Table of Contents

GENERAL EDITORS: Aryeh Cohen (University of Judaism) Charlotte Fonrobert
(University of Judaism) Nancy Levene (Harvard University) Jacob Meskin
(Princeton University and Rutgers University) Michael Zank (Boston University)

FOUNDING EDITOR: Peter Ochs (University of Virginia)

CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Roger Badham, Drew University: Postcritical Christian
Philosophy and Judaism S. Daniel Breslauer, U. of Kansas: Book Reviews
Michael Carasik, Bible Aryeh Cohen: General Editor and Talmud Philip Culbertson,
St. Johns U., Auckland: Christian Thought and Judaism Robert Gibbs, University
of Toronto: Continental and Modern Jewish Philosophy Susan Handelman, University
of Maryland: Pedagogy Steven Kepnes, Colgate University: Biblical Hermeneutics
Shaul Magid, Jewish Theological Seminary: Kabbalah Jacob Meskin: General
Editor and Postmodern Jewish Thought and Philosophy Vanessa Ochs, CLAL:
Ritual, Ceremony and Material Culture Ola Sigurdson, U. of Lund, Sweden:
Postcritical Christian Philosophy and Judaism Martin Srajek, Illinois Wesleyan
University: Modern Continental and Jewish Philosophy Michael Zank: Managing
Editor and Book Reviews

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Daniel Boyarin, Aryeh Cohen, Zev Falk, Ed Feld, Jay Harris, Shaul Magid,
Jacob Meskin, Yehudah Mirsky, Peter Ochs, Noam Zohar


Rachel Adler, Rebecca Alpert, Aryeh Cohen, Judith Plaskow, Marcia Falk



This issue of TR marks a series of new beginnings. We welcome two new
general editors to the editorial collective. Charlotte Fonrobert is Assistant
Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the University of Judaism, and Nancy
Levene is an advanced graduate student in philosophy and religion at Harvard
University. Expanding the editorial team accomplishes two very important
goals: first, each of us has to do somewhat less of the work that it takes
to put out each issue, and second (and more importantly) the range of voices
that are heard in making editorial decisions is expanded.

This is the also first issue since the birth of Rachel Josefine Zank
whose birth coincided with the Textualities conference.

Finally, this issue marks the first issue during the life of Shachar
Ayallah Cohen-Hodos. Her presence made the issues that the articles articles
raised ever more vivid and pressing for me.

In this issue we engage two subjects which, though they are arguably
at the heart of anything that might be called “textual reasoning,” have
not as of yet been explored in the journal. The two subjects are Zionism
and liturgy, or more specifically, feminist liturgy. The dialogue that
is the first article in this issue emerges from an on-line discussion from
this past summer. It has been edited for linear coherence, but hopefully
not at the expense of the passion of the original (though some of the fire
was doused). Elon Sunshine did a wonderful job editing the dialogue–not
even being deterred by the birth of his daughter Ariel Yonah.

This is followed by a panel on Marcia Falk’s Book of Blessings.
Falk’s revisioning of liturgy is cause for reflection on another aspect
of textual reasoning: reasoning through and around the creation of new

Ben Sommer’s engagement with Herb Levine’s book on Psalms rounds out
the issue with a reflection on the possbilities and pitfalls of new types
of interpretations of old texts.

A quick AAR update. Once again we had a very interesting session on
Sunday night at the AAR. Pinhas Giller presented his translation of Sifra
deTzniuta (TR 6.2) and succeeded in explaining large parts of it. It was
also a good opportunity to put faces to some of the names on the e-mail


There are two special issues coming up.
1. Gender and Textual Reasoning to be edited by Charlotte Fonrobert,
Sarah Horowitz and, Jacob Meskin. Please send proposals to Charlotte (
or Jacob ( A more detailed announcement will be
forthcoming in TR 7.1.

2. A. J. Heschel and the Poetics of an Engaged Piety to be edited
by Aryeh Cohen ( and Shaul Magid ( Please
send proposals to the editors.

For the editors,
Aryeh Cohen

a dialogue

[The following dialogue is edited from on an online discussion from
this past summer. It was edited only for coherence and retains the flavor
and hopefully the passion of the original discussion. My thanks to Elon
Sunshine for his editing skills, and to the participants for their permission
to reprint their words. All translations that appear in [brackets] are
the responsibility of the editor.A.C.]

Introduction: PETER OCHS

 The people asked the Prophet Shmuel to find them a king like other
nation’s kings. Was Shmuel’s anguish a token of his disgust with Israel’s
political CHOICE, or of his despair over Israel’s HAVING to have a politics
— having, that is, to embody its nationhood in a government that would
initiate actions over-against other governments? “”Set a King over us.’
Why do you ask for a king? By your lives, you will in the end perceive
what will happen to you in the future because of this king!” (Deut. Rabbah

Since the first volume of Textual Reasoning, we have tragically had
reason too often to introduce an edition with some lament about events
in Israel today. Nonetheless, we have not yet been prepared to respond
to such events, or to the contexts of such events, from out of the unique
discourses of “textual reasoning.” In March 1996, for example, after the
bombings that took the lives of Matthew Eisenfeld z”l and Sarah Duker z”l,
we asked, “are the Network’s practices of dialogue, commentary, and relational
thinking pertinent to the study of Israel’s relations to others and to
itself?” (Vol 5.1). Until this issue, today, we have not begun to respond.
Is our reticence a token of confusion (if not disgust) about the choices
available to us? or of despair over our HAVING to make a choice?

Among the various schools of postmodernity, there are forms of “postmodern,”
critical theory that arm theorists with means of more rapid response: from
Foucaultian depth-analyses of the power-relations that inform our conduct
to the post-Zionist political programs that begin to appear now, in and
out of Israel. Are text-reasoners too utopian to participate in these responses?
Or do they fear the tendency of critical theorists to reproduce the very
sorts of binary opposition that burden Zionist politics today? Or are there
no other options?

On the following pages, the editors of Textual Reasoning have transcribed
excerpts of a noteworthy, first response to these questions that appeared
over the TR’s chat-line in the Summer of 1997. It is a conversation and
debate that situates political Zionism, post-Zionism, and anti-Zionism
within the textual and historical framework of rabbinic halachic reasoning
and messianic speculation. Call it this journal’s initial, dialogic display
of political textual reasoning: reasoning about the issues of contemporary
political Zionism from out of critical and interpretive readings if the
rabbinic sources. Does the conversation reflect Shmuel’s disgust or despair
or his (eventual) realism? Does it help disclose rabbinic Judaism’s political
responsibilties today? However you respond to the specific positions taken,
we hope you will be stimulated, soon, to apply your capacity to lament,
your Torah study, and your practical reasoning, together, to the task —
and obligation? — to bring this conversation further. . . .

SHAUL MAGID: Why is that I feel Yehuda Halevi didn’t have Tel Aviv in
mind when he wrote of his longing for, as he puts it, a return to Erez
Yisrael (not “The State of Israel”). Even Bialik, at the end of his life,
lamented the failure of what he called “the Zionist experiment” in creating
a unique “secular Jewish” culture in Palestine. It is obvious to me that
those who are said to have longed for *The State of Israel* throughout
Jewish history never dreamed of a distinction between such a return and
the messianic era. For most of Zionism (save R. Kook’s overly optimistic
ideology) such a distinction is paramount. Would Yehuda Halevi be a Zionist
today? Quoting Shlomo Carlebach, “What do we know – what do we REALLY know?”

Daniel Boyarin: Yehuda Halevi is, after all, the genius who wrote that
the only reason that the Jews are “tsnuim” is because they are out of power;
were the Jews to be in power they would be as evil as anyone else. Was
he dreaming of “The State of Israel”??? Did he think that his words would
be appropriated by Naomi Schemer?

Jay Harris: One scarcely needs Yehuda Halevi to teach us this. Anyone
with knowledge of ancient Jewish history knows that Jews with power are
no different than anyone else with power.

And in truth one does not need ancient Jewish history either. Why is
it so difficult for Jews to accept their own humanity with all that that
entails? Jews as a collective are as beautiful and as ugly, as virtuous
and as vicious as anyone else and always have been. Jewish powerlessness
relative to those who dominated them did not change this. For some Jews
always had power over other Jews and overall displayed the full range of
goodness to evil in dealing with their poor and disenfranchised. Powerlessness
is not evil’s antidote. It redirects human evil to be sure, but scarcely
more than that. There are evil elements in Zionism; there are evil elements
in talmudic Judaism. There is evil in powerlessness, there is evil in power.
All the Foucauldian razzle dazzle in the world cannot change that.

The question confronting Jews today is not how to be more moral than
anyone else, but to accept the challenge of the Gaon of Vilna and the world
he helped create, which is for us, collectively and individually, to be
ever vigilant in battling our baser sides, even as we recognize that we
must lose sometime.

 Boyarin: I am still inclined to think that the Jews were entrusted
with a historical mission. Not precisely because we are better than anyone
else, but simply to meet a different set of challenges and develop a different
set of political and moral practices by being in Diaspora. Rejection of
that task constitutes rejection of the very reason for being and remaining
Jewish in my theological (Satmarish) opinion. If we are to be as all the
goyim, then why bother? The Zionist then has to retreat (as did Herzl)
to an argument that the goyim will never let us be like all of them anyway,
if we remain on their territory, but only “over there,” in Palestine (his
term!), will we appear properly as Germans. This may have been true of
Germany-Austria a hundred years ago, hardly true of Britain even then,
certainly not true of the US or France either today etc. We can assimilate
all we want to and quite completely disappear as well there as here (in
Palestine), so why bother, and why get involved in all of the specific
and horrific practices that are necessary to sustain the fiction of a Jewish

Harris: To be sure, the theme of being like all the goyim is very prominent
in Zionist thought, and while I am not as sanguine as you regarding the
wisdom of rejecting this vision, I, too, reject it all the same. But this
is not the sum total of Zionist thought or program. For Zionists like Ahad
Ha’am (whom I note you quote approvingly in Unheroic Conduct, which I have
but skimmed and not yet read, so I apologize if I misrepresent it), the
need for Zionism rests precisely on the inability to sustain Jewish difference
in the Diaspora short of Satmar-like existence. Most Jews cannot embrace
the novelty (and it is a novelty) of such existence. And furthermore, the
political circumstances in which they lived and still live made the continuity
of such difference nearly impossible. I do not mean to suggest that the
Zionist project as it has worked itself out has delivered well on this
vision, but it has created the only place in the world in which Hebrew
texts (and the positive Jewish difference they promote) are accessible
beyond the Orthodox community (and I know full well that many “secular”
Israelis cannot read many of the tradition’s texts, but they remain light
years ahead of their American counterparts all the same). Indeed, the only
place in which Jewish difference will survive seems to me to be the State
of Israel. Perhaps it is not worth the cost, but nothing comes without
cost (and I do not intend this as a glib rejection of the real suffering
involved). Perhaps you feel that the difference you valorize (regarding
moral challenges, etc.) simply cannot be realized in conditions of power,
but I would suggest to you that in that case they simply cannot be realized
at all, because there will not be a community of learned Jews who can concretize
this difference anywhere else, outside of Satmar et al., and let me add
that I think you patronizingly romanticize them. Moral paragons they ain’t
(and I don’t say that because I have a problem with their body type).

On the political side, I think your statement above is far too simplistic.
It does not recognize the nature of European antisemitism, nor the concomitant
(and partially contradictory) assault on Jewish difference in Britain,
France, and yes, the US (in addition to the German *sprachbereich* and
the Russian empire). Further, these are all countries that collaborated
in different ways in the destruction of European Jewry, and while I am
less certain that such things can happen again than some Zionists I know,
I am less sanguine than you apparently are that they can’t. Beyond the
cultural precariousness of Jewish life in the Diaspora, the political dimension
of the Jewish question has not disappeared. And when we move from Western
countries to the former Soviet Union, it is evident that real Jews remain
in real physical danger, and the moral power of Diaspora powerlessness
no longer has the opiate effect it once may have had.

Finally, to Daniel specifically: It seems to me that the advantage of
powerlessness is not the diminution of evil but the ability to abdicate
responsibility too easily. The fact that you are more comfortable, apparently,
in “occupied Mexico” than in “occupied Palestine” makes my point. You can,
apparently, ignore the horrors that created the comfortable environment
in which you live because, after all, it was goyim who did (and do) that.
Yet you can, apparently, enjoy the fruits of their crimes without overt
qualms. Why? Why do you seem to bear no responsibility to undo the results
of the extraordinary brutality and cruelty that created California and
the US generally?

Boyarin: Not entirely true. Insofar as these crimes are in the past,
I do not abdicate responsibility or accept responsibility for them anywhere.
Insofar as they are ongoing, I am engaged in a fight (with greater or lesser
passion, intensity, effectiveness, etc.) to redress them in the present,
both in California and in the place that my antagonists (not enemies) call
the State of Israel. A propos some of the comments, I simply do not see
the Palestinians as my or our enemies, and consequently find that construction
and its implications one that just doesn’t touch me. We are their enemies
if we allow ourselves to be. They have no reason to be our enemies if we
don’t encroach on them and oppress them; there is no *Ewige Antisemit*
and their resistance is rational and logical. Why should the Palestinians
have to pay for the crime of Europeans against Jews?

Harris: The problem here, it seems to me, is that primary displacement
of Palestinians took place two generations ago. It may not be as far in
the past as what occurred in the US, but it is past. There are today five
million Jews in the State of Israel, and whether or not this state should
have ever come into being, the fact is, it is here, and cannot go anywhere.
This does not mean that the effects of 1967 cannot be reversed, because
unlike 1948, a substantial segment of the Jewish community of Israel recognizes
that any other course of action is immoral and politically unacceptable
as well. But the fundamental reality of a Jewish state is not reversible
other than through the force of arms, and I think our moral discourse must
adjust accordingly or it becomes irrelevant. As to who is whose enemy,
Palestinian resistance to the Jewish state is indeed rational and logical.
But that does not mean it can legitimately free itself of all moral constraints.
People who blow up babies (and go out of their way to attack at a time
that the maximum number of civilians are present) have gone way beyond
rational and logical resistance to pathological enmity. If you think that
this is the only way to express their rational and logical resistance,
I ask to consider what you would say if we reverse the position of Jews
and Palestinians. Would you “allow” Jews to engage in this behavior (and
I acknowledge that some have), or would you counsel seeking some other
form, perhaps less effective politically, of resistance. I have little
doubt that the latter is the case. Why then accept real lethal enmity from
Palestinians? And why deny that SOME Palestinians have gone from rational
resistance to this enmity as you do? Palestinians should not have had to
pay for the crime of Europeans, but they have all the same, and this is
irreversible. We must live with the results and make them as tolerable
as possible for all concerned. This will require enormous moral fortitude
on the part of all concerned (even if in some abstract sense the responsibility
ought to rest only with Jews), and frankly I see little on either side.
Under these, in my view, very real political circumstances, I am not at
all sure what is the path out of the current morass.

