Monday, 24 November 2008


A Keynote Lecture, delivered at NLS

Money: Uses and Abuses

Notes for a Keynote Lecture


Throughout history everyone else has been very quick to tell Jews what we feel about money.

In the Medieval period, Jews were often abused for being dilettantes, lazy for refusing to work on the Sabbath.

We were, of course, equally accused of being commercially obsessed – the lenders and financiers of and Medieval Europe, and part of this accusation morphed into the classic attack of modern antisemitism – that Jews control the banking sector, the money markets and so on.

Not of course that we weren’t also accused of being the driving force behind Communism.

So the Jew as capitalist, as communist, as economically deficient and as economically too-efficient.

Such is the lot of the Jew.

So what do we really think?


As ever, humour provides a clue.


A Rabbi, a Priest and an Imam are on a plane when one of the engines spontaneously bursts into flames.

Please, please, cries out the steward to the three clerics.

Do something religious to save us.

So the Imam prays in the name of Allah to be saved.

And the Priest prays in the name of Jesus to be saved and

The Rabbi starts a collection for fund to investigate why plane engines  spontaneously catch fire in mid-air.


We’ll come back to the notion of the benefits of money, but my sense is that a Jewish exploration into money should begin with this point.

Judaism rejects poverty. There is nothing noble, in the Jewish view, in being poor.

Destitution is viewed as a horror with a range of evocative, almost poetic, examples of legislation designed to put the brakes on anyone cruel enough to turn away from an impoverished fellow or, worse, propel, their fellow deeper into destitution

e.g. Deuteronomy 24

If a man is so poor that they have to offer their own cloak as a pledge to return borrowed capital,

You shall deliver him the pledge back when the sun goes down, that he may sleep in his own garment, and bless you; and it shall be righteousness to you before the Lord your God.


And further

14. You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is of your brothers, or of your strangers who are in your land inside your gates;

15. At his day you shall give him his hire, nor shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it; lest he cry against you to the Lord, and it should be sin to you.


Unlike, say, the gurus of India, living on nothing and demonstrating their piety through their poverty there is one, and only  one story in the entire corpus of Rabbinic literature about a religious scholar who rejects the material world – the tale of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

The Rabbi spends seven years studying day and night in a cave and, when he emerges he pours scorn on the honest labourers he finds when he emerges from his cave,  only for a Divine Voice to emerge from the heavens and send him back into his cave for another year.

A year later he emerges and this time recognises the honest labourer as a hero. As decent.[1]


Judaism begins form a place of considering money to be a good.

Necessary even for the perpetuation of Jewish life.

Ain kemach, ain torah – as it says in Pirkei Avot – without dough, there is no Torah.[2]

In the C11 the greatest of all Medieval Rabbis, Moses Maimonides writes a letter following the death of his brother. His brother had been a gem-trader, a businessman and his death strikes Maimonides deeply. He extols his financially minded brother’s virtues as one who uses their skills in business to do good.

But there is also an awareness of the, almost addictive quality of the pursuit of money for its own sake – the drive to consume.

Ain Kemach ain Torah - without dough, there is no Torah, but the saying continues, Ain Torah, ain Kemach – without the control of rules of Torah there can be no acceptable accumulation of dough – of money.


The notion of a control on unfettered desires is a classic part of the Jewish approach to all things, not just money.

Enjoyment of food is good, but the appetite needs to be curbed – by rules of kashrut.

Enjoyment of, how best to say it, thrills of the flesh is good, but needs to be curbed – only to be allowed in certain circumstances.

Enjoyment of money, then is to be allowed, but also to be controlled, fettered.


At the heart of this two fold approach to money are two Biblical notions, both of which appear in the context of the telling of the creation of the world.


The first suggests that the earth has been given to humanity to ‘dominate it and subdue it’ kivshua urdu.[3] This is the material world as a right, the right to exploit, the right to accumulate.

But the second notion suggests that we are placed in this world to ‘tend it and guard it.’ – l’ovdah ulshomrah[4]

This is the material world as a responsibility, a duty.

The first notion is an invitation to extract all the monies one can find in the world.

The second is a call to care, to be in balance with the world.

Such is, so often, the Jewish way.

Giving and restricting in the very same moment.


Connected to this is the call of the Sabbath. The resting on the Seventh day bit people tend to know. What often gets overlooked is that the fourth commandments uttered on Sinai opens ‘on six days you shall work.’ Sheshet yamin taavod v’asita kol melachtecha[5]

This is a command to labour, for gain.

‘Love work’ is advice given in Pirkei Avot.[6]

But the lust for money is ameliorated, softened, by the command to abstain one day in the week.

There are two reasons given in the Bible for observing Shabbat.

The first is that we rest because God rested in God’s extraordinarily triumphant material accumulation of things in the first moments of creation.

In other words we rest to remind ourselves that the material stuff of the world is not ours, it’s God’s and the phrase ‘Master of the Universe,’ a phrase that used to be applied to the great money maven of the financial markets  is a phrase that, really, only truly can be applied to God.


The second reason for observing Shabbat, found in Deuteronomy[7], is quite different.

We rest, according to Deuteronomy, to remind ourselves that

‘[we] were servants in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord [our] God brought [us]  out from there with a mighty hand and with an out-stretched arm.’

We abstain from the accumulation of material wealth on the Shabbat to remind ourselves that we are free.

This is the great paradox, and the great insight of Shabbat.

One might thank that a person can demonstrate their freedom by the unfettered accumulation of wealth, after all surely freedom means, free to do whatever we like.

But no, that is not the Jewish way. Instead freedom is demonstrated by an act of abstinence, restraint.

That is the paradox of Shabbat.

The insight of Shabbat is this.

Unless we abstain, unless we find a way to say to the appeal of money – ad can – this is enough, we are in danger of becoming enslaved to its charms, its glittery lure.

We know, from academic enquiry after academic enquiry, not to mention Beatles’ song lyrics, that money cannot buy love and happiness. Indeed money can bring only a desire for more money. More lust for accumulation.

And so the insight of Shabbat is this – we escape this trap, we break this addiction by abstaining from money, from accumulation for this one day in seven. And, in so doing, we become free not only from the servitude of the Egyptians, but also the servitude of our own lust for accumulation.


