15 American Rabbis You Haven't Heard Of, But Should
We are very proud to have our own Rabbi Jason Rubenstein appear in Tablet magazine's 15 American Rabbis You Haven’t Heard Of, But Should. This is what they have to say:
Hadar | New York, N.Y.
The soul of a post-denominational yeshiva
Hadar, an egalitarian community and yeshiva in New York, is the flagship of the independent minyan movement in America. And Rabbi Jason Rubenstein—“Rav Jason” to his students—is the heart of Hadar. In what can often be a hyper-intellectual environment, Rubenstein offers a personal and sensitive touch in his role as dean of students.
Rubenstein first joined the faculty of Hadar while completing his rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was ordained in 2011. He has taught Talmud and Jewish thought to the yeshiva’s many students, while counseling and guiding them in their learning and spiritual development. While others are typically the institution’s public face in the op-ed pages and national Jewish press, Rubenstein is the soul of its Beit Midrash. “He makes himself deeply, personally available,” recalled Jana Jett Loeb, a former student. He is perpetually answering questions and distributing Jewish source texts to the many alumni with whom he remains in touch. “It’s not like he was afraid to say, ‘I don’t know where you should look,’ ” said Loeb. “It’s just that I never heard him say that.” He is as comfortable explaining the medieval rabbinic conception of the separation of synagogue and state as he is discussing the philosophy of Jürgen Habermas.
When not providing a warm and supportive presence at Hadar, Rubenstein can be found crisscrossing the country teaching and recruiting for the institution from Michigan to Colorado.
36 Under 36: Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, 34
The Jewish Week, Thursday, May 22, 2008
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, 34
Independent minyan leader pushing for new worship style
After graduating from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer searched New York City for somewhere to pray. "We were looking for a place that would basically express our ideal davening community," says Kaunfer of the impetus for starting Hadar: An Institute for Prayer, Personal Growth and Jewish Study (mechonhadar.org). The organization, includes an independent minyan that has spawned a network of independent minyanim across the country, as well as the first egalitarian yeshiva for lay people in America, is going on its second summer this year.
Ordained at JTS and a graduate of Harvard University, Kaunfer's vision for an ideal prayer community included a participatory, spirited, non-denominational service, a place that would include men and women equally while drawing on traditional liturgy —"something that would move your kishkes." Kehilat Hadar has become a model for other independent minyanim, and Kaunfer hopes Yeshivat Hadar will grow to be a full-time program for people who "desire to be empowered by Judaism and live in an intensive Jewish community."
In the next few years, Kaunfer hopes to see the expansion of independent minyanim and yeshivot across the country and to turn his summer yeshiva into a full-time program for lay leaders. This he will do with money from the Avi Chai Fellowship, of which he was a recipient this month. Kaunfer says of the yeshiva, "Institutionally it certainly has been a dream that reflects the values and community that I would like to be a part of. It's the yeshiva I wish I had gone to."
A post-denominational Jewish world: "People are less concerned with denominational labels and more concerned with finding an appropriate intensive community to become empowered Jews." Coolest gig: Kaunfer worked as a corporate fraud investigator, cold calling the likes of Enron employees to discuss their wrongdoings. He also investigated corruption in the New York City public schools, which on one occasion required him to wear a wire.
Joey Weisenberg, 26
Reviving ancient nigunim in Sabbath services
For years, young Jewish musicians in search of an aural history have turned to klezmer. Weisenberg, a mandolin player, is no exception. He plays in several klezmer revival groups today (good ones too: Michael Winograd Klezmer Ensemble; The Amazing Frosen String Quartet). But, Miller says, the klezmer revivalists "kind of gave it all to us. We didn't have to work so hard."
So he looked for a deeper musical tradition, and found it in centuries'-old rabbinic hymns. Now, as music director for Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, he incorporates these hymns into Sabbath services centered on group participation. He calls his service "Joey Weisenberg's Spontaneous Jewish Choir," and has been expanding the practice by visits to synagogues throughout New York City. He also leads courses at the Jewish Theologocial Seminary and the University of Pennsylvania. "I want Jews to be comfortable dancing. I want them to be comfortable singing," he says.
Just don't call him Sholomo Carlebach, the storied American rabbi who also revived communal songs. "He came along and developed melodies that were so beautiful that people forgot the old ones," Weisenberg says of Carlebach.
Weisenberg's own service "takes melodies that are far older." Chiefly, he uses nigunim, wordless melodies chanted in repetition. They date as least as far back as the early-1700s, with many tunes attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of chasidism; "songs that transcend syllables and sound," is how the rabbi described them. To be sure, Weisenberg's service isn't just old melodies. He includes plenty of prayer service classics — Adon Olam, Eliyahu Hanavi — but puts them to forgotten tunes. "Sometimes, people need the words to hang on to," Weisenberg says.