For myself, I do not wish to abdicate responsibility for redressing
evil, but feel that we must recognize the limits of the self predatory
species we are. If I really wanted to live in a place in which conquest
and oppression have not contributed to my comfort, I would have to move
to Antarctica, and even there in time I imagine evil will rear its ugly
head. This is the world we as Jews/humans live in. We can work to change
it but not by imagining that somewhere in this world (California) or somewhere
in our past (Lita, say) things were genuinely different, ’cause it just
ain’t so. Given the world I live in, I can see nothing less moral about
living as a member of the majority in Israel than living as a member of
the majority in San Francisco. And, frankly, I see something far more Jewishly

 Boyarin: The issue is not whether conquest has contributed to
my comfort (I was, by the way, quite comfortable in Omer as well), but
whether the political foundations of the place that I live are defined
theoretically and ideologically in terms of an oppressive discourse. The
United States, for all of its many faults and evils, greater in the aggregate
than the evils of the Jewish State, nevertheless defines its ideals in
terms of equality for all. One can fight against injustice in the United
States using the discourse of its foundations against its practices. On
these grounds, slavery has been abolished, suffrage won by women, etc.
There is still an enormous, almost a Sysyphian, task ahead of us, particularly
with respect to the African American underclass, but the discursive foundations
of the State provide the theoretical justification of the politics. What
can be said about Israel? The Jewishness of the Jewish State continues
to provide theoretical aid and comfort to racists and racism (which is
not to say that this was its original impulse), such as most recently denying
the rights of the Negev Bedouin to restore their own mosque in Be’ersheva
to its religious status (as opposed to being a museum), because, as the
vice mayor of that town said: “We must show them that Be’ersheva is a Jewish
city!” This and a constant series of horrors are the direct consequence
of the theory of a Jewish State. I am opposed to such a state both in theory
and in practice and believe that my notions for what to do about its present
existence, which do not, I hasten to add, consist of having its Jewish
population deported, would undermine the theoretical basis of what is called
Zionism on all quarters today.

 Harris: To me the problem here is yet again working with abstract
notions of the political instead of addressing yourself to the very real
conditions of the world in which we live. I agree that the US does indeed
define its ideals in terms of equality for all; I am very well aware and
grateful for that personally as well more broadly. However, I see the US
as an extraordinary unfinished experiment in world political history, an
(ultimately accidental) attempt to transcend the nation state (and I am
aware of a certain anachronism in putting it this way; I beg indulgence
to avoid getting sidetracked) and even here there are many who desperately
try to turn the US into a nation state. But how ever much academicians
regard the nation state as dead and buried, recent history suggests that
it remains as strong and virulent as ever. Perhaps an ideal solution for
the Jewish question would have been to relocate all Jews to the US (with
all the cultural degradation that would have entailed), but that too is
irrelevant, since the US would not have accepted them all (since equality
for all necessarily applies only to citizens), and in any event that’s
not the way things turned out. The nation state will no doubt vanish from
world history, and with it the Jewish state, but not tomorrow. Why are
Jews, alone among people of collective identity to be denied, a priori
as opposed to de facto, a place where they can be shielded from the ravages
of other, including Arab, nation states (given that the US was/is not a
possibility for them)? I think we can recognize the political necessity
(historically) for this state without condoning the idiocy of the vice
mayor of Be’ersheva. In the end, I guess I cannot share your sense that
Jews who would remain in the Land of Israel (since you won’t deport them)
can live in peace in a democratic state in which equality for all is the
stated ideal. Aside from the fact that such a state is foreign to Middle
Eastern political culture (and European as well, despite the EU experiment),
the Palestinians are seeking their own nation state. They are not prepared
to live in a democratic, egalitarian state, unless of course they constituted
the majority (which should tell you something) anymore than Israeli Jews

In the end, a moral discourse that seeks real solutions for real problems–that
does not waste time on woulda, shoulda, coulda– is superior to a utopian
moral vision that imagines the best possible world, but cannot hope to
get there.

Magid: In response to the correlation between Daniel’s issues with Zionism
and “Satmar ideology” I must intervene. Anyone who has seriously studied
the anti-Zionist ideology of R. Yoel Teitelbaum and more importantly his
mentor R. Hayyim Elazar Shapira of Munkacz (d. 1936) will be acutely aware
that the two are quite different. Daniel’s “anti-Zionism” (if one can call
it that) is founded on issues of immorality and the abuse of power of the
modern State of Israel. He correctly cites Yehuda Halevi as one who was
quite aware of such danger. The Satmar Rebbe was an anti-Zionist because
he could not accept and found no sources to support a non-messianic State
of Israel. I firmly believe that he understood better than most religious
Zionists the “heretical” nature of Zionism (albeit a necessary heresy)
and the extent to which Zionism would forever alter the correlation of
God’s Will and Halakhah. I disagree with his conclusions but I accept some
of his premises. He loved the Land of Israel no less than R. Kook. In fact,
he states many times it is his love for Israel and Torah that forces him
to take such a negative position. The Zionist (Hertzlean) position of “normalization”
which in many ways has taken place in Israel both culturally and politically,
was for R. Yoel the most heretical statement made by a Jew in the modern

If I understand Daniel correctly (and Jay for that matter), the problem
is not Israel without sh’mirat ha-mitzvot [observance of the commandments]
but rather the abuse of power and inability to recognize that, as opposed
to what Shamir claimed, the boundaries of the State of Israel are not the
barbed wire fences of Auschwitz. We as a people are struggling with the
notion of no longer being “the most victimized victims”. If Daniel’s position
on Zionism is reflected in any of his predecessors it is Rosenzweig and
Hermann Cohen and not R. Yoel. It is high time that we as a people and
as a scholarly community face the realities of a post-Zionist (not anti-Zionist)
Judaism. This is what I meant in my earlier post about deconstructing (not
destroying) Zionism. The “necessary heresy” that Zionism gave us brought
us many wonderful things. As a Jewish ideology, however, I think it is
about ready for retirement. We are witnessing at present the sad consequences
of holding onto an ideology which no longer has much moral ground to stand
on. The State of Israel is a reality, of that there is little question.
We now have to re-access what that means and how we can morally and responsibly
live as the Power and not the victims.

It is easy in the academic world to call someone “Satmar” and thus dismiss
his case. Few of us are willing to face Rosenzweig and Cohen as anti-Zionists
because we take them so seriously as “thinkers”. Daniel’s position is built
as cultural critique rather than philosophical reflection and thus his
approach differs in both method and substance from Rosenzweig and Cohen.
Yet, compared to R. Yoel, he may be closer to their philosophical position
than Satmar’s fundamentalist one.

Daniel, I’m sorry if I misrepresented your case. These are just ideas
floating around this post-Tish’a B’Av brain of mine.

Boyarin: I do, however, (proudly) identify my theology of the People
Israel with that of Satmar.

Harris: Does your theology of the people Israel share the Satmar (and
Munkacz) attitude to those Jews who live outside their community? Just

Boyarin: In the sense that they are better left alone and not interfered
with like Lubavitchers do, yes indeed.

Falk: Kedey shelo titchashev shtiqah kehoda’ah, et chamat Hashem male’ti,
nil’eti hakhil. [So that silence should not be considered as acqiuesence,
“I am full of the wrath of God, I am weary of holding it in.”]

Without justifying all policies and acts of the present Israeli government,
I say every day “nodeh lekha Hashem Elohenu al shehinchalta lavotenu welanu
(sic!) erets chemdah tovah”. [“we thank you God, our God that you have
bequeathed to our ancestors and us (sic!) a good and pleasant land.”]Hermann
Cohen and Rosenzweig I take as great teachers in many respects, but their
attitude to Jewish identity was emancipatorial and therefore dated. I am
surprised that after the Shoah, Jewish intellectuals who speak of God,
Israel and Torah, can again speak of a Diaspora Judaism in contradistinction
to Israel.

This is totally out of line with classical Jewish identity and self-understanding,
e.g. of the Gaon of Vilna (who has been mentioned several times) or of
any other classic teacher of Torah. For them, there is no “Diaspora” but
“Exile”, and if somebody thought he could not live in Erets Israel, there
was only the reason of Tosafot Ketubbot 110b, s.v. hu.

Satmar ideology is possible for those who reject Enlightenment and historical-sociological
criticism; who otherwise relies on it is a “Salonbolschewist” (forgive
me for the name-calling, but I need the historical analogy) and cannot
be taken seriously.

American Jewry has a long way to go to become as integrated in the culture
of the environment as did German Jewry. Now, we understand that this was
an illusion. How do you know that present “Diaspora Ideology” is not a
similar illusion? Shouldn’t “postmoderns” be more self-critical?

As I hinted at the beginning, there is much to be criticized in Israel,
and you should definitely play a role in this process. But just because
of Israel’s need for criticism, criticism cannot be accepted from Bileam
but only from Mosheh Rabbenu (or his like), having demonstrated his love
by deeds, having defended Israel even vis-a-vis God and being extremely

Magid: Satmar (or more precisely Munkacz ) never spoke of the Diaspora
as a permanent situation. It was, for him, a tragedy which was and is the
result of our sins. The entire edifice is built on the assumption that
the Messiah (and only the Messiah) can institute Jewish statehood. In one
sense his critique of R. Kook was that he put the cart before the horse.
I suppose the reason I don’t fully comprehend your [Boyarin’s] identification
with Satmar is that I don’t know of your attitude and position on messianism.
My intuitions tell me that vis-a-vis messianism you are closer to Rosenzweig
than R. Yoel but I could be wrong. The issue of messianism is also paramount
in understanding some of Jay’s remarks, especially those that relate to
the GRA. I know that Jay does not accept the position presented by Arie
Morgenstern that the GRA was an active messianist.

Jacob Meskin : I think that Daniel Boyarin, in his most recent response
to Jay Harris, indicates something that Jay needs in order to support his
(Jay’s) general position–roughly, the view that something or other about
the historical reality of diasporic existence has been a truly important,
and not easily minimized element in making Jewish tradition what it is.
Just as Daniel is careful to deny that such diasporic existence has somehow
made Jews “better” in an ontic or epistemic sense, one must also be careful
to avoid any easy choice between onesidedly characterizing Diaspora EITHER
as a factor shaping Jewish life, OR as a reality toward which Jewish thought
and culture tended to lead independently.

 Diaspora–whether cause or effect–has indeed been a feature of
great significance in Jewish life, and Daniel must be right in thinking
that something valuable is to be retained from it, that indeed either kabbalat
ol malkhut shamayim or even just “Jewish identity” must both include it.
(An especially poignant version of this–from 1949!–can be found in Haim
Hazaz’s famous short story “The Sermon”, which is required reading for
those who have not yet encountered it.)

But I think Jay also has something that Daniel (and Shaul) need for
their own positions–Jay’s larger, and more self-critical perspective on
the nature, specifically, of political thinking that comes out of the academy.
One need not be Kierkegaard to be at least commonsensically skeptical about
“systems” of political ideals produced mostly within the relatively safe
walls of the academy, and by individuals who, for the most part, neither
make nor implement actual government policies. This hardly makes academic
reflection on politics “wrong” in some way–but it does open up Jay’s basic
worry, that of allowing “the best to become the enemy of the good”, a vice
to which we in the academy may be more prone than others. And one hardly
needs Hermann Cohen (or the Gaon, or Levinas) to be able to agree that
this sort of skepticism about ourselves–an intellectual form of heshbon
nefesh [accounting for our deeds]–would be pretty much at home in Jewish
tradition as well. If it is our job as academics to critique others, then
why not occasionally make ourselves into “others” and critique ourselves?
If we do not do this, aren’t we implicitly absolutizing what we happen
to be doing at the moment? And isn’t specifically political thinking a
good place to start, when the stakes are so high?

Seems to me that each position needs a big chunk of the other.

Mirsky: A few brief comments:

 1) One variant of anti-Zionism we have not discussed is the Brisker
version, espoused by R’ Velvel Soloveitchik and his disciples, which has
seemed to me to generally be more restrained, less self-dramatizing and
confrontational than the Satmar/Munakcz versions. Am I right about that?

2) In discussing Rav Kook, I think that one can take issues with some
dimensions of his messianism, as I do, and still find many dimensions of
his experiential relation to modernity not only compelling, but also as
offering great possibilities for profoundly moralist discourse within the
Jewish people and among disparate cultures.

3) As a working government official (the Human Rights Bureau of the
State Dept.), I would underscore the salience of Jacob’s comments on academia
and the “outside world”. It is of course precisely the job of academia
to think “outside the box” morally, strategically, historically, etc. Interestingly,
in my time in government, I have observed that my colleagues, in the few
minutes of the day they have time to think about larger issues beyond the
day’s meetings, memos and other bureaucratic griefs, tend to derive the
most benefit from reading history and occasionally philosophy (with all
due apologies to the political scientists among us).

Boyarin: And yet, and yet, I know that this is unfair and would hardly
apply it even to Trotsky, how is it that Rav Kook’s disciples seem the
least moralistic of all?

