Jack Wertheimer on The New American Judaism

Jack Wertheimer The New American Judaism book coverAmerican Judaism has been buffeted by massive social upheavals in recent decades. In The New American Judaism, Jack Wertheimer, a leading authority on the subject, sets out to discover how Jews of various orientations practice their religion in this radically altered landscape. What emerges is a quintessentially American story of rash disruption and creative reinvention, religious illiteracy and dynamic experimentation. Here, Wertheimer provides insight on why and how he wrote the book, and what readers of all faiths can learn from it.

What led you to write this book?

Twenty-five years ago, I published a book offering my take on contemporary Jewish religious life. When I revisited that book in recent years, I realized an entirely different approach, not merely an update, would be needed to do justice to today’s scene. I also was curious to learn more about the proliferation of new settings for Jewish religious expression and the remaking of existing places for congregating.

You interviewed 220 people for this book. How did you decide whom to interview and what questions to ask?

I mainly interviewed rabbis situated in different corners of Jewish life, and then turned to other observers to help me understand new developments. My overall questions were straightforward: What are you seeing among the Jews in your orbit when it comes to religion? And what are you doing to draw Jews into religious life? From there, the questions led us down fascinating byways. I learned about the re-appropriation of long-discarded Jewish religious traditions, and creative efforts to engage attendees at religious services; about the self-invented forms of Jewish practice taken for granted by some Jews and also the return to traditions by others. I heard about startling religious practices one would not have seen in synagogues even twenty years ago, and also learned of Jewish religious gatherings in unlikely places.

So what is new about the new American Judaism?

I could be flip and answer: “that’s why you have to read the book.” But to begin addressing the question, I’d say the environment in which American Jews find themselves is new. In some ways, it is remarkably open to all religious possibilities—or none; in other ways, American elite culture is highly dismissive of religion in ways that was not the case but a few decades ago. This has further eroded what Peter Berger called “the plausibility structure” for religion. Jews in our time are less likely than in the past to regard their religion as a package of behaviors and, as the old saw put it, “a way of life.” Now religious settings have to contend with Jews who wish to connect only episodically and only on their own terms. This has led both to religious participation as a “sometime thing” for many Jews, and simultaneously has spurred a great deal of experimentation to create enticing religious environments in the hope of drawing more participants. Congregations of all types are reimagining the use of space, the choreography of prayer service, the impact of music and visual cues, the ways they extend hospitality and mutual support to fellow congregants, and the messages they deliver about how Jewish religious practice enriches one’s life.

Is all of this unique to Judaism?

Not at all. One cannot really understand Jewish religious developments in a vacuum. Even the seemingly most insular of Jews who deliberately live in their own enclaves cannot escape the impact of the powerful culture all around us. (One of the rabbis I interviewed put this colloquially when he said: “culture eats mission for breakfast”—i.e. it overwhelms religious ideology.)

Many internal Jewish developments described in this book are quintessentially American (though some have parallels in other countries). New ways of thinking about religious experiences can be found in American churches, mosques and synagogues. Religious leaders across the spectrum recognize that they face common challenges, such as the well-documented retreat from institutional engagement, the quest for spirituality among some, the disenchantment with religious leadership, the DIY mindset when applied to religion and the desire for a more engaging worship experience. Experimentation is a hallmark of American religious life, as it is in many Jewish religious institutions.

Can you talk about one challenge you faced in your research?

There are a great many ways Jews practice their religion. One challenge facing anyone attempting to survey the scene is how to capture American Judaism in all its complexity and variety. To be clear, the term Judaism is used in many different ways. Some see it as synonymous with all of Jewish life. Others as the expression of a distinct theology and package of do’s and don’ts. The book endeavors to examine how “average” Jews incorporate Jewish religious practices into their lives, what they believe, what in their religion is important to them, and what is available to those who seek out Jewish religious settings.

A lot of people are pessimistic about the future of American Judaism. Do you agree with them?

A lot of people are pessimistic about the future health and vitality of Jewish life in this country. Some also worry about the long-term future of this or that denomination of American Judaism. There are good reasons to worry about both. But given the explosion of creativity in the Jewish religious sphere, I don’t worry about the future of Judaism. It’s the adherents, the Jews in the pews or those who rarely show up, that require our attention. I devote attention in the book to writing about some approaches to this challenge that I regard as short-sighted, if not wrong-headed. I also suggest some guidelines that might make for a stronger Jewish religious life.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

First, that like so much in life, American Judaism is complicated, anything but static, and replete with pluses and minuses. Second, by stepping back to behold the entire scene, there are some remarkably fascinating things to observe. And related to that, perhaps readers will join me in appreciating a bit more the enormous investment of energy, creativity and good-will that so many rabbis and other religious leader are pouring into efforts to revitalize Jewish religious life. We don’t have to find every effort personally congenial to appreciate the explosion of energy at precisely a time when religion is not held in the highest esteem.

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His many books include The New Jewish Leaders: Reshaping the American Jewish LandscapeFamily Matters: Jewish Education in an Age of Choice, and A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America.

Chaim Saiman on Halakhah

Chaim Saiman Halakhah book coverThough typically translated as “Jewish law,” the term halakhah is not an easy match for what is usually thought of as law. In his panoramic book Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law, Chaim Saiman traces how generations of rabbis have used concepts forged in talmudic disputation to do the work that other societies assign not only to philosophy, political theory, theology, and ethics but also to art, drama, and literature. Guiding readers across two millennia of richly illuminating perspectives, this book shows how halakhah is not just “law,” but an entire way of thinking, being, and knowing.

What is halakhah and why did you decide to write a book about it?

Literally, halakhah means “the way” or “the path,” though it is typically translated as Jewish law.

I grew up in a home and community where I was expected not only to obey the law, but to study and master complex legal texts in Hebrew and Aramaic.

I was about eight years old when my father proceeded to pull out two massive tomes from the shelf and inform me that I had to learn with him before I could escape to the Nintendo console located in my friend’s basement. We began to study the section of Mishnah (the earliest code of Jewish law, from around the year 200 CE) detailing the responsibilities of different bailees—those who watch over the property belonging to someone else. This book is a grown-up attempt to answer why an eight-year-old should care about bailees and the ancient laws of lost cows.

Did you really start a book on Jewish law with Jesus?

Yes. I take Jesus and the Apostle Paul as some of the earliest in a long line of halakhah’s critics. Both lived before the tradition crystallized in the form of the Mishnah. Yet even at this early stage, Jesus pokes fun at the Mishnah’s forebears for obsessing over legal rules and formalities at the expense of true spiritual growth. Jesus would have most likely considered it a bad idea to initiate young children into religious life by analyzing the laws of bailments.  But whereas Jesus saw the law as a set of regulations and restrictions, the Talmudic rabbis understood it as a domain of exploration and study, a process they called Talmud Torah.

 What is Talmud Torah?

It is hard to translate, mainly because the idea does not exist in Western or American culture. Word-for-word it means the “study of Torah,” but its impact extends beyond what is usually thought of as “study.” Talmud Torah means that Torah is not studied merely for pre-professional reasons, and not (only) to know the rules relevant to living a Jewish life, but because it is a primary religious activity, an intimate spiritual act that brings the learner into God’s embrace.

The closest analogy in general culture is the idea once practiced at elite universities when the curriculum was focused on Greek, Latin, philosophy, ancient civilization, and classical literature. Unlike today, the goal was not to make students more attractive to employers, but to educate them into ennobled citizens who would fully realize their humanity. The rabbis had a similar idea, but rather than literature or philosophy, study was grounded in the divine word of the Torah, and especially the legal regulations set forth in the Mishnah and Talmud.

What does Talmud Torah have to do with law?

Though Talmud Torah arguably applies to any area of Jewish law and thought, longstanding tradition places special emphasis on the areas that correspond to contract, tort, property and business law—the very topics covered by secular legal systems.  According to the Talmudic rabbis, the subjects taught in law schools across the country become a spiritual practice when learned in the halakhic setting. Lawyers get many adjectives thrown their way, but godly is rarely one of them. The book aims to understand what it means to hold that legal study is a path to the divine, and what are the implications of this idea for a legal system.

Is halakhah the law of any country?

Not really. One of the unusual aspects of halakhah is that it first becomes visible in the Mishnah several generations after the independent Jewish state was dismantled by the Romans. Further, the most fertile periods of halakhic development took place when Jews did not govern any territory but lived as a minority under non-Jewish rule. This is the opposite from how legal systems typically develop.

