Dr. Tzahi Weiss

On Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies welcomed Dr. Tzahi Weiss, associate professor of Jewish mysticism and Hebrew literature at the Open University of Israel, to speak about “Rethinking Kabbalah.”

In his lecture, Dr. Weiss posited that the development of a theosophy of ten sefirot [emanations], an attempt to systematize attributes of the Jewish God, was actually a conservative rabbinic measure. He explains that in the early 13th century, there were popular Jewish beliefs that the rabbis felt were problematic and even heretical. These beliefs included veneration of angels and upholding a binitarian belief system wherein God is conceived of having an upper part (ilat ha’ilot or sibat ha’sibot) and a lower part (metatron). By outlining a sefirotic theosophy while simultaneously emphasizing the unity of God and the necessity of praying to the one God himself, early kabbalists were trying to counter the problematic trends of their time.

Dr. Weiss’ understanding of the emergence of kabbalah differs from that of the standard understanding that treats kabbalah as a revolutionary new development rather than a conservative rabbinic response. In support of his understanding, Dr. Weiss noted that there are no early texts which criticize the system of the sefirot, per se.

Dr. Weiss details this theory in his book, Cutting the Shoots: The Worship of the Shechina in World of Early Kabbalistic Literature.

 

 

November 3, 2019

Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen ’89YC, ’89BR, ’94R, is a Rabbi at the Otniel Yeshiva in Israel and a leading figure in encounters between Judaism and Eastern religions.

In two lectures sponsored by the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, The Katz School of Science and Health, the Chinese-Jewish Conversation and The Confucius Institute at SUNY, Dr. Nagen expanded upon the idea that at its core, Judaism is a method of detecting truth through honest (rather than self-aggrandizing) disputation that, when done with sincerity and humility, integrates principles of “doing” (defined as an effort to fix things because the world is constantly under construction) and “being” (which he sees as a focus on the present moment) into a balanced and active life.

(l-r): Dr. Mordechai Cohen (professor of Bible; associate dean, Bernard Revel School of Jewish Studies; divisional coordinator of academic Jewish studies and Yeshiva College; and director of the Chinese-Jewish Conversation) and Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen

In “Introduction to Jewish Thought from Beijing and Shanghai,” delivered on Oct. 24, 2019, he spoke about his family’s connection to the Jews who went to Shanghai for refuge. This family history has made him sensitive to the ways in which the traditions of Israel and China complement each other, especially in their respect for a truth derived from an engagement with ancient wisdom.

Audience member at lecture by Rabbi Yakov Nagen
Enjoying the wit and wisdom of Rabbi Yakov Nagen

In “To Do and To Be: Judaism’s Integration of East and West,” on Oct. 28, 2019, he continued this train of thought by referring to the two stories of creation in the Bible, what Rabbi Dr. Joseph Soloveitchik referred to as Adam I and Adam II in The Lonely Man of Faith. “The world of Adam I,” said Dr. Nagen, “is a story about conquering and about separating and dividing time.” However, the world of Adam II is “timeless,” linked to the imagery of water and cyclical life. For Dr. Nagen, the two stories come together in the word “shalom,” with its knitting together into a dynamic whole the opposites of fire and water.

Much of the material in these lectures can be found in his book, Be, Become, Bless – Jewish Spirituality between East and West, where he converses with both Eastern spirituality and Western thinking in an attempt to create a synthesis that unifies “being” and “doing” in service to a search for truth.

 

Dr. Shalom HoltzDr. Shalom Holtz, professor of Bible at Yeshiva College and associate dean of academic affairs, has a new book coming out from Brown Judaic Studies. Titled Praying Legally, Dr. Holtz explained how “in the Hebrew Bible and related ancient sources prayer there is an opportunity to make one’s case before divine judges. Prayers were formulated using courtroom or trial language, including demands for judgment, confessions and accusations.” This use of legal language, he noted, “reveals ancient Near Eastern thoughts about what takes place when one prays.”

