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Where the Debate on Modern Judaism Really Began

Friday, March 30, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Rabbi Barry Schwartz wrote about needing more Jewish debate and the first Jewish debate. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The mid-19th century in Germany is, to my mind, the most unappreciated period in Jewish history. The reason is simple: modern Judaism as we know it was born then and there. Do I exaggerate? I think not. Spinoza’s revolutionary thought in the mid-17th century certainly paved the way for new thinking (see Chapter VIII of my book). Mendelssohn’s attempts in the late 18th century to reconcile faith and reason lay the groundwork within the Jewish community. The early reforms of Israel Jacobson, along with the responses of the Parisian Sanhedrin to Napoleon in the first decade of the 19th century mark the irreversible first steps of putting theory into practice.

But modernity hits its stride in Judaism in the second decade of the 19th century. In 1817 the Hamburg Temple embraces reform of Judaism as its raison-de-entre. In 1819 Leopold Zunz establishes the pioneering Society for the Culture and Science of Judaism, which advocates for the academic study of our sacred texts and religious heritage. The same year a leading traditionalist rabbi, Moses Sofer, castigates this approach in his broadside Eleh Divrei Habrit. The grounds for the great debate have been set.

The debate truly unfolds over a ten year period (1836-1846) between three giants of modern Judaism who were contemporaries, and actually knew and liked each other (until their disagreements drove them apart). Rabbi Abraham Geiger began arguing that Judaism has always evolved and should continue to change with the times. He called for radical shifts to meet the demands of modernity, including the critical study of Torah, the elimination of outdated prayers and customs, and the equal treatment of men and women. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, while acknowledging the need to engage in secular learning in the new age, contended that Judaism’s truths and law was eternal and not subject to evolution. Rabbi Zecharias Frankel, an advocate of “moderate reform” famously stormed out of an 1845 conference in Frankfort over the elimination of Hebrew from some of the liturgy.

Rabbis Geiger, Hirsch, and Frankel became known, respectfully, as the “fathers” of Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative Judaism. The spectrum of modern denominational Judaism was born in that time and place. Chapter IX of my book chronicles this remarkable debate. While the central locale of the debate would soon shift to America it was these three German Jewish leaders, through their sermons, books, and organizational activities who set the stage. Though hardly household names in the Jewish community today we owe a debt of gratitude to their great debate. I once taught a course about them called “The Three Tenors of Modern Judaism.” Their magnificent voices created the opera we sing today.

Rabbi Barry Schwartz is director of The Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia and rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ. He is the author of Judaism’s Great Debates (Behrman House, March 2012 student edition; Jewish Publication Society, May, 2012 adult edition).

New Book Club Theme: Jews in America

Thursday, March 29, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

A partial list is below. To view the complete list, please click here.


The First Jewish Debate

Wednesday, March 28, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Rabbi Barry Schwartz wrote about needing more Jewish debate. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The first Jewish debate never ceases to amaze me. I am of course referring to the great debate between Abraham and God as recorded in Chapter 18 of Genesis. While Abraham’s epic story is remarkable, there is nothing in the prior (or subsequent) biblical narrative to indicate that the patriarch will challenge so boldly the God who commands his life so thoroughly. This is the quintessential man of faith, after all, who unquestioningly sets forth to a new land and submits even to the command to sacrifice his beloved son with nary a word of objection.

So when quite suddenly “Abraham came forward” (18:23) and dares God to morally justify the collective punishment of Sodom-well that is astonishing! “Will You sweep away the innocent with the guilty?” he pointedly asks in the same verse. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” he passionately exclaims two verses later. Abraham holds his ground as the debate goes back and forth concerning the minimum number of innocent people it would take to save the city.

The abrupt and apparently truncated conclusion to the debate (see 18:33) shifts the enigma of Abraham to the enigma of God. Does the Judge of all the earth in fact act justly? Do some innocent perish with the wicked? Were the wicked beyond repentance and mercy? Were the ordinary citizens of Sodom equally evil?