From at least the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century, Jews tended to live in tight communities whose internal legal affairs were heavily influenced by rabbis and halakhah. But even here, close investigation shows that the civil laws that applied often deviated from Talmudic rules studied under the rubric of Talmud Torah. In the case of civil law there were effectively two systems of Jewish law. One used by tribunals when disputes arose in practice, and the other that lived mainly on the pages of the Talmud and realized though Torah study.  The relationship between these two forms of halakhah is a central theme of the book.

What about the state of Israel?

One of the ironies of modern Jewish life is that while Judaism historically defined itself through devotion to law, when the state of Israel was established there was little consensus about the role of halakhah in the state. Israel’s Socialist Zionist founders saw halakhah as a relic of the outmoded European Judaism that had to be overcome before a modern, Zionist, and self-determined Judaism could take hold. Most observant Jews by contrast, viewed secular Zionism as religiously invalid, if not dangerous. Since their primary concern was maintaining halakhah’s integrity in a secularizing world, they had little interest in adapting it for use in the modern state. Hence with the exception of marriage and divorce law, halakhah was not reflected in early Israeli law.

But the ground has shifted in the intervening years. Though Israeli law remains distinct from halakhah, there is a much wider constituency today that looks to define Israel as a Jewish state where concepts and norms inspired by halakhah find expression in state law. The book’s final chapter discusses the possibilities and pitfalls of infusing state law with halakhah.

Chaim N. Saiman is professor in the Charles Widger School of Law at Villanova University. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

The Historical Atlas of Hasidism as Seen by a Cartographer

Historical Atlas of Hasidism book coverby Waldemar Spallek

The Historical Atlas of Hasidism, its title notwithstanding, is not a typical historical atlas. It does not illustrate the past glory of any state or nation by means of historical maps showing former borders, conquests, trade routes, or the strategies of great battles. It presents, unusually, the birth, development, and current status of an extraordinary mystical religious movement. This movement, Hasidism, originated in the eighteenth century in the lands of the erstwhile Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, from whence it was almost entirely erased due to a series of historical events.

The Atlas is, in part, an attempt to recreate this lost world. The maps are complemented by numerous illustrations and tables as well as commentary, which is an excellent introduction to the content presented on the maps. Unlike typical atlases of the world’s great religions, the Historical Atlas of Hasidism does not focus on the non-religious history of religion. It pinpoints political limits and demographic centers, but it discloses above all the spatial dimension of a religious experience.

The maps in the atlas were designed in GIS, or Geographic Information System (ArcGIS from ESRI), due to the massive amount of spatial data sets that needed to be processed and visualized. The largest of the databases used contains almost 130,000 records obtained from difficult-to-access sources. The map created on the basis of this database (using Dorling’s cartograms) clearly shows where contemporary Hasidic centers are located, but it also reveals how the place where Hasidism originated became an area bereft of Hasidim.

The Atlas is unique also because the co-author, Marcin Wodziński, reached for the impossible. As a person without a cartography background, he posed questions that cartography does not generally deal with. In order to meet his expectations, we plotted maps that are innovative not only because of the size of the source database used and the questions asked, but also because of the new forms of cartographic visualization that we perforce had to develop.

In preparing the Atlas, I had to recreate the historical space of places that no longer exist, and information regarding their historical appearance is scant. I reconstructed, for example, visualizations of Hasidic courts and Jewish towns in Eastern Europe primarily on the basis of recollections by former residents. Unlike many historical atlases, our atlas does not use a single anachronistic background map.

What did we achieve?

Maps as spatial perspectives allowed us to embed Hasidic history in a geographical context. This in turn allowed us to illuminate and understand a great variety of events and processes from the past.

Map 4.2. Petitions submitted to R. Eliyahu Guttmacher, c. 1874. Cartography by Waldemar Spallek.

One such example is map 4.2, which illustrates the relationship between the number and distribution of requests sent to a given rabbi (the map was based on an extant set of approximately 7,000 petitions sent to one tsadik alone) and various spatial factors: the distance between the tsadik’s court and the place from which supplicants traveled, the railway network utilized, the extent of the local renown of the tsadik, and so on.

Historical Atlas of Hasidism map 3.1.2

Map 3.1.2. Major dynasties. Cartography by Waldemar Spallek.

 

Historical Atlas of Hasidism Map 5.3.1

Map 5.3.1. Dominant Hasidic groups c. 1900-1939. Cartography by Waldemar Spallek.

In turn, map 3.1.2 demonstrates more clearly than any previous research the regionalization of the main Hasidic groups’ areas of influence. Marking the Hasidic leaders’ place with different colors precisely demarcates the borders of the areas into which individual Hasidic dynasties expanded. Map 5.3.1, created on the basis of spatial analysis of data from nearly 3,000 Hasidic prayer halls, delineates the areas in which various Hasidic groups were dominant before World War II.

Historical Atlas of Hasidism map 7.4

Map 7.4. The Holocaust, 1939-1945. Cartography by Waldemar Spallek.

The map of the Holocaust is the most moving, as it tracks the destruction of Eastern European Jews on the basis of the tragic fate of 80 Hasidic leaders. Fortunately, the atlas does not end with this bleak image. Successive maps reveal that Hasidism has since been reborn in America, Israel, and Western Europe, and it thrives today. With the maps extending from the earliest Hasidic leaders in the mid-eighteenth century to the cultural geography of Hasidism today, the atlas covers the whole history of Hasidism and surprisingly many of its aspects. I feel I was privileged to work on such an unusual, comprehensive, and innovative project.

Waldemar Spallek is assistant professor of geographic information systems and cartography at the University of Wrocław in Poland.

Marcin Wodziński on Historical Atlas of Hasidism

WodzinskiHistorical Atlas of Hasidism is the very first cartographic reference book on one of the modern era’s most vibrant and important mystical movements. Featuring sixty-one large-format maps and a wealth of illustrations, charts, and tables, this one-of-a-kind atlas charts Hasidism’s emergence and expansion; its dynasties, courts, and prayer houses; its spread to the New World; the crisis of the two world wars and the Holocaust; and Hasidism’s remarkable postwar rebirth. Historical Atlas of Hasidism is visually stunning and easy to use, a magnificent resource for anyone seeking to understand Hasidism’s spatial and spiritual dimensions, or indeed anybody interested in geographies of religious movements past and present.

What exactly is the Historical Atlas of Hasidism?

This is the first cartographic interpretation of the mystical movement of Hasidism. 280 pages of large-format, full-color maps, images, and text about Hasidism, from its origins in the mid-eighteenth century until today.

What is the appeal of the Atlas?

Whoever gets it into his or her hands will notice that the atlas is simply beautiful. With more than one hundred charts, tables, and unique images, and with 74 beautifully designed full-color maps, this is simply a pleasure to flip through. But I believe there is much more to it. The atlas presents in a visually attractive, easy-to-understand cartographic form the spatial, physical, and visual dimension of a mystical movement. More than that, it demonstrates the meaningful interrelations between the movement’s spatiality and spirituality: Hasidism has been conditioned by its geographic characteristics not only in its social organization, but also in its spiritual life, type of religious leadership, and cultural articulation. On the more general level, this atlas offers an innovative way of looking at a religious movement that might be inspiring for anybody interested in the history, sociology, or geography of religions. This is why I believe the atlas will have a wide readership.

Why does Hasidism require a special Atlas?

Hasidism is one of the most important religious movements of modern Eastern Europe, contemporary Israel, and North America, and this for a number of reasons. For example, this is one of very few successful attempts at creating a religious movement that is both egalitarian and mystical, a real exception in the history of world religions. In addition, many people today are captivated by the extraordinary social and political success of the Hasidim, far beyond their rather moderate numbers. But maybe most importantly, even for those who have never heard the name of Hasidism, the image of traditional Jewry, of the “authentic Jewishness,” is informed mostly by Hasidism. Even though I disagree with this over-simplifying narrative, I believe it vividly represents the importance of the phenomenon.

But why maps, why an atlas as opposed to a standard monograph?

How otherwise could we capture the spatial dimension of the movement? If you believe, as I do, that the Hasidim were not only otherworldly mystics, but also down-to-earth residents of specific locations in very specific historical context of Eastern Europe, then you need to ask what is relation between these two. The maps are not only the easiest way to show it, but they allow for much more than textual exposition. And, besides, today in the digital age, visualization might be the only way to get through with a complex message.

