Is there a Modern Orthodox philosophical canon, a list of books that comprehensively represents Modern Orthodoxy’s philosophical outlook? This is presumably a question that occupied Dr. Stuart Halpern while organizing, assembling, and editing “Books of the People” (BP), a collection of essays discussing twelve important philosophical books or authors from the Jewish tradition. In the preface he writes: “While the list of books discussed in this work is not exhaustive, nor does it represent a formal canon in any way, it reflects the changing priorities and religious sensibilities of readers and students, whether in the academy or among the general population” (BP, x). If there is such a canon, Halpern says, this book is not it. It is, however, something not altogether different. If a canon determines which books are should or should not read (for whatever purposes), then BP does the opposite; it is a list of books based on what the community is already reading. As such, examining it can perhaps tell us a good deal about this community, namely, Modern Orthodoxy. Given the incredible degree of variation in the forms and styles of the various essays, I want to use this review to look at some recurring themes and what Modern Orthodoxy’s reading habits have to say about the community writ large, rather than focusing on individual essays.
“Faith Shattered and Restored” is the first major English publication of writings of Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, known more colloquially as “Rav Shagar.” Rav Shagar (1950-2007) was a Religious Zionist thinker, teacher, and rosh yeshivah who was known for incorporation Hasidut and Postmodernism into his understanding of Judaism. This was part of his effort to shape a religious language for the Jews of our time, one that would resonate with our tradition and our daily lives (for more on that linguistic project, see my post on it and the conclusion to my longer essay on his understanding of “accepting the yoke of Heaven”). Such a language would feel like home to contemporary Jews, or at least the ones Shagar had in mind. Significantly, this suggests that if Rav Shagar’s unique combinations of tradition and philosophy do not speak to you, in translation or otherwise, then you are simply not his intended audience. That said, there is still much to be gained from how Rav Shagar tackles each individual topic (such as pluralism, providence, romance, or doubt), even if his overall project does not speak to you.
Getting to the heart of the matter, the most important thing to understand about this volume is that it was intended for an American Modern Orthodox audience, something that I think helps explain a few issues with the book. First is the selection/inclusion of the first essay in the book, “Uncertainty as the Trial of the Akedah.” Based on my own experience, and backed up by numerous conversations with other readers, the essay is hard to follow, and at the end it’s not entirely clear what Rav Shagar wanted to convey to his audience. This is not a problem with the translation, however, as the reading experience of the original Hebrew is just the same, begging the question why it was selected for inclusion in the translation. While the essay deals with important ideas, the real answer, I think, lies in the fact that in this essay Rav Shagar explicitly puts himself in dialogue the thought of Rav Soloveitchik, exemplar of American Modern Orthodoxy. The essay thus enables readers to begin to locate Rav Shagar in relation to Rav Soloveitchik’s thought, with which they are likely more familiar.
A second issue this helps explain is Rav Shalom Carmy’s afterword. The afterword is striking in that it is clear that Rav Carmy bears no particular love for Rav Shagar, and is perhaps more interested in how Rav Shagar can be used to critique the progressive end of Orthodoxy. While neither of these aspects is necessarily problematic, one might have expected a more sympathetic afterword from the first major publication of Rav Shagar’s writings in English. What explains this afterword (the reader will have to decide for herself if this justifies it) is that Rav Carmy is one of the people best acquainted with both Rav Shagar’s writings and the state of American Modern Orthodoxy. Most of the afterword is dedicated to showing how Rav Shagar’s thought fits in (or doesn’t) with more familiar works and thinkers, an effort that the average reader will no doubt appreciate.