Musical inspiration: Ferus Mustafov, a Macedonian clarinetist
Favorite childhood memory growing up in Milwaukee: Watching car demolitions at the Miller Compressing pound with his grandfather
36 Under 36: Rabbi Ethan Tucker, 33
The Jewish Week, Friday, April 3, 2009
by Randi Sherman
Since being awarded the Grinspoon Jewish Social Entrepreneur Fellowship in February 2008, Rabbi Ethan Tucker has been busy using the $100,000 at his disposal to realize his dreams, and continuing to work on the projects that made him worthy of the award in the first place.
Rabbi Tucker has been known for his ability to transcend the affiliation boundaries of Judaism since his establishment of Kehilat Hadar, an independent prayer community, in April 2001. As the son of Conservative Rabbi Gordon Tucker and Hadassah Lieberman, seamless shifting between denominations became one of this Riverdale rabbi’s signatures.
"My entire life has been spent in different Jewish communities with the constant being an observant Jewish environment with learning and tradition," Rabbi Tucker said. "Movements were never the focus. I feel my training and adult religious life reflect that."
In the past year, Rabbi Tucker co-organized an international conference of independent minyanim at Brandeis University, gathering 80 leaders from the U.S., Canada and Israel, through Hadar, the organization he started that combines consulting for independent minyanim and a beit midrash. The educational branch, Yeshivat Hadar, has also had a banner year, doubling in size this past summer, and come this fall, becoming a full-year program. One hundred applicants are vying for the yeshiva’s 50 spots.
In an effort to further assist his community of independent minyanim, Rabbi Tucker is preparing for the public launch of his online halacha think tank, halakhah.org. The site will tackle topics selected by Rabbi Tucker and a colleague at Hadar, offering independent minyanim the arguments and source material to develop community norms for their heterogeneous groups. The site "is revising halachic and Jewish law as a normative discourse with broad appeal and application," unearthing rabbinic rulings throughout the ages on everything from the use of musical instruments on Shabbat to whether someone who isn’t fasting can lead prayer on Tisha b’Av. Readers will be able to further the discussion by posting comments. Look for it this fall.
Secret passion: The "unbelievable" hot chocolate at Schakolad Chocolate Factory in Stamford, Conn., "the most amazing hot chocolate in the entire world." What readers should know about him that isn’t on his resume: "I’ve watched ‘The Princess Bride’ at least 50 times."
4 Mistakes To Avoid When Talking About Radical Islam
Rabbi Shai Held, writing in the Forward on November 30th, 2015, calls for a nuanced response to the challenges of ISIS and radical Islam. You can read the full article below or on the Forward's website.
Much of what has been said in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris has been sterile — when it has not been obscene. So many of the responses have been so sadly predictable. On one side stand the apologists and wishful thinkers, who insist that the murders have “nothing to do with Islam”; on the other stand the demagogues and hatemongers, who suggest (or merely insinuate) that Islam is poison, and that all Muslims are a menace.
Social media make it hard to have a nuanced conversation about anything, let alone the things — like God and religion — that many of us hold dearest. Panic and fear only make it harder. Not surprisingly, then, the public conversation about radical Islam is often tedious at best, and downright toxic at worst. Yet in confronting the crisis of religion in general, and of Islam in particular, we need nuance desperately.
There is a battle afoot, a struggle for the soul of Islam. Al Qaeda and ISIS are terrifying examples of what can happen when religion’s worst impulses run totally wild. If the forces of radical Islam are not combatted, they will consume us all. (The problem, of course, is that no one is really sure how most effectively to combat them; the ones who are most sure are often the ones least worth listening to.)
But here is where things get messy. Only the resolutely clueless deny that large swaths of Islam are in crisis. Yet only the shamelessly bigoted insist that the crisis in Islam reflects an unchanging, eternal truth about one of the world’s most venerable religious traditions. And only Jews and Christians afraid to look in the mirror insist that Muslims alone are capable of religiously sanctioned inhumanity.
In facing the current moment, there are four pitfalls we must avoid. The first two, the mistakes of misguided liberals, are (1) denying that Islam has anything to do with ISIS, and (2) refusing to admit that Islam is in unique crisis. The latter two, the mistakes of reactionary conservatives, are (3) declaring that Islam is irredeemably evil, and (4) painting all Muslims with the same brush. All four of these illusions are appealing to some, but all are false, and ultimately noxious.
It’s crucial to notice that these illusions often feed on each other in disastrous ways. The more the voices of enmity and antagonism cast suspicion on all Muslims, the more tempted moderate Muslims and their allies will be to insist that ISIS and Islam are utterly unconnected. Conversely, the more moderate Muslims and their supporters insist, implausibly, that ISIS and Islam are totally separable, the more the radical haters will dig in their heels. And so the conversation we most need — about Islamist radicalism and possible paths to its defeat — is precisely the one we rarely end up having.
