Tag Archives: Theology

How to learn about Judaism

We have had many people join, coming from non-Jewish backgrounds. As adults, it is hard to even understand Judaism, when everything one reads is first viewed through a lifetime of Christian theological assumptions. So the only way to learn about Judaism is to put Jesus aside, and study Jewish sources.

What do Jews believe about the Bible? Read “Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible” Joseph Telushkin.

What do Jews believe about God? Read “Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion” Abraham Joshua Heschel. A profound work that reflects on how man can apprehend God and have an encounter with the ineffable, and the radical amazement that man experiences when experiencing the presence of the Divine.

What is Jewish theology – what are the ways in which we believe? Check out “Great Jewish Thinkers: Their Lives and Work”, Naomi E. Pasachoff
This short (200 page) introduction to Jewish thinking. Presents the lives and work of classical Jewish philosophers such as Saadia Gaon, Yehudah Halevi, Maimonides (Rambam), Mystics such as Moses de Leon (author of the Zohar), Isaac Luria and Israel Ben Eliezer – The Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidic Judaism.) Modern Jewish thinkers such as Moses Mendelssohn, Theodore Herzl (founder of modern Zionism), Ahad Haam, and also 20th century Jewish philosophers

How has halakhah developed over time? “A Tree of Life: Diversity, Creativity, and Flexibility in Jewish Law” Louis Jacobs. Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.

What does it mean for a Jew to believe in God? How can we use words to describe God? Is God “one”? The Unity of God

What is God?

What are the many different ways that religious Jews have traditionally understood God?

Major ways of understanding God

Revelation: Judaism affirms that the Bible is, in some way, the product of divine revelation. But what does that even mean? How can God “speak” to people? Here is an overview of several Jewish responses.

Revelation

What about Bible prophecies? Most non-Jews were raised in a culture where they were assured that the Bible made specific prophecies about the future, and they all came true. But outside of the most strictly Orthodox communities, most religious Jews have never read the Bible in this way: The Bible is a not a sci-fi manual already laying out the future.

Supposed Bible prophecies about the future

Why study Judaism’s oral law? Isn’t the Bible alone, enough? Not at all, and here is why:

Mishnah: the beginning of Judaism’s oral law

Judaism is NOT identical with the religion of the Bible. Judaism is based upon the way in which the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash interpreted the Bible, and for good reasons. Here is why and how Judaism differs from more fundamentalist faiths.

Tradition and change in rabbinic literature

These online introductory essays are unlike most other websites: They don’t push the view of one specific theology. Instead, they include a range of traditional Jewish views, and note differences in interpretation by those in the Conservative, Orthodox and Reform communities.

Idolatry: The boundaries of Judaism

Like other faiths, Judaism has no one, precisely defined theology: rather, there are a diversity of views on the nature of God, how God interacts with the world, and what the essential principles of Jewish faith should be. There are many rationalist interpretations of Judaism, viewed through the lens of philosophy, and many mystical interpretations, viewed through the lens of kabbalah and mysticism.

However, there are also theological boundaries, beyond which a person’s belief would be deemed heresy.

What are the boundaries of Jewish theology?

Judaism forbids avodah zarah/עבודה זרה, idolatry.
The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) has many statements against avodah zarah, written in different historical eras, in response to different issues. Idolatry includes any of these:

the worship of idols/images
the worship of polytheistic gods by use of idols (or images)
the worship of animals or people
the use of idols even in the worship of God

The Hebrew Bible makes clear that God has no shape or form, and is utterly incomparable; thus no idol or image could ever capture God’s essence. For example, when the Israelites are visited by God in Deut. 4:15, they see no shape or form.

It is true the Bible uses anthropomorphisms to describe God, (e.g. God’s mighty hand, God’s finger, etc.) but these are poetic, not literal descriptions. This is reflected in Hosea 12:10 which says, “And I have spoken unto the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and by the hand of the prophets I use similes.”

The Bible records a struggle between the prophet’s attempt to spread pure monotheism, and the tendency of some people, especially rulers such as Ahab to accept or to encourage others into polytheistic or idolatrous beliefs. The patriarch Abraham was called to spread the true knowledge of God, but the prophetic books still reflect a continuing struggle against idolatry. For example, the Biblical prophet Jeremiah complains: “According to the number of thy cities are thy gods, O Judah” (2:28).

The Bible has many terms for avodah zarah/idolatry, and their usage represents the horror with which they filled the writers of the Bible. Thus idols are stigmatized “non-God” (Deut. 32:17, 21 ; Jer. 2:11 ), “things of naught” (Lev. 19:4), “vanity” (Deut. 32), “iniquity” (1 Sam. 15:23 ), “wind and confusion” (Isa. 41:29 ), “the dead” (Ps. 106:28 ), “carcasses” (Lev. 26:30; Jer. 16:18), “a lie” (Isa. 44:20 et passim ), and similar epithets.

Pagan idols are described as being made of gold, silver, wood, and stone. They are described as being only the work of men’s hands, unable to speak, see, hear, smell, eat, grasp, or feel, and powerless either to injure or to benefit. (Ps. 135:15-18)

What was the idolatry/paganism described in the Bible?

A classic work is “The Religion of Israel: From Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile”, by Yechezkel Kaufmann. It’s Hebrew title is תולדות האמונה הישראלית, (Toledot HaEmunah HaYisraelit.) English readers know this book from its translation by Moshe Greenberg.

Clearly, the Bible condemns the external practices of idolatry – worship of figures/idols. But the Bible’s description of idolatry is overly literal – most pagans didn’t really believe that their idols were gods; historians have shown that pagans believed that their idols were just representations of their deities. So Kaufman asks, why doesn’t the Bible directly attack the theology of paganism itself? Page 20 of The Religion of Israel states

It seems incredible that Israel should have been totally unaware of the nature of pagan beliefs. For Israel was always in contact with its pagan neighbors, and moreover, had believing pagans in its midst. Certainly there were circles who knew about paganism more than is reflected in the Bible. What is shown by the fact that the Bible bases its whole polemic on the argument of fetishism is that the chief influence of foreign beliefs on Israelite religion did not involve mythological materials and that the age-long battle of the Bible with idolatry did not involve mythological polytheism.