Who, then, won this debate? Certainly Abraham leaves quite a legacy. Abraham could easily have looked the other way. He could have idly stood by. Instead he decides to stand up to God no less, his guide and protector. In the words of Naomi Rosenblatt this story is about “the power of one man of integrity to be the conscience of the world.” In the words of Elie Wiesel “the Jew opts for Abraham-who questions- and for God-who is questioned…knowing that he may oppose God as long as he does so in defense of His creation.”

The Sages coined an expression for challenging God in the spirit of Abraham, “hutzpah k’lape shmaya- boldness (even nerviness) toward heaven.” This legacy of “holy hutzpah” finds expression throughout Jewish literature, but especially in Eastern European Hasidic tales like Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s “Din Torah mit Got-Lawsuit with God,” and in another tale where he tells a simple tailor who challenged the Almighty in prayer, “Why did you let God off so easily? You might have forced God to save all of Israel!”

Rabbi Barry Schwartz is director of The Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia and rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ. He is the author of Judaism’s Great Debates (Behrman House, March 2012 student edition; Jewish Publication Society, May, 2012 adult edition). 

Chaim Grade on Yiddish Literature

Tuesday, March 27, 2012 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The National Yiddish Book Center just passed along this great video of Chaim Grande on Yiddish Literature. Plus, check out YBC's upcoming weekend course on Grade, with Justin Cammy, Joseph Berger of the Times, and others here.

Book Cover of the Week: Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me

Tuesday, March 27, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Harvey Pekar's final memoir, featuring JT Waldman, will be available in July from Hill & Wang:

Harvey Pekar’s mother was a Zionist by way of politics. His father was a Zionist by way of faith. Whether handing out communist pamphlets, attending Zionist picnics, or going to daily Hebrew classes, Pekar grew up a staunch supporter of the Jewish state. But he was also an autodidact from the moment he could read, and as he grew up he confronted more and more questions his parents couldn’t answer. Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me interweaves Pekar’s gradual disaffection with the modern state of Israel with a comprehensive history of the Jews, from biblical times to the present. Told over the course of a single day in Cleveland, Ohio, the graphic novel follows Pekar and the book’s illustrator, JT Waldman, as they wrestle with the mythologies and realities surrounding the Jewish homeland. Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me is a graphic memoir from the man who defined the genre.

We Need More Jewish Debate, Not Less

Monday, March 26, 2012 | Permalink
Rabbi Barry Schwartz is director of The Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia and rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ. He is the author of Judaism’s Great Debates (Behrman House, March 2012 student edition; Jewish Publication Society, May, 2012 adult edition). 

Some will tell you that we need less debate in the Jewish community; that for the sake of unity we need to stifle dissent and limit the amount we argue. I say that we need more debate, not less, and that we will emerge the stronger for it. But what we need is the right kind of debate….

My new book, Judaism’s Great Debates, posits that debate is not only desirable but is central to Judaism. Abraham, Moses, Ben Zakkai, Hillel, the Vilna Gaon, Geiger, Herzl… heroes of every era of Jewish history are engaged in great debates. Moreover the Talmud is replete with debate; it is at the very core of rabbinic reasoning. Indeed it is the Talmud that coins a unique Jewish expression, makhloket l’shem shamayim-an argument for the sake of heaven. The tractate Avot famously teaches: “Every debate that is for the sake of heaven will make a lasting contribution. Every debate that is not for the sake of heaven will not make a lasting contribution.” (5:20) Our sages understood that a debate for the right reasons enhances Judaism. A debate for the wrong reasons detracts from Judaism.

