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Author Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen To Speak in Bergen County During Sukkot

Editor’s note: Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen, Ra”M in Yeshivat Othniel in Har Hebron, will be in Bergen County and the surrounding area during and after Sukkot to discuss his newest book, “Be, Become, Bless.” On Shabbat Chol Hamoed he will speak at Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck. On Motzei Shabbat, Hoshana Rabba, he will be at Shomrei Emunah in Englewood at 8:45 p.m., speaking about his personal journey in relation to the book. On Monday evening, October 28, he will speak at 7 p.m. on the Wilf Campus, Bernard Revel Graduate School, at Yeshiva University, on the topic “To Do and To Be: Judaism’s Integration of East and West.” All are welcome.

The following is an excerpt from a review and interview written by Alan Brill and originally published on WordPress.com. The excerpt is reprinted here with Rabbi Nagen’s permission.

Reviewing: “Be, Become, Bless,” by Yakov Nagen. Koren Publishers Jerusalem. 2019. English. Paperback. 350 pages. ISBN-10: 1592645275. $19.95.

Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen’s new book, “Be, Become, Bless” is a delightful and thoughtful series of talks on the weekly Torah portion closing the gap between Torah and Indian religion and thought. The book came out six years ago in Hebrew, “Lehitorer Le’Yom Hadash,” and has been translated and re-edited for an English audience.

Rabbi Dr. Nagen is a leading rabbinical figure in interfaith encounters with Palestinians in the Holy Land. He has organized prayer vigils bringing together Israelis and Palestinians against religiously motivated violence.

Nagen’s basic rubric in this book is the distinction between Doing and Being. Doing is the active life of accomplishment, looking to the future and building society. Being is the activity of living in the moment, accepting the depth of the inner life and the silence of meditation. Nagen acknowledges that it has taken a turn to India for Jews to rediscover Being. However, Nagen repeatedly points out in his classes and in this book that a Jewish spiritual path combines both Being and Doing.

The point of his book is that is OK to turn East, it is fine for the turn to Hinduism and Buddhism to return us to this inner point. His innovation is that once we rediscover this quality of Being, we rediscover that it was all along with Judaism, and we can return to Jewish texts. He acknowledges that it was not found in the immediately prior era of Brisk and yeshiva learning, but it is found in the breadth of Judaism. The turn to India should lead us back to the depths of our own tradition, Kabbalah, chasidut, and even a spiritual reading of rabbinic texts. The goal is not to knock Asian religions as lacking, rather they have something to teach us and we need to return with this new emphasis and reintegrate it into our lived Torah.

Nagen’s spirituality is based on meditative quiet, existential depth, and sincere awe of the compassion and goodness he sees in Asian religions. More than a decade ago, American scholars of congregational spirituality divided spirituality into four types: (1) working out the cosmos and the game plan for reality; (2) emotional enthusiasm (3) contemplation and inner self; (4) the giving of oneself in helping others. Nagen is unique that against a backdrop of Orthodox emphasis on types one and two, much dancing and/or kabbalistic esotericism, he offers us “Being” as the third option of an Eastern-inflected spirituality of the inner self combined with “Doing,” the compassion for all beings and reality.

Rabbi Nagen discussed his view on spirituality in an interview. “Spirituality is an emphasis on the emotional, imaginative and experiential elements. Spirituality is a search for meaning in life in which there is a sense that there is more to life than what is visible and familiar. It aspires to be transformative to how life is lived and experienced. In the context of religious life, it is the thirst for a direct connection to God and to experience the Divine. Its praxis includes a greater focus on prayer that is spontaneous and personal, not only verbal prayer but also connecting to God through music, art and meditative techniques,” he said.

Rabbi Nagen continued, “Much of the Jewish literature that deals directly with these issues are chasidut and Kabbalah. Understandably, the resurgence of Jewish spirituality is often referred to as neo-chasidut. However, I feel this is a problematic term as it creates a very particular historical and cultural frame of reference for this phenomenon. Instead I see spirituality as a vital and fundamental impulse at the heart of Judaism and indeed of religion in general.”

“I find that the use of the broader term of spirituality encompasses a broader range of ideas and sources, especially those outside of Judaism. I find it leads to less using labels and jargon and thus challenges us to use a language of life itself and demand of the ideas to have inherent meaning,” he added. “In contrast, I consider the chasidic masters of the 18th century through the 20th century not as starting points for today, rather as records of the significant expressions of this impulse in prior ages. By not using chasidut and its historical context as the point of reference it allows us to focus on the inner essence and not externalities. Thus, I do not recommend returning to clothing characterizing a certain context, nor do I seek a cult of personality relating to masters such as Rav Nachman.”

Rabbi Nagen’s turn to spirituality came about through personal life experiences. “One could argue that the material success of our generation frees us from focusing on basic survival needs and opens us to the bigger questions of life and its meaning,” he began, adding, “On a personal note, however, it was an opposite path that brought me to focus on spirituality. The formative insights in the book emerged in response to painful and traumatic events, primarily of the second Intifada (2000–2005) in which many close friends and students were killed; this is what pushed me and others to question life and to search.

“This return to spirituality is much more pronounced in Israel than in the United States. I see this in the context of exile and redemption. The Talmud (Brachot 8a) teaches that after the destruction of the Temple, ‘all God has in the world is the four amot of Halacha.’ This reflects a tragic limitation of the sphere of divinity in life. In many of his writings, Rav Kook saw the essential spiritual significance of the return of the Jewish people to Israel as a return of religiosity to the totality of life of which is what spirituality strives to fulfill. In a similar vein I once heard Rav Shagar give a lecture about why Briskers have a conflict with Zionism. Zionism, he argued, is about the return of the Jewish people to history and life; Brisk see the divinity of Torah and Halacha as being above and therefore detached from life and time,” Rabbi Nagen concluded.

“Be, Being, Bless” is an enjoyable read, which offers a new look into the meeting of Eastern spirituality with Judaism. The book’s arrangement as Torah commentary on the weekly section of the Torah makes it into a delightful choice to read on the Sabbath or take to synagogue. The book allows us to journey with Rabbi Nagen as he shares his own experiences, which he uses to develop his creative integrative path. At the same time, he provides a Torah role model for this generation of seekers. We have a rosh yeshiva sharing the journey East with his students and coming back enriched and transformed. He is the rosh yeshiva who says that it is not only OK, but enriching. I would recommend it for all those looking for a path of integration of Indian spirituality and Judaism.

Rabbi Dr. Nagen (formerly Genack) is originally from New York City and now resides in Israel. He studied at Sha’alvim Yeshiva, Har Etzion Yeshiva and RIETS. He obtained his BA, MA and ordination from Yeshiva University and has a PhD in Jewish philosophy from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. His PhD on rabbinic thought was the basis for his book on Tractate Sukkah, “Water, Creation and Divinity: Sukkot in the Philosophy of Halacha” [Hebrew] (Giluy 2008); “The Soul of the Mishna: a literary reading and search for meaning” [Hebrew] (Dvir, 2016).

The full review and interview can be found at https://kavvanah.wordpress.com/2019/09/03/rabbi-dr-yakov-nagen-be-become-bless/

By  Alan Brill


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