 Mirsky: On Rav Kook’s disciples’ resort to violence etc., I would
say that we should remember that the oldest founders of Gush Emmunim were
third if not fourth generation disciples, and are perhaps more accurately
thought of as students of R’ Zvi Yehudah. Meanwhile, on the other side
of the spectrum stands Rav Amital, the foremost Rabbinic figure in the
peace camp, who studied Rav Kook even while in the camps and was a student
of R’ Yaakov Moshe Charlap, whom Rav Kook described as his soulmate, and
kept Rav Kook’s photo on the wall of his office when he was in the Peres
government. None of this is to say that one camp or other has it/him “right”
or “wrong” but rather that Rav Kook is a capacious thinker, capable of
inspiring rather different groups. Actually, the Trotskyite analogy is
on point, insofar as Gush Emmunim (at least in its heyday in the seventies
and early eighties) really seemed to resemble Communist cadres, in the
messianic fervor, the apocalyptic idealism, the belief that Zionism/the
Internationale will save the human race etc.

 Harris: [To Meskin] At no time and in no way did I deny the tremendous
positive value of the Diaspora. Not all Zionist thought was or is committed
to shelilat ha-golah in either a physical or cultural sense. I have devoted
most of my energies to Diaspora phenomena, and hope to devote the next
years of my life to recovering the great Jewish sub-culture of Lita, which
I consider the epitome of Jewish cultural achievement (certainly far greater
than anything produced in Israel, in my humble opinion). So no denial here.
However, I think we must acknowledge the uglier side of Diaspora existence,
political and cultural, and I think Daniel Boyarin glosses over this. Further,
I do not share his apparent sense of Jewish political existence in the
modern period, before the Shoah. To me modernity has brought a very different
but ultimately more effective assault of Jewish identity and culture. Absolutist
governments declared war on traditional Jewish existence (not always from
antisemitic motives, but from straight political ones that led the Austrians
to think they needed to germanize the various populations, the Russians
to russify, the French to frenchify(?) (gallicize seems too archaic), etc.)
and many declared war on Jewish religious culture, developing schemes to
alienate Jews from their texts. I have written about some of this in my
How Do We Know This, but a full treatment of anti-talmudic government-inspired
actions in the 18th and 19th centuries remains to be written. I believe
that the political fortunes of Jews in the Diaspora have energized (note:
I did not say created) ugly discourses regarding non-Jews, which under
a different set of political conditions might have faded from view. The
Diaspora conditions have placed extraordinary limits on Jewish economic
experience, a point central to all the haskalot of Europe, which means
limits on Jewish enjoyment of the full range of human experiences. One
could go on, but enough for now. Shelilat ha-golah is to cut ourselves
in half, and I reject any reading of Jewish history that promotes it. But
unqualified chiyyuv ha-golah, in my judgment, requires enormous blinders.

 Edward Feld : The classical formulation for Jewish politics was
that there were three crowns. That is the tradition recognized that there
was a secular realm which was touched by the religious but not ruled by
it. Diaspora existence allows the Jew only a sense of religious and secular,
kosher and trefe, but not the middle realm which is politics.

The question Israel poses for us is, is there a politics that can be
holy? It has been a long time since we have had to face that question.
How do we recognize the autonomy of politics, yet make a connection from
it to the religious. Not too quickly, I hope, for that has all the danger
of religious nationalism and the theocratic state. But not so separate
that all possibility of prophetic calling is lost.

It is a wonderfully terrifying old-new enterprise for us.

Boyarin: I find the notion that there was no politics in the Jewish
Diaspora counterintuitive in the extreme. This is a thorough identification
of politics with the nation-state which hardly characterized Europe before
the 18th century. Why are Jewish Germans not a species of Germans who are
participating in politics in the broadest, Foucauldian sense at least?

Peter Ochs: Daniel and Jay: earnest hopes that you will continue to
press your exchange further. We have not in 7 years on this talk-net been
able to open up the heart this way on these central issues of our bodily
existence AND to bring to the opening our fundamental hermeneutic and fundamental
political claims about Rabbinic Judaism. BUT you can’t leave us in the
middle this way, whatever the distractions may be; you’ve taken us too
far into the stream to leave us…

 So, to continue, tell us more, for example, about what Torah is
for you khuts la’arets [outside of the Land]; about kedushat ha’arets [the
sanctity of the Land]; about what your relation might have been to Bar
Kochba if you were there. Or more, in other words, about your Rabbinic
political hermeneutics.

 Harris: I was hoping Daniel would respond to this as he is a baqi
[expert] and I am not, but here goes.

 I think that Rabbinic literature as a whole conveys a clear sense
of accommodation to the reality of domination by others. However, unlike
what I believe Daniel’s position to be, I do not think that most rabbis
were ever reconciled to this reality in the sense that they thought it
was a positive. this goes beyond their messianic thirst, which after all
can be interpreted (and was by Scholem) as an acceptance in the here and
now of these political conditions as the preferred state of existence (as
the famous text from the end of BT Ketubot can be interpreted). Rather,
my sense that they were not reconciled to this reality (in the sense of
seeing it as positive) derives from my interpretation of the sometimes
extreme rhetorical violence directed against gentiles in general and Romans
in particular. The fantasies of revenge in the hereafter, the ease with
which rabbis assume gentiles predisposed to bestiality and child rape–with
important Halakhic ramifications, thus not the mere stray comment of this
rabbi or that–the contempt that is so often (not always) directed against
Rome, etc., etc.– to me this expresses considerable resentment, and a
sense that the proper condition of the Jew is certainly not to be dominated
by others (or at least not these others).

Aryeh Cohen: Though it is foolish to step between two gedolim, I will
take advantage of the fact that Shabbos doesn’t arrive in L.A. till much
later (if ever) to step into the breach.

I think that this is right overall, though I would nuance the argument
in the following manner. Though the Bavli in particular is obviously not
reconciled to the domination of this malchut [kingdom], their rhetorical
strategy is more interesting. There is, for example, a mapping of Eretz
Yisrael onto Bavel (that is, equating Bavel to Eretz Yisrael) in the beginning
of Gittin. This is not just a random statement (Rav’s “Bavel is like Eretz
Yisrael as far as gittin are concerned”) but, I would argue the tenor of
the first 6-7 daf [folios], and ultimately many more sugyot in the rest
of the tractate. This self reflection on the status of the Rabbinic enterprise
then plays itself out in sugyot [Talmudic discussions] in the fourth chapter,
e.g. around prusbol [the permission of the court to collect loans in the
seventh year] and the status of courts in Bavel (R. Ami and R. Asi) and
also in the aggadic sugyot of the churban [destruction of the Temple] in
the fifth chapter. While some of the rhetoric is that of subservience to
Eretz Yisrael (most explicitly in e.g. Baba Kamma eighth chapter the sugya
of “shlihutayhu ka’avdinan” [lit. “we are fulfilling their agency”] on
the power to judge of Babylonian courts) there is a counterpractice of
claiming greater powers for the batei din [courts] in Bavel — e.g. halakhically
“afka’at kiddushin” [nullification of marriages] and aggadically the sugya
in the beginning of Sanhedrin that places the “staff of judgment” in Bavel
and not in Eretz Yisrael.

Harris: The land, for all of its kedushah [holiness], is primarily instrumental
here. Torah of course is primary such that at least some rabbis imagine
it better to live in a maqom torah [a place of Torah study and observance]
in chu”l [outside the Land] than in the land but not a maqom torah. Perhaps
I’m missing something, but I don’t think anyone would suggest that the
best thing is anything other than a maqom torah in the land under conditions
of political independence, because it is only under these conditions that
Torah can fully flourish and Jewish life reach its total fulfillment. The
latter requires not just “yeshivot” (excuse the possible anachronism) but
a fully Jewish economy, marketplaces that cater to Jewish needs, sartorial
standards that allow a Jews to feel at home with traditional “Jewish dress”
(whatever that may have been in reality) and much more.

I think there is much to document this, but let me start with one text
that points to this. In [Midrash] Eichah Rabbah on the verse (Eichah 1:3),
“galtah yehudah” [“Judah was exiled”] the darshan [midrashic exegete] asks
the important question, “are not other peoples displaced from their land?”
That is, in the ancient world (as alas in the medieval and modern worlds)
populations are displaced all the time. There is nothing unique about the
Jewish experience and the darshan knows it. “But”, he continues, “even
thought they are displaced their displacement is not exile.” (I have translated
in accord with what I take the sense to be; what I have translated displacement
and exile is in fact the same word, galut). Their displacement is not exile
because “they can eat the bread and drink the wine…they can walk [comfortably]
with their “aspactiot” (whatever they are; probably, based on the contrast,
some form of footwear) wherever they go. But the displacement of Israel,
IS exile for they cannot eat of the bread and drink of the wine (in the
dominant gentile marketplace), and they walk around barefoot (whatever
that means), that is with some sort of external marker that prevents them
from ever being at home elsewhere, or presumably as a minority in the land.

It is the job of the homiletician to build castles based on a single
text, and I am not doing that. There are counter-texts to be sure. But
unlike what Daniel has written in Unheroic Conduct, I believe one can talk
about the dominant thrust of the textual evidence (which does not act as
a survey, as it were, of the many generations of rabbinic teachers). That
is, the judgment regarding dominance does not tell us what the majority
of rabbis throughout the generations thought about this, but I think it
is justifiable to say that the literature we have, as far as I know it,
more fully gives voice to the approach I have outlined than to any other
reading of rabbinic “attitudes” to their domination by others. Rabbis deeply
resented this domination, and felt it alienated them from fully realizing
the gift of Torah.

Cohen: There are two aspects to this question: first, whether independent
Jewish life in Israel, etc. is something to strive for actively or whether
it is the promise for the messianic age alone. Second, what is the best
strategy — accommodation or resistance — in the present time.

I would argue that there is no dominant thrust of the rabbinical literature
on the question of resistance vs. accommodation. I argue in a forthcoming
article on martyrdom (that will be in the Journal of Jewish Thought and
Philosophy) that as late as the Bavli there is still no consensus on whether
active martyrdom is a desideratum. Further I think that resistance to an
active premessianic redemptive strategy is one of the main streams of thought
in the first chapter of BT Megillah identified mainly as attributed to
Raba (again not one statement here or there but the aggregate of what seems
to be a conscious blurring of the boundaries between Mordechai and Haman).
About whether independent Jewish life is something to strive for or whether
it is messianic, I think that the rhetorical *practice* (both halakhic
and aggadic) of the Rabbis argues for the deferral to a messianic age.
The situation of displacement is an existential one as well as a geographical
one as the Maharal argued.

Harris: Aryeh, I disagree with nothing you have written, nor do I see
it as a challenge to anything I said. I believe the dominant thrust of
rabbinic literature is towards accommodation, and certainly the claim the
Bavel is superior to Eretz Yisrael is based on its superiority (by no means
acknowledged by all) in Torah, a classic strategy of accommodation. I believe
the dominant thrust of rabbinic political thinking is towards ever increasing
reliance on messianic redemption rather than direct political resistance,
as you suggest.

The issue I was addressing was a bit different: namely, given the strategies
of accommodation, does rabbinic literature reflect a vision that powerlessness
is a good thing that provides opportunities, as I believe Daniel to have
claimed. To this I suggested that while there are texts, like Pes. 87b
that suggest Diaspora is an opportunity for the spread of Torah etc., it
seems to me that the dominant thrust (and again I consider it sensible
to use such a phrase) is that the political dimension of the Diaspora (=
being dominated by others, in the land or without) is a condition that
ultimately effects a degree of alienation from God and Torah.

 Cohen: Jay, I would make one small change in what you wrote. I
would say that this is a condition that *reflects* a degree of alienation
from God and Torah. The major difference is that then this condition of
displacement and exile is the ground of the Rabbinic enterprise. The alienation
from God (I would rather say the recognition of God’s absence as a presence
[cf. the first 5 daf of Berachot] but alienation will do) is the distance
that allows for both the creativity of Diaspora or at least Bavli Judaism;
and at the same time the locus of the nightmares of the Rabbis that the
separation from God is actually a divorce. This puts a more positive [though
admittedly very fraught] spin on galut.

 Harris: Aryeh, without disagreeing with anything you wrote, I
would nevertheless reject the suggested change, as it shifts the focus
from anthropology to theology, which does not interest me at the moment.
That is, galut effects alienation from God, in that God cannot be served
properly. This begins, obviously, with the mitzvot ha-teluyot ba-aretz
[the commandments whose observance is dependent on the Land], whose non-observance
effects a sense of distance form God. It is not surprising therefore, that
these mitzvot are, through various hermeneutical moves re-categorized as
de-rabbanan [lit. of the Rabbis; meaning a lower level obligation than
‘of the Torah’] post-destruction, thereby, I would suggest, mitigating
the sense of loss. (Agav [by the way], it is interesting to note that the
most important voice of religious hibbat tsiyon [love of Zion] in the 1880s,
the neziv [Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin], sought to reconceptualize shemitah
[the seventh year in which the Land lies fallow], at least, as mi-deoraita
[‘of the Torah’] in the face of the first shemitah facing the hibbat tsiyon
communities (1888-89). As he prepared for a return from galut [exile],
the sense of loss could be redressed hermeneutically as well as “physically.”
In a different way he makes the same point in an important letter to Pinsker.)
For those few dissident–non-dominant– voices who considered ALL mitzvot
as teluyot ba-aretz [dependent on the Land] (in a different sense of that
term), obviously being in galut outside the land severely diminished the
value of religious life, as it became nothing but a rehearsal for a show
they might never get to put on. This reduced religious life is what I mean
by alienation from God, or better a sense of alienation from God.

Noam Zohar: Jay – I agree with much of your analysis: indeed the sense
of alienation from God was (is?) correlated with the lack of mitzvot ha-teluyot
ba-aretz [the commandments whose observance is dependent on the Land].
But at points you seem to imply that the lack of these mitzvot was the
source of that sense of alienation; with this I disagree. Surely the theological
question was: since, in galut, we are clearly distanced from God, yet also
clearly always in contact, we must determine how this duality should be
reflected in Halakhah.

The distance from God consisted in the very lack of living in a mostly
homogeneous Jewish society (more important than sovereignty itself), and
the Mitzvot substraced are those mostly connected with social justice,
as we became guests in alien economies (the details could, no doubt, have
been worked out differently…)

Falk: The inability of fulfilling the land-bound commandments is a sign
of being in disgrace with God. Obviously, you can feel close to God in
the Exile, but a greater effort is needed. Erets Israel is not special
because of the Jewish society (le`olam yadur adam be’Erets Yisrael afilu
be`ir sherubah nokhrim [a person should always prefer to live in the Land
of Israel even in a city whose majority is gentile]), but because of some
relation between the people and the land and the meaning of the commandments
to be fulfilled in the land. Rashi quotes in next Parashah the Sifre on
wesamtem (Deut. 11:18), that the commandments in Exile are a preparation
for return.

