Malka Simkovich: The Secrets of Second Temple Judaism

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SUMMARY

In this edition of the 18Forty Podcast, we are privileged with the return of Dr. Malka Simkovich—Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies and director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago—who helps us explore Second Temple Judaism and how it relates to Jewish life today. 

By diving deep into the Jewish past, Malka enables us to understand the narratives and commitments that have allowed the Jewish people to persist through the most existential challenges. In this episode we discuss: 

  • What was the relationship between the ancient Jews and the surrounding dominant cultures? 
  • How did the Jewish world respond to the destruction of the Second Temple? 
  • What are the differences between Jewish and Christian notions of truth? 

Tune in to hear a conversation about the central practices and distinctions that have marked and preserved the Jewish people across the millenia. 

Interview begins at 25:53.

Dr. Malka Simkovich is the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies and director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She earned a doctoral degree in Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism from Brandeis University and a Masters degree in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University. She is the author of The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria (2016), and Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories That Shaped Early Judaism (2018).

 

References:

Malka Simkovich on 18Forty: The Mystery of the Jewish People 

Tzidkat HaTzadik by Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin

God’s First Love: The Theology of Michael Wyschogrod” by Meir Y. Soloveichik

Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism by Menahem Stern

Leviticus 19

Confrontation” by Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture edited by Louis H. Feldman, James L. Kugel, and Lawrence H. Schiffman

David Bashevkin:
Hello and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast where each month we explore a different topic, balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches, to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month, we’re welcoming back the return of Malka Simkovich. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big juicy Jewish ideas. So be sure to check out 18forty.org where you can also find videos, articles, and recommended readings. You can tell a lot from an audience based on how they react, not to the presence of something, but to the absence of something. One thing that I have noticed a lot in the digital age is that part of building a community and building a relationship is really a function of frequency. That in order to really build an audience, you got to be on the grind constantly. You can’t drop a podcast once every six weeks or once every two months.

I wish you could, frankly, it would be easier on my life. I think this is equally true in magazines, the different relationships you have with a quarterly magazine versus a weekly magazine. Even though a quarterly magazine’s usually a much higher quality, they have much more time to prepare. But when a quarterly magazine doesn’t show up in your mailbox, you might not even notice. You’re like, “Oh, is there a summer issue?” I’m not even sure if it was supposed to be there, a quarterly journal, whatever it is.

But a weekly magazine that you come up every single week and you’re waiting for it, or it comes on Friday or Thursday or whenever it comes. If it doesn’t come one week, you’re like, “What?” You’re ready with pitchforks. “Where is my magazine? Why is it not here?” So frequency, I think especially in the digital age, to be in people’s lives, to cut through the noise, you really have to have that relationship that builds only with that consistency week in, week out, which just happens to be the nightmare that is my life, the privilege it is my life, but also the nightmare of really week in, week out, making sure that we’re there because I think it’s an important part.

It’s part of the responsibility we have to the audience and part of what I’m so appreciative that we get to do every day. It’s also a nightmare. The content treadmill is not something that I would recommend to anybody, but I was so flattered when we announced our topic on the Origins of Judaism and we had six parts for this series, which is unprecedented that we’ve done for any other series. And our final episode was supposed to be with Malka Simkovich, and it did not drop. Now, I’m used to getting a lot of feedback from things that we do share with the world. Podcast ideas, articles, people will write feedback, some positive, some negative, some critical, but this just didn’t drop. We reschedule it, and we got so many emails. Where is the Malka Simkovich episode? Now it could because our audience at this point knows that there have been times where we have stepped into theologically problematic issues.

We’ve had to take down episodes, which is definitely a story for a different time, and I think our audience has been attuned to, is there a conspiracy going on here? Where on earth? What happened? At least tell me, is she okay? Can you give us a note just letting us know that she is safe and okay? God forbid nothing could be farther from the truth. Just to be absolutely clear, the reason why it didn’t drop was really purely a logistical issue having to do with the dating series and the timing of the dating series to make sure that we were able to drop the episode about Shalom Task Force and Red Flags in time for the Shalom Taskforce dinner, which kindly enough honored the work of 18Forty.

So we really pushed off the episode with Professor Dr. Malka Simkovich. She’s become a friend by now, and really has been somebody that has been such a privilege to get to know better. But honestly, I am happy that we pushed it off. And the reason why is because aside from the fact that the Origins of Judaism series, I think, stands really strongly on its own, I think we covered a lot of issues. I’ve learned a great deal. Maybe I’ve gotten too comfortable or too, I don’t know, self assured. I’m not sure what the right word is. But we tread into a lot of very serious issues on that podcast and the ones that we did drop. Some people rightfully said, “Is it okay for you to be raising all of these questions?” Maybe it would be better if we didn’t. And I hope that we are able to address that question more fully. Is a question that hovers over all of the work of 18Forty.

Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t surface these questions? If we didn’t have a platform and it’s relied on, and I’m not using this word in a pejorative sense, but on the simplicity of the emunah peshuta. That internal intuitive connection that we have and faith in our tradition and as we see it, and not addressing the nitty gritty of these questions and certainly not addressing it in these heterodox ways. That is a question that hovers over any time that you deal with the topic that is stepping out of the normal status quo of how we understand things, whether emotionally, sociologically, theologically, all the different issues that we cover. And it’s one that I hope that we’re going to be able to address more fully on the listener feedback series because we did get a lot of pushback and holy pushback in the way that we approach some of those topics, and I hope that we’re able to address it more fully.

I actually invited somebody, somebody who I don’t even know, he’s anonymous. He writes anonymously on Twitter. I’m clearly a brilliant thinker and absolutely brilliant thinker, and I invited him to write a response about some of his concerns. We haven’t gotten it yet, but I do hope that we’re able to respond to it more. But one of the reasons why I’m happy that we’re doing the Malka Simkovich episode separately is really, I think, she stands alone in the way that we introduced her to our audience. We first invited her on for our series on rationality, and I would invite anybody who’s listening to this now who did not listen to her first appearance on 18Forty to go back and listen to that first appearance. Because that episode we invited her on, it was the suggestion of my friend Jeff Bloom who wrote the fantastic book Strauss, Spinoza and Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith, and I wasn’t all that familiar with her work, but her episode provoked a level of engagement that I really had not seen before.

It wasn’t our most widely listened to episode, but I could be basically quite confident, it was our most provocative episode. It’s the only episode in my memory that was some people’s most favorite and some people’s least favorite episode. Which I think makes for a good episode. She said things that people found provocative, that they engage with, people found deeply inspiring. I count myself as one of them, deeply inspiring some of her ideas. And some people did not like some of her ideas. And I think allowing her to come back, invite her back. We didn’t just talk about her first appearance on this show, but I wanted to almost invite her back on, on her own terms rather than having a conversation where we fell into all these other ideas and topics that were so provocative, so thoughtful, so engaging to really start more sequentially and invite her back on because we’ve had people on more than once.

She’s not our first time that we’re doing that, which is why I am so excited for today’s conversation. But before we get into it, I do want to highlight the two issues that people found most provocative. I don’t want to explain what I think she had in mind. I actually want to tell you why I found them so particularly inspiring and moving. And this is not for people who never listened to that first episode in its entirety. Go back, listen to it now. This is for people who listen to it but only vaguely remember what people get so worked up about. But I want to cut out the two topics that really drew a great deal of feedback, great deal of appreciation, and a great deal of criticism. We don’t have to hide that fact. Criticism is wonderful. Friction is what propels momentum as we say over and over again, and I want to highlight those two issues.

The first issue that really provoked a lot of feedback was her idea that at the center of what we should be centering in our faith, and I believe she said not to the exclusion but perhaps re-centering rather than dogmatic ideas, rather than even the 13 Principles of Faith, at the center of Judaism is the election and the chosenness of the Jewish people. This is what she said.

Malka Simkovich:
Let’s just start from the beginning. What do we need to believe? I believe in God. And the second most important belief that I have has nothing to do with the written or oral scriptures. It has to do with chosenness. It has to do with election, with covenant. I believe that there is a special, unique relationship that hinges on mystery. In other words, God entered into the physical realm, nurtured this relationship with the people of Israel that he cherishes. This choosing is mysterious. In other words, I can’t say why God chose Israel, and it’s inherently problematic.