The Shabbat becomes a spiritual practice, we practice not letting ourselves be governed by our work, our desire to accumulate, the size of our bank balance.

It is a day for re-ensoulment, re-balancing, acknowledging our place NOT as Masters of the World, but its stewards, tenders and shepherds – God help all of us.


Like all the best ritual, and certainly like all the best rituals in Judaism, Shabbat holds two things together – the love of work, the understanding of the value of work, and also its own counter-narrative, its own protection from the unfettered charge of the desire to accumulate.


But there is, perhaps, an even better encapsulation of a Jewish attitude to money than the Shabbat, and that is the case of the Prozbul.

To the Biblical mind credit is good. Credit multiplies wealth, and that is known even in the time of the Bible.

The problem is that debt is not and too much debt can trap individuals in a cycle of poverty. That too has been known since the time of the Bible.

So the Torah offers a solution to the problem of the debt-trap.

The Torah mandates a writing off of all debt on a seven year cycle - shmittah.

It’s a great way of stopping anyone from falling too deeply into debt for too long a period, but it’s hardly an inducement to lenders to offer credit.

The Bible is aware of that the rule of the Shmitta might stop lenders from lending, so it warns, ‘Beware that there be not a thought in your wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and your eye be evil against your poor brother, and you give him nothing; and he cry to the Lord against you, and it be sin to you. You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; because for this thing the Lord your God shall bless you in all your works, and in all that you put your hand to.’ (Deut 15)

But by the time of the First Century of the common era it appears that these stark warnings were not sufficient to keep lenders lending. The wheels of the financial system were grinding to a halt, the flow of credit so necessary to allow the poor to invest their way out of poverty dried up so (in the worlds of the Talmud)


Hillel instituted a ‘prosbul.’ For he saw people were unwilling to lend money to one another and disregarded the precept laid down in the Torah, ‘Beware that there no be a base thought in your heart saying the seventh year is coming [probably best not to lend to my fellow]’ (Deut 15) [8]


Not only is this, I think, the best example of a Jewish approach to money, it is also the classic example of Rabbinics – what it means not to be only a Biblically minded religious person, but a Jew engaged with Rabbinic Judaism.


She what is going on here?

So there is a very clear Biblical doctrine, enacted for a very clear and perfectly laudable reason.

But the system is not working. The injunction is meeting the reason for its existence.

So Hillel rides a coach and horses through the injunction.

He takes a clear Biblical injunction and renders it inoperable, or rather creates a giant loophole which the entire people of Israel are expected exploit to avoid the injunction.

And it is all done because the Biblical injunction designed to ameliorate poverty was instead trapping people in poverty.

For our purposes tonight the most remarkable piece about the Prozbul is that it concerns availability of credit – the smooth workings of the credit market.

The initial Biblical law is designed to protect the poor, but the Rabbinic intervention seems to be designed at saving the creditors.

After all before they had to write off their loans, now they can, by means of this Porzbul protect them even on the other side of the Shmittah.

It seems, in so many ways an extra-ordinary precursor of recent events in the international and national financial worlds.


In modern world we also have a system designed to protect the needy which is failing.

So the intervention comes in, and it is NOT an intervention aimed, at first glance, at the poor, it seems, at first glance to be an intervention aimed at saving the creditors who, it may well be argued are the people who got the poor in the mess in the first place.

In both cases we have the wheels of credit coming to a halt and in both cases there is action which, on first glance seems to be aimed at saving the lenders, but is clearly being driven by a desire to allow credit, once again, to be a force for good.

At least as a general observation –and I don’t want to be overly political - the interventions of both Hillel and of Governments and central banks around the world have to be right.

And the notion of the Biblical verses being rendered void and non-applicable, has an analogy in the way ‘golden rules’ of National and European economic management, so cherished in the past decade have been rendered void or ignored.

On this reading Hillel would probably have supported the partial re-nationalisation of banking structures, etc.

He certainly would have realised the need to ‘do something’

One does need to protect the smooth flow of the Capital markets because without credit – without money things will get far worse for the poor than would be the case without these interventions.


I think the world is turning. I don’t think the end of the world is nigh, but we are seeing a re-evalutaion of the role and place of money in society. It is, as Confucius might have said, an interesting time.

And on the subject of the contemporary and the immediate I would want to offer these thoughts in conclusion.


i)                    Work should be productive. Hedge funds are an important way of defraying risk, derivatives likewise. But somewhere along the line these values were lost under a drive for profit from fund managers looking only for the quick-buck. This is profit made not from increased productivity, efficiency of production etc. but rather as a gamble, a bluff or counter-bluff. These kinds of economic actions do no favours to the broader society and it was this kind of ‘investing’ that tipped a difficult situation over into an impossible one.

ii)                   We need a new way to measure value. The ease of measurement is, surely, the most attractive thing about money. We know that money cannot make a person rich, but it can give us a way of gauging if we are better or worse than our neighbour. However money is poorly used for this purpose. The most important things in Jewish life cannot be valued so simply. (the minimum cost of a wedding band is a ‘peppercorn’ it’s not supposed to be a test of how much we love our spouse)

iii)                 Jews don’t believe in the invisible hand. We do, of course, believe in God, but we don’t consider that a belief in God means the end of the necessity for human beings to be engaged, actively in trying to fix the world. Indeed we know that humans have often been needed to prevent God (or the natural way of things) from resulting in needless destruction and destitution.


Thank you


[1] TB Shabbat 33a-b


[3] Gen 1:28


[5] Ex 20:9

[6] Avot 1:10

[7] 5:15

[8] TB Gittin 36a

Friday, 14 November 2008

What Are We To Do With the Akedah?

Desire to not always be speaking about binding of Isaac but tale looms over the parasha. Difficult to avoid.


This week two men and a woman have been found guilty of causing the death of baby P; brutally beaten and attacked.

Mother in Manchester held under the Mental Health Act stands accused of killing her two sons.

Last week, right on Abbey Rd, walking back from shul, Police were clearing up after the shocking accidental death of Jack, a local boy, aged 6 killed in a car accident.


Accidents are tragc, but calculated infanticide is sometime else and yet, here, in our most glorious text we have an order for infanticide

So what on earth are we to do about the Akedah?


