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Scholarship and Provocation: A Response to Arthur Green’s Review of Hasidism Incarnate

Jan15

by: Shaul Magid on January 15th, 2016 | Comments Off

Arthur Green recently published a review of my recent book Hasidism Incarnate in Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations. The review raises some important issues in regards to the study of Hasidism and Hasidic literature more generally, and the nature of comparison in the study of religion. It also gestures toward the complex relationship between scholarship and theology that many of us, both in Jewish Studies more generally, and Jewish mysticism in particular, traverse in our work. I begin my discussion of the larger questions raised in the review with Green’s claim of omission. In his review Green notes that it is surprising that I chose not to invoke Psalm 90:1 A prayer to Moses, man of God (ish ha- Elohim) in my study as it would ostensibly support my basic contention about incarnational thinking. He is certainly correct that this verse stands out as significant to my argument. In fact, on page 18 in the first chapter I invoke this very verse, and a comment on it by the pre-Hasidic pietist Yaakov Koppel of Mezritch (d. 1786) to introduce the entire project. Whether or not Green’s comment about the absence of Psalm 90:1 was an oversight, I think the way he may understand the verse, and the way in which I discuss it using Koppel’s comment, illustrates  the differences between us, both in our reading of Hasidism and in our theological vision more generally.

Midrash Tehillim to Psalm 90:1 offers various readings of calling Moses “a man of God.” One such reading is as follows: “If he is a man he is not God, and if he is God, then he is not a man…When Moses went up on high he was a man. In the presence of God, how bright is a candle? How bright is even a Torah in the presence of God? When a mortal goes up to the Holy One, blessed be He, who is pure fire, and whose ministers are fire – and Moses did go up to God – he is a man, But after he comes down, he is called ’God’”. Yaakov Koppel reads Moses as a “man of God” quite differently. He writes, “If he is a man he is not God, and if he is God, then he is not a man? Rather, above he is called God (Elohim) and below he is called man (ish). Koppel (intentionally, I assume) reverses the order of the midrash. The midrash states that the divine status of Moses is only on earth, that is, in his vocation as a lawgiver. It is a divinely granted divine status not unlike an emissary of a king who speaks for the monarch. It does nothing to compromise the absolute transcendence of God. Koppel, however, suggests that the status of Moses as divine is precisely when he is in the presence of God. It is not a God-granted status as much as a state of being. One can understand the difference between Midrash Tehillim and Yaakov Koppel as a move from non-incarnational to incarnational thinking. The midrash explains Moses’s divine status as a vocation while protecting divine transcendence. Koppel problematizes that by granting Moses’ divine status with, or in the very presence of, God. When Moses comes back down to earth he is a man (ish) but a man who already is a God (Elohim). This is the precise reason I introduce Hasidism’s incarnational thinking with Koppel’s comment; I suggest Koppel introduces an incarnational motif that becomes indicative of Hasidism. Green may prefer the midrashic reading whereby Moses’ divine status is as a lawgiver, a much more conventional notion. This may also speak to Green’s insistence that we retain categorical boundaries between Judaism and Christianity. Judaism is the religion that retains the utter transcendence of God (the midrashic position) whereas Christianity deconstructs that transcendence through the incarnation (gesturing toward Koppel’s position). Green articulates this in his claim that the incarnational component of Christianity may be imported from Hellenism rather than endemic to Judaism.

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Torah Commentary- Perashat Vayigash: Confronting Societal Injustice, Confronting Ourselves

Dec18

by: on December 18th, 2015 | Comments Off

 

In these troubled times, when we see societal tolerance of speech approaching that of fascism, when open hate speech about anything or anyone approximating an “enemy”, where even the victims of oppression are treated with hostility and suspicion, one feels helpless in attempting to maintain a sense of justice and decency. How does one respond to what appears to be a situation of crisis? What kind of discourse is appropriate as a response?