Jumping into the fray, Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner does not help matters. Likely distraught at Donald Trump’s libelous attacks on American Muslims, Eisner swings all the way to the opposite extreme, encouraging her readers to forego attributing the Paris terror attacks to radical Islam. She asks her readers to “consider whether Yigal Amir, who killed Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin… represented radical Judaism. Or was he instead a radical, fanatical Jew?”
But uncomfortable as his ferocious hatred (rightly) makes Eisner, Amir was not just a radical, fanatical Jew. He was steeped in a hyper-nationalist messianic religious ideology — a vision of Judaism, in other words — and he acted on his understanding of what that ideology demanded of him. Call it radical Judaism; call it Judeo-fascism; call it whatever you want, but don’t kid yourself: Amir’s murderousness was a manifestation of his Judaism.
We can argue — we should argue — about better and worse interpretations of tradition. We should be willing to declare some expressions of Judaism beyond the pale. But it is ultimately unhelpful (and often unforgivably self-serving) to deny that they are expressions of Judaism.
The same applies to ISIS. (Needless to say, I hope, I am not equating right-wing religious Zionism with ISIS; I am simply drawing out the implications of Eisner’s analogy.) ISIS is driven by a savage ideology that takes inspiration from Islamic texts and traditions. Call it radical Islam; call it Islamism; call it whatever you want, but don’t kid yourself: ISIS’s barbarism and brutality are manifestations of Islam. Muslims have to face that ugly truth, and so, too, do the rest of us.
To suggest otherwise is to deny just about everything ISIS has ever said about itself. Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution points out that divorcing ISIS (and its many cousins) from Islam “isn’t even effective at countering Islamophobia, since, to the unpersuaded, claims that Islam and ISIS are unrelated sound entirely divorced from reality.”
As a religious leader, I don’t want to get Judaism off the hook for its role in Rabin’s murder, and I don’t want to get Islam off the hook for Paris, either. Why? Because religious leaders — all of us, not just Muslims — need to confront the fact that while religion can elicit empathy and love and deeds of great kindness, it can also call forth hatred and bigotry and unspeakable cruelty. Deflecting the questions religious leaders must face through sleight of hand is a moral and theological evasion that the world cannot afford right now.
A Bible lesson for Donald Trump
R. Shai Held writes for CNN.com about the Bible's call to love the ger, the stranger, in relation to Donald Trump's popularity among some Christian leaders. You can read his thoughts on the CNN website, or below.
It is a moment that will live in political infamy. As he announced his candidacy for president of the United States, Donald Trump assailed Mexican immigrants as "people that have lots of problems." He accused them of bringing drugs and crime with them across the border and derided them as "rapists." Doubling down in the face of controversy, Trump added that they are "killers" as well. As with so much that Trump says, his comments were at once inaccurate and obscene. Recent studies show that immigration is associated with lower crime rates, and that immigrants are less likely to be criminals than are native-born Americans.
Trump has said that the Bible is his favorite book, so it's worth asking: What could Trump learn about immigrants if he opened up his beloved Bible?
The book of Exodus admonishes us: "You shall not oppress a stranger (ger), for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 23:9). By ger, commonly translated from Hebrew as "stranger" or "sojourner," the Bible refers to an immigrant who is an outsider in the place where he now lives -- a resident who has no family or clan to look after him, and who is therefore vulnerable to social and economic exploitation. The text appeals to the Israelites' memory to intensify their moral obligation. Having tasted the suffering and degradation to which vulnerability can lead, the people are bidden not to afflict or mistreat the stranger. The Bible's charge is based on an urgent demand for empathy -- since you know what it feels like to be a stranger, you must never abuse the stranger.
Precisely who is this stranger with whom the Bible is so concerned? When people consider the biblical category of "the stranger," they usually think exclusively about his present status: an outsider vulnerable to exploitation. But Bible scholars have recently added color to our picture of the stranger by looking more closely at his past. Most often, Frank Spina argues, the stranger left his place of origin on account of "social and political upheaval due to war, famine, economic and social troubles, oppression, plague and other misfortunes that produced strife." It does not seem much of a stretch, therefore, to suggest that ger could also be rendered as "refugee." In fact, the word ger, which derives from a root meaning "to sojourn," may also be connected to another root meaning "to dread or be afraid." The stranger flees home and arrives scared.
In response, the Bible twice mandates that the people "love the stranger." The people are effectively told, these immigrants, whom you are likely to deride as enemies -- love them instead; protect them, care for them and seek their well-being.
