Search results for Rabbi Shai Held
Transcending Denominations: The Story of Rabbi Shai Held
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?”
How Rabbi Shai Held is shaping the conversation around love and politics
NEW YORK (JTA) — After the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, voices abounded calling the demonstration an affront to American values.
Rabbi Shai Held called it an attack on God.
“One of the most fundamental claims Judaism makes about the world is that every human being on the face of the earth — black and white, male and female — is created in the image of God and is therefore infinitely valuable,” Held wrote last week in an essay on CNN.com. “An attack on other people’s humanity is by definition an assault on God.”
Persuading more people to talk about God has been at the core of Held’s message as his profile has risen this year. One of the founders of Hadar, a traditional egalitarian yeshiva in New York City, Held has emerged as a public voice on everything from President Donald Trump to race relations to masculinity. Along with regular CNN columns, his essays on the weekly Torah portion reach 7,000 people. They are now being published as a two-volume book, “The Heart of Torah” (Jewish Publication Society), due out in September.
Through all of it, Held wants you to know that God is compassionate and wants you to be compassionate. That compassion, he says, also extends to politics.
“I’m not primarily interested in ‘is there a God or not?’ but what kind of a God is there,” Held, 46, said earlier this month, surrounded by shelves upon shelves of religious books in his suburban New York home — with more still in boxes. “I’m trying to make the case for a God who is about love and who asks human beings to live lives of love.”
On its face, the idea that Judaism should focus on God is anything but radical. But though Judaism pioneered the concept of monotheism, observant Jews tend to focus much of their energy on dissecting and analyzing Jewish law — poring over the legalistic Talmud in school and often defining their piety in terms of study and observance rather than “faith.”
Held, the son of a renowned Jewish Bible scholar, grew up with similar Talmudic inclinations. Though his home was secular, his parents sent him to Orthodox day school, where he learned to study complex rabbinic texts at an early age. He became observant on his own, studying in yeshivas in Israel before attending Harvard and gaining rabbinic ordination at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. He co-founded Hadar in 2007, an outgrowth of the pioneering Kehilat Hadar independent congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
“If you say to a Jew who prays three times a day, ‘Do you talk to God?’ many of them will be like, ‘I’m not sure,’” Held said. “That’s kind of fascinating. I’m trying to be alive to the question ‘What does the Lord, your God, ask of you?’ I’m inviting people into that conversation.”
The Jewish emphasis on observance, Held says, has led religious Jews to surrender theological language to Christians. In his book, Held tries to reclaim it, writing about God’s “grace” and “election” of the Jews — terms historically central to Protestant Christianity. He also displays his affection for Christian biblical commentary. Held cites Christian scholars in the book and Walter Moberly, a Christian theologian, has a blurb on the back cover.
“Jews in America have often ceded some of the basic terms of Jewish theology and spirituality to Christianity,” Held said, joking that some readers ask if he’s “a little Christian.” (The answer is no.) “So Christianity owns love, Christianity owns grace. The problem with that is that love and grace are really fundamental Jewish theology, and we abandon those terms at a tremendous spiritual loss to ourselves.”
Held’s personal life has also steered him toward emphasizing God’s grace. His father, Moshe Held, a professor of Semitic languages and cultures at Columbia University, died when Held was a teenager, which led to difficult years with his mother. And he lives with a chronic illness that causes pain in his back, spine and legs, and subjects him to what he calls “debilitating fatigue,” sometimes forcing him to stop work for hours or days at a time. At times, Held says, the illness makes him focus on himself at the expense of others. But at its best, it allows him to understand the pain of others.
“I don’t mean you’re ill and you become kinder — I think often the opposite is the case — but certain kinds of capacities are born within you or expand within you,” he said. “The question of seeing people who are not seen became incredibly important to me in part through the experience of invisible illness.”
Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, a leading modern Orthodox theologian, notes this quality in his introduction to Held’s weekly Torah commentaries.
“[W]hat lifts this book from being an outstanding Torah commentary to a great work of religious thought and human moral development is Held’s profound theology that the heart of Judaism’s religious life lies in our relationship to God and fellow human beings,” he said.
Held’s theology of love courses through his essays on even the most legalistic of Torah portions. In his essay on Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36), which details how to give several sacrifices, Held notes that the thanksgiving sacrifice must be eaten on the day it is offered — whether by the sacrificer, his relatives or nearby poor people. From that verse, he draws out that giving thanks also means sharing your good fortune with others.
“We are not meant to rest content with being recipients of God’s gifts but are asked to become givers ourselves,” Held writes. “God’s gifts are meant to flow through us and not merely to us.”
