The following is a transcript of Episode 131 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, and we’re recording on Thursday, February 23rd, 2023.
So we Jews seem to be constitutionally obsessed with history. I know it’s true for some more than others. Definitely for me, and I think for my guests today, both of us trained as professional historians, but it goes way beyond us. I’ve noticed of late, and I’ve been teaching a lot lately about the ways that contemporary Jews chronically appeal to the past in conversations about the present and more accurately, the future.
The best example is the escape of Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai to Yavneh, something amazing about a mythic piece of history that’s so elastic that it can launch so many thousands of thought pieces about modern Judaism, Benay Lappe’s Ted Talk, Peter Beinart on Yavneh, and so many others.
I wrote a little bit about this in my book, Shuva. There’s a line in the Mishna that says that the present is just a hallway, a corridor between our past and our future, and it oftentimes feels like we need the past, even imagined, to visualize an uncertain future. Maybe that’s why a lot of us who care about and know a lot about Jewish history, work professionally in the Jewish community today, where we’re responsible for the present and the future.
I curated a panel about this once at the Association for Jewish Studies Conference. The question was, why are so many historians professional leaders in Jewish communal organizations? It was a great lineup with an all-star cast, but it got snowed out. Well, I’m still fascinated by the question.
But it doesn’t always have to be ancient Jewish history. There are so many big stories of the past few hundred years of Jewish history that are not only still prologue to the present, but maybe still the same operative frameworks that we Jews need to sort out what story we’re living through right now. Zionism, modern orthodoxy, conservative and reconstructionist judaisms, all of these are the stuff of the relatively recent past, and reform isn’t that much further back, and the really big conceptual frameworks, you know, like emancipation and enlightenment for one, there’s still the overwhelming and unresolved tensions that we’re trying to sort out in our lives and in our choices.
This means it’s not just historical events that matter to us as we figure out who we now are as Jews. It’s also our intellectual history, the history of ideas of which we are the sometimes confused inheritors. What of the past is indispensable to who we are now, in ways that might be so embedded that we can’t even recognize? What raw materials do we have available to us already to address new challenges? And what’s the body of work we’re supposed to be doing ourselves?
There’s one weird quirk of recent Jewish history that we’re marking in these past and upcoming few months. A number of monumental yahrzeits, anniversaries of the passing of some of the great male scholars and rabbis of the 20th century. Just about a month ago was the commemoration of the 50th yahrzeit of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who passed away at the end of 1972. Later this year as the 40th anniversary of the yahrzeit of Mordechai Kaplan, who passed away at the end of 1983. And in a month or so is the 30th anniversary of the art site of Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Rav, who passed away during Pesakch of 1993.
We also did an episode just a few weeks ago on the 10th anniversary of the passing of David Hartman, but that already reflects a generational change. Hartman, after all, was a disciple of Soloveitchik. In fact, I remember at his funeral, his daughter, professor Tova Hartman, recounted how she had asked him near his death, what should she read, as regularly she asked him, and he once again referred her back to Heschel and Kaplan, two of the 20th century Titans.
I think you could do worse if you were forced to distill the greatest he hits of 20th-century American Jewish thought than that short list of Heschel, Kaplan, and Soloveitchik. It’s limited in ways that I want to talk about, that these are all white men of Ashkenazi European descent, but the intellectual and spiritual legacy that they left behind is massive and in some ways, incalculable.
Soloveitchik and Heschel are both iconic to their movements of Jews in ways that incorporate, but also transcend their actual written output, their totemic, they represent something. In fact, Soloveitchik, ironically, even more than Heschel, Heschel had actually come from a Hasidic background. Soloveitchik takes on qualities in today’s American Modern Orthodoxy most akin to the legacy of a Hasidic Rebbe, with a dynasty in a court that watches and imitates his very actions, even following his death. Kaplan, meanwhile, is possibly the least readable of the three, but seems to have been right about just about everything.
I don’t wanna fall into the trap of great men history, and I certainly don’t believe in saints. More than that, when Claire Sufrin and I edited the New Jewish Cannon, the point of the book was precisely to poke at the bias so widespread in our community that believes that the era of great Jewish thinking ended a generation ago.
We noticed, for instance, that when people use the term post-Holocaust thought, they tended to imply a body of literature that ended in the late 1970s, as though the post-Holocaust era ends in the 1970s, and we wanted to argue for continuity in the production of Jewish ideas that’s obviously still ongoing.
But still to look for markers and milestones in the passage of time is a natural thing. And maybe it’s not a coincidence that our book came out at the same time as another anthology trying to draw lines in the history of Jewish thought, David Ellenson and Michael Marmur’s American Jewish Thoughts Since 1934.
So I asked Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson, the Chancellor Emeritus of Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, professor Emeritus at Brandeis, the author of some eight books and 300 articles, a friend of mine and of the Hartman Institute, to join me today to meditate on all of this, to geek out a bit on recent Jewish intellectual history, to commemorate the yahrtzeits of Heschel, Kaplan, and Soloveitchik. And maybe just to think aloud with me on what era of Jewish ideas is right behind us and maybe a little bit about what era might be on the horizon.
So David, thanks for being here, and let me start with a methodological question. You are primarily a scholar of a particular time period of Jewish history, 19th-century German Jewish halakhic and responsa thought. I’m taken with the fact that there’s a particular period of time where you can then probably say, here are the big themes of that moment. So that might suggest that we could do the same thing for the Heschel-Kaplan-Soloveitchik moment. So what are those big themes and is it historically responsible to try to do that?
David: Well, first I wanna say thank you very much for inviting me. I always love being with you and admire the Hartman Institute so much. And of course, Donniel, and David, as is true of many of us, of my generation was certainly an iconic figure who I regard as my teacher. I think the question you ask is a very fair one.
My own interest in the 19th century came about quite simply in an autobiographical kind of way, namely, I grew up in a small community in Virginia, but in an Orthodox family. And it was interesting for me to observe how it was that as the grandchild of immigrants who came from Eastern Europe to Newport News, Virginia in the early 20th century, Judaism came to express itself during that period.
What I came to was the notion that, while there, of course, were significant differences in the community I grew up in, 700 Jewish families approximately, with two Orthodox, one reform, and one conservative synagogue, was that despite the distinctions among the synagogues, which were quite significant, the social life of the people who populated these synagogues overlapped a great, great deal.
And the question that occurred to me was well, how did Judaism in America come to be what it was? And it seemed to me that it was going back to Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries that provided a key to attempt to respond to that question, in large measure, as a result of emancipation and enlightenment.
The question is, how could Judaism remain authentic and at the same time be informed by, and respond to the modern period, or the contemporaneous period, perhaps is a better way to put it, in which we lived. The people who followed Mendelssohn were the first generation of persons to do that, so that you had figures as disparate as Abraham Geiger, reformers, Zacharias Frankel, a positive historical person whose ideology gave birth in America to the conservative movement. And then you had modern Orthodox figures like Samson Raphael Hirsch and Azriel Hildesheimer.