David Bashevkin:
Why is it problematic?

Malka Simkovich:
Once you start talking about chosenness and election and covenant, you’re already on the precipice of something that is chauvinistic. It’s something that sets the people of Israel apart in a way that makes them so special that you can’t undermine the sense of superiority of the people of Israel. Chosenness is a really, really problematic idea, and yet I think that it has to be contended with in a way that people in our community, what I’ve seen again anecdotally, is that we just take it for granted. Of course, we’re the chosen people. What do you mean? What is there else to say? God chose us in this covenantal relationship, duh, obviously. But I think that if we were to step back and say, what does it mean to believe in a special covenantal relationship, and how does that impact the way that I move throughout the world? That to me would yield much more interesting answers than a teacher yelling at a classroom of kids that God wrote every word of the Torah.

David Bashevkin:
When I heard this, I actually did think it was quite revolutionary. Usually at the center of Judaism is our religion is our Torah. Why would we center the Jewish people at the heart of it, and what exactly does that mean? But I actually do believe that this is something so elevated and so thoughtful. To me, it called to mind the words of Rav Tzadok. He has this work called Tzidkat HaTzadik and allow me to read a line for you and I’ll of course translate afterwards. Rav Tzadok writes in the 54th essay in his work Tzidkat HaTzadik. He writes to his followers. I’m going to read it in Hebrew and then I, of course I will translate. He says the main, most essential aspect of Judaism is what?

With being called in your very Jewish identity, with your association with the fact that you are Jewish. He quotes a pasuk in Isaiah, and this is Isaiah 44:5, where it says, in Isaiah: One shall say “I am the Lord’s,” and somebody else should say, “I am called under the name Jacob our forefather,” and another will mark his arm of the Lord and adopt the name of Israel, of the Jewish people.

That’s so to speak at the heart of Judaism is the willingness to identify that I have been chosen for something, I am Jewish, I am different, I am separated. Now, I think what got a lot of people upset, this isn’t speculation, I know this from emails and people who reached out, was twofold. Number one, she said, this should be at the center rather than other articles of faith that we normally center like the 13 Principles of Faith of Maimonides, perhaps even like the Torah itself. It’s a radical statement, but I happen to agree with her. These are always in competition. They’re not mutually exclusive, but there is something to me that is deeply moving about the very election of the Jewish people as our most essential oldest most bare bones. What is the main principle of Judaism, is the fact that we were chosen, that we are part of the chosen people, that there is something different about being Jewish, the preferential love of the Jewish people.

And at the time I had quoted from an article that I’ll mention again now. It is an absolutely fantastic article that I would really recommend to all of our listeners, and this is an article by Meir Soloveichik that was published in First Things, it’s called “God’s First Love: The Theology of Michael Wyschogrod.” And this entire article is actually saying something quite similar to how I understood what Malka was talking about, which is that at the heart of Judaism is the notion of preferential love. As he writes in that article, Jewish theology must begin with the exclusive election of Israel, Wyschogrod argues, for it is the central principle of the Hebrew Bible, the chosenness of Israel’s often described by Jews as consisting in the giving of the law. While this is doubtless an essential aspect of Israel’s election, it is a narrow account of it.

And then he asks, so why did God choose Israel of all the nations in the world to receive the Torah? And this I believe raises the second reason why people found this part of the interview maybe even upsetting, is that she calls the notion of chosenness, problematic. Now, I’m not sure why they got upset. I appreciate the first objection much more than the second. The first objection is, should this be at the center of everything? And I think that’s a fair conversation. What should we center in our pedagogy? In what way we raise our children? I like this notion of centering Jewish peoplehood, of centering the chosenness of the Jewish people, but the question of whether or not being chosen is problematic. It almost goes without saying. Of course, it’s problematic. It doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. It doesn’t mean that it’s the heart of everything.

It just means that grappling of what that means that we are different of what chosenness means, is different. This is a major question that is debated by so many commentators. This could lead to a very dangerous type of maybe racist essentialism that we’ve been accused of. This can lead to a superiority or even worse or more dangerously looking at non-Jews negatively through a very negative light. There is no question that this is one of the most problematic principles within Judaism. I’ve heard this from many teachers and Malka is not the first person to raise this. I think the fact that she was saying this is problematic, but we have to grapple with it. We have to be able to say it with pride to center it. She’s advocating to center it above almost everything else, but acknowledging the fact that it is problematic.

But I think the answer, at least for me, and we discussed this on that podcast of what exactly were we elected for, I think emerged from this article from Meir Soloveichik. And his answer is as follows, by choosing the Jewish people he’s bringing to this world, this notion of preferential love, not a universal love, that when you highlight a specific group of people, it’s actually a deeper form of love that you are bringing to the world. This is how Meir Soloveichik writes it. If God loves human beings and seeks to relate to them because he is drawn to something unique about them, then his love must be exclusive and cannot be universal. He loves individuals because he has found something unique about them worth loving, which he may not find in another individual. As Wyschogrod writes undifferentiated love, love that is dispensed equally to all must be love that does not meet the individual in his individuality, but sees him as a member of a species.

Whether that species be the working class, the poor, those created the image of God or whatnot. In contrast, divine love is concrete, a genuine encounter with man in all his individuality and must therefore be exclusive. A love directed at all human beings without any grounding in their unique identities is a love directed at universals and abstractions rather than real persons. A daughter whose father loves her with only unmotivated love and not for anything unique, shared kinship, unique virtues and trait could correctly claim that she’s not truly been loved. For Wyschogrod, Hebrew Scripture speaks of preferential love and conveys, thereby the extraordinary notion that God loves men because of who we are and not despite who we are. And to me, like when we center bchiras Yisroel, the choosings, the election of the Jewish people, underneath that is the notion, the sanctification of preferential love, that there’s something specific, that loving something specific is divine, is a part of the world, is a part of the purpose of the world.

And I think that as we move to more universalistic abstract conceptions, whether its effective altruism or figuring out on first principles, rationally what should be prioritized in hierarchy, this notion it becomes more and more radical. But to me, even more and more moving that even if you can’t justify it, even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense, a preferential love is divine is a holiness that brings into the world and I think it gives us something as human beings, as individuals, something to really think about in the way we relate to our own love and the way we relate to our own priorities and maybe a more rationalistic conception of prioritizing different things and concepts in the world.

Maybe good, maybe a nice way to give philanthropy, but understanding that preferential love is a part of creation, a part of the divine order. I think it’s very holy and doesn’t have to come to the exclusion or the expense of the dignity of all human beings, which obviously you could read more about in this article. This entire idea really reminds me of this great bit from Michael Che, one of the “Weekend Update” anchors for SNL, and he said the following, in a standup comedy bit.

Michael Che:
They don’t tell you Black lives don’t matter. That’s not what they say. That’s not the argument. They hit you with that slick like, well, all lives matter. Really? Semantics? That would be like if your wife came up to you and was like, do you love me? And you were like, baby, I love everybody. What are you talking about? I love all God’s creatures? What are you saying? You’re no different.

David Bashevkin:
Preferential love is a different way of looking at the world or looking at our ourselves. And when we say, “Hey, I love everybody, I love all people.” That is not the richness, the individuality of experience, responding to the individuality of experience of every individual, of loving somebody specifically because of their identity, not a love, a universalistic love, but a preferential love. And that being at the heart of bchiras Yisroel, the election of the Jewish people is something I have found both extraordinarily provocative, inspiring and really something that reframed the way I look at Judaism itself as beginning with a familial preferential love a notion that can be problematic at times. But I think if framed in the right way, it really is at the heart, as Rav Tzadok says, at the essence of Judaism is the fact that we call ourselves, we identify with that election, with that chosenness.

The second issue that came up with Malka Simkovich, and I’m calling her Malka just to tell our listeners, not because God forbid I’m disrespectful, I think we’ve built up a friendship over the past couple of months. Certainly if you’re reaching out to her, that is Dr. Simkovich to you, Professor Simkovich to you. Something we talk about the feedback that she’s gotten from 18Forty listeners. But the second notion that she said that really got a lot of feedback was the notion of drum roll please frum points, and this is what she said.

