The Tikvah Podcast

One of the great debates in the history of Jewish theology is about how to reconcile two contradictory truths. First, that God is beyond human comprehension, and—unlike pagan deities—does not have a corporeal presence and is not subject to human emotions. Second, that the Hebrew Bible often describes God in human, bodily terms, as do the liturgy and rabbinic elaborations on Scripture.

Thus, in one of the most poignant moments of the liturgical year, Jewish worshippers refer to God as Avinu Malkeinu, “our Father, our King.” This is but one of many Jewish prayers that, following the biblical text, describe God as a father. And God has long been thought of in paternal terms in the Jewish imagination.

Yet, as Moses Maimonides and other Jewish philosophers never tire of reminding us, God exists beyond such human categories as sex, and can’t be fully comprehended as a father. Therefore it is no contradiction that there are also aspects of womanhood and motherhood—specifically its creative, generative capabilities—that can be used in describing God. And perhaps that is why the Hebrew Bible sometimes portrays God not only as a father but also as a mother. Malka Simkovich, whose essay on this subject was published in August 2022 in the Christian Century, discusses biblical portrayals of God’s maternal love with Mosaic’s editor Jonathan Silver.

Direct download: Bible_365_Episode_249_Final.mp3
Category:Great Jewish Essays and Ideas -- posted at: 4:40pm EDT

In the early years of the 19th century, some German scholars decided to read and analyze Jewish texts in a new way. They looked at Jewish sources through the eyes of academic scholarship, rather than with the rabbinic ones, or literary ones, or folk ones which had kept Judaism alive. Their approach came to be called, in German, Wissenschaft des Judentums—the science of Judaism—and it was to be dispassionate and rigorous. Unlike a rabbi, a scholar could pursue the truth without concern that the consequences of his research might affect the religious life of the Jewish community. And, by adopting sound methodological tools shared by other academic disciplines, the practitioners of Wissenschaft des Judentums could bring their work into conversation with scholars in other fields. It was, in other words, the beginning of what is today in the universities called Jewish studies.

Since this academic discipline was premised on the need to abstract from Judaism’s particularity, it is not surprising that some other scholars of Judaism were suspicious of it. Judaism cannot escape its particularity, these scholars argued, nor can it escape its theological and covenantal doctrine of election or chosenness, nor can it escape its self-understanding in national terms, ancient or modern.

For a time, in the second half of the twentieth century, the particularists steered the ship of Jewish studies. Many young scholars recognized their work in relation to a moral obligation to preserve and replenish what the Shoah had nearly destroyed. This generation was propelled into the field not out of an embarrassment at Jewish distinctiveness, but instead out of a desire to recognize Jewish distinctiveness. Many scholars conceived of their work as a kind of redemption, an effort to begin reassembling a shattered people.

And what now, as we enter the second quarter of the 21st century?

Fewer and fewer scholars of that generation are active. Is Jewish studies reverting to form, and returning to its universalizing and abstracting roots? And what explains the ideological and intellectual animus against Israel and the Orthodox that seems to be in the air? Together, Jonathan Silver, the editor of Mosaic, and Joshua Karlip, a professor of Jewish studies at Yeshiva University and the author of a recent Commentary essay called “The Demise of Jewish Studies in America—and the Rise of Jewish Studies in Israel,” look at this moment in the history of Jewish studies in the United States.

Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.

Direct download: Tikvah_Podcast_Karlip_Final_Second_Edit.mp3
Category:Great Jewish Essays and Ideas -- posted at: 6:17pm EDT

When the United States entered the Second World War, it needed to fight against both the Nazis in Europe and the Middle East and the Japanese in the Pacific. To manage that gargantuan task, American military planners divided the regions of the earth into different areas of responsibility, within which a single authority would unify and command forces from every military branch and service. That structure has lasted through today, so that the United States now has eleven combatant commands.

Due to longstanding tension between Israel and its Arab neighbors, it had been included in the US military’s European Command, even though much of the rest of the Middle East was organized as a part of its Central Command, known as CENTCOM. That Israel was included in European Command for all those decades had some benefits, like greater interaction with NATO. But in recent years its presence there limited America and Israel’s ability to work together; as the cold war drew down, and the war on terror ramped up, European Command was no longer at the cutting edge of military strategy, attention, or resources.

The Abraham Accords surfaced a new public friendliness between Israel and many of the Arab neighbors. In recognition of this fact, Israel was officially transferred to CENTCOM in January 2021, making possible enhanced coordination among the US military, the IDF, and regional Arab forces.

This week, Richard Goldberg, a veteran Middle East observer and foreign-policy analyst, joins Mosaic editor Jonathan silver to look at the consequences and import of Israel’s move to CENTCOM. They use the recent joint exercises undertaken by the US military and the Israel Defense Forces, known as Juniper Oak 23. Operating together on sea, land, and air, the joint exercises were widely thought to have been designed to convey a signal to Iran.

Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.

Direct download: Tikvah_Podcast_Goldberg_Final.mp3
Category:Great Jewish Essays and Ideas -- posted at: 9:03pm EDT

“Prayer is the language of the soul in conversation with God. It is the most intimate gesture of the religious life, and the most transformative.” Those lines are from an essay called “Understanding Jewish Prayer” by Jonathan Sacks, the late chief rabbi of the United Kingdom. “As the sea smooths the stone,” he writes, “as the repeated hammer-blows of the sculptor shape the marble, so prayer—cyclical, tracking the rhythms of time itself—gradually wears away the jagged edges of our character, turning it into a work of devotional art.” To pray, he says, is to be “brushed by the wings of eternity.”

Descriptions such as these are inspiring, and, based on them, one might expect prayer to be a powerful emotional experience. Sometimes it can be. But often it isn’t. The structures of prayer in the traditional Jewish liturgy sometimes impede the very sentiments that prayer promises to kindle. That tension is the subject of this week’s podcast conversation between Mosaic editor Jonathan Silver and the president of Shalem College Russ Roberts. Roberts recently published a short essay titled “The Agnostic’s Guide to Jewish Prayer” in which he confesses that “The words by themselves don’t work for me.” Still, he’s prayed three times a day for more than 30 years. Why? “I prayed to have prayed.”

Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.

Direct download: Tikvah_Podcast_Roberts_Final.mp3
Category:Great Jewish Essays and Ideas -- posted at: 5:41pm EDT