Dear Rabbi Zahavy
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Dear Rabbi Zahavy

Your talmudic advice column

Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has worked as professor of Jewish studies, religious studies, advanced Talmud, halacha, Jewish law codes, and Jewish liturgy, at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish life. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to www.tzvee.com for details.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

These days I am increasingly unsure of the nature of my Judaism — my religious identity. I know for sure that I am a Jew. Both my parents were Jewish. And I do observe the Jewish festivals and Sabbaths, but now not so rigorously or in accord with any single denomination. I find it more and more difficult to define my affiliation with any specific organized Jewish group. Some of my friends politely tell me that I need to decide where I stand and conform to the beliefs and standards of one of the forms of Judaism. I just don’t know that I can do that anymore. I do want to explore Judaism philosophically, but I don’t know where to start. What is your advice?

Drifting in Demarest

Dear Drifting,

Most folks cannot tolerate too much ambiguity. They look for certainty. It sounds like you are living with uncertainty in your identification with Judaism. And while in our society it is rare for people to overtly butt into other people’s lives and life choices, some of your friends must sense your unease. That’s why they are chiming in that you need to decide.

It is reasonable for people to want to know where their friends and relatives stand regarding Judaism. And they want a label to name your choice and to make the identification clear: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, chasidic, Lubavitch; and in Israel there are category labels like dati, chiloni, Dati Leumi, charedi.

And if you don’t fit neatly into a category, that confuses people. I remember some years ago in Israel standing wearing my kippah, waiting for a bus, and reading the Hebrew newspaper Haaretz. After a short while a man came over to me and demanded (in Hebrew) to know how it could be that I — an obviously dati (religious) person — could be reading such a chiloni (secular) paper?

I replied immediately, “Aval ani Amerikai.” “But I am an American.” That satisfied the inquisitor, since Israelis know that we odd Americans are not subject to their categories and classifications.

There is in a sense a tribal element at work here. Israelis are quick to want to identify which tribe — political, social, religious — a person belongs to. And it seems to me that these days there are way more than the classical 12 tribes of ancient Israel.

But how does all this help you, dear questioner? You are not seeking to be compartmentalized. You appear to be looking for a more nuanced, a less theological, and a more philosophical approach to your Judaism.

As your talmudic advice columnist, this is no surprise to me. I recommend that you consider exploring elements from a variety of philosophical approaches to Judaism. But I offer you a word of caution here. Go slow. There is some deep philosophy ahead in this column.

I suggest for you four straightforward interrelated philosophical modes of inquiry: the Talmud itself, mindfulness, phenomenology, and existentialism.

I’ll explain to you, one by one, what I mean by these options. And I hope this will get you launched on your search for meaning.

First, the Talmud itself is a unique body of rabbinic traditions, containing critical and analytical reflections, arguments, debates, and insights into the whole dual Torah — the written Torah, aka the five books of Moses, and the Oral Torah, as it was codified in the six orders of the Mishnah. Talmud is both a corpus of writings and a way of thinking.

Through Talmud, guided by the rabbis, a person takes an actively reflective and critical view of Judaism and of the world. In the study of Talmud, we learn about the nuance and uncertainty of Jewish thought, as we read of the extensive differences of opinions among our great rabbinic thinkers.

Beyond that, I recommend you investigate three more modes or approaches to your Judaism: the mindful, the phenomenological, and the existential modalities of thoughts and actions.

For the mindful mode of exploring your Judaism you can use a form of general mindfulness, integrated with the beliefs and practices of Judaism.

First, a definition. Mindfulness as a formal discipline began as one of the eightfold paths in Buddhism. It was the basis for meditative practices, and it cultivates techniques for developing awareness of the present moment. It presented the promise of a means of overcoming suffering and finding true happiness to Buddhists. Right mindfulness helps practitioners develop a thorough awareness of their body, sensations, and feelings, and of the activities of their mind.

A secular form of mindfulness has been popularized here through the efforts of Dr. John Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Kabat-Zinn has worked to teach people in physical and mental pain the values of mindful recognition as a way to help them cope with ailments that are otherwise difficult to treat through conventional therapies.

I dutifully learned mindful meditative techniques while living in Minnesota in the 1990s and I have practiced mindfulness in my life ever since.

In fact, I’ve written about elements of mindfulness that I found in the practices of Judaism. In one case in point, I argued that the system of blessings that the rabbis prescribe to be recited over foods and other physical pleasures and pains is a system of mini-meditations — ways for Jews to learn to be more immediately mindful of themselves and their physical surroundings.