Malka Simkovich:
Frum points is a social currency that I use in my world when I wear a sheitel, which I’, wearing now and I’m wearing a certain long sleeve shirt or whatever, skirts always, those are frum points that I’m accruing and then I spend them. And I would never, oh gosh, I hope my rabbi’s not going to be listening to this. I would never get an invitation to speak on my shul. I just gave a shiur yesterday at my shul, Sunday morning. I would never get that invitation if I didn’t have frum points to spend and I wouldn’t be able to stand in shul on a Sunday morning and make a reference to the New Testament or Jesus, although that costs more points. So you have to be careful. You can’t spend all your frum points because, you can’t go into debt. You can’t go into debt.

And so my world is very transactional. I hate to break it to you all listeners, but your lives are transactional too. We all do this even if we don’t know it. I work very hard to accrue my frum points and I spend them very carefully, and I don’t feel bad about this. In other words, I don’t think that this is some sort of cynical, empty, just tricky way of moving about sinisterly, concealing my true beliefs but hoping not to get kicked out of my community. But I do think that I dress a certain way, I speak a certain way and act a certain way. I send my children also to a school that’s pretty centrist, Orthodox. So these are the points that I accrue and I’m very cautious and careful about how I spend them. I try not to go into debt.

David Bashevkin:
Now, we talk a lot about this in the episode, and again, I am not telling you what I think she meant, but I’m telling you why it resonated with me in particular. I definitely think in the Jewish life that we practice today in 2023, a lot of times we want to draw a direct line from the Judaism that we practiced today to going all the way back to the word of God at Sinai. And draw me a clear line, A, B, C, D, Z, all the way down to where we are today in 2023. And for some things that may be possible. For many things, it is not possible and I believe the notion of having a sociological component, a sociological lens to your affiliation does not need to be cynical. It could actually be uplifting and a part of affiliation itself. To me, these two points are actually connected.

If at the heart of Judaism is the notion of being chosen, of being different, of being elected, if that is centered at the heart and your very affiliation with the Jewish people is at the heart of your Jewish commitment, Judaism is not solely a religion that can be practiced alone on an island. It’s in concert, in dialogue with present communities and communities of generations. If that is in fact so, then I believe that the notion of frum point’s, number one is a helpful mechanism when you are feeling frustration, of like why do we got to… This is not divine, this is not mandated by God. There are many things, and I don’t want to give specific examples, but there are many things that we do that maybe it’s a custom or maybe it’s just a sociological thing, that this is how Jews behave now in 2023, but that doesn’t mean that it’s nothing.

That doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless. That means that by you submitting, by you becoming involved, by you engaging in those differential markers, even if they’re only sociologically grounded, that act of affiliation can be divine in and of itself. When we affiliate, even if the mechanism through which we affiliate is not a biblical commandment and it’s not a rabbinic commandment, it’s just an act of affiliation, I think that is holy. I think an excellent example of this is speaking Yiddish.

There’s nobody who, I don’t think, maybe I’m getting myself with the trouble now, who say speaking Yiddish, speaking Hebrew, this is the way God requires us to speak. I don’t think that that is the case, but I think the fact that we affiliate through certain means is in and of itself, even if it may not be from a legal’s perspective from halakhah, meaning full, it doesn’t mean that it is meaningless. But I think even more than that, I think a lot of times we do use this and we have ways of signaling as we discuss in our series on dating, we have ways that we signal our affiliation and that doesn’t have to be a terrible thing.

We do this in our lives. We have things that we may not fully believe in or have full certitude to, but we affiliate because it allows us to freely interact with each of our communities. Imagine if every time you sat down, you have a questionnaire of your beliefs and your practices, I don’t know that that is helpful. I think one of the ways that we are able to interact communally with a sense of confidence and trust in one another is by these sociological markers. These frum points, dare I say that we accrue and sometimes we spend and sometimes we’re able to maybe break from the pack on certain issues, on certain topics, on certain ideas or practice or whatever it is. But I think that the notion that there is a sociological lens that shapes our affiliation is not like a deep, dark secret. It doesn’t have to be some terribly cynical idea that erodes the way that we interact with the Jewish community.

I think it’s something that we can sometimes take with a smile. Sometimes we can take with a dose of inspiration, with a dose of like, “Yeah, I’m proud of the fact… I like the idiosyncrasies, the sweetness, the challah, the kugel, the Yiddishisms, all that stuff in our community.” And that doesn’t need to necessarily erode what is real, what is true, what is essentially divine just because there are aspects that are sociologically motivated. I don’t think that sucks out like a vacuum, the divinity in those acts of affiliation. I think acts of affiliation in and of themselves have a holiness and we sanctify things through our affiliation, even if they in and of themselves may not have that inherent meaningfulness. And that is why the second thing that you spoke about, the frum points, I also found extraordinarily meaningful. And obviously we will talk more about that in our conversation. But I did want to frame those big issues that we spoke about, but I don’t want to belabor it.

We’ve waited long enough and I don’t want to disappoint anybody, but it may not be as controversial as you were hoping for, really just a conversation with a scholar of incredible note. Somebody whose book, Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories That Shaped Early Judaism, is absolutely a fantastic read. Eyeopening to a period in Jewish history that we know precious little about and really opens up your eyes to this emerging universe of Torah being in the hands of communities throughout the world, grappling with Torah ideas. And creating the connection to Torah that we are familiar with and know to this very day. It is a fantastic book and really an absolute privilege. Her time, her willingness, her consideration and enthusiasm for coming back to 18Forty. I am so grateful for. Without further ado our conversation with Dr. Malka Simkovich.

Malka, I am so excited to invite you back. We aptly entitled this episode, the Return of Malka Simkovich and there’s really has been a lot of, except I want to clear something up at the outset. And that is we originally scheduled this as the final episode in the series on Origins of Judaism, which garnered a tremendous amount of interest. And I apologize to you quite early on that we had to move this episode to later on in the year. I just wanted to clear up and make sure that our listeners know this was not a part of a larger conspiracy or anything like that.

We were so excited to have you back because our first conversation, we went through the back door. We were talking about rationality of religion. It was part of that series. A lot of what you said garnered a tremendous amount of engagement and feedback from our listeners, which I’m always grateful for. As I’ve mentioned, it was for some people their most favorite episode and for others, I don’t want to call it their least favorite, but they were worked up and they really… I’m sure you heard from a lot of our listeners.

Malka Simkovich:
My aim is just to ignite the passions of the people, David. And so I feel it was a great success if that’s the barometer, and I appreciate you having me back.

David Bashevkin:
I just want to make sure, because this is so important to me and it’s not just about you. When people reached out to you after that first recording, were they respectful?

Malka Simkovich:
Absolutely. Even those who strongly disagreed with me. And I heard from people across the spectrum, not just of Orthodox Judaism. I even heard from people who are living outside the Orthodox community, and I experienced tremendous encouragement. I felt very overwhelmed by the respect and the tone of engagement. And there were many people who strongly disagree with me. I can’t think of a single email that was sent to me. And I really would be honest and I would tell you if this was not the case, but even those who strongly disagreed with me. I think because it’s such a personal issue and because we talked about things that are so close to people’s hearts, I didn’t get sarcasm. I didn’t get even anger, but I did get people who felt that I was wrong.

David Bashevkin:
No, it’s so important to me and I wanted the outset because it was instructive, particularly with your episode, which I think garnered a lot of feedback on a lot of important points. But it’s something in general, when you have a platform and a podcast that somebody reaches out to you, can I get in touch with one of your guests? In one sense, it is the reason why we exist. I want to introduce scholars and thinkers to our listeners. On the other hand, I don’t want to unleash the social media Twitter mob on any of our guests. And it was just so important to me, and it’s important to me now to almost speak to our listeners directly, that when you reach out to somebody who 18Forty introduced you to, you can disagree. You can go to the mat, but it’s got to be maximally respectful. And I’m just so happy to hear that it was.

Malka Simkovich:
I know that there are people who did not feel very respectful regarding what I said, and I had seen that those people were not the ones who self-selected to send me an email, but-

David Bashevkin:
They rarely do. Those are the people who are drafting long Facebook posts or calling on management or places of employment trying to get people fired. That’s not our target audience, of course, but I am so thankful that you are coming back on. And where I wanted to begin is maybe, because we didn’t get to talk about this at all, and we spoke about issues that are so central to faith and to people’s, the way that they look at yiddishe kop and Judaism, I wanted to almost begin with a better introduction of who you are because people know very little about you. They know your scholarship. Can you just tell me briefly, what is the world from which Malka Simkovich … Like if we were to do a scholarly study of you and get to the origins of Malka Simkovich, where would you place your origin story?

