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entries tagged with: Alan Brill


Alan Brill explores ‘post-tolerance manifesto for a post-9/11 world in new book

Alan Brill argues in his new book that Jews need to learn more about their own faith while encountering others.

Teaneck resident Alan Brill’s new book, “Judaism and Other Religions: Models of Understanding” (Palgrave MacMillan), is a sort of post-tolerance manifesto for a post 9/11 world.

The humanistic approach to tolerance in today’s Western world treats “the other” as secular without requiring any understanding of the other’s religion, argues Brill, an Orthodox rabbi, interfaith activist, and Cooperman/Ross endowed professor in honor of Sister Rose Thering at Seton Hall University in East Orange.

Jews involved in interfaith dialogue since the 1970s have mostly come from the 1960s “universal, we’re-all-one perspective” that emphasized openness over exclusivism, says Brill. He felt that today’s realities called for a look at how classical Jewish sources could bring an old/new dimension to the discussion.


“As religion has reasserted itself all over the globe post-9/11, the secular approach doesn’t work,” asserts Brill, 49. “A ‘tolerant’ position doesn’t actually encourage diversity and difference but rather a hidden sense of ‘why can’t we all be the same?’ You have to come to the table with a notion of what your own faith can bring, with a commitment to your own faith, not as a general universalist but with something to say.”

For Jews, that “something to say” is found in our traditional texts, says Brill.

Over the course of several years, he collected and examined biblical, rabbinic, medieval, and early modernist Jewish sources to extrapolate a Jewish theology of other religions.

“I am more than surprised at frequent interfaith encounters where the Catholic speaks from the official Church teachings, the Muslim speaks from traditional teachings, and the Jewish representative addresses the assembled from the general perspective of comparative religion, politics, or anthropology,” writes Brill, who was one of a few Jewish scholars invited to an interfaith conference convened by Saudi Arabian King Abdullah in Madrid two years ago. “There need to be Jewish theologies of other religions.”

This is not merely an academic exercise, Brill asserts. “What we say on interfaith topics does matter; it does lead to greater understanding, and it leads to practical change. If you can’t figure out what to say about Christians from a Jewish point of view it will affect how you relate to them. And for pulpit rabbis, how they think about or talk about other religions really affects their congregants.”

The questions he attempts to answer for readers are: If God is one, then what is the value of the other religions? Does God care only about one small people or does His plan include the wider world? How does one theologically account for the differences between religions? How do Jews think about other religions? How do we balance our multi-faith world with the Jewish texts?

“Most Jews are not remotely aware of the texts in this volume,” he writes, adding that his book “reflects an Orthodox training and erudition, but it is not limited to Orthodox thinkers.” This is not to say that his sources are obscure, but that their writings on this particular issue never got much notice. “People know these sources, but they just pass over passages like the one where [10th-century Baghdad scholar] Saadya Gaon discusses the Brahmins.”

With its hefty list price of $85, the book is currently being acquired by libraries and universities around the world —including some in China, India, and Australia. Next year, it will come out in paperback for a wider audience, defined by Brill as “anybody interested in the Jewish attitudes toward other religions, from clergy to people who want to make Jewish sense of the stories they read in the papers.” To make it accessible to gentiles involved in interfaith encounter, the book’s Jewish concepts are all explained in clear terms.

Brill is teaching in Seton Hall’s graduate department of Jewish-Christian Studies on Jewish ethics and the land of Israel in the three faiths. He is lining up a fall schedule of speaking engagements about the book, and putting the finishing touches on a second volume, to be titled “Judaism and World Religions.”

“Judaism does have something to say about other religions. That’s the big point,” he says. “It goes in many directions and has many Jewish voices.”


Rabbis from area lead interfaith trip to Poland

The Muslim prayer for the dead is recited at the mausoleum at Majdanek. Joanna Maria Trochimowicz

Sulaiman Khativ had read about the Holocaust and seen programs about it on television.

But actually going to the Majdanek concentration camp outside of Lublin, Poland, was different.

“It was so important to feel things in the place and feel the history. It’s hard to see that people can reach this level of killing,” he said.