This compels us to examine anew the conventional views regarding foreign influences on Israelite religion during biblical times. Moreover, we shall have to re-examine fundamentally the nature of Israelite “idolatry” during this period.

It is clear now that the question as to the origin of Israelite monotheism has been erroneously formulated. We cannot ask whether it was during the preprophetic or prophetic age that the religion of YHWH came to deny the reality of the foreign gods. The Bible nowhere denies the existence of the gods; it ignores them.

In contrast to the philosophic attack on Greek popular religion, and in contrast to the later Jewish and Christian polemics, biblical religion shows no trace of having undertaken deliberately to suppress and repudiate mythology. There is no evidence that the gods and their myths were ever a central issue in the religion of YHWH. And yet this religion is non-mythological. Fossil-remains of ancient myths cannot obscure the basic difference between Israelite religion and paganism. It is precisely this non-mythological aspect that makes it unique in world history; this was the source of its universal appeal.

The Bible’s ignorance of the meaning of paganism is at once the basic problem and the most important clue to the understanding of biblical religion. It underscores as nothing else can the gulf that separates biblical religion from paganism. A recognition of this gulf is crucial to the understanding of the faith of the Bible. Not only does it underlie the peculiar biblical misrepresentation of paganism, it is the essential fact of the history of the Israelite religion.

Kaufman concludes that little relationship existed between the ancient Canaanites and Israelites. In his view, the influence of ancient near-eastern pagan religions existed only prior to the time of Moses.  Monotheism was an original development of the Israelites themselves. After the Israelites became monotheistic, their theology no longer was related to the mythological pagan ideas around them -to the extent that the Scriptures do not even understand paganism.

“Israelite religion was an original creation of the people of Israel. It was absolutely different from anything the pagan world knew; its monotheistic world view has no antecedents in paganism.”

 

Examples of ancient idolatry

Yermiyahu (Jeremiah) attacks those who worship the pagan deities Baal and the Queen of Heaven; the pagans believed that these deities has sexual intercourse; their religious followers taught that humans here on Earth should have sex, even with pagan temple prostitutes, in order to stimulate the deities into heavenly sex.

Ironically, these ideas persisted through history through Gnostic texts, and somehow became embedded within the Zohar – a core text of Jewish mysticism.  On this, Yehudah Ilan writes

The kabbalah, however, reintroduced these mythological concepts to the point where kabbalistically-minded individuals truly believe that blessings, etc. come into the world via the supposed unification of male and female forces in a heavenly realm. So, even though Yermiyahu HaNavi (cf. 7:18; 19:4-5; 23:27; 44:17-22, et al) railed against the worship of Baal and the Queen of Heaven (which featured sexual relations with temple prostitutes in order to encourage the deities to do likewise above), [Hasidic Jewish] husbands and wives are now taught that the mystical purpose of their sexual relations on Friday night is for the supposed unification of the sefirot of Tiferet (also called “Tzadik” and representative in the kabbalah of the male member) and Malkhut (also called “Shekhinah” and representative in the kabbalah of the female genitalia). In effect, we have in many ways returned to our ancient errors through such teachings.

Major Problems with the Kabbalah: Forthodoxy

Jewish view of Christianity

Some places in the Talmud view Christianity as a form of idolatry prohibited not only to Jews, but to gentiles as well. Rabbis with these views did not claim that it was idolatry in the same literal sense as pagan idolaters in Biblical times, but that it relied on idolatrous forms of worship (i.e. to a Trinity of gods and to statues and saints.) (Babylonian Talmud, Hullin, 13b)

Other rabbis held differently, and by the middle ages a new consensus was reached in which Christianity was generally not held to be idolatry.
– “Exclusiveness and Tolerance”, Jacob Katz, Oxford Univ. Press, 1961, Ch.10

Maimonides writes that Jesus was wrong to create Christianity and that Mohammed was wrong to create Islam; he laments the pains Jews had as a result of persecution from followers of these new faiths that attempted to supplant Judaism. However, Maimonides then goes on to say that both faiths help God redeem the world. In his Mishneh Torah, he writes:

Jesus was instrumental in changing the Torah and causing the world to err and serve another beside God. But it is beyond the human mind to fathom the designs of our Creator, for our ways are not God’s ways, neither are our thoughts His. All these matters relating to Jesus of Nazareth, and the Ishmaelite (Mohammed) who came after him, only served to clear the way for the King [[Messiah]] to prepare the whole world to worship God with one accord, as it is written ‘For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they all call upon the name of the Lord to serve Him with one consent.’ (Zephaniah 3:9). Thus the messianic hope, and the Torah, and the commandments have become familiar topics of conversation among those even on far isles, and among many people, uncircumcised of flesh and heart.(“Mishneh Torah”, Maimonides, XI.4

This paragraph used to be censored from many printed versions of the Mishneh Torah because it contained verses critical of Jesus.

“Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People” Menachem Kellner, State Univ. of New York Press, 1991

Belief in a messiah

It is often said that both Jews and Christians believe that there will be a “messiah” – but their definitions of the word are so completely different that it may be misleading to use the same word. Many Jews thus use the Hebrew word – moshiach/מָשִׁיחַ, which means ‘anointed one.’ In ancient days a prophet would anoint a King with oil, and the Hebrew Bible sometimes refers to kings as moshiach.

How does the Christian definition of messiah differ from the Jewish definition of moshiach/מָשִׁיחַ?

In Christianity, the messiah is identified as a human, Jesus, who is:
(a) literally the son of God
(b) and simultaneously, God’s own self
and (c) a necessary intermediary between man and God

In Jewish theology, moshiach/מָשִׁיחַ is a mortal human being, not even having supernatural abilities, who has a specific task. Descriptions vary, but a general consensus is that moshiach will

1. Bring Jews back to observing Judaism

2. Will gather Jewish people back to the land of Israel.

3. The Holy Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt.

4. Israel will live among the nations as an equal, and will be strong enough to defend herself.

5. Eventually most war, hatred and famine will end, and an era of peace and prosperity will come upon the Earth.

This is a completely non-supernatural belief. Here is the view of Maimonides – Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon – in his commentary to tractate Sanhedrin, of the Babylonian Talmud.

