Malka Simkovich: The Mystery of the Jewish People

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Dr. Malka Simkovich—Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies and director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago—about Second Temple Judaism and how it can help us understand what it means to be a Jew in our own time.

Malka explores the significance of belief and observance over the history of the Jewish people.

  • What is the role of mystery in how we understand covenant and chosenness?
  • What is the relationship between religious life in the ancient world and the Jewish practice we know today?
  • How does belief facilitate the continuity of the Jewish tradition throughout time?

Tune in to hear a conversation about the history and mystery of the Jewish nation.

Interview begins at 27:40

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:

The Formation of the Talmud: Scholarship and Politics in Yitzhak Isaac Halevy’s Dorot Harishonim by Ari Bergmann

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 returning to the topic of Rationality. 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, recommended readings, and weekly emails.

As I’ve mentioned before, there is no topic that we get as much listener feedback to as rationality. It feels like this is the topic where some people absolutely check out. They’re like, “Get back to me when you interview a rabbi who’s a surfer who came from some wild home and whose child is now some artist, da, da, da.” Like, “Get back to me for Intergenerational Divergence. I’ll see you in a year,” which I totally understand and respect. We do different topics. We deliberately do different topics. Hopefully nobody gets bored. But also, I think in order to address religious life, in order to really be able to understand the totality of religious life, you have to have some conversations that are head-on discussions of theology, and you also need other conversations that are more about life itself because so much of religious life is not arriving at some particular refining some ideology or theology though that’s a part of it, but it’s also about having a healthy and holistic approach to life itself.

The quote that always comes to mind for me is what Alex Clare said last year in our Teshuva series, where he said, “First you have to be healthy, then happy, and then holy.” Sometimes we talk about things that allow people to be healthy; sometimes we talk about things that allow people to be happier; and sometimes we talk about things that really refine the idea of what holiness is, what Torah is, what God is. I think all of these are always in conversation together in 18Forty. But we do have a lot of people reach out. I’m doing my very, very best to keep up with the correspondence. Hopefully, we’ll be able to have an episode just about reader responses to each specific topic, though I don’t think we’re going to have time to do it this round. But I want to read a few emails that we’ve gotten to introduce our conversation today, which I am so excited about.

So I received an email that says as follows, “In your return to rationalism, I would love to hear you address not just the more abstract questions about Har Sinai and revelation, but also the more binding questions about Talmud and halakha, given that the more rabbinic perspectives of Judaism seem more transparently human. At least those are the sorts of questions that have always bothered me most from a rationalist perspective. We obviously acknowledge the role of humans in the halakhic process, although,” he writes in parentheses, “(the process and the role of humans in it is commanded in the Torah). If examined from a more academic perspective, halakha seems to evolve over time and could be seen as impacted by the context in which it has been codified in Persia thousands of years ago without much input from women, et cetera, et cetera. Further, there are aspects of the Talmud which we do not use for psak, or meaning Jewish law, or not necessarily having the same level as divinity,” and in parentheses he says, “(particularly around medical advice).”

This is a fantastic email. It means that we’re doing our job, but not completely, at 18Forty, because I think part of what we gain by having these series and not doing a more sequential from beginning-to-end is that we’re able to touch on a lot of these points and questions, but not all in one place. What I kind of lament, and this is really a lot of the theme about today’s conversation, is that after recording the interview today with Dr. Malka Simkovich… I don’t know if I’m pronouncing her last name correctly, God should forgive me, Dr. Malka Simkovich should forgive me. I do apologize for that.

But I will say that right after I recorded the interview, I realized this needed its own series, a series on the early emergence of Torah Shebaal Peh, what we talk about whether it’s called our early Judaism, ancient Judaism. We talk a lot about that. And really taking you from the world of prophecy into the world that we live in today, which is much of our interview discusses about this and how you relate to the more human, or I would say the way divinity unrolls and reveals itself through human interpretation, through the interpretation over the generations, through the larger body of Kenesses Yisroel.

This question has never bothered me because actually the place where I find God the most is in this abstract notion of Kenesses Yisroel, the entirety of the Jewish people as revealed through the generations, and while being human, I think in totality, when you take it at its whole, that is where I find God more than anything else. In a way, and this is going to get me absolutely destroyed, but in a way, it parallels in a more mystical, less secularized version of a little bit of what Mordecai Kaplan was talking about.

Obviously, Mordecai Kaplan is not a figure that we necessarily hold up, certainly not in traditional Judaism. We can do a long series on the Reconstructionist movement. I’m tabling that. We have a flurry of emails with suggestions of future topics. I want to talk about different denominations, particularly Reconstructionist Judaism, which came, obviously, from the doubt and the struggles of Mordecai Kaplan, which I’ve given many classes on and I’m absolutely fascinated by. But this notion of the totality of the Jewish people being a repository for revelation is something that I’ve gleaned out in a little bit from his writings. I’m not blaming this on him, nor am I holding him up. But as Steven Rohde Gotlib, who was our guest last week, wrote in his essay, there is some pathway that you’re sometimes able to find through his writings that actually parallel, in many ways, mystical writings about that body of Kenesses Yisroel.

The other topics that he mentioned, obviously halakha. We did a series on halakha. There’s a lot we spoke about there, particularly about what the role of halakha is, and how we’re able to find divinity in the very human protections and interpretations that much of halakha represents, though not all of halakha. I got a little bit of slack for being overly humanistic in my understanding of halakha. But really through everything that I find, even the sociological things that we do in Judaism, I find a measure of divinity there. I really do.

The last thing that he mentions, which is really two different questions, one is about the development of the Talmud in Persia without much input from women. This is a major question. And a scholar, a frum scholar, I’m going to mention her name, Miriam Kosman, emailed me that this must be a topic, and she is absolutely right. Dr. Miriam Kosman, I believe she finished her PhD. And this really requires a whole nother topic to unpack, and one that I’m absolutely committed to do. Unfortunately, or fortunately, thank God, people are listening and they’re paying attention. But we are not able to keep pace of all the things that we need to get to, and hopefully we’ll be able to get to more with your continued listening and your continued support. We’ll be able to cover everything one day and we’ll close up shop, throw up two peace signs and say, “That’s the end of it.”

The last thing that he said about aspects of the Talmud that we do not consider authoritative for psak, this is another subject that absolutely fascinates me and one that we have touched upon in our interview, in our series on science and Torah with Rabbi Dr. Meir Triebitz. Rabbi Triebitz has a very innovative approach to this. I actually had a little bit of a hard time swallowing it. He doesn’t feel that these parts of the Torah that just have advice or medical ideas and solutions are actually Torah at all.

I think it merits an entire conversation to understand what is Torah, which is a conversation that I in fact had on our dear friend and my cousin Rabbi Efrem Goldberg’s podcast Behind the Bima. That interview was really a slug fest between me and him, a loving slug fest as all slug fests that I am involved in are of course, about the definition and parameters of Torah. It happened to be the topic that I spoke about on Shavuos night. How do we even define what Torah is and is not? The fact that it is not authoritative yet it is still canonized in the Talmud, what role does this in fact serve in? What does that tell us about the authority of the Talmud in general? That’s a major, major question.

So I really appreciated this email. It highlighted some of the things we’ve touched upon, some of the things we still need to get back to and deal with more sequentially. I hope, God willing, we’ll be able to have a series that focuses on just that.

I want to read another email that came from a friend. I’m not going to say his name. He did give me permission to read it. And it is one of the most moving and heartening emails that I have ever gotten and received. It’s a little bit long, and I hope you’ll bear with me. It’s extraordinarily powerful. I want to read it with you now.

“Your 18Forty podcasts have moved me, admittedly quite unexpectedly, and I wanted to express my gratitude. Thank you for having the difficult, necessary conversations I didn’t know I needed to hear. This was supposed to be a 10 second email but it turned into a Megillah. My apologies. It’s therapeutic for me to write this as if someone is going to read it. No pressure at all to read beyond here. And I’d appreciate it if you kept it between us, as I’m not very open about to this aspect of my life.” He gave me permission to share some of this. I’m not going to say his name. “I guess I feel kind of kinship with you via your podcast, as odd as that may sound.

“I became aware of 18Forty. When you launched the idea of it in an email blast from NCSY, but resisted consuming any of your content despite it being repeatedly referenced by friends over the years. Most likely it was out of arrogance. This Adam Grant tweet sums it up,” and he has a funny tweet about what type of content we’re willing to engage with and how we change our own curiosity. “I thought I was smarter, more open-minded, more worldly than the people recommending your content to me. I lacked and maybe still lack humility.”

I’m reading this because this resonates with me. I mean, anytime anything is popularly consumed, my first reaction is like, “No, thank you. This is not for me.” And I appreciated this admission because it resonated more than anything else with me in this email. It’s hard to create content that is able to resonate in a wide scale but that also has some nuance, sophistication. It’s what we strive to do. We don’t always nail it. And I almost think if 18Forty was recommended to me, I probably wouldn’t listen to it. It’d be like, “Ah, no, no, no, thank you. Like, I have fancy books to read. I’m not listening to some podcast.” And I listen to very few podcasts. So I do appreciate that.

