What a remarkable experience to see your baby having a baby. To see your daughter responding with love and maturity to the demands of a new life. It is hard to know where to look first at the baby or at the mother – both are an incredible cause for amazement and thanksgiving. We are grateful that our grandson is healthy and well. We are grateful that mother and father are fine and blessed with everything they require to raise our grandson well. We are truly blessed.
And now we are in Israel – studying at the Hartman Institute. I am participating in the Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar, which has as its subtitle: “Foundations for a Thoughtful Judaism.”
The topic for this summer is: Crisis and Uncertainty: Paradigms of Response.
It has indeed been an amazing year and many of us have “felt the ground moving under our feet” – this year it became almost an earthquake. There is an uncertainly and vulnerability in the world that many of us have never experienced before. Things look very different this summer than they did just one year ago – and the future looks much more challenging for us as individuals and for our institutions than it did just a year ago.
As a result our teachers at Hartman decided to focus our learning this summer on how our tradition responds to crisis and uncertainty.
Rabbi David Hartman gave an opening lecture entitled: “The Contingent Feature of the Jewish View of History.” A religious person is tempted to believe that everything that happens is ultimately part of God’s plan. David Hartman showed that is not the only religious response to crisis and that our sacred sources have other complex ways to respond to history – not only by ascribing everything to God’s will. Sometimes it is very much the absence of God that is experienced in the things that happen to us.
In dealing with crisis we recognize that there is personal crisis and national crisis – and while they are very different in some ways – they are also very similar in the responses they demand from each of us.
We have sessions with colleagues from around the country where we speak about our own sense of how each of us is experiencing: “The ground moving under our feet” – there is a comfort in knowing that others are experiencing what you are experiencing and a wisdom that comes from sharing.
On Tuesday and Wednesday Rabbi Donniel Hartman gave a two-part shiur (lesson) on “Ethical Responses to Uncertainty.”
On Tuesday evening we met with the new mayor of Jerusalem Nir Birkat and were briefed on the challenges and opportunities he sees for this most unusual of cities.
Last night we had a most remarkable lecture presented by one of my favorite scholars here at the Hartman Institute, Dr. Michah Goodman – that was titled: “Personal Crisis and Theological Audacity – Job and the Rabbis” It was one of the most incredible presentations on the book of Job that I ever heard. I am sure you will hear much about this in the months to come.
This morning, Thursday July 9 our study session is led by Dr. Melila Hellner-Eshed whose expertise is mystical literature and poetry. We studied Midrashic, Zoharic, and Hasidic strategies for surviving and transforming crisis. We read sections of the Zohar and sermons delivered in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation by Kalonymus Kalman Shapira the Rebbe of Piaseczno. We studied poems by the contemporary Israeli poets Zelda and Yehuda Amichai as well as one poem written after the war in 1945 by a polish Jew, called “The Bridge” – it goes as follows:
I didn’t believe,
Standing on the bank of a river
Which was wide and swift,
That I would cross that bridge
Plaited from thin, fragile reeds
Fastened with bast.
I walked delicately as a butterfly
And heavily as an elephant,
I walked surely as a dancer
And wavered like a blind man.
I didn’t believe that I would cross that bridge,
And now that I am standing on the other side,
I don’t believe I crossed it.
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It is also nice to be back at the Hartman Institute – surrounded by good friends who have become very close friends over the course of this three year experience. By now we have spent several summers together, several winter trips together and shared our videoconferences on Mondays for three years. We know each others joys and challenges and the hugs and kisses are much more than gestures they are signs of real caring and concern.
It is great to be learning once again. The program at Hartman is indeed a strenuous one. One of the reasons it has taken me so long to get to my blog is that they keep us going from early morning to late at night. It is hard in the midst of all the hustle and bustle just to find a moment to sit and reflect.
Minyan begins at 6:30 AM – (and I used to grumble about our 6:45 start at TBS!) I have been experimenting with a few synagogues in the neighborhood and I think I have settled on a minyan that is conducted at the Yehudah HaLevi school that is literally outside the front door of our apartment. It is not only convenient but known for its speed – not always the most appealing of prayer attributes but at 6:30 AM not an unwelcome feature of the davening.
