A Biblical Commentator With Heart

Monday, September 25, 2017

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.”