But Held doesn’t restrict himself to platitudes about the importance of gratitude and charity; across his writing, his message is explicitly political. His book, a collection of essays written before the 2016 presidential campaign, is rife with exhortations to love the stranger and take responsibility for poor people.
And his Facebook feed, updated almost daily, is rife with posts lambasting the president and his defenders that often invoke religion. Commenting last week on Jerry Falwell Jr.’s praise of Trump after the Charlottesville rally, Held wrote, “Amazing how a religious leader can declare his own moral, political, and theological bankruptcy in a mere 140 characters. Heed not the word of false prophets.”
“The society we live in will be judged by how it treats those who are weakest and most vulnerable,” Held told JTA. “I want to overcome ‘secular Jews are political activists and religious Jews do mitzvahs.’ I’ve never heard of a more false dichotomy.”
And while Held wants his book to appeal to Jews across the spectrum, his commitment to traditional, egalitarian Jewish observance is clear in everything from his philosophy to his word choice. He makes a point of keeping God gender neutral, never using “He” or “She.” Held also devotes attention to historically marginalized groups like immigrants and people with disabilities. That’s partly because, although he talks constantly about God, Held says Torah is really about caring for people.
“We built the Hadar beit midrash as a place where no human experience was ruled as outside the bounds,” he said, using the Hebrew term for “house of study.” “If there’s a human experience, Torah has to engage with it.”
Rabbi Shai Held Wins Prestigious Covenant Award
The Covenant Foundation announced today that Rabbi Shai Held, co-founder, dean and chair in Jewish Thought at Hadar, has won the prestigious Covenant Award.
Selected from hundreds of nominees, Shai was chosen "for committing to excellence in Jewish education and pursuing innovative approaches that inspire and empower students, colleagues and community."
“Together with his colleagues, Shai has created a center for Jewish learning that is in many ways unprecedented in Jewish life,” said Rabbi David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, who nominated Rabbi Held for the Covenant Award. “It combines a deep commitment to egalitarianism and intellectual openness, on the one hand, with a commitment to classical Jewish texts and seriousness of religious purpose, on the other."
Reacting to being named a Covenant Award recipient for 2011, Rabbi Held said the honor underscores the important work and approach of Hadar.
“I have always been drawn to institutions that do not fit easily into boxes, that are always willing and eager to think and re-think about questions both theological and pedagogical,” he said.
“I like to think that at Hadar we are building just such an institution-- a place that is at once deeply traditional and totally egalitarian; passionately religious and relentlessly open-minded; committed to the life of the mind and the cultivation of the heart. To have my work recognized with the Covenant Award is an immense blessing, and I am both humbled and grateful.
Hadar also congratulates Rabbi Eve Ben-Ora and Amy Skopp Cooper, fellow winners of this year's award.
Rabbi Shai Held named one of the Forward 50, 2017
Mazal tov to R. Shai Held on being named one of the Forward's 50 most influential Jews of 2017. Read more on "Teaching The Heart Of Torah In A Heartless Time," at the Forward's website.
Imagine a Jewish institution with four presidents. Now imagine that they all complement each other and seem to get along brilliantly. That’s Hadar, a traditional, egalitarian yeshiva in Manhattan founded a decade ago by friends from Harvard University searching to create a new place to study, worship and build Jewish community. It has grown in the past decade into a Manhattan institution, offering seminars, fellowships and grants.
Among Hadar’s founding core, it was Rabbi Shai Held’s prophetic voice we heard most clearly this year.
Held’s compilation of his weekly Torah interpretations was published in a two-volume set in September, titled “The Heart of Torah.” In it, he wrote: “The Torah we learn and teach should help us become kinder, more generous, more empathetic and willing to give; if it merely buttresses our biases and hardens our hearts, then it is simply not Torah.”
His theological belief that God wants us to live lives of compassion and dignity naturally extended into the political realm after Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. Held, 46, became an outspoken critic of the new administration, preaching at a prayer service before the Women’s March in January, penning columns for CNN and sharing his views regularly on Facebook. “Racism is an attack on humanity,” he wrote after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, “but it is also an assault on God.”
The Heschel Exchange, Part 1: Rabbi Shai Held in conversation with Shmuel Rosner
Rabbi Shai Held's first exchange with Shmuel Rosner was featured in the Jewish Journal on October 1st, on the topic of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. You can read this below.
A great Jewish thinker and a victim of his own eloquence
Dear Rabbi Held,
Your new book examines a transformative figure in 20th century American Judaism, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In the forward you mention there is a lack of well balanced critical literature on Heschel's thought. I'll keep my introductory question simple - what are the main misconceptions about Heschel's thought which you sought out to rectify, and what kind of thinker can we expect to find at the end of your reassesment?
