God, Consciousness and the Problem of Anthropopathism: Theological Musings of the Late R. Shmully Moskowitz z”l – by Rabbi Zev Farber

July 27, 2012

An old friend of mine was buried last week. I haven’t seen him for a few years and did not call to say goodbye. I had heard he was sick but didn’t think he was going to die; pneumonia doesn’t generally kill 50 year old men, but, I guess, sometimes it does.

I am not going to use this post to eulogize him; many have done this and some of the eulogies are even available online. (I will throw in, however, that Shmully was one of the smartest and funniest men I ever knew.) Instead, I will take the opportunity to describe one of our last conversations and the important theological insight that he taught me. As the post is written in my words, and I will not have the opportunity to run it by him, I hope that the post accurately reflects his thinking.

A few years ago, when I was in Israel interviewing Israelis for the Torah Mitzion kollel I ran in Atlanta at the time, I spent Shabbat in my old neighborhood in Ma’aleh Mikhmas. Shmully was renting a house there at the time, and we got together for a seudah shlishit at a mutual friend’s house. The topic of God and religion came up, it often did with Shmully, and somehow we got to speaking about anthropomorphism. (I will explain how we got onto that subject at the end of the post.)

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, anthropomorphism means imputing human physical characteristics to something not human, in this case God. For example, people who imagine God as an old man with a big grey beard would be describing God anthropomorphically.

Anthropomorphism was considered by Maimonides, among other Jewish philosophers, as a grave sin, as it reduced the Almighty to human form. For Shmully and I, these ideas were rather old-hat. We were both trained in YBT (Yeshiva Bnei Torah, popularly known as Rabbi Chait’s Yeshiva), a yeshiva strongly influenced by Maimonidean thought, and being “on the look-out” for anthropomorphism was in our blood; (as Shmully was the son of Rabbi Morton Moskowitz, one of Rabbi Chait’s early friends and colleagues, Maimonidean philosophy was probably in his mother’s milk.) Shmully, however, said to me that he believed that even most Maimonideans haven’t really wrapped their heads around the problem.

At first I thought he was referring to the related problem of anthropopathism. For the jargonly-uninitiated, anthropopathism refers to the imputing of human feelings to the non-human. I was surprised, I said, that he thought that this concept was so little understood. It had been drilled into us at YBT that all descriptions of God having feelings, whether it was love for Israel or anger at sinners, were metaphorical, so it would be hard to imagine that this was the nuance so many of his fellow were not grasping. “What is it,” I asked, “that you think we run-of-the-mill Maimonideans aren’t getting?”

Here is Shmully’s response: Imagining a body is the most obvious “gross” anthropomorphism. Emotions are the next step up, as it makes intuitive sense to assume that the creator of the universe does not have “feelings”. However, there is a more abstract kind of anthro-projection at work that is difficult to notice. When we discuss God creating, for instance, or God’s providence, we inevitably imagine an organized, purposeful mind making a conscious decision. The mind has a thought and a will and decides to do or not do something. Although it is inevitable for humans to imagine this, it is also a form of anthro-projection, as we imagine the organization and function of our minds in the “mind” of the Creator. “Imputing consciousness to God is also a form of anthropopathism,” Shmully argued.

This, he said, is the import of Maimonides’ claim that all knowledge of God is negative knowledge. We cannot really say that God has a “will”, or that God “runs” the world. All such statements are filtered through human mental projection. Although some language about God remains necessary for any philosophical or religious discussion on the subject, all claims must be understood to be poor approximations of the real idea.

The key example we were discussing was God as creator. Although one can say that God created the world, all a Maimonidean could mean by this is that the world is in existence due to God in some way inexplicable to us. God is the ultimate cause of the world; anything more than this inevitably muddles the picture.

Although this point should have been obvious to someone who has read Maimonides’ discussion of God upwards of a hundred times, I found (and still find) the idea almost too abstract to wrap my head around (as Shmully correctly claimed about me at the beginning of the conversation). What struck me more than just the abstractness of the concept, was the amazing way that it solved a particular intellectual problem faced in discussion of modern religions.

The way we got to the issue of anthropomorphism was by way of a point I was trying (unsuccessfully) to make about modern religions. Shmully had been recently studying up on some eastern religions (I don’t remember which) and I said that it seems to me that one major dividing line between western and eastern religions is the concept of God. For Judaism, Christianity and Islam, God is the force behind the universe. For Hinduism and Buddhism, it is an unconscious unifying force (Brahman). I argued—pontificated—that Freud discussed this difference in Civilizations and its Discontents, claiming that the former religions project father-figures onto the world, whereas the latter religions project the womb-experience onto the world.