Harris [Responding to Zohar]: I did not mean to imply source in the
sense of genetic origin, but source in the sense that this lack itself
effects a further sense of alienation, in that not only has God in some
sense withdrawn, but we are left without all the means needed to restore
the relationship. Again, though I wish to stress that my interest here
is on what impact galut has on the religoius consciousness of observant
Jews as reflected in rabbinic lit. The inability to serve God fully effected
(or perhaps I should say compounded) a sense of alienation from the Torah
and God. Further, and more importatn given how this discussion got going,
this sense combined with other factors to effect significant ressentiment
among rabbis, who reacted with extensive rhetorical violence against those
who dominated them.

[With regard to your comments regarding distance from God in galut and
in a non-homogeneous society, and regarding mitzvot connected with social
justice], agreed, although I would gloss your social justice with “for
us.” I see less (not no) concern for social justice beyond the jewish community
here, a continuation of certain biblical ways of thought, as well, PERHAPS
as a further reflection of ressentiment.

 Cohen: I still feel a need to say: And yet…

The fact that prosbul, shmittah and yovel [the Jubilee year] — which
as Jay mentioned were the locus of Zionist rethinking of Halakhah in the
19th century (and of course to the present time) — are also exploited
in the Bavli to authorize the (exilic) power of bet din “divreihem okrin
divrei torah” [“their words uproot the words of Torah”] seems to be a more
positive statement about the possibilities of religious existence in chutz
la’aretz [outside the Land]. That this sugya follows closely on the self-authorization
of “kol dimekadesh ada’atah derabbanan mekadesh” [“all who betroth, betroth
with the consent of the Rabbis”] implies a realignment of the religious
center toward a more amorphous Rabbinic space, and away from the messianic
or utopic geographic space. This is obviously a theological move but with
heavy political/anthropological ramifications.

Harris: Even granted all that (and only for the sake of argument), is
it not in response to a very real problem? is it not an effort to realign
religious values to accommodate a very problematic reality?

[Regarding the theological move toward rabbinic space], I’m not certain
of any of this. For one thing compare the yerushalmi’s [Talmud of the Land
of Israel’s] attitude to “bitlo lo mevutal” [“if he annulled it, it is
not anulled”] where it takes for granted the rabbinic power “la’aqor davar
min hatorah” [“to uproot something from the Torah”] and simply responds
to this position with “yaut amar” [“he said appropriately”] (I hope I am
remembering this right; if not, I’m sure I’ll hear about it). Yet I don’t
think you would say that this move is designed to move toward a more amorphous
… and away from…(and I confess I don’t understand your use of messianic
or utopic; it seems ot me your point should be “away from geographic space”,
period). While the yerushalmi takes for granted what the bavli needs to
justify, in the end both talmuds assume rabbinic authority over such matters,
and I don’t see how this entails a realignment towards a more amorphous
rabbinic space. I think you are loading many things on to this text it
cannot bear. He/they is/are dealing with a problem, they are asserting
authority (mandated after all by R. Gamliel’s taqqanah in the first place,
which is where the self-authorization finds voice). (Further, if memory
serves, the principle kol de-meqadesh etc. originates with R. Ashi, if
the attribution is to be accepted, in a sugya in Yeb., in which the authority
being grabbed is far more limited than here in Gittin, since it does not
involve hafqa’at qiddushin le-mafrea; here in Gittin it is imported from
that context and invoked to uphold the justification, “mah koach beit din
yafeh” where the “beit din” in question {on which see halivni} is that
of Rabban Gamliel Ha-zaqen. To be sure this authority may spill over to
them, but my point is that the whole matter here is far more complex that
mere self-authorization.) To me what you present here does not follow from
this material, even as it would from other rabbinic pronouncements, say,
equating (partially) the presence of a beit din to the power of Jerusalem,
or tefillah to qorbanot, etc. Not even these moves, because they can never
be more than partial, diminish, in my opinion, the very real sense of loss
and alienation to which rabbis from both centers and throughout the generations
routinely give voice (note that I did not say all rabbis from…).

When the rabbis, not only in the BT, work to diminish the status of
the mitzvot ha-teluyot ba-aretz [commandments that are dependent on the
land], or to find ways to compensate for the absence of qorbanot [sacrifices]
(not an identical problem to be sure), they are, it seems to me, telling
us that they have a very serious religious problem with their current halakhic
options; they have a diminished religious life, and these strategies are
only partly satisfactory in mitigating them. Diaspora or domination by
others within the land are largely negative conditions that, to be sure,
open up some new possibilities; but, in my reading, these new possibilities
never undo the “second-bestness” of the lives they live.

Finally, all this is in some sense an aside from my primary point, which
focused more than anything on the way gentiles, and ruling gentiles in
particular, figure in talmudic discourse, and the extent to which in my
judgment this material makes clear that the diaspora and domination by
others in the land, for all its opportunities is not conceived as positive
or ultimately acceptable.

Cohen: My point was too heavy handed, it is just that the Land of Israel
is never — even when being displaced — just a geographic space. I think
I might have stepped beyond the boundaries of what can be conveyed in what
still appears to be a conversational e-mail, but since I stepped I will
flap my arms and try to fly. (The numbering [which follows] is just my
most recent attempt to make myself clear, not any conceit of a mathematical

1. While Halivni argues for the source in Yevamot, Avraham Weiss argues
that it is impossible to decide which is the “original” text. I think that
the poetics of the sugya in Gittin render the origin question irrelevant.
There is a point begin made here.

Harris: Here I disagree. While it is usually the case that one cannot
tell with parallels which if either is “original”, in this case it seems
clear to me that Yeb. must be the original context of the saying since
it fits there, and is then imported to other places. The reson why this
is important is that in the Yeb. sugya, there is no power claimed to annul
marriages retroactively, but only on the spot. This raises the possibility
that in your sugya in Gittin and the others where it is used apparently
to justify retroactive annulment, the saying is actually invoked as an
analogy, granting rabbis the same power to set the rules of divorce that
have been established concerning marriage, but does not actually signify
the power to retroactively annul. This, I think, matters a great deal in
terms of what is being claimed here. It is for this reason also that I
cited the yerushalmi, which takes for granted that rabbis regulate divorce,
without getting into this whole business of retroactive annulment (I’m
not trying to harmonize the two talmuds, simply suggesting that here they
may not differ as much as appears).

Cohen (continuing): 2. The point starts with the undermining of Rabban
Gamilel’s takkanah [ordinance] in favor of koach beit din [the power of
the court]. A strong reading of koach beit din yafeh [then yields the principle
of Rabbinic sway over all marriages: “kol dimekadesh”. (Agav, the radical
nature of this principle is obvious in the way that the rishonim try to
interpret it out of existence.)

Harris: How does koach beit din yafeh undermine the takkanah? It seems
to me to do precisely the opposite. Again, I don’t think this [principle
of Rabbinic sway over all marriages] is being established here; this is
taken for granted here. Their control over divorce is what is new here
(whatever you think of my reading above).

Cohen (continuing): 3. Read in the local context of the sugya in Gittin
33a this unit effects a move towards redefining marriage as a relationship
between a woman and bet din.

Harris: I don’t see it.

Cohen (continuing): 4. The sugya of prosbul (3 daf later) also invokes
this Rabbinic power: hefker bet din hefker, to assure the efficacy of prosbul

5. The continuation of the sugya of hefker bet din and the continuation
of the prosbul sugya are both focussed on the possibilities of Rabbinic

The reason I privilege the “power of bet din” discussions (not only
the ones in Gittin) over the others is that this is where the ultimate
nightmare is: if the galut is actually permanent then the rabbis have no
authority for what they are doing. So what they are doing in self-authorization
is deferring exile as chaos and living with exile as the nightmare on the

[Regarding your comment about diaspora and domination by others in the
land], if by “ultimately” you mean for all time, then we have no disagreement.
The difference might be that in my reading of Hazal there is more (as Richard
Rorty once said of Derrida) wallowing in the the angst of not knowing —
whether the exile is permanent or not.

DANIEL BOYARIN is the Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture at the University
of California, Berkeley, and author of _Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality
and the Invention of the Jewish Man_, UC Press, 1997.

ARYEH COHEN is Assistant Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the University
of Judaism and the author of _Rereading Talmud: Literary Theory and the
Interpretation of Sugyot_, Scholars Press, forthcoming.

JAY HARRIS is the Wolfson Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard, and
author of _How Do We Know This?: Midrash and the Fragmentation of Modern
Judaism_, SUNY, 1995.

SHAUL MAGID is Assistant Professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish
Theological Seminary.

YEHUDA MIRSKY has since left the State Department and is currently a
doctoral student in Religion at Harvard.

JACOB MESKIN currently teaches in the Religion Department at Princeton
University, he works in the areas of Jewish Philosophy and the Philosophy
of Religion, and is finishing a book about the role of traditional Jewish
sources in Levinas’ philosophy.

PETER OCHS is Edgar Bronfman Professor of Modern Judaic Studies at the
University of Virginia, author of the forthcoming _Peirce, Pragmatism and
the Logic of Scripture_ (Cambridge) and co-author, with Steven Kepnes and
Robert Gibbs, et al, of the forthcoming _Reasoning after Revelation_ (Westview).

NOAM J. ZOHAR teaches in the Department of Philosophy and is the Director,
Graduate Program in Bioethics at Bar Ilan University.




A Reconstructionist Response to The Book of Blessings
by Rebecca Alpert*

Although my role on this panel is to represent a “Reconstructionist”
rather than a “feminist” perspective, it is a feminist orientation that
compels me to speak rather personally about my religious life. I hope these
initial comments will give you a sense of why I feel like I have been waiting
for Marcia Falk’s Book of Blessings for most of my adult life.

In my early twenties I became a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical
College. Despite my Reform background and my personal predilection for
the theology of Martin Buber, Mordecai Kaplan’s thought appealed to me
enormously. Though I had never articulated for myself my antipathy to anthropomorphism
and supernaturalism, upon reading Kaplan’s theology I felt he was speaking
for me. I was also very taken with the anti-hierarchicalism inherent in
Kaplan’s repudiation of chosenness and of the distinctions among Cohen,
Levi and Israel. Upon reading Kaplan I immediately began to call myself
a Reconstructionist and to pray accordingly. I adopted Kaplan’s liturgical
changes that removed chosenness from the prayer service, believing that
he and I were adhering to the principle that he articulated: in prayer
as in all things, we must say what we mean and mean what we say. Falk takes
this idea to its fullest meaning, and develops a liturgy consonant with
a non-supernaturalist, non-anthropomorphic view of divinity.

Falk’s work makes clear the ways in which Kaplan’s liturgical innovations,
bold though they were for his time (and which got him into much trouble
in traditionalist circles, including the burning of his prayerbooks and
his excommunication) fell far short of the implications of his theological
writings. The reaction to Kaplan’s small innovations, his desire to influence
American Jews to follow his philosophy and his basically traditional bent
kept him from going any further. To say that further changes would have
been inconceivable at the time is also a fair statement. It is as if Falk
picked up where Kaplan left off in 1945 and has created the blueprint for
a prayerbook which truly represents Kaplan’s philosophy.

Note carefully my reference here to Kaplan’s philosophy and not Reconstructionism
as a movement. Since the retirement of Ira Eisenstein from the presidency
of the congregational and rabbinic arms of the movement in the late 1970s,
Kaplan’s theology has not been a focus for the leaders of Reconstructionism.
As is the case in all but the most dogmatic religious movements, the ideas
of the founder were subjected to revision and reinterpretation. The most
controversial elements of Kaplan’s theology have either been downplayed
or challenged by a more traditional approach. It is not surprising that
Falk found in Ira and Judith Eisenstein her greatest supporters. While
the new Reconstructionist leaders may recognize that the language of liturgy
is not consonant with their theology, they seem completely comfortable
with this contradiction.

That is why I, as one who fully appreciates Kaplan’s teachings, wholeheartedly
welcome Falk’s approach to liturgy which adheres to Kaplan’s idea that
we must mean what we say and say what we mean, even when we are talking
about God.

The most compelling adumbration of this idea comes in Falk’s reconstruction
of the blessing formula. To Kaplan, Jewish life was vested wholly in community.
Falk’s rendering of blessings in the first person plural, and in the active
rather than the passive voice, is a perfect way to explicate Kaplan’s theological
focus on the Jewish people as the center of Jewish life. Replacing “you
are blessed” with “let us bless” captures that magnificently. Others of
Kaplan’s followers have tried to explain his thinking in terms of grammatical
examples (Schulweis’ predicate theology; my own prepositional theology,
where God works through rather than over or on the world, for example).
But Falk’s rendition brings together Kaplan’s theological orientation and
his understanding of the centrality of community.

I differ with Falk when she worries that any of her blessings become
formulaic. In this, and in other areas I will look at later, she fails
to understand one of the dimensions of the role of prayer in people’s lives.
While of course words fail to retain their full meaning when used formulaicly,
it is not possible to imagine prayer without some fixed points. If “Nevarech
et eyn hahayyim” has found resonance, it means people are prepared to accept
this change. This is the only way her liturgical changes will come into

I also admire Falk’s refusal of hierarchies, so clearly presented in
her havdalah. Again, Kaplan met this challenge in havdalah by removing
the phrase “ben yisrael l’amim” from the final bracha. Falk sees more deeply
into the basic hierarchical structure of difference and refuses the elevation
of the sabbath over the rest of the week, and of light over darkness in
terms of its implications for racism. These innovations are crucial to
a new understanding of the ways in which we can, as Kaplan suggests, see
the Jewish people as distinct, without making odious comparisons, or separating
ourselves from the rest of the world. This is a crucial vision and Falk’s
development of it is a most appropriate way to persuade Jews of the importance
of this idea.