A final issue that needs to be understood in this light is a paragraph from the essay “Religious Life in the Modern Age” which is troubling due to its absence from the original Hebrew version of the essay:
I should add that in discussing Modern Orthodoxy I refer not only to the American scene. For decades, Modern Orthodoxy in the United States and national religious Judaism in Israel constituted two distinct movements. However, with the rise in the standard of living in Israel, and as the country is swept by Western cultural influences, I predict that the differences between the two groups will erode, along with the differences between the challenges they both face. (Faith Shattered and Restored, p.43-44)
When I asked the translator about the appearance of this paragraph in the English essay, he said that it was a footnote the editors decided needed to be in the body of the essay itself, and it’s easy to see why. Rav Shagar did not speak, or even read, English, and he did not ever travel to America. Absent a specific statement to the contrary, it would be perfectly sensible to assume that his sociological statements were specific to Israeli Jewry, and that no extrapolations to American Jewry could or should be made. Since this book is intended for an American audience, it was worth the slight change to emphasize that Rav Shagar’s statements apply to both communities, and Rav Shagar’s citations of Rav Soloveitchik in this context would seem to bear this out. Notably, I have not yet been able to locate this footnote in the original Hebrew text (published as “Halakhah, Halikhah, ve-Emunah” in the collection of Hanukkah Sermons, “Le-Ha’ir Et ha-Petahim”), and if anyone locates it I would greatly appreciate the reference.
The fact that the book is aimed at an American Modern Orthodox audience does not just solve issues, it also raised a few of its own. By way of example, there were two translations that struck me as being very problematic (against the background of an otherwise excellent and readable translation throughout). The first essay translates the word “רציונליות,” in context of the practice of putting non-verbal experience into words, as “rationalism” when it should be “rationality.” What makes this worth pointing out is that “rationalism” has specific connotations in the American Modern Orthodox community where “rationalism” immediately recalls “rationalist judaism” and specific positions on issues of Torah and science. Whether “רציונליות” should be translated as “rationalism” or “rationality” might be debatable in the abstract, but for this audience it becomes obvious and important to translate it as “rationality.”
A second translation issue is the translation of the word freier (פראייר) as “gull.” The word freier, roughly referring to a person who lets themselves get taken advantage of, is so central in Israeli culture that it has its own Hebrew wikipedia page. The word “gull” (the noun form of “gullible”), on the other hand, peaked in popularity in 1922 and has been in steady decline since 1963, to the point where I had to look it up when I read it. While the best translation of the word could be debated (I like “loser”), translating a culturally important term with one that is culturally non-existent is incredibly problematic (it’s worth noting that this seems to have been a change made by a later editor rather than the original translator).
This handful of critiques should not overshadow how grateful I am that Maggid decided to publish this translation. I’ve spent the last few years deeply immersed in the writings of Rav Shagar, and I think they have a lot to offer the English speaking world of American Jewry. The selection of essays in Faith Shattered and Restored is broad, and touches on many of Rav Shagar’s most unique ideas, including his head-on tackling of relativism and his embrace of science-fiction literature as a new mythology that provides a mystical, almost messianic, reading experience. It includes his unique understanding of bitahon as a sense of security that in reality secures nothing (for more on this, see my translation of one of his Purim derashot), and a fascinating proposal regarding the role of the Jews in the global order of nations. It does not include his extensive discussions and critiques of Zionism and the modern state of Israel, but that is understandable for a book aimed at an American audience. Taken as a whole, the book is not perfect, but it is a good start, and I hope to see more translated volumes of Rav Shagar’s writings in the future.
What is the relationship between Prophecy and History? This is question that underlies Rabbi Hayyim Angel’s “Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi” (HZM), a newly-released commentary on the three biblical books by the same names. These books are traditionally considered to be the latest of the of the Bible’s prophetic writings, attributed to prophets living in Israel toward the beginning of the Second Temple Era. Angel’s basic approach to understanding the often obscure oracles in these books is to understand them against the background of their historical context. To this end, HZM includes several sections dedicated to explicating passages from Ezra and Nehemiah, as well as a chapter-length analysis of the book of Esther. These books are more historical in style than the prophetic oratories of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, and Angel analyzes them to create a historical context for interpreting the other books. Then, in the sections dedicated to understanding the prophetic oracles, Angel both analyzes the details of each prophet’s visions and explains the historical situation to which each prophet was speaking.
Throughout the book, Angel paints a vivid picture of the spirit of the nation in the period of the Second Temple discussed in the biblical texts, a picture he divides into two distinct eras. The first era is based on the book of Haggai and the first parts of the books of Ezra and Zechariah. In this era, the prophets are dealing with a people who are entirely obedient, but are preoccupied with “glory” (Angel uses this word throughout, presumably thinking of the common English translation of Yeshayahu 6:3, such as it appears in the King James Bible: “And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”). The prophets are therefore consistently occupied with attempts to convince the people that, despite the destruction of the first temple and the ultimately lackluster second temple, God reigns supreme throughout the world. This job is made particularly difficult in the face of Persia reigning supreme throughout the world in a more empirically verifiable manner. In the face of this empirical reality, the prophets agree that Persia currently reigns, but they attribute Persia’s dominance over the Jewish people to the sinfulness of the Jews themselves. From this follows the prophets’ promise/prediction that if the people can maintain proper behavior, a messianic king will rise in the near future to restore the Jews sovereignty and to make God’s glory obvious for all to see.
