Transcending Denominations: The Story of Rabbi Shai Held

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Jewish Standard's Larry Yudelson's March 9, 2017 article "Transcending denominations: The story of Rabbi Shai Held, co-founder of New York’s Hadar, which celebrated its 10th anniverary in Teaneck last weekend" highlights the story of Rabbi Shai Held. Full article available below or here.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel never argued over Jewish values face to face — though they, and their students, certainly disagreed. Rabbi Soloveitchik, known to his students and their modern Orthodox community simply as the Rav, the rabbi, was and remains the role model for the modern Orthodox Judaism centered around Yeshiva University. Rabbi Heschel inspired students at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

So it fell to Rabbi Shai Held to play out their dispute, imagining what they would say to each other in a session at Limmud NY, a weekend of Jewish study held in Princeton last month.

That he was able to do so reflects Rabbi Held’s past in both the Orthodox and Conservative worlds, and his present as a founder and the dean of Hadar, the nondenominational yeshiva in Manhattan. (He and his two co-founders, Rabbis Ethan Tucker and Elie Kaunfer, share leadership and the title of president.)

Last weekend Hadar celebrated its tenth year with a sold-out Shabbaton at the Glenpointe Marriott in Teaneck.

Hadar began in the summer of 2007. “We sent out emails to everyone we knew in the Jewish world and said we’re starting a yeshiva,” Rabbi Held remembered. They drew 20 students.

Now, there are 500 alumni who have studied at the yeshiva full time, whether for a two-month summer session or nine months during the year. Its weeklong yeshiva program has drawn 250 rabbis from across the Jewish spectrum, from Yeshiva University to Jewish Renewal.

Rabbi Held and Hadar are committed to “halachic egalitarianism” — observing Jewish law, treating women as equal to men. Is that Conservative? Is it something else?

“The whole denominational discourse doesn’t interest me very much,” Rabbi Held said. “The terms we use are legacies of 19th century Germany. We really wanted to avoid becoming another sectarian institution, cutting out another thin slice on the Jewish denominational spectrum.”

One way Hadar avoids becoming a denomination is by not ordaining rabbis. “We’ve had many students go on to rabbinical school, mostly to Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Hebrew Union College, or Hebrew College in Boston,” Rabbi Held said. “But we started Hadar to create a beit midrash for lay people. In the Reform and Conservative movements, if you became serious about observance, you were told to go to rabbinical school. There was no obvious address for immersive Jewish learning.”

Rabbi Held is an ordained Conservative rabbi, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America who was a Hillel rabbi on the Harvard campus for a few years before launching Hadar. He did not, however, grow up in a Conservative home — a fact that helps explain his not feeling at home in the movement.

“My parents were pioneers in aliyah and yeridah,” moving to Israel and moving from Israel, he likes to joke. His father, Moshe Held, was born in Warsaw and moved to Palestine with his family in the 1930s. He fought in the Haganah during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

Moshe Held married Balfura Mos, who was born to a Zionist family in Kovno, Lithuania. How Zionist? Her very name was a tribute to Lord Balfour and his declaration. Her father was a leader of the Jewish National Fund. When his Zionist activity brought about his expulsion from Lithuania, “they made a decision that if they were being kicked out of European countries for being Jews, Palestine was the place they needed to go,” Rabbi Held said.

Moshe Held studied Bible at Hebrew University with the noted rabbi and Bible scholar Umberto Cassuto, and then came to America to pursue his doctorate in ancient Semitic languages. He ended up teaching Semitics at Columbia, and Bible and interpretation at JTS. Balfura taught Hebrew at the Frisch School in Paramus and at Rockland Community College. Shai grew up in Spring Valley, N.Y., the youngest of the couple’s three children.

“My parents’ entire life was about Judaic studies,” Rabbi Held said. “My father had endless passion about trying to figure out what words meant. He was a philologist’s philologist. My mother lived her life with Bialik and Agnon as her two best friends. She could quote entire Agnon stories by heart.”

He picked up on their love for learning and for books.

“I used to come home from school and sit under my father’s desk while he was writing or reading, and just watch him,” Rabbi Held said. “My father loved Torah in a very personal way. It was explicitly not religious for him.

“Both of my parents were believers whose faith had been profoundly scarred by the middle of the 20th century, fleeing Europe and losing most of their relatives. The Jews were subjected to a genocide — and God didn’t do anything.

“That kind of stuff haunted my parents. My mother said to me when I was very much an adult and had been a rabbi quite a while, ‘You know, I’m so angry that I guess I am a believer.’ I had intuited that about both my parents.”