Finally, Falk’s understanding of liturgy as art and her passionate love
of the Hebrew character of prayer are another link to Kaplan. Kaplan’s
efforts at innovation always focused on retaining the Hebraic character
and nuance of the liturgy. Falk succeeds masterfully at this objective
as well. For Kaplan a major component of Jewish civilization was art; Falk’s
ability to render the prayer service as poetry is also in keeping with
Kaplan’s vision. Beginning in the 1920s Kaplan insisted that women’s roles
should be enhanced, that women’s art should be incorporated in Jewish life.
Falk’s work clearly achieves this goal as well.

Of course, Falk’s goal was not to realize Kaplan’s vision, and she certainly
differs with him in places, most particularly in his excision of “mehaye
ha matim” which she retains. Of course, including the idea of reviving
the dead as a form of rebirth which we often experience still conforms
to Kaplan’s idea that we judge whether to retain an idea based on what
it means. Kaplan’s whole plan to reconstruct Judaism entailed finding new
meanings in old concepts so that they would come alive for each generation.
This Kaplanian concept, his most conservative modality, is still central
to the Reconstructionist approach today.

It should be obvious then that I believe Marcia Falk’s Book of Blessings
to be a major contribution to Reconstructionism; one that should compel
this movement in Judaism to rethink its connection to its original teachings.
My only concern is that Falk’s work may not succeed any better than Kaplan’s
in furthering acceptance and appreciation of the theology it espouses,
because American Jews seem to have little interest in intellectual honesty
in prayer. In a study of Reconstructionism in the 1970s, Orthodox sociologist
Charles Liebman concluded that although most Jews agreed with Kaplan’s
theology, they saw no need to have their religious lives accurately reflect
their beliefs. For most Jews today, prayer is an experience of the heart,
not of the heart and mind. Those who pray seem to prefer not to be troubled
that they don’t believe what they are saying, that the images in the prayerbook
don’t reflect their concept of God, that their opposition to hierarchy
is not represented or that their need to find new ways to explore women’s
contributions goes unheeded. In a religiously conservative age, it is not
surprising that nostalgia and conformity are the values that dictate our
religious lives.

While Falk wants to reach out to those who are alienated from Jewish
life, I don’t think they will find The Book of Blessings to be their entree.
What is compelling about this work is its sophistication; its nuanced and
passionate use of the Hebrew language; its close renderings of the traditional
passages and images changed only to conform to Falk’s theology and ethics.
Its power is not in its accessibility, the lack of which is underscored
by both its price and its size.

These cautions notwithstanding, Falk’s first volume is a revolutionary
act that will raise questions about Jewish theology, ethics and prayer
for generations to come. I applaud this work, and look forward eagerly
to subsequent volumes. And, yes, I will surely pray with it.

* Rebecca Alpert is assistant professor of Religion and co-director
of the Women’s Studies program at Temple University. She is a 1976 graduate
of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Her most recent book, Like
Bread on the Seder Plate: Jewish Lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition
was published in April by Columbia University Press. A version of this
article originally appeared in The Reconstructionist: A Journal of Contemporary
Jewish Thought and Practice, v. 62:1 Spring/fall 1997, 77-80.

Response To Marcia Falk’s Book of Blessings
by Rachel Adler*

 Tractate Berakhot, the tractate that deals with blessings, stands
at the very beginning of the Talmud. It heads the first order of the Talmud’s
six orders, an order called Zeraim, seeds. For the rabbis, blessings are
the seeds of individual devotional expression, of the communal liturgical
voice, and of the institutions of synagogue and studyhouse where rabbinic
Judaism is generated and propagated. Seeds contain both the past and the
future. As legacies, from the dead they reproduce the world. As pledges
to the future, they change it. No seed exactly replicates its bearer. Every
seed points toward some future seed which will both incorporate it and
differ from it.

In The Book of Blessings, Marcia Falk harvests a new crops of seeds
from the foundational genre of rabbinic prayer: the seeds of feminist liturgy.

The Book of Blessings, then, is more than a feminist liturgy. It is
a genotype whose character will mark its pure-bred progeny as well as a
profusion of hybrid liturgies. Some of this mutational process has already
begun, as both Jewish Renewal communities and the institutional liturgies
of non-Orthodox Judaisms import and canonize language and images Marcia
sought to keep contingent and variable. Thus, the exhortative nevarekh
“let us bless” and the alternative divine nameeyn ha-hayyim, “Source of
Life” have begun to serve, in some quarters, as standardized gender inclusive
berakha formulae. However, to reduce the impact of The Book of Blessings
to these fetishized pieces would be to ignore some of its far-reaching
implications for Jewish liturgy and Jewish thought. I would like to discuss
a few of these.

First of all, The Book of Blessings represents the most serious and
learned feminist conversation with Jewish liturgical tradition to date.
Previous feminist services either emend masculine language in traditional
texts phrase by phrase or ignore the traditional liturgical structure altogether.
Marcia knows the elements that compose the formal structure and the themes
they intend to set forth. But instead of replicating them, she echoes them,
reacts to them, quarrels with them, improvises from them like a jazz musician
playing riffs on a traditional motif. Moreover, this conversation with
tradition is not merely to be inferred by the more knowledgable reader.

Marcia’s massive commentary serves as a kind of Gemara reconnecting
her work to previous tradition, debating the reasoning for liturgical decisions,
justifying linguistic choices and making explicit the underlying theological
disputes. No previous work of feminist liturgy has had or could have needed
such an apparatus. Because of Marcia’s section introductions and commentary,
The Book of Blessings is a text for study as well as a text for prayer.
For the reader to whom Jewish liturgy is unfamiliar, the commentary complexifies
what looks simple and exposes strata of tradition beneath what looks new.

For those well-versed in Jewish liturgy and scholarship, Marcia’s prayers
and their commentary challenge the assumptions and definitions that inform
traditional prayer and offer a searching theological critique.

A second significant feature, unprecedented in feminist liturgy, is
Marcia’s liturgical language. Previously the bulk of feminist liturgical
innovation has been in English. Although for most serious and thoughtful
Jews, Hebrew is preeminent among the languages of Jewish prayer, the ability
to compose Hebrew prayer is confined to a small elite whose ranks include
few women.

The paucity or absence of Hebrew stigmatized feminist liturgy as worship
by the ignorant and for the ignorant, much as in previous generations Yiddish
prayer was relegated to “women and men who are like women.” Hebrew is not
the only language for Jewish prayer inThe Book of Blessings – – English
prayers and English and Yiddish poetry are prominently featured – – but
the backbone of The Book of Blessings is Marcia’s radiantly beautiful Hebrew,
echoing and ringing changes upon the language of Tanakh and Siddur.

A third noteworthy feature is a systematic theological perspective informing
every prayer and poem. This theology deemphasizes the historical or quasi-historical
stories that comprise Jewish memory in favor of the embodied human self
and its sensuous experience of the natural world. It rejects hierarchies
and dualisms, softening or blurring the traditional boundaries between
holy and secular,Jew and non-Jew, Israel and diaspora. For the traditional
divisions between God and world and God and self, it substitutes a unitive
spirituality that collapses God into nature and humanity. The object of
revence in this spirituality is the life force itself together with the
beauty and diversity of the world it creates and sustains. In this theology,
life and death, joy and pain, are represented as complementary elements
in an ultimately beautiful and harmonious cosmic order. In other words,
Marcia has merged feminism and classical Reconstructionist thought into
a single theology, and tranfused that theology into a liturgy that is an
aesthetic tour de force. I honor the daring, learning, and skill that went
into this notable achievement.

At the same time, I have fundamental and irreconcilable theological
differences from Marcia, and I want to lay those on the table. I am not
a Reconstructionist. I believe in a God who is an Other with whom we have
flexible but distinct boundaries. For me, interdependence with a God who
is Other is the fountainhead of all possibility for relatedness and exchange,
conflict and communion. Hence some language and imagery which Marcia, echoing
Susanne Langer’s terminology, calls “dead metaphors” are very much alive
for me.

But I do not understand how some of Marcia’s traditional terms are other
than dead metaphors for her. I find it difficult to comprehend terms like
worship, bless,kavanah, (orientation/ intention), without an Other toward
whom they are directed. What does it mean to have a covenant without an
Other? If God is not distinct from self and community, why use the theological
language of partnership at all? Now I am perfectly aware that classical
Reconstructionist thought has answers to these questions, all heavily influenced
by Durkheim’s conception of prayer as the community’s apostrophe to its
projected and idealized “conscience collective.” “Worship” is the rehearsal
of cultural categories and foundational myths. “Blessing,’ while not an
expression of gratitude articulates satisfaction and pleasure with the
world and its resources. Classical Reconstructionism addresses prayer directly
to this fictive Other. Marcia, more honestly, removes the fictive referent
completely or praises it in terms that make clear its impersonality.

In such theologies the only alternative to prayer as an exercise in
socially useful solipsism is unitative mysticism, a fusion experience which
dissolves boundaries between self and cosmos. This experience can also
be recognized in William James’ “cosmic consciousness” or the “oceanic
feeling” which Romain Rolland described to Freud. But it is a mystery to
me why, after feminists have worked so long to establish that difference
is to be celebrated rather than transcended, have fought so hard for integrity
of selfhood, have resisted so bitterly being subsumed or swallowed up,
we should embrace the deadly experience of fusion in our spirituality.
Of course, either of these worship experiences is an improvement over what
Drorah Setel has called the language of vulgar monotheism, a system of
totalized imagery that validates and enforces male dominance. But, as the
old aspirin commercial asks, why exchange a headache for an upset stomach?
There are resources within Jewish tradition for a diversely imaged and
gender-flexible theology of relation.

My other ongoing dispute with Marcia has to do with our different approaches
to theodicy and anthropodicy. From my perspective, Marcia’s liturgy does
not adequately reflect the existence of disorder, injustice, pain and violence
in the world. While I find the serenity of The Book of Blessings moving,
I miss the outcries of indignation, anguish, terror, rage, and penitence
that percolate through the psalms and prayers of classical weekday service.
We had some of this discussion over Marcia’s beautiful blessing before
going to sleep which concludes “mal’ah nafshi hodayah al mat’not ha-yom.
mal’ah nafshi hodayah al mat’nat ha-yom.” Marcia translates: “I call to
mind the gifts of the day — the gift of this day– and give thanks.” Marcia
suggested that the blessing could be “a stimulus to awareness, a way to
help oneself recognize the unseen gifts one had received” even in the course
of a terrible day. This interpretation reminded me of the classical tziduk
ha-din, the blessing justifying God’s judgment said at a catastrophe. And
certainly my own teachers taught me to refer to suffering as “bitter” rather
than “evil.” I would like to practice saying Marcia’s bedtime prayer because
I would like to become the kind of person who could be receptive even to
bitter gifts.

Perhaps what disturbs me inThe Book of Blessings is the lack of liturgical
language for exactly how bitter it can be. In the classical prayerbook,
I can go to the Tahanun service and say, “I am worn out with my groaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears.”(Ps. 6). “we are worn out and no
rest is granted us.” I can accuse with the psalmist, “How long will you
(judges) judge unjustly and favor the wicked?” (Ps.82) or “They conspire
against the life of the righteous and condemn innocent blood.” But here,
I find no outlet for noisy complaint.

Marcia’s prayers emphasize the need for justice and compassion. I would
not for a moment suggest that she condones social injustice or glosses
over personal suffering. But there are no vivid depictions either of human
evil or of human pain. Perhaps, it is because there is no Other to whom
to complain, no divine mirror for grief or outrage, that disharmony is
so disturbing in Reconstructionist theologies. The tendency is to move
immediately past it to reconciliation and acceptance. A Reconstructionist
Book of Job would cut directly to the speeches in the whirlwind. The ultimate
wholeness, as Marcia says in her commentary on the blessing for someone
who is gravely ill, “comes from a deep acceptance of one’s place in the
greater whole of being.” (483).

It is certainly true that we ought to regard both suffering and death
as part of the human condition rather than as terrible surprises that befall
those who are especially unlucky. And yet there are crucial differences
between, for example, the “good death” of a Bernardin, lucid and fortified
by faith and friendship, and the death of a Medicaid patient, alone, inadequately
medicated, and tied to a hospital bed, or the death of an abandoned Hutu
child from dysentery beside the road as desperate multitudes stream toward
Rwanda? Are there situtations that ought not to be accepted as part of
some greater pattern but must remain outrages and reproaches to any larger
harmony that purports to soothe them?

The world is very beautiful as Marcia’s lovely psalms of creation attest
and she is right to make her Sabbath services reflect only joy and wonder.
But the world is also very terrible and this terribleness has no voice
in The Book of Blessings. Without a God to fight with or plead with, it
must be a lonely place indeed. As I have said, this is a very different
theological perspective from Marcia’s own. At this point in our ongoing
debate Marcia usually tells me, “That’s your book; this is my book.” We
know neither of us is going to convince the other; this is more like a
formal protest from her Majesty’s loyal opposition. Throughout its process,
I have been both challenged and enriched byThe Book of Blessings., and
I am grateful for the wonderful conversations with Marcia as both of us
were writing. Surely, the next best thing to fighting with God is fighting
about God. I am lucky to have as wise and creative a dialogue partner as
Marcia to fight with.

Rachel Adler is the author of Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology
and Ethics. She is Visiting Assistant Professor at University of Southern
California conjointly with Hebrew Union College-Los Angeles.

by Judith Plaskow

I am delighted to be here this morning to celebrate the publication
of a long-awaited and extraordinary volume, a Jewish feminist prayerbook
of genuine religious depth and poetic power. It has always concerned me
that a great deal of Jewish feminist liturgy represents an intellectual
response to perceived inadequacies in the traditional prayerbook. As such,
it may perform a valuable consciousness-raising function. Yet, since there
is no necessary correlation between an ability to analyze the problems
with traditional images and the capacity to create new ones, much feminist
liturgy is not particularly religiously satisfying or moving. The Book
of Blessings, however, emerges out of a genuine religious sensibility and
vision, a love of Hebrew, and, indeed, a love of language generally, and
an ability to draw on traditional vocabulary and evoke traditional resonances
even where the substance of the prayers is very new. What I would like
to do this morning is to talk about The Book of Blessings as a feminist
prayerbook and then raise some of the questions and problems a feminist
prayerbook presents.