In light of all this, you'd expect religious leaders to be lining up against Trump. But you'd be wrong (or at very best only half-right). Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University and son of the founder of the Moral Majority, has declared that "Donald Trump is God's man to lead our nation." One wonders, why would God, who loves immigrants and bids us to do the same, choose a man who hates the very people whom God loves? Evangelical leader James Dobson has added that "Trump appears to be tender to things of the Spirit." Yet true tenderness of the spirit, true receptivity to the word of God, should push him in an entirely different direction.
Now, there is nothing wrong with enacting laws around immigration, and nothing wrong with enforcing those laws. Nor is there anything wrong with taking precautions to make sure that those purporting to seek refuge are not terrorists in disguise. But there is something terribly wrong with basing those laws on bigotry and falsehoods. In any event, given the Bible's preoccupation with loving the stranger, can one be a biblical Christian and revile the stranger? To vilify the stranger is to confess that one has not internalized the true meaning of biblical teachings.
Judaism and Christianity both teach love, empathy and compassion. Donald Trump consistently and unabashedly espouses hatred, disdain and discrimination. The fact that Falwell and Dobson have been led astray does not change the truth one whit: To hate the immigrant is to abandon God and to forget the Bible.
A Biblical Commentator With Heart
You hear the word love a lot from Rabbi Shai Held.
“Biblical texts tell a story about a God who loves,” he writes in the introduction to his new two-volume work, “The Heart of Torah: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion” (Jewish Publication Society).
For him, the biblical God is loving and present, a God who loves the Jewish people, and extends love and compassion to the widow, the orphan and all who are vulnerable, oppressed and downtrodden, affirming their dignity. With God’s love comes human responsibility: To be created in the image of God is to also love the vulnerable and act on their behalf. He writes, “The essence of Torah is a God of love and kindness who calls Israel to love and kindness.”
Rabbi Held’s own love of Torah animates these essays, written over a two-year period and published weekly on the website of Hadar, a traditional egalitarian yeshiva he founded 10 years ago with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Ethan Tucker. Rabbi Held, the recipient of a Covenant Award, serves as dean and chair in Jewish Thought; he shares the presidency with Rabbi Kaunfer and Rabbi Tucker.
The extraordinary endorsements of the book from a wide range of rabbis and scholars speak to his insights and erudition, and his position as “one of the most important teachers of Torah in his generation” (Rabbi David Wolpe). In his foreword, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes, “When the history of rabbinic literature of this era is written, Rabbi Held’s contributions will be acknowledged as the brightest stars in this new galaxy of Torah teaching.”
He is a large man with an empathic presence. As a teacher, he’s widely admired for his soulfulness and intellect, his comfort with emotions and ideas and his ability to move from thought to action. Since the elections last November, he has been outspoken in response to President Trump, writing and leading protests for social justice causes.
“The essence of Torah is a God of love and kindness who calls Israel to love and kindness,” Rabbi Held writes.
“There’s nothing I find more disturbing from a religious perspective than someone expressing disdain for those who are weak and vulnerable,” he says in a conversation at a café near his office on the eve of the book launch last Tuesday. “My speaking out politically grows out of the pastoral instinct.”
“What I think clergy can provide to people,” he suggests, “is a language for their often inchoate feelings. Religious language helps people understand when and how their political commitments grow out of something deeper they can’t express.”
Rabbi Held maintains an active Facebook presence, commenting on issues. While many have expressed gratitude for his words, including some who have admitted they no longer feel at home in their own shuls, he has been attacked online by white supremacists and called a kapo by Jews.
Since the elections, he has been meeting with friends in White Plains, where he lives with his family, to read works of history and sociology, trying to understand this moment in America, “to move beyond feeling appalled.”
One of the programs he helped to initiate at Hadar involves regular visits by students to Alzheimer’s patients at a local nursing home. “Judaism is about chesed and tzedakah,” he says.
The author of “Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence,” he received his Ph.D. in religion from Harvard. In his Torah commentary, Rabbi Held looks closely at what the biblical texts say and how they say it, with a creative approach based in substantive literary, psychological and theological studies. Throughout, he quotes traditional and contemporary sources, including Maimonides, Chasidic masters and Jewish and Christian biblical scholars.
What’s most striking is how in each essay, he takes the reader to another level with his connections to everyday life, awakening the reader toward living more fully, with compassion and authenticity. With carefully turned words, he uplifts and inspires.
As Rabbi Greenberg suggests in the foreword, the book can also be read as a theological work, for within and across these essays, Rabbi Held’s theology becomes evident. Among his themes are Divine love, gratitude and generosity as a spiritual posture and the fate of the vulnerable. There’s also room for doubt in his religious worldview. When texts are troubling, he wrestles and doesn’t offer easy answers, nor aim to tie things up neatly.
In person Rabbi Held is thoughtful, funny and listens with heart. The afternoon we speak, he’s not feeling well, and, sadly, that’s not uncommon for him these days, as he suffers from a debilitating chronic illness that causes severe fatigue and intense pain.