Malka Simkovich:
The Origins of Malka Simkovich sounds like the most boring book title in the world. I was brought up in a Yeshivish community, and now I live in a Modern Orthodox community. I move in different spaces and I’m also lonely in different spaces, and I know that I’m not the only one who feels that way. These boundaries that we make are very artificial and very fluid. I send my kids to a centrist Orthodox school, and that’s the right school for us. I have a daughter in Ida Crown. If anybody knows the Chicago schools, that will mean something to them. And I have another son at the Skokie Yeshiva, so I identify myself as a Modern Orthodox Jew.

Although when I speak to my Catholic students, I never put any qualifying terms in front of Orthodox. I just say I am an Orthodox Jew and I have reasons for doing that. I think that these denominations and sub-denominations, I don’t know that they serve us the way that we think that they might. I don’t think any label, just like for many others, many of the listeners I’m sure listening to this conversation, I don’t think that any label really quite gets to it, but I affiliate primarily with a modern Orthodox community.

David Bashevkin:
On a point of just personal reference, when do you feel like your more yeshiva upbringing peaks out most?

Malka Simkovich:
That’s a fantastic question. I love being the outsider. I think that might be the narcissist in me. And again, I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way, but I love to be in a crowd and think, “I’m so different.” And often it’s, “I’m so heretical and everybody else is to the right of me, and they haven’t yet seen the light of heresy.” But sometimes it is the opposite. And sometimes I’m in a room where I think people may be a little bit more, the spectrum isn’t always useful, but to the left of me, and then I also feel very narcissistic, “Wow, I’m so different.” I should really sit down one day and think about all the ways in which I’m similar to these crowds, because I’m sure that the differences are not as great as I like to think. But David, it really depends on the context, like anything else.

David Bashevkin:
No, it’s so interesting, because I know for myself what your description really resonates because as I’ve always said, I make it sound like I have a book of aphorisms. I don’t. But I have said mostly to my wife, that I like a community that has one shul where you’re the most frum person in the shul and one shul where you’re like the least frum, being able to experience both rooms is really eye-opening. And you certainly get to do it given that you teach at a Catholic university, right? It’s Catholic?

Malka Simkovich:
It’s a Catholic graduate school, yes.

David Bashevkin:
We’ll get into that a little bit. I think where I want to begin is in this entire series in the origins of Judaism, we’ve been describing the development of the Judaism of the Yiddishkeit that we know today, that we are most familiar with, where we have text, traditions, laws mediated through a very clearly canonized corpus that we have in 2022. And try to be able to bridge the line for how this emerged because in many ways it was not always this way. And what I want to talk about with you is what I think Carl Jasper’s calls the axial age, where there is a shift from a world that is maybe pre-clear canonized, maybe a little bit more fluidity, a little bit more openness and a lot of boundaries were not as clear as they are today. The textual corpus may not have been clear. There clearly was a time before the Mishnah, before the Gemara, and to bridge that to where we are today. First and foremost, do you appreciate this notion of an axial age? And what does that term mean to you?

Malka Simkovich:
That’s a great question, David, and I think about this age as really beginning with the world of Hellenism. But one of the interesting things about the theories regarding the axial age is that people are coming to similar realizations all over the world. Even in China and in other civilizations, there are revelations that actually look very similar to what you find developing in the Hellenistic world. And that said, we often think of the Jewish experience inside these host cultures as being profoundly influenced by the host culture and then making accommodations or compromises or sometimes even being corrupted by those cultures.

But what’s very fascinating, especially about the Jewish experience, is that the influences of culture are moving in both directions. And so scholars believe that in fact, while Jews were impacted by Hellenist ideas and texts and material culture, the world of Hellenism, Greeks and what we would call pagans were also perhaps influenced by ideas that were developing in Jewish circles, which is really counterintuitive that something that is in the periphery or along the periphery is moving into the center, so to speak.

David Bashevkin:
When we talk about an axial age, there was a shift that was taking place. You just mentioned in China, some of it came from Hellenistic culture. What is the shift that took place in the world, broadly speaking?

Malka Simkovich:
Well, there are certain philosophical ideas that we associate with this age. For example, the relationship between what you might call moral ideas a person has and the relationship between those morals and the religious community are being thought of in new ways.

David Bashevkin:
What I’m really moving towards is describing the world pre-destruction of the temple, like you explained this notion of Judaism being an influence to outside cultures. Where I guess I want to begin is in those final centuries of the Second Temple, was Judaism on the world stage? How were we seen by other cultures, and how were we seen by Jews outside of that central Israel? Was it called Israel then, but the central Judean, the Temple culture? How did that very small geographic community influence other communities? And by other communities, I mean both Jewish and non-Jewish.

Malka Simkovich:
I think it’s important to keep in mind that really beginning of the Second Temple period, so you’re talking the late sixth century BCE. I’m not going to use the Hebrew years that Rebbetzin Svei taught me in 1996. When we’re talking about the late sixth century BC from that time on, the majority of Jews are not living in Judea. So once the Persians say to the Jews or the Judeans who had been in Babylonian exile, you can go back to the land of Israel. The majority of them do not do that. They settle along the Mediterranean coast, some of them stay where they are, of course, and that becomes the rabbinic community. And these Jews absolutely are inculcated with their host culture. Shysakanda has done wonderful work on the Zoroastrian Persian influence on the Jews who would become part of the world of the Babylonian rabbis.

But of course, in the Western diaspora, Jews are profoundly influenced by Hellenism. But they also have a problem. And the problem is that there’s this value in Hellenism to be part of this global, it’s not global, but the global Hellenistic community. So you were expected if you lived under Hellenism, you were expected to accept the pantheon of gods. And not just that, but the oral traditions and the Homeric stories and the myths. And there were some aspects of Judaism that just made that nearly impossible. So if you’re going to keep a different calendar, a seven-day calendar, which has no relationship with the calendar of the Greeks and the Romans.

David Bashevkin:
Was that not a seven-day calendar?

Malka Simkovich:
No, the seven-day calendar was totally unique. Obviously the Christians pick it up and they have their Sabbath on Sunday, but the Greeks and the Romans do not use a seven-day calendar. And it’s very bizarre to them that the Jews do. So the Jews have a different calendar, and the Jews are keeping different festivals, and they’re not going to Greek and Roman festivals that celebrate the gods. And if you are not going to have pork, especially in the Roman world, then that is a statement, that you don’t want to have table of fellowship and fully integrate into the kingdom. And if you’re going to practice circumcision and mutilate your child, then you are preventing yourself from achieving the physical perfection that correlates with the perfection of the soul that the Greeks aspire to.

And so the Jews really, those who are practicing, really were unable to integrate the way that other communities successfully did. And because of that beginning the third century BCE, Greeks are lambasting Jews as being horrible team players. But the strange irony is, and you could think of some contemporary parallels, is that at the same time that many Greeks are saying the Jews are terrible team players and they’re not participating the way that they should. At the same time, there are Jews who are rising the ranks of political and economic power in a way that just almost defies logic.

In the Ptolemaic kingdom in Egypt, you have Jewish generals who are advising Cleopatra in the late second century, BCE. It doesn’t just begin with Herod. Herod, whether he’s a legitimate Jew or not is a question on its own. Of course, Herod lived in the late first century BCE and was part of an Idumaean family, Edom. And these Edomites had converted to Judaism a century earlier. But whether it was a sincere “conversion” is under question. And of course-

David Bashevkin:
You used air quotes there for our listeners on that conversion.

Malka Simkovich:
I did use air quotes and the question of what conversion even would’ve looked like at the stage is not clear. But so you do have these figures who have very, very close ties to the Greek and Roman sources of power. And at the same time people are saying, “Wait them. That Jew. Those Jews. Don’t you know that the Jews are terrible team players? Why are they getting so much power?” And so there’s a lot of ambivalence about the Jews and their role in broader society. In other words, Jews are very disproportionately visible.

David Bashevkin:
And explain to me, when you calling upon this, I know the stories about Greek and Roman interface with Jews from stories from the Talmud. I’ve read maybe a couple of history books that mention it, but it’s mostly told through Jewish narratives. What are you calling upon? What do you draw upon to understand how the non-Jewish host cultures, how they understood the Jewish world?