It was in response to this that Shmully stated that I was making too fine of a distinction between the two sets of theologies. Since even God-based religions must admit that their God cannot be “conscious” in the human sense, assuming they do not subscribe to anthropopathic thinking (some do, of course), the distinction between western theology and eastern theology is overdone.

Years later, I still think about Shmully’s principle of abstract anthropopathism and its many applications. How does one think about revelation and divine providence without imagining consciousness? It was a lot to digest over a couple of ḥallah rolls and hummus, and I still considering the implications.

This was only one of the many conversations I had with Shmully over the years. Shmully, my friend, you will be missed.


Can All Israel Be Friends? by R. Yosef Kanefsky

July 24, 2012

A few years ago, on the last Shabbat of Tammuz, I found myself suddenly and unexpectedly moved during morning davening. Josh, our Mussaf leader that day, was reciting the blessing for the new moon, as the month of Av would be starting that week. For the short middle paragraph of the blessing, Josh chose the mournful melody of “Elli Zion” familiar to us from the Tisha B’av liturgy. And when we reached the words “all of Israel are friends”, a chill went down my spine. Usually this phrase is one of the most difficult and ironic phrases from our liturgy, given the sad and ongoing story of friction within our tribe. But intoned to the melody of “Elli Zion”, which evokes all of the darkest chapters of our history of the past thousands of years, the words rung startlingly true. We do all share the same stories. We have all walked the same tortured path. When it comes to all the things that we remember every Tisha B’av, all of Israel are indeed friends. Brothers, sisters, and comrades.

 Which makes Tisha B’av, strange as this might sound, a true gift for us. It is a special and unique annual opportunity for Jews to sit together, remember together, and even articulate aspirations for the future, together. My dear friend David challenged me a few weeks after Josh’s Mussaf, asking, “is there a way that we could observe Tisha B’av next year with a broader swath of the Jewish community? Isn’t that what the day is about?”

Those experiences, combined with the enthusiasm for the idea that came from my neighborhood colleagues, brought forth an extraordinary Tisha B’av observance that it is about to mark its third year. Our (Orthodox) shul, Temple Beth Am (Conservative), and IKAR (non-denominational) now spend the last 2+ hours of the day together in learning, and soulful Tisha B’av singing. Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Rabbi Sharon Brous and I have formed a most wonderful partnership, creating the learning materials and implementing the program. The program takes place at Beth Am where Rabbi Kligfeld has, so magnificently, given the chevra from our shul a beautiful classroom where we set up a mechitza and have an Orthodox davening for Mincha and Ma’ariv, parallel to the minyanim taking place in the chapel down the stairs. And as we break fast together, the sense of family, of peoplehood, of possibility and optimism, the sense that all Israel are friends, is tangible and exhilarating.

I am sharing this with you not simply to praise my colleagues and their congregations (and my own), but to describe the possible. We’d each be happy to help you and your congregation create something similar to what, with God’s help, we’ve created here.

We need not wait for Mashiach to create this kind of meaningful Jewish friendship. Probably, Mashiach is waiting for us.

A meaningful fast to all.


Shifting Expectations: Women and Work

July 13, 2012

I love eating challah, but until recently, I refused to be a “challah baker.”  The term irrationally evoked an image of a woman chained to her kitchen,  slaving away for the sake of others, with no desire or choice to impact the world.   That is not who I am.  I am an Orthodox feminist, committed to changing the communal landscape by helping Orthodox women advance to the highest echelons of Jewish leadership—to ordain women as spiritual and halakhic leaders.  I am not a challah baker.

But the truth is that while my husband is a partner in raising our children and keeping our home, I am primarily responsible for providing dinner and making school lunches.  And so, on a daily basis, I try to do it all. I function as a rabbi in a large Modern Orthodox synagogue in New York,  run Yeshivat Maharat to ordain Orthodox women as spiritual leaders, and travel the world to ensure that the yeshiva’s graduates have a foundation of support. On top of this, I pick up my young children after school, make dinner, and put them to bed. After which, I resume working. Realistically, I simply don’t have time to make challah.