When I ask how he sees his rabbinate, he admits that because of the illness, he can’t do as much one-on-one pastoral work as he used to do. “I have come to feel that a major piece, if not the major piece, of my rabbinate is attempting to provide a language and inspiration for those who will do some of that which I can no longer do. I don’t visit Alzheimer’s patients anymore — writing and speaking have become a larger piece of my rabbinate. I’ve needed to find other ways to use my energies.”
The illness, he says, has affected not only the ways he reads text and writes, but the ways he talks to people. “I like to think that the way people carry pain is incomprehensible and unique to them, and I tread with unbelievable gentleness. My illness has given me a tremendous spiritual and ethical teaching. The danger, though, is that illness at its worst moments encloses you.”
For all this talk, he also enjoys — and needs — silence. While he craves substantial time alone, he’s also deeply communal, writing with others in mind.
Rabbi Held is not always easy to categorize. Denominational lines have little meaning for him. Ordained at JTS, he grew up in a secular Zionist home in upstate Monsey, and attended Orthodox schools — his parents were born in Europe, moved to Israel and then America. His father, Moshe Held, was a professor of Semitic languages and culture at Columbia who also taught at JTS, and his mother taught Hebrew. He remembers how as a fourth grader he declared that his room would be shomer Shabbes. A favorite memory is waking his father up on Saturday mornings and asking him to turn on the television to watch wrestling. His father’s comment: “All these years of Jewish scholarship and I’m a Shabbes goy.”
“My father understood. He knew that the text he cared about mattered so deeply to me.” The elder Held died when Shai was 12, shortly before his bar mitzvah. Then, after his world fell apart in many ways, he became more rigorously religious.
Does he hear his father’s voice in these essays?
“Yes and no. My father was a philologist, interested in what words mean, not an ideas person. I learned from watching him what it means to sit over a text with your entire heart and mind.”
Conversation turns to teshuva, in keeping with the season. “One of the things I’ve learned from this deep dive into Tanach,” he says, “is to have a sober view of human possibility.” He doesn’t look to teshuvah as a call to fashion a new self, but has what he calls a more mature vision, attributed to the Kotzker Rebbe, that serving God entails working on one’s self.
“The spiritual life takes place between what’s difficult and what’s impossible,” he says. “It’s possible to become more responsive, kinder. In that space, the real spiritual life can take place.”
His words about worshiping a God of love, loving the widow and the orphan are insistent. “Either you take it seriously or not. Are you on the side of the vulnerable or not? If not, why are you pretending to worship the God of Torah?”
In his chapter on “Nitsavim” in the Book of Deuteronomy, read last week, he writes of teshuva and how, in the words of the text, the key to repentance “is not in the heavens,” nor “beyond the sea.” In his words, “To repent is to turn inward. But, crucially, turning inward is not the final goal; on the contrary, we turn inward so that we may gain — and more deeply — turn outward, to God and to one another.”
A Bolt From the Blue
This article, by Rabbi Shai Held, appeared in the Sh'ma Journal for February-March, 2015.
A Bolt From the Blue
The surest way to misunderstand the Hebrew Bible is to insist upon a stark binary distinction between the particular and the universal. The Torah begins by looking through a wide lens: It deals not with Abraham, but with Adam; not with the Promised Land, but with the whole world. Neither the people of Israel nor the land of Israel is considered primordial, written into the fabric of creation itself. As Genesis progresses, the Torah narrows the scope of its lens, focusing—primarily, but not exclusively—on God’s relationship with one particular people, but the broader universal horizon is never effaced or forgotten: God is the God of the whole world and of all humanity. And yet one cannot get around the fact that one of the central claims of the Bible as a whole is that God has fallen in love with, and entered into an eternal covenant with, Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and then Jacob. Biblical theology is at once profoundly universalistic and unabashedly particularistic.
But what does God’s election of Abraham mean? Does the Bible assert that Jews are somehow better than other peoples? Reading Deuteronomy, one gets the sense, as biblical scholar Walter Moberly has noted, that Israel is at once startled and delighted by God’s love, almost like a young lover who is overwhelmed by his good fortune and cannot quite believe that his beloved really loves him. Israel is so small, and yet God loves it: “It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord desired you and chose you—indeed, you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because God loved you and kept the oath God made to your fathers...” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8) And God is so great, and yet God loves Israel: “Mark, the heavens to their uttermost reaches belong to the Lord your God, the earth and all that is in it! Yet it was your fathers that God desired in God’s love for them, so that God chose you, their lineal descendants, from among all the peoples.” (Deuteronomy 10:14-15)
Standing at the border of the Promised Land, the people are reminded of God’s deep and abiding love. But God’s love for them is thoroughly entwined with God’s passion for their ancestors. Surely, their ancestors must have done something to earn God’s favor? Remarkably, though, the stories we know about Abraham’s pre-covenantal greatness—shattering his father’s idols, searching for God in the face of a world consumed by flames—are all midrashim, interpretive attempts to understand why God singles out this one man. As for Genesis itself, God’s election of Abraham comes, according
to biblical scholar Jon Levenson, like “a bolt from the blue,” an act of divine grace rather than a reward for human merit. According to the Bible, Israel did nothing to earn its privileged status. Accordingly, an authentic biblical theology of election cannot be self-congratulatory, as if Israel had been chosen for embodying this quality or that. In truth, says the Bible, we don’t know what God was thinking in choosing Israel. (In an ironic way, secular appropriations of chosenness are necessarily triumphalistic, having no choice but to focus on the Jewish people’s purported merits, or virtues, or achievements. Nowhere does the Bible congratulate Jews on how many Nobel prizes they have won.)