Malka Simkovich:
Well, I have a very handy two-volume work by Menahem Stern, who I think it’s called very blandly, something like Jews and Greek and Roman Literature. It’s blue, you could find it in any academic library. And he collated essentially every single document from the Greek and Roman writers that mentioned Jews. And if you just thumb through… It’s maybe altogether let’s say 1,800 pages, and you thumb through these documents and you will find themes and patterns. So we have a lot of literature that does not come from Jewish sources about the relationship between Jews and their neighbors. One famous example comes from Cicero, the Roman order, who in 59 BCE proposed a bill to the Senate that would export the Jewish transport of gold from various places in the Roman Empire to Jerusalem because he really didn’t like that Jews were sending so much money to the Temple. So we have his speech that proposes this bill and also denigrates the Jewish people as sending their money to the wrong places. This is one of many examples of frustration.

David Bashevkin:
And it resonates a little bit now. You could imagine in the US, there’s dual allegiance sending money to Israel or there are a lot of common modern day parallels. I’m just curious, you mentioned brit milah, you mentioned I think dietary with pig kosher. Was this something that was prevalent amongst your average Jew in diaspora? Was there a difference in observance level or culture that divided Judean Jews who are living in the land of Israel and Jews who are in diaspora. Or like so much of this entire series has been how we superimpose sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly, the present onto the past. So I imagine if I go into Israel, 90% of the practices that I see in Israel, I know where I either practice myself, they’re probably little pockets that are culturally feel very different. And I’m curious, if you go to this period in time, are there very stark religious differences or emphasis among just the common everyday Jew between what’s going on in diaspora and what’s going on in Israel?

Malka Simkovich:
It’s a great question. And of course you do have variety from community to community, and Jews are already spread out throughout the Hellenistic world. So there definitely is variety. And we do know that there’s a concept of “unwritten law”. I’m using air quotes again, well before the Tannaitic period. Jews are talking about the teachings of their fathers. Josephus and Philo both make reference to unwritten teachings. Josephus being the late first century CE historian who is brought up in Judea and lives out his life after the war in Rome. And Philo is an Alexandrian Jewish philosopher who is born around 20 BCE and dies in 50 CE. And both of them talk about unwritten traditions of the fathers. And we have other references from this period as well. So that does provide a degree of agency with which these various communities can interpret and transmit their laws.

So I do think that there’s variety, but the variety is not determined according to whether you are in the land of Israel or not. So I would not put a cultural boundary around the land of Israel and say everything in Judea is authentic and perfectly preserved and transmitted from generation to generation. And everything outside of Judea is corrupt. We know of course that there is this, again, there’s a very bad term, but proto-rabbinic community in Babylonian in the eastern regions of the empire. And so even these non proto rabbinic communities, communities of Jews who are in North Africa or in Antioch to the north of the land Israel, they are observing the distinguishing aspects of Jewish identity that would be brit milah, circumcision, dietary laws and Shabbat and the holidays, they’re also coming together regularly to read their Torah in shul and Shabbat and maybe even during the week. And they’re interpreting them.

These things are happening throughout the empire, but you can’t make a distinction that’s geographic or linguistic. In other words, you can’t say just because you spoke Greek and you did not speak Aramaic or Hebrew, you did not have access to a legitimate pietistic practice of Judaism. Just like today, you have Jews in Kiryas Joel who are very insular, and then you have people who are doing, I don’t know what on the beach in Tel Aviv. Certainly in the ancient times was no different. There was variety, but it wasn’t determined according to whether you were in or out of Israel.

David Bashevkin:
That is absolutely fascinating. I want to focus a little bit on how Jews in the diaspora reacted to the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, the destruction of the temple. And I know we’re fast forwarding a little bit, but what comes next? The temple gets destroyed. The question, this is a crazy question, and I may get in a lot of trouble for saying it. There was a Tradition article in the 1970s that focused on what would happen if Israel got destroyed. And it had a editorial note before the article saying, “The editorial board realizes how sensitive and triggering this question could be, et cetera, et cetera.” But I’ve been thinking a lot lately, God forbid, chas v’shalom, with all of the proper ex. But as a thought experiment, I wonder if our governance and sovereignty in Israel stopped, would it be the same for Jews and diaspora now like we observe Tisha B’av?

Is it the same kind of moment? We’ve only had the state of Israel, shy of a century. It’s been much less, but it has shaped our view. And I’m curious, if we go back in time, if you’re living in Alexandria, I don’t know how often you’re going to the Temple. So what happened in the minds of those people when the temple got destroyed? Was it like a sad day? Like God forbid when you hear about a terrorist attack in Israel, you hear something terrible happens to Jews, God forbid Mumbai, you hear some terrible terrorist attack and you feel terrible. You say Tehillim, and then you really go back into your life now and you realize this. Or was there a seminal shift that they realized something drastic has changed for what could be the foreseeable future? They didn’t know it would be thousands of years.

Malka Simkovich:
We really don’t know. But I want to say a few things that might be helpful. First of all, I resist talking about 70 CE as a seminal moment, not because I want to minimize the level of catastrophe at the moment or the moments that the Beis Hamikdash, the Temple fell. But because these seismic changes, they don’t happen in a day or a month or a year. And the war did not end in 70. The war ends in 73. And so we actually have a parallel situation with Hanukah where we talk about the war being from 167 to 164 BCE. It’s true, and it’s not true. In 164 BCE, the Hashmonaim reclaim control over the Temple, but the conflict with the Seleucid Greeks goes on and on and on. And so the reclamation or the loss of the Temple is only one moment in time in a very long story, and it’s not the last moment.

So it’s part of a story, and it’s a story that we talk about, but the war was on for three years. That’s a long time. The war is from 66 to 73, and even in 73, that’s not really the moment where the rabbis just wander into the sight of the temple and there’s smoke and ashes and the ground is smoldering. And they say, “Okay, what should we do?” I’m going to be a little heretical now, David, what should we do? Let’s go to Yavne. That’s a story, and it’s a very powerful important story. Many of you might know what I’m referring to when reveal Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai says to Vespasian, give me Yafana and its sages. We could talk about the historicity or the meaning of that story, but the point is that there’s no way it could have happened in the sense that your one moment in a state of catastrophe and then the next day you saved Judaism.

That’s never how change happens. And the question of how diaspora Jews are experiencing this is likewise very difficult to say because change is very slow. But again, I think that Hanukah is a useful analog. Of course, it happens many centuries earlier in the second century BCE, but we have some interesting evidence from the story of Hanukah regarding how diaspora Jews respond to the successful attainment of independence in Judea. And one of the clever ways that scholars analyze how various communities respond to changes in Judea is by looking at name changes. And right after the successful reclamation of the Beit Hamikdash, the Jews and Alexandria start giving their kids Hebrew names.

David Bashevkin:
Wow, that’s so beautiful. That’s actually quite moving. Maybe there was a sense of pride. It reminds me of like 67, exactly where this wave of patriotism. How would you describe that a religious renewal swept.

Malka Simkovich:
Absolutely. I wouldn’t call it nationalism because I think that has some modern connotations that might not be accurate, but they felt a connection. They felt that this was their victory in a way. There was a conflation of all Jews. If it happens to you, it happens to me. If it happens to me, it happens to you. And again, it almost defies logic. But we know that in the beginning of the second century BCE, Jews were primarily giving their children Greek names in Egypt. And then there’s a turn. There’s a turn where Aristobulus grows up, and he’s in his mid-thirties and he names his daughter Miriam.

David Bashevkin:
Wow.

Malka Simkovich:
And so my guess, although I haven’t done the data analysis, is that’s very possible. I would not be surprised if you saw something similar in the late first century CE. We do know not only did Jews conflate themselves, in other words, not only did Jews feel like “your victory is mine.”

But a lot of that self-understanding comes from how they are treated by the Roman Empire. Right after the war, the Romans institute, the fiscus Judaicus, where they’re making every single Jew in the Roman Empire pay literally for the war because of course the Romans incurred a great cost by fighting it and had no idea that it would take seven years of blood, sweat, and tears and a lot of money to put the rebellion down. And the Romans essentially say, “We’re not going to pay for it. You’re going to pay for it.” And they hold every single Jew responsible for the rebellion regardless of where they lived. You had to pay a fiscus Judaicus. So if you’re a Jew living in Cyrene and modern day Libya, and you have to pay a tax to the Roman Empire because your eighth-cousins in Judea rebelled… You don’t know these people. You’ve never been to Judea, but you will start to feel a kinship whether you want that kinship or not. Family is family.

