Science, Religion and God

February 17, 2010
Maimonides, Spinoza and Us

Maimonides, Spinoza and Us

by Charlotte Gordon

Who’s the better Jew? The Hassid who believes in the literal truth of the Bible, denies the findings of modern science and reprimands women who stray too far from the home or the Jew who goes to synagogue, observes the Sabbath, encourages his wife to get a PhD in astrophysics, and regards some of the Bible’s teachings as inapplicable to the modern world? If you said the Hassid, you are confusing literal-minded extremism with the true rabbinical tradition, writes modern orthodox Rabbi Marc D. Angel, Ph.D., in his courageous new book, Maimonides, Spinoza, and Us: Toward an Intellectually Vibrant Judaism (Jewish Lights: $24.99). Angel smokes Jewish fundamentalists out of their lair and systematically destroys their claims to authority with his brilliance and peerless scholarship.

Angel addresses many vital questions–the relationship between science and religion, the nature of God, tradition and change, faith and reason, and the “right” way to read the Torah. But perhaps the most disturbing issue he raises is the question of Jewish identity. Who is Jewish anyway? And who says so? The Israeli Chief Rabbinate refuses to acknowledge conversions performed by reform and conservative rabbis, as well as those orthodox rabbis who are not “orthodox” enough. According to Angel, many “Torah true” Jews support this stringent view of conversion because they believe the Jewish soul is intrinsically different from the non-Jewish soul. Pitting himself against this kind of xenophobic thinking, Angel urges readers toward greater inclusivity and openness.
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A Voice Called Reviewed in The Jerusalem Post

February 16, 2010
A Voice Called

A Voice Called

by Yocheved Miriam Russo

Philadelphia-born Yossi Katz made aliya in 1978. After spending 30 years as a Jewish educator, he found himself concerned about contemporary society, both here and in the US.

“For me, Jewish heroes were always my love and passion,” Katz says. “When I was growing up, astronauts and national leaders tended to be our role models. But today, kids identify people like Kim Kardashian or Bar Refaeli as people they admire. That’s a problem. Watching a TV show is fine, but when the lives of celebrities become a national obsession, then society has gone off the track. For more than 4,000 years, individual Jews have lived lives of dedication and heroism, so I set about compiling a book of stories of Jewish heroes whose inspirational lives were worthy of emulation.”

A Voice Called – from the Hannah Szenes poem, “A voice called and I went” – contains 32 bite-size chapters, each chronicling a heroic life in three or four pages. About a third are classic heroes – Theodor Herzl, Sarah Aaronsohn, Hannah Szenes. Another third are more or less contemporary figures – Ilan Ramon, Yoni Netanyahu, Naomi Shemer. The final third includes lesser known individuals such as Aliya Bet hero Murray Greenfield, fellow educator David Sprung and Operation Cast Lead hero Yonatan Ben-Amir.
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Silence, Music and Mysticism

February 15, 2010

Mysticism and Madness

Mysticism and Madness


by Zvi Leshem

Thirty-five years ago, as a college freshman in New York City, I wandered one evening into a small room at a Jewish home on campus, and discovered a small group of young people engaged in intense study of Lekutei Mohoran, the major work of the hassidic master Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, whose 200th yahrzeit will fall later this year. I was immediately mesmerized by his dazzling spiritual ideas and exegetical theories, and over the years the influence of “Reb Nahman” on me and countless others has only continued to grow.