He calls out a bunch of podcasts, has some very nice things to say about me, which I very much appreciated. But then he talks about what he is grappling with. “There is one topic I have personally been struggling with for quite some time now and has impacted me on both a spiritual and practical religious level. I bring this personal vulnerability up with you, basically a stranger, because two of your interviews briefly touched upon it and I was hoping would expound upon it but didn’t.” We’re not totally strangers to one another and he might kill me. I’m not going to give you any information for who this is, but we’re not totally strangers. I think if we saw each other in the street, we would definitely say hi to one another, even before this email. I think we would say hi, probably be like a nod or like maybe I would give one of those salutes. I sometimes salute people I don’t totally know, but I don’t think we would just walk by each other.

He continues. “First for me was your interview with Chaim Saiman,” this was part of the Talmud series, “where he mentioned that the early Christians were already questioning Torah Shebaal Peh and the focus on laws and ritual. I know nothing about that time period. And your interview with Ari Bergmann, where you guys discuss how people were given the authority to apply meaning to the Torah, to use specific rules to extend rather than invent the law. The Chaim interview scared me. Am I an early Christian? And the Ari Bergmann interview left me wondering how someone so intelligent, learned, and honest sounding, I don’t know him, could make that assumption without providing some sort of grounded basis for it. I just thought it begged to be explored more and was hoping you’d ask him more about that foundational belief, but you didn’t. But that is probably my bias because of my current journey.”

Just I’m going to pause here on this. Number one, he’s absolutely right. I should have pushed Ari much more on this and I want to say two things. Number one, I love Ari’s my number one teacher on this particular interview, and he’s one of the only guests that we’ve had on twice already. I remember there was a scheduling issue and he came a little bit late. I’m not blaming him, but I remember the interview felt very rushed. Anytime I sit with Ari, my preference is to sit for five hours and just talk forever. Obviously his book The Formation of the Talmud: Scholarship and Politics in Yitzhak Isaac Halevy’s Dorot Harishonim, which you can download for free from degruyter.com. Degruyter.com is spelled D-E-G-R-U-Y-T-E-R.com, which talks all about the development and the authority of the Talmud. It’s both a modern and an old story, hovers in the turn of the millennium in the first to eighth, ninth centuries, and also talks about the founding of the Agudah and how those two stories interconnect. Absolutely fabulous book and a must-read for those who want to go more in depth.

Ari also published a paper, which people I don’t think have read, about different approaches to how drashos work, particularly in the school of thought of the Vilna Gaon. The other thing I would mention for people who want to hear more from Ari on this is that he does have a website, which is Aribergmann.net. Ari Bergmann is A-R-I B-E-R-G-M-A-N-N.net. Two Ns, and Bergmann gets them every single time. You really want to check there. He has a long series on the development of the oral law, and I hope one day we are able to develop with Ari a special series on this that really takes you from the turn of the century and go through the history, the academics, all of the controversies, and weds it together with some of his incredibly creative Jewish thought that really has made me the Jew that I am today more than anybody else.

But let me continue with the email. That was just a brief interlude with some more references from Ari. “So here’s where I’m at,” he continues. “I believe in God without proof for his existence. I believe in the divinity of the Torah without prove of its divine origins. I have not yet been able to articulate why I believe in those things, but it’s likely a combination of pintele yid, Chassidus in general, something I have a weird relationship with, but I don’t know how else to describe the feelings about God and the Torah and chosenness of the Jewish people,” And too, why he believes in revelation, the complexity, awesomeness, and novelty of the Torah, “similar to how Reb Josh Berman described the revolution of the Torah in its historical context on your podcast,” back when we discussed biblical authorship, “but I had never really articulated that way before, more just had a sense of how it’s either created by God or a Renaissance man in a cave. And the former seems more likely to me because I’m skeptical a human could create it.”

So what does he struggle with? The email continues, and pardon me for reading this, but I think it’s really, really important. “I struggle with the authority of the rabbis, whether that authority is divine or as a sort of populist movement created by the people for the people. I struggle with authority, rabbinic or otherwise. I don’t care for people who unilaterally tell me what to do or how to live. So I’ve been on a journey of trying to get to a belief that the practical Orthodox Judaism we know today is what God wants and is intended for. I’m not convinced that’s the case. As I’ve explored this topic, I think that the core issue for me is believing in Torah Shebaal Peh being given at Har Sinai along with Torah Shebichsav and B, the unbroken chain of Mesorah, the Torah Shebaal Peh until it was codified and canonized in the Mishnah, the Talmud and beyond.”

Now that’s really complicated, and I responded obviously with an email and something that we can unpack more. I’m not sure what we mean necessarily when he says to Torah Shebichsav means the written law. We know what that means. That’s from Bereshit till the end of V’Zot HaBerachah, most notably, maybe also the writings of the Prophets and other writings. But Torah Shebaal Peh, the oral law means a lot of things, and not all of it was given at Sinai. That, the Rambam, Maimonides is clear about in his introduction to Pirush Hamishnayot how we extrapolated on the written law to create the oral law is something we must get into, and I have not done a good enough job kind of taking you from point A to point B.

I think our listeners have done a better job figuring out the holes over the course of this entire 18Forty journey, of saying you’re still missing these pieces. I mean, Mitch, my partner in all of this reminds me of this literally every single week. But we do need to do a better job to take you sequentially from point A to point B and say, how did this develop.

As a parenthetical, it continues, “I understand there are many facets to Torah Shebaal Peh. The 1906 Jewish encyclopedia characterize into eight different groups. So there may be different explanations to each, and I may be willing to accept that some of these were actually given at Har Sinai.” As I mentioned, this is exactly what the Rambam says. The big question is, of course, that most of the drashos we find in the Talmud, the Rambam, against the earlier sages known as the Geonim feels that they were created, they were constructed by the rabbis rather than retrieving them from Sinai. That debate, that conversation is one of the most important conversations in the development of the oral law. We have some resources on this when we discussed Talmud in general, but probably not enough. Jay Harris’s book, which we linked to when we discussed, I think, halakah, his book is called How Do We Know This? also details a lot of these discussions as well.

“I’ve been trying to understand,” he continues, “the historical context of Torah Shebaal Peh and what was known and debated and practiced prior to its canonization. What did practical Judaism look like if Torah Shebaal Peh was passed down from Har Sinai? I would think our practical Judaism would look more similar to what it did in ancient than medieval times. For example, was Shabbos then what it is today or was it just that you couldn’t walk too far or you couldn’t light a fire; you couldn’t carry; you couldn’t do your weekday work. But the 39 Melachos learned from the melacha in the Mishkan were not assur,” this is he’s suggesting, “because of my cynicism and skepticism of authority, I put together a story in my mind, that our practical religion may have been conceived by genius power-rich rabbis who are looking to protect their way of life.

“Basically, the Perushim were battling with other Jewish sects for primacy in the Second Temple and post-Second Temple times. Different sects had different beliefs as to what was divine and what wasn’t, what was central to the religious experience and what was just fringe, et cetera. The battles were in the interest of power and control over religious population that was dealing with external non-Jewish influences and each sect had different ideas about how to deal with those influences. For a variety of contextual circumstances, the Perushim won, whether that’s because of the influence of Roman leadership, other sects assimilating into other cultures, geographic dispersion, et cetera. And they won despite them being a relatively small group of Jews.

“The leaders of the Perushim became known as the rabbis and they claim to represent the interests of the middle and lower-class people, not the elite, noble priestly Jews who led other sects and may have been more temple ritual-based, i.e. upper class. And they had a dilemma.” Again, I’m still reading the email. He’s trying to figure out this is how I understand it. “And they had a dilemma. How do we make sure that what happened to other sects didn’t happen to us? How do we ensure Jewish continuity without the Temple and a central place of worship and community. At the same time, how do we make sure that wherever Jews go, they’ll be resistant to Christian and Islamic influences.

“Let’s codify the religion. Let’s create a set of rules that we could tie back to the Bible through hermeneutical principles that may have existed in other intellectual cultures to create a daily, monthly, and yearly schedule of ritual and practice so the religion pervades every moment of life. And let’s say that the hermeneutical principles were passed down from God at Har Sinai and the Torah actually gives us the power to do this so we cover our basis. If this is all true, it’s ingenious and deserves admiration. I can even understand that people would be willing to follow it religiously. But for me, as someone who is skeptical of authoritative figures and probably too skeptical of human nature and human goodness, and that needs to be explored in intensive therapy as with everything else.” He writes that in parentheses, gave me a smile. “This gives me great pause in accepting so much of what has become front and center in our religious practice and makes me constantly uncomfortable and phony living the life I’m living.