They raised their children speaking Hebrew — Rabbi Held still sometimes reaches for the English translation of a Hebrew word in an English conversation — and they sent him to Orthodox day schools, first Ashar in Rockland County, and then Ramaz in Manhattan for high school.

“My father had a clear view that children didn’t have to be frum” — religious — “but they shouldn’t be amaratzim” — ignorant, Rabbi Held said. “When I was twelve I could read a gemara with Rashi and Tosfos, no problem, but I had never seen a Shabbos kiddush.”

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that he was drawn to “and even tortured by” theological questions as a child. “How could it be that my father was a professor of Bible who was skeptical of traditional assumptions, and in my school I was learning that God wrote the Bible?”

The elder Dr. Held died a month before Shai’s bar mitzvah. He was only 60, and was in Israel, visiting Ben Gurion University and considering a possible return to Israel. “There’s not a small chance that had my father not died then, we would have moved to Israel and I would have had a different life than the one I had,” Rabbi Held said.

Rabbi Held regrets never having studied Torah with his father. “I think he did not want to push that on us,” he said.

Just recently, Rabbi Held received 10 years of tapes of his father’s Columbia classes. “I plan on taking Tanach seminars with my father, who has been dead for 30 years,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

Rabbi Held is deeply grateful for his Orthodox education, and particularly for Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who was principal of Ramaz for 50 years. “The most important thing I learned there was activism,” he said. “I spent a lot of time with Rabbi Lookstein, working on the Soviet Jewry movement. I learned that if I believed in something I could fight for it, rather than just going along and getting along.”

After Ramaz, Shai went to an elite Israeli hesder yeshiva. He lasted six weeks.

The yeshiva paired American students with Israeli study partners. Rabbi Held tells the story of a conversation that begin with a discussion of their high school extracurricular activities. Shai had worked in the Manhattan borough president’s office, where he helped organize a conference to bring together black and Hispanic youth.

The Israeli student was amazed.

“You think God cares about blacks and Hispanics?” he asked.

Shai was stunned by the question, which haunts him still, and animates his conviction that “it’s less important to ask whether you believe in God than to ask what kind of God you believe in.”

It was during this stay in yeshiva that someone first gave him a book of Rabbi Heschel’s to read. It was a sensible choice for the teenaged Shai. Rabbi Heschel, after all, famously believed God cared about civil rights in America and bombs falling in Vietnam. But it cemented his decision to leave that yeshiva.

“I was reading it outside the beit midrash,” — the study hall — “ and one of the teachers said, ‘If you’re going to read the book, at least read it in your room.’ I was taken aback. I figured it must be interesting, and started reading a lot of Heschel.”

He finished his year in Israel at a different yeshiva. “It’s didn’t really engage the questions I wanted to engage with, but I was left alone,” he said. “I learned Talmud pretty much all day every day, and really loved it.”

After Israel, Shai went to Harvard where he started off his undergraduate career as “part of the liberal wing of the Orthodox minyan.” He came to realize that “many of the philosophical and theological conversations I wanted to have I could not find in the Orthodox world. At some point I came to be more and more uncomfortable with the gender inequality in ritual and learning. By my senior year, I realized I could no longer fit comfortably in an Orthodox setting.

“I have tremendous gratitude for the things I learned in Orthodox institutions and the passion I saw in Orthodox culture, but I realized that’s not who I was,” he said.

His friendship with Ethan Tucker goes back to his senior year at Harvard, when Ethan was a freshman. “One of my first memories of learning together is him attending a Talmud shiur I gave on Shavuot night at Harvard Hillel,” he said.

After graduation, Shai went to rabbinical school at JTS “with tremendous ambivalence. It was a complicated experience for me in many ways. I appreciated and really loved the open mindedness, yet I didn’t find the religious passion there at the time that I was looking for.

In starting Hadar, “I tried to take the best of JTS and what I had gotten in the world of yeshiva and build something to hold both those experiences,” he said. “I wanted to build the Jewish learning institution I felt I had spent my life looking for but never found. A place that was thoroughly immersed in Torah and committed to its authority, and totally, unapologetically open to the modern world and the real, difficult questions modernity poses.”

As in a traditional yeshiva, study at Hadar focuses on Talmud, but that is only part of the menu, which also includes Bible and Jewish thought. “No one has come to Hadar and just done Talmud,” Rabbi Held said. “The Jewish curriculum is much broader than Talmud. Talmud is the cultural coin of the Jewish people, it’s how we talk, how we engage questions, but it’s not the only discourse.”

