“It has been told to you what is good and what God seeks of you"

Professor Vered Noam

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

These remarks were delivered by Israel Prize winner Prof. Vered Noam at the Capstone Celebration of Hadar's Advanced Kollel on June 26, 2023.

It is a great privilege for me to be with you here today, at this Capstone Celebration of Hadar’s Advanced Kollel, on this day of great joy and achievement for Akiva, Avigayil, Beth, Hannah, Jamie, Jason, Joshua, Matthew, Miram, Shira, Vincent, and Yael.

To my mind, Hadar’s greatest attribute, and that of this brave and devoted group of men and women, is their willingness to ask themselves, on a daily basis, the piercing question of the prophet Micah, which we will read in this week’s Haftarah: What is good? And what does God seek of you?

Why did the prophet ask this question? Is not the written Torah already exceedingly clear? Why is the obvious answer not that God seeks of us to fulfill all of the commandments? Our Sages seem to have struggled with this very question and offered the following answer:

“R. Simlai taught: 613 mitzvot were spoken to Moshe…
David came and distilled them to 11: “A Psalm of David—God, who shall reside in your tent, who shall dwell on your holy mountain? One who walks blamelessly, performs righteousness and speaks truth in his heart…
Isaiah came and distilled them to 6: “Those who walk in righteousness, who speak forthrightly, who reject ill-gotten gain, who keep their palms free of bribes, who stop their ears from hearing plots of murder, who shut their eyes from seeing evil…:
Micah came and distilled them to 3: “It has been told to you what is good, and what God seeks of you—to do justice and love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Isaiah returned to distill them to two: “So says the Lord: Guard justice and perform righteousness.”
Amos came and distilled them to one: “So says the Lord to the house of Israel: Seek Me and you shall live”  (b. Makkot 23b-24a).

This midrash teaches two principles: First, we are expected to do our best to distill what God seeks of us, to identify, among all the many details of the mitzvot, the heart and the essence of God’s call to us. Second, what God seeks of us is different in each generation, in keeping with the needs of that generation. The core principles of Micah are different from those of David and from those of Isaiah.

And yet, even so, there are commonalities in these lists. On the social plane, God always seeks kindness, truth, justice and righteousness. And in our religious lives, the heart of faith is: “seek me.” A person of faith is not one who simply “knows;” a person of faith is a seeker and a searcher. One who longs for connection.

The quest to understand what God seeks of us in this generation, at this moment, demands that we be doubly attentive. We must at once be attentive to the present reality, its novelties, stresses and needs, while evincing uncompromising fealty to the demands that continue uninterrupted from Sinai.

This is what makes Hadar distinctive, and this is the special mission that this group we celebrate tonight has taken on.

Hadar arose to address a challenging reality: that of the modern and post-modern world, its new values and sensitivities, its wondrous technological advances, along with its ethical and social shortcomings and failures. A reality that contains the wonder of the establishment of the State of Israel, alongside the growing gap between Israeli and American Jews. A reality that contains an unprecedentedly free and flourishing Diaspora community, with all the blessings and risks inherent therein.

And it is a reality—both in Israel and here—of a Jewish religious society that is increasingly walled off, one that invests tremendous energy to shunt away “external” voices of ethical and spiritual values of “modern” provenance, in order to preserve its character from centuries past. This shunting away leads inevitably to a whole system of binaries, compartmentalizations, falsifications, along with dueling systems of ethics and morality. The religious leaders of such a society expect their students to sacrifice critical thinking, common sense, compassion—in truth, any sense of inner authenticity—in order to serve, as it were, the cause of Heaven. Jettisoning all of these leaves immense internal pain in its wake. And too many religious leaders are willing to crush this pain—and the difficult questions that produce it—with an iron fist. The result is a way of thinking that can have dangerous effects on relating to people central to Jewish community, especially women and LGBTQ Jews.

Hadar, and this group of young leaders before you, have taken upon themselves to establish a model of religious leadership that fears neither contradictions nor pain, because they know that the divine seal is none other than truth, and no amount of contradiction or pain can undermine their faithfulness to that ideal.

Leaders who know that the confrontation between our Jewish heritage and modern culture produces a tension that generates new thinking, innovation, and an emotional power that in fact fructify and enrich our lives of faith. Leaders who know that critical thinking, doubt and compassion are not a threat to our heritage, but rather profound tools given to us by the Creator in order to serve Him. Leaders who know that the sacred withers when it is planted in an encased and restricted landscape; it instead flourishes when showered with free sources of water that run clear and are open to all. 

Leaders who know that the fundamental aspiration of halakhah is to resonate with the reality and the consciousness of those who uphold it, not to be ossified as if in a museum, to be alienated from contemporary life in its strangeness. Leaders who know that in a time of Jewish national redemption in the land of Israel, and at a time of a more universal redemption that has merited the spread of freedom to women around the globe, we have been given the task to advance a Jewish society—one of prayer, Torah and mitzvot—that engages all Jews, irrespective of gender. 

These new and future rabbis who stand before you this evening will go forth to build and strengthen vibrant communities of justice, kindness and righteousness. Communities that do not fear to seek out God from a place of searching and longing. Communities that will recognize the full and complete citizenship of half of the Jewish people—women—in a life of learning, mitzvah obligation and religious and communal leadership. Communities that will learn Torah with traditional tools and academic strategies alike. Communities that will educate towards egalitarianism, respecting and having compassion for every human being on account of being created in the image of God. Communities who will preserve the vitality of the Hebrew language, the one channel of communication that is capable of connecting all of world Jewry, and that will not allow the bond between Israeli society and the Diaspora to weaken.

Any great vision to change the world begins with a small, committed group. May God ensure your success. For so says God to the house of Israel: “Seek me, and you shall live.”