“I make all the typical rationalizations to keep doing what I’m doing. A religious Jewish community as a whole is a moral, ethical, and socially charitable environment to raise my kids and live in. So I put on tefillin; I chant the actual words of tefillas prescribed by the rabbis; I go through the annual holiday rituals, but I do this all with a sense of being dishonest.”

This email to me, and again, for those who hate my long intros, burn me at the stake, but this email for me really nailed it on the head with what I think so many people struggle with with rabbinic authority. It’s not malicious. It’s really grappling. What are we doing here every day?

“I’ve spoken to one rabbinic friend,” he continues about this, “and he said in a loving way that he thinks the arrogance which I’m projecting onto the rabbis is, well, a projection that I’m arrogant thinking I know better than the original rabbis were ill-intentioned and that they deviated from the divine script even if they were doing something righteous by saving their religion. And the way history has played out, that we exist today as Orthodox practicing Jews in the numbers and population and various geographies that we do, shows that we are a people of the Book, both biblical and rabbi, that the education and Torah Shebaal Peh-centric, the oral law-centric religion we’ve become is true and divinely ordained and couldn’t exist today, if not for the hands of God directing history through the Perushim and the rabbis and the canonization of religious practice and the shift of focus from the temple to education, et cetera, et cetera.

“I have not yet accepted this. It doesn’t satisfy me. I’m looking for something more concrete, something more historical, something to dispel my conspiracy theory about what actually happened and a better understanding of what biblical religious practice looked like. There is one thing I found this week in an article by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman on chabad.org, where he says almost as a parenthetical that the difference between the Sadducees and the Pharisees were that the Sadducees were an elite class removed from the common people, where the Pharisees were well-integrated with the working class, apparently has his roots in Josephus. Most were working people themselves. This is why the Romans saw the Perushim, the Chachamim as the only true representatives of the Jews at the time, and chose to deal exclusively with them. He says this from Lawrence Schiffman’s book From Text to Tradition.

“Essentially, the Perushim were a populous movement which was revolutionary at the time, considering the eliteness of the Sadducees and the class structure of Greek, Roman and other ancient cultures. Is this accurate? If so, it’s worth me exploring further because it could help me alleviate some of my concerns of the efforts being driven by basic human desires for influence and power, either way. So I’m wondering if you could help maybe point me in the right direction?”

Then he lists the following questions: “One, what are the earliest sources for the existence of Torah Shebaal Peh, that means the oral law. Two, what are the best sources for the divinity of Torah Shebaal Peh? Three, what are the sources for the unbroken chain of transmission, not just that it exists and is a fundamental belief in our faith like the Rambam’s Introduction to Mishnayos and the Iggeret of Rabbi Sherira Gaon, which I haven’t read and I’m looking for a copy in Rabinowitz’s English.”

You could find that in English. But he wants, what are the sources for this unbroken transmission? “Four? What are the sources for the divinity of Reb Yishmael’s 13 Principles of which basically all of Torah analysis and debate is based upon, that these are the hermeneutical principles that we create drashos with. Are these divine or were they appropriated from other cultures or created by the OG rabbis?” For those keeping score at home, that’s the second time I believe that we’ve used the term OG in the context of rabbis, again, OG, for those of our OG listeners means original gangsters. And obviously the OG listeners may not be familiar with the term OG.

“Does it matter? And finally, five, are there accounts, Torah-based or archeological historical of what practical Jewish religious observances was like before everything was canonized. I know this is a heavy email covering many different topics, and I have zero expectations for you to read it or address any of it. It was helpful for me to formulate my thoughts and deliver it to someone with the thought that it would be read by someone much more scholarly than me. If you’ve gotten to this point, thank you so much for reading. Regardless, thank you so much for 18Forty, keep having the difficult conversations.”

So I want to say two things. I’m obviously not going to say this person’s identity, but it’s not who you think it is, meaning in your mind, I’m sure a lot of people read this email and they’re thinking what this person looks like. It’s not who you think it is. That much, I am nearly a 100% sure of. This person looks like exactly you and I, whatever you look like, this person looks like. It is not somebody who’s walking in the street with old manuscripts and scrolls and tattered shirt and trying to figure out. This is a person who looks, sounds, and whose life looks like you and I. I really, really mean that. And that’s important to know.

Number two, this is a clarion call, A for the work of 18Forty, the work of the 18Forty community, for our listeners who are listening to this and have resources and have ideas. I am 100% committed to going through and getting the very best approaches to answer and respond to this email. I don’t even like the word answer. I frankly don’t like the word respond. Maybe to address, to be in dialogue with these questions. I think it needs to be done more thoughtfully, not as much in conversation. And really from beginning to end, how did the Judaism we know today come to be? I think there is a way to do this. I think there’s a way to do this with blending kind of the 18Forty more populist, more for-the-people approach without feeling like you’re going through thousands of pages of academic books, but at the same time can have sign posts in the road to tell people who are struggling with this because a lot of people are. Not everyone is, but a lot of people are.

Not everyone is able to just slap the “Thank You Hashem” bumper sticker on their car and say this is wonderful. This is great. Some people are really grappling with the truth in all of this. It is a privilege to be a recipient of an email like this, really, from the bottom of my heart. I am committed to really figuring out a better way to address this from beginning to end more sequentially, and I’m really calling upon our listeners to make suggestions. What’s the best way to go about this? I think something in text, a specific series, and it’s why I am so excited for our guest today.

Dr. Malka Simkovich teaches in Catholic Theological Union and is really an expert on what she calls early Judaism, I believe. I think some call it ancient Judaism. Nobody likes being called ancient. She is a phenomenal scholar, really, really a wonderful person whose expertise is on this early question. My biggest regret, frankly, is that not enough of our conversation together addresses these points. I wish they did. I think some of it does, but more of it should have, and God willing, if she’s willing and she doesn’t swear off 18Forty and say never, ever again, which I hope none of our guests do, but I’m always worried some of them will, we absolutely are going to return to a second conversation with her and other scholars, particularly in this area to start building this sequential path, really from this grand transition from Prophetic Judaism, as it is sometimes called, to Rabbinic Judaism.

That is a journey that we begin today with our conversation with Dr. Malka Simkovich.

I’m so excited to have you as a guest, Dr. Malka Simkovich. I always ask my guests, it’s a running joke in our podcast, are you comfortable with me calling you Malka?

Malka Simkovich:
Yes. You can absolutely. Please call me Malka.

David Bashevkin:
And you are-

Malka Simkovich:
Sometimes my kids call me Malka.

David Bashevkin:
You are the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies and the director of Catholic Jewish Studies program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, which is really just like a fascinating place to be situated. It’s not the universe and the world that you grew up in. What I really want to talk about today to begin with is an email that you and I both received from our mutual friend Jeff Bloom, who wrote an absolutely fascinating book called, and I might butcher the title, I’m not going to go out of frame to get the book, Strauss, Spinoza, Sinai, and Revelation. He sent us both an email. We both had the same response.

The email was essentially asking us to weigh in about how would you ground your faith in modernity, in this dialogue, this imagined dialogue between Leo Strauss, the philosopher, and Spinoza, neither of which you really need to know about to understand our conversation, but basically saying religion in the modern world has not been disproved, so to speak. So we should continue with our religious commitment even through modernity, and I’m overly paraphrasing. You could step in if you think you want to phrase it differently. He reached out to both of us asking us if we wanted to write an essay for this collected volume with all these wonderful thinkers, so many of whom have been guests on 18Forty, about how you ground your faith.

This was a topic that we discussed previously when we spoke about is religion rational, about what is the methodology that you used to ground your faith, but neither of us responded. Malka, let me begin. Why didn’t you respond? Why didn’t you contribute? Especially the volume, many have noted and Jeff himself is kind of frustrated by that there are not that many women contributors. Why didn’t you respond? Why didn’t you make a contribution talking about how you ground your faith?

Malka Simkovich:
First of all, can I call you David?

David Bashevkin:
Oh, that is too kind of you. Yeah. Please. I insist on it.

Malka Simkovich:
All right, David. So first of all, I responded right away. I, like the minority, I suppose, of academics did not reply all. I responded directly to Jeff and I did say that this is out of my purview. It’s out of my comfort zone. Anything past the fifth or sixth century for me is very dim. I like to work in the field that I’m comfortable with.

David Bashevkin:
Let me just jump in. What is your primary field? ancient Judaism? Is that how you would describe it?

Malka Simkovich:
We like to say early Judaism because ancient sounds a little antiquated or irrelevant. But yes, ancient, early Judaism. So that would be the fourth century BCE till around the fourth century CE. It’s the nexus of early Judaism, Rabbinic Judaism, early Christianity. Past the fourth century, like I said, it all gets a little dark. Certainly if you’re going to ask for contributors on a book about questions that Strauss was asking, I did not feel like I would be the ideal candidate for such a book. But when I reached out to Jeff, he did push back and he said, “I’m focused on the questions and not the discipline around Strauss and his life and writing specifically.” I just felt a little skeptical of that. So I said, “Let’s keep up a relationship, but you need to find somebody else for this book.”