To put this same question another way: you’ve written on Hasidism before; what is unique about this book?

I published my first book in Hasidism twenty years ago and I am still proud of this juvenile publication, as I am of other books I published later. But this book is indeed special. My previous books on Hasidism were more specialist, addressed mostly to the academic readers. This one is addressed to a wide group of readers, academic and lay. Each of the nine chapters introduces in a short, accessible way some central features of Hasidism, such as emergence, development of leadership, relation between religious centers and peripheries, demography, crisis of war and the Holocaust, etc. This very accessible introduction leads to the analysis of how these phenomena were affected by and found representation in space. In other ways, each chapter attempts to be accessible, but at the same time to offer some innovative understanding of the movement (and of a spatial dimension of any religion by implication). The same way, the maps have been conceptualized so that they communicate both the big message, something that you might grasp in the blink of your eye, and a far more developed, complex message, something that you need to read the map carefully for in order to see and understand. In this sense, the atlas both makes the history of Hasidism accessible to a freshman and introduces an expert knowledge on aspects that will be hopefully novel to both the students of Hasidism and a larger group of historians, sociologists, and geographers of religions.

Is it really a book for everybody?

I wouldn’t put it that way. The book is academic. But we, the cartographer and I, made a lot of effort to make it accessible, attractive, and engaging for a wide group of non-academic readers, too, e.g. those interested in Jewish history, Judaism, and history of religion more generally. Also, as the maps contain much geographical detail, e.g. thousands of places of residence of Hasidic leaders, thousands of Hasidic prayer halls, this will be of interest also to lay readers interested in local history, family histories, etc.

The scope of the Atlas sets it apart from other publications. Can you explain how?

This atlas broadens our understanding of Hasidism in three important ways. First, it looks at the movement beyond the Hasidic leaders at thousands of their followers living far from Hasidic centers. This is new, innovative, and I think very needed corrective to the dominant trends in research on Hasidism. Second, it examines Hasidism in its historical entirety from its beginnings in the eighteenth century till today. Very few publications are similarly comprehensive. Most importantly, responding to the challenge of digital humanities, it uses the diverse collection of qualitative, but above all quantitative data of diversified origin, including extensive GIS-processed databases of historical and contemporary records. The largest database is nearly 130 thousand records! Several others have thousands of records. I don’t know any similar publication on Hasidism, or, indeed, on any other religious movement.

Does the Atlas have real world applications?

I believe every knowledge has real world applications, at least by making us wiser. Well, of course, some sections might have direct application. For example my mapping of the settlement patterns among Israeli Hasidim might be successfully used by the Israel city planners or government administration in allocation of resources. For some others, the atlas might become an inspiring guidebook for cultural, or, indeed, spiritual tourism in Eastern Europe. Hasidism pilgrimages are today enormous enterprise with tens of thousands of Hasidim and non-Hasidim visiting graves of the tsadikim and other Hasidic sites. Finally, many maps are simply beautiful, so my wife says they will make perfect print for tablecloths, T-shirts, and postcards. We can’t wait to open a souvenir shop!

Marcin Wodziński is professor of Jewish studies at the University of Wrocław in Poland. His many books include Hasidism: A New History (Princeton) and Hasidism and Politics: The Kingdom of Poland, 1815–1864. Waldemar Spallek is assistant professor of geographic information systems and cartography at the University of Wrocław in Poland.

Brian Stanley on Christianity in the Twentieth Century

StanleyChristianity in the Twentieth Century charts the transformation of one of the world’s great religions during an age marked by world wars, genocide, nationalism, decolonization, and powerful ideological currents, many of them hostile to Christianity. Written by a leading scholar of world Christianity, the book traces how Christianity evolved from a religion defined by the culture and politics of Europe to the expanding polycentric and multicultural faith it is today—one whose growing popular support is strongest in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, China, and other parts of Asia. Transnational in scope and drawing on the latest scholarship, Christianity in the Twentieth Century demonstrates how Christianity has had less to fear from the onslaughts of secularism than from the readiness of Christians themselves to accommodate their faith to ideologies that privilege racial identity or radical individualism.

Have there been any previous world histories of Christianity in the twentieth century before?

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is only one or two, and they tend to be shorter text-book surveys that concentrate on Christianity in the Western world. There are several good one-volume histories of Christianity, and a few introductions to the contemporary reality of Christianity as a world religion, but historians of religion have generally avoided the twentieth century. They have been much more interested in the nineteenth century, when the churches were wrestling with the problems of industrial society and the questions raised by modern science and biblical criticism. The implicit, and false, assumption seemed to be that by about 1914 the crucial issues had all been decided, and that it was all downhill for Christian belief from then on.

What has been the biggest challenge in writing it?

Having written the book, I can readily appreciate why nobody has attempted quite this sort of project before: the need to try to do justice to all continents and all strands of the Christian tradition has made this the most difficult book I have ever undertaken.

Possibly the stiffest challenge has been deciding what to leave out, since no book of this nature can be totally comprehensive. I had to make my own decisions about which case studies to include and which to omit, and inevitably these decisions become quite personal. Another historian coming from a different sector of the Church and possessing different expertise would make a different selection.

Do you think Christianity was weaker or stronger in the year 2000 than it was in 1900?

Undoubtedly stronger, at least in terms of its global reach and its absolute numerical strength. Christianity by the end of the century was truly a global religion in a way it was not in 1900, despite all the efforts of Victorian missionary expansion.  Many parts of the Christian community had also discovered new sources of vibrant spirituality and confidence in their sense of mission, though it is hard for hard-pressed Christians in Europe or the eastern seaboard of the United States to appreciate that. But this is not a triumphalistic narrative of Christian progress: the churches in every continent in the twentieth century had to negotiate obstacles that were, if anything, even greater than those they had faced in the nineteenth century. Moreover, the percentage of the world population in 2000 that professed Christian allegiance was marginally lower than it was in 1900.

What challenges does your book pose to Christians?

It will force them to ask hard questions about the frequent failure of their predecessors to preserve the integrity of Christian faith in the face of enormous pressures—and I am not thinking of the pressures of overt state persecution so much as the insidious attractions of alluring ideologies that gnawed away at the fabric of historic Christian belief from the inside. The Church in every age, including our own, faces such pressures, and it is not very good at spotting them when they come along.

And what challenges does it pose to those who are not Christians?

My book suggests that the once-popular grand narrative of the twentieth century as the age of irreversible secularization on a global scale is demonstrably false, even though, as I have just acknowledged, the churches too often laid themselves open to racist or materialist perspectives that subverted the foundations of Christian belief. The history of Christianity is a constantly fluctuating narrative in which multiple challenges, such as those of injustice and oppression, provoke remarkable resurgences of Christian faith. These in turn invite their own contrary reactions whenever growing churches become too powerful or comfortable for their own spiritual good. Both believers and unbelievers should be challenged by this book.

What predictions would you make about the shape of Christianity in the year 2100?

My stock answer to this question is to say that the future is not my period. Most predictions made in 1900 about the spiritual course of the century to come—whether from Christian or atheistic sources—proved spectacularly wrong. Hence caution is the order of the day. But it seems likely that Christianity will continue to diversify in its multiple centers of gravity, and that its historic European lines of division inherited from the Reformation era will continue to fade in importance, being replaced by other fault lines of a more cultural nature. The current arguments over sexuality are one obvious example of that. Whatever the world Church will look like in 2100, it is probable that it will need another historian ambitious (or foolish!) enough to attempt a century from now to explain exactly what has changed, and why.

Brian Stanley is professor of world Christianity at the University of Edinburgh. His books include The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Billy Graham and John Stott and The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910.

C.C. Tsai on ‘The Analects’ and ‘The Art of War’

Tsai AnalectsC. C. Tsai is one of Asia’s most popular cartoonists, and his editions of the Chinese classics have sold more than 40 million copies in over twenty languages. These volumes present Tsai’s delightful graphic adaptation of The Analects and The Art of War, two of the most influential books of all time and works that continues to inspire countless readers today. The texts are skillfully translated by Brian Bruya, who also provides an introduction.

What got you interested in illustrating the Chinese classics?

Ever since I was small, I loved reading—the Bible, detective stories, world classics, science. Of course, the Chinese classics were also part of the mix. In 1985, I moved to Japan to hide away and draw something new. This was a time when teenage love stories were all the rage in Japan. It occurred to me that I could use the simple-to-understand form of the comic to express difficult-to-understand ancient classics. I started with the charming stories of Zhuangzi.