It is the nineteenth century Danish existentialist Kiekegaard who, I think, puts the case for finding a redemptive meaning in the Akedah most clearly.

For Kiekegaard, at the essence of the Akedah is the notion that we, as mere human beings, have to acknowledge the limits of our final grasp.

The whole point of the Akedah is to move beyond the realms of the finite, to move beyond the realm of human understanding.

As long as we use human, finite, reasoning, Kiekegaard states, we cannot fathom the Akedah. If we use human reasoning we have to charge Abraham with attempted murder.


We need recourse to faith as opening up a world that is beyond the powers of human reason, ‘no thought can master,’ says K.[1] ‘how God could possibly pleased with the action of Abraham, ‘no thought can master,’ how this act of murder bequeaths to the Children of Israel an inexhaustible pool of kudos we can use to demand – zochreinu bzikaron tov – God’s mercy even today. We need instead faith since, says K. ‘faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off.’


So Abraham, who is prepared to suspend his own morality, his own love of his child, his own dreams of a future for his seed and the nations promised to him, Abraham becomes a Knight of Faith, operating beyond the realms of human comprehension.


This is the theology of Job.[2]

God tests Job and Job protests that by any kind of human, rational, comprehensible, logic he can’t deserve the suffering imposed upon him and God’s response is to blast away Job’s pitiful human attempts to understand that which is beyond human.

God’s answer to Job is basically this -

You, pathetic human, can’t even understand the power of a volcano, an earthquake or even a lion’s roar and you want to double-guess the infinite mysteries of the Divine


So if we are willing to accept that there is a space, a realm of sense beyond the edges of human understanding, we can accept the Akedah.

We can find a way to believe that out of something so seemingly horrific there can come something good and holy.


This, for Kiekegaard is black and white. Either[3] Abraham is a murderer or we are confronted by a ‘paradox that is above meditation’ and since he is so loath to pass such a harsh judgement on a patriarch he, as a Christian, shares, he accepts the ‘paradox above meditation.’ It may be paradoxical to believe that religious triumph and glory come from death - from the command to kill, but that is precisely, says K. the meaning of faith.

And if we follow this it becomes possible to get something redemptive from the experience of the Akedah – the experience of a man commanded to kill his son. It is possible to say that the Akedah works, religiously, for us, as a tale, as liturgy.


Indeed, in many ways we desperately need this model to work. We, as Jews have a vast history of being taken, as the Psalmist says ‘like lambs to the slaughter.’[4] We need to find something redemptive in this tale of a man who wished to bring death to Isaac – bearer of the Israelite faith, otherwise all the actual deaths could be left unredeemable.


In the eleventh century, at the height of Crusader attacks on the Jews of Germany we have an extraordinary contemporary record, the Chronicles of Shlomo bar Shimshon. He details not only how many Jews were killed horrifically at the hand of the Crusaders but also how some Jews, knowing the Crusaders were coming took their own life.


He claims,

‘And Zion’s precious sons, the people of Mainz, were put through the ten trials, exactly like father Abraham, they too offered up their sons, exactly as Abraham offered up his son Isaac. There were 1,100 victims in one day, every one of them like the Akedah of Isaac son of Abraham.’[5]


Now I have no problem accepting the decisions of these victims of the crusades as holy, on hearing the advancing hooves of Christian soldiers, I don’t wish to double judge the impossible decisions they faced.

What however fascinates me is the way these poor, poor, souls grab tight to the story of the Akedah to give their seemingly pointless suffering some redemptive quality.

Rather than blame godless human thuggery for their demise, these victims of the Crusades attribute responsibility for their own deaths on God. It might seem almost blasphemous to attribute these human acts of savagery to God, but in the mind of the Mediaevals, because death in the name of the religion was redemptive in terms of the God-commanded sacrifice of Isaac, their own sacrifices – now deemed as equally God commanded, can also be redemptive.


There is, if we accept the Akeidah, a redemptive possibility in our own painful history of being slaughterwed.

Deeming the Akedah, despite all its problems, ultimately redemptive provides a sort of apologia for our suffering.

That may help too.


But it’s here that I start, again, to baulk.

The notion of finding something redemptive in the death, or near death, of some bearer of faith starts to ring bells that I don’t recognise as Jewish – Church bells.

Christians, of course, have far less problem in a divine command to slaughter a son, than Jews.

The death of a beloved son lies at the heart of Christian theology and, indeed, the Akedah features liberally in early Christian texts, texts like the Epistle of Barnabus.

Here, the sacrifice of Isaac, is read as a sort of redemptive pre-figuring of the death of Jesus.

And here it starts to be difficult to move beyond Kiekegaard’s own Christian faith, indeed at the end of the most important chapter of his major work on the Akedah, he embarks on a treatment of Miriam, the mother of Jesus who has to suppress her own feelings and ethics to see her son’s death.

And while its one thing for the Mediaeval Jews of Mainz, people who are under threat of massacre, to claim for a redemptive quality in death, in the Akeidah, for us, today, especially this week will not do.


Indeed the Jewish scholar of Jesus, Abraham Geiger, d. 1874, claimed that the whole notion of seeking redemption in the story of the Akeidah is of Christian origin. He called is ‘Akeidah Merit’ and found it inimical to Judaism.


And ultimately I am with Geiger.

I know it is too easy to attack the story of the Akeidah from a human perspective, (indeed the Rabbis put all the most incisive arguments against the acceptance of the Akeidah into the mouth of Satan – the conniving, niggardly, destructive spiritual force in all of us[6], but I nonetheless make this claim.


If I study, and study and study this passage and cannot find anything redemptive in it, I have to, at a certain point, believe that my refusal to accept its redemptive quality, is God-given.

I simply cannot accept that the role of human, created in God’s image, is to kick back in rocking chair and say, ‘well we just cannot fathom God.’


I don’t expect to understand every element of God’s ineffable plan for the Universe, but there are some things I refuse to redeem; child sacrifice being one of them.

I know that sometimes bad things only appear bad at first, and subsequently reveal themselves as blessings in disguise, but I refuse to consider a father binding his child and coming within moments of killing him capable of being redeemed.