David Bashevkin:
I don’t know if you feel comfortable sharing. We spoke briefly earlier and you shared with me a fascinating theory about the gender differences about how people respond to questions outside of their field. I also responded. I thought the email, and I love Jeff when we had him on, and I just thought the email was absolutely overwhelming. Like, I needed to read it four times. I’m like, if I can’t understand the invitation to contribute, I don’t think I’ll be able to make a meaningful contribution. But I was intimidated and I regretted it because I think it’s such an important question about grounding your faith. But just share with me, if you’re comfortable, you had a little bit of like a gendered theory about responses to these sort of invitations.

Malka Simkovich:
I guess I have to begin by apologizing to the many, many women who do not fall into this gross generalization that I’m about to share. So anecdotally, gender generalizations are never fair or accurate. Sometimes a little bit helpful in my anecdotal experience is that when an invitation lands in the inbox of a woman academic who could be very, very accomplished, and now I’m speaking really for myself and for the friends that I know, unless the woman receiving that invitation really feels confident and in control of the material that she’s being asked to produce or to respond to, usually there’s a degree of humility that will lead to her to politely refuse. Again, this is anecdotal.

But what I’ve seen is much more, I would say, prominent in the reverse, which is that I have many male colleagues who say yes to everything, whether it’s in their wheelhouse or not. There’s a certain level of confidence or a sense that of course I can go beyond my area of expertise and share my wisdom with the world and everybody will thank me for it. Again, it’s anecdotal, but I tend to say no unless I feel very confident and comfortable. I have many friends who feel the same way.

David Bashevkin:
I got such a kick out of it because I think I am so guilty of that. Even just the very notion of 18Forty, we’re having these conversations on all these major different issues. Just me in general, I definitely feel that there is a gendered component, though I don’t want to harp on this. I just got to kick out of it because I sometimes see it in myself, like David, who asks you to weigh in on… What gave you the idea that you should be weighing in on this or that you have the ability to weigh in on this? I think it’s definitely something we’re thinking about.

Malka Simkovich:
Well, I actually think it’s a great quality by the way. I think that the ability to be optimistic about things beyond your comfort zone… I think sometimes the situation calls for you to be bold and daring and to sort of jump out of where you want to be and learn something new and believe in yourself that you can find something that you can share with a broad audience even if it’s not your area. So I think it is a question of balance and checking one’s self to know when are you being arrogant? When are you being realistic? But I think it’s a very nice quality to get an invitation and say, “This is not my area of expertise, but I want to be a part of it.”

David Bashevkin:
Let me shift to the imagined response. We don’t have a response. You didn’t contribute. I didn’t contribute. But I did want to invite you to respond, and before I kind of hear how you would ground your own faith, I wanted to take you back to some of the responses we got in our first series because so many of them kind of ended… I wouldn’t call it a shrug. I think that’s too pessimistic, but they ended with a shrug of like, “Look, you can never be completely certain about the truth claims of your religion. You have to approach life from within the framework that you have it.” But it makes sense why somebody born in a Jewish household would choose Judaism and investigate Judaism and find some bounded, rational way to make Judaism work for them.

But I’m curious for you, your studies, your focus really is in the period where this question becomes so much more pressing and so much more real because when we look back and think about Judaism as this unending, broken chain that goes back to Sinai, you really study the evolution and development of the Judaism as we know it, the movement away from a Beis HaMikdash as the center of Jewish life, the temple, what scholars would call the cult practice of the temple, the temple being at the center. Yeah. I see you grimacing. Do you hate that term?

Malka Simkovich:
Oof. I don’t like it.

David Bashevkin:
I don’t like it either. It makes it seem like we’re like… I don’t know. It makes it sound like a cult, but that’s the term that is… I didn’t come up with it.

Malka Simkovich:
I know.

David Bashevkin:
I don’t want to be blamed for that.

Malka Simkovich:
You did not come up with it, David. I don’t like it though.

David Bashevkin:
But a religious life that almost seems unimaginable, like a otherworldly, like an ancient world. I know that’s not the term you want, but a world with prophecy, a world with open divine revelation as we have described, into the world as we know it now, which is the world that includes Tannaim and Amoraim, the sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud. It’s the world that we continue to inhabit, the world where God is apprehended not through open miracles and prophecy and sacrifices, but a God that is apprehended through kind of our own sense of self and thought and analysis and contending with a tradition that obviously came through revelation within our religious practice, but it’s the world we inhabit.

I wonder for somebody who studies this period and this transition and lives and identifies with the Orthodox world, is the contentions of how you justify the life you live different? You saw a very real change from the prophetic world described in the Bible to the world that was, and I’m using delicate terms, constructed, so to speak through the Mishnah and through the Talmud that we have now. I’ll end my question, which was it’s unwieldy, but I want to hear you on this.

My Rebbi, when I was in Ner Yisroel was Reb Ezra Neuberger. Reb Ezra, as he is affectionately called, one time told us, and I remember this so clearly, that the people around the Shabbos table, we have more in common with the greatest of the Tannaim and Amoraim than with a common peasant living at the time of prophecy. What did he mean by that? I think he meant that the operative universe that we inhabit now shares a clear link, the way that we anchor our own sense of self with the world of the Mishnah and the Gemara than the prophetic world that somebody inhabited in the time of, I don’t know, Har Sinai in the time of Avraham Avinu. It was a different experiential universe. You know, what Karl Jaspers calls the axial age, the shift away from that. So I’m curious for you who studies this period and sees how different religions maybe influence one another, who sees a clear shift in the way the universe operated. What effect does that have and how would you respond to that question of how you ground your own faith?

Malka Simkovich:
Wow. So that was many, many questions, and I’m not sure where to start. As you were speaking a few minutes ago, I was not thinking that I would ground my answer in the world of Second Temple Judaism. So I’m going to start by just speaking more in a contemporary lens, and then maybe I will bring it back to how my ideas have been impacted by the scholarship that I do.

So, first of all, I think that we’re at a very critical point right now. I mean, I’m sure that every generation of Jews says that, but I think that the time is ripe, the conversations that I’m hearing, particularly as they’re happening in the Centrist and Modern Orthodox communities, really, I think people are asking for a revision of the answers to an ancient question, which is what do we believe and what do we need to believe, right? What does an observant Jew need to believe? And so we know the Ani Maamins. We have our list of things, of course, these are centuries and centuries old, these lists of what you have to believe. I wonder whether we can and should think about, and I don’t want to say starting all over again, but what would it look like if we reconsidered what in the 21st century it means to be an observant Jew? So what do we need to believe?

I think very often what I see in my own community and what I see my children learning in school is that one of the most important things that an observant Jew needs to believe in is that God wrote every single word of the Tanakh or the Torah. I mean, the Tanakh, that’s ridiculous. Even the Gemara doesn’t say that God wrote every word of the Tanakh, but I do think that it’s sort of inculcated in my children, for example, that every word in the Tanakh is, to use a phrase that they’ve never heard, divinely sanctioned. But the point is that the divinity of the Torah is very, very central, I think, to a lot of what’s happening pedagogically in our community.

I’ve been trying to think about what would it look like if we maybe marginalized or sort of peripheralized that and said, “Okay, let’s just start from the beginning.” What do we need to believe? I believe in God, right? 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, of something that sets the people of Israel apart in a way that makes them so special that you can’t sort of undermine the sense of superiority of the people of Israel. Chosenness is a really, really problematic idea. 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. We’re 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:
So interesting. I think your depiction about the centrality of the divinity of the Torah is found much more in Modern Orthodox schools. There’s like more hand-wringing about that. I think that there has been a shift, particularly in the Hasidic community and the Yeshiva community, not in the theology of the chosenness of the Jewish people, but that as the primary underpinning. I think it’s beginning to trickle down in modern schools, too. I think if you go into a modern school in the tri-state area, I don’t want to mention names. It’s my school. I went to DRS. Kids don’t know a lick about the issues related to biblical criticism. It’s like the most feared subject, one that we’ve discussed to a great deal of controversy at 18Forty, but they can sing without any deep knowledge, but they do sing “Geshmak to be a Yid.”

I think that we build a lot of culture around the uniqueness of a Jew without grappling with why would you ever think it’s problematic? What makes a Jewish person unique? I think those questions bubble up when people are no longer in exclusively Jewish environments and see that non-Jews are also wonderful and decent. So it’s like, okay, I guess it’s geshmak, so it’s like cholent and like, I guess pre-gaming Friday night, whatever you associate your geshmakness with. They’re not dealing with the theological problematic aspect of it, but I want you to continue because it’s such an interesting starting point. Why is chosenness so important? Please continue.