Perhaps the most famous debating pair in Jewish history was Hillel and Shammai (after Abraham and God that is). In actuality it was not these two sages but their disciples that did most of the arguing. A wonderful passage in tractate Eruvin states: “For three years there was a dispute between Beit Hillel and Bet Shammai, the former asserting, the law is in agreement with our views, and the latter contending, the law is in agreement with our views. Then a voice from heaven announced: eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim hayim, both are the words of the living God.” Deep respect is given to both schools because both sides are speaking the truth as they see it, and have the welfare of the community in mind.

Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that although in practice one viewpoint will usually prevail (the law went according to Beit Hillel almost every time), “both views will have permanent value because…[they] shed new light on the issue under debate, and will have contributed to the attainment of the proper understanding of the question discussed. They shall be remembered as…advancing the cause of the genuine knowledge of truth.” Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav went even further, calling debate a holy form of communication because it echoes the divine process of tzimtzum, making space for the creation of something new. Just as God enters into an act of self-limitation in order to make possible the created world, so worthy debaters restrain themselves in order to make room for opposing viewpoints. As Rabbi Or Rose comments, “When we disagree with one another, when we take sides, we create the necessary space for the emergence of new and unexpected ideas. Without makhloket…the horizon of human discovery would be severely limited.”

What your mother taught you is true: you can disagree without being disagreeable. A true debater must respectfully listen to the opposing viewpoint in order to articulate a response. A true debate is a conversation, not a yelling match. Would we only remember the next time we get into a Jewish debate that despite our differences we are actually on the same team, that because of our differences we will emerge more enlightened, that our arguments are for the sake of heaven, and that in the very act of debate we are echoing the divine!

Rabbi Barry Schwartz will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Passover Giveaway!

Friday, March 23, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Looking for a great afikomen gift? Well, we've got it. It's Lesléa Newman's newest book, A Sweet Passover, which features Miriam, who is "sick, sick, sick, of matzah," until she learns "why we eat unleavened bread during the eight days of Passover"...

We're giving away one signed copy of A Sweet Passover, which you can win by posting your favorite Passover recipe below (or a link to one), a link to your favorite Passover recipe on Twitter using hashtag #JBCBooks, or on our Facebook page. A winner will be chosen at random on Tuesday, March 27th. 

And, to get the juices flowing, we've included the recipe for "The Best Matzoh Brei in the World," as told to the author by her father:

This is a fun meal to make with the help of an adult. Always make sure an adult helps you when you are cutting items and using the stove or other hot surface.

This recipe makes one large matzah brei.


7 pieces of matzah
warm water
3 eggs
¼ cup milk
pinch of salt (optional)
2 tbsp butter

toppings such as applesauce, sugar and cinnamon, maple syrup, sour cream, and salt and pepper


Large mixing bowl
Small mixing bowl
2 large plates
fork or whisk
measuring cup
mixing spoon
frying pan

Break up seven pieces of matzah into small pieces and soak in warm water in the large bowl for one minute. Then drain by covering the bowl with a large plate and tipping it to let the excess water run out.

Using the fork or whisk, beat three eggs together in the small bowl with the milk and a pinch of salt (optional), and then add this mixture to the crumbled, drained matzah. Mix together well.

In a large frying pan, melt the butter

Pour the matzah brei mixture into the frying pan. Spread it out evenly so that it resembles a large pancake. Cover and cook over a very low heat for about ten minutes, until crisp and brown on one side (raise the edge of the matzah brie with a spatula to check if it’s crisp and brown).

When the matzah brei is cooked on one side, turn it over by placing the other large plate over the pan and then flipping the whole thing over. While the matzah brei is on the plate, add more butter to the frying pan, if necessary. Then slide the matzah brei from the plate back into the pan to cook the other side. Again, cover and cook over very low heat for about ten minutes.

When the second side of the matzah brei is crisp and brown, it is done. Cut into wedges and serve with applesauce, sugar and cinnamon, maple syrup, sour cream, or salt and pepper. Essen In gezunt!

Is the Synagogue a Relic of the Past?