On the one hand, each of them responded to modernity in different kinds of ways. But the question that all of them attempted to answer, it seemed to me, was between the binary, the poles of tradition on the one hand, and modernity on the other. How could you create a Judaism that would, on the one hand, be authentic to the roots of Jewish existence and simultaneously apply the tradition in novel ways to the period in which all of these men lived?
And I think that my work, in a very real sense, in the 19th century, tries to answer that larger question. It is interesting to me in light of the introduction you gave today that all of these people were seminary heads. And in fact, if I can say this autobiographically, one reason after having had an academic career of 20 to 30 years, where frankly I did no administration, one of the factors that motivated me to become president of Hebrew Union College was that I thought all of these people I’ve studied Geiger, Hildesheimer, Frankel, all of them, headed seminaries.
And actually as Stan Rosenbaum, Paula Hyman’s husband said to me when I was considering becoming president of Hebrew Union, he said to me, what do you just wanna write about seminary heads and understand history? Or would you like to try to make history yourself? And I thought Stan’s comment was a very insightful one. And I have to confess, it motivated me into an administrative direction in my life that I never anticipated.
But what happened in the 19th century is that you had the first or second generation of persons who were post-Mendelssohnian, who tried to be both traditional and modern simultaneously, and this way, I would say that part of what’s significant about 19th-century German Jewish, religious intellectual history is that all of us are positionally the descendants of Mendelssohn.
Mendelssohn becomes important in terms of modern Jewish intellectual history because unlike Spinoza who was willing to surrender his Jewish particularity in light of universalistic, rational commitments on his part, Mendelson for all the misunderstandings that surround him, would not surrender his Jewishness. In fact, in his own life, he would be akin to what we might today call modern Orthodox Judaism.
And then later in America, beyond Germany, cultural assimilation up until recent examples like Satmar and others, was the chief characteristic of American Jews, so in this sense, it seems to me that we are in a sense, all post-Mendelssohnian and the people that we’re gonna talk about today, Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rabbi Kaplan, and Rabbi Heschel, all fit into this larger intellectual framework, even as there are distinct differences among them.
Yehuda: We’ll come back to them in a second, but you said a couple interesting things that I want to probe out. One of which is, you know, I understand what you mean when you say, I’m trying to figure out what does it mean to be a Jew today, so what I’m gonna do is study Mendelssohn. I get tha . I think a lot of people will be like,
David: Not, not many people would.
Yehuda: Maybe you’re biased, for our listeners, but I would say a lot of people might say, actually the best way to understand what does it mean to be a Jew in Newport News, Virginia is some other discipline, I don’t know if it’s sociology, which by the way has had a heyday among American Jews as a very important discipline, study who we are, and that will also tell us the future, which is also incidentally not true. Sociology has been imagined to be prescriptive in our Jewish community, but that’s its own political bias.
But like, maybe poke at that a little bit. Because it doesn’t seem that natural to say, I need to understand Mendelssohn in Germany in order to understand what it means to be a Newport News Jew in the 20th century?
David: Yeah, but the question is, how is it you’re gonna come to understand Mendelssohn? One other autobiographical fact is that, uh, my doctorate at Columbia was actually not in the history department. I did my doctorate in sociology of religion. Jillian Lin was my major advisor, who was a preeminent sociologist of religion. And I actually did my doctoral exams on Weber. So, and I’ve written a great deal on Weber. Interestingly, Arnie Eisen, when he was at Oxford, also worked on Weber and wrote some magnificent articles on Weber.
So that, I would say from a disciplinary point of view, you have to look at it in an interdisciplinary way. What makes Mendelssohn significant is I think understanding him precisely from a kind of socio-historical background, what my teacher also Jacob Katz, called social history. Katz himself was trained as a sociologist of religion. And I would say that what I learned from him is that in the reading of rabbinic text, and as you noted, I write a great deal on rabbinic responsa, I will say now that I am not actually interested in the Halakha qua Halakha. That doesn’t mean that a great deal of what I write would not be of interest to Halakhists.
But what interests me the most is to look at Halakha as a crossroads between past and present in Judaism, and that what a sociological perspective does is it forces you to look at what a contemporaneous cultural context is and to understand how it is that individuals look to the past in order to both understand the present and point towards the future, so that Mendelssohn becomes a very significant figure because he really is the first modern Jew.
I don’t put Spinoza in that category, though I include him in classes I teach, because without understanding the theological-political tractate, it’s difficult to understand how it is that modern Judaism developed, the theological political tractate with its critique of the notion of divine authorship of the Bible, et cetera.
But having said that, Mendelssohn becomes the first person who attempts to be both modern and Jewish, and in that sense provides a model. And the very model that he provides can, I think, best be understood not only in a strictly historical framework, but to understand him sociologically, as an individual who existed with an attempt to understand how it is religion can change, even as perhaps it claims to be changeless.
Yehuda: But doesn’t this wind up leaving us with a kind of continuity bias, to say, if I’m looking, even if the point is not to say I’m the direct inheritor of this, but to use it as a kind of template for thinking about where I am in the present, when I look to these past figures, what it does is it blinds us a little bit to the possibility that actually know the questions that we are dealing with are not the questions that Mendelssohn is dealing with, that we’re gonna borrow from his negotiations in ways that are gonna betray the fact that we’ve moved so far down the field around the relationship between tradition and modernity. Maybe if there’s more rupture than there is continuity.
David: There can be more rupture. In other words, when you talk about continuity, it doesn’t mean there also isn’t significant discontinuity and the questions are radically different. So for example, when you talk about Mendelssohn, what becomes significant about Mendelssohn in his book Jerusalem, which I would claim every modern Jew to understand who she or he or they are, needs to read, is Jerusalem constitutes a kind of Magna Carta for Jews, a Jewish Magna Carta.
It’s significant for Jews because it’s the first time a Jew attempts to use basically western philosophical theological categories to describe the Jewish religion. Mendelssohn, of course, says that Judaism is in the end revealed legislation. Part of the interesting thing about Mendelson’s Jerusalem is he salvages Judaism, as it were, in a late 18th century context by reducing its significance. In other words, part of what Mendelson does is he claims that there are universal truths that are all known to reason.
In this sense, Jerusalem echoes, identifies with, copies, the theological-political tractate. He preserves Judaism by saying, well, we have a revealed legislation. And almost as Judah Halevi argued it, we’re therefore, as traditional Jews obligated to observe it.
I think it is one of the weakest arguments ever put forth for why one would wanna remain Jewish in the modern world, but that does not reduce its significance. Its significance is because it’s the first book written. If I could draw an analogy to our time, I think people like Judith Plaskow and Rachel Adler will be read 100 and 200 years from now. They represent the most significant works written by Jewish feminists in the late 20th century.
What I wonder about, and you can see it already with gender and other concerns, is Plaskow and Adler’s books, which I adore may be significant a hundred or 200 years from now, because they represent the beginnings of a stream of, I’m gonna call it now for one of a better term, feminist gender consciousness that only began to manifest itself in America in the sixties, seventies, and eighties.