Malka Simkovich:
Well, actually this does bring me to what you were trying to do in your first question, which is to ground it historically. I think that the idea of chosenness is maybe even more, I don’t want to say endemic, but sort of deeply, deeply embedded in our oldest texts. So chosenness even before you have a concept of divinely written Torah, whatever the Torah would meant in the Second Temple period is also up for debate. But chosenness you can’t open up the Torah and get away from this idea. Even if you think that the Torah was written by people and there’s some divine guiding hand, but maybe God did not write every single word, but still the idea of chosenness, it’s so endemic to who we are and it goes beyond the scriptures. But I would also just try to reframe what you were just saying because you were thinking about this as a problem.

I don’t know that chosenness election is… I would say not it’s not a problem. I would say it’s a question. So do you need, as an observant Jew, to answer every question. I think we live in a very intellectual world. Post-enlightenment, we’re living in a society where questions are meant to invite pursual, and here’s where a little bit I borrow from my Christian colleagues and this, I would say, I am deeply influenced by the context in which I’ve been working for the past 10 years.

I don’t know that we need to answer every question. I think that the category of mystery, rather than being a sort of source of embarrassment… If you say we have problems in our theological framework then it’s almost like you’re admitting this embarrassing flaw in your tradition that you can’t get around. But what if you framed it as, this is a truth claim that we make and there are questions within this truth claim that we approach through the lens of mystery? In other words, we’re limited. Our human brains cannot transcend the realm of the physical. We’ll never know what it is to think like God, to act like God, to be God. So that is where humanity meets the divine. We will not know. That’s okay. So is it a problem or is it a question?

David Bashevkin:
You say that you’ve been influenced from your Christian colleagues in the role of mystery? What do you mean by that? Are Christians more mysterious? Do they wear disguises? What are you drawing from?

Malka Simkovich:
I’m just a little dilettante in the world of Catholic theology. I don’t even know. I’m just barely scratching the surface here. But there are truth claims made, and now I’m speaking specifically about Catholic theology, when it comes to the nature of God and God’s relationship, I’m just going to say it, David, with Christ. Of course, I don’t believe in the messiahship of Jesus, but I’m saying Christ. So what is the nature of the Trinity? There are multiple mysteries in the Catholic tradition and actually one of those mysteries is the particular status of the Jewish people. Especially after the Second Vatican council, I don’t want to bore everybody with dates and the church’s history, but in 1965, when the church did suggest that the Jews can be saved outside of faith in Christ, well, there’s no way of answering how that works. So a lot of these documents that talk about the Jews that are modern documents, talk about it within the framework of mystery.

I read these documents and at first I would just sort of roll my eyes, like, what a lazy way to deal with really interesting questions. But I’m now starting to think that maybe it’s not lazy. Maybe there’s something very rich that invites investigation. But also mystery has this inherent humility to it. It doesn’t mean don’t look. It doesn’t mean don’t learn. It just means recognize the limitations with which we work. But just going back to my main idea here, I think the heart of Jewish belief is election. I actually do think that that’s very similar to the Catholic church as well because you’re saved through faith, right?

David Bashevkin:
Why isn’t election for you? Why does it need mystery? Why isn’t it an open-shut case that he elected us to enlighten the world, what people call tikkun olam; we’re a light unto the nations and our role is taking the word of God and the idea of revelation and spreading it to the world. We’re kind of the messengers; we’re the lamp-lighters, whatever analogy you want to use. Why do you even have to rely on mystery? Why isn’t that, oh, it’s like an open-shut case. Tikkun olam. Like, that’s the role and responsibility of the Jewish people.

Malka Simkovich:
There are many theologians who say that, yes, Israel was chosen to bring knowledge of God or whatever you want to call it, ethical monotheism, another phrase that’s super problematic. But yeah, there are many theologians who say the Jews were chosen to bring knowledge of God to the world, but why Israel? There’s a randomness to it. And then of course the rabbis retroactively tell us all kinds of stories about the uniqueness of Abraham, but let’s say you put all that aside. There’s just such a randomness to it. Why not anyone else? Why the Abrahamic family? Why us?

David Bashevkin:
It’s so interesting. I really want to get back to almost a more personal grounding because I have so many follow ups. One thing that I want to mention is this is a question that not enough people grapple with, but I think it tugs… For me at least, it’s theologically difficult. When look at a non-Jew solemnly praying to their particular God, do I think they’re doing anything or do I think they’re just kind of mumbling? When I look at the decency that I see in non-Jews, do I see them as a different genre, or some have even used the terrifying term species. To me, it uproots our notions of this universalistic, globalistic world that we live in that we’re sometimes some way better or special or different.

One formulation that I did like that I’m curious to hear you and how you’ve contended with it is the philosopher, Michael Wyschogrod, who said that part of the purpose of election is to highlight the very importance of particularity itself, of what it means to have a particular love, which I think as a society we’re grappling with where in some ways, during the civil arrests on rising specifically around Black rights, there was a lot of conversation about Black Lives Matter versus all lives matter. To me, all lives matter is a very Christian framing. It’s universal. Everybody counts. I think what Judaism brings to the world is the importance of a particularistic love, so to speak Black Lives Matters, Jewish lives matters, whatever corner you’re in, but the importance of being particularistic as a part of world development and self development. Does that resonate with you?

Malka Simkovich:
Mm-hmm. Absolutely. So yes, what you’re referring to, I think, is this debate between Wyschogrod and David Novak about how to understand the Torah. So Novak really doesn’t like Wyschogrod and argues that you have to read the Torah as bearing a universal message that resonates with all of humankind. Now, of course he doesn’t deny the unique relationship between Israel and God, but there is this universality that’s at the core of the Torah’s message. Wyschogrod says, “No, thanks.” Like you said, election highlights this particularity of God, and also it’s interesting because I did find a passage in one of Wyschogrod’s books, I don’t remember which one, where he actually uses the word mystery, but then like leaves it. He doesn’t develop it, but basically even Wyschogrod says, “Look, I don’t know why the Jews versus anyone else,” but yes, he leans into the particularity of the Torah’s story.

Now as for the word universalism, I wrote a book on universalism and I hate the word now. Like, every time somebody says universal, I just roll my eyes and I get very sleepy. First of all, nobody defines universalism. I think even in our own community, many of our Jewish friends think about universalism through a Christian lens, by which I mean like you just said, this value that we can all sort of dissolve the boundaries which separate us and all ultimately work towards this redemptive era during which we’re all the same. I don’t actually think that that’s inherent to our traditions. If universalism is the openness towards others entering into the covenantal community, well, guess what? That’s particularist because essentially what you’re saying is unless you convert or you transform into what I am, you will not be saved. So that’s particularism. So we don’t define these terms, and I don’t mean any disrespect to Lord Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks because this is his favorite word, and it resonates. People feel good when they think about the universalist message of the Torah.

But first of all, there are major definitional problems with this word. I think that Wyschogrod is right to say, “Listen.” Particularism and universalism, our first mistake is thinking about these as being in tension with each other. How can you lean into the particularist message of the Torah without undermining what we all know to be true, which is that God is the universal God who cares for all of humankind. So I think the first step is to not treat these categories like they’re in tension with one another.

There’s just one other thought that I had. I’m not sure whether I could really tie it into what you just said, but I think that there are many, many members of the Orthodox Jewish community who say, “Yeah, universalism is fine. It’s just not for me.” Like, my life is particularist, but everyone outside of our community, you can have the inter-religious dialogue; you can have the ecumenical dialogue; you could sing kumbaya in a field of lilies. It’s not our thing, but Gesundheit, do whatever you want.

But I think that pretty much all, unless you’re like living under a rock, all observant Jews are contending with the outside world whether they’re doing it consciously or not, there is an engagement with the world out there. There’s no way to not form your own identity based on what’s outside of it. So the Orthodox youth who say to me, “Well, I don’t know why you have to talk to them,” the Catholics or the Christians or whatever. “Isn’t it enough for you just to be an observant Jew?”

It’s a frustrating thing to hear because I think that what hasn’t been recognized is the degree to which we’re all thinking with people outside of our own community in our own minds. That is, in a way, a universalist way of thinking. All of which is to say that particularism and universalism can lead us down the wrong path. I don’t like these categories. I don’t think that they’re useful. I think that they suggest that there are these things that are pulling us all the time in opposite directions. I’m very sympathetic towards Wyschogrod trying to restore the integrity of particularism to our own lives. I think he has misread those who think that he’s doing it at the expense of universality. I think he’s misread. I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

David Bashevkin:
Let me continue with your line of thinking, grounding the centrality of the election of the Jewish people. Let me contrast it with the Malka Simkovich that I, we don’t know each other all that well, but the life that you live in 2022. You study texts that describe a world from what you said is the fourth century BCE, 400, 4,000 years before. No, right? BCE. 400 years before the destruction of the temple to 4… No.

Malka Simkovich:
Well, I mean-

David Bashevkin:
400 or 4,000?

Malka Simkovich:
I was saying 400 BC to 400 CE, but really because I’m not working with the Yeshivishe dates that I got from Mrs. Svei, from Rebbetzin Svei in 1998. She was my Tanakh teacher, Chumash teacher. So I mean, really to be more accurate, I would just say the Second Temple period. So 530 A-

David Bashevkin:
The Second Temple period.