David Bashevkin:
But this is an early example, and you see this in modern times. I keep on jumping back and forth between the way antisemitism sometimes actually coalesces the community, and like you come together under persecution. It’s an unfortunate feature of Jewish history, but you see it quite early. I want to fast forward because I think one area where we didn’t get to discuss at all and really didn’t discuss at all in the entire series of the Origins of Judaism that I think really is an important part of this is the emergence of Christianity in the shadow of the destruction of the temple. And how I think I want to use the right term, and I don’t have it, how Judaism was almost like concretized in a way, given the directions that Christianity was going.

And you teach in a Catholic university. So I don’t know how censored you have to be if it’s like the parallel of me with my affiliations with Orthodox institutions. You got to be careful that you don’t offend anybody. I certainly don’t want you to offend. But I’m curious, early conceptualizations, the destruction of the Temple was a theologically pregnant moment in the eyes of other religions and particularly in Christianity. Is that correct?

Malka Simkovich:
That’s absolutely correct. No question about that.

David Bashevkin:
What would you say was the theological significance of the destruction of the temple in the eyes of Christianity, and where do we know this from?

Malka Simkovich:
First of all, whatever the Christians said about the fall of the Temple was not invented. It was borrowed by the Romans themselves because that great triumphal march through Rome where the Romans are parading the Jewish slaves and all of the loot and all of the Temple treasures that they had brought out of Judea. The message is clear. Not only have we defeated the Jews, but we have defeated the God of the Jews. This God who didn’t play the nice with others, who is not content with sitting along a pantheon with other gods who’s not playing the ice in the playground. Well, we’ve defeated him and the people who worship him. And the Christians, and we can’t even talk about Christianity until this later, the third or fourth century, what we call the parting of the ways. And like you said, David, it’s at that time where we really see strong cultural religious boundaries being drawn between these communities.

But of course, even before the parting of the ways the church fathers and the earliest Christians, it’s not a word without problems to talk about Christians of the person second century. But the followers of Jesus are saying the fall of the Temple is material proof that God has permanently broken his covenant with the Jewish people because the Jewish people have no longer earned his favor. That’s a Roman idea. If you are punished, if you are suffering your God’s unhappy with you, and also the Romans and the Christians could easily point to the scriptures of the Jewish people themselves and say, “Listen, your own prophets told you that if you’re going to suffer under occupation and exile, that’s a sign that God’s not very happy. We’re not inventing an idea here. This comes from your own scriptural tradition.”

David Bashevkin:
What’s always interested me is that there is this shift, and you see it emphasized in the Gemara, I’m thinking of the passages in the Talmud in Gittin on 60b, which begin to emphasize the uniqueness of the Jewish relationship with God as expressed specifically through the oral law. It is our interpretations and development in this interpretive process that is what makes us unique.

So to speak, the written law has been co-opted the Torah or what Christians would now call the Old Testament, and we’ll talk about those terms in a moment. I have no doubt that you hate them.

Malka Simkovich:
I do.

David Bashevkin:
But that the oral law begins to be centered as this is the primary way in which we relate and preserve our distinctness. And I’m curious if Christians picked up on that and what their response was to this burgeoning emerging world of Medrash and interpretive study that was flourishing in this period, in the wake of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash.

Malka Simkovich:
This is a really, really complicated question because you have to make many distinctions in the first distinction that you have to make is the polemical rhetoric, the propaganda that you’ll find in the homilies and the writings of the church fathers. Church fathers such as John Chrysostom and Origen and Tertullian and others. And then you have to ask yourself a historical question. Is this polemical material truly representative of what is happening on the ground when you look at the lives of regular Christians and regular Jews? So in the homilies you’ll find that the church leaders lambast what they characterize as the rabbis hyper legalism and the obsession with practice. And certainly the oral law is part of that body of cultic obsession that figures like Chrysostom will say have nothing to do with the true message of the scriptures. But on the ground we actually also know that early Christians have a very, very hard time letting go of Jewish practices like purity laws and also kashrut and other halakhot.

And so first we have to make that distinction between what the church fathers are saying, which looks very, very ugly at a very early stage, but doesn’t really seem representative of what’s happening on the ground. And when you speak about oral tradition, you do have to also make the distinction because these conversations slip into discussions of contemporary times. You have to make a distinction between the Catholic tradition and the Protestant tradition. Because today the Catholic tradition very much depends upon the writings and interpretations of the church fathers and church leaders who developed and molded and shaped certain understandings of Jesus and the Trinity. And the Protestant tradition, which is very, very varied and diverse, tends to take a more direct and literal view of scriptural tradition. So my Catholic students, they have very little angst over discussing authorship of the Bible. But I imagine that if I was teaching Evangelical Christians, it would be extraordinarily hard for them to look at those scriptural texts and discuss who their authors were and how they were edited.

And it should also be noted that in the Catholic tradition today, there has been an overt effort to compare their understanding of Jesus as Messiah with rabbinic methodological maneuvers that you find in midrash. So that many Catholic leaders today will say, “Well, you have your midrashic thodologies into one direction. You wrote Sifrei and Sifra and Bereishit Rabbah and whatever. And we developed a midrashic tradition centered on the idea that Jesus is the Lord and savior. How is what you are doing methodologically different than what we’ve done? Both of those maneuvers depend on the idea that we have the agency to make major truth claims that lie outside of our scriptures.”

David Bashevkin:
Do you think there’s an answer to that question? Because it’s always fascinated me the role that Jesus plays in the lives of Christians and how it’s centered obviously in that movement. And how in many ways our connection, that sense of God that resides within us is really like the founding principle of the development of the oral law and our interpretation. So when you hear a accusation like that, “Hey, we’re both freelancing over here.” Do you think there’s a response to that?

Malka Simkovich:
Oh yes. The response to me is very clear and strong. Here’s how I feel about that. Christians and Jews approach the category of truth very differently. Unfortunately, I think many observant Jews today think about truth through a Christian lens. So we think about truth as this attainable capital T idea that lies just beyond our grasp, but that we can still and should strive for. In the Christian model, you as a Christian are claiming a truth that Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord and savior. And if you don’t fully and wholeheartedly accept that truth, you will not be saved. Or at least you won’t appreciate the way in which you are saved through the Messiah. They say about choose, well, you might not know it, but you’re going to be saved through the salvation of Jesus. I’m trying not to say C-H-R-I-S-T. I get a lot of trouble for that.

The point is though Christians are making a truth claim that your entire spiritual wellbeing depends upon. By nature, midrash is doing something totally different. Midrash is a process that is dialogical that dare I say, has an element of pluralism to it. I don’t think the goal of a long homiletical text in Bereishit Rabbah is about getting to the one precise answer that God is hoping you will land upon. But by nature it means, Midrash is about a conversation where you are exploring various avenues and you’re experimenting. I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but the rabbis are not thinking, let’s get to the truth. If they were, the Mishnah would look very, very different. Why do we cite so many opinions? Why do we have so many voices? Why do you have so many layers? And again, I’m not trying to be disrespectful, we’re saying truth doesn’t exist.

I’m not a post-modernist, but if that were simply the goal, we wouldn’t really have rabbinic literature. It’s much more than that I think. So I’m not trying to denigrate, I’m trying to honor, but I’m saying maybe our understanding of what we’re meant to be doing over here is very, very different. Because for us, the process of dialogue is the goal. That is the fun. For the Christian, and again, I’m making very broad strokes here, but I think in the Christian imagination, the process doesn’t necessarily have inherent value except you want to land in the right place. But I think that the Jewish nature of dialogue actually honors the process of dialogue.

David Bashevkin:
That is absolutely fascinating. And I think we see it born out in truth, and I think the larger sense of truth in this comparison, that’s so fascinating that there is something very results-oriented in the Christian notion of truth while something very process-oriented honoring the particularities of the process itself that Judaism has honored over the years. And I do think that it’s coming from a place of deep honor. That’s absolutely fascinating. I have a question in terms of this polemic you mentioned of Jews being accused of being overly legalistic.

