A Modern Orthodox Kabbalist

Now that an English version of R. Nagen’s book has been published (entitled Be, Become, Bless – Jewish Spirituality between East and West), I thought it relevant to post the review again (with Bar Ilan’s permission).

Modern Orthodox thought tends towards a more positive outlook on gentile society, openness to the wisdom of the broader world, an emphasis on balancing values, and an approach which combats any potential denigration of women.  It also frequently cites Rambam and Rav Soloveitchik among its major influences while rarely incorporating more mystical sources.   In light of this background, Yakov Nagen’s Waking up to a New Day (Hebrew) contributes a fresh angle, echoing all the Modern Orthodox values listed above yet rooting them in a far more kabbalistic outlook.

While the work is organized as divrei Torah on the parsha, Nagen, a Ra”M at Yeshivat Otniel, forthrightly admits that the parsha serves mostly as a springboard for his views of life; indeed, a coherent worldview emerges.  For example, Nagen frequently focuses on the need to balance values.  Among other similar themes, he calls for balancing universalism with particularism, navigating the middle ground between deification and denigration of humanity, combining a linear and a cyclical approach to time, and integrating the twin values of both “doing” and “being”.  The last divide also relates to the varying emphases of the Western and Eastern worlds, a theme we shall return to.

This work also attempts to address women’s issues from a contemporary perspective.  According to Nagen, the ritual impurity of menstruation does not attribute any spiritual stigma to women.  He offers an approach to the kinyan of marriage which neutralizes any sense of the woman as her husband’s property.   Analogously, Nagen avoids portraying gentiles in a predominantly negative light.  He rejects the position forbidding renting houses to gentiles in the Land of Israel and refuses to read Bemidbar 23: 9 as an unmitigated call for Jewish separatism.

Finally, Nagen finds wisdom in a wide array of sources including the great works of Western literature (Tolstoy and Wilde), modern academic scholarship (Moshe Greenberg and Robert Alter), popular music (John Lennon, Hava Alberstein), movies (The Life of Brian, Groundhog Day), contemporary authors on spirituality (Eckhart Tolle, Caroline Myss), and the tenets of other religions.   Clearly, our author feels that significant insight exists outside of the Jewish tradition.

At the same time, the sources he cites most frequently include the Zohar, Sefer Habahir, Sefer haYezirah, Rav Kook and R. Nahman.  With the exception of R. Kook, these sources are not often associated with the viewpoints mentioned above.   In fact, many kabbalaistic sources present a sharply dichotomized view of the world which associates non – Jews with the negative forces of the universe.  How do mystical underpinnings lead to Nagen’s conclusions?

Rav Kook can be viewed as an instructive predecessor to Nagen. A mystical and panentheistic outlook readily finds divinity everywhere, including in all aspects of the universe and in reference to each intellectual position. This vantage point encourages seeing goodness in all of humanity and realizing the truth in competing intellectual and moral positions, thereby generating the need for balance.   Notice how central the theme of equilibrium is within the sefirot such as the balance between hessed and gevurah or nezah and hod. Thus, kabbalistic motifs potentially generate a universalistic and nuanced approach.

Nagen finds value in other religions without blurring important distinctions between them.  He cites an inspiring Islamic view that those who cannot fast during Ramadan give a gift to the poor instead.  Given the emphasis in our tradition on the relationship between fasting and helping the needy (see Yeshayahu 57), the practice strikes a chord for observant Jews.  Yet Nagen does not fall into the trap of negating differences.   He states how the Upanishads call for escaping this world whereas Judaism requires perfecting it.   A related divide animates his comparison between Buddha’s Four Sights and the early stories of Moshe Rabbenu.   Buddha utilizes asceticism to overcome suffering while Moshe strives to combat injustice.

One reader of Nagen’s blog once left a perceptive comment stating what a nice world our author lives in and in fact, he is quite an optimist not only due to temperament but as a matter of ideology as well.  On several occasions, Nagen asserts how our attitude to the world shapes our experiences; therefore, he recommends a more positive outlook.  One insightful chapter explains how the sin of the spies consists in extending the culture of complaint from the part and the present to the future, thereby engendering pessimism and despair.

Two chapters address subtle forms of the evil inclination; temptation does not always appear in the guise of overt sin.  Parshat Bo focuses on the inclination to procrastinate while Nezavim emphasizes the temptation of the pleasant.  Nagen writes that we are often not confronted with a choice between good and evil but between the good and the pleasant.  In this context, he cites a parallel distinction from the Ishbizer regarding the gemara which concludes “noah la‘adam she’lo nivra (Eruvin 13b).  According to R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the gemara says it would have been more pleasant for man to have not been created but not that it would have been better.  I find the idea quite compelling per se yet it probably fails as peshat in that gemara.   As others have noted, the word “noah” in Hazal may simply be a synonym for “tov.”  For example, “noah la’adam she’yapil azmo le’kivshna ha’esh ve’al yalbin pnei haevro ba’rabim” (Sotah 10b) presumably refers to the good thing to do rather then the pleasant.

Other clever and sensitive insights permeate this work.  Nagen explains that Judaism struggles less with the Sikh religion than with Christianity and Islam just as grandparent – child relationships are often less complicated that relations between parents and children.  A chapter on rebuke decries the tendency of public speakers to criticize other groups rather than the audience sitting in front of them.   Several sections extol the need to focus our energies on the present moment rather than directing them towards a long gone past or a not arrived future.   This focus enables both the joy of appreciating our current bounty and the living of life since “the present is the only plane in which life occurs”.

Nagen has written a wise and helpful work that breaks new ground in our communal discourse.   The contemporary search for spirituality in kabbalistic thought and Eastern religions coalesces in his presentation with a humanistic yet fully pious and devout Modern Orthodoxy.

This review was originally written for Bar Ilan’s Lookjed listserv.

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an associate editor of the journal Tradition and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.
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