Malka Simkovich:
-to 70 CE, but a little bit past 70 CE.

David Bashevkin:
Let me articulate the question this way. And Rav Tzadok, who has been the muse of my scholarly interests really since I was in my early 20s, he really contends with this a great deal as well. You spend your time studying texts and the civilization, the Jewish people around that era. Yet you live now as an Orthodox Jew to great financial costs, to great time costs, social costs and all that stuff in the year 2022. How do you square the fact that near so many of your religious commitments, whether they cost you money or time or focus, but it’s a real investment. It’s a real investment. How do you square that focus if you are spending all of your time in the world that’s described in Second Temple period Judaism, that’s a tongue twister… It doesn’t feel like the Orthodox Judaism that we practice today. It doesn’t.

I mean, Rav Tzadok writes this explicitly about the centering of rabbinic law. It’s almost seems otherworldly, like that question I began with of having more in common in terms of the world we inhabit with the Tannaim and Amoraim than a common peasant in the world of the flourishing of prophecy. How do you square the Orthodox life you live in 2022 with the world that once existed in the Second Temple era, the First Temple. How do you find it nourishing? Why do you invest all of this time if you really immerse yourself in that academic study, it doesn’t require all of this.

Malka Simkovich:
It’s funny. When I decided to go for a PhD in early Judaism and Second Temple Judaism, a lot of guys, a lot of male friends in my community who were also thinking, we were in our early mid-20s and also thinking about PhDs saying, “If you’re going to do a PhD in Jewish history, the only thing that you can really go into is medieval Judaism,” because anything else is really heretical. If you do modern, then already you’re dealing with all kinds of heresies and if you’re doing Second Temple period, just forget it. The only thing that’s kosher is medieval Judaism. Write a dissertation on the Tosafos. I do have friends who’ve done that.

I actually totally disagree with the premise of that question. There’s so many ways to respond to this. I mean, first of all, what does it mean to have a normative Judaism? It didn’t just pop up the day that the Second Temple fell, that the rabbis looked around and said, “We have no Temple. Okay. Let’s form something out of nothing. And oh, look, here’s an oral tradition that just fell from the heavens into our laps and now we’re all living this normative halakhic atmosphere.” I mean, nothing happens like that. In the Second Temple period, Judaism is like you implied, experimental. It’s playful; it’s creative; it’s diverse, but there is a core of normative Jewish practice that is ancient, shockingly ancient.

So all of our evidence suggests that by the second century BC, if you were going to identify as a Jew, you would keep kashrut. What does that mean? How did they keep dietary laws? Okay. They didn’t keep it in the ways that we keep it today. But there was an oral tradition developing and they were keeping dietary laws. They were circumcising their sons. They were keeping Shabbat. And by that early stage, there was an oral tradition developing about how to do that. They were gathering regularly to read their scriptures. Probably again, by the second century BCE there was a firm Torah, the Pentateuch, the first five books were fixed.

David Bashevkin:
Clearly canonized.

Malka Simkovich:
Yeah. I’m not going to say the same for Ketuvim for sure. Maybe not for Nevi’im necessarily, but certainly the Torah. So all of this is to say that there is a core of what we call common Judaism. And what’s remarkable about that is that really from the very beginning of the Second Temple period, from the end of the sixth century BCE, Judaism or what becomes Judaism is global. In other words, after the Judeans are kicked into exile in the beginning of the sixth century BCE, you never have the Judeans back in one place altogether ever, ever again. So Jews are migrating, Judeans at this stage. They’re migrating. They’re moving.

And yet there’s a common memory, right? Now this goes back to what I was saying a half an hour ago. What is the memory? God chose us. They’re sharing the same stories. They’re reading the same scriptures. They’re maintaining a cohesiveness even though there’s no internet; there’s no phone. But they’re all over the world, thousands of miles away from each other. And yet they’re remaining cohesive, mainly because of this idea, this radical idea that they share scriptures which tell a story and the story focuses on God’s chosenness, and what do these Jews do, whether they’re in Alexandria or whether they’re in Eastern regions by the Tigrisor whether they’re in Antioch, in Syria… What do they do? They actively and playfully and experimentally interpret the scriptures. This is the beginning of Midrash.

Now I really think diaspora Judaism gets a horrible reputation and I blame it all in Hanukkah because Hanukkah, my worst holiday, Hanukkah, because Hanukkah enforces this false binary between the Jews in Judea who are preserving the authentic tradition and every other clown outside of Judea who infiltrates the Judean culture with their horrible Hellenism. This is just not historically accurate. And I want to say one more thing. I know I’m saying a lot of things.

David Bashevkin:
No, I’m fascinated by this. Keep going.

Malka Simkovich:
But the point that I really want to make is that… So first of all, it’s incorrect to say, if you were outside of Judea, you were more likely to assimilate or you were corrupted by Hellenism or you weren’t authentically Jewish. But even if you wanted to assimilate, even if you said, “All right, from this day forth, I am no longer Chiskiyahu, I’m Aristobulus.” You are no longer living as a Jew. And this is very resonant for 2022. Even if you wanted to assimilate, the Greeks didn’t let you; the Romans didn’t let you. So we have evidence of Jews who are apostates, Jews who are abandoning the observance of ancestral laws outside of Judea and in Judea. No matter what these Jews do, guess what? The Greeks and the Romans are still treating them as Jews, outsiders misanthropists.

We know that in the year 38 CE there were anti-Jewish pogroms in the city of Alexandria, the city where maybe there was the highest level of cultural assimilation on the part of Jews. Again, I’m never going to go so far as to say that all the Jews of Alexandria were assimilated. That’s just not true. But they were acculturated. They participated in all aspects of society. They were involved in politics. They were involved in culture and art and theater, and that’s the heart of anti-Jewish violence in 38 CE.

David Bashevkin:
That’s pre-Christianity.

Malka Simkovich:
Oh yeah. pre-Christianity. Yeah. I mean, Jesus might have been crucified, but there’s no Christianity in 38 CE. This is Rome. This is Rome. I mean, of course, you know after 70 CE, every single Jew throughout the Roman empire had to pay a tax, the fiscus Judaicus, for what happened in Judea. Jews cannot escape their Jewishness wherever they are. Because they cannot escape their Jewishness, many of them lean into their Judean, their Jewish identities, not just in an apologetic way, but in a very proud way. Like, this is who we are. It’s circular, of course. This is who we are. And so that’s how they’re treated. That’s how they’re treated. So they say, this is who we are.

But this dynamic is very resonant for contemporary times, and the way that Jews cope with their very complicated relationship between diasporan and Judean Jews, between Jews and Greeks… The way that Jews cope with these complicated relationships is they look back at their scriptures creatively. They’re looking for lessons that tell them something about how to live their lives in their own day. So the experimenting, the playfulness of Second Temple Judaism, to me, this does not undermine anything about how I live as an observant Jew. It’s nourishing. It’s inspiring. I also think it’s normative. This is what it is to be a Jew today.

David Bashevkin:
It’s so comforting to hear the way you describe it. You know, there’s a part of me and I’ve always been kind of a curious cat and like looking, going down all these rabbit holes. One of the rabbit holes I find most frightening is the rabbit hole of what was Judaism like in early Judaism, in ancient Judaism, whatever you want to call them, the Second Temple period, because there’s a part… I think there’s a very conscious effort that began already in the times of the Mishnah and the Talmud to superimpose the Judaism that they had in that period onto earlier periods, onto Avraham Avinu, Yitzchak, Yakov, and they knew they were doing it.

It was conscious, but it’s come to a point now where you’ll have children’s books that show period wearing bekishes and shtreimels and contemporary Hasidic wear in the Second Temple period, which to me would make me nervous because it’s like, what don’t they want me to know? They don’t want me to know that really this was, God forbid, fabricated. What they don’t want me to know is that it was, God forbid, invented and what you are saying and what I really think that you model and you so passionately articulate is that no, this was not invented, but it also, you keep using the word playfulness, like, this is the very product of Judaism. This is the very focus of negotiating our particularity, a word you don’t love, our electedness throughout history.

But let me come back to a question and I’m curious how you weigh in on that, meaning if so much of the preservation of Judaism has to do with what we’ve accrued over exiles and different periods, does it ever feel to you just like a cultural club? Like, where does the divine imperative come to you from? The way it’s phrased to me by the person who is really my partner in everything we do on 18Forty, and this question erodes his… It gnaws at him. It sucks away the life of his Jewish commitment, is he always says, “It feels to me like the Raccoon Lodge.” Like, we’re just a really big country club. We’re just a really big… I don’t know, we’re just like a nice cultural movement. But we don’t have any claim to divinity anymore than, forget other religions, but I don’t know, than any other cultural association and whatever, civic club, the bowling league you belong to.