These prophecies become the locus of an important discussion throughout the book, namely, the meaning of prophecies that did not come true. Angel sets up two approaches to this topic, both of which have support in classical sources. The first approach, which is probably the more widespread in Orthodoxy today, understands that when a prophecy fails to manifest itself (or a positive prophecy, at the very least), it means that we simply misunderstood the prophecy, which was really referring to the future.When Haggai talked about “the Branch” that will be the messianic king, we would be mistaken to think that he meant his contemporary Zerubavel. According to this approach, a prophecy cannot fail to come true; if one does seem to have failed to manifest, that just means that we, the readers, misunderstood the prophecy.
The second approach, which Angel attributes to the Malbim and other traditional figures, as well as texts in Tanakh, understands that prophecies are directed to a specific moment in time, and they have a meaning that is obvious at that time. When Haggai talked about “the Branch,” he really was talking about his contemporary, Zerubavel. However, prophecies are not definite promises or divine fiat. Instead, this approach argues that prophecies are meant to inform the people of the potential nestled within their historical moment. Haggai isn’t promising that Zerubavel will be the Messiah, he’s saying that Zerubavel could be the Messiah. If the potential fails to manifest, that is because the people failed to do what was necessary in order to bring the prophets’ visions to fruition. The vision is recorded in Tanakh not because it tells us, Tanakh’s readers, about specific historical events yet to come, but because of what it tells about the potential that has inhered in past historical moments, and is destined to emerge again in our future. It is this second approach that Angel takes throughout HZM, and it turns his interpretive focus from the nature of the predicted events to the actions of the people that caused those potential events to wither on the vine.
Whether because of religious/ethical sins (such as intermarriage) or more concrete political sins (like the majority of Jews who stayed in Babylonia instead of returning to Judea), the promised return of widespread Divine glory simply never appeared (Angel brings these two suggestions from a variety of commentators). This initiated the second era that Angel depicts, based on the books of Esther and Nehemiah, as well as later parts of the book of Ezra. In this period, the people have the same problem of the absence of God’s glory, which is much worse now that the second temple has been a disappointment and Zerubavel has failed to amount to anything significant. This gloomy atmosphere is matched in the prophecies of Zechariah and Malachi from the time, which do not promise immanent political redemption like Haggai and Zechariah once did. Instead these prophecies reject the people’s basic assumptions about the nature of Divine dominance.
Whereas the earlier prophecies had accepted the people’s basic problem that God’s dominance was not evident and reassured the people that the evidence would be arriving shortly, these prophecies challenge the people’s evaluation of reality. Who says that God’s dominance of history has be obvious the way human political dominance is? Maybe Persian political success does not impinge upon Divine supremacy. Maybe the covenant between God and the people of Israel transcends such limited understandings of “success.” This is the basic idea that the prophecies of the second era are trying to get across, according to Angel. More concretely, the prophets tell the people that the situation on the ground, Israel’s subjugation to Persia, is not going away, but that this doesn’t mean anything about their relationship with God. God is just as much with them and just as all-powerful as God was before the destruction of the first temple. Their political situation is a purely political problem, and the prophets do promise/predict an eventual political savior, but the political problem has no theological significance. The hope for redemption has been deferred indefinitely, and that’s ok.