Women cannot do it all, and I applaud Anne-Marie Slaughter for her honesty and courage in bringing this to the forefront of her recent article for The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”  Whenever I travel and teach, it is inevitable that someone asks about my work family balance; I find that often I am judged for being out of the house, or criticized for not working enough. For me it is an uphill battle, made even more complicated by the limits that  Orthodox tradition places on women. And yet, I would like to suggest that this very tradition offers a framework for women and work.

The Talmud (Kiddushin 29a.) lists several commandments (mitzvoth) that women are “patur” or exempt from performing because they are positive time bound commandments. Blowing the shofar, sitting in a sukkah, and learning Torah are a few of these commandments. Positive time bound commandments require the person performing the mitzvah do so within a certain time frame.  However, this exemption does not mean that women are forbidden from performing these mitzvoth.  Historically, during times when women’s primary responsibilities revolved around work in the home, this exemption was quite liberating. It was not always feasible for women to leave the house and sit in a sukkah or leave their child’s side to pray. But for women who are able to accept these time bound commandments and obligate themselves, then they may.

This very ethic should drive women’s decision to work outside of the home as well.  Our tradition recognizes that some women (who can financially afford to) choose to remain at home to focus on raising children, and therefore, they are exempt from performing the time bound commandments. The halakha condones, perhaps even encourages women to consider this choice. But our tradition supports a woman’s pursuits outside of the home as well, and makes provisions accordingly. She may perform these time bound mitzvoth because the parameters of the law give her the flexibility to fulfill the mitzvah at her own pace.

And so, the choice to enter the workforce should not require a woman to sacrifice her family life.  A woman should have the opportunity to be at the table, lean forward, as Sheryl Sandberg suggests in her TED Talk, while at the same time remain present for her family. Many women have managed to strike a modicum of balance.  They have negotiated fulfilling careers allowing for part-time work, or reasonable working hours.  It is a fact that there are certain career tracks that make a work/life balance very challenging. And as Anne-Marie Slaughter notes, it is the expectations placed on women in these careers that must change. In my own life, I have discovered that the rabbinate is an example of this type of career.

Generally, rabbis are expected to be available to their communities all the time.  A pulpit rabbi is expected to open up the synagogue at 6am and close it at 10pm, literally bound by time.  But at what personal cost? This kind of rabbinate is not sustainable for anyone, male or female. Does being present all day allow one to be a fully capable pastoral caregiver? Does it make the rabbi more pious to be at the office, all day long? Alternatively, imagine the values that one can imbue on children, and the message a rabbi could send to congregants if he/she is a consistent presence as a parent for children during meal times.

The rabbinate is most certainly a time bound job.  But it is also a career where women, if they so choose, can impact the Jewish community.  However, to harness this 50% of the population, the job description must shift. I am not advocating for spiritual leaders to avoid working hard, or to waiver in their commitment to community. I am suggesting that the community change its expectations of what is possible to achieve in a single day.

Yeshivat Maharat is not training Orthodox women to become female versions of male rabbis. We teach our students to embrace their feminine attributes.  We recognize that women have tremendous talents and abilities and drive to serve the community, with a commitment to their families as well. Therefore,  the Orthodox community should go forth with a realistic understanding of women’s commitment to their families, so that talented passionate women can dedicate themselves fully to their families and their communities.

So what do women, time, careers, and family have to do with challah? I used to think I had to pick one over the other—making challah or pursuing a career.  But, recently I started baking challah.  In the beginning, my method was to wake up in the middle of the night to braid the challah until my sister suggested that I bring the dough into the office and knead between pastoral visits or sermon writing. I want to succeed in my career and I also want to make challah.  More and more, I think it is possible to create a work environment where there is time for both.  I haven’t  figured out how to do it all. But with the right communal support and with an attempt to re-envision communal expectations, I can be a challah baker and a spiritual leader at the same time.


Witness A Great Posek At Work! – Rabbi Barry Gelman

July 6, 2012

Follow this link to a blog post I wrote on a fascinating Teshuva written by Rabbi Chaim David Halevi. This Teshuva is a great example of the appropriate use of what has become known as meta-halachik concerns. All the halachik evidence is in favor of the main group, but, nonetheless, Rav HaLevi recognizes that there is a larger issue and is willing to adopt a bi-dieved (non optimal) position (praying with liturgy that is not one’s custom) in favor of maintaing the connection of the the marginally committed.