I refuse to believe that, as Jews, we are supposed to let go of our revulsion, our deep discomfort with the binding of Isaac, despite the best inducements of K., Rambam and Rabbis before and since.


As Rabbi Milton Steinberg wrote;[7]

“From the Jewish viewpoint – and this is one of its highest dignities – the ethical is never suspended, not under any circumstances and not for anyone, not even for God. Especially not for God. Are not supreme Reality and supreme Goodness one and co-essential to the Divine nature? If so, every act wherein the Good is put aside is more than a breach of His will; it is in effect a denial of His existence.”[i]


Jewish heroes are not supposed to submit to God’s demands if they appear unethical.

Indeed this is one of the greatest critiques of Noah.

God informs Noah that He (God) will destroy the world and the Rabbis are deeply disappointed that Noah did not oppose this divine dictate.

God informs Moses that He (God), so alarmed with the Golden Calf debacle, will wipe out the Children of Israel, and Moses successfully opposes this divine dictate. Indeed the Rabbinic re-imagining of the debate between Moses and God, up Sinai, is one of the Talmudic pieces that moves me most. I want to quote it in full.


And GOD said to me [Moses], ‘Go, Descend’ (Deut 9) What is meant by ‘Go, Descend.’ Rabbi Elazar said the Holy Blessed One said to him, ‘Moses, descend from your greatness. For everything I gave you was for the sake of Israel. And now Israel has sinned, what are you to me?’ Immediately Moses became powerless and he had no strength to speak.

But when God said, ‘Let Me alone and I will destroy them’ (Deut 9) Moses said “This thing depends on me,” and immediately he stood up and was seized with prayer and pleaded for mercy.

Mashal - To a king who was angry with his son and beat him severely. And [the King’s] beloved was sitting before him, scared to say a word. The king said, ‘Were it not for my beloved sitting before me I would kill you.’ [The beloved] said, “This thing depends on me.” Immediately he stood up and rescued him.

Rabbi Abbahu said: ‘Were this not a written verse, it would be impossible to say this. This is to teach that Moses seized the Holy Blessed One, like one who seizes their friend by their garment and said before God: Sovereign of the Universe, I will not let You go until You forgive and pardon them.

(Brachot 32a)


This is our task, to seize our friend – even God – by the tallit and not let go until they yield to the commands of a universal ethic.

Shabbat shalom

[1] P. 64

[2] Let me put aside, just at this time, the role Satan plays in the Book of Job.

[3] P. 77

[4] Ps 44

[5] Cited Spiegel p. 25.


[7] In his Anatomy of Faith  (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960), pp. 130–52.

[i] Ibid., p. 147.

Friday, 7 November 2008

elect yourself Lech Lecha 5769

It’s a very old joke. Let me update it a little.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visiting Washington.

The president is showing him around the Oval office.

And there on the desk are three phones – a red phone, blue phone, silver phone decorated with a lightening bolt.

The red phone is for calling the President of Russia, says the president.

The blue phone is for calling the president of China,

And the silver phone – the one with the lightening bolt, is for when things get really complicated and I need to reach God.


And then, some months later, President Bush visited Jerusalem

And so Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was showing President Bush around his office and there, on the desk was the very same model of a silver phone decorated with a lightening bolt.


The American president was outraged.

‘We Americans make up a country of some 300,000,000 citizens. Of course I need a phone to get hold of God.

You are a population of some 7,000,000, what do you need the silver phone for.


Mr President, we may be only 7,000,000, but while your 300,000,000 million citizens are merely citizens. In Israel we have 7,000,000 citizens who all think they should be prime ministers. Of course I need a phone


Insight into a Jewish sense about how a person gets elected.

It is of course a good week to talk about getting elected.

Aside from the elections you might have heard something about on the other side of the Atlantic we read, this week, of the election of Abraham.

Vayomer Avram el Avram Lech Lecha,

It’s election week in torah terms too.


My question is this, how does Abraham know he got elected?

Image of the Bible is of a man heading to shops when suddenly  a great big hand comes down from the heaven and says – I want you.

To the Biblical mind God is upfront, in your face.

I’ve never had that kind of interaction with God.

I’ve never been called that way.

I don’t suppose any of us have. I don’t suppose any of us have been elected that way.


If all we were to have was the Bible

If all we knew about was election by Big Pointing Finger we would all know our place and that place would not be at the front leading a people, being the source and the inspiration behind a great and glorious nation.

If someone was to ask us if we were in charge our response would be, no.

No-one elected us official, no-one told us we were in charge.

You want to know who is in charge – Abraham, well he was definitely elected and since then, it’s gone a bit quiet, to be honest.


But, as Rabbinical Jews don’t just have the Bible.

Rabbis create a different narrative of Abraham’s election.


One Rabbinic comment, alive in the third century compares Abraham to a man wandering from place to place when he sees a building aflame. This sight strikes him wrong. How can it be that this building has no-one to look over it?’

At this point the owner leans out and said, ‘I am the owner of the building.’

And so too, Rabbi Isaac goes on to say, Abraham wandered through the ancient world asking himself, ‘How can it be that the world has no-one to look after it.’ And it was only at this point that God was able to call out to him, I am the one to look after the world. Walk with me.[1]


Different kind of election.

What makes the election possible is Abrahams wander - wondering, looking at the world and trying to work out how this world can be.

Abraham proves himself worthy. He steps up first. Then God comes to meet him.

The big had that says, ‘I want you,’ only comes down on those who have shown their desire to stand apart from the crowd.


700 hundred years later, around the year 1000 we have another retelling of the story of how Abraham gets elected. It’s from the teaching of Rambam, the arch-rationalist, the man who disliked miracles and would be have hated the notion of anyone suggesting God had an out-sretched arm, let along pointing finger.


According to the Rambam, from the moment of his weaning Avraham is roaming in his own mind, trying to work out the way of the world. - shotet b'dato – his wandering is an attempt to understand more.

The contemporary American Bible commentator Aviva Zorn berg describes Rambam’s Abraham as suffering from ‘vagabondary of the spirit.’

‘He had no teacher or source of knowledge,’ says Rambam, ‘he was sunk among the idol worshipers … but his mind roamed in search of understanding until hi achieve the true way and understood out of his own natural intelligence.’


