Letters, Spring 2016

Reform from Within

In his article on the failings of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and what ought to come next, Elli Fischer goes too far (“Why I Defy the Israeli Chief Rabbinate,” Winter 2016). All government bodies, including law enforcement, judiciary, and so on, have bureaucratic and political issues. However, an Israel without rabbinic power would be an Israel that was no longer a Jewish state. The Law of Return, for example, requires that someone decide who is Jewish—and this is so fundamental to the Jewish future that it cannot be left up to politicians. Having said that, the Chief Rabbinate could become a regulatory agency and license rabbinic courts, kashrut agencies, etc. However, the way to bring about reform is by working within the system. This, according to Megillat Taanit, is precisely what Shimon ben Shetach did when the Sadducees took over the Sanhedrin.

Avi Keslinger

via jewishreviewofbooks.com


Elli Fischer Responds:

Suffice it to say that I disagree with Mr. Keslinger that the Chief Rabbinate merely has a few predictable “bureaucratic and political issues,” or that an Israel without a politically empowered rabbinic apparatus would no longer be a Jewish state. For more on this topic, see my exchange with four critics, later in this issue.



God-Intoxicated Plenitude

When I read the headline “Re-Intoxicated by God” (Winter 2016), my heart leapt up. And yet it still seems to me that Melamed (and Gottlieb) are missing something. We may have been given intellect to help us find God, but that very intellect can turninto an obstacle to our seeing God. David Ives’s play New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656, which some might dismiss as too unphilosophical, conveys some of Spinoza’s vision.

Melamed is certainly correct when he writes, “The price we pay for making Spinoza like us is that it is no longer clear why we should have an interest in Spinoza.” But then how should we approach him? I believe that Spinoza had profound experiences of God, and he tried to evoke that experience in his readers. The Ethics is structured to allow those entering into his system not merely to agree with him but to have the experience themselves. I tell my students to read the Ethics Book I Axiom 1: “Everything that is, is either in itself or in another.” I tell them to live with that axiom in their hearts and minds for a week. Let it germinate and then experience what it blossoms into. As Goethe and other poets recognized, Spinoza bequeathed us a magnificent gift.

Carol Ochs

Professor Emerita of Philosophy

Simmons College, Boston


In his review of Yitzhak Melamed’s new book on Spinoza, Micah Gottlieb writes that “Every scholar, it seems, must strike a balance between textual evidence, conceptual clarity, and logical consistency. These will always, and necessarily, be matters of judgment.” As is well known, both Spinoza and Leibniz endorsed what A.O. Lovejoy called the “principle of plenitude”—that reality has no gaps, and thus a kind of fullness that is tantamount to its perfection. Perhaps we can appropriate this principle in assessing the traditions of philosophical commentary. Over time, the richness and variety of interpretations that flesh out a great philosopher’s thought bring to light the issues it addresses in ways that show its fullness and depth.

Not all interpretations are equally well-justified, of course, but embracing the “plenitude” of interpretive possibilities implies an admission of the inherent complexity of reality, and of the manifold ways there are to grasp it. The tradition of commentary a philosopher inspires ought not to be primarily seen as a series of mutually exclusive efforts, with each interpretation supplanting all previous contributions.

Zachary Gartenberg

via jewishreviewofbooks.com



A Bukh Missing in Boisk

Thank you for Abraham Socher’s wonderful little essay “A Party in Boisk” about the joys of the aggada (Winter 2016). However, I wish that Socher had mentioned one more great collection of aggada between the Ein Ya’akov and the compilations of Bialik and Berdichevsky: the wonderful, profuse Mayse Bukh (or Ma’aseh Book), the collection of 250+ aggada and later legends published in Yiddish in the early 1600s. It is a shame that this book is so sadly neglected. It was translated into English by Moses Gaster in the 1930s for The Jewish Publication Society but is long out of print. On a recent Shabbos at my conservative synagogue in suburban Philadelphia, I saw a copy of the original JPS hardcover edition of Gaster’s translation being given away in a bin of unwanted books from the shul’s old library.
I was happy to save it from oblivion.

Barak Bassman

Ardmore, Pennsylvania


Suggested Reading

The Rock from Which They Were Cleft

David Ellenson

In the past few years, MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem has become more of a controversial figure in his own community, not to mention the Shas party he represents, than outside of it. In two monumental works of Jewish law, he seeks to impact the future not only of that community, but of Israel's Russian immigrants.

Working One’s Way Out

Working One’s Way Out

Hillel Halkin

"When I first read Winter Vigil over a year ago, I was swept away; I hadn’t read any contemporary writing as good in a long time. I hadn’t known Steve Kogan could write like that. I hadn’t, it turned out, known very much about him."