“The Messianic age is when the Jews will regain their independence and all return to the land of Israel. The Messiah will be a very great king, he will achieve great fame, and his reputation among the gentile nations will be even greater than that of King Solomon. His great righteousness and the wonders that he will bring about will cause all peoples to make peace with him and all lands to serve him…. Nothing will change in the Messianic age, however, except that Jews will regain their independence. Rich and poor, strong and weak, will still exist. However it will be very easy for people to make a living, and with very little effort they will be able to accomplish very much….”

” it will be a time when the number of wise men will increase…war shall not exist, and nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation…. The Messianic age will be highlighted by a community of the righteous and dominated by goodness and wisdom. It will be ruled by the Messiah, a righteous and honest king, outstanding in wisdom, and close to God. “

“Do not think that the ways of the world or the laws of nature will change, this is not true. The world will continue as it is. The prophet Isaiah predicted “The wolf shall live with the sheep, the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” This, however, is merely allegory, meaning that the Jews will live safely, even with the formerly wicked nations. All nations will return to the true religion [monotheism, although not necessarily Judaism] and will no longer steal or oppress.”

“Note that all prophecies regarding the Messiah are allegorical – Only in the Messianic age will we know the meaning of each allegory and what it comes to teach us. Our sages and prophets did not long for the Messianic age in order that they might rule the world and dominate the gentiles….the only thing they wanted was to be free for Jews to involve themselves with the Torah and its wisdom.”

Alternatives to the idea of a personal messiah

It is usually assumed that the only authentic Jewish belief concerning the messiah is the standard interpretation as explained by Maimonides. He explains that eventually the messiah – a descendant of King David – will will arrive and usher in a Messianic era in which the Davidic Kingship will be re-established. On the other hand, many religious Jews today do not believe in a personal messiah.

There is another theological strand in our tradition, which indicates that Judaism is not totally welded to the classic figure of the messiah. Gerald Blidstein, a board member for the Orthodox Jewish journal _Tradition_, writes:

We all know of of the prophet Samuel’s strong opposition to the appointment of a king, despite the ostensibly clear Deuteronomic command to do so….Actually, of course, that command is somewhat ambivalent, and this ambivalence probably led to the tannaitic discussion of whether the people Israel were in fact unambiguously commanded to have a king, a discussion which continues in later midrashim. Some Ge’onim, in fact, decided the question in the negative, as did R. Sa’adya and Ibn Ezra in their commentaries.  Maimonides, of course, decided with a thunderous positive.

Gerald J. Blidstein _Tradition_ Vol.32, No. 1, Fall 1997 “Halakha and democracy” p.6-39

A number of rabbis within the tradition questioned the assumption that we are obligated to set up a new Davidic monarchy.  Abarbanel is well known for his anti-monarchic posture.  [Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel (1437–1508)]

Others who concur are the Netsiv and Rabbi Yeruham Perlow.

Rabbi Hayyim David HaLevi goes so far as to write that Maimonide’s monarchism is not really representative.

– Netsiv: Ha’amek Davar to Deut. 17:14 and Meromei sade to Sanhedrin 20b, s.v. BaMishna.

– Gerald J. Blidstein “Ekronot Mediniyyim be Mishnat ha Rambam (Ramat-Gan, 1982).

A few Orthodox rabbis have downplayed the idea that there will be a personal Messiah in the form of a king, and instead propose the idea of a Messianic era, which is consistent with the beliefs of many Conservative Jews. One example is R. Shlomo Goren (Shana beShana, p.127-136, 1975.

On this topic, Gerald Blidstein writes “Perhaps it is wiser to leave the messianic monarchy of the end of days in the realm of the future whose structure and content is known only to God, all the while wondering whether the belief in redemption…ought to be so powerfully focused on the person or redeemer in any case. Indeed, there are some aggdic indications of the downplaying of the messianic element in that redemption in the interest of the kingship of God.”

For rabbinic reservation concerning the monarchic messiah, see E. E. Urbach “The Sages, I” (translated by I. Abrahams; Jerusalem 1975), p.690-692. (Glidstein, “Halakha and Demoncracy”, p.12)

Could there be 2 messiahs?

There is a minority opinion in the Talmud that there may be a second messianic figure: In this minority view, we first will encounter Moshiach Ben Yosef, who has a prepatory role, which then leads the way for Moshiach Ben David. We see this in the Babylonian Talmud, Sukka 52 a,b, but not much is mentioned.

R. Saadya Gaon (Emunot V’deot 8:6) seems to believe that his existence is only necessary if the Jews are not ready for the Messiah and need to do t’shuva to merit the redemption.

It is a common idea that the Messiah will come either if the Jews are meritorious, or if they are not, at a predetermined “deadline”. R’ Saadya is referring to if the Messiah must come at the “deadline”, and the Jews need preparation to be redeemed. In this case, the Mashiach ben Yosef will lead the Jews back to God’s good graces allowing them to be worthy of redemption, and later he will die in battle (of Gog and Magog), allowing for the succession of the “real” Messiah, Mashiach ben David.

Rabbi Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel, and the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser), in their commentaries to the Prophets, treat the existence of Mashiach ben Yosef as a “kabbala” (tradition) known to Chazal from the prophets themselves. (See Abarbanel to Ezekiel 32 and Malbim to Ezekiel 37:19.)

In their opinion, he will be (as indicated by his name) from the tribe of Yosef, or at least from one of the ten “lost tribes”, who were exiled by Sennacherib (King of Assyria, 700 BCE.)  He will be instrumental in uniting the ten tribes with the rest of the Jews in exile, as well as uniting the Jews in exile themselves, and leading them in the final war leading to the Redemption, thereupon dying in battle.