The idea that there is no theological significance to political success (or failure), has its roots in books of Tanakh that Angel doesn’t mention, like Yirmiyahu and Yehezkal, but it runs against the dominant trend in both Tanakh writ large and the Torah itself, as well as, I think, some pretty basic religious intuitions. The Torah promises extended dwelling on the land of Israel for obedience to God’s law and proclaims exile as punishment for disobedience. The book of Melakhim depicts a tight correspondence between obedience to God and the length of a dynasty, until ultimately the people are exiled and the temple is destroyed. And if God is the sovereign lord of history (Angel uses the term “miracle of history” throughout the book), there is a basic degree of logic behind the idea that those who receive God’s grace will experience it on the historical, political, stage. Cutting the other way are all kinds of intuitions about the limitedness of human conceptions and evaluations, but these prophecies remain rather radical and innovative. Unfortunately, Angel glosses over the theological-political significance of these prophecies without much fanfare. He gets close when discussing Zechariah’s prophecy of Jerusalem without its walls from the the earlier era, but the discussion doesn’t quite make the leap from biblical interpretation to theological significance, and it, in my eyes, is a noticeable lack in the book.
Overall, the book is excellent. It is well-written and engaging, and it contains ideas that are important both in terms of the interpretation of Tanakh and in the religious lives of Tanakh’s readers. It just doesn’t seem to be aware of how important some of those ideas really are.
Dov Zakheim’s Nehemiah: Statesman and Sage, the latest in Maggid Books’ series of studies in Tanakh, presents the reader with a vivid and relatable picture of the life and times of one of Judaism’s forgotten leaders. Despite being the main character of a book of Tanakh, and the source of its name, the average Jew has little knowledge of who Nehemiah was or what he did. Unfortunately, this isn’t is a problem that can be fixed just by people reading the biblical book of Nehemiah. The biblical text gives only small, often cryptic, windows into Nehemiah’s life, with mysterious gaps throughout. It is into these gaps that Dov Zakheim steps, bringing with him not only knowledge of the biblical text and commentators, medieval and modern, but also his extensive familiarity with politics and statecraft. This is the real “value-add” of Zakheim’s Nehemiah. Having served as both Under Secretary and Deputy Under Secretary of Defense in the United States government, Zakheim has a comprehensive background in the practical aspects of governmental politics. He draws out and explicates the political background lying behind Nehemiah’s actions and interactions throughout the biblical text.
As the book of Nehemiah is often completely silent on these matters, much of Zakheim’s explanations are unavoidably speculative. However, this just emphasizes how necessary this process is, as without this speculation there would be so much missing from the story. Zakheim’s reasoned filling-in of the narrative creates a continuous and comprehensible story for his readers to follow. There are times, however, where it seems like he leans too hard on modern political realities in a way that leads to anachronism. Not every situation from Persian-ruled Judea will have an exact parallel in the history of contemporary Israel and the West. Zakheim’s readings of the biblical narrative sometimes therefore obscure as much as they illuminate. By and large, however, Zakheim’s readings seem to be faithful and helpful representations of the biblical Nehemiah.
An interesting feature of Zakheim’s Nehemiah is the consistent emphasis on tension between religion and statecraft. Early on, Zakheim quotes the rabbinic critique of Nehemiah for asking God to remember his good accomplishments. Then throughout the book he suggests additional reasons why Hazal may have disapproved of Nehemiah. He emphasizes how this may already be foreshadowed in the biblical text itself, in the relationship between Nehemiah and his more famous priestly contemporary, Ezra. The biblical text records very little in the way of interaction between these two figures, outside of mutual but separate participation in a few ceremonies. Zakheim argues that the reason Ezra does not seem to have been enlisted in Nehemiah’s state-building efforts is that Nehemiah saw Ezra as nothing but a religious leader, one who had failed to make any real impact on his community. Nehemiah felt that only someone fully involved in the practical life of the community would be successful. While this reading does not contradict the biblical text, it is also far from evident from the text itself. Minimally, it presents an interesting window into the worldview of the author, and perhaps also of the Modern Orthodox community writ-large.
While I overall enjoyed reading Nehemiah, there are two trends in the book that negatively affected my reading experience. The first is the random digressions that Zakheim sometimes makes. In the middle of talking about the political and practical aspects of Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem, it was weird to suddenly encounter an in-depth discussion of whether the Jerusalemites had been violating biblical or rabbinic commandments while Nehemiah was away. There are numerous occasions where there is a side-discussion like this, one that might have been appropriate for a footnote but certainly not for the main body of the text. Being so out of place, it makes the reader feel like they’ve stumbled out of Zakheim’s book on the biblical character and into one of the secondary commentators, traditional and critical, that he so extensively footnotes. Secondly, scattered throughout the book, perhaps only once or twice per chapter, there are words that belong to a much higher level of vocabulary than the rest of the book. This is not inherently problematic, and Zakheim is clearly smart enough that one doesn’t suspect him of artificially forcing fancy language into his writing in order to sound intelligent. But it is jarring. These words just feel like a rather obvious authorial and editorial oversight. While the words’ meanings are usually clear enough from context that I was able to get by without googling any definitions, these words distract from an otherwise enjoyable reading experience.
