It is hard to believe that the month is rapidly coming to a close! So much left to do. We just got back from the reading of Aicha (The Book of Lamentations) to begin the Fast of Tisha B'Av . We went to the Tayelet - the beautiful promenade that overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem. There more than 600 people gathered to begin the saddest day of the Jewish year and sit on the ground and read the Book of Lamentations.
It was a beautiful Service conducted by our friends from Moreshet Avraham – the Mesorti (Conservative) Congregation in Talpiyot. But, it is so hard to be sad on Tisha B’av here in Jerusalem. We read the ancient words of Jeremiah who was an eye witness to the destruction of The Temple more than 2500 years ago and they just don’t apply any more. Aicha Yashva Badad – How the city sits desolate…”
But the city no longer sits desolate – she is alive once again – Jerusalem is no longer destroyed – it is rebuilt and vibrant and alive!! The contrast between the words we chant and the reality that we see with our eyes is stark and confusing.
As we sat on the floor – children were playing in the grass and running and making too much noise behind us. I was about to say something – when I realized that the contrast was precisely the point. These children and their laughter were the reality of a Jerusalem that was filled with life – not the words we were reading in our books.
It was hard to keep my eyes in the book – my gaze kept wandering to the drama that was playing out in front of me – it was one that was much more compelling and certainly more uplifting.
Yesterday I took a break from my studies to attend the Hazkara – the memorial service at the grave of Michael Levin in the Military Cemetery at Mt. Herzel.
Michael some of you may remember was a young soldier who had made aliyah from Philadelphia and was serving with the Paratroopers in the War in Lebanon last summer when he was tragically killed. Michael was a student of mine at Camp Ramah – I remember a few years ago – the last time I saw him – when we bumped into him in downtown Jerusalem and he told us with great joy and excitement that he was entering the army in a few weeks. He was so excited – it was for him a fulfillment of a dream and for him it was clearly the great accomplishment of his life. We gathered at his grave – family, friends, Israelis and Americans -- his fellow soldiers and friends.
We said the memorial prayers and closed with the singing of Hatikvah. This is a land of so many contradictions – the highs are so high and the lows are so terribly low. I hugged his parents – what could I say. There are occasions too deep for words.
If you would like to know more about Michael you can check it out at: http://www.jewlicious.com/?p=2500
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Saturday afternoon we took a walk over to David’s Citadel Hotel and met up with Susan and Alan Zelman who are here on Chancellor Eisen’s trip from the Jewish Theological Seminary. They seem to be having a remarkable experience. We sat in on Seudah Shelishit and met Ari Alon – a good friend of Chancellor Eisen’s from his days back at Oxford. Ari is a formerly Orthodox Jew who refuses to call himself Secular and sees himself as deeply religious and as an author – is attempting to re-appropriate traditional language and sources independent of the existing Orthodox establishment in Israel.
It is fascinating to see Israelis who do not have the wide varieties of Judaism that we do in the States – struggle to find expression here in Israel. The available choices are all or nothing – Orthodoxy or Secularism – and more and more Israelis are rejecting these limiting alternatives and seeking to find ways on their own to express their Jewish identity and their Jewishness.
After Shabbat was over we took a long walk with the Zelmans and showed them our apartment, our neighborhood and we ended up having coffee at a new Aroma that is located in a new shopping mall that overlooks the walls of the old city. It was a beautiful site and a pleasant moment we shared together – but somehow the words: “a new shopping mall that overlooks the walls of the old city…” sticks in my throat. Oh well – progress.
On Sunday, after our studies we took a fascinating trip to Hebron. Hebron is a complicated and troubling place. It is the site of conflicting emotions, conflicting claims and enormous tension. Hebron is one of the four ancient cities in Israel (can you name the other three?) – it contains the traditional site of the burial places of all of our patriarchs and matriarchs save one. (Can you name the one?) It has deep religious and historical connections to the Jewish people.