Khativ, a Palestinian Muslim, was in Lublin last month for an interfaith conference organized by the Jerusalem-based Interfaith Encounter Association. Participants came from Israel, the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Bosnia, Poland, and other places in Europe. Of 60 participants, half were Muslims, 20 were Christians, and 10 were Jews.

“For me, as a Palestinian, visiting the camp was a bit strange and different, but so deeply hard and sad,” said Khativ. “To be in that place makes you want to keep doing all your efforts to prevent this from happening again.”

Khativ, a Ramallah resident, is an advocate for non-violence who became involved in dialogue with Israelis in 2003, when he was part of a small group of Israelis and Palestinians who shared a trip to Antarctica in a program called “Breaking the Ice.” He had embraced non-violence during his 10-year stay in Israeli prison for throwing Molotov cocktails when he was 15.

Rabbi Bob Carroll, who lived in Bergenfield before moving to Israel in 2006 and was one of the organizers of last month’s conference, had also not visited Holocaust sites in Europe before. “I thought of Poland as one giant cemetery,” he said.

Traveling in the company of the non-Jews “was really meaningful, because they were non-Jews who wanted to be supportive in building better relations and a better future.” Particularly moving, he said, was hearing the conference’s Palestinian co-chair recite the Muslim prayer for the dead at the mausoleum holding the ashes of some of the 80,000 victims of the camp.

“It was a powerful thing. It really cemented the bonds between us, that he was willing to make that trip and see some things that are part of my history, that were so wrenching and horrible and searing, and that he was able to grieve over them. I hope I will be able to reciprocate at some point,” he said.

In its ongoing work, Interfaith Encounter aims to build a grassroots movement of “people who are committed to respectful relations and living together,” said Carroll.

“We study religious texts and religion,” he added, describing the workings of his organization’s dialogue groups. There are 37 that meet monthly across the country. “We don’t usually bring in politics. We’re not the people writing the peace agreements, we’re just people, representing ourselves, not our countries,” he said. Because the focus is on religion rather than politics, Carroll said Interfaith Encounter is able to recruit “a wide range of people who wouldn’t normally take part in the peace process de jour: settlers and supporters of Shas on our side, to sheikhs and imams on the other side.”

The Lublin conference was the second international excursion for the Interfaith Encounter Association, which received special foundation funding to expand its dialogue work, which is primarily focused on Israelis and Palestinians.

Expanding the circle of dialogue helped put the problems of the Israelis and Palestinians in some perspective, said Rabbi Alan Brill, an advisor to Interfaith Encounter who spoke at the conference on the Jewish view towards social responsibility. Brill, a Teaneck resident, holds the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Chair of Jewish-Christian Studies in honor of Sister Rose Thering at Seton Hall University.

“For most people in the Middle East, Palestine and Israel aren’t the only focus,” he said. “Bringing a Christian and a Muslim from Albania and Bosnia to hear what goes on in the Middle East brings a new perspective.”

Brill, who is a veteran of high-level interfaith dialogues in New Jersey, Rome, and other places, said religious dialogue is critical, because discussions of secular co-existence are beside the point in the Middle East.

“If you’re living in the Mideast, you don’t think of yourself as secular. You identify with your faith. Your political parties are 12 versions of your faith fighting each other and the secular option is not on the table,” he said.

“For many, religion is their means for creating ideals and galvanizing people and creating cooperation.”

One thing that distinguished this session was that each religious group worshipped in its own fashion and language while the other participants looked on.

“That is not usually done in interfaith encounters,” he said. But it helped each group see how much they have in common religiously, even though their actual practices, prayers, and languages are different.

Holding the encounter in Poland — the first, last year, was held in Amman, Jordan — added an extra dimension to the Muslim-Jewish dialogue Carroll is used to.

“Many of the Christians involved were people who had been to Auschwitz, who had spent some time confronting the whole issue of the Shoah and human violence and hatred and how to overcome it. In terms of the conversations that happened at the conference, they played a key role in helping to guide us and focus our conversations and ensure that we thought seriously and important ways about the issues,” said Carroll.

“People were talking about what used to be in terms of Jewish Poland and the Polish Jewish experience,” said Brill. “They shared their Catholic model of reconciliation with Judaism as taught by John Paul II.”