Friday, March 23, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz wrote about prayer and activism and prioritizing the vulnerable in justice. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Many Jews today claim that they are “spiritual not religious,” that organized religion is not relevant, or that they would rather spend their free time alone than with others. Those who attend synagogue weekly often reserve the service, especially the sermon, for a special naptime. Others prefer a 20–person basement setting for a quick prayer service rather than a formal, large gathering at shul. Around two-thirds of Americans claim to be members of a house of worship, which is more than 25% higher than Jewish synagogue membership. Is the synagogue becoming extinct? If so, should we seek to prevent extinction?

At its worst, synagogue is rife with factionalism and small-mindedness, a place to mumble irrelevant words and snooze during an out of touch sermon, and later nosh on stale chips at Kiddush while discussing the stock market and the latest gossip. Synagogues spend their limited funds on plaques, high-end scotch and a new social hall rather than on adequately paying staff and investing in learning programs. Congregants drive $50,000 cars but request assistance on the membership dues. The experience is predictable, tedious, and boring. It resembles a business transaction, where one has paid membership dues for the right to services, more than a sacred obligation. The staff and board do not lead with Jewish values but act as management as if the congregation was just another business venture. The ritual is empty and the action is either inadequate or nonexistent.

Leading such a congregation is virtually impossible. The rabbi is required to perform four full-time jobs, take 3 A.M. phone calls, act as the scapegoat for all failures, and also please each congregant while handling critiques with a smile. Congregants are forthcoming with complaints, but few volunteer when they can watch the football game on television. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel observed: “The modern temple suffers from a severe cold. The services are prim, the voice is dry, the temple is clean and tidy…no one will cry, the words are stillborn.”

Some see patterns of dysfunction. Professor James Kugel identified three kinds of harmful synagogues: the 1) “Ceremonial Hall Synagogue,” 2) “Nostalgia Center,” and 3) “Davening Club.” In the Ceremonial Hall, the congregants neither care to participate nor learn about what is really going on; they just wish to be an entertained audience. Mimicking a Broadway show, shul becomes entertainment, and the rabbi and cantor get a score for their performance. At the Nostalgia Center, the rabbi is often the youngest one present, and Judaism is about sitting where one’s grandfather sat, saying kaddish, and telling old Yiddish jokes. Everything is wrong but nothing should be changed. The congregation’s traditions and customs trump shared values, meaning, connection, and opportunities for growth. At the Davening Club, there is a false semblance of prayer intensity, but it more closely resembles a mumble-festival, without any real spiritual uplift.

On the other hand, at its best, shul can be a transformative spiritual experience. Eager congregants roll up their sleeves to build the community, providing an open, relevant experience for all. Prayer centers can be welcoming, participatory, and collaborative. Most importantly, a strong synagogue is driven by shared values and a sense of mission and purpose. Congregants look inside the walls of the prayer community for intimate connection and reciprocal comfort, and look outside for opportunities to reach out and give back. Peter Steinke, author of Healthy Congregations, explains that congregations need to move from being clergy-focused to mission-focused. Rather than relying upon clergy to inspire and entertain the congregation, everyone is involved in a system of involvement, encouragement, and teaching.

A healthy congregation takes effort to build. A diverse population attends shul for very different reasons: children, singles, empty nesters, intermarried families, etc. Each population must be honored and be given a seat at the table. Too often, the elderly members of the congregation complain that there are not enough young people at the congregation to “keep the tradition alive”; to improve, they must be willing to adapt the experience to invite a new audience.

For the synagogue to survive and be relevant in the 21st century, congregants must seek authentic prayer experiences, enrichment through learning, and a contribution to community building. One does not just show up when convenient, but to support others consistently. Do not sit back and blame a poor prayer experience on the rabbi. If you find yourself unable to achieve meaningful prayer, learning, and volunteer experiences, consider changing shuls (and search within yourself). The heart must actually be open if one wishes to be inspired. But do not quit the synagogue enterprise — it has survived thousands of years for a reason.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the founder and president of Uri L'Tzedek. His book, Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century, is now available.