This week’s perasha (Torah portion) begins at a similar moment of crisis- All seems lost. An innocent descent to Egypt to purchase food has ended up with youngest brother Benyamin imprisoned by the enemy authorities. To the brothers, it would seem that their own actions have put the children of Rachel at risk of total decimation (with Yosef believed dead and his only brother Binyamin in a place worse than death), an outcome which would compound their father’s already unrelieved grief to beyond mortal tolerance. The family appears helpless in a Kafkaesque trial situation which caught them entirely unawares.

In an act of desperation, Yehudah steps forward and begins to plead with the enemy leader for his brother’s life. The text uses some unusual language- the text reads:  Vayigash Elav Yehudah, literally Yehudah “encountered” him. The use of the term vayigash, from the root hagasha, (to come close, also to prepare) is somewhat unusual, both linguistically and even in terms of the action, given that they were in the same room. And to whom is the second word in the phrase,Elav, “to him”, referring to?

In fact, why does the text need to quote Yehuda’s speech at such length? This speech does not reveal anything new towards the linear development of the plot; we are given no new facts about the brothers’ history, and no new personal revelations. Yet this speech is clearly central to the story and thus extensively analyzed by the Midrashim. The Midrash choreographs entire dialogues lurking behind the words of Yehudah, referring to all sorts of hidden meanings within his every word, both conciliatory and threatening words; the prelude in the Midrash Rabbah (BR 93:3) insists that the words of Yehudah “can be interpreted from every angle”. We will find that the words of Yehuda teach us several useful lessons on mindfulness in the moment of apparent crisis.

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“Ba’nu Choshekh L’kadesh: Sanctifying darkness, seeding the light”

Dec10

by: Rabbi David Seidenberg on December 10th, 2015 | 2 Comments »

Every year at my boy’s school there’s a Chanukah concert that includes rap songs and other talent. A few years ago, it included the song the popular song, “Ba’nu Choshekh L’garesh“. I’m not so connected to modern Israeli culture, though, so it was my first time hearing it. Here’s a translation:

We come, the darkness to expel -
In our hands, light and fire.
Each one is a small light,
And all of us together – an immense light!
Flee darkness! Be gone black!
Flee before the light!

The school, Lander Grinspoon Academy in western Massachusetts, teaches great midot – moral qualities – and it’s also multiracial. (I shouldn’t need to say that because Jews are all races, but our prejudices can make us forgetful about who we are.) So the words “Be gone black/Hal’ah sh’chor” really struck me as the wrong thing to be singing, even though I know that no one who loves the song today or in the past – certainly not the Yemenite composer, Sara Levi-Tanai – would have intended any such thing. “Ba’nu Choshekh” probably represented pretty well what a lot of people imagine when they think about Chanukah – we are celebrating the triumph of light over darkness.

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For many Jews, anti-Arab racism hits home

Dec9

by: Keren Soffer Sharon on December 9th, 2015 | 12 Comments »

Following the devastating attacks in Paris, right wing forces have been fanning the frightening flames of anti-Arab racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia. There have been calls for increased surveillance of Muslim communities, unconstitutional registration of American Muslims, and religious tests for Syrian refugees seeking safety in the United States.

A transit camp (maabarah) for Mizrahi immigrant refugees in 1952

I am Mizrahi. I’m a Jew, and like many Mizrahim, I’m also an Arab. We Arab Jews have a unique perspective to offer on the Syrian refugee crisis, and on the Islamophobic and anti-Arab backlash that we are seeing in this country and across the globe. For me, anti-Arab racism is not something abstract. It’s not something that needs a historical analogy to feel visceral. The hatred and fear directed toward our Arab and Muslim friends is an attack on the Arab heritage of Mizrahim and on our rich history as Jews.

Mizrahi Jews (meaning “Eastern”) are Jews who for over 2,500 years were indigenous to the Middle East, North Africa, parts of Asia and the Balkans. For much of this time, Mizrahim were deeply rooted in the Muslim-majority societies in which they lived. Our ultimate displacement was the result of several historical forces, including the establishment of the state of Israel by Ashkenazi (European) Jews with the support of imperial powers.