His students “are an interesting collection of young adults,” he said. “Some of them went to college with a very weak Jewish background, fell in love with Judaism either in a Jewish studies class or Hillel, and decided they want to immerse in Judaism in a whole new way.

“Some grew up in Conservative Judaism, in Camp Ramah and USY , and want the experience of a totally immersive beit midrash.

“Many of them grew up in an Orthodox setting and want a beit midrash committed to gender equality where certain questions they couldn’t ask are now welcomed. Of those students who come to Hadar with a denominational identification, more identify as Orthodox than anything else.

“The kids who come to us have deep religious yearning and commitment, and need a different beit midrash. It offers another voice, one that is often muted or absent in the schools those kids have attended. We’ve provided a home for dozens and dozens and dozens of them. It’s one of the things we’re most proud of.

“They are young adults who are looking for a beit midrash that is thoroughly immersed in and committed to authority of Jewish sources, unapologetically committed to the full participation of women, a place committed to engaging with general culture, secular philosophy, and academic Jewish studies, a place that is interested in avodat Hashem, asking what does Hashem require from us.”

One thing Hadar requires from its full-time students is to volunteer at the New Jewish Home, a nursing home a couple of miles away from the yeshiva’s Upper West Side building. Rabbi Held had heard that many of the home’s residents had Alzheimer’s and no visitors. “We needed to step into the breach and serve the community in that way,” he said.

Equally importantly, “We wanted to create a real conversation, a searching conversation, about chesed, about what the sages call ‘walking in God’s way.’ What does it really mean to show up and be present with people in the most vulnerable phase of their lives? By getting people to do chesed work that’s very hard, you can help them manage their fear and anxiety and have the conversation about how to commit real acts of kindness and love the world. Students go to the home, they spend a couple of hours visiting people. They get to know people on a couple of floors. We frequently have a processing group afterwards, talking about the practical skills and about their experiences. It’s okay to be afraid. You can be afraid to enter a particular shiva home, but yet you go, because fear does not have the last word.

“Visiting the Jewish home is not an extracurricular activity. In a way, it’s the main thing. We’re helping our students walk in God’s way more and to do it better. They’re learning to show up where people are suffering and be with them.”

Showing up where people are suffering and being with them could serve as a thumbnail description of God’s attributes in Heschel’s theology. “The thought of God and indifference to other people’s suffering are mutually exclusive,” Heschel wrote.

When Rabbi Held enacted the debate between rabbis Heschel and Sololoveitchik at Limmud, he gave Heschel the final word. In conversation and classes, it’s clear that Rabbi Held shares Heschel’s commitment to religiously motivated, divinely mandated, difficult, ethical deeds. Rabbi Held’s doctorate in religion at Harvard was on Heschel, a dissertation he developed into a book, “Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence.”

“When I started looking at literature on Heschel, almost all was either harshly critical or worshipful,” Rabbi Held says. “I wanted to write something that was, in my understanding, more respectful than either of those approaches. I wanted to honor him by taking him seriously as a theologian and a philosopher, and pointing to where there are some real philosophical problems. It’s a serious engagement with the corpus of his writings.

“People don’t take him seriously enough as a thinker because they dismiss him as a poet,” he said.

Instead, Rabbi Held believes, Heschel was a poet at least in part because he was a theologian. “Heschel speaks in a poetic vein precisely because this is what he thinks is necessary for his theological project,” Rabbi Held said. “Religious language for Heschel is always ‘indicative’ rather than ‘descriptive.’” We can’t presume to describe God fully in words; the only way “to speak about the mystery is to gesture toward it.”

In rabbinical school, Rabbi Held once had the opportunity to teach a class on Heschel. “I must have been 24,” he said. “I became totally preoccupied by him. I wanted so badly to believe in the God he portrays. I found his language just unbelievably compelling, inspiring, persuasive, challenging. I thought he had answered every question about Judaism that I thought was important.

“Fifteen years later, when I wrote the book, I had way more hesitations and misgivings. I had grown much more critical of some of his ideas the older I got,” he said.

In the fall, the Jewish Publication Society will publish the first of two volumes collecting Rabbi Held’s essays on the weekly Torah portion, originally distributed by email and published on Hadar’s website. He is working on his own book of theology, centered on the idea of love.

“My theology is deeply impacted by Heschel,” he said. “Its point of emphasis is somewhat different. It dovetails with some ideas of Heschel, but it’s not his language so much.