Despite these critiques, Nehemiah: Statesman and Sage is an informative and enjoyable read, recommended to anyone looking to know more about this oft-overlooked figure from the Jewish tradition, particularly where it comes to the practical and political realities of his day.
“Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy” is the fourth of Maggid Books’ new Tanakh series, Maggid Studies in Tanakh. Written by Dr. Yael Ziegler, Ruth explores the biblical book of Rut, also known as Megillat Rut, from what the author terms a “literary-theological” perspective. The book focuses primarily on three things: (1) the ways in which Megillat Rut responds to and attempts to rectify Sefer Shoftim; (2) the purpose of Megillat Rut, particularly as it relates to interpersonal ethics, kindness, and the establishment of the monarchy; (3) the way rabbinic literature expand on and respond to the biblical text of Megillat Rut. Throughout these explorations, Ruth is both unabashedly traditional and fervently academic, probably the most academic of Maggid’s Tanakh series thus far.
Megillat Rut opens with the time-frame within which the book occurs. “And it was in the days of the judging of the judges” (Rut 1:1). Ziegler discusses the exact meaning of this extensively. She brings in a variety of midrashic opinions that attempt to narrow down exactly when in the several hundred years encompassed by the book of Shoftim the narrative of Megillat Rut is supposed to have occurred, analyzing these rabbinic texts to determine not just what textual cues they are based on but also what thematic elements they are drawing out of the biblical text. This thematic analysis combines with an extensive discussion of the book of Shoftim itself, in an attempt to determine what message about society Sefer Shoftim is trying to convey overall. Concluding that Shoftim depicts a society that is rife with alienation and anarchy, where people are regarded as objects rather than subjects, Ziegler argues that Rut depicts the solution to, or reparation of, this society by depicting a narrative that moves from alienation to recognition, culminating in the creation of the Davidic line and, implicitly, the monarchy.
The entire purpose of Megillat Rut is to explain the lineage of the monarchy, to the provide the family tree of king David, at least according to one midrash Ziegler quotes. Another suggests that the purpose of the book is to teach about proper behavior, not in the realm of halakhah of but in the realm of interpersonal ethics. Rut, according to this midrash, should be read with an eye to acts of Ḥesed, lovingkindness, and the rewards received for those actions. Ziegler accepts both of these midrashim, arguing that Megillat Rut depicts a form of self-abnegating kindness that, while it might be too extreme for the average person in their daily lives, is absolutely necessary for a proper monarch. It is through acts of such extreme giving and openness to the Other, Ziegler argues, that Rut takes the characters, and the reader, from the leaderless period of the judges to the rising of the monarchy.
Ruth constantly quotes and references midrashim from across the entire span of rabbinic literature. Ziegler analyzes midrashim with an eye to two things, midrashic sensitivity to the biblical text and themes that the midrash is either drawing out of or introducing into the biblical text. The themes highlighted by a midrash can be used to illuminate a character or scene left somewhat sparse by the biblical text. Rabbinic texts also often identify anonymous or mysterious characters with more well-known figures, and analyzing their reasons for doing so can provide deep insights into the nuances of the biblical text. However, the plentitude of midrashim quoted in the book can also create a sense of separation from the biblical text. The reader of Ruth may occasionally feel that, while they know the relevant rabbinic literature quite well, they are somewhat unclear on, and disconnected from, the biblical text. This weakness could itself be a strength, however. The midrashic survey that constitutes much of Ziegler’s book could be an excellent introduction to midrashim more generally, guiding the reader through learning how to read and analyze midrashim.