Let me first explain a bit about the critical literature. There has been an unfortunate tendency among readers of Heschel either to dismiss him or to worship him. I wanted to write a book that in a deep sense shows Heschel more respect than either his detractors or his admirers tend to.
First, his detractors: one often hears it said that Heschel is “a poet rather than a philosopher,” that he is a master of the epigram but that there is no coherent body of thought underneath the heart-stirring prose. I sought to show that this is a misapprehension of Heschel, and a bad one at that. Heschel is a not a poet rather than a philosopher; he is a poet at least in part precisely because he’s a philosopher. He thinks the problem that modern men and women face is that we are totally closed off to the transcendent, that we live entirely confined within what Charles Taylor has called an “immanent frame.” But Heschel is also aware that you cannot argue people into an intuition; you have to show them that somewhere, albeit somewhere dormant and buried, they already share that intuition—or could, if they peeled away their callouses. So Heschel’s project as a writer is not just to convince but also to evoke and elicit—and in order to accomplish that, poetry is far more effective than prose. One also hears people say that Heschel is “just a poet,” to which I can imagine Heschel responding: the “just” in that sentence reveals such spiritual impoverishment, as if dry, discursive prose were somehow a higher mode of speaking and thinking than poetry. (Rilke, too, was “just a poet.”) But in any case, Heschel is not “just a poet,” he is also a profound theologian, an important critic of modernity, and a bold and compelling interpreter of the Jewish tradition.
As for his admirers: many people who are taken with Heschel begin to imagine that he is a flawless hero, a figure to be worshiped rather than wrestled and engaged with. I recently mentioned to a serious scholar of Heschel that his book contains not a single word of criticism. His response? “There is nothing there to criticize.” This is a bizarre view to take of any thinker, in my view, and in my estimation treating Heschel as he wanted to be treated—as a philosopher of religion and a theologian—and engaging with his ideas rather than just summarizing and interpreting them is a much higher form of respect than aspiring to be his Hasid.
In many ways, Heschel has been the victim of his own eloquence. At first glance, this might seem like a strange thing to say, given how much his books and ideas have meant to so many people. But what I mean is that Heschel writes so beautifully that many rabbis and educators have turned him into a kind of Jewish Bartlett’s Book of Quotations. They go to the shelf, find a line that touches them deeply, and they’re off to the races. There is nothing inherently wrong with that—it is a tribute to Heschel that his work repays that kind of reading. But one of the negative consequences of this phenomenon is that it is quite rare for people to work to uncover the deep structure of his thought. I took that as the first project of my book—to show what Heschel is doing as a thinker and to demonstrate how his thinking holds together (and, of course, to probe the places where it doesn’t).
Heschel made that situation worse for himself because he was, to say the least, not a linear writer. The work of reconstructing Heschel’s thought into a coherent whole is a serious undertaking, and it requires reading his corpus again and again, pulling from here and from there, until a more orderly picture begins to emerge. (As I worked on the book, I often found myself thinking about the dictum of the Talmudic Sage R. Nehemiah: “The words of Torah are sparse in one place, and enriched in another.”) There are dangers to such an approach—a synchronic reading runs the risk of missing or flattening changes over time, but on the whole, I think Heschel’s writing shows remarkable consistency over the course of his career, and hence this seems to me to be not only a defensible reading strategy but also, if one really wants to grasp the depth of Heschel’s thought, a necessary one.
Let me say two things about misapprehensions of Heschel’s thought. First, Heschel is often held up as a liberal Jewish lion, the hero of Jewish political activism. And he was indeed a powerful voice for justice and goodness—for Soviet Jews, for African-Americans, etc. (Were one to collect the dozen or so most iconic photographs of the American Jewish experience, the picture of Heschel marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the bridge in Selma, would surely qualify.) And yet, if we seek to understand Heschel, it is important that we resist the temptation to secularize him, either explicitly or implicitly. The primary concern of Heschel’s life, the axis around which everything else rotates, is God. He is theocentric—that is, focused on God—in the extreme. Heschel does not say, “Work for justice”; he says, in effect, because this is what he insists the prophets are saying, “Serve God. And since God seeks justice, you must, too.” In his own own words: “Since the prophets do not speak in the name of the moral law, it is inaccurate to characterize them as proclaimers of justice. It is more accurate to see them as proclaimers of God’s pathos, speaking not for the idea of justice, but for the God of justice, for God’s concern for justice.” In this regard, Heschel’s words can serve as a powerful critique of American Jewish discourse in two ways: first, in the face of an American Jewish community which finds it so difficult to talk about God, he places the question of God front and center. When he says that “a Jew without God is obsolete,” he is laying down a profound challenge to the American Jewish status quo, to much of the community’s ways of thinking and talking about Judaism and Jewishness. One need not necessarily accept Heschel’s profound God-centeredness, but one should not simply elide it. And second, his insistence on God’s radical concern with ethics, on God’s insistence that indifference to the suffering of others is the highest crime against God, pushes back against those theologians who think that one properly serves God by being willing to sacrifice or abandon one’s moral intuitions.