Election is not tied in any obvious way to merit. Nor, it is crucial to emphasize, does it guarantee impunity. The prophet Amos was concerned about affirming Israel’s election without allowing it to succumb to chauvinism and triumphalism. Faced with the people’s smug self-satisfaction, Amos proclaims in God’s name: “You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth.” One can imagine Amos’ followers nodding complacently, perhaps expecting to hear words of affirmation from their divine patron, but Amos upends their assumptions, thundering: “Therefore, I will call you to account for all your iniquities.” (Amos 3:2) Amos’ “therefore” is intended to jolt his listeners. The people may assume that, as God’s elect, they are immune to punishment and entitled to a bounty of privileges. But God is no patron; on the contrary, with “great privilege” comes “great condemnation.” Amos seeks to clarify and purify Israel’s shallow and self-serving understanding of chosenness; nowhere does he suggest abandoning it.
A careful reading of scripture, therefore, makes clear that election, or chosenness, is not a function of merit, nor does it give the people a moral blank check. Moreover, God’s highly particularistic covenant with Abraham is intended to bless all humanity. So central is election to the Bible that contemporary Jews who wish to have a theology rooted in scripture have no choice but to reckon with chosenness. To jettison the language of chosenness, I fear, is to jettison the Bible itself.
The notion of election faces many challenges in contemporary Jewish culture. In order to speak of election coherently, one has to affirm a God capable of making a choice—that is, a personal God who has a will. (It is no coincidence that Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, denied both the biblical God and the concept of chosenness; he understood how entwined these two concepts really are.) Moreover, we live in a time when, in some quarters, even speaking of the Jews as a people is considered troubling and outdated; after all, do we not live in a “post-ethnic America”?
Amos’ words should be sobering. They may be bad theology, but triumphalistic notions of election are not rare. And so, chosenness leaves us with a paradox: From a biblical perspective, Jews are elected to serve God and, by extension, to question themselves.
In confronting chosenness, Jewish theology faces many questions, none of them easy: In this day and age, do we find it plausible to believe in the kind of God who loves and chooses? Can we talk about covenant without chosenness? Can we affirm election without deluding ourselves into thinking that we have a monopoly on God’s love? Is it enough to affirm election as a subjective, experiential claim, but not as a metaphysical one? One thing is clear: To be an inheritor of the Jewish tradition is to grapple with the powerful, mysterious, enchanting, disturbing idea that we are God’s chosen people
 But note Genesis 22:15-18, which already begins to complicate this picture. Cf. Jon D. Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2012), pp. 83-84.
A Modern Journey to ‘Heart of Torah’
Jonathan Kirsch, the book editor of the Jewish Journal, reviews R. Shai Held's The Heart of Torah (2017) on June 7, 2018. Read the review below or here: http://jewishjournal.com/culture/books/234929/modern-journey-heart-torah/
We live in “the golden age of the parashat ha-shavua,” according to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, who is referring to the formal study of the weekly Torah portion, a practice that may take place in the synagogue, around a dining room table, on the internet, or by reference to published essays. For some Jews, observes Rabbi Ruth Adar, parashat ha-shavua is “their primary form of worship.”
A lustrous example of the genre can be found in “The Heart of Torah: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion” by Rabbi Shai Held (Jewish Publication Society), a two-volume collection of short essays on readings from all five books of the Torah. “When the history of rabbinic literature of this era is written, R. Held’s contributions will be acknowledged as the brightest stars in this new galaxy of Torah teaching,” Greenberg affirms in the foreword that he contributed to “The Heart of Torah.”
Held is the president, dean and chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar, a center for study, practice and community-building in egalitarian Judaism in New York City, and director of its Center for Jewish Leadership and Ideas. His previous book was a celebration of the theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel, and it is on Heschel’s path — from “self-centeredness to God-centeredness” — Held himself walks in “The Heart of Torah.”
