mystic and atheist say the same thing, “nothing.” The difference is that the mystic says it with a capital “N,” with a feeling of tremendous freedom that breaks him loose from the constraints of reality. Meanwhile the atheist says it as a depressed and “terrifying possibility.”

Rebbe Naḥman and Derrida perhaps expressed better than others did the gap, the différance between the word and what we expect to accomplish.[11]  The void is the source of the structural contradictions of reality itself, what Rebbe Naḥman called “the questions without answers.”  [12]

And yet they prayed?! This miracle happens in present tense. This moment has no external justification nor is it a result, rather an event. This is grace that is a possibility; a possibility for prayer without promise. “Prayer is when we call to God using flesh and blood qualities. He is then present for us in our calling to him. This is the grace of God. Without the grace of God, it would be improper to describe and call to God with attributes and praises and words and letters.”[13]

The question becomes one of grace, and paradoxically this grace is dependent on the human renunciation of the will to transcend. Self-acceptance, giving up on transcendence, “is not true or false. It is, word for word, prayer.”[14]

Self-sacrifice, suicide, is a condition for prayer because it liberates a person not just from the language, but from its logic as well. Prayer is therefore divine grace because it is impossible and yet occurs, or at least, perhaps occurs. This “perhaps” is important, because the “perhaps” elevates it to the realm of worldly possibilities; it therefore exists, if only as a possibility.

Perhaps someone hears and takes part with me in the prayer? Is this enough to create hope? I pray, but am I certain that I will be answered? No, I am not certain. I am also not certain that I will not, but the prayer does something. Someone hears. Who is this someone? We say “God,” but this word lacks any independent meaning. It is enough for me that “I” hear, but who is the “I” that hears? I believe in the deep “I”, an “I” with a transcendental horizon. This is what the Hasidim called the root of the soul. Where there is an “I” like this, there is God.

The problem of attributes that Rebbe Naḥman pointed to is the impossibility of language actually doing what it claims to do, actually making contact with the real/Real. If I understand God as something that exists outside of me, I have strayed from the Real. Yet, in truth, [Lacanian] psychological reduction of faith is possible when raised to the Lacanian Real.

Reaching the Real requires the human renunciation of the will to transcend itself, and only after this, it is correct to say that this “someone” is the “I”.

[1] Rebbe Naḥman of Bratslav, Lekutei Moharan, I 15:5.

[2] Jacques Derrida, Guf Tefillah  tr. Michal Govrin (Tel Aviv: Mekhon Mofet Vekav Adom Keheh/Hakibuts Hame’uḥad, 2013), 87.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Naḥman of Breslov, Lekutei Moharan, I 64:1.

[5] Rabbi Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, I:57, Unlike Maimonides, Derrida rejects the second part of Maimonides’ teachings, which believes in the knowledge of God, in the unity of the knower, the knowing, and the known, in the possibility of “if I knew him, I would be him,” which according to Derrida is simply death.

[6] Derrida was not familiar with the theory of attribution from Maimonides himself. See Gidon Efrat, Derrida Hayehudi: Al Yahadut Kepetsa Ve’al Haguto Shel Jacque Derrida (Jerusalem: Ha’akademiah, 1998), 68.

[7] Naḥman of Breslov, Lekutei Moharan, I 15:5.

[8] Michal Govrin, “Setirah Petuḥah. Lelo Siyum, O Segirah,” Ha’aretz – Musaf Tarbut Vesifrut, October 22, 2004. The article was written following Derrida’s death.

[9] Efrat, Derrida Hayehudai, 112.

[10] Cited in Efrat, Derrida Hayehudi, 111.

[11] In the language of Rebbe Naḥman: “There needs to be a separation, so to speak, between the filling and the surrounding. If not, then all would be one. However, through the empty space, from where God contracted his divinity, so to speak, and in which God created all of Creation, the void has come to encompass the world, and God surrounds all worlds, surrounding even the void […] and in the middle appears the void from where God withdrew his divinity, so to speak” (Rebbe Naḥman, Lekutei Moharan, I 64:2).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Rebbe Naḥman, Lekutei Moharan, I 15:5. Based on this paradox of impossible prayer as the only possibility of prayer, the possibility of a miracle, Rebbe Naḥman and Derrida claim that they are the only people who really pray.

[14] Jacques Derrida, cited in Govrin, Setirah Petuḥah.