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Jews, meet the modern world; modern world, meet the Jews

November 14, 2014 – 12:05 pmNo Comment

By Raphael Descalu:


The Jewish encounter with the modern world has been both traumatic and fruitful, as major social upheavals also facilitated the emergence of new ideas and approaches to Jewish identity and culture.

We at Shira are excited to host a three-part series exploring the ideas of three fascinating modern Jewish thinkers: Martin Buber, Yemima Avital, and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Kohen Kook.

These three figures represent profoundly different perspectives on Jewish identity, the human encounter with the Divine, and the Torah. What they have in common is that they all sought to enrich the lives of Jews living in a changed and changing world, and to revitalize the Judaism lived by those Jews.

Martin Buber (1978-1965) was born to a scholarly Orthodox family in Vienna, but soon forsook traditional observance and pursued the intensive study of European philosophy. As he grew older, Buber was once again drawn to questions of Jewish identity and culture.

His return to Judaism did not take the form of renewed observance – indeed, Buber considered formal halakhah to be in tension with authentic spiritual feeling. Rather, he believed that the divine could be encountered in the relationship between humans and the world, and in particular between each other.

Buber also advocated the development of an open and dynamic attitude towards Jewish literary sources such as the Hebrew Bible and Hasidic literature, one in which contemporary Jews do not simply submit to a tradition of interpretation, but encounter old texts with fresh eyes and open minds.

Less well known to most of us is Yemima Avital (1929-1999). A native of Casablanca, Avital studied French literature and psychology, eventually developing her own unique integration of Kabbalah and contemporary psychology.

Although she was a deeply humble person, and shied away from the public eye, Avital taught growing numbers of students according to her method, which seeks to help individuals attain joy in life and cultivate inner warmth and goodness. Her students, who are drawn from a broad spectrum of Israeli society, continue to spread and develop her ideas.

In many ways, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Kohen Kook (1865-1935) embodied the profound contradictions of the 20th century: A poet and scholar; nationalist and universalist; mystic and activist. Rav Kook’s take on the emerging Jewish nationalism was deeply mystical, even messianic, and he saw great historical and spiritual significance in the Jewish movement to return to eretz yisrael.

But Rav Kook’s interests were extremely broad, and as well as engaging deeply with the Kabbalah, he was deeply influenced by European philosophy, including existentialism. He asserted that if the Torah is to remain a viable source of spiritual guidance for contemporary Jews, its teachers must engage openly and honestly with the questions and concerns of every generation. Indeed, Rav Kook himself showed great openness to new ideas, including evolution and the academic study of the Bible.

Admit it, you are curious! Join us at Shira for more:

Session 1: Martin Buber’s Secular Religiosity – presented by Ittay Flesher

Date: November 22, 2014
Time: 4:15pm
Location: North Caulfield home, email ilana@shira.org.au for address

**Parents are welcome to bring their children, a seperate children’s program will be provided**

Session 2: Yemima Avital: A Woman as a Modern Hasidic Master – presented by Melanie Landau

Date: December 6, 2014
Time: 6pm
Location: 14 Airdrie Rd, Caulfield North

Session 3: The Lonely Prophet: Glimpses into the World of Rav Kook – presented by Raphael Dascalu

Date: December 13, 2014
Time: 6:30pm
Location: 6/310 Alma Rd, Caulfield North 

Raphael Descalu is the Director of Eduction at Shirah Hadashah. For more information, please email rafdasc@uchicago.edu.

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