Dr. Holtz noted that “Praying Legally is a direct outgrowth of my earlier research on trial procedure attested in ancient Mesopotamian records. This book, and several other articles written along the way, draw out the connections between the language of earthly litigation and the ways humans address their petitions in the divine courtroom, through prayer. In the book, I emphasize how courtroom imagery in prayer allowed human speakers to ‘have their day in court’ and even question divine justice.”

 

One of the most famous works of Jewish philosophy from the Middle Ages is arguably Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. The Guide has been translated into many languages and has been a popular read among theologians and philosophers around the globe.

On Monday, Sept. 16, 2019, the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies invited Dr. Mark Steiner of Hebrew University of Jerusalem to discuss the true impact of Maimonides’ Guide on the work of the renowned Enlightenment philosopher David Hume.

Dr. Mark Steiner discussing Maimonides’ influence on philosopher David Hume

Dr. Steiner, who has authored multiple books relating to mathematics and philosophy, began the lecture exploring Maimonides’ opposition to the Mutakallimun, believers of a stream of Jewish and Islamic theology that attacked science in the service of religion.

At the beginning of his Shemoneh Perakim [Eight Chapters] and the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides explains that the Mutakallimun based their beliefs on what Dr. Steiner calls Axiom I: “Something is possible if, and only if, it is imaginable.” In other words, they determined what is possible not from reason but from imagination. Maimonides then went on to explain how science disproves Axiom I by demonstrating that something can be possible without it being imaginable.

Dr. Steiner pointed out that Dr. Michael Schwarz, scholar of medieval Islamic texts, found no expression of Axiom I in any texts of the Mutakallimun. By Maimonides’ lifetime, there had been no members of the Mutakallimun for over 100 years. Dr. Schwarz suggested that Maimonides reconstructed what the Mutakallimun should have believed, not what they actually believed, in order to distill their philosophy into clearer arguments that he subsequently refutes.

The only other place where Axiom I can be found in all philosophy is in the Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume, an 18th-century empiricist. Hume’s statement of “nothing we can imagine is absolutely impossible” is alien to both his rationalist predecessors and his empiricist colleagues, and as none of the Mutakallimun actually expressed their beliefs in such a way, it is plausible to suggest that Hume read one of the many translated copies of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. Steiner admitted that more investigation is necessary to determine if Hume had access to the Guide, but he believed there is enough evidence to suggest he did.

Though the Guide was not found in Hume’s personal library, it may be in the library Hume used while writing the Treatise. Steiner added that Hume knew of Maimonides since he read and quoted Pierre Boyle’s famous dictionary, which praises Maimonides.

For those well-read in philosophy, Dr. Steiner’s lecture piqued curiosity and shed light on the transmission of philosophical concepts throughout the ages. Only time will tell what other philosophical mysteries Dr. Steiner will uncover.

 

Rabbi Becher in Korea

This past summer two PhD candidates at Bernard Revel Graduate School coordinated a lecture in Seoul for Korean educators and graduate students interested in Jewish studies. The lecture was initiated by Jeong Mun Heo, a current doctoral candidate in Jewish Philosophy at Revel and a native of South Korea.  With the diverse background of computer science, mathematics, and Christian theology, one of Jeong’s current interests is Jewish learning methodologies, such as the chavruta system, where partners study together. Since the Korean educational system has a significant focus on rote memory, Jeong wanted to share the more interactive chavruta system with his Korean colleagues. Rabbi Mordechai Becher, a fellow doctoral student at Revel whose dissertation focuses on the historical development of laws of prayer, agreed to deliver the lecture. Rabbi Becher, currently senior lecturer at Gateways Organization and instructor at Yeshiva University, has a rich and varied resume of Jewish education and outreach, and was also passing through South Korea as scholar in residence for a Jewish tour there this summer. On August 13, 2019, seven Korean educators and graduate students attended and enjoyed Rabbi Becher’s lecture about the educational philosophy and history of chavruta learning. Rabbi Becher remarked, “It was a wonderful opportunity for some cultural exchange, and to explain some key aspects of Judaism to an educated group who had very little access to traditional Jewish thought.”