It is worthwhile reflecting on The Book of Blessings as a feminist prayerbook
because it does not fit into that rubric in the most obvious way. Most
Jewish feminist liturgy uses female God-language–either evoking the Shekhinah,
creating new female names for divinity, or rewriting the traditional blessings
in feminine grammatical language. For at least some feminist Jews, feminist
liturgy is defined by the use of such language. But Marcia uses no female
images and little feminine grammar. Evoking the sacred as totally immanent
in creation, her blessings offer an alternative to the whole notion of
God as male or female person, and thus do not proclaim themselves as feminist
in immediately recognizable terms. Yet I would argue that The Book of Blessings
is deeply feminist in its thorough incorporation of the three moments or
phases that have marked feminist scholarship in virtually every area: a
critical response to and analysis of tradition, the creation of a new history
that places women at the center, and the transformation of received tradition
in the direction of the dismantling of hierarchies and greater inclusion.

That The Book of Blessings stands in a critical relationship to tradition
is evident at many points. First of all, Marcia’s transformative agenda
is rooted in two staples of feminist criticism of traditional male God-language:
its idolatry and its hierarchical character. Rejecting “strictly formulaic
language for the divine” and the identification of divinity with a single
image,” Marcia points out that many Jews are guilty of verbal idolatry
in that they identify particular images with the reality of God. The images
that are sanctified, moreover, tend to be hierarchical in character–Blessed
are you, Lord our God, king of the universe–providing the theological
justification and underpinnings of the hierarchical dualisms that pervade
Western culture.

The questions Marcia raises about Torah constitute another area of criticism
of tradition, and one where her contribution is both important and original.
For the last twenty years, Jewish feminists have been analyzing the androcentrism
of Torah and, in a variety of theoretical and also separatist liturgical
forums, seeking to invoke women’s words as Torah. Feminist analysis and
experimentation have had virtually no impact, however, on the synagogue
ritual surrounding the Torah reading as the center of the Sabbath service.
To my mind, Marcia’s introduction to the Torah reading is one of the real
gifts of The Book of Blessings in that it provides a way to address the
meaning and limits of Torah in a liturgical context. By raising a series
of thoughtful, meditative, and beautifully-worded questions that are both
respectful and critical of Torah, she challenges congregations to reflect
on and expand the notion of sacred teaching at the point that the Torah
is read.

Marcia’s commitment to an expanded notion of Torah is then evident in
a constructive way in what I take to be the second significant feminist
element in her work, the creation of a women’s history and lineage. As
she points out, the anger and divisiveness that, in many congregations,
have surrounded discussions of the simple inclusion of the matriarchs in
the *amidah* indicate the extent to which women’s invisibility is still
accepted as normal and normative by large portions of the Jewish community.
If that community is to become truly inclusive, and the liturgy is to reflect
and foster inclusiveness, then women’s presence will need to be not simply
tagged onto an already- established liturgy but brought “fully into the
foreground of awareness.” Marcia’s Kabbalat Shabbat (Welcoming the Sabbath)
and Sabbath morning amidah contribute to this “foregrounding” by introducing
into the liturgy poems by Jewish women. These poems both represent the
voices of the “women psalmists” who have been excluded by the canon and
compensate “for some of the imbalance of Jewish liturgy by making women’s
names and stories visible.” It is, finally, the third, or transformative,
phase of feminist discourse that The Book of Blessings is most fully about,
and, in this context, I would like to name four of its contributions to
feminist theological conversation. One of the most salient characteristics
of feminist reflection on God over the past twenty years has been an emphasis
on immanence as opposed to transcendence. The God known in and through
the world, a God who is empowerer rather than power over, has been invoked
again and again in feminist writing. And yet, to the extent that Jewish
feminist liturgy has simply inserted female names and pronouns into standard
readings, it has offered up a slightly softened version of the traditional
God rather than realizing a new understanding of the sacred. The Book of
Blessings, however, actually embodies feminist discussion and principles
liturgically by summoning the divine as “the dynamic, alive, and unifying
wholeness within creation,” This transformation is closely related to another
theme in feminist theology and discourse: the centrality of “our bodies/our
selves” and the appreciation of embodiment. In seeking the divine both
“nowhere in particular” and yet everywhere, in every moment and ordinary
detail of experience, Marcia refuses the hierarchy of body and spirit that
leads to the association of men with soul and women with the domain of
the body. In her discussion of the Sabbath, in which she points out that
it is possible to consecrate time only in space; in her many poems evoking
the shapes and colors of creation; and in the numerous blessings that lift
up the holiness of everyday embodied life, her insistence on immanence
fuses with an embrace of sensuality that reminds us we can find divinity
“wherever our hearts and minds, our blood and souls are stirred.”

These pairings, “hearts and minds,” “blood and souls,” are significant,
for they point us to another of Marcia’s constructive contributions: her
insistence that the dismantling of hierarchical dualisms is not to be confused
with the abolition of distinction. “The recognition of differences is part
of our very appreciation of life,” as she puts it. Her final havdalah blessing–“let
us distinguish parts within the whole and bless their differences”–can
be taken as a paradigmatic feminist statement about difference, and one
which is embodied more subtly in her Torah service, which values Torah
as the core of Jewish difference without affirming it in contrast to the
religious teachings of others.

This contribution is in turn related to the last I will mention: Marcia’s
reformulation of monotheism as “the embracing unity of a plurality of images”
rather than the elevation of a single image as the image of God. This conception
is expressed most fully in her extraordinary rewriting of the Sh’ma, a
prayer that succeeds in bringing together all the themes I have named:
the divine as immanent, the value of embodiment and of diversity, and the
intuition of unity within the diversity of creation. The Book of Blessings,
then, is a powerful and important feminist prayerbook. Yet precisely because
it is, it raises difficult questions about what it means to have feminist
prayerbook, and how it should be viewed and used. Marcia herself is very
insistent that she does not intend to offer new formulas that can serve
as substitute images for the divine to be inserted into any prayer context,
but that her blessings are part of an ongoing process of naming that reaches
toward a more inclusive monotheism. I would heartily concur with this perspective
since, in my experience, the process of form-breaking and a sense of open-endedness
are every bit as central in defining feminist liturgy as the actual content
of the prayers. Yet a book necessarily freezes the process of image-making
at a particular moment. How, then, can it be made to encourage continued
naming rather than cut off that process?

This question becomes all the more urgent when we acknowledge that The
Book of Blessings embodies the theology of one woman who has long been
engaged with Jewish feminism. This is in no way a criticism. It is the
fact that The Book of Blessings comes from the hand of a poet of extraordinary
religious sensibility that gives it its depth. Yet feminism is a political,
social, and religious movement for change, drawing together women with
many different experiences, sensibilities, and visions. What does it mean
to have and use a feminist prayerbook that represents one lens on the sacred?

As someone who has used Marcia’s Shabbat home blessings for many years–and
who must dredge up the traditional blessings from my memory when I’m called
on to say them–I was very struck at how uncomfortable I felt when confronted
with her whole Sabbath morning service. I want to filch large portions
of it, but, at the same time, I am not willing to surrender the anthropomorphic
deity of the traditional liturgy. If I can find God in the wind and the
apple and the stone, why not in attributes of personhood? While Marcia
suggests bringing “human relations directly into [the] liturgy” by making
explicit commitments to certain interpersonal values, I find the moments
where she does this the most abstract and least satisfying in the book.
I feel, in the second part of the Sh’ma, for example, as if I’m reciting
a list I know I won’t be able to live up to, rather than creating deep
motivations and resonances through praying to a God who embodies the characteristics
I value. Moreover, anthropomorphic imagery captures the ambiguities of
existence for me in a way that the language of immanence does not. While
Marcia affirms that an inclusive monotheism incorporates the domain of
the “bad,” and she rewrites the blessing of creation to include harmony
and chaos, the overall effect of the blessing–as of her liturgy more generally–is
to catch up the bad within a larger unity. But I don’t always experience
the world–or God–in that way. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the fragility
and vulnerability of human existence, by the evil in the world, and by
the ambiguity at the heart of human creativity. Anthropomorphic language
allows me to capture and grapple with those experiences in prayer. It also
allows me the luxury of protest against God– a theme in Jewish theology
I deeply value, but which seems to have no place in a theology of total

I am not arguing here that Marcia should be me or have my theology.
I love her blessings as crucial elements in an inclusive monotheism. But
I would like to think together about what it means to have a feminist prayerbook
that each of us will find partial in different ways. How do we try it on,
use it, appreciate it without criticizing Marcia for not doing everything–and,
at the same time, without letting the existence of a very solid book between
two covers block our own visions and our own continuing process of naming?

*Judith Plaskow is Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College

Response to the Book of Blessings
Aryeh Cohen

It seems to me that the most striking characteristic of the Book of
Blessings, though one which is subsumed in its overall heft, is its severe
minimalism. For example the Nishmat prayer (p. 161) which runs on for some
two pages of dense text in the traditional version-in a way enacting its
own awe of over-abundant blessings for which to give thanks-is rendered
in the Book of Blessings in six couplets-in a way enacting the paucity
of praise. This severe minimalism is an important aesthetic and religious

The roots of the discussion of whether and how one can pray go back
as far as prayer itself. While the liturgical traditions have usually gone
by the rule that there can never be enough, the halakhic discussions have
taken the other tack.

Tosefta Berachot 1:5-9, a third century compilation of Rabbinic law,
lays out in significant detail stylistic rules concerning blessings. Those
which are long cannot be shortened, those which are short cannot be lengthened,
those which open and close with a blessing cannot be recited otherwise.
Neither the Tosefta nor the Mishnah, the first compilation of Rabbinic
law, offer much hint as to the reason behind the rules. One sign of the
seriousness of the rules, though, is the following statement in the Tosefta:

“By his blessings, it is known whether a person is ignorant (lit. empty)
or a student of the Sages.”

The understanding of the somewhat intricate rules of when to say what,
is a sign of one’s belonging to the class of “Students of the Sages,” that
is the Rabbinic elite.

The Palestinian Talmud, a fifth century compilation styled as a commentary
to Mishnah, (p Ber. 1:8) attributes to |Hizkiah the knowledge of an addendum
to the previous statement:

“One who lengthens [blessings] is condemned, on who shortens is praised.”

If this statement is actually modifying the previous one, then the student
of the sage is the one who knows how to say less, the one who fights the
urge towards excessive, possibly ecstatic, praise.

One reason for this notion is found in a story that is recounted in
both the later Babylonian Talmud, a sixth century compilation, (Ber. 33b)
and the Palestinian Talmud (Ber. 9:1). In the Palestinian version, R. Yo|hanan
and R. Yonatan are on some sort of mission to the cities of the south of
Israel. They happen upon one congregation wherein the |*Hazzan* or service
leader, chants the first blessing of the *Amidah*-the core of the three
daily prayer services-with many more epithets than in the “official version,”
and they silence him. They then admonish him, saying:

“You have no permission to add to the form set by the Sages for blessings.”

This ruling is followed by several midrashic explanations. The final
one is a midrash on Psalms 106:2 attributed to R. Abun. The verse “Who
can utter the mighy doings of God, or show forth all His praise?” Is read
through the intertext supplied by Yacov of the village of Niburrayah: (Psalms
65:2) *lechah dumiyah tehillah*. The rare *dumiyah* could be read so that
the phrase would mean: 1. to you *is fitting* to praise. (LXX)
2. Praise *is due* to you. (RSV)
3. To you *silence* is praise.
Yacov reads the verse in the third way. This turns the verse in Psalm
106 into a question whose obvious answer is “nobody.” This is reinforced
in the Palestinian Talmud by a folk saying: “The greatest drug of all is
silence. It is compared to an invaluable jewel. Any praise just lessens

The rationale for the prohibition of adding on to the blessing form
that the Sages created is that, in fact, silence is the proper praise.
This leaves in place the question: why say anything? It is a given, however,
that something needs to be said. That something though, needs to be as
little as mandated.

The corresponding story in the Babylonian Talmud (attributed to R. |Hanina)
gives as its rationale that one could never relate all the attributes of
God. If this is true, then any attempt to make a complete list, which goes
beyond the mandated praises, is actually taking away from God’s attributes-it
is degrading God.

The echoes of a popular prayer which did not confine itself to the minimalist
parameters outlined by the Sages grow stronger as we have evidence of both
the sanction and the “sin.” In the earliest Halakhic or Jewish legal work
of the Gaonic period there is an explicit prohibition against saying of
*Kerovot*-liturgical poems-in the first three blessings of the Amidah.
The collections of *Kerovot* also survived, demonstrating that the power
of the Gaonim was not as great as they wished it to be.

This situation continued through the centuries, with the most articulate
attack on the expansionist trend in blessing being made by Maimonides,
the great Jewish philosopher and Halakhist of the medieval period, in his
_Guide to the Perplexed_. Quoting the version of the story from Babylonian
Talmud, Tractate Berakhot, Maimonides then comments:

“According to the spirit, this dictum makes it clear that, as it happened,
two necessary obligations deremined our naming these attributes in our
prayers: one of them is that they occur in the *Torah*, and the other is
that the prophets in question use them in the prayer they composed.”

Thus we say anything about God in our prayers only by necessity, and
through the precedent of Biblical usage.

Maimonides then turns his attention to the composers of liturgical poetry.

“Thus what we do is not like what is done by the truly ignorant who
spoke at great length and spent great efforts on prayers that they composed
and on sermons that they compiled and through which they, in their opinion,
came nearer to God.Sthey predicated attributes of Him and addressed Him
in all the terms that they thought permitted and expatiated at such length
in this way that in their thoughts they made Him move on account of an
affection.S This kind of license is frequently taken by poets and preachers
or such as think that what they speak is poetry, so that the utterances
of some of them constitute an absolute denial of faith, while other utterances
contain such rubbish and such perverse imaginings as to make men laugh
when they hear them, on account of the nature of these utterances, and
to make them weep when they consider that these utterances are applied
to GodS” (_Guide to the Perplexed_, I:59; p.141)

The poets are the greatest of the defamers and blasphemers according
to Maimonides. They misuse language either maliciously or through ignorance
of its power. Ultimately the result is one-those who think they glorify
God by adorning the prayers, are in fact guilty of the worst sin: imagining
that God has a form. This is verbal idolatry, which is Maimonides’ unique
contribution to the religious consciousness.

