Another brilliant day of study! I was exhausted by the end, and this was a short day – 8:30 AM to 6:30 PM.
Every page of my writing should begin with a praise of my teachers and praise of my peers. The level of scholarship and engagement, as well as the quality of the learners is unlike any sustained group in which I have ever participated. Each day brings us deeper into this seriously engaged world of soulful learning, and I find that my head wants to separate from my body, float free from physical limitations and live in a world of glorious and challenging study all the time!
(At the same time, every moment that I am with my family I am moved to tears to be blessed to be with them in this world in general, and in Jerusalem in particular!)
The day began with an amazing study session with Noam Tzion – a brilliant scholar who many people know from his wonderful Pesach Haggadah – “A Different Night.”
These morning study sessions, I think I explained before, begin with a brief introduction by the teacher followed by two hours or more of Hevruta study, when we pour over the textual material of the day’s lesson in diads or triads. (Somehow it seems appropriate to use such a Greek ways of saying ‘pairs’ or ‘trios’ since our earliest rabbinic traditions come from an Hellenic world.) This study time is followed by a two hour lesson where the instructor either lectures or leads a discussion on the material.
The theme for the day was really about how Jews engage with this world, with an eye especially towards the obligations of Jews towards non-Jews. Noam specifically focused on how biblical issues of Tzedakah are transformed by the rabbis of the Talmud, and how medieval commentators synthesize the two.
As is always the case, there is both the actual topic or text of the day and then a meta-text. So we spent almost five hours studying a variety of Tzedakah texts and learning a great deal, but the meta-lesson was a very subtle and profound look at the evolution of imagery, motifs and ideas in the tradition. Studying how a core concept can grow from the biblical world, through the rabbinic world of the Talmud, and into medieval Judaism, is the background for the conversation of how does Judaism continue to evolve or devolve in today’s world.
At the core of the lesson was the understanding that Tzedakah as a path towards Tikkun Olam (the repair or continued development of the world) is tied to a sense of Tzedek (justice), usually as a phrase Tzedek uMishpat (justice and judgment), and is directly linked to ideas/ideals of economic justice.
He ended by stressing the point that when Vayikra (Leviticus 25:9) says that “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof” (think Liberty Bell) the tradition understands that it is not sufficient for people to be free, they must also have the economic resources to live with that freedom – Tzedakah is the obligation to be certain they have those resources. Brilliant reading of the tradition.
The afternoon was spent in a lecture and discussion with David Hartman. Again his depth, brilliance, command of the tradition, are matched only his ability to engage with his listeners and sometimes shock them beyond measure!
He continued his analysis of problematic texts within our tradition. Let me share a few brief quotations from the day:
“I love Shabbos. I love Tefillin. I love so much, but there are problems with my tradition.”
“I love the things in the tradition that challenge me to change the tradition.”
“Not everything from the tradition needs to be from Sinai, don’t blame God for human mistakes.”
“Don’t expect our tradition to be lily-white, it’s human.”
And then a personal favorite, that was said more to make the point and for shock value: “Judaism is a creation of nebuch human beings, and we must take this nebuch tradition and move it forward, recognizing that we also are nebuch.”
He spoke beautifully about needing to balance a recognition of the inherent, universal equality in all human beings with a real sense of Mishpachtology – a love for my family, including its tradition, and a need to be willing to be particularly concerned with the family's well-being.
It is not possible to do justice to his brilliance in brief, but it is a challenging honor to get to sit before him and learn with him and from him.
The day also included some more Havurah time when we sit together and talk about what its like being a rabbi and the continuing series of Yehudah HeLevy’s Kuzari (more later).
That evening, after the kids went to sleep (everyday I get to be home for bedtime is a gift!), Jennifer and I went to walk around downtown together. It was wonderful! We ate and shopped and ate and ate, together. With the right person at the right time and in the right place, simply walking and eating ice cream can be a joyous, centering mystical experience.
Again, by the time the day ended and my head rested on my pillow (it was very late) my eyes closed as I finished saying, Shema Yisrael . . . .