In 1929 there was a small Jewish community that was living there that was brutally wiped out in the Arab Riots – men, women and children were attacked, raped and tortured. In 1967 Jews returned to Hebron – but it was settled by the very right wing settler movement who had a clear ideological goal of establishing the greater Israel on all the conquered lands. While the politicians of Israel have wrestled with the rights of the settlers – over the years – the army has been left with the responsibility to defend them. Defending a small Jewish presence in the midst of a large and hostile Arab community is not an easy challenge. Whether Jews should be in Hebron at all – is a political debate – the army does not enter into such debates – it’s job is simple and straightforward – to protect Jews.
But the accomplishment of that goal is far from simple and straightforward. Armies are good at fighting wars – but as we in America are learning in Iraq – they are not designed for maintaining civil order. When armies become police forces trouble quickly follows. We were taken on a tour of Hebron by a group called: Shevirat HaShtika – “Breaking the Silence”. These are former Israeli soldiers who are troubled by what they were called upon to do during the course of their training and Reserve Duty. Shevirat HaShtika was formed as a kind of therapy to enable them to talk about these things – what power does to you when Palestinian civilians are under your command. They claim not to have any particular political agenda but merely to sensitize Israel to the realities of occupation and the price of controlling another people.
The problem that everybody recognizes is that there are no good solutions. Israel has tried negotiations, it has tried separation – and now who is there to talk to, even should they decide to talk?? They are a people without any good options – they don’t even have many bad options. But Hebron is a reminder of this situation at its most difficult. The Jews here hate the Arabs, and the Arabs here hate the Jews and each will give you a long litany of reasons as to why the other is at fault and should be removed from the situation – and the Israeli Army is left to try and keep them from killing each other on a daily basis!!
Our learning continued on Monday and Tuesday we are studying the foundation’s of Philosophy: Aristotle, Kant and Nietzche with Moshe Halbertol – but we also are looking at some of the great Jewish thinkers and seeing how these classic philosophers influenced their works. In the mornings we continued out text studies with David Hartman himself.
Tuesday night Edy got tickets for the IBL – the newly formed Israel Baseball League. We traveled to the Yarkon Field outside Petach Tikvah to see the Modiin Miracle play the Petach Tikvah Pioneers. We set our expectations as low as possible and we actually had a wonderful time.
The baseball is hardly even of a minor league quality but still it was baseball! When we first arrived we were shocked more by the crowd than the players. They were almost all Americans and mostly frum. All the announcements were in English!! The few Israelis who were there had stumbled onto the game because they met one of the players in the bar the night before and he gave them a ticket.
Many of the Americans who were there – likewise had some connection to the players: “Put in David Friedman!!” When we asked who was David Friedman – they explained it was their cousin. They had been to several games and hadn’t seen him play once! Total attendance at today’s game? Well we were told not to expect much. Someone who had been at a previous game told us there were only 50 people! At our game – I don’t think there were 50! But this meant that everybody got at least one foul ball to take home – that was until they needed them back for the homerun derby. They play 7 innings and if they are tired after 7 instead of going extra innings they have a home run derby – but at this late point in the game they had run out of balls – so they had to ask everyone to return the foul balls they had collected so they could finish the game!
In the end the Modiin Miracle (my team) won and I got a ball (one I purchased) autographed by the coach of the Petach Tikvah Miracle – Ken Holtzman and by the coach of the Modiin Miracle – Art Shamsky!
Wednesday was a jam packed day as we left early for a tiyul up to the Upper Gallile.
Soon we were back on the road. The agenda was to see the results of last years Lebanon War on the north, speak to the residents and get a feel for what was going on. The most remarkable part of this experience was that we had a meeting with Rachel Rabin – sister of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin z”l. She was one of the founders of the kibbutz Menara that we visited in 1943.
Notice the picture of her brother -- the former Prime Minister -- in the background. Can you see the resemblence?
Situated on the border with Lebanon—Kibbutz Menara really suffered during last year's war but it is a remarkable place and Rachel is one of the true Israeli pioneers. She showed us a film from 1943 of what this hill looked like when they arrived with nothing than their young backs and an incredible spirit – and we then got to see what they built over the years – not only a kibbutz but a country. She spoke honestly about the challenges for the future and here hopes and dreams as well as her frustrations. It was an incredible exchange.