At the very same time that Maimonides was railing against the excessive
description of God, the liturgical poets who Maimonides excoriated continued
their work, and the central text of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar-whose forte
was describing the inner workings of the Godhead-was being written.

These two approaches to the ineffable nature of God-on the one hand
the Maimonidean approach of silence, codified also in his Halakhic work;
on the other hand the poetic/mystic approach of the multiplication of images
of God-continued to define at least one set of parameters of the thinking
about prayer.

The Book of Blessings is sitting at an oblique angle to this dialectic.
On the one hand, there is a very Maimonidean sensibility. Falk speaks of
idolatry as one of the dangers of “strictly formulaic language for the
divine and immutable liturgical forms.” (418) The minimalism throughout
the Book of Blessings resounds with the sensibility of “Sto you *silence
*is praise.” There is a palpable fear that the traditional prayers are
forcing us to lie. (421)

At the same time, one of the driving forces behind the writing of the
_Book of Blessings_ was to create new, unprecedented forms of blessing.
Forms that speak to important questions of hierarchy and theological truth-telling.
Forms that evoke a sense of belonging to the whole of being. (7)

The _Book of Blessings_ is ultimately ultra-Maimonidean and ultra-poetic
at the same time. Any address of the Divine is shied away from. (“Where
is the divine in all of these? Nowhere in particular-yet potentially everywhereS)
At the same time, the commentary forces the sparse blessings to carry great
allusive weight. It is, though only through the commentary that the blessings
are tied back to Biblical sources.

Paradoxically, the Maimonidean fear of speaking, and fear of verbal
idolatry, leads Falk to a very literalist reading of the traditional blessing
formulations. Falk claims that the formulation “Blessed are You” is a “passive
construction” which “is ultimately disempowering in that it masks the presence
of the speaking self (whether personal or communal) that is performing
the act of blessing. “(419)

“Passive constructions” such as “blessed are You” have been read as
active since the earliest times of the Rabbinic period. In a relatively
early midrashic compilation, the *Pesikta deRab Kahana*, Moses’ plea to
God (Numbers 14:17): “And now, I pray thee, let the power of the Lord be
great as thou hast promisedS” is understood as Moses giving power to God.
It is read as: “And now the power of the Lord *will *be great,” thus providing
Biblical basis for the religious understanding that the deeds done by the
righteous *give* strength *to* God.

This is spelled out explicitly in various places in the Rabbinic and
mystical tradition in regards to the specific formulation “Blessed are
You.” I will cite one short example from Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev,
a mid-nineteenth century Hassidic master. The first part of the formula
in Hebrew is four words:

*Baruch* [Blessed-are] *ata* [you] yhwh [GOD] *eloheinu* [our-God]

The three last words of this formula all refer to God. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak
understands this as a movement from You to our-God. That is a relational
movement. The pray-er who recites the blessing starts the flow of Divine
effluence with the first word: *baruch*. The next two words are two different
names of God, representing first the aspect of harsh judgement (*ata*)
and grace or mercy (*yhwh*). The pray-er then, in the technical language
of Hassidut, “sweetens (*mamtik*) the judgements” by combining these two
aspects (as the third sphere of the Kabbalistic spheres, *Tiferet*, does),
resulting in *eloheinu*, our-God, an intimate connection to/with the Divine.
This is all actively accomplished by the person saying the blessing. The
formulation is a performative utterance, far from passive in its effects.

NOTES Louis Finkelstein in his commentary on p Berachot claims
this is an addendum. _A Commentary on the Palestinian Talmud_, 177.
Ginzburg, _Ginze Schechter_ vol. 2, p. 508 and following. One might
characterize this manner of dealing with the risk of verbal idolatry as
Levinasian: one rereads to keep a text, any text from becoming static.
Cf. Levinas’ essay “Contempt for the Torah as Idolatry,” in his collection
_In the Time of the Nations_, especially pp 59-60.


The Rains

The rains have washed the ice away
and all over the woods, the birches

have dropped their scrolls
whose secret maps lead inside

to the tweet, tick, scritch, and gulp,
to the rumble of distant sky

and the muffled roar of sea,
sounds washed in rain like music

you have heard before,
you have not heard before,

the raw material of your life

-Psalm for Tuesday, from The Book of Blessings (p. 36)

This is a very full moment for me. I’m honored to be the recipient of
this panel’s thoughtful responses to my work, and I thank all the panel
members for their participation, with special thanks to Judith for proposing
and organizing the session. A great many ideas have been put forth this
morning, and a number of important questions have been raised; obviously
I cannot address them all. Although the responses have been diverse, I
have noticed common threads running through them, and I’d like to focus
my remarks this morning on one of these strands. In doing so, I hope not
only to highlight points of agreement and of difference among us, but also
to connect today’s conversation to a larger context: the history of discourse
on prayer within Judaism.

The rabbis of the Talmud framed many of their discussions of prayer
with a dialectic between what they called kéva, “fixed form,” and
kavanah, “spontaneous intentionality.” While most rabbis insisted on the
need for regularity in prayer-by which they usually meant specific words
recited at set times of the day-there were those like Rabbi Eliezer who
emphasized the importance of spontaneity, freshness, and authenticity.
Since talmudic times, the categories of kéva and kavanah have continued
to inform Jewish thinking about liturgy, with each generation reshaping
the contours of the dialectic to address its particular concerns. Today,
too, at this panel, we have seen versions of this dialectic emerge.

Kéva and kavanah, however, may themselves be viewed as a variation
on, or perhaps an aspect of, a broader dialectical framework within Judaism-that
of halakhah, “law,” and aggadah, “lore.” When viewed with the appropriate
amount of poetic license, these thematic poles can provide a context for
an even more encompassing dialogue, in which we might tease out some of
the less obvious connections among the issues raised by today’s panel.

In a now-classic essay entitled “Halakhah and Aggadah,” the modern Hebrew
poet Hayim Nahman Bialik analyzed this complementarity, which underpins
much of Jewish literature and thought. Halakhah and aggadah are, for Bialik,
“twin forms of literature and of life.” Bialik is careful to note that
although these terms come from the Talmud, where their meanings are quite
specific, he is extending their use to cover a “range of related phenomena”;
in other words, he is using the traditional pairing of these concepts as
a metaphorical jumping-off point. In Bialik’s essay, halakhah refers not
just to a prescribed body of Jewish law but to strictures in general, to
discipline-what he calls “the iron yoke”-and to “action” as opposed to
“speech”; just as aggadah represents not only traditional teachings in
the narrative mode but “singing,” “creativity,” “love.” “To each age its
own aggadah,” writes Bialik, “to each aggadah its own halakhah.” In his
view, literature and life need both halakhah and aggadah in order to thrive.

It seems to me that today’s papers grapple in interestingly different
ways with the tension between halakhic and aggadic realms. Judith Plaskow,
for example, speaks about image-making and form-breaking, product and process,
prayer book and evolving prayer. The finished, final, printed prayer book
is, for Judith, a kind of halakhah: finite, determined, determinate, and-ultimately-limited.
In contrast, the community of pray-ers and their needs are diverse and
constantly changing-an aggadic tale that is ever-unwinding. Any prayer
book-even a feminist prayer book-represents, for Judith, “one lens [and
only one!] on the sacred.” But true community-inclusive community-necessarily
comprises many lenses, many visions. I certainly agree with her about this,
and I would say, indeed, that no single prayer book-like no single image
of the divine-can ever express the totality of the whole, nor should we
expect it to. Rather, authentic prayer should stimulate and invite us to
create more, much as literature inspires more literature and art moves
us to make more art.

Janet Walton focuses on this point; she, too, asks us to consider the
tension between process and product, between our experience and liturgical
form. Addressing my resistance to formula, she comments that “her [my]
work urges our own.” Janet engages personally and intensely with The Book
of Blessings; her reading of it seeks to mirror the creative process itself-or
at least so it seemed to me, as I read her. In using this book (or, presumably,
any liturgy), she demands of herself and of her liturgical community no
less integrity and intensity than she demands of the author. In some ways,
I think that Janet asks more of herself, the reader, than she does of me,
the author-or, in any event, more than I do of myself-because for her it
is a sacrifice to give up familiar God-language, a sacrifice requiring
“discipline” or, as she puts it even more poignantly, “a kind of fasting.”
I confess that this metaphor does not obtain for me: giving up the G-word
was nothing but an enormous relief to me. Thus Janet adds to the dialectic
between liturgical fixed form and prayer experience another version and
another layer of halakhah and aggadah: she calls upon poetry and the other
arts to liberate us by helping us let go of old liturgical habits, even
as she speaks of the letting-go itself as a willed act of renunciation
(a submission, perhaps, to Bialik’s “iron yoke”).

The tension between formula and spontaneity is also addressed by Rebecca
Alpert, who, however, leans in a different direction. While Judith concurs
with my position of resistance to creating formulas for prayer, and Janet
goes further, questioning my use of “the same words for divine presence
over and over,” Rebecca critiques my critique of formulas, asserting that
“it is not possible to imagine prayer without some fixed points.” For Janet,
The Book of Blessings may contain too much repetition; for Rebecca, perhaps
not enough.

Rebecca also points out another tension that might be looked at through
the double lens of halakhah and aggadah. In her analysis of Reconstructionist
community, she calls attention to a dissonance between theological belief
and liturgical practice: while Reconstructionism is based on the writings
of Mordecai Kaplan, who denied the existence of a supernatural deity, most
Reconstructionists are not Kaplanian in their approach to prayer; in their
liturgy, they pray to a personal God. In Rebecca’s view, this is not terribly
surprising, since, as she puts it, “American Jews seem to have little interest
in intellectual honesty in prayer.” But if this observation is indeed true
of the Reconstructionist community then it would seem that Reconstructionism
as a movement has not resolved an important internal contradiction. It
has not integrated its halakhah-its rationalist, Kaplanian foundation-with
its aggadah-its emotional yearning for what is comforting because familiar
and because it is seen as connecting us to our past (a past that is often
more imagined than real but that is nonetheless presumed to be “our heritage”).
For intellectual stimulation, the Reconstructionist may turn to Kaplan;
but the intellect is, presumably, abandoned where “spiritual” experience
begins. As Rebecca puts it, “For most Jews today, prayer is an experience
of the heart, not of the heart and mind.”

Rebecca is right to note that the premise of The Book of Blessings conforms
to “Kaplan’s idea that we must mean what we say and say what we mean, even
when we are talking about God.” In fact, I think she is on target in many
ways when she calls my work “Kaplanian.” But she’s also correct in her
assumption that I did not set out, with this project, to fulfill Kaplan’s
vision, and I might add that it was not until I was well engaged in the
work that I became familiar with the Reconstructionist movement and immersed
in Reconstructionist ideas. Once I began to study Kaplan, however, I had
hopes that my liturgy might find a home in the Reconstructionist world.
For it seemed to me that not only was my theology consistent with Kaplan’s
but my liturgy was connected at every point-at virtually every word and
phrase-to Hebrew liturgical tradition; like Kaplan, I believe passionately
in the importance of Hebrew to the preservation and growth of Jewish civilization.
Moreover, in writing The Book of Blessings, I had hoped not only to preserve
Hebrew as a living medium for liturgical expression but to fuse creativity
and continuity without loss of intellectual integrity-goals I think Kaplan
would have approved of. But if Rebecca is right about the Reconstructionist
movement’s unresolved contradictions-its unmediated, polarized oppositions
between belief and practice, mind and heart, halakhah and aggadah-then
The Book of Blessings, which seeks to create a ground on which these opposites
might reconcile, may not find immediate welcome there.

Finally, Rebecca points out that Kaplan was a self-proclaimed rationalist
who believed in the supreme importance of art to Judaism. Art, of course,
is based at least in part in realms of the nonrational, the unconscious,
the emotive. So we might say that Kaplan’s work itself is a call for the
revival of the creative interplay between thought and feeling, between
halakhah and aggadah.

Larry Hoffman highlights the tension between the need for creativity
and the desire for continuity with the past. In reviewing the community’s
receptivity to new liturgy, he points out a perceived conflict between
liturgical innovation and the ambiguous entity we call “tradition.” In
raising this issue, though, he turns it on its head by asking the historian’s
hardheaded questions: Whose tradition? Continuity with what? And then he
asks, specifically: Is “tradition” to be equated with halakhic standards
imposed after the fact of the original liturgical creation? Or should we,
in seeking to preserve “tradition,” recall its earliest creative roots
along with some of its later branches, which yielded fecund aggadic blossoming?
In exposing what he calls “the limits game,” Larry reminds us that the
past is rarely how we imagine it was-and the future can be more than we
sometimes dare to imagine it to be.

Aryeh Cohen, in his reading of The Book of Blessings, points to yet
another dialectic: between “heft” (as he calls it) and “minimalism,” between
“more” and (if you will) “less is more.” He points out that tradition is
divided between two aesthetic camps: “while liturgical traditions have
usually gone by the rule that there can never be enough, the halakhic discussions
have taken the other tack.” As Aryeh outlines them in his thesis, these
positions, too, fall into aggadic and halakhic categories: he notes, on
the one hand, “the poetic/mystic approach of the multiplication of images
of God”; on the other hand, he points to “the Maimonidean approach of silence,”
a strict and demanding position of truth. He then locates The Book of Blessings
“at an oblique angle to this dialectic”: the urge to create new images
represents the aggadic call for “more,” while the brevity of the book’s
lyric forms (the amount of white space on the page)resounds with the halakhic
Maimonidean demand for silence in the face of the ineffable. I agree with
Aryeh, in the sense that I say yes to both-sometimes more is less and sometimes
more is more-although in my own case I am not sure that the impulse toward
silence necessarily springs from the source he attributes it to. I have
found silence itself to be a well from which inner voices spring. But I
thank Aryeh for offering me a fascinating talmudic model with which to
reflect further upon the creative process and the created product.