But the content or substance of what they write may look completely outmoded. When I look at Mendelssohn’s work, I don’t think anyone would affirm that the solution that Mendelssohn came to would speak to a Jew in Newport News, Virginia, or anywhere else in the 20th, much less the 21st century. But it does give me a sense of rootedness.
You began our discussion by talking about Yavneh and the book that you and Claire wrote and also the book that Michael and I wrote, one of the points we noted in our introduction was we had 78 authors. And by the way, we began in 1934, because that’s the year Kaplan published Judaism as a Civilization, which we saw as a kind of Archemedian point in the expression of American Jewish. Thought your book was broader in a sense than ours.
Yehuda: And shorter time period. Yeah.
David: Having said that, when I look at this work of 78 authors, 20 of them must have mentioned Yavneh, which to me is significant because, and you are the one who wrote the book on Yavenh, in its import, people want to be rooted in a tradition. In part, it gives one a sense of identity and rootedness.
Here I think of a book like Law’s Empire by Ronald Dworkin, which talks about the American legal system. And Dworkin points out that the legal system needs to be understood. He uses the image of a chain novel, that part of what happens when a judge issues a decision is that she or he looks to the past and a body of precedent, then considers contemporary context, issues a ruling to guide in the community in the present and direct it towards the future.
I think it means that who we are as people, we’re rooted in who passed persons were. I mean, I attended the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Not the kind of school you would normally think a Jewish studies scholar would attend. But I remember often walking around the grounds of William and Mary, and I would think, well, on the one hand, Washington and Jefferson walked here. They’re my ancestors, kiv yachol, as it were. And at the same time, I would think, well, Abraham and Sarah, et cetera, they’re also my ancestors. So Mendelssohn just helps me begin the story. He’s not the end of the story for me.
Yehuda: Yeah. In other words, it functions as a vocabulary. It’s not just a historical template, but it’s actually a conceptual vocabulary. Your Adler example is a very helpful one because Adler herself changes,
Yehuda: her theological position within less than a 20-year period. To me, the most elegant thing she writes in that second piece when she recants her first position about family purity law
David: Taharat hamishpacha.
Yehuda: is she said, the reason it took me so long to revise it is because I never had any role models of theologians who publicly changed their minds.
David: Thank you.
Yehuda: That in and of itself was like mind blowing when I read that. I was like, you’re right. And that engenders, no pun intended, a total lack of humility by writers and thinkers, because you fear, if you change your mind, you signal that you are not to be trusted about what you’re writing now.
It happened to one of my professors I remember, who famously re-recanted something she had published and it destroyed her academic career.
Yehuda: Because it was like, well, I guess you’re not trustworthy. If you were wrong once, maybe you’ll be wrong again. Andit may be that when the history of this is written we’ll look at Plaskow and Adler as one phase, we’ll look at Mara Benjamin’s work on obligation as a post-Adlerian move and a retrieval of a very different type of embodied language.
And you’re right, we’ll have to notice, I need some of the momentum of the first and maybe some of the conceptual vocabulary, but I’m not attached to those terms anymore. I’m just, I’m actually catalyzed or motivated to do something totally different.
David: Yeah. In that sense, Mendelssohn provides me with a model. And you know, when you mention Mara Benjamin, I know that’s not our topic today, but you know, you look at, as it were, the first generation, I’ll use this term, of Jewish feminist authors like Adler and Plaskow, and then you move to Mara Benjamin who will conceptualize God, you know, from the term of a mother and God becomes a baby, and her notions of obligation.
That wouldn’t have been possible 50 years ago. And it might not have been possible if Adler and Plaskow had not written as they had.
Yehuda: So let’s take our case studies of Heschel, Kaplan, and Soloveitchik. I want to start with Heschel cause it helps to illustrate some of the advantages and traps of the language. So one of the, for instance, the, one of the famous articulations of Heschel’s work, and was probably two Heschels, right?
There’s Heschel as Hasidic theological thinker and, and Heschel as kind of totemic icon for justice in the world. And the famous line is, I felt as though my legs were praying, right? Which has been co-opted into praying with my feet as an active verb, right? As opposed to a descriptive thing, by the way, it’s a whole thing on legs and feet. Fine.
But one critic of the use of that term, or critic of the use of Heschel is that oftentimes, because of Heschel’s iconic standing, it gets expressed as like, where is today’s Abraham Joshua Heschel? And Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a friend and colleague oftentimes is like guys, they’re here. They’re doing it. And somehow the looming image of Heschel theologian, Hasidic rabbi, author of the Sabbath, and also outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, becomes so big that it actually obscures the capacity to do the very things in the world today that we want to do.
So maybe we can unpack that a little bit.
David: Yeah, no, I mean, I think it’s an excellent point. I mean, the problem is whenever you have a figure who becomes a totemic figure, and it’s interesting that in your introduction today you pointed out that with both Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rabbi Heschel, we really are dealing with iconic, larger-than-life figures. Interesting that Kaplan probably doesn’t occupy that same position, though, in terms of his thought, I might argue, we’ll see where we get today, that his thought may be, in some ways, elements of it, the most enduring and even insightful.
But I think your point is well taken and it relates to what we were talking about earlier. There is always danger when any figure is made into a totemic figure. I mean, I’m using your, your term here. It seems to me though, that at its best, at his best, Heschel is used to inspire people, not to shame them and not to thwart them.
I mean, you mentioned the idea of praying with your feet. It’s interesting. I once wrote an op-ed in the Forward after I had gone on a seminary group of rabbis to El Salvador. And it was entitled Praying With Your Feet. That line of Heschel’s had to become the way to describe it. Or I just read an introduction to a Forward written by an Israeli colleague, Rabbi Dalia Marx. She has a book, From Tme to Time: Journeys in the Jewish Calendar, which describes the holiday cycle in Israel. And of course, I quote Heschel the Sabbath and talk about Judaism as a religion that sanctifies time.
I mean, Heschel, part of Heschel’s greatness and enduring legacy is that he wrote in poetic kinds of terms. I mean, he was a totemic figure, and certainly the march on Selma, Alabama. I mean, it’s hard to imagine a more iconic and inspirational moment in modern Jewish history. And I would say as someone who entered seminary in the early seventies, I would bet you that 75% of people who entered at that time, the Jewish Theological Seminary in the Hebrew Union College cited Heschel in their application essay when he was on ABC news, I think it was, interviewed by Carl Stern, in prime time in a way that’s hard to imagine today. He had a prominence that was unequal in the world of American Judaism.
And for people like myself who grew up during this time of protest, Heschel provides a model of, not just Jewish study, but how Jewish study leads l’maaseh, to Jewish action. I think if one makes of Heschel an idol in the way that I think Rabbi Jacobs, Jill Jacobs was suggesting, I think that’s problematic.