How were these different from what you’d been drawing all along? And what did you hope to get across to your readers?

Before these books, I did mostly comic strips, and in those, I did all the creative work, including the story lines. With the classics, I am illustrating the works of thinkers like Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Mencius. It still required quite a bit of creativity to distill the works into digestible episodes, but it also required an enormous amount of background reading and research. My aim was to put the essence of their thinking into pictures.

I’ve heard that you have unique working habits—that you go to bed at 5 p.m., get up at 1:00 a.m., and work until 2:00 p.m. When did you start this routine, and why?

My lifestyle resembles that of the great French writer Balzac: to bed at dusk and up at about 1:00 a.m. Then, stand in the window drinking coffee and thinking. 95% of my thinking at this time is about the future. Only 5% is about the past. Then I start working and work straight through until about 2:00. Then, I eat, take a nap, and either read or watch a movie on the internet.

When you really focus on one thing, there is nothing but silence, and it’s as if you are the only thing that exists in the whole world. It’s as if time slows to a halt. This is why I prefer to get up in the night to welcome each new day.

From my experience, the stomach and brain are in a reciprocal relationship. Creativity is highest when the stomach is empty. And when the stomach is full, the brain turns off. I don’t really like to eat and prefer not to interrupt my work with meals. After eating, I can never get back to the same state of creativity.

You’ve done so many amazing things in your life. What are you the most proud of?

The thing that I am the most proud of is using maximal freedom to live the simplest life. I took ten years off just to study physics. Those were the ten happiest years of my life. Second to that was the four years that I spent in Japan while drawing the Chinese classics. If you can do what you most love over an extended period of time—that is a life worth living!

Of all the comic books you’ve created, which is your favorite?

The sage Laozi is my idol, but Zhuangzi must have been my form in a previous lifetime. I’m most like Zhuangzi, and I like Zhuangzi the most. He was blind to fame and fortune and simply lived his own life without concern for what others thought. I do the same, and this is why I drew Zhuangzi first in the series.

Are you one of those old guys trying to bring back traditional culture? Doesn’t it seem out of touch with today’s youth, who prefer surfing the Internet, getting on social media, and figuring out ways to make a quick buck?

There is nothing wrong with getting online or wanting to make a quick buck. The question is: how many people succeed in making that quick buck? Maybe one in a thousand, or one in ten thousand. I have always lived by three simple principles:

  1. Find something you are good at and that you like to do and then devote yourself to it.
  2. Once you get good at something, your efficiency will increase exponentially, and you’ll be faster than you ever expected. This builds on itself, so that you increasingly get faster and better.
  3. When you can perform efficiently and at a high level, you’ll have very little competition. Challenge yourself. Every time you do something, try your best to do it faster and better than you did it last time. Soon, you will speed right past all of your peers.

You began drawing when you were 4 years-old. Do you remember your first drawing?

I have a deep impression of my first work of art. When I was two years-old, I was awe-struck by the special red ink that my dad would sometimes use in his calligraphy, so when he wasn’t looking, I grabbed his brush and used that red ink to draw the shape of a person on our white wall. The subsequent punishment is what made it stick in my memory.

Have you ever altered your style to meet the demands of your readers, or of the market?

In the fifty years that I’ve been drawing comics, including 7 years doing animation, I’ve developed 20 different styles. I tailor the style to the content. For traditional philosophy, I balance the difficulty of the thought with a light and breezy drawing style. But this is in service to the reader. I always have the needs of the reader at the front of my mind. Do these sections flow together? Is this sentence clear? A book is a way to connect with a reader’s mind. From creation, to editing, to printing, to distribution—a book is not complete until the reader has finished reading.

What is the focus of your work now? Do you have any plans for a new series?

I just finished a series on Buddhism, along with two animated feature films, and am now planning a series on the “wisdom of the East.”

What other kind of challenges do you plan to take on?

I have a strong interest in creating a comic book series devoted to helping people understand physics and mathematics. I’ve been studying these subjects for many years and am just about ready. At this point in my life, though, it becomes a matter of whether I am still alive and have the energy to complete the project.

Has drawing comics always been your goal in life?

Drawing comics is not my goal in life. My goal is to live with as much spiritual freedom as possible and as few material desires as possible.

There is a story of a little chick that has just pecked its way out of its shell when it comes across a snail. “So that’s what a shell is for,” it says to itself. So the chick picks up the pieces of its shell and carries them on its back for the rest of its life.

We are born free, so why accumulate shells to carry on your back? Our purpose in life is not to accumulate fame and fortune that we can’t take with us when we die; it is to be who we are to the fullest extent possible. Since we only have one life to live, we have to make the most of it. That’s why I’m not willing to spend an ounce of energy pursuing fame or fortune. Look at your life from the perspective of your death, then go and do something significant.

What books have influenced you the most?

I’ve found that reading is the most rewarding investment of one’s time. By the time I was three, I had finished reading the Bible. At 9, I had read many of the world’s most famous works of literature. Up to now, I’ve probably read over twenty thousand books, including eight thousand comic books. Of these, my favorite author is Kahlil Gibran. My favorite books are Gibran’s The Prophet and Sand and Foam and Lewis Thomas’ Lives of a Cell.

From your own experience and perspective, to what do you attribute your success. What could your fans learn from you about how to succeed in their own lives?

A person without a dream is like a butterfly without wings. In Taiwan, there is a saying: a blade of grass, a drop of dew. In the early morning, every kind of plant, whether big or small, a weed or a flower, will have dew on it. What this means is that nature is fundamentally fair, in that everyone has their own talents and abilities. You just have to develop them.

You have popularized comic books about ancient times. Do you feel like you have some special connection with the ancients?

I am interested in anything that has to do with wisdom. Reading is like being a neighbor to the ancients, like forming a friendship with them. I have never traveled for the sake of traveling, like a tourist does. Instead, I travel with the people of the past.

Where do you find your inspiration?

My inspiration comes from my attempt to connect with wisdom. I try to use this creative form to pass on some wisdom to later generations. My process lies in reading and note-taking. I’m slow at reading paper books and now prefer to read books on the computer. I download some ancient book, convert it to a Word document, and add correct punctuation. It’s hard on my eyes, and I sometimes think I’ll go blind doing it like this. Is this a bottleneck in my workflow? Actually, no. If I were to convert all of my notes to paper notebooks, I estimate they would take up something like 800 volumes.

Whenever people achieve a level of great success, it’s natural that others wonder how they were able to do it. What would you say is the secret to your success?

The secret to success is to find something you love and then do it. Even today, I still love to work. I work 16 – 18 hours per day. I don’t have a cell phone, and still use a land line. I also don’t have material desires to speak of, getting by on about $8/day. Besides working, my next love is playing bridge online. I’m still that little kid from the Taiwan countryside—very simple, just doing whatever he enjoys the most.

When did you first think of putting ancient thought into comics? Did your understanding of it come through studying it on your own?

When I was 9 years-old, I realized that if you really want to learn something, you have to teach yourself. The questions are yours, and you have to come up with the answers. Most teachers are just average people and are limited in their ability to satisfy a child’s curiosity. It was then that I began my project of self-learning. Self-learning is how you learn fast and efficiently. Everything I know, I’ve learned this way: cartooning, animations, physics, advanced mathematics, Japanese, bridge, Asian philosophy, Buddhism, Zen, and so on. I’m an autodidact through and through.

When I was 36 years old, I had the idea that putting classical literature into comics could be of great benefit to others. So, I decided to go to Japan and spend four years creating this series. Wouldn’t it be great to take priceless ideas of the Chinese classics and transmit them via the most efficient modern media format? Nothing could be more natural! 

Who has most influenced your drawing style?

I was exposed to the Bible when I was just one year-old. When I was 3-and-half, I began thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. When I was four-and-a-half, I decided that I would become an illustrator. At 9, I set my mind on becoming a professional cartoonist. I published my first comic when I was 15. When I first started drawing comics, I was heavily influenced by my idol at the time, Tetsuya Chiba. But after a year, I found my own voice and developed my own style. At 36, when I was traveling through the Kuala Lumpur airport, I came across some comics by a cartoonist who goes by the name of Lat. There is a freedom to his drawings that helped me develop my carefree style. But the one thing that has been most influential in my drawing has been my own studies—of classical Chinese painting, Western art history, Bauhaus design, not to mention physics and mathematics. It was only after studying formulas in physics and math that my drawing took on a kind of lyrical openness. But I don’t have just one style. Right now, I can draw in any of 20 different styles. It’s not a problem if a beginning artist is influenced by an idol’s style, but the artist has to very quickly transition to a unique style. We’re each a unique being from the day we’re born. If we can’t be ourselves, who is going to come and be us? We are our own selves, not copycats of others.