It’s a powerful tale, but the single most remarkable piece is that it God puts in no appearance at all.

In the story of the Rambam God doesn’t come down and say anything and there is certainly no pointing hand.

In the story of the Rambam Abraham knows that he is elected because he believes he is elected, because he comes to  understand that he has a role to play in the history of the world, in the great narrative of his people.

He gets it himself.


So while from reading the Bible might think that get elected by a God who comes down from the heavens with a big pointy finger and says, I want you.

To the Rabbis you have to work it out yourself. No-one’s going to say to you, I want you.

You have to be ready to step up yourself.
This, of course explains why you get so many people in the State of Israel who think  they ought to be Prime Minster – which takes us back to the phone.


But there is something else.

The world desp needs people who are prepared to elect themselves.

Too many people duck their responsibilities, wait for someone else to put their head above the parapet.

Hard work being a leader.

Can’t always make the right decisions and if you are a person of profile you;ll find that people will look at the decisions you take and might criticise.

Just, Jake, as you did in your dvar torah today.

Abraham’s a leader, so his actions are open for investigation.

You are after learning something – that’s important too.


The most important thing is not to leave the future, the leadership – of anything, but certainly of Judaism, to anyone else.

You didn’t grow up here, you’re a new member, and now BM is going you could think of disappearing again and we might not know.

But I want to offer something different – be a leader.

You are smart enough, skilled enough, thoughtful enough, kind enough to make a great leader of the Jewish people.

You should give it a try.

And more than, that if you don’t step up, maybe no-one will.

Or more to the point.

If all the smart, skilled, thoughtful and kind people who could be leaders of the future of the Jewish people ducked it,

Waited for someone else to say that they wanted to lead, we would be in a real mess.

For the big pointing hand isn’t how Jewish elections go.

Jewish elections don’t even work the same way American elections go.

Jewish elections work like this – a person stops, thinks, realises that the future depends on them.
And decides to act, to lead, to commit.


And while the Jewish kind of elections might result in more Prime Ministers and Presidents than the United States Constitution would know what to do with, it is still, I think, a preferable system.


One last story.

A wise Rabbi is faced with a dilemma.

He is being taunted by a couple of troublemakers.

They come to him with a question with no right answer.

I have, one of them says, a bird in my hand. If you are so clever, you have to tell me if the bird is alive or dead.


The Rabbi can hear the bird chirping, so he knows if he says the bird is dead the boy will open his hand and the bird will fly away, proving him wrong.

But if he says the bird is alive, the boy will squeeze his hand shut, killing the bird, and again the Rabbi will be wrong.


The Rabbi responds with wise words,

‘I do not know, but the future is in your hands.’


Jacob, I offer this story to you, and I offer it to all of us.

Don’t wait for the big  pointing hand.

Elect yourself, be the difference yourself.

For the future is indeed in your hands.

Shabbat shalom,

[1] BR 39:1

Lots to remember

This Shabbat falls between two importance anniversaries.


The first is the 70th Anniversary of Kristallnacht, Night of Broken Glass.

As many, of course, know this was a night in which more than 200 synagogues were destroyed, 92 Jews were murdered and 25,000-30,000 were arrested and deported to labour camps. It is widely held to mark the turning point in the Nazi oppression of the Jews – from economic, political and social to physical.


The second is the 90th Anniversary of the end of the Great War.

A War marked by mass destruction, an estimated 20 million deaths amongst 40 million casualties.


There is much to remember, but memory, in the Jewish understanding of the term, is not merely an intellectual construct. To remember is to be called into action.

We remember in order to bring some sense of meaning to those whose lives were lost in one or other of the awful destructions of the last century.

How, then, is it possible to make meaning out of such mass destruction?

We must make efforts to seek peace, to build bridges between different nations and peoples, creeds, colours and faiths.

We must show our gratitude to those who have given of their lives in service and support to work of charities like the Royal British Legion.

We need to support the work of those such as the Holocaust Education Trust and the Aegis Trust who work to ensure that Never Again becomes more than mere words.


We shall pray, in shul this Shabbat; prayers of gratitude that we have survived, and petitionary prayers for the vision of Isaiah, a time when war and bloodshed shall cease. But we can never forget to act.


Shabbat shalom,


Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Two Have Hold of a Tallit - Abraham Joshua Heschel's Rabbinic Scholarship - Article Published in European Judaism

This speech, recently published in European Judaism, was given at a Conference on the contribution of Abraham Joshua Heschel at University College London.


Two Have Hold of a Tallit:

Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Rabbinic Scholarship[1]


I am a congregational Rabbi; neither an academic scholar of Rabbinics, nor an academic scholar of twentieth century theology. I was also not the first person Professor Saperstein asked to address a conference designed to appreciate and assess the enduring influence of Professor Heschel’s work on Rabbinic Judaism. That’s fine. I wouldn’t have been the first person I would have asked either. The first person asked to assess the ‘enduring influence’ of Heschel’s work on Rabbinics was a proper scholar of Rabbinics and that person declined, saying they had never read Heschel’s most important book on Rabbinics– Torah Min HaShamayim.


This tells us of more or less everything we need to know about the influence of this work on the academic. Heschel’s writing on Rabbinic scholarship is considered surplus to the requirements of proper academia. It was always thus.


Standing in the Doorway

Heschel made a life’s work out of not fitting into the conventional expectations of the academy, neither in terms of his person or his publications. As he refused to bend to the interests of the academy, so too the Academy refused to bend to accommodate him. Heschel’s PhD work fell between the two stools of phenomenology and Bible. He couldn’t rein his interests down to one field of focus, even as a doctoral student. Then there is the issue of his theological writing, the works Professor Neil Gillman calls the ‘Hide and Seek series.’[2] While Heschel captured something remarkable in these works this kind of writing never garners the academic respect that accompanies the publication of a good critical edition.