I hear that very often levied now on Orthodox Judaism. Do you think that the emphasis on legalism, that Christian frustration with it is something that has trickled down even to contemporary times? I’ve even caught myself, I’ll be honest, in private moments like we’re so attached to these little nitty gritty details. And I wonder if given your positioning in the grand narrative of Jewish law, does that give you a greater esteem for that more legalistic component of Judaism? Or do you think that nowadays we may have lost the script, so to speak, in how we integrate that legalism into our everyday lives?

Malka Simkovich:
Well, I might sound a little defensive when I say every single person who lives in a society has laws, and those laws differ. Some people don’t live in a religious community, they live in a secular community, but they still have laws. We all have norms. And most of us, unless we’re serial killers running around, God forbid and murdering people in the middle of the night, we are participating in a society that requires us to accept those laws. So I don’t think laws inherently are something that we need to apologize for or be embarrassed about. Of course, in the Jewish tradition, we have laws that we don’t understand. And this I think is extremely important to keep in mind because what we’ve done as Jews is we’ve produced stories that give these laws meaning. And again, this is where we as contemporary Jews often think as Christians, and I think this is a problem. We buy into the Christian idea that rules are on one side and ethics are on the other side, and it’s our job to bridge those categories.

But if you open up Viyikra perek yud tet and you read the perek from beginning to end, there’s no distinction in our tradition, in our biblical tradition between laws and ethics, our tradition does not recognize those categories as separate, which actually makes our work a lot harder. Because we have to start thinking we’re 21st century Jews and we have to think outside of the categories that we’ve inherited from our Christian or secular society as if these are two separate things. And I want to ask… This is what I say to my kids when they say something that’s not so nice to one of their siblings. Ask yourself, is that helpful? That’s what I make my kids say. Is that helpful? Is it helpful for us to be thinking about laws over here and ethics over here and their intention and their pulling at each other? And then we have to figure out how to synchronize?

I don’t think it’s helpful. I think it’s more helpful to think about the various ways that we derive meaning from our lives. Even when… We touched on this in our last conversation, David, even when we have to admit that what we’re doing doesn’t have inherent rational explanation. But that doesn’t mean that we have to deny ourselves meaning from that practice. And so I don’t think we need to distinguish ethics from law. And I think that that’s been imposed upon us in a way that’s been detrimental. Again, not just because it generates antisemitism, but it’s detrimental to our self-understanding because that’s not what our tradition is doing.

David Bashevkin:
I very much appreciate your… I think you’re making reference to the conversation where you said the notion of frum points, which garnered a lot of feedback. But what I found actually very meaningful about that is the notion that there are things that we know for sure are not biblical. We know they may not even be rabbinic in our lives. There’s things that Jews do now that are out of maybe social convention or whatever it is. I think that there is a versatility in how we build meaning that Jews need to learn how to do instead of hanging every single decision that governs our community on the word of God himself. Is that a fair characterization?

Malka Simkovich:
That’s absolutely fair. And I don’t remember if I said this in our first conversation, but I don’t get hung up over what is said to be divine or what is said to have been developed in the rabbinic period. That to me actually matters very little. And I also try not to make a distinction, although our kids learn this distinction when they go to yeshiva day school, the distinction between Chukim and Mishpatim. This makes sense, this doesn’t make sense. I think that that could also be really confusing. For me, it’s a question of how can I derive meaning from everything that I do in a holistic way?

And affiliating with a community is an inherently meaningful act. So even if I’m doing something that you know is getting me frum points, but the desire to get the frum points is a meaningful desire because what I’m saying to myself is there’s something that gives my life transcendent value when I am part of this community. Why would I be cynical about that? There’s nothing to be cynical about. It’s the most important value that I could have, is that it’s not just about me.

David Bashevkin:
And even in that larger communal affiliation that it may require certain individual sacrifices that you don’t necessarily either agree with or know the meaning to, you still preserve that ultimate transcendent meaning that community provides. I love that so much. And I’ve said many times that I think the struggle for a lot of contemporary people who are grappling with whatever religious community they’re living with, I think very often their struggle does not derive from issues related to theology or religion. Their issue derives from the notion of community and connecting community and finding meaning from communal affiliations, which I think can be very, very challenging for people, especially in an age where we’re so individualistic.

Malka Simkovich:
But on the other hand, it is a push and pull because what I am not trying to do is defend every single practice and custom that we in the Orthodox community have. I do feel concerned that we have ossified what we call halakhah, which might not be very ancient. In other words, there are certain things that are very, very visible in our communities that maybe were not visible 200 or 300 years ago, but now they feel very central to our identities. And we’ve ossified those things. We’ve sort of turned them into Halacha l’Moshe MiSinai, and I worry that we are ossifying things that are actually very superficial.

And the question for us now, and this is maybe more specific to the modern Orthodox community, is how do you discern where to make changes, and who does that discernment? So yes, on the one hand, I don’t want to throw everything in the garbage and say, “Well, nothing is obviously rational to me, so forget it. I’m walking away.” On the other hand, does that mean that I’m under obligation to accept every single thing as I see it? I resist that. I think we have to figure out a healthy process of halakhic discernment that I’m just not seeing in Modern Orthodox communities today.

David Bashevkin:
That’s interesting. I would probably draw a distinction between Israel and America on this point. I think there has become a lot more fluidity and a lot more creativity than I have found in Israel. I’m curious, one of the big differences between Christianity and church, especially the Catholic world, is how change comes about and how centralized the power is in the Christian world versus the Jewish world. We don’t have a pope or a central agency. There are a lot of little communal factors that collectively come together that bring about change.

I think almost always, ultimately organically. It may start with a little bit of manufacturing or media outlets or certain leaders speaking up, but ultimately the change is always really coming from the people and communal acceptance, something we’ve come back to over and over again. I’m curious if you see that structural difference as part of one of the central distinctive characteristics between Judaism and Christianity in just the structure of how change works in each respective community.

Malka Simkovich:
I absolutely agree. I would just change Christianity to the Catholic Church because things are a little different in all these Protestant denominations. They’re different from one another, and there is sometimes more of a democratic process. In the Catholic Church, you are dealing with an extremely rigid hierarchical structure. It’s very hard to enact change. And even when change is enacted, for example, even when in 1965, the church said You should no longer condemn the Jews collectively for killing our God. The process by which that idea trickles down to a billion people takes literal centuries. So we’re at the baby stages of that change. We are, I think, in the Jewish community at a huge advantage because we are more decentralized. And so, like you said, David, we can work ground up at the grassroots. People on a communal level can make certain adjustments to what their shul life looks like or not their liturgy, not what they dive in, but in some cases, how they might dive in or who the leadership in the shul is.

And that’s all fine. But I have seen anecdotally people in the Orthodox community, especially the left side of Modern Orthodoxy, try to make changes and then end up pushed out by gatekeepers who felt that those changes were too destabilizing. So I still don’t think that we have a good process of halakhic discernment, and I’m hoping that we can see something in the next generation that allows for us to take into account human dignity without being worried that we’re going to destabilize or that we’re going to dissolve the boundaries or we’re going to put ourselves at threat.

David Bashevkin:
This is in some ways, a standalone invite of Malka Simkovich in other ways. It is like the final episode on the Origins of Judaism, that series that we began a few months ago. And I guess what I wanted to hear is very broadly, what would you tell somebody who is struggling with the authenticity of Jewish faith and tradition? They are struggling. They want it to work, but they don’t see the line that they can draw straight from present day Judaism. And as it’s articulated today with all of the communal factors, but they can’t draw that line from where we are today to way back when the Judaism that we see described in the books of Tanakh.

And I’m almost asking you to put on your, I don’t know, inspirational educational hat through the lens of your academic work. What would you tell somebody who’s really grappling with that question and is really trying to figure out. It feels… And I hate this word because I was accused of emphasizing it. It feels invented, it feels made up, which God forbid, what would you tell somebody who is struggling, because they can’t find a sequential path from the Judaism they know today to the Judaism they see described in the Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim?

Malka Simkovich:
Wow, David, you just tasked me with life’s challenge. Life’s work.

David Bashevkin:
We sure did.