C. C. Tsai is one of East Asia’s most popular illustrators. His bestselling editions of the Chinese classics have introduced generations of readers to the wisdom of such luminaries as Zhuangzi, Sunzi, and Laozi. Born in Taiwan, Tsai now lives in Hangzhou, China. 

 

Tsai

Mount Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain

View from Central Terrace, Mount Wutai, Shanxi Province, China. Photograph by author, 2005.

“The attributes of a great place like this
are difficult for someone like myself to relate.”

—Translation modified from Illich, Marina. “Selections from the Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Polymath: Chankya Rolpai Dorje (lcang skya rol pa’i rdo rje), 1717–1786.” Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, New York, 2006.

“‘At the formation of the world, this earth is situated on top of a golden wheel. On the golden wheel are sharp spikes, one of which bore a small golden wheel. This wheel is located half way up the northern terrace. It is where Mañjuśrī’s Palace of the Seven Jewels is located. Groves of fruit trees fill the entire compound, surrounded by ten thousand bodhisattvas. On top of the northern terrace is a pond. Its name is the golden well. The great sage Mañjuśrī and all sagely entourage appear from it. It is interconnected with the Diamond Grotto. The domain of the Great Sage is no ordinary realm.’”

“‘世界初成. 此大地踞金輪之上. 又於金輪上. 撮骨狼牙. 生一小金輪.其輪.至北臺半腹.文殊菩薩七寶宮殿之所在焉.園林果樹.咸悉充滿. 一萬菩薩之所圍遶. 北臺上面. 有一水池. 名曰金井. 大聖文殊. 與諸聖眾. 於中出沒. 與金剛窟正相通矣. 大聖所都. 非凡境界.’”

Taishō shinshū daizōkyō 大正新修大藏經 (The Buddhist Canon, comp. Taishō era, 1912–1926). Edited by Takakusu Junjirō 高楠順次郎 and Watanabe Kaigyoku 渡邊海旭. Tokyo: Taishō issaikyo kankokai, 1924–1932. 2099: 51, 1119a2–15.

The domain of the Great Sage, or Mount Wutai—also known as the Clear and Cool Mountains, the Pure and Cool Mountains, the Clear and Cold Mountains, or the Five-Peaked Mountain—has been a preeminent site of international pilgrimage for over a millennium. Home to more than one hundred temples, the entire range is considered a Buddhist paradise on earth, and has received visitors ranging from emperors to monastic and lay devotees.

Wen-shing Chou’s Mount Wutai explores the history of this sacred Buddhist mountain through Qing dynasty-era objects of art, architecture, worship, and translation. Chou explains how Qing Buddhist rulers and clerics from Inner Asia, including Manchus, Tibetans, and Mongols, reimagined the mountain as their own during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Mañjughọsa Emperor, 18th century. Thangka. Ink and colors on silk. 113.5 × 64 cm. The Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Purchased by anonymous donor and with Museum funds, F2000.4.

“‘I see the Clear and Cool Mountains illuminated by the radiance of lapis lazuli, foothills of the mountain ornamented by various jeweled trees whose radiance brightly illuminates the entire place without the slightest difference between day and night, and that land of the Venerable One is not a place within my domain.’”

“’Ngas bltas na ri bo dwangs bsil ’di baiḍūrya’i mdangs su gsal zhing / ri bo rnams kyi zhol du rin bo che’i ljon shing sna tshogs kyis sbras pa ’od ’tsher bas nyin mtshan kyad med du lhan ne lhang nger snang ste / rje btsun gyi yul ni kho bo’i spyod yul min no shes smras te mi nang bar gyur to /.’”

—Lcang skya Rol pa’i rdo rje, Lo chen Ngag dbang bskal bzang, Gro tshang Mkhan sprul, and Lcang lung Ārya Paṇḍita Ngag dbang blo bzang bstan pa’i rgyal mtshan. Zhing mchog ri bo dwangs bsil gyi gnas bshad dad pa’i padmo rgyas byed ngo mtshar nyi ma’i snang ba (Guide to the Clear and Cool Mountains: A Vision of Marvelous Sun Rays That Causes Lotuses of Devotion to Blossom). Beijing: Zung gru ze’i par khang, 1831. Typeset edition, Xining: Mtsho sngon mi rigs dpe sgrun khang, 1993. 29b, lines 1 and 2.

Map of Mount Wutai in Laozang Danba, New Gazetteer of Clear and Cool Mountains, 1701. Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

“‘Have you not heard that the same phenomenon will be perceived differently by three people? Just as the eyes of their karmic retribution are different, what they see will also be different. If the Clear and Cool Mountains that you see are in the color of emerald green, with terraces and hills filled with variegated jeweled trees with illuminating radiance that eliminates the slightest difference between day and night, this dwelling place of the bodhisattva is not within my reach.’”

“‘師豈不聞一法無異, 三人殊見者乎? 蓋隨其各具業報之眼有殊, 而所見亦異. 若某所見清涼山, 碧琉璃色, 諸臺麓間, 皆雜寶林, 光明煥發, 日夜無閒. 而菩薩住處, 非我所及也.’”

—Qingliang shan zhi 清凉山志 (Gazetteer of the Clear and Cool Mountains). Compiled by Zhencheng 鎮澄 (1546–1617). Originally published 1596; revised in 1660 by Lama Awang Laozang 阿王老 藏 (1601–1687); reprinted in Gugong bowuyuan, Qingliang shan zhi, Qingliang shan xin zhi, Qinding Qingliang shan zhi. Updated compilation by Yinguang 印光 (1862–1940) in 1933; reprinted in Du Jiexiang 杜潔祥, ed., Zhongguo fosi shizhi huikan 中國佛寺史志彙刊. Taipei: Mingwen shuju, 1980–1985. Juan 7, 8a.

Bodhisattva’s Peak, Mount Wutai. From Sekino and Daijō, Shina bunka shiseki, vol. 1, pl. 92.

“What mountain anywhere is not sacred?
Why go to the Five-Peaked Mountain with a walking stick?
Even if a lion with the golden mane manifests in the clouds,
It is nothing special when seen with pure eye.”

“Nyin cig ri bo rtse lngar chas tsam na / hwa shang zhig gis tshigs su bcad pa smras pa / sa phyogs gang gi ri kun chos kyi ri / ci’i phyir ri bo rtse lngar ’khar bas ’gro / smrin gseb mngon pa’i seng ge gser ral can / ngag pa’i mig gis bltas na dge mtshan min / zhes so // chan shis de la ’jus nas dag pa’i mig ces pa ci yin zhes dril pas cang mi zer ro / de nas chan shis khur po bsnams te bzhud do /.

—Lcang skya, Zhing mchog, 42b, lines 1 and 3.

Gelöng Lhundrub, Panoramic View of Mount Wutai, ca. 1846. Honolulu Museum of Art. Accession no. 3202.1.

“This little map of Mount Wutai cannot possibly exhaust every detail of the mountain. The benefactors from all four directions who make a pilgrimage to the sacred realm of the Clear and Cool, see this map of the mountain, listen to and recount the spiritual efficacy and wondrous dharma of the bodhisattva, will in this life be free from all calamities and diseases, and enjoy boundless blessings, happiness, and longevity. After this life, they will be reborn in a blessed land…. Should a person make the vow to print this image, they will accumulate immeasurable merit.”

“此五台一小山圖, 未能盡其詳細, 四方善士凡朝清涼聖境, 及見此山圖, 聞講菩薩靈驗妙法者, 今生能消一切災難疾病, 享福享壽, 福祿綿長, 命終之後, 生於有福之地…. 如有大發願心, 印此山圖者, 則功德無量矣.”

—Inscription of Gelöng Lhundrub, Panoramic Picture of the Sacred Realm of the Mountain of Five Terraces, 1846, bottom-right corner.