Held is not concerned with the question of divine authorship of the Bible. He affirms Heschel’s admonition that “more decisive than the origin of the Bible in God is the presence of God in the Bible,” and Held’s stated aspiration is that his readers “may now and again catch a glimpse of heaven as they read, as I was blessed to catch them as I wrote.”
At the same time, Held insists on confronting his readers with the hard edges and the dark corners of the biblical text. “From its very beginning, the Torah subtly warns us against Pollyannish notions of moral progress,” he writes in reference to the story of Cain in the Book of Genesis. “The same man who invented cities, we learn, also invented murder.” And Lemekh, the descendant of Cain, is even more bloodthirsty than his notorious ancestor: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lemekh seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:24).
Each entry in “The Heart of Torah” is rooted in a specific weekly Torah portion, and that’s why it is best read with an open Bible at hand. Indeed, the real glory of Held’s book is that he shines a bright light on the ancient text, and he brings out the nuances, interconnections and interpretations that make the Bible come fully alive for the modern reader. Held may want us to glimpse heaven in the Torah, but what we also glimpse in “The Heart of Torah” is a rich and provocative human mind at work.
A good example is Held’s entry on the second parsha in Genesis, which focuses on the mind-bending proposition that human beings are made in the image of an imageless God. Held’s sources include such revered medieval figures as Maimonides and Saadia Gaon, but also more recent rabbinical authorities like Rabbi Meir Simha of Dvinsk and Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, both born in the 19th century, and even a contemporary German Protestant theologian, Michael Welker. Held points out the “ancient Near Eastern context” of the original text, but he also ponders how modern environmentalists have criticized the “arrogance toward nature” that they detect in the biblical notion that human stewardship over creation is mandated by God.
“In modern times, amid an almost manic need to produce and consume more and more, we have all too often lost sight of what has been entrusted to us,” Held concludes. “What we need is not to abandon Genesis 1 but to return to it and to rediscover there what we have forgotten or failed to see altogether.” So, he rejects the “anthrocentrism” that can be seen at the surface of the text and looks instead for deeper meanings: “This is another way to understand the democratization of the image of God: Every human being, each and every one of us, is responsible for his or her actions.” If God has given us power over creation, we are called upon to exercise that power as God would.
When his eye falls on parashat Ki Tetse’ in the Book of Deuteronomy, as another example, Held’s first thought is to remind us that slavery is not merely a dusty historical relic. “[S]hocking as it is, more than twenty million people around the world are enslaved to this day,” he writes. And he argues that “a stunningly revolutionary passage” from Deuteronomy “can help us formulate a response to this appalling phenomenon.” Contrary to the prevailing laws of the ancient Near East, the Torah commands, “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master” (Deuteronomy 23:16). And, quoting Bible scholar Christopher Wright, Held points out that the duty to shelter a runaway slave is only one clause of the “social legislation on behalf of the poor and the weak” that fills the pages of Deuteronomy.
“The Heart of Torah,” then, is a spirited call to moral action and social justice. “In any age when Jews have access to political and economic power in ways our ancestors could scarcely have dreamed of, surely we ought to be at the forefront of contemporary movements for abolition and liberation,” Held writes. “Where slavery was concerned, Deuteronomy was enormously radical in its time; to take its message seriously is to be enormously radical in our own.”
Exactly here is the notion that makes Held’s commentaries so compelling. Relatively few Jews study the Torah at all, and those who do are not likely to penetrate to the remarkable inner meanings that he discerns in the text. But Held is not content with learning Torah. He insists that we must not only study the word of God; rather, we must both “hear and do.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.
A Vision for Jewish Education
Hadar's Standards for Fluency in Jewish Text and Practice
The Curriculum Project at Hadar is excited to share with you the Standards for Fluency in Jewish Text and Practice!
Imagine a world in which Jewish children not only have strong Jewish identities, but their passion and enthusiasm for Judaism is accompanied by fluency in the texts and practices of Judaism. Imagine a world in which these children grow into adults who can sustain, participate in, promote, and teach a vision of Jewish life that is meaningful and compelling. If Jewish education is to be successful we must have a clear definition of the fluency we are striving for as well as roadmaps of the content, skills, and dispositions that should be taught in order to get us there.
Hadar's Standards for Fluency in Jewish Text and Practice, developed in partnership with Beit Rabban Day School, is a ground-breaking educational resource that articulates such a vision for fluency in Tanakh, Torah She-Be-Al Peh, Tefillah, and Jewish Practice, anchoring Jewish education in a shared framework of substance and standards. The resource includes:
- Portraits of eighth grade fluency
- Grade level benchmarks
- Sample curriculum maps
- Suggested content lists
By painting a portrait of fluency, delineating a canon of texts to be mastered, formulating dispositions that should be cultivated, and describing the investments that are needed, these fluency standards will advance the field of Jewish education in its mission to produce a generation of empowered Jews, equipped with the knowledge, skills, and passion to carry Judaism into the future.
