Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Sharing the Burden: Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv and the Path of Musar

Geoffrey Claussen, Sharing the Burden: Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv and the Path of Musar (Albany: SUNY Press, 2015).
Here is the publisher's description of the book:
Sharing the Burden analyzes the rich moral traditions of the nineteenth-century Musar movement, an Eastern European Jewish movement focused on the development of moral character. Geoffrey D. Claussen focuses on that movement’s leading moral theorist, Rabbi Simḥah Zissel Ziv (1824–1898), the founder of the first Musar movement yeshiva and the first traditionalist institution in Eastern Europe that included general studies in its curriculum. Simḥah Zissel offered a unique and compelling voice within the Musar movement, joining traditionalism with a program for contemplative practice and an interest in non-Jewish philosophy. His thought was also distinguished by its demanding moral vision, oriented around an ideal of compassionately loving one’s fellow as oneself and an acknowledgment of the difficulties of moral change. Drawing on Simḥah Zissel’s writings and bringing his approach into dialogue with other models of ethics, Claussen explores Simḥah Zissel’s Jewish virtue ethics and evaluates its strengths and weaknesses. The result is a volume that will expose readers to a fascinating and important voice in the history of modern Jewish ethics and spirituality.
The book is available on the SUNY Press website here.

Monday, January 24, 2011

God and Suffering in Heschel’s Torah Min Ha-Shamayim

Geoffrey Claussen, “God and Suffering in Heschel’s Torah Min Ha-Shamayim.” Conservative Judaism 61, no. 4 (2010), 17-42.
Drawing on Abraham Joshua Heschel's Torah Min Ha-Shamayim (translated into English as Heavenly Torah), this article considers four classical perspectives on God's relationship to seemingly-unjustified human suffering:

(the school of
Rabbi Akiva)
Transcendentalists (the school of
Rabbi Yishmael)

(God is responsible for suffering)
God causes suffering to benefit human beings and to show intimate involvement with themGod causes suffering in accordance with the often-inscrutable laws of justice


(God is not responsible for suffering)

God deeply identifies with those who suffer but cannot prevent their suffering

God has compassion for those who suffer but cannot prevent their suffering

   Out of these four views, Heschel paid the least attention to the view that suffering reveals a transcendent God whose hand does not intervene in history. This lack of attention is not so surprising, given that, when it came to challenging the doctrine of divine omnipotence, Heschel was personally committed to the non-interventionist model associated with the immanentism of Rabbi Akiva.
   But the non-interventionist views that can be linked with Rabbi Yishmael's transcendentalism are also worthy of significant attention....
From the conclusion:
Heschel should be admired for recovering, in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim, the often-neglected non-interventionist theology of Rabbi Akiva's school. But, out of his attachment to Rabbi Akiva's vision of God's identification with suffering human beings, he neglected the non-interventionist theology of Rabbi Yishmael's school. As a result, readers of the chapters focusing on suffering in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim may be left with the impression that, for the Rabbis, God's compassion must be expressed through God's identification with human beings; and readers may be left with the impression that divine transcendence must be associated with interventions in history which transcend human understanding. To correct such misimpressions, I have sought to highlight the alternative model of divine transcendence which Heschel hints at in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim but ignores in those key chapters: a model which sees God as compassionate without blurring the lines between the human and the divine; a model which recognizes God as transcendent not because of God's inscrutability and God's direct power but because of God's transcendent goodness—which does not control but which commands from beyond.
The article is available on Project Muse here (and as a PDF here).

UPDATE: The full text is available here, © Rabbinical Assembly 2010, shared online with permission of the Rabbinical Assembly.