I intend also to think further about the ideas put forth by Rachel Adler,
who, over the course of our longstanding friendship, has shared many insights
into talmudic thought with me. Despite mutual receptivity to-indeed, engagement
with-each other’s work, I must say that at times I think Rachel and I are
as far apart in our religious sensibilities as two committed Jewish feminists
can be. One of the lessons I have learned slowly over my lifetime-a lesson
reinforced consistently in my dialogues with Rachel-is that the dialectical
mode of argument extends only so far. Rachel and I will never persuade
one another to adopt the other’s truths-and I, at least, do not intend
to try. (While I accept that Rachel’s personal theology works for her,
it does not work for me, and I confess that I’m puzzled as to why she wants
to convert me to it.) I saw only a partial draft of her paper before I
began writing this response; she had FAXed me the pages that included her
remarks up to the following sentence: “It is a mystery to me why, after
feminists have worked so long to establish that difference is to be celebrated
rather than transcended, have fought so hard for integrity of selfhood,
have resisted so bitterly being subsumed or swallowed up, we should embrace
the deadly experience of fusion in our spirituality.” The best I can do
to answer this outcry is to say that apparently one person’s mystery is
another’s revelation; one person’s deadly experience is another’s life-affirming
sustenance. The experience of deep connectedness-of union with the greater
whole of being-is, for me, a rare and precious gift, unpredictable and
unwillable in its coming, ultimate in its power, indisputable in its truth
and-dare I say it?-in its salvation. It is also, for me, the ultimate ineffable;
beyond that, I can add only silence.

Later, however, when I was finalizing my remarks for this panel, I received
the remainder of Rachel’s comments, which address the problem of evil-an
issue Judith Plaskow also raises. This time Rachel’s passion stirred a
more heated response in me. Yes, I believe there is evil in the world,
and I believe it to be a specifically human phenomenon. The death of the
Hutu child by disease and human abandonment does not have to be; and yes,
certainly, we must express our outrage at this. But what purpose is there
in directing this outrage to “God,” or in asking some “Other” to fix the
situation? The help-insofar as there is help for suffering-must come from
us. The Book of Blessings does not avoid or ignore the inevitable facts
of our pain, our sorrow, our illness, our death, our grief. Nor does it
call for our acceptance of evil. Rather, it urges acceptance of what can
never be overcome: the changes that life itself inexorably undergoes with
and through the passage of time. But of human crulety and injustice there
can be no tolerance. On the contrary, I believe, with Abraham Joshua Heschel,
that authentic prayer is subversive, implicitly protesting against evil
and exhorting us-or to use Janet Walton’s word, expecting us-to act rightly
and with compassion. It is true, as both Rachel and Judith point out, that
there is not much ranting in the liturgy of The Book of Blessings; protests
and arguments are saved for the Commentary at the back of the book and
the introductions to its three liturgical parts. But I hope that the book
as a whole conveys the message that life’s misery must be acknowledged
and dealt with, and that evil must be fought against. Ultimately, of course,
words cannot do it all; our prayer-our spirituality-cannot be viewed separately
from the social actions it inspires or condemns. Perhaps the proper question
to ask about the relationship of prayer (any prayer) to evil is not what
expression that prayer gives to life’s “terribleness” but what actions
that expression leads to.

It is interesting to me, in this context, that the very parts of my
Sh’ma that Judith objects to are examples of commitments to bring about
change in the social order, to overcome evil in the world. Both Judith
and Rachel seem more comfortable addressing the problem of evil by protesting
to a personal God-Thou. But I have no choice in this matter: I cannot speak
to a personal God; for me, this would simply be bad faith. As a poet, I
cannot help but feel that the metaphor of God as person is crucially unlike
the other images Judith mentions-wind, apple, stone-because of the dominant
place it has occupied in the tradition. But, in any event, I don’t speak
to the wind or stone either; I-Thou conversation with the divine-with the
whole of which I am a part-neither makes sense nor feels right to me.

And finally- No, Rachel, the world is not a lonely place for me because
I do not have a personal God to fight or plead with. The world is, at times,
a lonely place-but the fiction of a personal God would not change that
for me.

As must be obvious, I am gripped by the various questions that these
papers have raised, both explicitly and implicitly, and, while I have personal
answers to some of them, there are many I am still grappling with. I’m
not sure where I’ll end up (if there is any “ending up”) on some of the
issues, such as how much repeated form we need in prayer, or how many words
we need, or how much silence. But this much, anyway, I know: As someone
who learns through both argument and intuition, who is nourished by both
poetry and prose, who craves philosophy as well as art and especially craves
the dialogue between them, who is engaged at times by silence and at other
moments by the world’s lively noise-I cannot choose between halakhah and
aggadah. And lest I am being unclear, let me say outright that I do not
equate the poetic process with aggadah, the scholar’s task with halakhah.
Rather, I see both poetry and scholarship as emerging from the creative
tension between the two. To the poet, the poem is at once a spontaneous
gift and a painstakingly shaped and crafted form; to the scholar, insight
comes, whether gradually or suddenly, as a merging of accrued knowledge
and reasoned thinking with inner understanding, acceptance, and belief.
And “spirituality” (that awful, limited, disembodied word we use to embrace
the wholeness of our most whole experiences) is, I believe, analogous to
(at times even identical with) the creative experience-an experience that
takes myriad forms (poetic, scholarly, scientific, and more). If The Book
of Blessings succeeds in fulfilling my intentions, it will stir in you
both the music “you have heard before”-the inner halakhah-and the “music”
you have not heard before”-the inner aggadah.

Reading Psalms, Hearing Psalms:
Thoughts Engendered by Herb Levine’s Sing Unto God a New Song

Benjamin D. Sommer
Department of Religion
Northwestern University

Evanston, IL

What does it mean to interpret a psalm? And what does it mean to write
a book that interprets psalms? Both of these questions are suggested, in
different ways, in Herbert Levine’s rich book, Sing unto God a New Song:
A Contemporary Reading of the Psalms (Indiana Studies in Biblical Literature;
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995). Levine goes beyond standard
approaches to the Book of Psalms, not simply in the sense that he employs
a literary or integrative method where others had confined themselves to
philology or comparative ancient Near Eastern studies, nor in the sense
that he revels in post-modern readings over New Critical or historicist
interpretations. Rather, he dismisses the narrow classification of psalms
as literary texts, reminding us that these poems were composed to be uttered,
to be heard, and to effect change in the lives of individuals, communities,
and God. Thus Levine finds older approaches to be useful but insufficient.
In order to understand psalms as psalms (rather than as poems or as exercises
in Northwest Semitic linguistics) he embraces perspectives from anthropology
and ritual studies, from history and phenomenology of religion, from speech-act
theory and from the work of philosophers and literary critics. Moreover,
he remembers that psalms continued and continue throughout Jewish history
to function – i.e., they were, and are, recited and listened to; worshipers
employed and employ them in order to alter the world; they served and serve
as the springboard for new dialogues with the divine. Especially in the
last chapter (“Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and Beyond: Psalms
and Jewish National Catastrophe”), he investigates not only the use to
which psalms are put in contemporary Judaism but responses to catastrophe
in modern Jewish philosophy and poetry which in some ways recall the reactions
to misfortune found in the Book of Psalms.

Other reviewers have summarized Levine’s work and have described the
successes his approach achieves. In this venue, therefore, I will prefer
to focus on a few problems suggested by this book, problems that challenge
contemporary scholars to ask themselves how they should integrate disparate
perspectives, how they relate to older scholarship, and more generally,
what it means to write a book about the Bible.

The strongest and most exciting aspect of Sing unto God a New Song strikes
me as comprising its greatest weakness as well. Levine utilizes many different
approaches, but the focus on these approaches themselves often drowns out
the ostensible topic of the book. Most chapters begin with lengthy summaries
of secondary literature (e.g., scholarship on the nature of the Israelite
sacrificial cult; surveys of the work of Bakhtin and Buber or Austin and
Searle), so that the Book of Psalms is altogether eclipsed in large parts
of the book (and nearly forgotten in much of the last chapter). More importantly,
even when a text from the Book of Psalms is being discussed, the author
frequently inserts a quotation from some theorist. The relevance of these
interpolations is clear: this idea of Bakhtin or that notion from Eliade
applies quite well to the psalm at issue; this sentence in Buber or that
paragraph from a speech-act theorist provokes the interpreter to see something
he might otherwise have missed. The question I wish to pose is whether
it makes sense to put all of this down on the page. Reading whatever theoretical
rumination generates each of Levine’s thoughts was, to me at least, somewhat
like having the computer code underlying my word-processing program suddenly
irrupt in the midst of my document. (I use Nota Bene, and this has actually
happened to me. You shouldn’t know from it.) Yes, I’m glad that a strong
conceptual foundation underlies what I’m reading, but uncovering the foundation
as we move along interrupts me more than it enriches my understanding of
the psalm. Isn’t this what footnotes and brief introductions describing
one’s methods are for? (Alternatively, I can imagine a book in which the
interpretations are at the center of the page and various quotes from theorists
surround it; such a model would be perfectly fitting in a book about Jewish
reading practices, and the trace of Glas would not be inappropriate, either.)
At times, the topic of a given chapter of Levine’s book becomes unclear;
I wonder as I read, what is it that I am supposed to be learning about:
the Book of Psalms? Bakhtin? Levine’s genuinely impressive erudition?

In another respect one gets the sense that the lenses have become the
main concern of the book more than the psalms that are on the slide: many
psalms are discussed several times throughout the book, once, say, from
the perspective of speech-act theory, later as an example of Bakhtinian
or Buberian dialogue, and again in light of Eliade’s ideas of the sacred
center. On the one hand, by examining a single text in different chapters
Levine highlights the contribution of each approach. But this practice
also yields a sense that integration is lacking. If the book is more than
an exercise or primer, I would hope that we could see several methods working
together; better yet, that we would read an interpretation of a psalm in
which various methods have already been synthesized so that a complex but
whole understanding of the psalm emerges. Some of Levine’s truly beautiful
ideas are obscured, I think, by the book’s methodological heaviness, by
Levine’s insistence on showing us all his cards throughout.

Two other problems left me somewhat uncomfortable as I read this book.
The Book of Psalms is textually and linguistically full of difficulties,
and almost any attempt at close reading (or here, better, close listening)
of a psalm needs either to confront these difficulties or to adopt someone
else’s solutions. Levine chooses the latter path, in general simply quoting
the NJPS translation without attending to alternative readings (whether
at text-critical or translational levels). This policy can lead to some
oddities (on page 140 Levine quotes the Masoretic Text together with the
NJPS version of Psalm 93:4, apparently not realizing that the latter does
not translate the former; NJPS assumes a Hebrew text reading ‘addir mimmishberei
yam, not ‘addirim mishberei yam). More importantly, Levine’s decision to
eschew textual nitty-gritty deprives him on occasion of grist for his interpretive
mill. I shall cite but one example. On pages 191-192 and elsewhere Levine
addresses the tension among various psalms regarding the timing of God’s
justice: until when will God permit evil to flourish? Levine notes that
Psalm 92 “takes the long view” regarding the divine time frame, which differs
from a limited, human time frame. Psalm 81, on the other hand, is said
to anticipate Israel’s redemption in “the present moment” if they obey
the covenant, since NJPS renders Psalm 81:14-15, “If Israel would follow
My paths, then I would subdue their enemies at once.” A closer look suggests
that Psalm 81:15 by itself reflects the tension Levine finds in his comparison
of Psalm 81 and Psalm 92. The word rendered in NJPS as “at once” (kim`at)
can also mean “easily” or “as a little thing;” thus Buber translates the
line, “Wie leicht zwnge ihre Feinde ich nieder.” (Cf. the Septuagint’s
ambiguous – indeed bizarre – rendering [en to: me:deni]; significantly,
the Septuagint does not translate kim`at here with a phrase meaning “quickly”
as it does for this word in Psalm 2:12 [en tachei], nor does it render
the word clearly as “like a trifle,” which we find in Psalm 73:2 [para
mikron].) Psalm 81 at first seems to make the manifestly unrealistic claim
that God’s justice is swift, and thus many a reader may regard the psalm
as naive. But it may be the readers, not the psalm, who are naive; the
Hebrew allows another translation that is perhaps less satisfying to the
sufferer but is ultimately more in tune with the tempo of the Eternal One
(and more honest to what we see around us in the world). This sort of productive
ambiguity within a text is often lost through Levine’s tendency to rely
on a single translation. Philology may seem deadly boring, and in the hands
of a philologist it often is; but in the hands of a sensitive reader like
Levine, it can be quite powerful, and its absence in this book is thus

In the first chapter of the book Levine surveys the history of interpretation,
and I must confess some discomfort at the degree of anti-Christian animosity
this survey displays. Each discussion of a Christian exegete, from antiquity
to modernity, contains some reference either to the exegete’s anti-Semitism
or to some interpretive sin he commits. As this survey presents it, Christians
either ignore the simple meaning (peshat) or “concede” it while emphasizing
their Christological eisegesis. They continued to do so even after they
“gained access” to peshat, which Levine seems to regard as a Jewish invention.
(In fact, as Eliezer Touitou and Sarah Kamin have shown, the flowering
of peshat-oriented exegesis among the rabbis in twelfth and thirteenth
century France was largely the result of hermeneutic practices and terms
which the rabbis borrowed from slightly earlier Christian exegetes in the
Abbey of St. Victor.) Levine does not deny that Jews also practiced eisegesis,
but his references to Jewish interpreters lack the snide language he employs
when discussing the Christians. Similarly, from reading this survey one
would not know that some modern Christian scholars of the Hebrew Bible
or Old Testament produce work quite untainted by anti-Semitism. Nor would
one realize that even the work of scholars who did allow disdain for Judaism
to influence them can nonetheless contain very enriching material. One
senses considerable surprise and anger on Levine’s part in this chapter.
While justified, these emotions seem to have blinded him to contributions
made by Christian scholars and to problematic aspects of Jewish scholarship
as well.

All these criticisms, I hasten to stress, should not be read as a condemnation
of the book, which is bold in its use of perspectives that are at once
fresh and fitting for the study of psalms, and which contains throughout
interpretive gems. My goal in this essay is not simply to review the book
(for that, see the standard journals) but to provoke some thoughts about
how we should go about investigating very old material in new and compelling
ways. What do we gain as we focus our readers’ attention so heavily on
our methods, and are those gains worthwhile? Must innovative methods entail
passing over timeworn ones? Much of Levine’s book is indeed new and compelling;
as other scholars attempt to follow his lead (whether in the study of psalms
or in other areas), can we avoid some pitfalls along the way?