So where do you find the divinity, if not through tracing a direct line of practice from 2022 to the Second Temple period, that what I do now is exactly modeled by what was done then? Where do you find the divinity in where you do now, if that line doesn’t in fact extend sequentially?

Malka Simkovich:
I mean, that is the biggest question. I don’t know that I have a satisfactory answer, but I think again we have to ask the question and I think the question really is what does it mean to be authentic? What does it mean to practice in a way that connects you back to the divine intent as it was given if you believe in revelation at Sinai. So I do think here, it might be useful to distinguish between belief and practice. Not to get too trite, but I think that the story of the Oven of Akhnai is a great example of the ways in the, which the rabbis really leaned into the idea that they had the agency to do radical new things. The rabbis self-consciously do that. They know that the way that they’re practicing Judaism is not the way that the Israelites in the time of Moshe practice, whatever it is, you would call it Israelitism. So the rabbis are sensitive to that.

Also the Jews in the Second Temple period are… And I think that the most important period of Jewish history is also the darkest one, and that’s the Babylonian exile. The way that they come back is not the way that they left. We kind of have a sense of what life is like, or at least what the prophetic divine expectations are of the people as they depart Judea in 597 to 586, suddenly they come back and it’s like, I don’t want to make a bad analogy to someone who returns from captivity, but there are contemporary stories of someone being in captivity for years and they come back; they’re a different person. There’s literally a new person that you’re dealing with after trauma. I do think, I’m not a psychologist, but I do think that when the Judeans, of course it’s a new generation after 70 or so years, they come back and you’re dealing with a new community, not just physically. They’re the children or grandchildren of those who left, but also just psychologically and in terms of how they inter-relate with God and their self understanding.

So this is the darkest period of our history. It’s also the most transitional. Some say that the synagogue was invented in Babylonian exile. Who knows? But the point is that something changes. In the Second Temple period, the Jews, or Judeans, again, imbue themselves with the agency to sort of take matters into their own hands and develop their practices in a way that just doesn’t exist beforehand. I can’t give you the answer, the key to the mystery of the Babylonian exile, but something seriously changes. That’s why I think, take, is our belief so embedded in practice, like, is who we are embedded in what we do? Maybe not. Maybe we can say, well, that is artificial. It doesn’t come from Sinai. It doesn’t come from God. Okay. That developed over time, beginning in the early years of the Second Temple period; the rabbis developed it further, but it doesn’t have to go back to God.

Let’s focus on belief, though, because there is a continuum there, the idea that Israel is chosen. That goes back, back, back, back, back; that obviously predates the Babylonian exile, obviously predates maybe even the first temple. It is so ancient. It’s the heart; it’s the core. It’s the everything. That’s the continuum for me that makes me feel connected to everything. It’s the chosenness. It’s the election. It’s not in the practice. So yes, I keep kosher and I live as an observant Jew, and I do that to identify myself with this community. But the community, for me, the value lies not in the practice. It lies in this special relationship that we have with God that is characterized by mystery.

David Bashevkin:
I was thinking, I don’t even know if I’m going to go forward with this next question. Like, this would be insane for me to ask you, but I’m thinking about going, and if you don’t like it, I could absolutely cut it out. But I’m looking at you now. We’re not sharing the video for this, though we certainly could. It’s a lovely video. It looks to me, and this is the part that’s insane, that you cover your hair and you clearly are dressed in the normal standards of contemporary Orthodox modesty. I’m curious almost from like a personal level, like, you sacrifice a lot for this idea of being connected to this initial election. And why, if you don’t have a more invested framing of the practice in the way that you are describing it, then aren’t you fatigued? There are so many other communities that ask less of you.

So why is Malka Simkovich like, I don’t know, I could preserve the election idea, which is a beautiful and very divine idea, by doing so much less. So what keeps you going, if you know there are so many other alternatives? Why not just like… And I’m not asking you nor encouraging you to tear off your sheitel and like… But like what situates you in the Orthodox community when it is fatiguing, when it is demanding so much of you? Why not switch? Maybe this has to do with a little bit, like you did maybe evolve a little bit from the… You mentioned that Rebbetzin Svei was your Chumash teacher. I don’t know who your children’s Chumash teacher is, but did you evolve? Is that part of that conscious evolution, and what keeps you going today if your idea is hinged on something so essential that could be manifested in so many other ways?

Malka Simkovich:
Wow. I’m going to try to answer this. It’s very hard to get personal on a podcast that’s going to be disseminated so publicly. So I have to be careful with how I move forward. I don’t think that halakhic practice is meaningless. I just don’t think that every halakah is inherently meaningful. Does that make sense?

David Bashevkin:
Tell me more.

Malka Simkovich:
The meaning of halakhic observance doesn’t lie in sort of this inherent… I’m not going to sit here and tell you that there’s inherent meaning, but there’s social meaning and that’s not nothing. By social, I don’t just mean, oh, I’m doing it because everyone else does it. It does connect me to a community, I think in a higher transcendent way; I think in an ancient way. That doesn’t mean that it’s taking me back to Sinai.

I’m going to say something very cynical, but then I’m going to try to couch it in maybe more less cynical terms. I like to talk about frum points. Frum points is a social currency that I use in my world. When I wear a sheitel, which I’m wearing now, and I’m wearing a certain long sleeve shirt or whatever, skirts always, those are frum points that I’m accruing. Then I spend them. 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, like 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-

David Bashevkin:
No.

Malka Simkovich:
-you can’t go into debt. You can’t go into debt. And so my world is very transactional. I mean, 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 like 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.

Now, that said, I don’t think that these things are just superficial. It’s very hard for me to talk about this further because there’s also the whole gender piece, which I do think is very modern. I actually don’t see it as being like inherent to halakha in the most sort of timeless sense. I think it’s very social, contemporary, and I also think a lot needs to be changed.

So when we’re talking about things that women do, in capital letters, there’s a lot of change that I want to see, that I hope to see. So that is sort of its own thing. But when it comes to me practicing as a halakhic Jew, it does connect me to my ancestors, again, not to pre-exilic revelation at all, personally. It does connect me to something higher and transcendent, but I don’t think that there is inherent meaning in a lot of these things. This is a very, very hard question. I think I’m going to stop there.

David Bashevkin:
No, I appreciate it. I do like the distinction that you are making. I would paint it not as broadly, but I do think there are two different systems that are both at play that have an overlap. There is one system, which is in terms of our practice that is frum points. That’s much more socializing you to a contemporary Jewish community. There is another set of halakhic practice, and there is an overlap in these two circles that is socializing you to a divine idea, keeping kosher social… There’s an experiential component even in the frustration. Like, “I can’t eat anything here.” That frustration has a divinity in it. I think it is by design some of the frustrations.

But I think where some people’s frustration and when they look at halakha as overly taxing or Jewish practice as overly exhausting, it is when they confuse the two or don’t see the purpose of the two. I think there’s a purpose to Frum points also on the communal level. If everyone is just kind of practicing what connects them to the divine idea, I think a lot of the locus of our communal practice would be frayed or would erode quite quickly. I just want to say you paused fairly quickly there and your mind is really straying elsewhere. Like, you look like there’s an emotional heaviness to what you just shared. What’s going through your head right now?

Malka Simkovich:
I don’t even know if I should answer that. Look, this is a very hard thing to talk about. I’m happy to talk about it on an academic sort of intellectual level, but I have a family and I have children who go to Arie Crown Hebrew Day School. I have to be very careful about what I say for their sake. Not that I’m so important that anybody is really going to be sharing this with the principal of Arie Crown. I’m pretty sure he has other things to do. This is just… This is…

David Bashevkin:
Let me phrase it this way. In your home, the way you ground your faith, does it bother you that you send your kids to a school that may do it in a different way? Is that something… If you were in charge of the school, would you teach a seven-year-old differently?

Malka Simkovich:
No. I think that as our brains grow and as we mature, we become prepared for certain questions that young children are not prepared for. But I’m very particular about this. I hide a lot from my children. Topics such as the Holocaust, I’m very intentional. Not that I can control it perfectly, but I’m very careful about what they have access to, what information they have access to, at what stage. I’m very protective. I think that developmentally a five or six-year-old doesn’t need to know. Again, I know many educators disagree with me, but my six-year-old just asked me… He heard about the Holocaust, of course as Yom HaShoah, and he said, “How many Jews were killed?” And I said, “Many Jews were killed.” And he said, “I need a number.” And I said, “It was a very big number, Gavriel.” He said, “Was it 2,000?” I said, “It was 2,000 or maybe even more than 2,000.” I’m not going to tell him 6 million. What kind of number is that for a six-year-old. How could you even… An adult can’t comprehend what 6 million is.