If one uses him as a source of inspiration, then I think it remains an enduring and vital legacy for our people. But I think it’s always important to understand that there is constant change. You know, it’s interesting when you talk about roots here. I think of the work of my colleague and our teacher, Art Green, where Art Green will often talk about Hillel Zeitlin and others. And through Heschel, he’ll talk about the Eastern Europeanization of American Judaism today through the Havurah and other movements that went beyond it, in the same way that I elected to look to the German past as a model for understanding how change could occur in the Jewish community, discontinuity and not just continuity.
It’s interesting to me that Art has often made the argument that, well, Heschel has to be seen in a stream with Hillel Zeitlin and Hasidic masters, and that what we see today is a movement in that direction. But in that sense, what Art does is, I think in many ways, parallel to what I do, it’s just that he’s writing about a Hasidic and Eastern European tradition, and I’m writing about a German one, which clearly is much more rational in its orientation.
Part of, I think, Heschel’s great gift to us in that way is that Heschel allowed us to see that Jewish tradition had to be viewed much more broadly than, how should I put it? The tectonic geniuses of Hermann Cohen and others that were bequeathed us in most modern Jewish thought classes in the United States.
Yehuda: I think you’re right to note the direct spiritual and political legacy of Heschel into the American rabbinate. You described a phase of kind of post-Heschel at the seminary. I think that has carried over to Hebrew College, which effectively gets launched as a pluralistic seminary oriented very much towards social justice and the relationship of social justice and neo-Hasidism. You can’t have that conversation, Art Green obviously is a major driver of that, but you can’t have that conversation without referencing Heschel as part of that tradition.
So that’s a transformation of the rabbinate yet, you want to add to that too?
David: Yeah, I just wanted to ask you a question. In other words, in light of what you asked me earlier about the iconography of Mendelssohn as it were. Did you have even just a moment to respond to the point I just made that Jewish traditionalists in particular, even as they look to the present moment and towards the future, are inclined to look for rootedness as well. In other words, what does it mean that Art so emphasizes this Eastern-Europeanization of Jewish thought that Heschel and others represent?
I just wondered if you had even a reflection on that about what it says about us as Jews and as human beings?
Yehuda: I think that any of us who see ourselves as within the rabbinic tradition, we do have, like, as I said earlier, we have a continuity bias. So that continuity bias means that we wanna see ourselves as the inheritors of something that came before us and we want more, narcissistically, if you might say, we want the result of our work to be that we were a link in that continuity change.
Even if that, even if in our moment we are making changes, we are assimilating some of the Germanic and some of the Eastern European and maybe some of the Middle Eastern and creating something new, but showing the ways in which we’re not just inheriting the past, but doing something to the future.
I think what’s complicated when this moves from the rabbinic elites to the actual people is that many Jews in contemporary Jewish life, of course, they are anxious in some way about continuity, they want to feel as though what they leave behind resembles what they got from their grandparents, but they are not necessarily tied in to the same kind of elite approach to continuity.
David: Well I can give you an anecdote that really illustrates this. Back in the early 1980s, Shaye Cohen held a convocation a convention as it were, at the seminary,
Yehuda: Shaye was my advisor, my doctoral advisor. For what it’s worth, my teacher.
David: Okay, and the issue was conversion to Judaism, and I was invited to deliver the paper on modern responsa on conversion. And I delivered, of course, an extremely erudite, skira analysis of teshuvot on geitur, on conversion. I mean, it ultimately emerged as a book in 2012 when Danny Gordis and I published the Pledges of Jewish Allegiance.
But I will never forget that the person who sponsored the convocation, after I gave my talk, this woman, a conservative Jew who had given the money to pay for it, just said basically, oh, she said, it bores me out of my mind. But the reality is, you know, my children and grandchildren are marrying non-Jews. What do I care about what some rabbi wrote a hundred or 200 years ago?
And at that point I remembered, Ismar Schorsch was then the Chancellor of the seminary. I turned it over to Ismar and let him respond to that. But that was a concrete example of, to some degree, the disinterest that contemporaneous Jews had in the past.
But having said that, I think of all the years for over a decade, I think I taught every summer at the Hartman Institute. And I think of the hundreds of people I taught there, laypeople, I’m not talking about the rabbis, who all wanted an anchoring in, I’d call it Jewish authenticity. It’s interesting that you mentioned Hebrew College and maybe we’ll get to all of this. One of my sons is a third-year student there. I have another child at Hebrew Union and another child who started at Ziegler and graduated Hebrew Union.
So I’ve had students at most of the major Jewish seminaries. It is fascinating to me to see the curriculum at Hebrew College. It is definitely non-denominational, but having said that, I am, because of my own biases, extremely impressed by the in-depth study they do of textual traditions. I don’t know if there’s another non-orthodox seminary that studies as wide a variety of Halakhic, Hasidic, Talmudic, and other texts as the students are exposed to at Hebrew College.
And I have to say that my son Rafi, it isn’t only the depth, the breadth of textual exposure they receive there is impressive.
Yehuda: It’s a crazy thing that we do this. It really is because, and you’re right to say the word is authenticity. We are trafficking in authenticity. And I think it’s because those of us who wanna be leaders feel as though we can’t do that in any sort of serious way without saying that I’m standing on the shoulders of somebody and I’m using their same raw materials.
And at the same time, to go back to the people on the other end, one of the most humbling moments I ever had teaching, my whole life, this was maybe 10 years ago. I went to San Francisco and we were doing a whole series with lay leaders, and it was framed as kind of, it wasn’t called binaries, but it was very much about insiders and outsiders and Jews and non-Jews, et cetera.
At one point we were doing one on gender. And I went in to teach this class and maybe shouldn’t have been the person teaching or whatever, but I was teaching the class and I thought I had some interesting material. Maybe we’d study Genesis one, Genesis two, and I remember a woman sat next to me right at the front of the room sitting around a table, and she says, and I think she was a, maybe the chance, a vice chancellor of the UC system, a person of tremendous prominence.
And I appreciate that she was coming to learning, but she, right before I started, she leans over and says, just so you know, there’s nothing that you’re gonna say coming out of your books, and she waved kind of dismissively, that’s gonna be more sophisticated than what I already think about these issues. Good luck.
And I realized in that moment that was a hard setup, but I realized, what she was right about was that it was much more important to me to maintain a continuity between the intellectual tradition and the contemporary conversation. Because what I was really doing was not advocating for something politically in the present. I was advocating for the necessity of holding onto the past.
And that was the best I was gonna get out of this particular lay leader. Oh, maybe there’s something not that’s gonna change how I think about gender today in that tradition. But it might help to advocate for the continued legitimacy of your dusty old books of the stuff that comes before.
I think that’s the thing, so like when you describe rabbinical students today becoming, you know, fluent and fluid with the Sfat Emet and the Seride Eish, or whoever else they’re learning, is it because the Jews they serve really need that? Or is it because we’re actually advocates for, we want, we wanna schlep Hildesheimer with us. We want him to still be hanging around. And that, to admit that is okay.