My third suggestion for you in your quest is to apply the phenomenological mode, another form of analysis, to examine Judaism.

That is an approach of thinking, akin to mindfulness in some ways, that concentrates on the study of the consciousness of the here-and-now and looks hard at the objects of direct experience.

Phenomenology is a more philosophical method of inquiry that was developed by the German philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger and other European thinkers. It is based on the premise that human reality consists of objects and events, denoted as phenomena. It differs from mindfulness in that it rigorously examines a wide range of experiences. And according to Husserl it is the “science of the essence of consciousness.”

Phenomenology prescribes that we see things as they are perceived and understood in our consciousness, and not rely on factors independent of human consciousness to facilitate our knowledge. It is more broadly experiential than mindfulness.

Rudolph Otto applied a form of phenomenology to the study of religion in his masterpiece 1917 book, “The Idea of the Holy.” There he sought to define the numinous spiritual experiences of religion in general, apart from any one-faith tradition.

Subsequently, in works like “The Sacred and the Profane,” the Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade posited that the core components of the mythic narratives of the world’s religions were stories of creation and revelation, suffering and redemption. He sought to tease out, abstract, and define these and many other phenomena of religions in his writings.

Now beware. In its pure form, a phenomenological insight and analysis of religious ideas and behaviors may lead to hard questions about their meaning, thereby raising serious issues about the received traditions and practices of a religion.

Take for instance a phenomenological look at the example of the Orthodox Jewish mechitzah — the physical divider in the synagogue that separates the men’s and women’s seating areas. Some of our rabbinic traditions teach that the barrier is essential to the sanctity of the synagogue, thus men and women sit separately.

From a rigorous phenomenologist’s view, which puts aside historical precedents and practices and excludes theological narratives, a person will see the synagogue with a mechitzah vividly in the direct experience in front of him or her. It will be a different experience, of course, depending on which side of the mechitzah you are on. When the phenomena are laid bare and seen “as they actually are,” to some observers they may be less savory to view, and seem more like segregation than sanctity.

Surely if you were looking to me in your question for advice for some philosophical avenues to explore in your quest to find a more relevant Judaism for your more deep-thinking self, I’ve already given you three choices, and plenty to think about.

Now to conclude, let me add one final option into this mix, the existential mode of thought as applied to Judaism.

Existentialism is defined in part as a philosophical theory and methodology that emphasizes the individual human as an independent and responsible person with free will. The quintessential existentialists of note of the past century were personalities who were radically atheistic, like the famous author Jean Paul Sartre and his lifelong lover, the writer and thinker Simone de Beauvoir.

Yet some of my colleagues in Jewish studies classified certain writings of my teacher, the Orthodox rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, as existentialist. I’ve never been able to visualize fully how that could be true. His work of philosophical analysis of biblical themes and talmudic lifestyles seem to me to be forms of creative theological midrash, and not existentialist philosophy.

My late father (of blessed memory), Rabbi Dr. Zev Zahavy, was a Judaic scholar and philosopher. He wrote about and taught existentialism in his rabbinic and academic careers. He was convinced that it could be integrated with the religious experiences and values of Judaism, as a kind of theistic existentialism, explored by the likes of Martin Buber for Judaism and Soren Kierkegaard for Christianity.

Now if you do follow this final suggestion and take up explorations into existentialism, to get a good sense of what it was in its formative era in the 20th century, its energies and challenges, I recommend you read with care a wonderful recent survey and summary volume, “At the Existential Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails” by Sarah Bakewell.

That highly praised book also illuminates the thought of many of the great existentialists and of the phenomenologists of the era who were the precursors of the existentialist movement.

Okay, there you have your advice — my four recommendations to start you on your inquiries. Try the talmudic, mindful, phenomenological, or existential methodologies. Each approach will offer you amazing ideas and remarkable challenges.

Just keep in mind that you must be patient and go slowly in your quests. These disciplines that I recommend are not entirely intuitive. At first, some of us cannot get what it means to be mindful. Some folks don’t want to be phenomenologically reflective. And most people are not willing or able to be existentialist — to countenance the terrifying challenges and angst of facing the brutality of existence, of making life determining decisions when confronted by the existential abyss.

But hey, your friend wants you to decide. So, get started, get philosophical, and give your quests a try.


The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on talmudic analysis and wisdom. It aspires to be open and meaningful to all the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it in the Jewish Standard usually on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard office or email them directly to zahavy@gmail.com

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