By 8:30 we are in our seats and ready to begin our morning shiur – the professor for the day preps us with leading questions and then we spend the morning in hevruta – studying the prepared texts from the Bible, Talmud, Medieval commentators etc. in small groups. My group usually consists of Rabbi Neil Zuckerman who is a rabbi in Potomac, MD (formally a TBS rabbinic intern), Rabbi Vernon Kurtz a rabbi in Highland Park, IL, Rabbi Sam Kieffer a rabbi in Miami, FL. (his father was a long time rabbi at Old Westbury Hebrew Cong.) With a break for lunch our studies and lectures continue throughout the day. We break at around 4 and resume with dinner at 6 and this is usually followed by an evening program that concludes around 9 PM. This leaves us time for a walk to Emek Refaim – the main restaurant drag – for ice cream, a walk back to our apartment and some welcome sleep before we repeat it all the next day.
I promise to try and keep you informed on what is happening – but as I said – my schedule does not allow for a lot of down time and I will do my best. I am writing this on Thursday morning after Services and before I leave for classes. I will post this and I hope to update it a little later. At that time I will try and fill you in on the topic for this summer and the subject of our studies.
Until then – all our love from eretz yisrael.
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The final few days have been no less remarkable than the previous few weeks. Our last week of studies included classes with Donniel Hartman in the morning and Melila Hellner-Eshed in the afternoons.
One of the most interesting aspects of our final days was the inclusion of a session with Christian leaders. The Hartman Institute has just begun a 10 day Christian Leadership Conference where Hartman, in conjunction with the American Jewish Committee, has invited a number of the leading Christian thinkers of various Protestant and Catholic denominations for a study mission in Jerusalem. The goal is not dialogue but study and immersion in ancient Jewish texts and contemporary Israeli society. They are a fascinating group and one morning we had a chance to study Talmud with them in Hevruta. I was paired up with the Rev. Dr. Cynthia M Cambell who is the president of the McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. She is the first woman to be elected president of a Presbyterian seminary in the United States. She recently published a book entitled: "A Multitude of Blessings: A Christian Approach to Religious Diversity." I also had the privilege to study with the Rev. Dr. Douglas Mills who is the Associate General Secretary for the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns for the United Methodist Church located in Manhattan. We studied two Talmudic texts together -- one from the Tractate of Kiddushin 39b which explores the age old question of why the righteous suffer and the wicked flourish. We also studied one of the most fascinating sections from the tractate of Avodah Zarah 54b. Our Christian friends had never studied Talmud before and remarked that there was nothing like this in their tradition: A text that raises argumentation to an art form and feels no need for resolution but is satisfied just to allow a multiplicity of opinions interact with each other -- we had a wonderful time. There is nothing like studying together to open a relationship and encourage a deep and honest conversation.
And now it has come to an end.
How do I begin to capture the scope of what I have been involved in these past few weeks? Does the 110 typed pages of notes give you an idea? Or maybe the 225 hours of sessions we were involved in give you another glimpse. How do I share with you the countless conversations with colleagues and scholars, Israelis on the street and opinion makers in various fields from the military to the arts? It has been a remarkable experience that will nourish me (and you) for months to come.
On Wednesday evening we gathered in the apartment of one of our colleagues Rabbi Sam Gordon from Chicago for a wrap up. Sam and his wife are staying in the Guest House at Mishkenot Shaananim. It is one of the most magnificent places in Jerusalem. Originally built by Sir Moses Montifiore in the 1800's to encourage Jewish settlement outside the walls of the old city -- today it has been remodeled and serves as a center for the arts encouraging artists from around the world to use Jerusalem as their inspiration. We sat on his balcony, overlooking the walls of the Old city and with Jerusalem as our backdrop and our inspiration we spoke of the remarkable time we shared together.
We have become quite a close group of some 26 rabbis of all denominations. We respect each other, we have learned from each other and we have developed that special love that can come only from sharing and caring and studying together. We had a wonderful evening. We laughed, shared stories and a lot of wine and scotch and then embraced each other with the knowledge that, God willing, our journey together will continue. In October our video conference learning sessions will start up again, in January we return to Jerusalem for a week of intensive study and next summer we all hope and pray to be back together to rejoice in the special privilege of studying Torah together in Jerusalem.
So as things wrap up here in Jerusalem, I look forward to seeing all our good friends back in Roslyn and I am returning renewed and refreshed and excited about the opportunity to continue all of the wonderful and exciting things we have planned for this coming year. I hope you will be inspired by my studies to renew your commitment to Jewish learning. I hope that the joys I experienced in learning and praying will be inspire you to join in our dynamic community of learning and prayer and fellowship at TBS. I hope to see you soon.