Abraham Joshua Heschel's Insights Elucidated for a New Generation
Rabbi Jack Riemer wrote an article for eJewishPhilanthropy in which he praises Rav Shai's new book, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence, now out and available to order from Amazon. The full article is below:
Whenever a new book on the life and thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel appears, I always have two reactions.
One is to marvel at the fact that Heschel is the only one of the star-studded Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) faculty to which he belonged who is still studied and written about today. No one would have believed back in the days when I was a student at JTS that Heschel – and Heschel alone – would be the subject of continued study in our time, for back then he was isolated and even made fun of by many members of the faculty and many of the students.
The second reaction I have whenever I read a new book on Heschel is to hope that the author will focus on his spiritual insights, and not just on his involvement in civil rights, the anti-Vietnam movement, and the cause of Soviet Jewry. For Heschel was above all a religious thinker, and even if his involvement with these causes was important to him, they should not be the only things for which he is remembered.
Shai Held’s new book, “Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence,” does precisely what needs to be done if Heschel is to be properly understood by a new generation. Held focuses on Heschel’s religious insights, for although Heschel was a scholar who made significant contributions to every field of Jewish studies, at his core he was a philosopher of religion whose goal was to make the spiritual insights of Judaism understandable to a generation that needed to know them.
Readers will come away from Held’s book with an understanding of why Heschel was so lonely in his time. He was a Yiddishist and a Hebraist of inordinate ability, yet he was worlds away from the secularism that characterized both of those movements. He was poles apart from both the fundamentalism of many of the Orthodox thinkers of his time, and from the naturalism of many of the Reform and Reconstructionist thinkers of his time. He was passionate about social justice, like the Reform, and he was deeply concerned with the Jewish people, like the Reconstructionists, but he saw social justice and Jewish peoplehood through the lens of a yearning to do the will of God. He was an academic, like the rest of his colleagues at JTS, but he saw his task not as editing manuscripts or studying history, as they did, but as articulating the insights of the Jewish heritage to a generation that was starved for meaning in life. Held therefore is right to focus on the central spiritual insights in Heschel’s thought, and not just celebrating his political or social activities.
Held begins, as Heschel did, with the concept of wonder, which he explains as the ability to recognize and respond to the God who calls on us to share His dreams and work with Him to make this a better world. He explains that for Heschel, God is the very opposite of the Unmoved Mover of Greek Philosophy. He is the “Most Moved Mover,” the One who transcends Himself in order to reach out to man, and who calls upon man to transcend himself in order to respond to God.
Heschel lived through what was perhaps the most barbaric and demonic period in all of human history. He lived in Germany during the years when the Nazis rose to power, and he lost much of his family in the Holocaust, and so he knew the ability of egotism and selfishness to wreak havoc on humanity. He saw the dehumanizing effects of scientism up close, and so he argued for an awareness of the holy dimension of life, and for the need to control the self for the sake of that which is more than the self.
The unique barbarism of our time, Heschel believed, stems from unlimited self-assertion and from callousness to the call of God. The only hope for humanity lies, he believed, in a rediscovery of wonder and a renewed openness to demands that come from beyond us. As he put it, “There must be a counterpart to the immense power of man to destroy. There must be a Voice that says No to man, a voice not vague, faint and inward, but equal in spiritual might to man’s power to destroy.”
Held’s study of Heschel is meticulous and careful. Unlike some of the others who have written about him, his is not a work of uncritical adulation, but an honest wrestling with what is valid in Heschel’s work and what needs greater clarification.
The purpose of this book is to make the insights of Heschel clear for a new generation. The first chapter, on wonder, speaks about the sense of radical amazement that is, for Heschel, the response to the awareness of the gift of life. The second chapter, on religious anthropology, sets Heschel within the context of the religious thinkers of his time and ours. The third chapter, which Held calls “On revelation and co-revelation,” struggles with the issue of the role and the limitations of human beings in the understanding of God’s word. The fourth chapter deals with the concept of the Divine Pathos, God’s ability to transcend Himself and to empathize with us, which is central to Heschel’s understanding of God. The fifth deals with Divine Silence, and the question of how can we hold on to faith despite the evil that we see in this world. The final chapter deals with prayer, not only as a moment for self-expression, as we usually think of it, but as a moment for self-transcendence, as a moment for opening ourselves up to the God who seeks our partnership. In each of these chapters, Held not only teaches Heschel’s ideas and clarifies them when necessary, but also occasionally challenges them.
This is an important book for everyone who wants to understand one of the most significant religious thinkers of modern times. It brings the man whom Reinhold Neibuhr described as “one of Eastern Europe’s greatest spiritual gifts to America” to the attention of a new generation, which needs his warning and his vision.