Ruth is also in dialogue with contemporary academic commentaries on Rut. References to agreements and disagreements with scholarship show up throughout the text and footnotes of Ruth. Despite this, Ruth is not an academic text. In the introduction, subtitled “Methodology of Tanakh Study,” Ziegler explicitly steps out of academic discourse, stating a preference for reading Rut with an eye to contemporary theological relevance. The introduction also gives the reader a broader historical context for Ruth, and for the “literary-theological” method employed therein, exploring the rise of literary criticism, its development within the Bible scholarship, and its adoption within traditional Jewish study of Tanakh. For this introduction alone, Ruth is a must for the Modern Orthodox reader of Tanakh, giving precious background for the tools and teachers that enrich our studying of the biblical text.
The academic engagement of the book goes beyond references and background, fundamentally shaping Ziegler’s methodology and discussion of the biblical text. Attention is paid to the literary effects of word choices and syntax. Parallels from across the entirety of Tanakh are brought to bear in interpreting the meaning of various passages. There are several excursuses on a variety of larger topics in the study of Tanakh, including type-scenes, oaths, and more. All of this is melded with a more traditional rabbinic approach, often showing how midrashim and rabbinic commentators were doing the same, or similar, things to what modern academic scholars to today.
Yael Ziegler’s Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy is an excellent study of the text of Megillat Rut, plumbing its linguistic depths, its purposes and goals, and its extensive rabbinic interpretation, all of which is conveyed in contemporary language, with clear intention that the moral and theological lessons gleaned should be applied by the reader in their own lives. It is also a great introduction to the basics of an academic, literary-critical, method of studying Tanakh. And most of all, Ruth demonstrates how the tradition and the modern, the rabbinic and the academic, can work so wonderfully together.
 Translation copied from the text used by Ziegler in “Ruth.”
 The irony of a methodological introduction that professes the larger book, and thus itself, not to be academic is hard to miss.
Teaching Texts: Alex Israel’s I Kings
Rabbi Alex Israel’s I Kings: Torn In Two is a book born out of teaching. In the introduction, Israel discusses the way the book developed over the course of years of his teaching the book of Kings in various settings. Consequently, I Kings is not a commentary on the biblical text so much as a companion to it. It does not go through each line of the text explaining difficulties and ambiguities. Instead, it follows each chapter and explains it simply and clearly. It gives a basic familiarity with the story, with what is happening in the biblical text, and with the characters that populate the narratives. Throughout the chapters it also develops and points out the various themes of the book of Kings, often through discussions of apparent textual problems. As such, I Kings is not just a great companion volume for the casual reader of Tanakh, but also for a teacher looking for insights for her classroom (notably, there’s a fantastic index of study questions for engaging students with the text).
The sense of pedagogy and education that permeates I Kings is perhaps most evident in its use of other texts outside the book of Kings. In many of the chapters Israel quotes passages from the book of Chronicles that parallel the narrative under discussion from the book of Kings. These texts are used to fill in perceived gaps in the narrative in Kings (a valid, but also debatable, approach), but also to point out contradictions between the two texts. Instead of trying to resolve such contradictions, Israel often uses such contradictions as a jumping off point for larger discussions about the purposes of both books. If they contradict each other, it is taken not to be a disagreement about objective fact but a manifestation of different pedagogical goals. If Kings says something different from Chronicles, then it is because it is trying to teach us something different. The teacher, and student, must then ask, “What is Kings trying to teach us?”
More even than it quotes from the biblical book of Chronicles, I Kings quotes heavily from rabbinic literature. Israel’s approach is self-conscious about having “one eye on Ḥazal” and trying to create “a dialogue between the text and the sages.” Israel reads rabbinic texts of all genres, from aggadot (rabbinic stories) to textual commentaries, as if they were commentaries on the text. He looks to find the basis for their statements, no matter how outlandish, within a careful reading of the biblical text. Moreover, he reads the rabbinic texts in light of the biblical text, which can paint them in a different light than how one might otherwise read them. Finally Israel’s I Kings asks what lies behind the rabbinic understandings of the biblical text, what were they trying to teach us, and, perhaps more poignantly, what did they see the biblical text as trying to teach us.