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For example I am sure you have all been following the events surrounding the return of the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. It was two years ago, July 12, 2006 that Hezbollah attacked a reserve patrol along the northern border but because they took their bodies it was not known for sure if they were alive or dead.
In many ways this attack precipitated the second Lebanon War that had such catastrophic results for Israel. It was their capture that caused us at TBS to start saying the prayer for soldiers that we recite every Shabbat morning as part of our davening.
And it came to an end this past Wednesday when all Israel watched the live television picture of Hezbollah announcing that if you want to know the fate of your boys? And then they placed two coffins on the ground. It was a sad moment, a tragic moment in the life of modern Israel - and it was played out over 24 hours culminating in their funerals on Thursday. It was heart wrenching - but as usual it was a privilege to be here and see how this country and this people deals with its heartbreak. The comments of Karnit Goldwasser who spoke at her husband's funeral -- they had been married less than a year - and the clips from their wedding video are interspersed with his funeral on Israeli TV.
And now begins the debate -- was it worth it? was it the right thing to do? Israel traded 199 bodies and 5 live Lebanese prisoners -- to get back the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Israel is now going through that internal soul searching that it does so well. The commentators are giving their opinions and the people are debating and something very remarkable is happening. There right in front of my eyes a nation is changing, maturing, learning, reacting.
I don't know why but it just doesn't seem to happen that way in America. There are events, there are those who speak out -- but maybe because we are so much larger -- you just don't see it happening -- the wheels turning, the pained looks, the thoughtful responses the anger and sadness that gives way to understanding and growth. Here it is just so much more -- real.
What makes this country so remarkable is that it does learn. It grows. Yes, it makes mistakes -- and some of them have been tragic. But, it rarely sweeps them under the rug, it almost never ignores them or denies them -- that is not what they do here. Here, like father Jacob so long ago -- in an act that got his name changed to Yisrael -- here they wrestle.
Wrestling is still what Israel does best -- they wrestle with each other, but most of all, they wrestle with themselves.
Two scenes played out on the TV screen this past week -- on the other side of the border Nasralloah gave triumphant speeches how they won. They danced and they celebrated a victory that brought them nothing. And here on our side --we cried and we mourned the funeral of our two boys who finally came home. There was a lot of crying here in Israel this week and a lot of sad conversation, some heated debates and a lot of love and support. I am glad that I am on this side of the border -- on our side.
For a wonderful example of the kind of soul searching that is going on here take a look at this Danny Gordis piece
On Wednesday night we took a walking tour of the Nahlaot section of Jerusalem with Benjy Levin the grandson of "The Tzadik of Jerusalem" Reb Aryeh Levin. It was a remarkable evening of stories and a glimpse into a Jerusalem that is no more. We were introduced to the characters who walked these streets almost some 60 years ago. Sinners and saints and personalities that were quite remarkable. Like the milkman Reb Sholem who was so pious that he was disturbed by the housewives of Rehavia who were coming out to purchase their milk in their nightgowns -- so he dipped his Streimel --his hat in herring brine and smelled so bad -- they left the bottles on the doorstep with a note rather than coming out to meet him.
On Thursday we took a tiyul, a trip down to Qumran on the Dead Sea. We were escorted by Hanan Eshel a remarkable archeologist who specializes in the Dead Sea Scrolls. You can read more about him here
We spent an entire day learning about the Qumran sect and one of the things that we learned is that Qumran in the summer is VERY HOT! Having barely survived our trek up to a few of the caves where the scrolls were found and exploring the community in which they lived more than 2000 years ago -- we were bussed up to the Israel Museum where we were met by Adolfo Roitman the Director of the Shrine of the Book that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls. You can actually see what we saw at: Israel Museum Shire of the Book web site as they have put many of their precious texts online.
There has been much in the news lately about this period of history from another one of our teachers at the Hartman Institute -- Israel Knohl. You may have seen the article in the New York Times and it has created a lot of discussion and conversation here.
We also managed to take in a couple of movies as part of the Jerusalem film Festive -- a Czech Film called "Empties", that was very cute and a Jordanian film called "Recycle" that was very troubling.
And remember, all of this was just a quick walk through of what has been going on this past week outside of my classes!!!!