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This morning we went shopping for Shabbat. Wow! Friday early morning at Mahane Yeduah – the outdoor market in Jerusalem also known as the shuk –it is like no other experience in the world! (Be prepared for a lot of exclamation points in this entry!)
How does one describe the shuk ? To experience the shuk is to truly experience Israel. It is so full – full with fresh foods, full with lively colors, full of shoppers pushing and maneuvering for position, full of store keepers hawking their wares.
There is so much intensity, so much vibrancy in the shuk – colors, noises, smells, -- everything is heightened and intensified. The foods are fresh and abundant and so in your face – not wrapped in plastic or hidden on a shelf – they are right there – to taste, to smell to touch.
“Try this!” – shouts one spice dealer as he shoves a spoonful of a mixture for salads with raisins and herbs and nuts in your face. “Carrot salad, please.” “Which one?” – the seller shouts? “Which do you have?” “Spicy, sweet, with lemons, with raisins – here try them, in fact why not take them all?” Next to me a man is buying his fish – fresh for Shabbat – feeling each one, judging their perfection.
So much noise, so many colors, so much movement and activity – so full of life. That is what I love about the shuk – it is life lived intensely. In the span of a minute the shopkeeper will yell at you, laugh with you and educate you. Transactions are not the passive exchange of goods for money but the passionate exchange of opinions and experience and life!
Why purchase fruit from this vendor when right across the way is the same fruit but no line?? “What do you mean the same fruit? How dare you compare my fruit to his fruit!”
“I would like some halava please.” The seller laughs at me – what kind of halava? Coffee halava? Pistachio halava? Chocolate halava? And the list goes on and on – “Here try them all – and then decide!”
The packages get heavier, the crowds get more insistent. It is not easy to live life this way – always on the edge, always at the top of the register – always shouting and pushing for space, for air for the best, the freshest – but it is so alive, it is so irresistible - almost hypnotic. Who would not want to be a part of such a life? Who would not rather shop this way, live this way? Do I prefer to wander in a stupor down the air conditioned aisles of a supermarket – lulled by the sweet sounds of soft music – everything organized and properly placed for optimum convenience and for your shopping pleasure? Here it is all chaos, all choices, everything vying for your attention, your approval. Indifference is not an option in the shuk . Boredom is not an option. Passivity is not one of the alternatives Choices must be made. Decisions must be rendered. Life must be lived.
I love this place! This is how the story of life is told when Jews are the authors. This is how life is lived when Jews do the living. I need a break! And then back out to finish our shopping!
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Our program is now at its halfway point. It has been everything I could have hoped for and more – challenging, inspiring, thoughtful and filled with fellowship and the joy of learning. Each morning we begin with a hevruta study period – reviewing the sources prepared for us and then followed by the scholar of the day’s lecture.
I told you about some of the luminaries we studied with at the beginning – allow me to bring you up to date. Over the past few days we have studied with Noam Zion, David Ellenson, Arnie Eisen, Israel Knoll and Donniel and David Hartman.
Noam Zion is a wonderful teacher and the author of the popular Haggadah that I have recommended for years: A Different Night- The Family Participation Haggadah. Rabbi Friedman and I have been speaking to him about the possibility of his coming in as a scholar in residence at TBS in the next year or so – he is a marvelous teacher.
David Ellenson is the president of the Hebrew Union College and of course Arnie Eisen is the new Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. They had a wonderful evening of dialogue on the challenges that confront our Movements in North America. Arnie made us all proud – he was a true visionary, dynamic and profound. He laid out a very exciting program for the revitalization of Conservative Judaism and I am proud as a member of his Rabbinic Cabinet that we at TBS are going to be right at the heart of that revitalization.
Israel Knoll is the Yehezkel Kaufman Professor of bible at Hebrew University and his presentation was a fascinating analysis of the First Biblical Story on Tikkun Olom. It is always amazing when you can take a story you have read and studied dozens of times before and in the hands of a skilled and talented scholar see it anew and from a totally different perspective.