At the Jewish Theological Seminary Heschel served as Professor of Ethics and Mysticism. It’s a surprising choice of chair since the vast preponderance of his published work, at the time he arrived at JTS, was in the fields of Bible and Medieval Philosophy. Indeed it is a very JTS kind of snub. The faculty at JTS stood full square behind at least the first part of Shaul Lieberman’s infamous put-down of Gershon Scholem (in an introduction to a lecture given by Scholem at the Seminary).[3] When I arrived at JTS in 1999 portraits of the great scholars were hung along all the corridors; Solomon Schechter, HL Ginsburg, Louis Finklestein were all prominently displayed. Heschel did have a portrait, but it was totally buried along a corridor in the library facing the stack of modern Israeli children’s literature en route to a computer room which was soon to be shut down. His portrait was hung where virtually no-one would see it. It was, I learnt from Heschel’s daughter, Dr Susanna Heschel, a point of consternation.[4]


Heschel stood in the doorway quite sure that he would never surrender what he cared about for the sake of broader academic acceptance, and the academic community left him standing there; an uneasy truce. But none of this should be understood as suggesting that there is nothing to gain from a serious examination of Heschel’s work on Rabbinics. That would be a grave error.


The Oeuvre

Heschel’s major work on Rabbinics is the three volume Torah Min Hashamayim, recently made available in English by Gordon Tucker (hereafter TMH).[5] This paper will also address two of Heschel’s less well known Rabbinic works; a biography on Maimonides[6] and a monograph, ‘The Quest for Certainty in Saadia’s Philosophy.’[7] There are other works, a biography of Abarvanel, a book length collection of biographical essays on Jewish leaders and a range of shorter monographs, but I will concentrate on these three.


Heschel’s work on the medieval period is interesting in its own right, but it is additionally worth noting since it allows us to appreciate an insight into the significance of Heschel the scholar made by Moshe Idel. Prefacing a publication of two almost book length articles on Medieval philosophy and prophecy, Idel notes that Heschel – when one takes into account his work on the Mediaevals – becomes one of ‘very few’ scholars who joined the dots of every significant period of Jewish scholarship, from Bible to Hasidut while also making an important contribution of his own.[8] Indeed it’s hard to think of anyone who can stand alongside Heschel in that pantheon. Solomon Schechter clearly had the knowledge base, but didn’t leave behind the body of work. Not even Rabbi Louis Jacobs made the sort of contribution in the study of Bible that would allow him to take his place alongside Heschel.


On Maimonides

It’s 1933. Heschel is 26 years old. He’s completed the work on his dissertation and is trying to get it published – not an easy task for a Jewish academic in Nazi Germany, it took three years. Heschel goes to meet the publisher Eric Reiss to discuss another author’s work and leaves with a commission to write a book of his own. ‘Maimonides’ was published in 1935 before the first printing of Die Prophetie.


The work is reasonably learned, but its aim is to be accessible, it’s not supposed to be serious scholarship. It’s clear and straightforward. While I have only studied the work in translation it doesn’t feel vested with the same flights of poesy as his later works. What most catches the eye is not what the work tells us about its subject, but its author. In a moment towards the end of the work, Heschel mentions a work of Maimonides that suggests there are two kinds of religious leadership, one the private and scholarly the other the public and political. He then moves to this biographical observation;


The high position [Maimonides] achieved as nagid and the prestige he had achieved through his personality enabled him to act on behalf of his brethren in the lands of the empire…

As supreme head of the Jews, Maimonides had a lofty political position. He was considered the premier physician of his day, the most important Talmudists of the millennium, an epoch making philosopher, an astounding mathematician, scientist and jurist; he was admired by the masses, honoured by princes celebrated by scholars … In all this, he asserted his retiring, self-willed personality… He was a man of willpower, resolution and freedom.

He devoted the last fifteen years of his … the passion for scholarly labor, dominating him since his youth, was replaced by a different motive… At the height of his life, he turned from metaphysics to medicating … That was Maimonides’ last transformation: from contemplation to practice, from knowledge to the imitation of God.[9]


Having set up polar opposite concepts of Jewish leadership, Heschel makes the claim that Maimonides excelled at both;

  • The religious leader making a political impact.
  • The polymath, able to make a contribution across a broad field
  • The gadol who is ‘retiring’ but equally a man of willpower, resolution and freedom.
  • The man who moves between contemplation and practice

Whether it was consciously meant or not, it doesn’t require much imagination to see, in this passage, Heschel setting forth what becomes his own academic, spiritual and practical agenda. I am reminded of the letter Scholem wrote to Bialik at a similar time and at a similar point in his own academic career, where he too sketched out what was to be his life’s work at an early stage.[10]


The Quest for Certainty in Saadia’s Philosophy

As we move a little further forward in Heschel’s personal biography – to 1942 – we also take a step backwards in the historical period Heschel focuses on.


This passage comes from the opening of this work;


Philosophers do not expend their power unless they themselves are affected. The soul only communes with itself when the heart is stirred. Saadiah admittedly wrote his book for the purpose of dispelling doubts; but the quandaries knocking at his own heart provided the motive that impelled him to toil for truth…If doubts are, according to Saadia, intellectual phenomena which necessarily occur to any person searching for knowledge he could not have been immune to them himself. Perhaps they had torn asunder more than one delicate web of his na├»ve faith. Saadiah’s constant reference to the doubts that overcast the mental horizon of other people, instead of those in his own mind, was possibly a euphemism…

The suspicion of scepticism may redound to the honour of a man searching for truth. We may, indeed, regard Saadia’s philosophy as a personal quest of certainty, as an effort to reach evidence about the main issues of thinking.[11]


The work on Saadia is undoubtedly a ‘proper’ piece of Wissenschaft; academic, buttressed by a slew of footnotes, engaging in manuscript issues, demonstrating a facility with Arabic etc. It is impressive scholarship but, again, it is hard to avoid thinking about the author of this biography, even at the expense of appreciating its subject. Indeed it is difficult to imagine what else Heschel could have said to offer, more clearly, the invitation to read this work in the context of his own life – even if we weren’t aware of his personal dislocation at the time of writing and the blood dripping from publication date.