“The premise is that in many ways American Jews define their Judaism as whatever they imagine Christianity not to be. Since they thought Christianity is a religion of love, they insisted Judaism is about something else — law, practice, whatever it might be. That has led to a very distorted and impoverished view of Judaism.

“Essentially, Jewish theology is a theology of love. It’s a story of a God who loves all human beings and fell into particular love with the Jewish people.

“There are three mandates that we have in response: To reciprocate God’s love. Loving the neighbor. And what is in some way the most radical of all: loving the ger, the strangers, the outsiders. At the heart of Jewish theology is a mandate to live a life of love.

“Heschel talks more often about divine suffering than about divine love. I think sometimes people underestimate the extant to which Heschel is a thinker of the mid-20th century who experienced his entire world falling apart around him. He had a sense of the tangible presence of God in his life, and a sense the world was an inferno.

“One of the things I will show in the book is that in many ways Jewish spirituality begins in two places. One is a place of gratitude and one is a place of protest. The challenge is to be capacious enough to hold gratitude for life, along with an equally deep sense that the world as it is is not how it’s supposed to be.

“It’s easy to have a saccharine notion of gratitude, or an always angry commitment to protest. Judaism asks for something more complex than that, the ability to hold and embody both of them at the same time. My commitment to a dialectic approach in that way is much closer to Soloveitchik than to Heschel.”

Rabbi Held acknowledges that theology — thinking about God — is not a popular endeavor in today’s Jewish world.

“The conversations about God are absent,” he said. “In some ways each of the movements developed something else they talked about instead of God. For modern Orthodoxy it was halacha, for Conservative Judaism it was history for a long time. For Reform Judaism it was social action.

“One of the things we’re trying to do at Hadar is create a context for both rabbis and lay people to engage the questions about God. Earlier this year I did a series of lectures and dialogues asking can we find ways to talk about God,” he said. One such dialogue, with philosopher of science Michael Ruse, examined how Darwin affected talking about God.

“We did a yom iyun for rabbis earlier this year on engaging questions of faith and doubt. We’re trying to jumpstart that conversation. It’s an uphill battle. But without a conversation about theology, we run the risk of having a Judaism that is a whole lot of trees without a forest.

“I’m a proponent of traditional ways of thinking about God. In recent Jewish life, you’ve seen more liberal alternatives to thinking about God. There was a moment in American Jewish history when post-Holocaust theology was enormously important. You had this small canon of writers engaged in conversations: Eliezer Berkovits, Yitz Greenberg, Richard Rubinstein, Emil Fackenheim. Those conversations ended. I wonder whether the question won.”

Which brings us back to the imagined conversation between Hershel and Soloveitchik. One point about Rabbi Held’s relationship to Soloveitchik.

“From the time I was in high school, I have been opposed to this reflex of referring to a certain specific person as the rav, whether it was Rabbi Soloveitchik here in the United States or Rabbi Kook in Israel. That’s not how Torah works as a conversation. There is no rav. There are rabbis,” he said.

That position — taking Soloveitchik seriously but not reverentially — allows Rabbi Held to discuss his views with unusual seriousness and openness. He has taught both Soloveitchik and Heschel at Hadar. “I tried to present two modern thinkers, both deeply committed to the tradition, to traditional Jewish lives, who have different approaches,” he said.

At Limmud, Rabbi Held began the imagined conversation with a discussion about prayer. Is prayer about transcending the self to connect with God, as per Heschel? Or is it about acknowledging the self’s dependence on God, as Soloveitchik maintained?

Then he went into ethics. “How you think about God has consequences for ethics,” he said.

Soloveitchik, Rabbi Held said, presented the akeida, the near sacrifice of Isaac, as a model of the need for a person to sacrifice his or her ethical judgment for God’s will.

“It’s a bad Christian reading of one chapter of the Torah that ignores the rest of Tanach and how the akeidah was understood by Jews for two thousand years,” Rabbi Held said in Heschel’s voice, referring to Soloveitchik’s borrowing his understanding of the akeida from the 19th century Christian thinker Soren Kierkegaard.

Soloveitchik would respond, Rabbi Held believes, by criticizing Heschel for acting according to his own ethical judgment. “If you insist that God would never do anything that violates your sense of ethics, at the end of the day you are worshipping a god made in your own image,” Soloveitchik might say.

But Rabbi Held gave Heschel — and the priority of ethics — the final word. “If your God is unethical — and is particularly asking you to inflict harm on a third party like Isaac — what kind of God are you worshipping?” he asked. “Do we really want to worship a God who is less ethical and less compassionate than we are? Is that kind of god worthy of being called God?”