David: Yeah. I think there is the issue of authenticity. I mean, I, I wanna foster what I would call a Jewish conversation. And if my students or I myself don’t know what those sources are, can I have a conversation? Yes, I can have a conversation, but on one level it’s not a Jewish conversation, which by the way, brings us to so much of these three figures that we started with and where we are today.
I mean, I think I can just mention this. I mean, my son Rafi was studying this year, Hilkhot gerut, laws of Conversion and he’s studying passages in Yevamot, which contain most of the Talmudic sources for Jewish laws on conversion. Those I’ve studied so much that it was actually a great, great joy for me to help him a bit or have him read the text with me in preparation for an exam.
But then he’s also studying laws that deal with heter and isor, permitted and forbidden, in regard to Kashrut. And I have to confess, I do not know these texts, and I did even make a comment to him, I said, do you think, given who you’re likely to serve as a Hebrew College graduate, one person in a thousand will want to know the details of what you now know about the halakhot in regard to Kashrut. I’m not talking about a person at YU, who will undoubtedly be serving such people. And the answer is probably not.
But it is interesting to me that Hebrew College in its curriculum includes this in a non-Orthodox seminary. And I think it must have something to do with notions of authenticity. In other words, what is it a rabbi needs to know? But I think your point is well taken. Where is it you want to move the community to whom you’re speaking? And would you like them to engage in a Jewish conversation?
And in that sense, then, these texts become more than suggestive, they do become significant in terms of embedding people in a significant kind of way in the Jewish past.
Yehuda: Yeah, there’s a lot more I wanna say on that. That whole framework of what does it mean to embed people in a Jewish conversation. I feel like that’s the life’s work here.
David: Yes. Well I think that’s a lot of what of what the Hartman Institute does.
Yehuda: That’s what we do. I think that’s what we do. And that’s how you actually can both be really committed to rigor and how you read and pluralistic.
And I really actually believe this. I don’t really care what other people eat, but I do want them to make informed choices about how they make their Jewish lives. And it sounds like from 19th-century reformer, but that’s okay.
David: No but you also sound like a, I think at Hebrew College, that’s exactly, they don’t have any, in quotes, Halakhic standards, other than they want their students to have a Shabbat practice or a Kashrut practice.
But that can involve all kinds of violations of Classical Jewish law.
Yehuda: So, let, we talked a little bit Heschel. Let’s maybe talk a little bit about Soloveitchik. How do you see the enduring legacy of Soloveitchik, not just for modern orthodoxy, which is the subset, the most micro of these denominations, but maybe for the Jewish intellectual tradition more broadly?
David: Well, I think part of what Rabbi Soloveitchik does is that first, for modern Orthodoxy, and this is part of his iconic status in that world, he brought the authenticity of the Lithuanian Yeshiva to modern Orthodoxy in Yeshiva University. In other words, the Soloveitchik family, I think it can be said, historically occupied the position as the preeminent students of Talmud in the misnagdic tradition.
And by coming to Yeshiva College and Yeshiva University, first Moshe Soloveitchik, and then his son, Yosef Bear, brought that authenticity with them. Also, keep in mind that Soloveitchik, Joseph Soloveitchik received his doctorate at the University of Berlin in philosophy writing on Hermann Cohen.
This notion of being able to integrate tradition in modernity or whatever the contemporaneous moment is that goes back to someone like Maimonides, and here I think of David Hartman’s classic work on Maimonides, which I always assigned in my medieval philosophy class, that Rabbi Soloveitchik serves that role in the Orthodox Jewish community.
And I think as you pointed out, and I think this is a good insight, that k’ilu, as if he were a Hasidic rebbe, beyond family tradition, I suspect that one reason he didn’t issue lots of responsa, though that wasn’t, to be a posek was not part of their family tradition, is that once he issued a ruling, no one in the modern Orthodox world could have opposed it, it would’ve been a boundary maintenance device.
But to get to your other question, I think a great many of Soloveitchik’s essays are extremely significant. If one wants to understand the Halakhic mind, and what does it mean to be committed to Halakha? Rabbi Soloveitchik, in his works like Ish Halakha and the Halakhic Mind provides insight into that world for Jews who are, who are interested.
But I think beyond that, I think he has some other works that are really enduring. In other words, part of what interests me is that there is a notion that there’s a rigidity to Jewish Orthodoxy. And I think all of us who study Halakha know that it’s much more pluralistic than the popular mind would have it.
But I also wanna say with Rabbi Soloveitchik, that there’s a humanity and insights that mark him. For me, his single greatest essay is The Lonely Man of Faith. I think it speaks, beyond the gender issues and how it might be reworded today, when he begins with the words, “I am lonely,” and he says, I’m, don’t say that when I’m lonely, it means that I lack friends, that I don’t have a wonderful marriage and that I don’t receive honor and respect from countless circles.
But he talks about, as it were, the existential state of what it means to be a modern person and what does it mean to feel lonely. And he talks about Adam Rishon as, the first Adam in the first story in Genesis, since you mentioned it, as the individual who goes out to dominate the world. Lichbosh, I mean the word kvisha literally to go out and conquer the world. And he talks about the capacities we have as human beings.
I always think how David Hartman used to comment, and it’s a definite thought from Soloveitchik, think of what it means to have a religious tradition where an almighty deity sees human beings as being sufficiently holy and significant to say that we as persons, weak and mistaken as we are, nevertheless are shutafim, partners with God in the very work of creation. Soloveitchik, in a sense, points to that in the Lonely Man of Faith, human beings have a capacity for grandeur.
But then he also goes on to talk about the more passive Adam of the second creation story. What does it mean to understand that for all of our capacity, again to quote his student, Rabbi Hartman, there is a weakness that marks us a fragility, and we need other people and we need to even be dependent upon as it were, the grace of God?
I mean, I think Jewish tradition speaks of this over and over again. Remember the classical Jewish interpretation of the Bible. We begin with Elohim, bereishit barah Elohim et hashamayim v’et haaretz. In the the beginning, Elohim creates the heaven and earth, and the Elohim is associated with midat hadin, the attribute of strict judgment. Elohim nisa et Avraham, it’s Elohim who tries Abraham in the Akedah, the binding of Isaac.
But God sees, if the world were created and judged by strict justice alone, it couldn’t survive. So in the second story, you have Hashem who represent an attribute of mercy, but I think what Rabbi Soloveitchik teaches us, for me, his most enduring teaching is that we are an amalgamation of a do of the first and second Adams, that we have an amazing capacity for creativity and domination, and simultaneously, we really need to have friends. We need to have a, a God upon whom we can depend, and others upon whom we can depend, and that human beings in so many ways are lonely.
I know one time, Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote in one of his lectures that the loneliest people in the world are married people, and by that he didn’t mean to say that he did not have a good marriage. Or that if Jackie’s listening to this, I wouldn’t want her to misunderstand what I’m saying. But part of what one thinks when one is about to be married or is married is that somehow this existential quality that marks us as human beings, our individuality, is somehow going to be fully, fully overcome so that you experience some element of disappointment because your expectation has been raised, that somehow, through your intimacy, your closeness with another, you’re going to be able to overcome this.
