Exploring universal Judaism with Rabbi Oury Cherki

Intellectual Rabbi Oury Cherki speaks about universal – not cosmopolitan – Judaism, and ‘Holiness and Nature,’ his book now available in English.

 RABBI OURY CHERKI: Sees Israel as ‘the heart within the body of nations.’ (photo credit: URIM PUBLICATIONS)
RABBI OURY CHERKI: Sees Israel as ‘the heart within the body of nations.’
(photo credit: URIM PUBLICATIONS)

Rabbi Oury Cherki is difficult for an educated Israeli to pigeonhole. 

One might assess his rabbinical appearance and correctly surmise that his alma mater is Mercaz HaRav, the flagship religious-Zionist institution of the 1970s. Someone a bit more in tune might connect him to his son Yair, the sidelock-sporting Channel 12 religious affairs correspondent. Some may question where Yair picked up his liberal and tolerant attitude, especially if his father’s cultural circles are very conservative. 

But the problem becomes more acute once the 63-year-old Cherki starts talking. In any given lecture, he will casually quote not just the usual rabbinical literature, but French philosophers, Kabbalah, Israeli intellectuals, atheist talking points or Islamic credos, if the discussion beckons them

He is highly esteemed in rabbinical circles, but his fields of interest stand in stark contrast to any haredi ideal of cultural and intellectual isolation, an ideal even many religious-Zionist rabbis will not explicitly reject. Many would consider him the foremost intellectual in the Mercaz HaRav crowd, one of the few rabbis who can engage secular intellectuals head on. On YouTube, there’s an abundance of his Hebrew material, such as his popular “The Rabbi and the Professor” debate series with Prof. Carlo Strenger. 

To the English-speaking audience, Cherki is a complete mystery in both style and content. Realizing this, his nonprofit organization, Ourim, has just released an English translation of his first book, titled Holiness and Nature: On the Roots of Life. A French translation was released as well, as Cherki is very well known among francophones. 

 RABBI A.I. KOOK’S concept of ‘holiness within nature’ defines Torah as a central conduit for holiness, but not an exclusive one.  (credit: Wikimedia Commons) RABBI A.I. KOOK’S concept of ‘holiness within nature’ defines Torah as a central conduit for holiness, but not an exclusive one. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Cherki was born in Algeria. His father was a businessman and an intellectual. They moved to Paris when Cherki was two, and his father became active in what was later known as the Paris School of Jewish Thought, a movement of observant intellectuals who saw their mission as reviving Jewish life and identity in France after the Holocaust. They publicly engaged French existentialist philosophers and adopted Zionism. Many towering figures were involved, but the movement was led by three of the most prominent thinkers of the day in France: André Neher, Emmanuel Levinas and Rabbi Yehuda Léon Ashkenazi. The latter, known by his nickname from the Jewish Scouts, “Manitou,” was Cherki’s primary mentor, and Cherki openly admits that he is the source for most of his thought.

Manitou was the kind of figure English speakers had never met – a Kabbalist from a family of North African Kabbalists, son of the last chief rabbi of Algeria, a Sorbonne graduate who studied anthropology under Claude Lévi-Strauss, a man who gave Bible lectures with his own original “anthropological” Kabbalistic approach to audiences ranging from priests to the Jewish youth in the Maayanot high school he founded. 

After the Six Day War, Manitou made aliyah with most of his students and reopened his institutions in Jerusalem. After a few years, the Labor Party closed them down, in unabashed harassment for his right-wing political affiliation. Manitou was well known in the small religious intellectual circles of the day, but only in recent years have the transcribed volumes of his Hebrew lectures gained prominence in the religious audience. Ironically, the times were such that even as an intimate associate of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, he was not granted a teaching position in Mercaz HaRav.

In his final years, before his passing in 1996, Manitou became one of the most outspoken critics of Shas, which he viewed as a party engaged in identity theft, creating a fake Sephardi identity that was nothing more than wholesale sellout to Ashkenazi haredim. His critique of the entire haredi phenomenon was biting, leveling at them charges of resembling early Christianity – turning Judaism into a self-centered monastic order, apathetic or antagonistic to the project of building a living nation with a universal message, which is what he insisted the Bible claims Jews are. This critique remains as provocative today as it was then, and even some of his disciples have difficulty swallowing it. 

In the 2015 wave of stabbing attacks, Cherki, whose son Shalom was killed in a car-ramming attack early that year, raised the ire of haredi pundits when he said in a videotaped lecture: “People say the solution is learning more Torah. This is nonsense. How will that stop terrorism? The solution is learning Krav Maga and enforcing Israeli sovereignty.” 

Rabbi Cherki, how would you characterize the Paris school? What were they trying to do, and how did they differ from religious intellectual figures such as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik or Rabbi Jonathan Sacks?

The Paris school was probing into Jewish identity, and I think they found one. You’re correct in assuming that all of the above were intellectual forms of Torah, but there are stark differences. Rabbi Soloveitchik was a Lithuanian and an existentialist thinker, much more Western than Manitou. Manitou was a Kabbalist, not just a romantic, but a true mystic, which led him to aliyah. Rabbi Sacks I see as an apologist, defending religion as a spokesman for a fragile minority. 

What I am trying to do is to take part in what Manitou called the “universal stage of Judaism,” which he opposed to “cosmopolitanism.” The latter is erasing particular identities and being swallowed into the impersonal realm of reason, with concepts such as ethical monotheism, etc.