Calling Upon God In Truth – Rav Amital on the High Holidays
When God Is Near, Maggid Books’ newly released anthology of High Holiday sermons by Rav Yehuda Amital zt”l, is an important step in making the teachings of R. Amital accessible to the English speaking public. The sermons are masterful glimpses into the thought of one of the leaders of Religious Zionism in the 20th Century. They contain the unique blend of erudition, intellectual sharpness, and emotional sensitive that characterizes all of R. Amital’s torah. The book is divided into several sections, with each containing sermons on a specific topic: Seliḥot, Rosh HaShanah, Shabbat Shuvah, Akedat Yitzchak, Yom Kippur, and Ne’ilah; each with it’s own themes and focuses. The section on Ne’ilah, for example, focuses on the opening of not just the gates of heaven but also, and more importantly, the gates of the heart. When God Is Near is a treasure trove of ideas and inspirations for the holidays.
Appreciating the book requires appreciating the book’s format; Rather than being a book, it’s a collection, and it collects not essays but derashot, sermons. This has several important ramifications. Though the derashot are overall short, with the largest around 9 pages in length, they cannot be raced through. Each one traverses a number of biblical and rabbinic texts and explains the text through innovative homiletics, typical of the classic rabbinic sermon. Further, the sermons do not attempt to discuss a single topic or fully convey a single idea, attempting instead to inspire the reader, to evoke an emotional response from the audience. Consequently they are short, and the texts of a given sermon are often only loosely related. The meaning of the texts lies not in their explanation, but in their internalization, as the reader thinks over the explanations and ponders them at length after reading them. However, the somewhat meandering feel of each sermon can leave the reader feeling like they don’t have a solid grasp of R. Amital’s derashot and his approach to the holidays. In service of this, When God Is Near has a phenomenal afterword, by R. Amital’s son-in-law Rav Yehuda Gilad, discussing many, though not all, of the philosophical and educational themes in the sermons.
The themes discussed in the sermons are representative of R. Amital’s unique approach to religious life. There is a strong emphasis on humanity, on the moral sensitivity that makes us human, even when it seems to run against the grain of piety. For R. Amital, piety that ignores morality is cruelty. One section of the book features discussions of Akedat Yitzchak, “the Binding of Isaac”, with a focus on the struggle that must have been going on within both Avraham and Yitzchak, a struggle often manifest in the religious life of all Jews. However, R. Amital does not suggest letting the struggle consume a person, but rather suggests a certain simplicity, not despite complexity but in light of it, in our approach to faith. Without ignoring the problems we struggle with, we can embrace God and faith wholeheartedly. This simple faith cannot, however, come at the expense of those around us. The religious man is a man of the community, not in addition to, but as part of, being a man of God.
What I found most compelling, however, is a feature which is not discussed in the afterward, namely, R. Amital’s creativity in reading and interpreting rabbinic sources. Many of the sermons, particularly those in the section on Seliḥot, focus on the tension between the life of an individual and their existence as a member of a community. In this context, R. Amital discusses, in several sermons, a midrash from masekhet Rosh Hashanah (17b).
And ‘the Lord passed by before him and proclaimed…’ R. Yohanan said: Were it not written in the text, it would be impossible for us to say! This verse teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be He, wrapped Himself like a leader of a congregation (sheliaḥ tsibur) and showed Moses the order of prayer. He said to him: Whenever Israel sin, let them carry out this service before Me, and I will forgive them.
The gemara here describes God telling Moshe that in order to be forgiven, the Jewish people ought to recite God’s thirteen attributes of mercy, originating from Shemot 34:5-7. These attributes are the subject of another famous rabbinic midrash.
Just as He is called ‘merciful,’ so should you be merciful; just as He is called ‘gracious,’ so should you be gracious … just as He is called ‘righteous,’ so should you be righteous … just as He is called ‘pious,’ so should you be pious. (Sifri, Devarim 11:22; also Shabbat 133b)
This rabbinic text asserts an obligation of Imitatio Dei, imitating God, in connection to God’s attributes of mercy. R. Amital’s sermons quote this midrash (though, notably, the book does not give a textual source), and then take it one step further, extending the obligation of Imitatio Dei past the biblical text and into the previous midrash, requiring a person to metaphorically “wrap themselves like an agent of the congregation (sheliaḥ tsibur),” to suppress their ego and take upon themselves the responsibility of working on behalf of the community. On the High Holidays, argues R. Amital, we thus stand before God as individuals, confronted with our personal actions and responsibilities, and as agents of the community, seeking its betterment and conscious of how our actions affect it.