I mean, here I think of Hasidic notions of dvekut, on the one hand. I mean, you want to cling, as it were, to God, but there’s perut. I mean, the, on the other hand, there is just a kind of separation and I don’t know,
Yehuda: Well, this is also, that’s also Plato. It’s in the Symposium.
Of the, the search, the, the opposite. And the search for its, for, its,
David: Well see. That’s where it’s also interesting with Soloveitchik.
In other words, SOIC in the beginning of that essay talks about Decartes. He talks about Aristotle. He talks about Kiekegaard.
Part of, I think, a mistake in elements of the Orthodox world that see him as this icon isn’t, I think they’re not always sufficiently appreciative of how much he gained from his exposure as it were to the modern world. His writing of, I mean, I think the fact that he wrote a doctoral dissertation on Hermann Cohen is fascinating.
Yehuda: Yes. Well, I would go once further than that, which is the, there’s a certain irony in Soloveitchik being held up as the totem for social orthodoxy. For an intellectual modern orthodoxy, it’s totally consistent and there are inheritors of that.
If modern orthodoxy, when modern Orthodoxy becomes predominantly a social movement connected to certain types of behaviors and observances and socioeconomic class, it’s totally incoherent to then have Soloveitchik viewed as being the progenitor of that orthodoxy.
I think that one of the things that you’re also opening up is that Soloveitchik may be a more underappreciated political thinker then he gets credit for. Heschel, as we talked about, is so deeply identified with a certain type of spiritual rabbinic political thought. But I think Soloveitchik is there too. And even the description that you made of Adam One and Adam Two, which are stories of empowerment and submission, imply a certain, even if it’s a politics that is in tension also implies a certain political awakedness that I don’t, and I think it’s inseparable from Americanness, I think it’s inseparable from Zionism, which is a major feature of Soloveitchik’s thought. It’s inseparable from his writing and confrontation of a resistance and a refusal to abide by certain types of Jewish Christian relations.
So there’s, it’s not like Soloveitchik is this halakhic intellectual, while Heschel is the political, spiritual, intellectual, there’s a different politics that are emerging out of Soloveitchik.
David: Yeah, I mean, I think one of the key points, and I’m glad you mentioned Confrontation. I was just about to say something about it myself. So it’s interesting. Confrontation, which of course is Rabbi Soloveitchik’s way of talking about what should Jewish, Christian, Jewish Inter-religious relations being the modern world is actually a manifesto for Orthodox Jewish political involvement in the major social causes of the world in which we live today.
I once wrote an article on a teshuva written by Mosha Feinstein, where the question was raised before Rabbi Feinstein, who was Soloveitchik’s cousin by the way. Rabbi Feinstein, the great posek, a decisor of rabbinic Judaism in the United States, he wanted Rabbi Soloveitchik to join with him and forbid absolutely any discussion with Christians. And it dealt around the Vatican Council of the 1960s. And Rabbi Soloveitchik refused to do that, arguing that in fact there was an obligation to engage in this kind of conversation.
And Confrontation, of course, is the place where the intellectual foundation for that refusal is given. What I do find problematic about Confrontation, if I can be a critical academic for a moment, is that Rabbi Soloveitchik there writes, well, you can engage with Christians and by the way, by extension with Reform and Conservative Jews on matters of political import.
But there can’t be a discussion of religious matters, that Halakhic, in using Soloveitchik’s term, Halakhic Man speaks a unique language and therefore you can’t discuss religious categories across denominational or religious lines. I always have found that philosophically problematic because the reality is, and I think your comments point to this is that the political stances an individual believer takes are a direct outgrowth, of course, of the beliefs that she or he holds.
So that when Rabbi Soloveitchik wants to limit inter-religious or intra-religious dialogue to political matters, I see that as something that never was and never could be.
Yehuda: Yeah. And it also involves basically a construction of religion as a mystical, the noetic, the private, and that’s a move in of itself.
So let’s throw Kaplan into the mix, right? So Kaplan, I have this cute relationship with Kaplan cause my kids go to a Jewish day school which is housed in the Society for Advancement of Judaism. Kaplan, you know, literally and figuratively moves out of Orthodoxy to his own denomination.
He moves from the Jewish Center on 86th Street to found the Society for Advancement of Judaism, which is, of all places, on 86th Street. It reminds me of a line actually in David Hartman’s Israelis in the Jewish Tradition, where he describes Zionism as the great, Zionism in the land of Israel as both a rebellious movement of the Jewish people, but also akin to a teenager who threatens to stomp out of his parents’ house, but slams the door and remains inside.
And that feels to me similar to Kaplan. Like, I’m gonna leave but move basically a half a block down 86th Street. So I see Kaplan daily when I drop off my kids. There’s a little plaque for him in the Society for Advancement of Judaism. He’s associated with the founding of Reconstructionist Judaism, but I don’t see a huge amount of relationship between, except conceptually, between aspects of what he writes, and the denomination that is known as Reconstructionist Judaism today, that is itself gonna get me some hate mail for this, for this episode, but it’s fine.
Talk a little bit about how you see the main contribution of Kaplan and, and why as we both agreed beforehand, he seemed to be right about most things.
David: Well, I’m gonna now say something. I probably said it publicly before, but maybe not, and now it will be,
Yehuda: Now it’s on the record.
David: For posterity, as it were. I am actually an Orthodox Kaplanian. In other words,
David: My approach to Judaism is that, the classical Mordecai Kaplan, I’m not now talking about contemporary manifestations of Reconstructionism.
I belonged for many years to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. And I almost wrote a letter to my colleague and classmate at Hebrew Union, David Teutsch, who was of course, for many years president of the RRC. When David edited the Reconstructionist siddur and put in certain very traditional prayers, including the aleinu, which I know Rabbi Kaplan himself would never have sanctioned, I was inclined to write David a letter and say, how can you do this to Rabbi Kaplan?
But I hesitated to, because I used to get letters as President of Hebrew Union College, where people would quote Kaufmann Kohler, who of course was probably the most notorious anti-Zionist there ever was. And they would say, what have you done to my classical Reform Judaism with your embrace of Zion?
But leaving that aside, you know, one thing that’s interesting about Kaplan is, when we talk about all the figures we’ve looked at today, all of them had Eastern European roots, but Heschel and Soloveitchik were really nurtured in Eastern Europe. I mean, that is to say, given his Polish background, Heschel really was educated in the Hasidic tradition, you know, in his native Poland.
And similarly with Rabbi Soloveitchik, even though he studied privately, he was nurtured in the misnagdic tradition of Eastern Europe and both of them ended up coming to the United States as adults. I mean, I will put in a plug here for Hebrew Union College. Hebrew Union College really saved Rabbi Heschel’s life by bringing him in the Scholars Project of 1940.
Hebrew Union brought a number of European scholars to America, students as well, and literally saved their lives. And Heschel was at Hebrew Union for five years before he moved to the seminary, and the college really did save his life. I mean, President Morgenstern of HUC then deserves just an immense amount of recognition and credit for what he did.