Five Jewish Writers Walk Into a Bookstore...

Thursday, March 22, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Joseph Winkler

A Jewish joke: what do you get when you stick five contemporary, talented Jewish writers on a panel?

A. 10 opinions on what constitutes a Jewish writer.
B. A very stale and bad Jewish joke.
C. A dynamic, entertaining, and insightful panel that explored the cross sections of Jewish identity and literature.
D. All of the above.

If you guessed D, you win a badge of pride (good joke, I know.) Last night at the Housing Works on Crosby Street - dubbed “best bookstore, perhaps ever” by the panelists – the Jewish Book Council in conjunction with Vol. 1 Brooklyn hosted an event entitled The New Yiderati: Redefining the Jewish Experience in Literature. (Sidepoint: If I had to choose a bookstore to go all From the Mixed Up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler on, I would definitely choose the Housing Works bookstore because of its romantic setting full of rich mahogany bookshelves.) Speaking to over fifty people, the five authors - Michelle Haimoff (These Days Are Ours), Sharon Pomerantz (Rich Boy), Joanna Smith Rakoff (A Fortunate Age), Adam Wilson (Flatscreen), Jeffery Oliver (Failure to Thrive) - along with moderator Jason Diamond opined on a range of issues including a working definition of Jewish literature, questions of supposed obligations to the Jewish community, and the burgeoning role of Jewish women writers. Like all great Jewish discussions, the conversation worked off a tension between innovation and tradition, though the tradition in mind was more the literary Jewish tradition than the religious one.

For example: How do you create a satire of Jewish, wealthy suburbia with the shadow of Philip Roth looming over your writing? As women authors, how do you situate yourself in a largely patriarchal literary tradition, especially if Grace Paley and Cynthia Ozick were just not doing it for you as an aspiring artist? What’s the difference between a Jewish novel and a Jewy novel? On the whole, everyone provided fodder for further thought, although some authors nailed specific questions. Jeff Oliver explained what “Jewy” meant with his insightful comedic style: "If it makes me feel full of dread, anxiety and terror, then it feels pretty Jewy to me." "How Jewish is 'too Jewish' in literature?" (perhaps the ultimate Jewish literary question) elicited a range of smart answers, but none as sharp as Adam Wilson’s "If you find yourself more Jewish than Larry David then your book might be too Jewish." What emerged amongst the hodgepodge of responses was a consensus that our society, especially the literary subculture, has moved past the question of Jewish identity into a period in which Jewish characters simply represent part of the American experience. Thankfully, we live in an era where Jewish characters need not wear flashing neon signs announcing their Jewishness to the world.

At these type of panel events, the audience hopes that the speakers themselves will pick up the questions and run with them, creating fluid natural conversations not bound by the original questions. Last night’s panel did not disappoint. The most contentious question of the night, concerning the role of women in the Jewish novel, elicited a fun, lively argument about the portrayal of women in novels. These probing critical questions forced some of the authors to explain their choices in writing parts of their novels, but what’s a good Jewish event without some modest argumentation?

Overall, the event balanced a sense of seriousness with a cool insouciance appropriate for a panel of this kind. Many of the writers sprinkled jokes throughout their answers, jokes that yes, in a Jewish manner, provided stellar answers albeit in an indirect way, ending on questions, working off circularity. While many of the questions and answers still require digestion (and my intuition tells me that the questions asked were more conversation starters, intellectual icebreakers, than questions demanding concrete answers), the event did provide one answer to an implicit question overhanging the event: yes, Jewish writers are not only alive and writing en masse but are thriving, thinking, and publishing important works, which I think we can all agree is a cause for celebration.