According to some sources, Mashiach ben Yosef will be resurrected immediately after the war in the “Techiat Ha’meitim” (Resurrection of the Dead). Others maintain that he will remain dead so as not to detract from the monarchy of the Mashiach ben David.

https://judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/13359/who-is-moshiach-ben-joseph-and-what-does-did-he-do

View of Conservative Judaism

Throughout the course of human history, Jews have differed as to what can be done by human beings to bring these dreams [of a Messianic era] into reality. Generally they have spoken in two voices: a radical or revolutionary voice, and a more gradualist or evolutionary voice. Revolutionary messianists are impatient. They despair about humanity’s ability to deal with its intrinsic problems in the normal course of affairs. They view themselves as responsible – even required – to take radical action to effect this transformation, to force God’s hand. They are less likely to satisfied with baby steps that their contemporaries are taking, with the small partial redemptions they witness. They thus become militant activists and resort to aggressive political activity and even, in the extreme, military action and violence to bring about their goals. They see the age to come as emerging out of a cosmic upheaval (which they will attempt to precipitate) that will destroy the familiar world of nature and history.

In contrast, messianic gradualists see the age to come as emerging slowly and imperceptibly out of the world as we know it today, restoring a pre-existing harmony. Theirs is a more patient and humanistic voice. With a basic confidence that human beings can and will work on the infinite details of their social, political and interpersonal lives, they are prepared to accept these practical redemptions as forecasts of the ultimate redemption yet to come. They see the eschatological scenario not as an immediate demand but as a vision which yields hope for the future and infuses all of their day-to-day activities with infinite import.

The dominant eschatological voice today is clearly revolutionary – In Islam, in American fundamentalism and evangelical Christianity, and among certain groups of Jews in Israel and throughout the world. We understand the concerns that impel communities to resort to such programs. We are also convinced of their dangers: exclusivism, triumphalism, radical political action and in the extreme, militarism and even terrorism.

We therefore affirm a gradualist or evolutionary eschatological approach. We are aware that it too has its inherent dangers: inertia, quietism and a generalized sense that since God will send the Messiah in His good time, what we human beings do has little significance. We strive, therefore, to remind ourselves of the classical Jewish teaching that God and humanity are partners, not only in creation and revelation, but in redemption as well.

We do not know when the Messiah will come, nor whether he will be a charismatic human figure or is a symbol of the redemption of humankind from the evils of the world. Through the doctrine of a Messianic figure, Judaism teaches us that every individual human being must live as if he or she, individually, has the responsibility to bring about the messianic age. Beyond that, we echo the words of Maimonides based on the prophet Habakkuk (2:3) that though he may tarry, yet do we wait for him each day.

  • Emet Ve-Emunah, p.30-32

The Messianic Era

In regards to the future of the individual, the nation of Israel and the nations of the world, the classical texts of Judaism provide a rich source of speculation, but do not provide us with one definitive framework. Since no one knows what will happen “in the days to come” each of us is free to fashion personal speculation. Some of us accept these speculations are literally true, while others understand them as elaborate metaphors, generated by deep seated human needs, and woven out of Judaism’s most intuitive values and commitments. Thus, if “the age to come” is an age of universal peace and justice, it is because our Torah commands that we strive to create that kind of social order in the here and now and because our Nevi’im (the Prophets) railed against our ancestors failure to do so in their own day.

For the world community we dream of an age when warfare will be abolished, when justice and compassion will be axioms of all, as it is said in Isaiah 11: “…the land shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

For our people, we dream of the ingathering of all Jews to Zion where we can again be masters of our own destiny and express our distinctive genius in every area of our national life. We affirm Isaiah’s prophecy (2:3) that “…Torah shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”.

  • Emet Ve-Emunah, p.28,29

 

Related articles

The Most Important and Dangerous Jewish Value: The Messianic Impulse

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

“We want Moshiach now!” Have you sung it? What did you mean?

The Torah teaches us about the 4 stages of redemption (Shemot 6). Through God’s miraculous interventions in the world (the 10 plagues), there was a mass exodus, perhaps the greatest story of liberation and redemption in human history. But we have to ask ourselves, is this the historical model for future redemption? Is this the way that we want it to occur? As a miracle of God?

In the middle of the plagues the Torah says, “Ain kamoni b’chol ha’aretz”—there is none like me in all of the land. It is not only distinguishing God from the belief in other gods. It is distinguishing what God can and should do versus what humans can and should do. In general, we follow halakhta b’drachav (imitatio dei) that we emulate the ways of God, but here there is a limitation. It may be that the text is saying: I (God) can redeem the world through a punishment of the other but do not think that you should emulate this in search of your own redemption. “Ain kamoni b’chol ha’aretz”—there is none like me—there is no one on earth that may act as I am acting here, for a higher reason than you can understand. Thus, the redemption from Egypt is different from the future model of redemption.

Jewish Messianism is everywhere in modernity, including Zionist, Chabad, and secular Jewish messianists (Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, and Leon Trotsky and other Bolsheviks). It seems we cannot take the messianic impulse out of the Jew.

Today, the messianic impulse can have very dangerous expressions. More and more, we see messianism leading to extremism and also to the watering down of core Jewish values; the notion of the coming of Moshiach not only becomes disproportionately important in Jewish thought, but also a justification for lack of responsibility. The concept of Moshiach becomes a religious excuse, a crutch, a shortcut. When it is our collective version of the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, or Santa Claus, we risk religiously remaining children, constantly expecting a supernatural intervention that will instantaneously change all of nature. We interpret a prophetic hyperbole too literally. But there is, of course, a very different model at the foundation of Jewish thought.

In the Gemara (Sanhedrin 98a), Rav Yehoshua ben Levi wrestles with the question of when and how messianism works, and asks Eliyahu HaNavi when the Messiah will come. Eliyahu replies that he should go ask the Moshiach himself, who is sitting at the entrance to the city of Rome. Rav Yehoshua then asks Eliyahu HaNavi how he will recognize the Moshiach at the gates of Rome. Eliyahu replies profoundly that he will be sitting amidst the poor and sick, putting bandages on them one by one.

The Messiah exists on the periphery of society (gates of Rome) and is a healer! Rav Yehoshua runs and finds the Moshiach and asks him when he will come. The Moshiach replies, “Today!”