Malka Simkovich:
Wow. I think halakhah that works when we embed it in a meaningful story. When we make halakhah the beginning and the end of our faith, we lose sight of the most important thing that I believe has to be central to Jewish identity, which we talked about in our first conversation. And that is the idea that we are in relationship with God because for whatever mysterious, unknowable, incomprehensible reason, God decided to enter into a relationship with our ancestors. Now, practices and norms and customs are obviously impacted by the broader societies in which we live. I don’t view that reality as up for debate, and I also accept the authority of halakhah. I think that if we ossify halakhah, we’re at risk for ossifying or even ignoring the importance of the narrative in which the halakhah is embedded. Again, for me, the most important thing is that as a halakhic Jew, I’m using halakhah to affirm that I am participating and I’m in relationship with a community of people whose ancestors underwent extraordinary challenges.

And again, for some strange reason, because of some unknowable reason chosen by God. One thing that I’ve noticed over the past few years is that there are many, many things that we in the Orthodox community will not say in public spaces, but that maybe the majority of us are thinking privately to ourselves. And it does bring me comfort to know that a lot of the things that I privately think, I assume many other people aren’t privately thinking. And so I try to be an irrational optimist because at some point we have to break the dam. Every few centuries, Orthodox Judaism does undergo a cataclysmic, a huge shift. And it’s very possible that we’re gearing up for one and the next few centuries. And the reason why I think that is because how long can you go on being part of a community where people feel privately, one thing, and yet we’re going to shul and we’re doing certain things that are not in alignment with our ethical sensibilities.

And I’m talking specifically about the role of women in Orthodox Judaism. And if there are many, many people who are unhappy with that, and again, this is specific to the Modern Orthodox community, I think at some point that dissatisfaction is going to pervade the levels of leadership and that change is going to happen and maybe it won’t. But I live as an irrational optimist, and I think that that’s what we’re moving towards. So I’m clinging to a story that connects me to the Jewish people and to God. And for me halakhah, is an instrument through which I affirm that story. It’s not less than that, and it’s not more than that.

David Bashevkin:
And I think that that’s incredibly real and meaningful. My final question is your perspective as a educator. Specifically, most of your students I assume, are not just Christian, they are Catholic. What do you see are the misconceptions and maybe what we can learn from the way your Catholic students think about Judaism? And are there any emphasis or things that we could learn as a Jewish community based on maybe their misconceptions of what they think Judaism is all about? What have you gleaned from teaching a Catholic student body?

Malka Simkovich:
First of all, I think that most of my students come in with no preconceptions because they are thinking about Judaism in the abstract. In other words, whatever they think about Judaism is through their scriptures, through their liturgy. So they’re thinking with a hermeneutical idea, they’re thinking with a hermeneutical Jew, but many of them have not interacted with living thriving Judaism on the ground. And I need to start with that because it’s important to take these misconceptions with a grain of salt, because these are ideas about Judaism in the most abstract sense, but they’re very similar to the stereotypes that we see in the Greco-Roman, in the Hellenistic world about Judaism being of religion, of laws and not of ethics. And I think one thing that I’ve really learned being in Catholic spaces is that Rav Soloveitchik was right about many things, but specifically, and I’m talking about his peace, “Confrontation” of course, specifically right about language and vocabulary.

When we enter into dialogue, that dialogue is never neutral. And very often when Jews enter into Jewish Christian dialogue, we have to find common ground. And the way that we do that is by using common language and common terms and vocabulary and our lexicon when we’re talking about truth, covenant law, we are using words and we are accepting very often Christian definitions of these terms that I think actually do not to us a service because they’re not true to our own tradition. And so what I would love to see in the next 10 or 20 years is a re-evaluation of these terms that we can start from scratching away and produce, whether it’s an English or Hebrew or I don’t care what language, but produce a lexicon of religious meaning that is organic to our own faith tradition. And we haven’t done that.

David Bashevkin:
We haven’t done it in English. You know that. It’s so interesting. There’s some basic words don’t even exist in classical Hebrew. Even the word religion is an invented term.

Malka Simkovich:
Yep.

David Bashevkin:
I’m so happy we’re able to do this again. I always end my interviews with more rapid fire questions than I know you always forget to prepare for. But here we go. My first question is somebody who wants to better understand, so to speak, the origins, the development, the unfolding of Jewish law and tradition as we know it today. Obviously we have recommended your book in the past. What else would you recommend to inform somebody really getting a better and richer perspective on this period of time?

Malka Simkovich:
There’s a very expensive set put out by Jewish publication society called Outside the Bible. It’s expensive, but what I love about it is that it includes many, many very peitistic Jewish texts that are not part of Talmud and they’re not part of the rabbinic tradition, but it gives you a sense of the richness, the playfulness, the experimental aspects of Judaism that were produced again by Jews who were devoutly observing variant ancestral laws. So outside the Bible is a great one.

David Bashevkin:
My next question is always strange to ask people who’ve already done a PhD and have already been asked this question, but maybe you’ll come up with a different answer or maybe you forgot the first time you answered it, so it’ll be exactly the same and neither of us will remember. But if somebody gave you a great deal of money, where you could go back to school and write a new PhD. What do you think the topic and title of your dissertation would be?

Malka Simkovich:
I did say musicology last time, but really I’m a musical theater nerd.

David Bashevkin:
My final question, I’m always interested, and you’ve been so busy, so maybe this changes, but what time do you go to sleep at night and what time do you wake up in the morning?

Malka Simkovich:
But I told you last time, David, there’s always the dissonance between how I imagine myself to be or how I’m about to be. I’m on the cusp of achieving all of my goals and what my life really is like. So I go to sleep after midnight, and I wake up at around 06:30. I really want to be that person who goes to sleep at 10:30, gets up at 05:00 and writes with the sun rising behind her.

David Bashevkin:
That takes the world by storm. Yes.

Malka Simkovich:
Yes.

David Bashevkin:
I was wondering whether you had finished all of your life’s goals since the last time we spoke. Unfortunately, it seems like the answer is no.

Malka Simkovich:
I am right where I was in September.

David Bashevkin:
God willing, the next time we’ll speak, we’ll ask it again, and hopefully we will be further along to that vision that 05:00 AM writing with the sunrise. Dr. Malka Simkovich, thank you so much for this conversation today.

Malka Simkovich:
Thank you for having me, David.

David Bashevkin:
For many people when we go back in our academic time machines, in our memory time machines, in whatever it is, and think back to what Judaism was during the second temple period and maybe perhaps the differences between that Jewish life as it was then and the Jewish life as we have it now. For some people, even highlighting those differences can erode or can be unsettling in the way that we think about our Jewish life now. For some reason, and maybe I wasn’t always like this, going back into that time machine is one of the most powerful things in the world for me. Number one, it gives me a much greater appreciation for the Jewish people that we have now in front of us in 2023 with all the practices, with all of the memory that we stored, that we’ve built up, the resilience through the generations that we have accrued. And that we’re here, we’re here today, and we have a Jewish life, a rich Jewish life, a meaningful Jewish life.

To me, reflecting on history, and for some people when we reflect on history, they can’t imagine what Jewish life was like in the early 1980s. But going back and thinking 2000 years ago and the essential practices and distinctions that have marked us and preserved us as a people is one of the most moving things that I could ever imagine. And to me, this notion of thinking about what Jews in Alexandria and Jews in exile, how they reacted to the destruction of the Temple, hearing that great center of the Jewish community had just been destroyed. And just for a moment thinking, imagine what they were thinking. Is this over? Are we either going to be the last Jews? Is this the last generation of the Jewish people? And taking a moment on this journey of the origins of Judaism, maybe all the questions that it raised and all of the concerns that one may have, but not allowing that to drown out.

I think what is the most essential story of the resilience of the Jewish people, the resilience of Yiddishkeit, of Judaism, of giving us this dialogue through the generations. Generations that may have looked at themselves and said, “This might be it. Like this might be the end of it. We may be the last Jews on earth.” And despite all of it, and perhaps in part because all of it, we have a narrative, we have commitments, we have practices that connect us through the generations going all the way back to Sinai, connecting us to the divine idea, asher bachar banu mikol haamim, of God, choosing the Jewish people that preferential love of the Jewish people, v’nasan lanu es ha Torah, and giving us this Torah to grapple with, to think about, to develop, preserve, and perpetuate to the next generation. There is no greater story to be privileged to be a part of than this.

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