Jan Assmann: Remembering the Exodus

Almost 30 years ago, friends in Jerusalem invited my family to a Passover Seder. It might be fun, they said, to have me on board as an Egyptologist to professionally depict the sufferings in the house of serfdom. As the youngest child at the Seder, my daughter Corinna had to learn and ask the question, “Ma nishtana?”,  triggering a chain of liturgical and improvised recitations. I began to think about how an Egyptologist would reconstruct and ‘remember’ the Exodus. After all, I was a complete outsider at the Seder. My only legitimation lay in the fact that it was Egypt that the children of Israel left in order to start a new form of community in Canaan. I wondered, was there a specifically anti-Egyptian gist in this narrative?

When I was asked to write a book on Exodus for Princeton University Press, I felt the time had finally come to set to work. As an Egyptologist, I knew for sure that there was no Egyptian evidence that could corroborate the historicity of the story. There was no use inquiring into what really happened in the time of Ramesses II. Instead, I asked, “How was this event remembered?” This approach allowed me to read the book of Exodus not as a historical account, but as an act of remembering in itself. It also allowed me to locate the story not in the Late Bronze Age, but rather in the time of its narration­—probably the sixth century BCE.

Re-reading the book of Exodus, I remarked with surprise that the Exodus proper—from the sufferings of serfdom to the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea—fills just one part of the book. The two other parts contain the revelation of the Law at Mt. Sinai and the construction of the Tabernacle. The theme of revelation, however, is present in all three parts:

  1. First, God reveals his name to Moses at the Burning Bush and commissions Moses to lead his people to Canaan, the Promised Land (chs. 3-6). God reveals his power by hitting Pharaoh and his land with ten plagues and drowning Pharaoh’s army in the Sea of Reeds (chs. 7-15a).
  2. In the second part, God reveals himself to his chosen people, with whom he forms a covenant, and whom he instructs about the rules to remain true to this covenant (chs. 15b-24).
  3. In the third part, God reveals to Moses the structure of the Tabernacle in the cloud (chs. 25-31) and—in a scene of reconciliation after the crisis of the Golden Calf—his view from behind and his merciful or unforgiving nature.

The book’s narrative arc starts with trauma and ends with triumph: from extreme God-forsakenness to God living ‘in the midst of his people’, ‘sitting on the cherubim.’ Near the middle of the book, the text even contains God’s detailed prescription as to how this story should be remembered by future generations. This prescription is implemented and acted out in the feast of Passover, starting with the Seder night.

The book of Exodus, it turns out, is about much more than just the Israelites’ exit from Egypt. It is about the foundation of a new, revealed religion based on covenant, faith and law, and of a nation chosen to be the carrier of this religion, serving as a prototype that at the end of time will be adopted by all nations on earth.

So where, one may ask, is the “anti-Egyptian gist”? It lies in the opposition of serfdom and freedom. Egypt represents the old system of sacral kingship, where religion and state are the same and the king rules as a god on earth. This system is overturned by the religion of covenant and faith that liberates its members from serving Pharaoh into the service of God. Freedom means autonomy as a diasporic nation—forced to obey the host country’s laws, but at the same time obeying a higher authority whose laws are meant to last forever, untouched by any mundane government. This is religion in a new key, independent of state and country, religion that is able to resist oppression and persecution—religion, that is, as we understand it today. This is why I finally titled my book The Invention of Religion.

Freedom is the major theme of the Passover Haggadah. Freedom in times of exile and persecution—this is what the Seder celebrates. Yet kherût, or freedom, is not a biblical word. It became a keyword only in the Diaspora, when Egypt came to stand for any country and any period where and when the Jews were oppressed. “Wherever you live,” wrote Michael Walzer in Exodus and Revolution, “it is probably Egypt.” Remembering the Exodus means exiting Egypt.

Jan Assmann is honorary professor of cultural studies at the University of Konstanz and professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg, where he taught for nearly three decades. He is the author of many books on ancient history and religion, including From Akhenaten to Moses, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization, and Moses the Egyptian.

Read PUP’s 2017 National Jewish Book Award winners!

We’re proud to announce that four Princeton University Press titles were winners and/or finalists for the 2017 National Jewish Book Awards. These four books examine the lives of Jewish women in medieval Islamic society, a famous case of anti-Semitism in eighteenth-century Germany, the origins of Jews as a people, and the meanings of the Hebrew language.

Winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in Women’s Studies (Barbara Dobkin Award)

Finalist for the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in Scholarship (Nahum Sarna Memorial Award)

Much of what we know about life in the medieval Islamic Middle East comes from texts written to impart religious ideals or to chronicle the movements of great men. How did women participate in the societies these texts describe? What about non-Muslims, whose own religious traditions descended partly from pre-Islamic late antiquity?

Coming of Age in Medieval Egypt approaches these questions through Jewish women’s adolescence in Fatimid and Ayyubid Egypt and Syria (c. 969–1250). Using hundreds of everyday papers preserved in the Cairo Geniza, Eve Krakowski follows the lives of girls from different social classes—rich and poor, secluded and physically mobile—as they prepared to marry and become social adults.

Krakowski also suggests a new approach to religious identity in premodern Islamic societies—and to the history of rabbinic Judaism. Through the lens of women’s coming-of-age, she demonstrates that even Jews who faithfully observed rabbinic law did not always understand the world in rabbinic terms. By tracing the fault lines between rabbinic legal practice and its practitioners’ lives, Krakowski explains how rabbinic Judaism adapted to the Islamic Middle Ages. Read the introduction.

Winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in History (Gerrard and Ella Berman Memorial Award)

Joseph Süss Oppenheimer—”Jew Süss”—is one of the most iconic figures in the history of anti-Semitism. In 1733, Oppenheimer became the “court Jew” of Carl Alexander, the duke of the small German state of Württemberg. When Carl Alexander died unexpectedly, the Württemberg authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and condemned him to death for unspecified “misdeeds.”

The Many Deaths of Jew Süss is a compelling new account of Oppenheimer’s notorious trial. Drawing on a wealth of rare archival evidence, Yair Mintzker investigates conflicting versions of Oppenheimer’s life and death as told by four contemporaries: the leading inquisitor in the criminal investigation, the most important eyewitness to Oppenheimer’s final days, a fellow court Jew who was permitted to visit Oppenheimer on the eve of his execution, and one of Oppenheimer’s earliest biographers.

The Many Deaths of Jew Süss is a masterfully innovative work of history, and an illuminating parable about Jewish life in the fraught transition to modernity. Check out this Q&A with Mintzker, or read the introduction.

Winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in Education and Jewish Identity (In Memory of Dorothy Kripke)

In The Origin of the Jews, Steven Weitzman takes a learned and lively look at what we know—or think we know—about where the Jews came from, when they arose, and how they came to be.

This is the first book to trace the history of the different approaches that have been applied to the question, including genealogy, linguistics, archaeology, psychology, sociology, and genetics. Weitzman shows how this quest has been fraught since its inception with religious and political agendas, how anti-Semitism cast its long shadow over generations of learning, and how recent claims about Jewish origins have been difficult to disentangle from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He does not offer neatly packaged conclusions but invites readers on an intellectual adventure, shedding new light on the assumptions and biases of those seeking answers—and the challenges that have made finding answers so elusive. Read the introduction!

Finalist for the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in History (Gerrard and Ella Berman Memorial Award)

The Story of Hebrew takes readers from the opening verses of Genesis—which seemingly describe the creation of Hebrew itself—to the reincarnation of Hebrew as the everyday language of the Jewish state. Lewis Glinert explains the uses and meanings of Hebrew in ancient Israel and its role as a medium for wisdom and prayer. He describes the early rabbis’ preservation of Hebrew following the Babylonian exile, the challenges posed by Arabic, and the prolific use of Hebrew in Diaspora art, spirituality, and science. Glinert looks at the conflicted relationship Christians had with Hebrew from the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation, the language’s fatal rivalry with Yiddish, the dreamers and schemers that made modern Hebrew a reality, and how a lost pre-Holocaust textual ethos is being renewed today by Orthodox Jews.

The Story of Hebrew explores the extraordinary hold that Hebrew has had on Jews and Christians, who have invested it with a symbolic power far beyond that of any other language in history. Check out this Q&A with Glinert, or read the book’s introduction.