Universalism means first being deeply rooted in the Land of Israel and in the lessons of the Zionist renewal project, and then actively sharing with other nations what we have learned in our revival. Judaism is not a religious confession, even if in exile that is what we were reduced to. We are a nation, and one that was defined as having a universal message – ‘a nation of priests,’ or as Rabbi Yehuda Halevi wrote: “Israel is the heart within the body of nations.”

What is our universal message, which differs from other intellectual traditions with universal aspirations?

I could mention a few fundamental points. For instance, Western humanist thought places man at its center, taking cues from Protagoras, who made man the measure of all things. Islam takes the other extreme and demands complete human submission before God. Judaism posits that neither man nor God is the exclusive focal point, but rather the dialogue between man and God. God has not abandoned the world to its devices, and He pursues a partnership with man in his worldly activity and has spoken to man for this purpose. 

Another point would be what Kabbalists would call the ‘Unity of Attributes,’ meaning the notion that Jewish faith requires believing in a holistic concept of God encompassing all emotions and situations. He is not found in just one attribute such as Christian love or Islamic severity but in a holistic balance of all emotions.

This unity is also the way we view the nations of the world. If each culture is one color, our color would be white light, a color encompassing all cultures and identities. There are countless divergent identities in the world, but one larger truth arises from the totality of them. The Jews were exiled between these nations to ‘gather Holy Sparks,’ essential spiritual elements within these identities; and upon returning to the Land of Israel, we are reassembling the full human profile here, uniting humanity into a greater picture. This is monotheism in a true, integral sense. The Zionist enterprise is the return of the Shechinah, the divine presence, to Zion, creating a new spiritual mode in the world. This is the sense in which Zionism has its full theological meaning. 

What are you trying to do with your newly translated book? Who is the audience? 

I don’t believe in a Homo religiosus, some sort of religious creature that has religious experiences that ordinary humans don’t have. This book is an editing of material I wrote years ago, but I think that the questions I ask are questions that can trouble any thinking person. I briefly highlight many paths that are worth thinking about, and one can decide to pursue and develop any of them. The mostly secular hi-tech crowd are entrepreneurial by nature and can try directions that the religious crowd might not have fully developed yet. Organized religion may be declining nowadays, but people are definitely searching for meaning and have a thirst for spirituality, even if they can’t quench it in religion as of yet.

What does the title of the book, “Holiness and Nature,” mean?

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s concept of ‘holiness within nature’ means the following: Torah is a central conduit for holiness, but not an exclusive one. There is holiness in nature as well. Historically, Torah was suspicious of nature and natural instincts, which were associated with paganism and sin. That’s what Nietzsche meant when he claimed religion was slave morality that beat the human spirit into submission. The rise of secularism in the Jewish people was the turning point. Secular Jews, with their free and natural approach to the world, are instinctively demanding the holiness in nature and refuse to suffice in traditional holiness, ‘holiness that is against nature.’ 

Nietzsche’s Übermensch solution was, of course, a disaster. What Rabbi Kook wanted was an eventual reconciliation between tradition and nature, which he believed Jews could only have in the Land of Israel. This would be a religious modality full of vitality, joie de vivre, shedding the dark and dreary nature of Judaism in exile. As the sages said: “In this world I have given you Torah, but in the end of days I will give you Life.”

Beyond your usual lecturing activities, you have two unique projects you founded – the Academy for Studying the Wisdom of Faith, and the Brit Olam World Center for Noahides. What are these projects?

The academy is a study program for outstanding students and people with a proven record of public activity. My vision is to create the beginning of an intellectual elite the State of Israel is worthy of. Note the name: “Wisdom of Faith.” Many people think that faith and intellectualism are negatively correlated. They are sure that religion is folklore, and the serious values of society are determined at the Israel Democracy Institute, Supreme Court, etc. We think otherwise. I believe rabbis should have a rich intellectual world, and I urge them as well to come learn with us.

My project with Noahides is to spread belief in the Seven Noahide Commandments, which the Torah says are incumbent upon gentiles. I believe them to mean not just the seven very basic commandments [prohibition of murder, sexual immorality, idolatry, blasphemy, theft, eating flesh of a live animal and the commandment to establish courts of law] but establishing gentile spirituality as a form of “satellite religions” to Judaism. 

I composed a prayerbook for gentiles titled Brit Olam, which has been translated into five languages, and a religious legal codex called Brit Shalom, which has been translated into 16 languages. We have a website for Noahides, and we are in constant contact with thousands of our followers and their communities across the globe. We want them to have their own local community leaders. For instance, recently we have developed a relationship with a priest in Congo who has left Christianity and taken his congregation to Noahidism. I will eventually go there to meet them. We are planning a world Noahide Conference in Prague. 

How would you explain to a culturally insular religious Jew that God takes interest in gentiles?

God is not the dean of a yeshiva or leader of some Jewish community. He created the entire world and placed Jews and gentiles together in this world, so apparently there must be a joint plan for us all, even if everyone has their singular role.

Many associate Rabbi Kook’s teachings with nationalism rather than universalism.

They’re simply mistaken. Any reader can see with his own eyes that Rav Kook has countless passages with universalist themes, and even Jewish nationalism itself has an end goal that is universal. 

What does your book have to say to the Jews in the Diaspora?

I want them to know that Judaism has its own independent spiritual and intellectual path, and that this path is relevant to their life, and it is intrinsically bound to the Zionist project. Many Jews speak of stagnation in the rabbinical world, and I want them to know if they search seriously for spiritual rejuvenation in Judaism, they will find it. 

The writer, a graduate of Yeshivat Otniel, works at the Sharaka NGO, founded by young leaders from Israel and the Gulf to turn the vision of people-to-people peace into a reality. [email protected]