The Babylonian Talmud contains a tale about the creation of an artificial calf by two sages who dealt with hilkhot yetzirah, or laws of formation (b. Sanhedrin 65b). Already in the eleventh century CE the phrase “Laws of Formation” was being used to refer to the short, enigmatic, and influential treatise Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formation), which depicts the creation of the world by means of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The connection between hilkhot yetzirah and Sefer Yetzirah is of great consequence in determining the period in which the latter was edited, as well as its reception history.
This paper compares the Babylonian and Palestinian talmudic traditions on the fate of the ark of the covenant—either lost before or during the Babylonian conquest, or buried in the Temple precincts (b. Yom’a 53b–54a; y. Sheqalim 6:1–2, 49c). In the Babylonian Talmud, the ark and the cherubim are described in highly erotic, feminized terms, blurring traditional gender categories of Israel and God. The feminization of the ark serves as a “survival strategy” to counter the defiling gaze of the gentile conqueror, but also preserves the sacred center as a locus of longing for Jews in diaspora.
One of the distinctive literary genres of Bratslav Hasidism is the shir yedidot (Song of Endearment), a mystical poem concerning the stature of the soul of R. Naḥman of Bratslav. These poems, still sung by Hasidim today, contain esoteric traditions that reveal the multiple voices within Bratslav Hasidism. This article traces the development of this form from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the present, and argues that changes in emphasis within these songs reflect shifts in Bratslav theology over the years. The study thus presents a more complex historical picture of Bratslav Hasidism, which has usually been seen as one monolithic unit.
This essay interrogates the legal discourse of Shulḥan ha-Tahor, a curious—and curiously understudied—work of Hasidic halakhah written by Rabbi Yitzḥak Ayzik Yehudah Yehiel Safrin of Komarno. The book is, at heart, a systematic reformulation of Jewish law in light of Kabbalah, Hasidism, and the quest for personal mystical experience. Shulḥan ha-Tahor offers a rare case study for the interface of mystical experience, Hasidic devotional values, and kabbalistic doctrine as they explicitly shape the codified forms—and norms—of halakhah. The essay reveals a different side of Jewish modernity through a close reading of an exceptional nineteenth-century legal code.
Franz Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption culminates in an aesthetic configuration of simultaneous presences: world, man, God, creation, revelation, and redemption are viewed in a metahistorical side-by-side, connected by the “factualizing power of the And.” But the idea of simultaneity, which is central to Rosenzweig’s configurative thinking, belongs to the historical imagination as much as it belongs to the theological “breaking through the shackles of time.” Rosenzweig’s “and” belongs to both a tradition of cosmic-aesthetic historicism (Meinecke) and the philosophical reconstitution of time as a simultaneous perception. In the co-presence of all historical moments, history’s hidden Gestalt, which only a people that is at once old and young can envision, connects the “and” of history with what Hegel considered history’s end—its ultimate self-recognition. Eternity, then, means neither flight from, nor resistance to, history’s naked fact, but the recognition of history’s Gestalt as an image that “does not tolerate epochs.”
Recent studies have renewed focus on Martin Buber’s “theopolitics” in contrast to “theological politics.” The present study expands this work by looking at what Buber meant by God. His approach to the Bible, informed by his view that “extended, the lines of relationship meet in the Eternal Thou,” illuminates his analysis of the five types of biblical leadership. That analysis, far from separating “religion” and “politics,” seemed to assume what might be designated a civil religion. The social order was integrated with religious concerns. Underneath the socio-religious surface, however, Buber discerned universal principles of relationship. Analyzing each stage in biblical leadership as Buber presented it shows how he extended the lines of historical relationships to reveal an aspect of the Eternal Thou.
In classical American pragmatism, fallibilism refers to the conception of truth as an ongoing process of improving human knowledge that is nevertheless susceptible to error. This paper traces appearances of fallibilism in Jewish thought in general, and particularly in the halakhic thought of Eliezer Berkovits. Berkovits recognizes the human condition’s persistent mutability, which he sees as characterizing the ongoing effort to interpret and apply halakhah in shifting historical and social contexts as Torat Ḥayyim. In the conclusion of the article, broader questions and observations are raised regarding Jewish tradition, fallibility, and modernity, and the interaction between Judaism and pragmatism in the history of ideas.
This paper proposes that Moses Mendelssohn’s Morning Hours be viewed as the final chapter in a philosophy of imperfection that Mendelssohn had been developing over the course of his life. It is further argued that this philosophy of imperfection is still of philosophical interest. After demonstrating that the concept of imperfection animates Mendelssohn’s early work, this paper turns towards the specific arguments about imperfection Mendelssohn made in the midst of the pantheism controversy—in particular, the claim that human imperfection attests to an independent existence. Simply put: God knows human imperfection, but does not possess it. Therefore, there is a sense in which humans, because of our imperfections, are distinct from God. It is shown that, at least in part, Mendelssohn’s entry into the pantheism controversy, and his willingness to engage even his recently departed friend Lessing in argument, is part of his strategy to preserve his philosophy of imperfection.
Rabbinic Discourse as a System of Knowledge Hannah Hashkes employs contemporary philosophy in describing rabbinic reasoning as a rational response to experience. Hashkes combines insights from the philosophy of Quine and Davidson with the semiotics of Peirce to construe knowledge as systematic reasoning occurring within a community of inquiry. Her reading of the works of Emmanuel Levinas and Jean-Luc Marion allows her to create a philosophical bridge between a discourse of God and a discourse of reason. This synthesis of pragmatism, hermeneutics and theology provides Hashkes with a sophisticated tool to understand Rabbinic Judaism. It also makes this study both unique and pathbreaking in contemporary Jewish philosophy and Rabbinic thought.
David R. Blumenthal is Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies at Emory University. He has contributed greatly to the growth of Jewish Studies, the place of Judaism in Religious Studies, interreligious dialogue, and the reframing of Judaism in light of the Holocaust, postmodernism, and poststructuralism. For Blumenthal, theology is an ongoing reflection about everything we believe and do in the context of the living tradition.