Rav Yehoshua, confused, goes back to Eliyahu questioning why the Moshiach said “today.” Eliyahu replies, quoting Psalms, that it is today “If you will hear His voice.”

The Gemara is teaching us that Moshiach is here already. Messianic possibility is always right in front of us in a very real way.

http://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/the-most-important-and-dangerous-jewish-value-the-messianic-impulse/

 

Rav Kook’s Secret Writings

Rav Kook’s Secret Writings: A Drama In Several Parts
The Jewish Press, By Hillel Fendel – 19 Tishri 5773 – October 4, 2012

Rav Kook Painting

Clandestine photocopying of tucked-away documents in Israel’s National Library, hurried text messages of selected passages verifying their pristine, unpublished condition, and question marks surrounding the editing and possible censorship practices of trusted editors from eighty years ago.

These are some of the fascinating aspects of what many assume to be a straightforward phenomenon but that in fact has turned out to be a mysterious, complex and ongoing enterprise – the publication of the writings of the ultimate inspiration of the religious-Zionist camp, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, zt”l.

Up until the mid-1980s, things were simple. One could barely find a self-respecting religious-Zionist home in Israel without at least some volumes of the “White Wave” or the “White Shas” – i.e., the fundamental works of Rav Kook, so named because they all featured a simple white dust jacket with a light-green border.

The books, such as Orot (Lights), Orot HaKodesh (Lights of Holiness), and the Siddur commentary Olat R’iyah became staples not only of philosophical yeshiva study for thousands of students but also the very basis for understanding the rich, profound and novel thought of the saintly and scholarly Rav Kook.

It was common knowledge that these books had been edited by Rav Kook’s two prize students: his son Rav Tzvi Yehuda and the Nazir, Rav David Cohen. The latter had been entrusted with eight of Rav Kook’s notebooks, from which he culled and edited the gems that would later comprise Orot HaKodesh.

Meanwhile, Rav Tzvi Yehuda was doing the same with some twelve other notebooks his father had given him, and produced from them (and partly from the other eight as well) many of his father’s other famous works – Orot, Orot HaTorah, and more.

Rav Kook barely wrote any books as complete, unified entities. Rather, he wrote in an almost stream-of-consciousness format on any and all topics, and he filled many little notebooks with short paragraphs of his deepest and most profound musings.

When Rav Tzvi Yehuda died in 1982, whatever hashkafic material remained in manuscript (not including writings such as commentary on the aggadic passages of Tractates Berachot and Shabbat, which became the four-volume Ein Ayah) appeared to be fated for oblivion. This, because the newly-established Rav Tzvi Yehuda Institute (RTYI) did not go out of its way to convince the Raanan family – direct descendants of Rav Kook and the owners of his papers – to allow them to be published.

Though it was known that Rav Kook had left many manuscripts behind, no publication date appeared on the horizon.

And yet, contrary to expectations, many books of Rav Kook’s hidden writings have been published over the past several years. Just last month, for instance, in honor of Rav Kook’s 77th yahrzeit on Elul 3, a work entitled Yesh Lach Kanfei Ruach – You Have Wings of Spirit – was made available to the public. Named after a line in one of Rav Kook’s poems, it is a compendium of his writings – some of which had not before seen print – on the topic of the confidence a believing Jew must have in himself and his ability to do good.

In short, with the holy writings apparently under permanent wraps, an entire series of Rav Kook’s writings have now seen the light of day. How did this occur?

The answer, it seems, is a man named Boaz Ofan.

Ofaz was learning in Yeshivat Ramat Gan a decade and a half ago when, he said, “we were a bunch of chutzpadik youths who decided the papers should no longer remain concealed.”

Though he is now willing to divulge much of how he came to fulfill this goal, he does not want to say how he actually received his first copies of some of the secret manuscripts. He collected a fair amount but then got stuck: He had too many to ignore, but too few to actually publish.

Knowing RTYI was reticent to publish, he unceremoniously informed the rabbis there, “I have photocopies of all Rav Kook’s writings. Either you publish what you have – or I will.”

They did – and thus was born the first “unedited” volume of Rav Kook’s works, known as Shemoneh Kvatzim, or Eight Collections – the unabridged series of manuscripts from which Rav Kook himself actually commissioned publication. (Another version of the story has it that Rav Yitzchak Shilat, the editor, was actually at work on the project before Ofan appeared on the scene.)

Asked to explain the source of his daring, Ofan told Neta’el Bandel of Olam Katan, “Mostly from the enthusiasm of the many who were thirsty to learn Rav Kook exactly as he wrote his thoughts. The books were grabbed up immediately upon being printed.”

This was not particularly good news for everyone. The students and rabbis represented by the Rav Tzvi Yehuda Institute felt the proper way to understand Rav Kook was by learning passages in the proper context, not free-style. Some say the order was given to buy out the entire printing so that it would not be widely disseminated.

Ofan and his colleagues at Yeshivat Ramat Gan did not hesitate. It took them four years to get it together, but in 2003 they re-published the work – in two volumes instead of three, with the same size and look. The new edition became known as the Ramat Gan Eight Collections.

The ball was now in RTYI’s court, and it published the heretofore unknown “Notebook 13.” However, several important passages – such as those on Spinoza, secular learning, the Divinity of Torah – had been omitted.

Meanwhile, Ofan and a friend, Matanya Shai, had discovered yet another collection of Rav Kook’s writings; what it was doing in the National Library is a mystery in itself. Shai made his way to the library archives, where a librarian stood guard to make sure he wouldn’t photocopy them.

“When the librarian finally left,” Shai related, “I quickly texted my brother entire passages, one after another, and asked him to check if they appeared in any of the books, including the Eight Collections. Each time he said no, it wasn’t there. We had discovered a real treasure, larger than the previous one – and never before published!”

Much of what had been understood of Rav Kook’s philosophical and Kabbalistic thought was based on what he had written during a seven-year period (1912-1919) and which became Orot HaKodesh and other works – but it turns out he wrote in this style well before and after that, for more than three decades. The lion’s share of these spiritual riches had never before been available to scholars or students.