I think that there’s a certain easing into a nuanced, complicated religious life. I’m on the arc too, and I’m middle age. So I think that as we move, we have to be moved by our mentors gently and slowly. I’m in no rush to talk to my children about how I read Midrash, and honestly, who cares? Because for me, again, I want to marginalize all of that authorship business. We put so much weight on the question of who wrote this text or that text, and then the house of cards falls and then people fall with it. I think if we centralize the fact that God chose us for a special relationship, we can’t understand what that means, but we have to thank Hashem for it every day. I can tell that to my six-year-old. He gets something from that. And then when he’s 10 and when he’s 15 and 20, he’ll reapproach that idea in new ways. I’m very controlling, though, with how I talk about it.

David Bashevkin:
This has been absolutely fascinating. The fact that you’re willing to share and did share means a great deal. I’m curious as somebody so immersed in the Second Temple period, which I do find so absolutely fascinating, what are the texts and studies that you go to nourish your own religious commitment? Do you go to the academic study of Second Temple? Is your academic life nourishing your personal religious life, or is it a separate set of texts, so to speak?

Malka Simkovich:
That’s a great question. I’ve just recently realized I’ve never been trained in theology. I’ve just been sort of pretending. Like, we talked at the beginning of the hour of people who just sort of fake it till they make it. Certainly in my space of Catholic-Jewish dialogue, I have to pretend to have some facility in the world of Jewish theology. But I only realize, I think at the beginning of the pandemic that I need to formally educate myself when it comes to contemporary theology. So I’ve bought, I wouldn’t say I have a library, but I’ve bought books. My Friday night reading is now contemporary Jewish theological writers. I’ve really been drawn to Tamar Ross. I mean, who understands what she says? The few times that I get it, though, I’m just blown away.

So there are writers that I’m still sort of encountering as a new reader. I would say she’s probably at the top of that list. So I do need to do more of that, I think, to really sort of ask those questions but also familiarize myself with those who, there are people out there who are asking these same questions as well.

David Bashevkin:
I cannot thank you enough, really, just the work that you do is absolutely fascinating. I hope that someday the contribution, even though it doesn’t appear in that volume, appears in some other place. Reflecting on the world that you study and the world that you currently inhabit and figuring out a way to create a bridge between those two worlds is some of the biggest important questions that we’re all doing in some way or another in our own lives.

I always wrap up my interviews with more rapid-fire questions. My first question, which is almost the easiest, is if somebody wants to learn more about this ancient world that you are describing, give me some of the books. This is specifically for people within the Orthodox world, myself included. I look at this academic world of this period as being very frightful, very like faith-eroding rather than faith-building. So I’m wondering what would you recommend for somebody who wants to understand and really reach out and connect and touch with that ancient world of Judaism that you study every single day?

Malka Simkovich:
I’m going to do the thing that is the most obnoxious practice of academic-

David Bashevkin:
Recommend your own book. Do it.

Malka Simkovich:
Exactly.

David Bashevkin:
I usually don’t let people do it if the whole conversation kind of circled around their book, but we didn’t do that this time. So you have earned that. There should be another currency. It’s not frum points. It’s like academic points. Academics can spend their points by recommending their own book, at times, you can’t use it too many. Where should we start? Tell me.

Malka Simkovich:
Okay. So thank you. It’s very gracious. My book is Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism. But of course there are many, many amazing scholars of this period. Actually, Larry Schiffman comes to mind, Lawrence Schiffman, Isaiah Gaffney, Erich Gruen. By the way, I feel bad because now I’m naming men. There are many women scholars as well who are experts and wonderful writers as well. I would caution listeners from over-focusing on the Dead Sea Scrolls. I think the Dead Sea Scrolls are the worst thing to have happened to the Second Temple period because everyone knows about them, but the Sea Sea Scrolls are sectarian and extreme and represent about a 100 people. So if you want to learn about this period, don’t go to the Dead Sea Scrolls right away. That’s not representative. It’s like going to Kiryas Joel curiosity and saying, “Oh, I’ve just learned about American Judaism.” Don’t do it. I mean, do it, but do it at that last stage-

David Bashevkin:
It’s a part of the story, but it’s not the whole story.

Malka Simkovich:
Exactly.

David Bashevkin:
Correct.

Malka Simkovich:
Exactly. So there is a lot out there.

David Bashevkin:
Yeah. Shout out to our listeners in Kiryas Joel. For real. For real, for real. We have listeners, thank God, all over, but yeah. No one community, especially a more sectarian, what would we would describe now as extreme community is representative of what’s going on with everybody. I think that’s a fair warning and analogy.

My next question, and this is always strange to ask and so many of our guests already have PhDs, but my question is if somebody gave you a great sum of money and allowed you to take a sabbatical or as long as you needed to go back to school and get a second PhD, you already have one, my Lord, covering all of your responsibilities that you need, what do you think the subject and title of that PhD would be?

Malka Simkovich:
Not even a question. It would be musicology. It would be 19th-century music theory. No question about it.

David Bashevkin:
I love the surprising answers. That did surprise me. 19th-century musicology.

Malka Simkovich:
Well, my BA is in music theory and I almost got a PhD. I mean, I almost applied. I did not apply, but I almost applied for a PhD in musicology. This was my big love as an undergraduate, and I gave it up and I really hope one day to go back to it.

David Bashevkin:
Can you play an instrument?

Malka Simkovich:
I am a pianist. Yes.

David Bashevkin:
Uh-huh. Fascinating. Okay. I know precious little about musicology, except when like-

Malka Simkovich:
Me too.

David Bashevkin:
-it sometimes comes up in Jewish thought, like interesting. But that’s absolutely, absolutely fascinating. My last question, I’m always curious about people’s schedules. What time do you go to sleep? And what time do you wake up in the morning?

Malka Simkovich:
That is such an interesting question. I’ve never been asked it. Can I just say what I want to be like? And then I’ll tell you what I am like.

David Bashevkin:
Please.

Malka Simkovich:
I want to be the person who gets up at 4:45 AM, who has a bowl of avocados.

David Bashevkin:
Yeah.

Malka Simkovich:
It’s like set on a window sill by the sunlight and another bowl of lemons and like it’s in a wooden bowl.

David Bashevkin:
And a hard-boiled egg sliced up. Yeah.

Malka Simkovich:
Right. And then like I want to be that person that writes for two hours and then by 7:00 AM, the writing is done. The house is clean. The children like-

David Bashevkin:
Focus on your correspondence or something, two hours set aside.

Malka Simkovich:
Right. With like a very fancy pen. I’m not that person. My habits are horrible. I go to sleep after midnight. I mean, I go to sleep between, I guess, 12:15 to 12:30. That’s normal. Sometimes it’s later. I wake up, I struggle out of bed between 6:30 and 6:45. This is bad. I don’t recommend this to anyone. I really, really want to get up, and I want a bowl of lemons in my house. So if anyone can do that for me, my birthday is in September, and I want to live that life. Yeah.

David Bashevkin:
Malka, I cannot thank you enough for sharing, for coming on. It means so much to me. Again, our listeners will definitely appreciate it. Your scholarship, your stories, your experiences are incredibly fascinating, uplifting and inspiring. Thank you again so much for today.

I don’t know if you’re even still listening there. That was one of the longest introductions that I ever did. So I forgive anybody who desperately wants to skip this outro. You have my permission.

I think the very end of this interview hit very hard and addressed some of the questions that we explored in the early beginning. Not everyone’s going to like them. Some people might downright hate them or call them, that they’re outside of the canon, heresy, whatever you want to call it. But I do think it gives a path.

Number one, I found it so deeply moving that she’s able to really understand what early Judaism looked like and that our traditions really stretch back all the way. To me, that is a deep, deep comfort, and one that I hope to explore with more and focus on more in the future.

But secondly, I think the admission at the end of what is sociologically motivated. Not everything that I do that is sociologically motivated am I cynical about. Some of it, I am; some of it, I don’t take all that seriously. But any movement, any community is going to have sociological elements around it, surrounding it, preserving it. That’s a part of how we stay together as a people, as Kenesses Yisroel. I think it was very brave, very courageous, and extraordinarily honest of her to talk about that and share that and that, while not being the capital-T Truth, that could be the lowercase-T truth for people, that the way that they’re able to feel comfort and authenticity in their Jewish life is knowing what is theologically, divinely motivated and what’s maybe sociologically motivated. You could be a good Jew and not know how to play floor hockey despite what nearly every single Modern Orthodox Jewish school tells you. There are things that we do that are sociologically motivated, and it doesn’t need to erode the divinity that is otherwise grounding our faith and practice.

So thank you so much for listening. This episode, like so many of our episodes, was edited by our team member and friend Denah Emerson. It wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a little bit of Jewish guilt. So if you enjoyed this episode or any episode, please subscribe, rate, review, tell your friends about it. You could also donate at 18forty.org/donate. It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. You can also leave us a voicemail with feedback or questions that we may play on a future episode. That number is 917-720-5629. Again, that voicemail is 917-720-5629.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic or some of the other great ones we’ve covered in the past, be sure to check out 18forty.org. That’s the number 1, 8, followed by the word forty, F-O-R-T-Y.org, where you can also find videos, articles, and recommended readings. Thank you so much for listening and stay curious, my friends.