Illustrating the Passover story: Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink

One of the most beloved books in the Jewish tradition is the Haggadah. This is the text used to conduct a Seder, a Jewish gathering of family and friends that celebrates the holiday of Passover by retelling in story, prayer, and song the biblical account of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Modern observers have a diverse array of Haggadot available to them—from political to comic, from juvenile to literary, and from Broadway-inspired to online dating-themed. But this diversity of Haggadot isn’t unique to our century. As early as the fourteenth century, scribes and artists were producing unique and beautifully illuminated Haggadot for use at Passover. Over subsequent centuries, much of the Jewish visual tradition found its most creative expression in exquisitely illustrated editions of this narrative.

The following examples of illuminated Haggadot (and one page from a hand-illustrated Pentateuch, or collection of the first five books of the Bible) are taken from Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts, edited by Marc Michael Epstein. This sumptuous volume offers the first full survey of Jewish illuminated manuscripts, ranging from their origins in the Middle Ages to the present day.

A community of scholars: the Five Rabbis at B’nei Brak. Haggadah, German rite with the commentary of Eleazar of Worms and illustrations by Joel ben Simeon Feibush (The Ashkenazi Haggadah). South Germany, perhaps Ulm, ca. 1460. London, British Library, MS Add. 14762, fol. 7v.

Joseph’s dreams. Haggadah (The Golden Haggadah). Spain, Barcelona, ca. 1320. London, British Library, MS Add. 27210, fol. 5rb.

Decorated opening world. “And these [are the names] . . . ,” the first word of the book of Exodus. Pentateuch with targum intercalated (Aramaic translation inserted after the Hebrew line by line) (The Duke of Sussex Pentateuch). Germany, Lake Constance region, early 14th century. London, British Library, MS Add. 15282, fol. 75v.

The Four Children in the full spectrum of contemporary male dress. Haggadah written and illustrated by Joseph Bar David of Leipnick, Moravia. Altona, 1740. London, British Library, MS Sloane 3173, fol. 6v.

Israelites building store-cities for Pharaoh. Haggadah illustrated by Joseph Bar David of Leipnick, Moravia. Germany, Altona, 1740. London, British Library, MS Sloane 3173, fol. 11v.

Jan Assmann on The Invention of Religion

ReligionThe Book of Exodus may be the most consequential story ever told. But its spectacular moments of heaven-sent plagues and parting seas overshadow its true significance, says Jan Assmann, a leading historian of ancient religion. The story of Moses guiding the enslaved children of Israel out of captivity to become God’s chosen people is the foundation of an entirely new idea of religion, one that lives on today in many of the world’s faiths. The Invention of Religion sheds new light on ancient scriptures to show how Exodus has shaped fundamental understandings of monotheistic practice and belief. It is a powerful account of how ideas of faith, revelation, and covenant, first introduced in Exodus, shaped Judaism and were later adopted by Christianity and Islam to form the bedrock of the world’s Abrahamic religions.

The title of your book is The Invention of Religion. How is this to be understood? Aren’t there many religions? And have they all been invented?

This is correct. Primal, tribal, and ancient religions go back to time immemorial. We may call them “primary religions.” They are based on experience and are equivalent to general culture; there is no way to conceive of them as an independent system based on rules and values of its own. In my book, I am dealing with “secondary religion” that does not go back to time immemorial but has a definite date in history when it was founded or “invented.” Religion in this new sense is not based on experience but revelation; it is set off from the older primary religion and therefore from general culture, forming a system of its own. The first secondary religion is Second Temple Judaism as it developed during the Babylonian Exile and as it was established around 520 BCE. Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam followed its model, as does our concept of “religion.”

If revelation is the distinctive feature of “secondary religion,” how do you explain that all religions know of ways by which the gods reveal their intentions to humankind, such as prodigies, oracles, dreams, etc.?

We must distinguish between occasional and singular revelations. Occasional revelations occur once in a while, refer to specific situations, and address specific recipients. Singular revelations occur once and for all time, encompass the entirety of human—individual, social, political—existence, and address a whole people or group of believers such as Jews, Christians, Muslims, etc. Revelation in this sense is an act of foundation, establishing a “covenant“ between God and men. Whereas primary religions need rituals, attention, diligence in order not to miss the divine intimations and to interpret them correctly—and this is exactly what the Latin term religio means according to Cicero—religions of the new type need memory, codification, canonization of the revealed texts, and faith in the revealed truth, i.e. the covenant. For this reason, Lactance, a Christian, derived the word religio not from relegere, or “to diligently observe,” but from religari, or “to bind oneself.”

“Faith“ is another category that one would assume to be necessary for all religions, not only for Second Temple Judaism and the religions based on or following this model.

In a general sense, yes. But religion based on revelation requires faith in a specific and much stronger sense. Faith in the general, weak sense is based on experience and evidence, i.e. immanent, this-worldly truth. Faith in the new, strong sense is based on revealed truth, which is transcendent and extramundane. This is a truth that cannot be verified by experience and researched, but can only be attested by staying true to the covenant and its laws, even under conditions of suffering. The term “martyr” comes from Greek martys “witness” and means him who by his violent death testifies to the truth of God’s covenant. Faith, truthfulness, and loyalty mean the same (aemunah in Hebrew). This kind of faith does not exist in primary religions and is the exclusive innovation of Biblical monotheism in its post-exilic form of Second Temple Judaism.

The main topic of the book of Exodus, however, seems still to be the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt (yitzi’at mitzra’im) and not “revelation” for which there is not even a word in Hebrew.

That “revelation” is the main topic of 2.Mose becomes clear by a careful thematic analysis of the book. The book comprises three parts. Part one (chapters 1-15a) contains God’s revelation to Moses in the Burning Bush, the 10 plagues, and the Miracle of the Sea, revealing his overwhelming power. Part 2 (chapters 15b-24) contains the revelation of the covenant and the closing ceremony. The last part (chapters 25-40) contains the revelation and construction of the Tabernacle, interrupted by the scene of the Golden Calf. Each of these parts contains scenes of revelation, which is thus shown to be the overarching theme. That there is no word for “revelation” in Hebrew is the reason why this new and revolutionary concept is unfolded in form of a lengthy narrative.

Being an Egyptologist, what brought you to venture into the field of Biblical studies and how does your approach as an outsider differ from that of professional Biblical scholars who wrote on the book of Exodus?

My “egyptological” approach to the Bible focuses on the triad of culture, identity, and memory that is typical of Cultural Studies, whereas the approach of Biblical Studies mostly focuses on textual criticism, the distinction of different layers of redaction and composition. According to the Bible, the Israelites fled from Egypt and not from any other country of the Ancient World. This fact alone constitutes a challenge for Egyptology. Egypt seems to stand for something that the Torah is opposing with particular vehemence. A closer reading of the book of Exodus reveals that it is not religion—the Egyptian cult—what is rejected, but the political system of sacral kingship, the king as god and the deification of the state. All the ancient oriental kingdoms share this idea in a greater or lesser degree, but Egypt is the most extreme realization of this idea. Egypt, therefore, represents the world which Israel was to exit—or to be liberated from—in order to enter a new paradigm for which Flavius Josephus coined the term “theocracy,” meaning “God is king” instead of “The king is god,” the principle of sacral kingship. This originally political idea gradually evolved into what we now understand as “religion.”

The Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is commonly taken as a historical fact, unlike the events that you subsume under the concept “revelation“ and consequently interpret as religious imagination.

Egyptology tells us that there is no archaeological, epigraphical, or literary evidence of any Hebrew mass emigration from Egypt in the Late Bronze Age, the narrated time. The book of Exodus is not a historical account but a foundational myth, though replete with historical reminiscences and experiences such as the expulsion of the Hyksos, the oppression of Palestine by Egyptian colonization, the Solomonic oppression of his people through heavy corvée—leading to the separation of the Northern Tribes—and finally the annihilation of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians in 722 and of the Southern Kingdom by the Babylonians 597/87. What is decisive is not the narrated time—”What may really have happened in the 13th ct. BCE?”—but the various times of narration when this myth was first formed and became eventually codified and canonized as the foundational story of Second Temple Judaism. As a foundational myth, the Exodus belongs within the same sphere of religious imagination as the scenes of revelation.

And Moses? The name, Egyptologists tell us, is Egyptian. This seems to be historical evidence after all.