Without transgressing any laws – it is doubtful the National Library has the legal right to prevent photocopying – Shai prepared look-alike documents to keep in the archives while he photocopied one original after the other. Even with the help of friends, it took months.

They again proposed that RTYI publish the new material instead of them but were turned down, and once again a “pirate” version of Rav Kook’s writings was published. Titled Ktavim Mikhatv Yad Kadsho – Writings from His Holy Hand – it too has ignited the interest of Torah scholars and students of Rav Kook around the world.

The end of the story? There is none. Ofan says there are still more writings, but not enough to publish; some argue that the personal musings of even a great sage are not public property; and meanwhile the study of Torah continues, from generation to generation.

 

The Face of God: Thoughts on the Holocaust

Many Orthodox rabbis from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) have rejected the view that the Shoah (Holocaust) was God’s judgement, including Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, Norman Lamm, Abraham Besdin, Emanuel Rackman, and Eliezer Berkovits. Their works have been collected in “Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust” Ed. Bernhard H. Rosenberg and Fred Heuman, Ktav/RCA, 1992

——————–

The Face of God: Thoughts on the Holocaust, Dr. Norman Lamm

In my attempt to formulate a Jewish approach to the Holocaust, it should not be expected that I will venture an answer to the ancient question of zaddik ve-ra to (“the righteous whom evil befalls”) the vexing problem of the suffering of the innocent and the prosperity of the wicked, one that puzzled such biblical giants as Samuel, David, and Jeremiah.

The problem of theodicy – “justifying” the ways of God to man, offering rational explanations for the ethical and philosophical dilemmas presented by the disjointedness and inappositeness of conduct and circumstance, the quality of one’s moral life and his fortune or misfortune — has a long and honorable history. But there is no one theodicy in Judaism. From jJb to the sages of the Talmud, from Maimonides to Luria to the Besht, there is only one constant, and that is the queshon of zaddik ve-ra lo, the righteous who is afflicted with evil. The number of answers varies with the number of interpreters. No one approach has official, authoritative, dogmatic sanction in Judaism, although each has something of value to contribute. And the question remains the Question of questions for Judaism, as it does for every thinking, believing human being.

How, then, shall we approach the problem? Let us begin by dividing it into two parts: first, the universal problem of suffering, the cry of zaddik ve-ra to, why should the innocent suffer, intensified in the Holocaust by its unprecedented magnitude and cruelty. In kind, the Holocaust mystery is a continuation of the ancient question of evil and suffering – more urgent perhaps, but essentially the same.

The second part is not universal-metaphysical but national-theological. The Holocaust is not only a human challenge to God’s justice and goodness, but a Jewish challenge to His faithfulness and promise. The absolute novelty of the Holocaust lies in its threat to the continuity of the Jewish peopte as such. It not only outrages man’s ethical sensibilities but it throws into disarray most of our notions of the philosophy of Jewish history.

In other words, the novelty, the demonic novelty, of the Holocaust lies not so much in the murder of six million Jews as in the decimation of one third of the Jewish people and the trauma to the remaining two thirds.

In trying to come to grips with the Holocaust and to probe, haltingly but inevitably, for some scrap of understanding of this cataclysm, we are confronted wirh an immediate dilemma: the very relevance of “meaning” to the Holocaust. Can we hope to find even a shred of meaning in the “black hole” in Jewish history? if we mainrain that we can, we are in effect asserting a zidduk ha-din, a justification for the death, torment, and suffering of one million children and five million adults. We shall come back to this later, but I will say now that the very idea is repugnant to me and bespeaks an insufferable insensitivity. Moreover, if the “meaning” we purport to discover does nor measure up to the magnitude of the suffering, then we have not only erred, but we have profaned the memory of the martyrs. However, if we then pursue the other alternative, and declare that the Holocaust had no meaning, we seem to rob their deaths of any redeeming dimension and furthermore, appear to deny a great and abiding principle of Judaism, that of hashgahah peratit, divine providence over all human individuals.

Apparently not everyone appreciates that a dilemma even exists. Thus, almost all of those (few) Orthodox thinkers who have ventured into this area at all offer variations of the mi-penei hata’einu (“because of our sins”) thesis, so-named from the initial words of the special Musaf section of the service for the new month and the festivals, declaring that we only recite the order of the sacrificial Temple service liturgical¶y, but do not actually make the offerings, for the reason that the Temple was destroyed and we were exiled “because of our sins.” They see the Holocaust as punishment for Israel’s sins.

The late Satmarer Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Moshe Teitelbaum, is clear and unambiguous. In his two hooks, “Va-Yoel Mosheh” and “Al ha Ge’ulah ve-al ha-Temurah”, he decides that the Zionists were responsible for the tragedy of the six million. The arrogance of nationalistic self-determination in trying to build a Jewish state caused the great destruction. The fact that so many Zionists were secularists, nonbelievers, only made matters worse. They violated the injunction to remain passive, refrain from interfering in the divinely preordained plans of redemption, and to await the miraculous coming of the Messiah. Hence, the Zionists are guilty, and all the Jewish people suffered because of their sins. This theme is interwoven with another, and both recur throughout the Satmarer’s writings: the power of Samael, the archdemnon, to test and seduce Israel into sin. These cruel tests with which Samael accosts us, often with the help of miracles, are characteristic of our pre-messianic tribulations. Of course, it does not occur to the Satmarer or his followers, in their anti-Zionist demonological interpretation of history, that the reverse might be true: that the Holocuast was the bitter test, and the “miracles” of statehood and military triumph and national survival were and are the reward for our sufferings and anguish.

A less well known figure (Rabbi Emanuet Hartom, writing in the Israeli journal De’ot a few years ago), takes the opposite view of the Satmarer: The Holocaust is the punishment for our neglect of Eretz Israel. Our failure to participate en masse in the Return to Zion indicated a tragic defection from Judaism, a betrayal of the Promise to Abraham, and hence the unprecedented punishment we call the Shoah. That at least a portion of our people was spared is in itself a tribute to divine compassion for, having chosen to remain in exile, we implied our readiness to assimilate and thus turn our backs on God. One wonders what this particular rabbi would answer to the criticism, leveled at him in a later issue of the same journal, that it certainly is odd that the Holocaust struck first and hardest at those very centers of Jewish life that were most intensively Jewish, pro-Eretz Israel, and anti-assimilationist.