Heschel wrote Saadiah during his time at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Heschel was always clear of the huge debt he owed the HUC and its leader, Julius Morgenstern but if he never quite fitted at JTS he was completely out of his element in Cincinnati. And then, of course, was the matter of the destruction of his roots. In 1965, speaking at the Union Theological Seminary in New York he informed his audience


I speak as a person who was able to leave Warsaw, the city in which I was born, just six weeks before the disaster began… My destination would have been Auschwitz or Treblinka. I am a brand plucked from the fire of an altar of Satan.[12]


And in the midst of the heat of the destruction of European Jewry Heschel writes,


Saadiah’s method in conquering scepticism was to secure one certitude, one solid stone on the ground of truth, and to pile up on this basis more and more bricks and mortar in order to establish a comprehensive system.[13]


That certainty has to have been impossible for Heschel, as much as he searched. I wonder if the experience of engaging in a quest for certainty in the 1940s – surely an impossible task then, even if had ever been possible before – might have contributed to Heschel’s almost total disregard for this kind of Aristotelian, clear cut lineal analysis in his later work. Of course Heschel had a poetic soul as a young man[14] and was hardly the model philologist or analytical positivist even at the University of Berlin,[15] but once the 1950s come around the abandonment of Aristotelian forms of argument in his written work is taken to an extreme. The literary nature of Heschel’s English language writing takes such apparent delight in its often elusive, alliterative, elliptical poetic touch that one can’t help assuming there is almost a wish to obfuscate as he reveals. Again this is not something to overstate; allusiveness is hardly an untypical Rabbinic way of expression, certainly not in the Chassidic world of Heschel’s youth, but I wonder if Heschel’s commitment to allusiveness, was strengthened by his personal failure to find the certainty that Saadiah sought.


Certainly the allusive – momentary glimpses of insight – style suited Heschel’s method of research or drafting. Heschel would wear a many pocketed waistcoat or jacket and, being busy on a number of topics at any one time, whenever an idea, a form of phrasing or a text occurred to him, he would scribble down the sentence and put the slip of paper in the pocket that corresponded to the chapter he would use the idea for.[16] It’s an insight that helps us appreciate the poetic force of so many of the sentences and the paragraphs in Heschel’s work. It also helps explain the occasionally staccato nature of reading Heschel, particularly the Hide and Seek works. Sometimes paragraphs connect across a chapter. Sometimes they don’t. Heschel argues, as Derrida said of Emanuel Levinas, like a wave. The waves keep rolling in, each one the same, each one unique.[17] The waves keep bashing away until their impact can be witnessed not like Saadiah’s tower with each increasing layer of brick and mortar built above the indubitably proven foundation of the storey below, but rather from the inside – a feeling, a sense, most particularly a sense of belonging.


Torah Min HaShamayim[18]

By the 1950s Heschel’s writing, both the Hide and Seek works – and also in TMH which he begins to write late in the decade, are resolutely non-linear in their style and their construction, but there are important differences between the form and significance of the Hebrew language Rabbinic work and the English language theology.


Tucker suggests the aim of TMH is to rescue Judaism from those who wish to engage only in the analytical scientifically provable worlds of study Heschel saw around him. It is therefore important to understand a little about these worlds; the academic milieu in which Heschel found himself. Heschel is working on TMH at the same time Professor Saul Lieberman (Heschel’s colleague only in the sense that they both taught at the same institution) was working on Tosefta KiFshuta.[19] Lieberman as a scholar and Tosefta KiFshuta as a work were then and remain today probably the greatest achievements of Wissenschaft des Judentums – the analytical scientific study of Judaism. It’s hard to explain to the non-specialist quite how spectacularly analytical and scientific Tosefta KiFshuta is. It is also vast, stretching to 10 volumes, and in all this analysis and science there is not a single endeavour to engage with what Heschel would call the needs of the soul (Lieberman of course, having little interest in the direct engagement with the needs of the soul). However at the same time as Lieberman is justly receiving extraordinary praise for his masterwork, at the same time as so many other faculty members and graduate students at JTS were at work on Genizah fragments, critical editions and philology, Heschel is working on TMH. He is desperate to advocate for the spiritual in a world full of those who believe that the zenith of study is the pursuit of the analytical certainty practiced by Lieberman and abandoned by Heschel if not pre-War then at least in the aftermath of his work on Saadiah.


Heschel makes his claim as to the vital importance of matters of the soul in his major theological works, published by this time, but the world of Wissenschaft is not stirred by contemporary theology. Writing in English, writing his own theology, even engaging in any other period in the history of Jewish Scholarship will not do. In order to fight this fight Heschel needed to write in lashon hakodesh – Hebrew - and he needed to engage with the classical Rabbinical period.


Fortunately the need to turn to source material from the Rabbinical period held no fears for a man whose chair was in mysticism, whose graduate work was in bible and who spent much of his early post-doctoral career in the Medieval period. Heschel, his daughter tells us, took enormous pleasure in writing TMH.[20] One can feel, reading the book, the sources flowing out of him. Indeed as Tucker, and his co-translator Leonard Levy, discovered while working on the book, many of the citations seem to have been written from memory, a number needed to be corrected (though Tucker suggests typographical errors were ‘often’ to blame).[21]


Did Heschel succeed in transforming Jewish study with his work? Not really. There has been a move away from philology and manuscript work, but it would be overstating things to make any particular case for the primacy of TMH in this movement. [22] But, again, moving away from an assessment of influence to the question of what can be gained from an encounter with the work, one should appreciate a vital nuance in fight for the head and soul of Judaism.


What were Rabbi Ishmael’s personal characteristics? Delicacy, intellectual reserve, clear thinking and sobriety. He sought the middle way and his words were carefully measured.

Rabbi Akiva could be credited with seeking out the wondrous; Rabbi Ishmael could be credited with shunning the wondrous…

Akiva’s teachings sought to penetrate to inner depths… a poet at heart and at the same time a razor sharp genius. Rabbi Akiva was special in that two fundamental qualities were combined in him: poetry and acuity, the esoteric and the analytic.[23]


Of course one could see Heschel here as both Akiva and Ishmael, but there is something more important to note in the style of this passage – and so many others in the book. TMH is non-linear, but its allusiveness is not the allusiveness of the Hide and Seek series where each sentences veils and reveals in the same poetic tour de force. Here the non-linearity is, for want of a better term, more Talmudic. Bifurcations, parallelisms, dyads and polarities permeate every page and time and time and time again these tensions are unresolved. Each different pole, each different idea, each different character is analysed and left in place. There are the protagonists (Rabbi Akiva & Rabbi Ishmael), themes (the relationship between Halacha and Aggada), chapter headings (Human Ways & Divine Ways, the Fashion of Babylonia & the Fashion of the Land of Israel, Two Philosophical Methods, Two Approaches to the Essence of Torah) and on and on the bifurcated nature of the work continues to unfold. This isn’t really a marker of the Hide and Seek works, but it is very close to the open ended style of Talmud itself. The non-linearity of TMH is not just to be understood in terms of the revealed and the allusive, but beyond that, as an un-finalised journey into the space created between polarities.