In the late 1930s, Ezra Haddad, an Iraqi Jewish author and historian, proclaimed, “We were Arabs before we became Jews,” in Al-Akhbar, an Iraqi daily newspaper. Before British and French colonialism, Arab Jews, Arab Muslims and Arab Christians shared communities, identities and homes – in the deepest sense. My mother’s maiden name is Soffer, which means “scribe.” My ancestors were Torah scribes in Basra, Iraq, dating as far back as anyone in my family can remember. There was no place my family would have called home before Basra. Like other Iraqi Jews, my family was part of a thriving Jewish community living among other religious minorities in a society that was widely tolerant of non-Muslims. We shared the physical, cultural and psychic space that made us all Arab. It is only recently, through the centralizing of the Ashkenazi narrative as the dominant Jewish story, that our identity as Jews is supposed to override our identity as Arabs.

There is no history to support the claim that Jews and Muslims are, or have ever been, perpetual enemies. Let us not forget that when both religious groups were expelled from Spain by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492, it was Muslims who welcomed Sephardi Jews (meaning “from Spain”) into Morocco and parts of the Ottoman Empire. And contrary to the notion that Jews were never safe in Muslim-majority territories, it was actually the Christian territories where they faced the most virulent forms of Antisemitism. Jews and Muslims were both demonized and targeted during the Spanish Inquisition under the same system of Christian hegemony that would later form the political foundations of white supremacy as we know it today.

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Nonviolent Communication, Christianity, and Notions of Right and Wrong

Dec4

by: on December 4th, 2015 | 4 Comments »

Recently, I received a question from a student about the compatibility of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) with Christianity given that the NVC worldview speaks of a world beyond right and wrong, and this person’s understanding of Christianity is rooted in those very notions.

Although I have often received and addressed similar questions, this time, because the focus was so squarely on Christianity, and I am neither Christian nor a theist, I chose to engage with others: fellow NVC trainers and friends. Thirty something emails on the topic later, this quest culminated in a conversation with my friend Nichola Torbett, Founder of Seminary of the Street, with whom I often have deep discussions about theology. With all this help, I am now both ready to respond to the question I was asked, and ready to share here some specific discoveries Nichola and I made today, informed, also, by what I learned from others.

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All Real Living Is Meeting

Dec2

by: Matthew Gindin on December 2nd, 2015 | Comments Off

All real living is meeting.- Martin Buber

As is so often the case, the events of the last weeks and their questions resonated with the parshayot (torah readings). How should we relate to the other that we fear? Who are our fellow travellers? Where is God in the tortured conflicts of our time?

In the Bible portion Vayetze Jacob leaves Be’er Sheva in the Holy Land and goes north to Haran. The Hasidic commentator the Sfas Emes points out that this symbolizes the soul leaving behind the well (be’er) of Shabbat (sheva) to go into the materiality of the world- from the place of p’nimiyut (internal spirit) to the place of gashmiyut (worldliness). In parshat Vayishlach, last week’s portion, Jacob is returning to the Holy Land and therefore to the place of p’nimiyut, which besides internality can also paradoxically mean the Face (panim). Jacob will descend into his own depths and emerge to a confrontation with the face of the Other.

“And Jacob was left alone (levado)”(Genesis 32:25). The Midrash says, “Jacob was left alone (levado)”- this is like the aloneness of the Holy One who pervades all the universe (Genesis Rabbah, 77:1)”. How is Jacob’s aloneness like the aloneness of God?