Joseph Winkler is a freelance writer living in New York City. He writes for Vol.1 Brooklyn, The Huffington Post, Jewcy, and other sites. While not writing, Joe is getting a Masters in English Literature at City College. To support his extravagant lifestyle, Joe also tutors and unabashedly babysits. Check out his blog at

Do We Prioritize the Vulnerable in Justice?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz wrote about prayer and activism. This week, the Amazon Kindle version of his book Jewish Ethics & Social Justice is only $1.99!

In Jewish law, we are told that it is unjust to be biased and be swayed by poverty, to favor the case of the poor over the rich in a dispute. Within the realm of a formal court’s judgment this is crucial (Exodus 23: 3, 6). However, does this notion still apply today, where the disparity of wealth between the poor and the rich has become so large that the poor often can no longer properly advocate for themselves?

This notion of equality before the law is mostly a fallacy today in America, since the poor have such a serious disadvantage in the courtroom. The New York Times reported that more than 90% of criminal cases are never tried before a jury; most people charged with crimes just plead guilty, forfeiting their constitutional rights. The prosecution usually promises to give a deal to those who plead guilty and go all-out against anyone who tries to go to trial. It is simply cheaper to plead guilty than to try to pay for legal counsel.

Every individual should have the same fair opportunity before the law, because we must be committed to truth and justice. But this is not the reality today. Even if it were true, Judaism teaches that we must go over and above the law (lifnim mishurat hadin) to support those more vulnerable (Bava Metzia 83a). Furthermore, we learn that G-d created and destroyed many worlds that were built upon the foundation of din (judgment), and then G-d finally created this world built upon rachamim (mercy) (Rashi to Genesis 1:1). Our world can’t exist on pure judgment, rather, as fallible beings we rely upon the grace, empathy, and kindness of G-d and man.

We must be moved toward mercy for those who are suffering, and this must affect how we build society. President Obama explained the importance of empathy in jurisprudence when choosing Supreme Court justices: “I will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook; it is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives. I view the quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes.” Law is not only about principle, it is also about life.

This is all the more true outside of the courtroom. Within the realm of Jewish grassroots activism, we learn that our primary responsibility is not equality, but to prioritize our support for the vulnerable.

Numerous Jewish teachings remind us that our primary responsibility is to protect and prioritize the most vulnerable individuals and parties: “G-d takes the side of the aggrieved and the victim” (Ecclesiastes 3:15). When there is conflict, G-d simply cannot withhold support for the one suffering.

Rav Ahron Soloveichik writes: “A Jew should always identify with the cause of defending the aggrieved, whosoever the aggrieved may be, just as the concept of tzedek is to be applied uniformly to all humans regardless of race or creed” (Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind, 67).

This is what it means to be Jewish, to prioritize the suffering in conflict.

This point is made time and time again by the rabbis. The Talmud, based on the verse “justice, justice, you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20), teaches that the disadvantaged should be given preference when all else is equal. The Rambam teaches that even if the disadvantaged arrive later than other people, they should be given precedence (Sanhedrin 21:6, Shulhan Arukh CM 15:2).

Thus, in a court of law, all parties are ideally treated equally, as we are guided by the Jewish value of din (judgment); today, however, justice does not prevail. Further, in activism we must favor the vulnerable, since we are guided by the Jewish value of chesed (empathy, loving kindness). In life, we must learn to balance all of our values: love, justice, mercy, etc. In justice, we do not just choose one guiding principle: As Isaiah Berlin teaches, moral life consists of embracing a plurality of values.

We must always be absolutely committed to the truth and be sure that our justice system is fair for all parties. Yet we also, as changemakers, have a special and holy role to give voice to the voiceless and to support the unsupported in society. This is the role of Jewish activism. The rabbis teach that “Even if a righteous person attacks a wicked person, G-d still sides with the victim” (Yalkut Shimoni). All people deserve our love and care but we must follow the path of G-d and make our allegiances clear: with the destitute, oppressed, alienated, and suffering.

You can now purchase Rav Shmuly’s book Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.