One could simply consider this an attempt, on Heschel’s part to engage in the world of the Rabbinic studies of his youth, in classical Rabbinic style, but, my claim is that one also needs to factor in the abandonment of Saadiah’s ‘Quest for Certainty’ and a desire to pull back Jewish scholarship from the full-on charge towards the more linear style of scholarship practiced by Lieberman and virtually every other member of the JTS faculty. The bifurcated non-linear style of TMH is also its message. The point isn’t whether one pole or other is correct, the point is holding both poles together, appreciating the poetry, the interplay, the dynamism, and particularly to appreciate the truly Rabbinic nature of this kind of scholarship. One could possibly even make the case that the multifaceted bifurcated nature of TMH could be seen as a corrective to the style Heschel mastered in the Hide and Seek works, a corrective that can only be expressed in Hebrew, working with classical Rabbinic texts.[24]


If, in the 1940s, Heschel understood the spiritual quest as a journey towards a fixed point – per Saadiah, by the late 1950s we see, instead, a man dedicating his energies to articulating the joys and holiness of living in the space between poles. In Heschel’s otherwise untranslated introduction to the second volume of TMH there is a poetic analysis of what was probably the very first Rabbinic text Heschel, the young boy would have learnt.


Two have hold of a tallit.[25]


Heschel directs us to consider the tallit is being tugged between Akiva and Ishmael, but we should also consider that just as Heschel has been Maimonides, Saadiah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael he is, perhaps most of all, this tugged tallit; suspended between so many different tugs; worlds Chassidish and Wissenschaft, ancient and modern, heavenly and earthly …, and to appreciate this tension there is surely no better place to turn than his works on the Rabbinic period.


Jeremy Gordon is Rabbi of New London Synagogue. He teaches Midrash at Leo Baeck College.

[1] This paper, based on a talk given at conference on Abraham Joshua Heschel held at UCL, November 2007, is dedicated to memory of my uncle Peter Spanier whose shiva was being observed at the time this paper was given. May his memory be a blessing.

[2] Man is Not Alone, Man’s Quest for God & God in Search of Man (Noonday Press, NY, 1951, 1954, 1955 respectively).

[3] ‘We all know kabbalah is nonsense’ said Lieberman, ‘but the history of nonsense is a science.’ See Joseph Dan, Jewish Mysticism, Vol IV, (Aronson, Northvale, NJ, 4 vols, 1998-9) p. vii.

[4] Private conversation. The irony is that, in 2004, the Seminary decided to replace the painted portraits along the oft-trod corridors with a series of photographs. So down came Schechter, Ginsburg and Finklestein, but the portrait of Heschel remained on the wall. The corridor still leads nowhere, but at least he’s still on display.

[5]First published Torah min ha-shamayim be-aspaklaryah shel ha-dorot, (Shontsin, London, 1962-1990). See also ed. & trans. G. Tucker Heavenly Torah, As Refracted Through the Generations (New York, Continuum, 2007). All citations are to the 2007 translation.

[6] First published in German (Erich Reiss Verlag , Berlin, 1935). Available in translation by J. Neugroschel (Farrar, NY, 1982). All references to the 1982 edition, hereafter Maimonides.

[7] First published in Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, vol. 33, nos. 2 and 3, all references to the edition published Dropsie College, Philadelphia, 1942. Hereafter Saadiah.

[8] Preface to A. Heschel Prophetic Inspiration After the Prophets (Ktav, Hoboken NJ, 1996)

[9] Maimonides pp 242-244.

[10] Published in Devarim Bgo (Tel Aviv, 1976) pp. 59-63.

[11] Saadia, pp 1-2.

[12] Citing Zechariah 3:2. The speech is reproduced as ‘No Religion is an Island’ in S. Heschel ed. Moral Grandeur And Spiritual Audacity (Farrar, NY, 1996).

[13] Saadiah p. 9.

[14] See especially the collection of poems Der Shem Hameforash: Mentsh. Lider, (1933), recently made available in M. Leifman, trans. The Ineffable Name of God: Man (Continuum, NY, 2004).

[15] See the claim made in a speech to the CCAR first published in 1953, ‘I came with great hunger to the University of Berlin to study philosophy… Erudite and profound scholars gave courses in logic, epistemology, aesthetics, ethics and metaphysics. They opened the gates of the history of philosophy. I was exposed to the austere discipline of unremitting enquiry and self-criticism… [But I found] my teachers were prisoners of a Greek-German way of thinking. [And that] I had forgotten God – I had forgotten Sinai – I had forgotten that sunset is my business.’ Republished in S. Heschel ed. Moral Grandeur & Spiritual Audacity (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1996) pp. 127-130

[17] Cited by R. Bernstein in S. Critchley ed. Cambridge Companion to Levinas, (CUP, Cambridge, 2002) Chapter 12.

[18] I am considerably indebted, in this section, to Gordon Tucker’s excellent introduction to the translation of this work.

[20] Foreword to Heavenly Torah p. xvii.

[21] Heavenly Torah p. xxxiii.

[22] That said P. Peli, a one-time Talmud PhD candidate at JTS explains how he was persuaded away from writing a dissertation on Ugaritic in the Babylonian Talmud and into writing on the meaning of the Shabbat by Heschel in the introduction to Shabbat Shalom (B’nai Brith Books, Washington DC, 1988).

[23] Heavenly Torah pp. 33-34.

[24] I am grateful to Rabbi Dr Michael Shire for this observation.

[25] Mishnah Baba Metziah 1:1 was the usual starting point for Rabbinic education. This part of the introduction is discussed by Tucker in Heavenly Torah p. xxx.

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