This morning Donniel Hartman tied a lot of what we had been exploring together in his lecture on NIMBY – Jewish Sources on Not In My Back Yard syndrome. Using everything from the Talmud, the Rambam’s Mishne Torah , The Book of Esther and so forth he set forth a fascinating dialectic between a life that promotes your own legitimate needs and one that is concerned for the welfare of others beyond yourself. In fact, I was thinking these sources might make the basis of a wonderful Adult Ed Course – I know that Florence Meyers is waiting for my summary for my course for this Fall's Herbert Tarr Institute – I think I might have something for you, Florence!
On Tuesday we took a break from our studies – a tuches can take only so much – and we were able to choose from a number of tiyulim or trips to various parts of the country. I chose a tiyul to Har Gilboa up near Beit Shean in the Galil. The Gilboa was the sight of the Biblical battle where Saul and his three sons’ were killed in the fight with the Philistines. The views from the top are breathtaking, the walk was challenging and we also studied the relevant chapters of the Bible during our breaks!
Your intrepid Rabbi with Rabbi Neil Cooper of Wynewood, Pa. -- an old and dear friend.
The Hartman Tiyul Group
At the end we took an unforgettable walk through Nahal Kibbutzim which is about a half hour walk in a small river where the entire time the water is up to your neck!
Thirty rabbis, walking through water up to their neck -- that was a sight to behold. After the very hot hike the cold water was truly a mehiyah (even if the cleanliness was not exactly up to Roslyn standards.)
We have also found time to take in the Jerusalem Film Festival – tonight we are meeting friends for dinner at a hot new steak restaurant located, in of all places, Mahaneh Yehuda(!) and then to see a Spanish Movie titled: The Other (with English subtitles I hope!) If you are interested in knowing more about the movie, you can check it out at: http://www.jff.org.il/?CategoryID=255&ArticleID=23. Last week we saw a movie called Persipolis http://www.jff.org.il/?CategoryID=257&ArticleID=167 an animated French feature that dealt with a young girls journey in Iran from before the fall of the Shah until she flees to France as a young woman.
I must say Israel is a very different place this summer than it was last summer! Last summer we were in the midst of a war! We were all riveted to our television screens watching the daily bombardment of missiles in the North. This summer, it is life – back to normal. Israelis are nothing if not resilient.
Today was the end of the RTS – the Hartman program that invites hundreds of rabbis each year without any commitment. Now, we are left with the hard core 30 of us in the RLI – the Rabbinic Leadership Institute that makes up the Hartman Fellows program I explained below. It will be a little lonelier without all the others – but now the focus will be wholly on us and I expect things to ratchet up a notch (as if it were possible to get any more intense that it already was.)
There are no classes tomorrow (Friday) but Professor Lee Levine is giving a lecture on the Second Temple Period and taking a group on a trip to the Second Temple Model which is now located at the Hebrew Museum. I studied this material with Prof. Levine 30 years ago when I was a student at the Hebrew University and I am curious to see if the field has changed much since then!
I have spoken to Susan and Alan Zelman who are here as part of a JTSA Study Mission that is being led by Chancellor Eisen. I hope to connect with them on Motzei Shabbat and hear all about their experiences.
So, all continues to go more than well here in Israel and I hope the same is true of you back home. Until next time!
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It is hard to believe we are getting ready for our second Shabbat – but so it is!
It has been a wonderful, exciting, stimulating, and exhausting week. So much to do, so much to study, so many people to speak to – and so little time in a day. And even with that we find that we have waking up early and going to sleep very late. We are looking forward to some welcome Shabbat rest!
While the essence of the Hartman program is learning at the highest levels with some of the finest contemporary Jewish scholars – the subject matter is not incidental. This year the theme is Foundations for a Thoughtful Judaism - Tikun Olam : Judaism and the Global Reality.
Much is now being made of the focus on environmental themes like Global warming and conservation. The question we are confronting in our studies here, is, how do we as Jews speak about this subject? As rabbis do we merely parrot what we read in the pages of the New York Times? Or is there an authentic Jewish vocabulary for discussing environmental concerns and are there historical Jewish sources that give us a unique perspective and a Jewish way to frame this discussion?