Kaplan came as a six-year-old boy. And in many ways he was the most American of them. I mean, I think it’s interesting, you know, he studied at City College and I try to imagine Kaplan as a young boy. He entered JTS at 13. One of the things I think about Kaplan, and this is part of why I honestly love him, Mark Twain, in Pudd’nhead Wilson, wrote these little epigrams, as it were, in Pudd’nhead Wilson’s calendar.
And one of the sayings was the difference between a man and a dog is if you feed them both, a dog will never bite your hand. You’re mentioning how Kaplan moves from the Jewish Center to the SAJ, in other words, of the rebellious teenager, but he couldn’t quite leave.
Kaplan could not leave the Jewish Theological Seminary. People urged him to make Reconstructionism a separate denomination. He would not do it. You may be aware historically, that twice Stephen Wise approached Kaplan about becoming president of the Jewish Institute of Religion. JIR, of course, ultimately merged with Hebrew Union, hence the longest name and most unwieldy one for any institution in the world. Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion.
But Stephen Wise actually was simply committed to Zionism and social justice. He had on a personal level, you could be observant, non-observant. He himself had been raised in a traditional home, but certainly adhered to what one might call classical Reform modes of non-ritual practice.
He begged Kaplan to become the president of JIR and we know from Kaplan’s diaries that he even said to his family he was gonna accept Rabbi Wise’s offering. He came down the next morning and turned it down. He could not leave the Jewish Theological Seminary, and he remained there and taught, from the time Solomon Schechter gave him his job in 1909. And while he retired, I think it was 1953, he taught, I think till 1964, I mean, at least part-time at the seminary. I admire his humanity.
By the way, there is a wonderful article in the current review of the Jewish Review of books by Jenna Joselit on Kaplan.
Yehuda: And his diaries.
David: Yes. Which Mel Scult has edited. I think they are almost the best things ever written in modern Jewish history. You’ll have Kaplan say, for example, how are we gonna get Judaism out of this damnable rut of holidays? This is around Sukkot and Simchat Torah saying, it seems like all we do is go to schul, we daven, we come home, I won’t say everything he wrote in there. And then we go back.
And he said, if we don’t reconstruct Judaism to get over this, we’re not gonna ever speak to modern Jews. And another time, I think, cause he wrote it, it’s okay to say, he said, it’s Friday night and I’m writing in my diary, he said, I still cannot completely overcome the childhood prohibition and I feel guilty.
And then he says, I’ve just picked up my pen again after having dropped it because one of the girls came into the room and she saw what I was doing, but out of respect for me, she tried to avert her eyes and said, oh Abba, what are you doing? And he write says, oh, I’m just reading in my diaries. And she goes, yes.
And you, you see the humanity that marks Kaplan and the struggles, or another time he says, and you know, that he had certain problems with people like Finklestein and Ginsburg and others at the seminary who regarded him as being much too radical. And he says, you know, basically the equivalent of, I led mincha and maariv and I made a mistake in the Hebrew, and you know, now I forget the exact people, but I saw Ginsburg wink at Finklestein or vice versa. And, uh, I thought, oh gosh, why did I make that mistake?
I mean, you, you have to kind of love his humanity in that way. But what Kaplan understood, and here I want to go back to the question you really did ask me. I imagine Kaplan studying at the seminary and simultaneously studying at City College and he’s being exposed to issues, John Dewey and American pragmatism, Durkheim notions of religion being the projection of a given people onto a totemic object.
Thinking then about
Yehuda: Zangwill. Ahad Ha’am.
David: Yes. And then I was, you know, thinking about stories in the Bible of miracles, Joshua makes the sun stand still, and thinking to himself, I just can’t believe in this, literally, the orthodoxy in which I was raised. And so he creates a system of Judaism and I mentioned Durkheim, who himself was a son of an Orthodox rabbi, where he can talk about notions of Peoplehood.
He appreciates the role that religion can play in promoting a collective sense of identity. He, of course, does away with mitzvot, because for him, of course, there’s no personal God. There’s no mitzaveh, one who commands, so he creates folkways.
Part of how I try to understand Kaplan, and it goes back to what I said about him and his allegiance to the the seminary. I imagine his father and mother saying to Mordecai Kaplan, put on your tefillin every day, don’t eat treif. He gets to the age of 18, 19, and 20. He no longer sees this as being commanded by God, but he can’t stop observing it. He creates a system that allows him to continue complete ritual observance, but to understand it in contemporaneous, rational, sociological emotional categories.
And that I think is part of his enduring legacy. Along with his focus on Peoplehood. In 1973, 72 on his 90th birthday, Emil Fackenheim wrote a piece about Kaplan in Sh’ma, where he said Kaplan was right all along. And he said, I didn’t appreciate it. Kaplan understood the import of Jewish peoplehood long before I did, and you know, two books of his or two readings, I want to mention, it’s important to remember, it was Kaplan actually who introduced Hermann Cohen to an English language audience.
He paraphrased, as it were, Cohen’s Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism in his book, Ethical Nationhood that was written in 1948. In it, he basically wanted to put forth the claim that Jewish nationalism had to be ethical in its orientation. The state of Israel was about to be established. Kaplan, of course, is a cultural Zionist who, as you pointed out, followed the teachings of Ahad Ha’am and believed that out of Israel there would be inspiration and knowledge that would come to the entire Jewish world through the merkaz ruchani, spiritual center, that would be created there. But he understood politically that there were dangers as it were to statehood and that there needed to be a commitment to ethics and morality.
And in that sense, I want to bring up a second reading that I had mentioned to you before we got on air. The recent article by Hillel Halkin and in the Jewish Review of Books and look, it parallels that which has been written by people like Yossi Klein, Halevi of Hartman, and that I think you all put forward, and Daniel Gordis and others, where Halkin says that he thinks one of the problems or challenges that confronts contemporary Israel is that forces that look at Judaism out, if I’m gonna call them the the narrowest religious terms of manifest destiny as it were for the Jewish people, and understand Jewish religious tradition in an extremely, extremely narrow way, but as being God ordained.
Halkin comes out in that essay saying, I want a Judaism that’s more oriented towards the larger sense of Jewish peoplehood. Part of the genius of the Hartman Institute is that I think David Hartman and Donniel, now, and you embody this kind of, I’m gonna call it almost an instinctual understanding of the plurality and diversity and power of Jewish peoplehood understood in an ethical kind of context. And it seems to me that Kaplan has more and more to say to us about this.
The last thing I’d say is that given how I began our conversation, when I used to teach courses in modern Jewish thought and history, I used to say and assign the first hundred pages in Judaism as a Civilization. And I would say to the students, read this. I said, Mordecai Kaplan understood every issue that confronted Judaism in the modern world.
So in this sense, I see continuity from our past, but I also recognize that we live in a different world. The major critique I would have of Kaplan and maybe the other thinkers, is that the diversity of the Jewish world we live in today has transcended what I’m gonna call the ethnic Judaism, I’m 75, into which I was born.