Rabbi Nahman is, however, not only a significant spiritual inspiration for his thousands of followers worldwide, he has also been, for many decades, a figure of major interest to academic researchers dealing with Jewish and hassidic spirituality and mysticism. It is against this background that the English version of Dr. Zvi Mark’s first book on Nahman, Mysticism and Madness, makes its welcome appearance. Mark, senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, made headlines when he recently published for the first time, with the encouragement of the elders of the Bratslav community, Megillat Setarim, Nahman’s secret messianic treatise, in a critical edition.
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Review of Shabbat the Right Way: Resolving Halachic Dilemmas

February 14, 2010
Shabbat the Right Way

Shabbat the Right Way

by Israel Drazin

(Shabbat the Right Way: Resolving Halachic Dilemmas at Amazon.com)

The Jewish Sabbath, called Shabbat in Hebrew, is the most important day on the Jewish calendar. It recalls that God created the world and that God revealed laws, such as the Shabbat itself. Jews stress the staying power of Shabbat: more than a Jew keeps Shabbat, Shabbat keeps the Jew.

Shabbat has both positive and negative rules, procedures and ceremonies that Jews should practice, such as enjoying the day by wearing the finest clothes and eating and drinking good food and drink, and behaviors Jews should avoid, such as lighting fires, driving and working. The rabbis counted thirty-nine basic prohibitions, but both the positive and negative rules contain many minutiae. Rabbi Cohen addresses over 70 questions focusing on how various rabbis felt that these rules should be implemented. Rabbi Cohen states that he decides religious questions only after reviewing “proper religious sources” in an impartial manner without any preconceived desire to decide the issue leniently or stringently.
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Interview with Yael Unterman, Author of Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar

February 10, 2010
Yael Unterman

Yael Unterman

Yael Unterman, author of Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar, is a finalist winner of a 2009 National Jewish Book Award.

Q. What is something you would like readers to come away with after reading your book?

I’d like readers to be inspired by the great personality described in this book, and through this to get in touch with their own greatness. To realise that dedication and devotion to one’s passions and ideals can really change the world. I’d also like my book to become a resource for people researching various issues of interest such as Torah study, feminism, pedagogy, etc., such that the book enters the cultural discourse.

Q. Which teachers/educators/writers have had the greatest impact upon you?

Lots of different influences, but – for better or worse – not one outstanding guru. Of course, spending ten years in the company of Nehama Leibowitz left its mark on me; and I have also been influenced by the teachings of the Hasidic masters. My teachers in my MA in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan gave me some really helpful pointers in how to improve my writing style.
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Israel National News Reviews Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar

February 7, 2010
Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar

Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar

Review of Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar

by Chaim Seymour

In 1930, the newly-married Nehama Leibowitz left Germany and emigrated to what was then Palestine. There she taught Bible in a variety of different frameworks including university, radio, school, and her own one-woman large-scale correspondence course entitled “Gilyonot.” She unobtrusively played her part in a number of revolutions. Through her work, the Bible became important and relevant. For many Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox institutions, she was the first woman teacher. She was the recipient of the Israel Prize for Education in 1956.

Two weeks ago, I was at the Herzog Teacher Training College in Alon Shvut. Every summer they have a four-day “happening.” Each day some 1,500 people come to hear lectures about the Bible. Since most people do not come for four full days, we are probably talking about 3,000 people who are willing to travel to a remote spot and sit down voluntarily to listen to lectures on the Bible. This successful institution certainly owes something to Nehama.
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Was Nehama Leibowitz Too Traditional?

February 3, 2010
Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar

Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar

by Rabbi Gil Student

The final chapter in Yael Unterman’s Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar discusses the next generation(s) of scholarship after Nehama. It lists approaches and techniques that Nehama did not use but many of her students developed and adopted. This theme also comes up in some other chapters. It seems to me that the author was too sympathetic with these new approaches and failed to adequately defend Nehama. However, a few weeks ago I had a pleasant conversation with a prominent educator who is a Nehama traditionalist, and he gave me a spirited defense of Nehama’s approach.

The main competition for Nehama’s approach is that of R. Yoel Bin-Nun. R. Bin-Nun’s approach is described by R. Hayyim Angel in an article in Tradition (link). R. Bin-Nun and those who loosely follow his approach (and that of R. Mordechai Breuer) read the Bible with fresh eyes and, using a number of innovative methods, arrive at fascinating interpretations of familiar passages.
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