“People should know this exists,” said Brill, “that there are wonderful dialogue partners from places like Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon. And they should know that these people are going to be leaders in the future.”


The struggle for teen spirituality

Is the Shabbos glass only half full?

In recent years, word has spread that some teen yeshiva students — exactly how many is a matter of dispute — send text messages on their cell phones on the Sabbath. In modern parlance, these teens are said to be keeping “half Shabbos.”

“They are in an age where this type of electronic communication is ubiquitous,” says Rabbi Yaakov Glasser. “Asking a teenager not to text on Shabbos is like asking an adult never to talk in shul. It’s an expectation, and something they know we’re not supposed to do, but it’s part of our nature.

“Teenagers have always needed peers, have always needed affirmation, have always needed acceptance. That used to manifest itself through communication over the phone and in person. Now it’s happening 50 times an hour through text messaging and Twitter and all these different platforms,” he said.

One study, conducted by the Institute for University-School Partnership of Yeshiva University’s Azrieli School of Jewish Education, found that 18 percent of students at modern Orthodox yeshiva high schools definitely texted on Shabbat, with a further 5 percent reporting themselves “ambivalent” about the practice.

The figures come from a survey of 1,250 students from six modern orthodox yeshiva high schools across the country, as part of a program called Religious Understanding in Adolescent Children, which aims to help yeshiva high schools promote the spiritual growth of their students.

“Religion is not necessarily as important to adolescents as we want it to be,” says Scott Goldberg, director of the institute. “There’s a normal developmental decline in terms of spirituality and religiosity.”

Prof. Alan Brill, who first publicly reported the hitherto clandestine half Shabbos phenomenon on his blog last year, believes the half Shabbos phenomenon clearly reflects a generation gap and technological shift, but doubts whether it is the watershed in Orthodoxy that some fearful observers suggest.

“The responsa literature show many communities that had to deal with adolescent transgressions, including with mixed dancing, bundling, swimming on Shabbos, brothel use, not wearing tefillin, and petty theft. In all of these cases, they remain in the community, and it is acknowledged that they are deviants within the social norm.

“Don’t assume it is permanent. A kid may start texting in 10th grade and then give it up by the end of 11th.”

— L.Y.


Alan Brill: Interfaith dialogue nothing new for Jews

Starting points for a future theology of Islam

Published: 25 May 2012
(tags): islam, alan brill

Teaching the importance of Islamic sources in the works of great Jewish thinkers can create an awareness of the possibilities of encounter. This educational process would be an internal Jewish endeavor and could carry important implications. First and foremost, if Jews are taught about the prior integration of the two faiths then there would be greater clarity that the political war between Arabs and Jews is not a faith war. It could promote an understanding that Islam and Judaism can coexist.

The Catholic Church moved from teaching contempt to recognizing Judaism as a living faith. We cannot preclude giving any group in Islam that wants dialogue the chance to change and slowly learn tolerance and respect, especially since it serves their own needs for entering a global economy. We recognize that certain Islamic countries currently have a lack of religious freedom, fund hateful literature, have negative views of Judaism, and fail to recognize the State of Israel.

But we cannot compare their worst comments to our best. Both sides have saints and both sides have advocates of hatred. We must, however, remember heroic figures, such as Sister Rose Thering, who confronted her own church with the anti-Semitism that was being taught in its textbooks and helped bring about an interfaith revolution.

In the interim, we need to give those that seek encounter our support. We must not look to the past and use that to dissuade us from working with our counterparts now and in the future. One must first transcend the past and look to the future, then one must transcend polemical arguments on both sides, and then give precedence to common points. But we can look to the past to see how long it took most Western countries to achieve the liberties of the modern world, and know that it will also take many Muslim countries time to achieve this openness.

Such starting points will allow for a positive future Jewish theology of Islam.

Excerpted by permission from “Judaism and World Religions”


Eating with supernal strangers

Larry Yudelson
Published: 28 September 2012

They’re the ideal high-energy, low-maintenance guests.

In a tradition going back at least 700 years, on each of the seven days of Sukkot a different Biblical hero is invited into the sukkah.

They’re known as ushpizin, from the Aramaic term for guests. (Linguistically, ushpizin is related to the English words hospice and hospitality.)