There is a third variation of the mi-penei hata’einu thesis, this time by an American (Rabbi Avigdor Miller) a mashgiah, or spiritual supervisor, at a Brooklyn yeshiva. Let me quote a few of his precious lines:

“Because of the upsurge of the greatest defection from Torah in history, which was expressed in Poland by materialism, virulent anti-nationalism, and Bundism (radical anti-religious socialism, God’s plan finally relieved them of all freewill and sent Hitler’s demons  to end the existence of the communities.”
(“Rejoice, 0 Youth”, pp. 278—289)

One wonders at the statement that Polish Jewry experienced the greatest defection from Torah in history: more than in the days of the prophet Elijah? Isaiah? Worse than German Jewry? American Jewry?

But let us not quibble about such trivial matters as facts. Is there any validity to the mi-penei hata’einu, the Holocaust as punishment explanation on which the various responses we have mentioned are based? Of course there is. The thesis is a corollary of the whole principle of sakhar ve-onesh, reward and punishment. It is a theme found throughout the Prophets and the Talmud.

And yet — I reject the cavalier invocation of this theme as a way of “explaining” the Holocaust. Indeed, in these special circumsstances of such unprecedented butchery and unequaled suffering and unimaginable danger to our survival, recourse to mi-penei hata’einu is massively irrelevant, impudent, and insensitive.

Why so? First, there are many approaches to suffering, as I indicated at the outset, and sin is not the only one. Indeed, the whole brunt of the Book of Job is to reject the simplistic recourse to mi-penei hata’einu in any and all circumstances: Job was not guilty of any sin — that is the premise of the whole book — and yet he suffered. It was the friends of Job, who insisted he must be guilty of some hidden sin, who were rebuked by God.

Hence, for us who live in comfort and security years after the event to point an accusing finger at European Jewry — probably one of the greatest and most creative and most beautiful in all Jewish history — and castigate them for shortcomings of one kind or another ostensibly deserving of such horrendous suffering, is an unparalleled instance of criminal arrogance and brutal insensitivity. How dare anyone even suggest that any “sin” committed by any significant faction of European Jewry was worthy of all the pain and anguish and death visited upon them by Hitler’s sadistic butchers? How dare anyone, skiing in the American or British or Israeli Paradise, indict the martyrs who were consumed in the European Hell?

Second, whoever undertakes to expound the thesis of mi-penei hata’einu for any specific event, in the gory detail we mentioned earlier, risks violating a most heinous sin of his own — that of zidduk ha-din, justifying the punishment and travail of the people of Israel. The sages did not take to this too kindly.

According to the rabbis, Moses himself was punished for making offensive statements about his people. Moses told the Israelites: “Listen, ye rebels” (Numbers 20:10). His punishment: “…you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (ibid v.12). Elijah complained to God that “the children of Israel have forsaken Thy convenant” (I Kings 19:10).

Shortly thereafter, we read of God’s command to appoint a successor, Elisha, in his place. Isaiah, too, used offensive language. In the course of a prophetic revelation, he confessed his feeling of worthlessness by saying “Woe is me, for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips.” But he erred by adding the significant words: “and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). Soon afterwards we read of how one of the angels of God, “with a glowing coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar,” touched the mouth of the prophet and said: “Lo, this hath touched thy lips and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin expiated” (Isaiah 6:7).

According to a Midrash, this was in atonement for the sin of criticizing his fellow Jews as “people of unclean lips” (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah chap. 6). The Talmud tells us that King Manasseh killed Isaiah, who died when the sword reached his mouth — which had uttered the defamation of Israel (Yevamot 49b).

The sages’ aversion to condemning one’s fellow Jews and justifying their suffering, no matter how terrible their behavior, is taught in a famous tale of two great amoraim (Midrash Shir ha-Shirim 1): R. Abbahu and R. Simeon ben Lakish entered the city of Caesarea. R. Abbahu said to R. Simeon: “Why did we come here, into this country of abusers and blasphemers?” Whereupon R. Simeon dismounted from his donkey, took some sand in his hand, and pushed it into R. Abbahu’s mouth. “What is this?” asked R. Abba-hu. R. Simeon replied: “The Holy One does not approve of one who slanders Israel.” (I am indebted to Prof. Eliezer Berkovits for this reference.)

So let all those who are quick to interpret the Holocaust as punishment for Jewish sins be warned that they risk running afoul of the sages’ anger at whoever undertakes the sordid task of blaming his fellow Jews — and especially if such accusations are unjust.

Third, I am also troubled by a certain moral deficiency in those who seek to apply the mi-penei hata’einu philosophy to the Holocaust, and that is their sense of utter self-confidence, their dogmatic infallibility. They *know* that six million Jews were killed because there were Zionists among them, or because there were non-Zionists among them, or because there were assimilationists or apikorsim or whatever among them. While the rest of us poor benighted souls cannot begin to fathom, today, some forty years after the event, that it happened, how humankind could have degenerated so as to permit it, what all this pain and torture did to the martyrs and to their survivors — all this while, these smug interpreters of the Holocaust have no questions, no doubts, no problems, no uncertainties. They just know everything about the Sho’ah, especially why it happened. The enormity of this callousness, the outrageousness of such insensitive arrogance in elaborating this zidduk ha-din is mind-boggling. It is to my mind, unforgivable.