The Holy One’s aloneness is described as ein od milvado -there is nothing besides Him alone (Devarim 4:35). On one level Jacob is in a place of great aloneness where he must rely on his own resources (Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dynov, Igre de-Kala, quoted by Rav Itamar Eldar). This is one way in which his aloneness is like the Holy One’s- it is an aloneness of self-sufficiency. Further R’ Tzvi Elimelech and others connect this verse to another one from Isaiah: “And human haughtiness will be humbled and people’s pride be brought low, YHWH alone ( levado) will be exalted on that day (Isaiah 2:17)” Here Jacob lets go of pride and self and thus attains to an “aloneness with the alone”. Jacob’s aloneness is one where he comes into an unmediated meeting with the Divine presence, as taught by the Shem Mi-Shmuel (Vayishlach 1878). This last type of aloneness is a seclusion even from ideas of self and other, past and future. Jacob enters into a deep stillness where he transcends stories about himself and his brother. Jacob is alone, but not in the sense of isolation. In this aloneness his consciousness becomes unrestricted, and it is in this sense that his awareness “pervades all the universe like the Holy One”.

It is from this ultimate place that the Other can be met completely, free from the cage of concepts based on the past. Here transformation of our attitude to the other can really occur, even if we only glimpse this state briefly. Without it, change tends to be more superficial.

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Torah Commentary: Perashat Vayetze- Dreams of a Refugee

Nov20

by: on November 20th, 2015 | 2 Comments »

When I reached manhood, I saw rising and growing upon the wall shared between life and death, a ladder barer all the time, invested with an unique power of evulsion: this was the dream….Now see darkness draw away, and LIVING become, in the form of a harsh allegorical asceticism, the conquest of extraordinary powers by which we feel ourselves confusedly crossed, but which we only express incompletely, lacking loyalty, cruel perception, and perseverance…. Rene Char, Fureur et Mystere

In the traditional literature, the patriarch most symbolic of the Jewish people is Jacob (Yaakov in Hebrew), who comes into his own in this week’s Torah reading. While more of a passive player in the previous episode, Jacob comes to life- as he is forced into exile. This essay will deal with dreams, the dreams of a refugee. It is not accidental that the first dream recorded in the Torah is associated with a man on the run, who has placed a stone from the road under his head in order to sleep. That dream is the lyrical dream of the ladder which ascends to heaven in which Jacob sees angels alighting and descending, which the Midrash suggests may be read as allegorical for Israel in exile, subject to the rise and fall of nations and circumstances over which they have no control. It is thus fitting that this week we contemplate dreams and exile, and the plight of the refugee. Sympathy for the refugee is a biblical sentiment from the very earliest passages, and that must not be forgotten in these troubled times.

The commentators from the earliest days noted the relationship between place/circumstance and the appearance of the dream. The Midrash latches on to an extraneous word in the verse- “and he chanced upon the place and rested there”. The Midrash explains the word vayifga, “and he chanced upon”, as meaning “he prayed there”, using as a proof text the use of the same term in the Jeremiah 7:16 and 27:18. The Midrash states that there, in that place where Yaakov rested, Yaakov created the evening prayer, the Arvit service, described by R. Shmuel bar Nahman as embodying “May it be Thy will that You remove me from darkness to light”. Exile as night.

A second curious midrash is found on verse 28:16, which reads “and Yaakov awoke from his sleep, mishenato“. The Midrash alters it to miMIshnato, from his studies, from his “learning”. At first glance, one might suspect a surprising anti-study, anti-intellectual message, likening study to sleep, in that Midrashic reading. Why is study like sleep?

The Maor V’Shemesh understands the emptiness of study without dreams. He says that the “Torah spiritual life” is made up of two intertwined elements- study and prayer (compare the Maharal in Netivot Olam A, chapter 7). Neither approach, neither study alone, nor prayer alone, is adequate on its own. This is the lesson of Yaakov’s development as narrated by the midrashic readings. The Midrash narrates that Yaakov spent 14 years in the “Yeshiva of Shem and Ever”, yet he never had a heirophany, a divine revelation, until this episode, which takes place not in a study hall- but on the road, alone, uncertain of the direction his life might take, a refugee, with only stones under his head for comfort. This situation, which moved Yaakov to beseech God for his very survival, is what “awoke his learning” as well, infusing his years of study with the urgency of dreams, transforming study into yearning and a route for redemption.