This is true, Moses (Moshe) is an Egyptian name, meaning “born of” like the Greek –genes. Hermogenes would be Thut-mose. There are many attempts at identifying Moses with Egyptian figures bearing the element –mose in their names, none of them convincing. Sigmund Freud made of Moses a follower of Akhenaten, the heretic king, who after this king’s death emigrated from Egypt to Canaan and took the Hebrews along, because Akhenaten’s monotheistic cult of the Sun (Aten) was persecuted and abolished in Egypt. Some even identify Moses with Akhenaten. All this is pure fancy. There is not the least link between Akenaten’s monotheism, which is just a new cosmology, deducing every life and existence from the sun, and the religion founded and proclaimed by Moses, that has nothing to do with cosmology but is based on the political idea of covenant, an alliance between God and his people. The ideas of revelation, covenant, and faith have no correspondents in Egypt nor in any other ancient religion.

In your book you characterize the new religion as a “monotheism of loyalty,” based on the distinction between loyalty and betrayal, and distinct from a “monotheism of truth,” based on the distinction between true and false, which is also typical of the new religion. How do these two forms of monotheism go together?

In my book Moses the Egyptian (1997), I defined Biblical monotheism as based on the distinction of true and false, which I dubbed the “Mosaic Distinction” and described as an innovation that “secondary religions” introduced into the ancient world, where this distinction between true God and false gods, true religion and false religions, was totally alien. After a close reading of the Torah I realized that this distinction only occurs with the later prophets (Deutero-Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezechiel and others), whereas the Torah, i.e. the books that are truly “Mosaic,” is about the distinction between loyalty and betrayal. This distinction is linked to the concept of a covenant between a “jealous” God, the liberator from Egyptian slavery, who requires absolute fidelity, and his Chosen People that has constantly to be admonished not to “murmur” and not to turn to other gods. The ideas of covenant, loyalty, and faith remain always, even in Christianity and Islam, the cantus firmus in the polyphony of the sacred scriptures and merge perfectly well with the idea of the One true God, the creator of heaven and earth, which is to be found in the prophetic scriptures. The first, particularist distinction concerns the chosen people whose gratitude and loyalty is requested for their liberator, and the second, universalist distinction concerns the idea of God the creator who cares for all human beings and all life on earth.

In some of your previous books you stated a connection between monotheism and violence as implied in the distinction between true and false in religion. Does this connection appear in a different light when the issue is not truth but loyalty?

All “secondary religions” are intolerant, because they arise in opposition to the primary religions before and around them. The “monotheism of truth,” therefore, is incompatible with religions excluded as “false.” This is a matter of logic and cognition. The “monotheism of loyalty,” on the other hand, based on the distinction between loyalty and betrayal, implies a form of violence that is mainly directed against members of the own group who are viewed as apostates or transgressors, as is shown by the “primal scene” of this form of violence, the scene of the Golden Calf. It is this form of violence with which we are mostly confronted today. It is only directed against outsiders if the distinction between inner and outer, apostates and strangers is blurred and all human beings are requested to enter the covenant and obey to its laws, as is the case with certain radical islamist and evangelist groups.

Then intolerance and violence are necessary implications of the Exodus tradition?

Nothing could be more alien to the theology of Exodus. The distinction between Israel and the “nations” (goyîm) that is drawn here has no violent and antagonistic implications. That the nations observe other laws and worship other gods is perfectly in order, because they are not called into the covenant. The only exception is made for the “Canaanites,” the indigenous population of the Promised Land, who must be expelled and exterminated and who are obviously no other that those Hebrews who do not live according to the laws of the covenant. These “Canaanites,” however, are but a symbol for the “primary religion” that Second Temple Judaism, especially the Puritan radicalism of the Deuteronomic tradition, is opposing. We must not forget, however, that it is not hatred and violence, but love that forms the center of the idea of covenant. The leading metaphor of the covenant is matrimonial love and the “megillah” (scroll) that is read during the feast of Passover is the Song of Songs, a collection of fervent love songs. God’s “jealousy” is part of his love.

Jan Assmann is honorary professor of cultural studies at the University of Konstanz and professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg, where he taught for nearly three decades. He is the author of many books on ancient history and religion, including From Akhenaten to Moses, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization, and Moses the Egyptian.

Observing Passover throughout history: A History of Judaism

This week, Jews all over the world are celebrating Passover, commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from enslavement in Egypt. What is the history of this ancient festival, and how has it been observed over the centuries? Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism, a sweeping history of the religion over more than three millennia, includes fascinating glimpses of how Passover has evolved through the various strains, sects, and traditions of Judaism.

While the Second Temple stood, Passover (or Pesach in Hebrew) was one of three annual pilgrimage festivals. Every adult Jewish male was obligated to journey to the Temple for the festival. On the first night of Pesach, men, women, and children enjoyed a huge barbecue of roasted lamb along with a narration of the exodus story. For the following seven days, they abstained from leavened foods. Jews who couldn’t make it to the Temple ate roasted lamb and retold the exodus story at home. In the late fifth century BCE, the Jews of Elephantine, on the island of Yeb in the Nile river, received the following instructions in a letter from Jerusalem:

  • On the 14th day of the month of Nisan, observe the Passover at twilight.
  • Observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread from the 15th of Nisan to the 21st of Nisan, eating only unleavened bread for these seven days.
  • Do not work on the 15th or 21st of Nisan.
  • Do not drink any fermented beverages during this period.
  • Remove and seal up any leavened products, which must not be seen in the house from sunset on the 14th of Nisan until sunset on the 21st of Nisan.

-paraphrased from B. Porten, Archives from Elephantine: The Life of an Ancient Jewish Military Colony (Berkeley, 1968), 128-33

Over two thousand years after the Elephantine Jews received their instructions from Jerusalem, rabbis and students were still discussing the exact meaning of the festival’s proscriptions. In this passage, Aryeh Leib b. Asher Gunzberg, a Lithuanian rabbi who died in 1785, weighs in on a disagreement between the Talmud commentaries of Rashi and those of the tosafists, medieval commentators writing after Rashi:

“The Talmud says that the search for and removal of leavened matter on the eve of the Passover is merely a rabbinical prescription; for it is sufficient, according to the commands of the Torah, if merely in words or in thought the owner declares it to be destroyed and equal to the dust. Rashi says that the fact that such a declaration of the owner is sufficient is derived from an expression in Scripture. The tosafot, however, claim that this cannot be derived from the particular expression in Scripture, since the word there means ‘to remove’ and not ‘to declare destroyed’. The mere declaration that it is destroyed is sufficient for the reason that thereby the owner gives up his rights of ownership, and the leavened matter is regarded as having no owner, and as food for which no one is responsible, since at Passover only one’s own leavened food may not be kept, while that of strangers may be kept. Although the formula which is sufficient to declare the leavened matter as destroyed is not sufficient to declare one’s property as having no owner, yet, as R. Nissim Gerondi, adopting the view of the tosafot, explains, the right of ownership which one has in leavened matter on the eve of Passover, even in the forenoon, is a very slight one; for, beginning with noon, such food may not be enjoyed; hence all rights of ownership become illusory, and, in view of such slight right of ownership, a mere mental renunciation of this right suffices in order that the leavened matter be considered as without an owner. R. Aryeh Leib attempts to prove the correctness of this tosafistic opinion as elaborated by R. Nissim, and to prove at the same time the incorrectness of Rashi’s view, from a later talmudic passage which says that from the hour of noon of the eve [of Passover] to the conclusion of the feast the mere declaration of destruction does not free a person from the responsibility of having leavened matter in the house; for since he is absolutely forbidden to enjoy it, he has no claim to the ownership, which he renounces by such a declaration.”

-Excerpted and adapted from the article on pilpul by Alexander Kisch in I. Singer, ed., The Jewish Encyclopaedia, 12 vols. (New York, 1901-6), 10:42

More pragmatic concerns were also on the agenda for nineteenth-century thinkers. In a discussion unimaginable to their Second Temple forebears, Solomon Kluger of Brody and Joseph Saul Nathansohn of Lemberg clashed in 1859 over whether matzo-making machines were allowable. Even today, handmade is often preferred to machine-made matzo.

The millennia of discussion over Passover and its observance are reflected – and predicted – by this timeless story from the Mishnah:

“‘It is related of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon that they once met for the Seder in Bnei Brak and spoke about the Exodus from Egypt all night long, until their disciples came and said to them: ‘Masters! The time has come to say the morning Shema!’”

-Ch. Raphael, A Feast of History (London, 1972), 28 [229]

Forget speaking about the exodus all night long – we could speak about speaking about the exodus all night long! To learn more about the diversity of practices and opinions in Judaism through the ages, check out Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism.