Q & A
WITH PER K. BRASK, EDITOR & TRANSLATOR
OF FOUNDATIONAL THOUGHTS IN JUDAISM
Q.: How did you discover Andreas Simonsen’s book?
In February 2012, I was visiting my father in Denmark and a few days
before I left to go back home to Canada I happened to listen to a program
on the radio. Marianne Olsen was being interviewed about a thinker,
Andreas Simonsen (1923-1991). Marianne Olsen is the head of a foundation
that promotes Simonsen’s work and she has edited two books of his letters
and journals. I had never heard of him, but I found the interview
fascinating. Back in Winnipeg, I contacted Marianne Olsen and asked her
how I could get hold of some of Simonsen’s books and she sent me a good
selection, among them Foundational Thoughts in Judaism. None of his
books had ever been translated into English. I read them all and fell in
love with his book on Judaism and asked permission to translate the book.
Marianne agreed and in the process we have established a close friendship.
She in turn has translated some of my poems into Danish and we have
corresponded at great deal about Simonsen.
Q.: What particularly intrigued you about his work?
For years I’ve been attracted to Niels Bohr’s notion of complementarity
and it turned out that Simonsen was deeply involved in this kind of
thinking. In fact, while he lived as a refugee in Sweden (from October
1943, when the Germans began rounding up Danish Jews until May 1945, when
Denmark was liberated), he lodged with one of Bohr’s close collaborators,
the physicist Oskar Klein, who was a first cousin of Simonsen’s mother.
Since Bohr’s notion of complementarity was applied mainly in physics to
such phenomena as the particle and wave descriptions of light in which
both are necessary for a fuller understanding, Simonsen coined the term
disconjunction for analogous situations in ethics; i.e., for
situations that require descriptions that are seemingly mutually exclusive
but are equally necessary. For instance, bravery without level-headed
assessment can easily become recklessness, and levelheadedness without
bravery can turn into inaction. In other words, there are relationships
among values that may seem contradictory but are in fact mutually
Q.: Who was Andreas Simonsen?
Andreas Simonsen was born in 1923. His father, Rudolph Simonsen, was a
composer and the director of the Royal Danish Music Conservatory and his
was a painter. Andreas Simonsen matriculated at the University of
Copenhagen in 1941 and began studying Classics and German, but he had to
suspend his studies in 1943 when the occupying Germans began rounding up
Jews. He continued his studies when he returned to Denmark (as part of the
Danish Brigade) in 1945 and completed them in 1953. He then began teaching
at Zahles, a famous Danish gymnasium (high school, lycée),
and at the University of Copenhagen. He married Else Marie Krogh
(1914-1989) in 1956. He suffered from severe and, at times, debilitating
depressions. Despite this, he published some twenty books before the
illness overpowered him in 1991.
Q.: Why do you think Foundational Thoughts in Judaism is an
I enjoy the way Simonsen unpacks some seeming contradictions in Judaism;
e.g., the notion of God as Lord and God as Father, and the manner in which
he explains how Judaism’s approach to monotheism leads to love of one’s
fellows. And very importantly, he makes clear how necessary the insights
of Judaism are for us today; that its form of gratitude and awe can
inspire right behavior, better living.
Q.: Who should read Foundational Thoughts in Judaism?
Anyone with an interest in ethics, in the relationship between ethics and
religion (whether believers or non-believers); anyone curious about
Judaism, of course; theologians and students of religion.
During my studies in preparation for conversion to Judaism, I had the
great pleasure of being helped by a number of very fine rabbis, but I wish
I would have known of this book at some point along the way. My mind
happens to be of a slight philosophical bent and Simonsen addresses many
of my questions in a way I find satisfying. Simonsen teases out
connections and addresses issues in a contemporary context as well as in
dialogue with modern Christianity and existentialism.