The idea first appears in the Zohar, the best known and most important text of Jewish mysticism. For the Zohar, the magic of the guests is symbolic: seven days of the holiday correspond to seven Biblical characters.

“When a man sits in the shadow of faith the Shekhinah spreads Her wings on him from above and Abraham and five other righteous ones of God (and David with them) make their abode with him… A man should rejoice each day of the festival with these guests,” writes the Zohar.

The Sefardim invited the guests in the order of their kabbalistic symbolism: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David.

The Ashkenazic halachic authorities edited the list into chronological order. They invite Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David.

In recent years, there has been a desire to invite female Biblical archetypes as well. Enumerating these ushpizot, however, is a matter of dispute.

One ritual draws on the Talmud (Megillah 14a-b), which lists seven prophetesses: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Hulda, and Esther. By the 13th century, the prophetesses already were linked to the seven sephirot.

A poster with these figures — along with Biblical verses, and the Hebrew invitational phrase — is available at

But this list is rejected by Rabbi David Seidenberg of the web site, who writes, “ This order doesn’t feel to me like the one we should base ushpizin on, however.”

He notes that “only one of the matriarchs is represented, and the three very strong correspondences between the sefirot with Leah, Rachel, and Tamar are left out.”

Instead, he invites Ruth, Sarah, Rivkah, Miriam, Devorah, Tamar, and Rachel.

Ruth represents chesed, he writes, “pure kindness and trust, devoting herself entirely to being God’s instrument and Naomi’s support, the one who chooses to be Jewish (to speak anachronistically) without any advantage or self-interest, motivated strictly from within herself, like Abraham.”

The full explanation of his reasoning, along with Hebrew and English liturgy, can be found at

The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly took a historical rather than a kabbalistic approach in its selection of seven women. It chose Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Devorah, and Ruth. A full ushpizin ritual with commentary, from the Conservative prayer book Or Hadash, can be downloaded from

Chabad-Lubavitch has a related tradition of celebrating each day of Sukkot with a mention of one of the rabbis in its chasidic dynasty, beginning with the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of chasidism.

“Their souls come and enjoy the sukkah with us, together with regular ushpizin,” said Rabbi Ephraim Simon of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County in Teaneck.

“Each one of the rebbes in Chabad has taught a tremendous amount of Torah. They serve as our inspiration,” he said.

Rather than ritually inviting each day’s rebbe, a d’var Torah is dedicated to him — either a story about him or a piece of Torah taught by him.

Similarly, Simon said, the seven original patriarchs are marked with a d’var Torah.

“The key to opening up the spiritual doors is all through Torah,” he said.

The Zohar is clear, however, that the sukkah table is not only for spiritual guests. The host “must help the poor to rejoice. Why? Because the portion of the celestial guests whom he has invited belongs to the poor,” writes the Zohar.

It continues: “But let him not say ‘I shall eat and be satisfied and take my fill first, and then give to the poor what is left over.’ The guests should come first. And if he makes them rejoice and satisfies [the poor], the Holy One, blessed be He, rejoices with him.”

Rabbi Alan Brill, a professor at the graduate department of Jewish-Christian studies at Seton Hall University, notes the similarity of this piece of the Zohar with earlier teaching of Maimonides: “When one eats and drinks, one must also feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow, and other unfortunate paupers. But one who locks the doors of his courtyard, and eat and drinks with his children and wife but does not feed the poor and the embittered soul — this is not the joy of a mitzvah, but the joy of his belly (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Festivals 6:18).”

Brill said the Zohar is following one of its basic principles, “that which occures on earth has a parallel above. You’re inviting supernal guests assuming you’re going to invite below,” he said.

In other words, while you’re serving the needy at your table, you’re also serving heavenly beings.

Over time, though, the ritual shifted from being about the poor to being about the ushpizin, even as the meaning of sefirot increasingly took on connotations of personal character traits, he said.

“If you’re inviting the downtrodden and lonely on each day of Sukkot, it’s not about your personal feelings. The meaning has shifted to symbolism and identifying with archetypes.

“I think people like the Zohar more than they like the poor, unfortunately,” Brill said, adding that it’s not just the poor who should be invited, but “the lonely, the downtrodden, the embittered. Those we certainly have in suburbia.”

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