Now we are preparing for Shabbat. I forgot to mention that last week we had the pleasant surprise of bumping into Billy and Rachel Goldstein, Jacob and Morris in shul! We were all davening at Shira Hadasha -- what a treat. Tonight we are having some friends over for dinner. Tomorrow we will be davening at a shul called Yediya and having lunch with Rabbi Joel and Barbara Roth.
So Shabbat Shalom and I look forward to continuing our conversation soon.
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So remember how I said I would be meeting a friend at 7:45 AM to explore a new shul in Jerusalem? Well it may have been a new shul for me - but it is hardly a new shul. Located on the Via Delarosa in the middle of the Arab Shuk in the Old City -- this shul was founded by the pre-'48 Jewish community that lived in the Old City at that time. It was lost from 1948-1967 when the Old City was under Jordanian Rule but was reestablished in 1967 when Israel retook the Old City. It has been meeting faithfully since then. It is quite a walk to get there -- from The German Colony where I live, down past The Sultan's Pool, up to the walls of the Old City, through the winding streets of the Christian and then Arab Quarters of the Old City -- to this wonderful, small shul. The attendance was small but the spirit was great. After services my friend took me to climb up a ladder to the roof of the shul with a fantastic view of the Old City. There before me was the chaos of the Old City -- Christian Pilgrims singing and walking the Via Delarosa, Arab merchants hawking their wares, Jews making their way to and from the Kotel, the smells and sights and sounds were overwhelming.
We then walked back to our apartment, and I was back home at 10:30AM! Just a little different from my usual Shabbat morning routine in Roslyn.
The classes continue to go well and each one is a new opportunity to explore new ideas with wonderful scholars. In the course of the week I studied with Melila Hellner-Eshed on "Ways of Remembering Sinai" and Rachel Korazim on "Holocaust Narratives and their Impact on Contemporary Jewish Identities." Rani Jaeger led a fascinating session on "Megilat Ha'azmaut (The Israeli Declaration of Independence): The Construction and Deconstruction of the Israeli Narrative". Doniel Hartman gave a wonderful lesson on "The Rabbinic Narratives of God and in the afternoons I studied with Moshe Halbertal four sessions on "Law and Narrative in the Talmud." And these are just the day sessions -- our evenings have been filled with a lecture by Doniel Hartman on "Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron -- Competing Foundational Narratives for Understanding Modern Israel." And anther night we saw the movie "Beaufort" and were led in a conversation by Stuart Schoffman - film critic and journalist.
Last Monday we took a tiyul -- a walking tour of some of the neighborhoods of Jerusalem. We sat by one of the earliest apartments in Rechavia and our guide, Dr. Elan Ezrachi, Director of Yad Ben Zvi read a beautiful piece written around 1903 of a man who took his children to this very spot and told them he had just purchased this land and this is where he would build his new home -- he described the desolate scene of what was then an area filled with rocks and thorns. He then proceeded to tell us that the apartment we were looking at was the building he built and the man was his grandfather -- and he and his children live there to this day! It was quite remarkable - how the old and the new and the ancient and the contemporary- how history and reality intertwine at every step in this remarkable place.
We saw the Walk's when they were here and I am trying to reach some of our kids who are here on Pilgrimage.
We had a wonderful conversation with Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California on some of the challenges facing the contemporary American synagogue -- such as how to change a crowd of people into a community. I think some of his ideas jive very nicely with the initiatives we are taking with our Legacy Heritage Grant/ Mentors program that Gila is developing and I suspect you will hear much more about this on the High Holy Days.
Now, I have a short break before returning for my afternoon session with Melila Hellner-Eshed on "Images of God" -- I will be using some of this material in my Herbert Tarr Adult Ed course this fall which I am calling "Talking About God".
Tonight Alick Isaacs is teaching a session entitled: "How Do We Get from Rational Learning to Spiritual Experience." And each morning this week we are studying with David Hartman himself on the topic of "Messianism".
So, my days are really quite full with learning and the real joy is the 25 or so other rabbis I share this with. We have formed a special bond in this learning and our conversations are as fruitful as the courses themselves. These are a remarkable group of dedicated rabbis who work tirelessly on behalf of Jews and Judaism and it is truly a privilege to study with them and get to know them.
OK -- enough for now. I look forward to seeing you all in a few weeks -- until then -- check back and I hope to have more details soon.
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