One last comment about the advocates of applying mi-penei hata’einu to the Holocaust: this is the first time in Jewish history, to my knowledge, that supposedly pious and learned Jews — a rebbe, a rav, a mashgiach — have made so colossal an error in elementary grammar. They use the words u-mi-penei hata’einu “because of *our* sins,” when they really mean to say u-mi-penei hatae’ihem, “because of *their* sins”! In the past every case of interpreting a disaster as the result of sin was one in which the interpreter included himself in the group that was guiity; it was “our sins,” not anyone else’s, that caused us to be exiled from our land. Today, in trying to explain the greatest of all disasters ever to befall us, small-minded people blame others, not themselves. The anti-Zionists blame the Zionists, the Zionists blame the anti-Zionists, the secularists blame the Orthodox rabbis who did not encourage emigration, and the Orthodox blame the assimilationists and the socialists and everyone else not in our camp. This last point alone is enough to disqualify the whole line of reasoning from being applicable to the Shoah.

In sum, if we ask, if we may resort to the mi-penei hata’einu rationale for the Holocaust, my answer is a resounding no — indeed, six million times no!

Groups that claim to be Jewish

There are many different denominations of Judaism, from Orthodox, to Conservative, to Reform, and a wide variety of smaller groups within each larger category. There are wide differences in belief and practice between the left-wing of Reform, and the right-wing of Orthodoxy.

Chava Studios Shavuot watercolor

That being said, there are major themes which tie these Jewish groups together, so they are recognizably related to historical, rabbinic Judaism. Some of these ideas are

  • the belief in one God, who is a unity
  • the belief that God inspired the authors of the Tanakh (Bible)
  • the belief that the Tanakh must be understood within a particular cultural context – what historians call an oral tradition. This oral tradition eventually was canonized in the Mishnah, and classic rabbinic Midrash collections. It was then expounded upon in the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds.

But in recent centuries many new groups have appeared, some growing out of the Jewish community, and some coming entirely from non-Jews, who are decidedly non-Jewish in every way, yet who attempt to take the mantle of Judaism for themselves.

The mainstream Jewish community – Reform to Conservative to Orthodox – agrees that the following groups are not Judaism. Despite our differences, our monotheism, Tanakh and oral law holds our communities together:

* Humanist Judaism / Society for Humanistic Judaism (recognized as atheism)

* Jews for Jesus / Messianic Jews / “Completed Jews” (recognized as Christian)

* Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (recognized as Christian)

* Black Hebrew Israelites (recognized as Christian)

* Sabbateanism / followers of Sabbatai Zevi – a dangerous cult that split off from Judaism.

* Frankism / followers of Jacob Frank – a dangerous cult that split off from Judaism.

* Kohenet Hebrew Priestess movement (neo-pagan goddess worship, whose prayers literally mention pagan gods.)

* Messianic followers of any deceased Rebbe. Some Hasidim believe that a deceased rabbi is still alive, is the messiah; they use language which describe the rabbi as being God’s voice incarnated in a human body, and/or in charge of the Universe.

Shaking My Head

Geocentrism

While little known to most Jewish people today, many classical texts of rabbinic Judaism taught the ancient view that the Earth is the center of the universe, and that the Sun, other planets, and stars all revolve around the Earth. This idea is called geocentrism.  Ever since Copernicus in the 1400s, and especially since galileo in the 1500s, we have known that this idea is false.

universe

Geocentrism today is rejected by all non-Orthodox Jewish groups, and one would imagine most if not all of Modern Orthodoxy. However, some Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) groups still teach geocentrism. Here are Chabad Lubavitch essays teaching that the earth is the center of the universe:

http://www.chabad.org/therebbe/letters/default_cdo/aid/2387635/jewish/In-Defense-of-Geocentrism.htm/mobile/false

http://www.meaningfullife.com/spiritual/revolution-planets/

http://theantitzemach.blogspot.com/2006/11/interview-with-prof-herman-branover.html?m=1

This belief can be found in other Hasidic and non-Hasidic Orthodox groups. According to the survey a large percent of college-attending Orthodox Jews believe that the earth is the center of the universe, and that the Sun and other planets revolve around us.

“Of particular interest was the item “Which is true? The Sun revolves around the Earth [or] the Earth revolves around the Sun (Figure 8). Only 22 of 173 answered that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Geocentrism is fast returning as a centrist Orthodox belief, so the paucity of geocentrists among these college students is a strong indication of their (relatively) modern Orthodox status”

“…The Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists is largest organization of its type with over 1500 members. Its website is http://www.aojs.org. Dr. Avi Rabinowitz, a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from New York University, who defended geocentrism in “Geocentrism” in B’Or‑Ha’Torah Volume 5E 1986 spoke at its convention in August 19–21, 2005. See Rabinowitz’s article, Egocentrism & Geocentrism; Human Significance & Existential Despair; Fundamentalism and Skepticalism.”

http://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/orthodox-jews-and-science/

It has been scientifically proven that geocentrism is wrong in many ways. First, within our own solar system, it is our Sun which is the center: planets, comets and asteroids revolve around it. This is called heliocentrism. Secondly, our solar system is just one of a billion star systems in the Milky Way galaxy, all of which are slowly rotating around our galaxy’s center. Beyond that our galaxy is merely one of billions of other galaxies, most of which also contain billions of stars each.

Here is a well written article from Discover Magazine about why geocentrism is wrong, and the fundamental flaw in logic that geo centrists make

Geocentrism? Seriously? Discover Magazine

It is a common error to misunderstand Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Many people believe it proves that we can never prove that the earth goes around the Sun. Therefore the ancient statements in the Bible and Talmud implying that the earth is the center of the universe are still justified.

But this is wrong on two counts. One, it contains a fundamental misunderstanding of what choosing a frame of reference means. For further discussion of this point, see the link to the essay on Discover Magazine that I posted separately. Secondly, it’s not just a matter of choosing coordinate systems. We have direct observation evidence that it is the earth revolving around the Sun, and not the other way around.

These are subtle effects that were not measured until the 1800s, but they have been confirmed time and again. Direct measurement showing what is the center, and what is not, has been possible for close to 200 years now. This is a well written summary of the evidence for Heliocentrism: Is there a proof that the Earth moves? Ask An Astronomer

From the Union of Orthodox Congregations (Modern Orthodox), see book reviews on

New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought, By Jeremy Brown, Oxford University Press, and Torah, Chazal and Science, By Moshe Meiselman. Israel Bookshop Publications

https://www.ou.org/jewish_action/12/2014/new-science-torah/