It is the encounter with the dark silence of reality that is transformative. A refugee sees the world collapsing around them and dreams, urgently, that there must be a better reality where normal life can proceed.

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Torah Commentary- Noah: Transcending Deluge-Era Consciousness

Oct16

by: on October 16th, 2015 | Comments Off

The story of Noah is on the surface rather straight forward. The people are bad, Noah is good, God decides to wipe out the Earth but saves Noah and a large number of representative animals in a big wooden boat. After bringing down rain for 40 days and nights, the rain stops, and Noah sends out two animal emissaries, when the second finds dry land, they disembark. Makes for a great children’s book, cartoon, or sci-fi movie. Versions of this tale are found throughout the ancient world, and much literature is dedicated to the roots of this story. Ultimately, though, in any version of this, it is a horrible story, so much death and destruction, and it doesn’t even end well for Noah.

My interest is less in the ancient near eastern roots of this narrative, nor about its authenticity. What moves us in this series of essays on Tikkun is what meaning or sense could be derived from the text we have by the serious spiritual thinkers who have encountered these passages over the generations. Is there a meaning beyond “be good or be a good swimmer”?

Much of the Rabbinic writings focus on Noah, why was Noah saved, what merit did he earn that can be emulated? Much like in the contemporary presidential debates, the ‘media’ as it were seeks a winner. If one compares Abraham, Moses, and Noah, among the great religious figures of crisis, who did the right thing and who committed ‘gaffes’? My interest, however, and for which there seems to be no strongly held position, was what did humanity do that was so terrible that a collective punishment of this scale was warranted, and what lessons does it have for us today?

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Rosh Hashana, 2015

Sep26

by: JVP Rabbinic Council on September 26th, 2015 | 3 Comments »

Almost four years ago, the Rabbis of Jewish Voice for Peace called on President Obama to resist the call to go to war with Iran and choose instead a peaceful resolution. We said: “As Jewish leaders, we believe that the path of wisdom towards achieving peace and stability in the region is through dialog and engagement and not through acts of war.” Today, along with rest of the world, we congratulate President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for bringing us the Iran nuclear deal. We believe that peace, not war, serves best the people of the United States, Iran, Israel and all the people of the region.

In the coming days, in synagogues and homes across the country, Jews welcome Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. Jews greet each other with the blessing: “may you be inscribed in the Book of Life.” This year we extend our blessings to the 35,000 Jews in Iran, the millions of Iranians, our fellow Jews in Israel and the American people for whom this peace treaty offers the best hope for being inscribed in the Book of Life.

President Obama has given us hope this Rosh Hashana. Hope that international conflict can be resolved through diplomacy; hope that engaging in the highest self-interest of other nations can serve our own national self-interest; hope that peace, not war, be our first choice, not the choice of last resort; hope that Iranians can live and thrive in peace; hope that the Middle East can be a region of peace; hope that we can live in a world with less, not more, nuclear arms.


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Rosholushion

Sep17

by: Shari Motro on September 17th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

Rosholushion (ˌro-shə-ˈlü-shən) n. 1. Rosh Hashanah resolution 2. a resolution arising out of a restorative justice-type process that includes an intention to make amends, to forgive and be forgiven.

Why a new word? To distinguish it from the seemingly similar but actually quite different New Year’s resolution.

New Year’s Eve – fireworks, champagne, the requisite kiss or awkward lack of one – might be fun or it might be underwhelming, but the central idea is joy. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the ten days in between are a different animal.

As Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer at the service I tune into put it, instead of dancing, Jews usher in the New Year by swimming in a river of tears. Yes, Rosh Hashanah includes celebration too, but from the start it weaves the sweet with the bitter. On the first day of the holiday, we read about a jealous wife who, after the miracle of her own late conception and childbirth, demands that another mother and son be banished to the desert, something that would result in their near certain death. On the second day, we read about a father who nearly kills his beloved son, even marshalling him to carry the wood for the altar on which he is to be slaughtered and burned.

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