In other words, my generation
Yehuda: Right, they took that for granted.
David: Yeah. In other words, my generation was born into a world where as universal, let’s say, as the Reform movement was in the Pittsburgh platform, there was no Jewish endogamy, Jews married Jews for a whole variety of reasons. Part of it is the Jews weren’t seen as acceptable marriage partners by the Gentile populace who surround us.
But the ethnic Judaism in which I was raised, and the denominational Judaism of Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, has largely been transcended, not destroyed, not destroyed, but largely transcended or certainly significantly modified by events and realities in the 21st-century. So that what is true is that the balance or the attempt to deal with the binary of tradition and modernity is completely different today. What constitutes modernity is so different. And here maybe I’ll just quote one other thinker and then I’ll stop.
You know, I always think of Franz Rosenzweig’s address at the opening of the Lehrhaus in 1921 in Frankfurt. Rosenzweig correctly identified the struggle between tradition and modernity. But he says a reverse learning is about to be born. Whereas all the three thinkers that we’ve talked about, and this would go all the way back to Mendelssohn, but certainly with Kaplan, Heschel, and Soloveitchik, their issue wasn’t, how do I become authentically Jewish?
Jewish text for each one of them was a girsa d’yankuta, it was the traditions in which they were raised, but Rosenzweig pointed out some reverse learning.
It comes from people who know little or nothing about Judaism, but who are motivated by Jewish hearts. And the question is how do you move back towards the center? But he points out there very importantly, what the center will look like, depending on where you came from, is gonna be different to almost every Jew.
And that’s why you have a pluralistic Jewish world. And my hope is that in presenting text to people in these traditions, that they’ll come to appropriate them in a a novel, but nevertheless authentic, Jewish way.
Yehuda: And Kaplan is most capable of absorbing that change cause Kaplan, if Soloveitchik is not really the right totem for social orthodoxy, Kaplan kind of is. And Kaplan, you alluded to Hartman on this and, and his pluralism, Hartman writes in Judaism and Modernity, the Jonathan Sacks collection, he writes about how pluralism comes about for him as an Orthodox rabbi, at the time, as the result of a kind of debt of gratitude to secular Zionism.
Hartman writes, secular Zionism made possible the state of Israel, religious Jews who believe in Zionism, owe a debt of gratitude to secular Jews. And that obligates us towards pluralism. Fascinating. And it’s very Kaplanian, in that sense. Because the willingness to evolve, adapt, move past the language of truth. It kind of hinges on, on what we might call like a Rawlsian pluralism. A fact of pluralism. This is the reality.
And that means that when the demographics of the Jewish people change, when diversity means something different in 2023 than it did in 1973. When your world opens to say the Jewish people means this people, you already have the tools and raw materials to build a continued collect commitment to Jewish peoplehood, even if it’s stretching the bounds of the kind of normativity that came with what pluralism meant at an earlier period.
David: I think that’s very, very well said. Heschel will remain enduring because he’s just so inspirational. But he puts forth what I would call an emotive kind of Judaism. In other words, there was an ethicist Stevenson who talked about emotive ethics. And what Stevenson meant was he said that ethical statements are not completely rational. They attempt to implore you to behave in one way or another. They have an emotive, kind of an appeal. And I feel Heschel has that.
Kaplan has created a system that I think allows modern Jews of a wide, wide berth to continue to approach Jewish tradition, even as the substance of what will constitute that Jewishness will be very different.
Yehuda: So let me ask you one last question, which is this. I wonder sometimes whether or not we have an ideas problem in contemporary Jewish life. I don’t know whether it’s a people problem or an ideas problem. I look at Heschel, Kaplan, Soloveitchik as representing kind of the major programmatic theologians of the 20th century. And I wonder who’s out there doing that work to be the major programmatic theologians. I look at books like the Sabbath and Halakhic Man and Judaism as Civilization as so iconic on the bookshelf, and there’s so much great Jewish literature being produced. I just don’t exactly know yet.
Maybe it’s just a question of the passage of time that this podcast, 30 years from now, it’ll be very obvious what those works are. So I’m not gonna put you on the spot to answer that, but I do, I would say, like, what needs to be the agenda of new Jewish thought today?
David: So, so, I think ideas are significant. I mean, one needs to keep in mind, look, first you had these Germanic works of the 19th century Hermann Cohen, and I would say Kaufman Kohler’s Jewish Theology is probably the last fully systematic Jewish theology written on American soil. I mean, to say that I don’t think it would speak to modern Jews, Kohler’s work, that would be beyond an understatement, though again, I guess there’ll be some classical Reform Jews herem who will have a problem with that.
People like the ones we’ve talked about today, Kaplan, Heschel, Soloveitchik, were certainly more programmatic, but I’m gonna offer a word of nechemta, as it were, consolation, at the end.
You mentioned your book that you and Claire did, the New Jewish Canon, and I think the book that Michael and I did on American Jewish thought, let me feel more confident that there are more people out there writing ideologically than I personally imagined. I think feminist thought is extremely effervescent. What Judith Plaskow and Rachel Adler began and that they continue to contribute to will only grow. You mentioned Mara Benjamin. There are people like Ronit Ershai in Israel and others.
I think you have whole new approaches to Judaism embedded in tradition that are being expressed here. I suspect the Jews of color, the Sephardic tradition, one of the regrets I had in our book that Michael and I wrote was that with a couple of exceptions, we have almost no Sephardic thinkers included in our book. There are two notable exceptions, but I suspect as Sephardic Jews come to be more embedded in America, more of will begin to write.
I think out of the GLBTQ community, there’ll be more and more writings and, you know, here, I, I look forward every issue that you all have, this journal that you’ve just begun to publish here at the Hartman Institute and the discussions that are taking place. There clearly are significant numbers of Jews who are dealing with these kinds of issues. People like Jill Jacobs, Aryeh Cohen, are writing in a social justice vein, following people like Waskow and others. Many people are writing in Reb Zalman’s tradition.
I don’t know what all of these books will be, but here I’m not prepared to shrai gevalt about where we stand. But what I would say is that I don’t think we’re going to get books in a Hermann Cohenian, Kaufman Kohleresque kind of tradition.
The real issue will be there be enough writings from people like you and Michael Marmur and Mara Benjamin that will constitute a corpus akin to what people like David Hartman and these men we’ve discussed today will leave us.
Someone once said, I don’t think I invented it, lo alecha hamelacha ligmor, oh yeah, maybe it somewhere in the tradition. It’s not up to us to finish it, but we should understand it really is to go back to Dworkin and a chain novel. And I have confidence that writings will continue in the future.
Yehuda: Well, thanks so much to all of you for listening to our show. And special thanks to my guest today, Rabbi David Ellenson.
Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman and was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. The show is produced with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz with music provided by Socalled. Maital Friedman is our vice president of communications and creative.
Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically about a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at shalomhartman.org. We’re always looking for ideas of what we should cover in future episodes. If you have a topic you’d like to hear about or if you have comments on this one, please write to us at [email protected].
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