A normal day of study begins with a shiur – a study session where we are all gathered around tables in the beautiful and majestic Beit Hamidrash. The lecturer for that day outlines his or her goals and points us to the materials that he or she has prepared for us. For the next several hours we study in hevruta – in twos and threes in the traditional style of Jewish textual learning – we study the traditional sources that have been selected – translating them and arguing over their possible meanings and implications. At around 11:00 AM the professor comes back and gives an almost two hour presentation on the subject using his or her sources to build his or her case.
For example on the very first day we studied with Dr. Moshe Halbertal, the Hartman Institute’s most senior fellow, who has a PhD in Jewish thought from the Hebrew University where he is currently teaching. (photo at left) He also serves as the Gruss Professor at NYU Law School having previously served as a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Moshe explored with us some very fundamental questions of what does Tikun Olam mean. We studied the sources from its very earliest appearance in the mishna and Talmud through the Middle Ages and how it was used by Maimonides and other early rabbinic sources.
The next day the lecturer was Menachem Lorberbaum who has a PhD in philosophy from the Hebrew University and chairs Tel Aviv University’s Department of Hebrew Culture Studies. He is author of many significant works on the subject of Jewish Political Thought. With him we explored the meaning of universalism and particularism in Judaism.
On Wednesday, the Shiur was conducted by David Hartman himself. (photo at right) David is a leading contemporary Jewish philosopher and he explored the problematic history of some difficult Jewish texts that run counter to a concern for the world. There were many periods when Jews where literally more concerned about their own survival than any more ambitious broad worldly concerns. These texts present us with unique challenges because there are Jewish communities today (mostly in the ultra-Orthodox world) that prefer to quote these sources rather than embracing a more open and outward expression of their Judaism.
Knowing these sources and wrestling with them is an important aspect for those of us who wish to orient Judaism in a more open and outward posture.
On Thursday we studied with Melila Hellner-Eshed who has a PhD in Jewish mysticism from the Hebrew University. Melila teaches Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University and she is a central figure in the Israeli renaissance of Jewish textual study. She presented us with some wonderful medieval mystical texts from the Zohar and elsewhere that are a delightful way that Jews looked at their world as being a place that needs to contstantly be in balance and that contstantlu needs human correction becasue it is forever being placed in vrious forms of imbalance due to human neglect or worse.
The challenge in each generation is to restore the balance. It is a wonderful and exciting Jewish vocabulary that enables us to embrace contemporary discussions of environmentalism in uniquely Jewish ways.
These brief capsules of what I have been doing do not do justice to the richness of the studies, the joy of the companionship formed in study with colleagues and the level of genius and insight offered by this collection of scholars.
Each day we think it cannot get better or more inspiring – and somehow it does. Interspersed are other lectures by the likes of Steve Cohen -- one of the leading sociologists of American Jewry – whom we hosted at TBS last year and David Hartman and Donniel Hartman (photo at right) and roundtable sessions where this wonderful collection of rabbis from around the world get a chance to share and learn from each other.
Edy and I still found time last night to go to the opening of the Jerusalem Film Festival which was held outdoors at Sultan’s Pool and topped off with fire works!
Opening night at the Jerusalem Film Festival
Tonight our group of 27 Hartman Fellows and their spouses are invited for Shabbat dinner at Donniel and Adina Hartman’s home.
It has been a most wonderful week – filled with sweet Jerusalem air, the wonderful joy of study with friends and colleagues and the inspiration of some of contemporary Judaism’s finest minds.
Did I hear some of you say that this is not your idea of fun?
Reminds me of the story the Moshe Halbertal shared with us – which he said that his grandfather once told him. His grandfather – a very pious Jew – once remarked that the idea that when you die people go to different places depending on whether they were righteous or wicked is nonsense!
Little Moshele was surprised – because this was indeed what he had been taught in heder !
“No!” said his zayde, “everyone goes to the same place – it is a large Beit Midrash (Study Hall) filled with every kind of Jew – and they hand out Talmuds to everyone – and they all study from morning to night.
For the righteous it is heaven and for the wicked it is hell!
While clearly laying no claims to righteousness – I will say that this is a little piece of heaven right here on earth!
To each and every one of you – Shabbat Shalom and I look forward to sharing our continuing experiences in Jerusalem after Shabbat.
With warmest regards
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