I often hear it said that Heschel is just Hasidism in English. This, it seems to me, is far too superficial and simplistic a statement. From the Hasidic milieu in which he grew up, Heschel absorbed a sense of the piercing reality of God’s presence—God was right there, calling, beckoning, and ever-present. (Sometimes I think Heschel’s greatest obstacle in addressing American Jews where they were was that he could not really understand their secularity from the inside.) And yet some ideas that are crucial to Hasidism Heschel rejects outright, most prominently the idea that human beings can achieve mystical union with God. For Heschel, God is God and people are people (that is, they are not God), and although people can attain great intimacy with God, their identity never merges with God. In this sense, Heschel is first and foremost a biblical theologian—I think his understanding of Hasidism is actually filtered through a primary commitment to the Bible. For the same reason, by the way, he would have no time for Jewish pantheism. After all, if Genesis 1 teaches one thing, it is that God created the world, and that the world is not God. The world is God’s, but it is not God. For Heschel, that distinction makes all the difference in the world.
Reading my book, one will encounter a thinker who thinks that the modern world has gone badly awry, that it has drawn out all of humanity’s worst impulses—our selfishness, our egotism, our indifference to other people’s suffering, and our proclivity to value things (and people) only to the extent that we can use them. One will meet a figure who is entirely convinced that the Bible represents a powerful alternative to the ills of modernity, in that it affirms the inviolable metaphysical dignity of every human being and shifts our focus away from the question of how the world can serve me to the question of how I can best serve.
Heschel sets himself the Herculean (some would say Sisyphean) task of restoring to modern men and women their openness to the transcendent; he challenges us to wrestle with the God of the Bible and with the idea that we are commanded to care for and see those who are cast off and abandoned; he reminds us— this is the central thesis of my book—again and again (and again) that our egos are not the center of the universe. There are some serious problems in Heschel’s philosophy—perhaps we can explore some of those in the next exchange—but when all is said and done, he was a giant of the spirit and a figure who still has a tremendous amount to say to us, as Jews and as human beings, as we make our way through our gloriously beautiful and horrifically broken world.
Hearing a Mother's Pain on Rosh Hashanah: Shai Held in the Forward
Biblical Sound a Fitting End to Year of Anguish
Rabbi Shai Held's article on Rosh HaShanah in the Daily Forward, on Wednesday, September 24th, 2014. You can read it below or on the Forward's website.
An almost impossibly difficult year is coming to an end, and a new one, filled with new hope and new possibility, is upon us. As we do each year on Rosh Hashanah, we will stand together and listen to the piercing cries of the shofar. This year more than ever, it’s important that we stop and consider just what the sounds of the shofar signify.
The Torah refers to Rosh Hashanah as Yom Teruah, a day of teruah. In attempting to explain just what teruah means, the Talmud translates it as yevava, crying. The proof text from which this explanation is derived is fascinating — one might even say shocking: the Talmud derives the idea that teruah means crying from the tears shed by Sisera’s mother as she agonizes over the fate of her son.
Sisera was the commander of the Canaanite army and a reviled enemy of the Israelites. Yael eventually kills him by driving a tent peg through his head. There was never any love lost between the Israelites and this military figure, and the Bible never doubts that Yael’s killing him was just. And yet, his mother’s anguish registers so deeply that we hear her sobs year after year after year, every time we hear the shofar blast.
A midrash offers another basis for associating the cries of the shofar with the cries of a frightened mother. When Isaac returns home after he is bound for sacrifice by Abraham he tells his mother what his father had done to him. She asks, “Were it not for the angel’s intervention, would you have been slaughtered?” and he answers simply, “Yes.” At that moment, the midrash says, she lets out six cries and then dies — and those cries are the basis of our shofar blasts today. Here again, the blowing of the shofar conjures the experience of a mother terrified for the well-being of the child she loves.
In another version of the story, an angel approaches Sarah as Isaac is bound upon the altar and tells her what is about to happen, adding that Isaac is currently weeping and screaming. Sarah cries — and those cries, we are told, are the basis of our shofar blasts. Note the subtle difference between the two stories: In the first one, Sarah sees Isaac and knows that he has been saved; in the second, she has every reason to assume he is about to die. She cries from the utter horror that perhaps his life is ebbing away even as she and the angel speak.
The cries of the shofar correspond to the sobs of a frightened, grieving mother — whether Isaac’s or Sisera’s. A chasm divides Isaac and Sisera: Isaac is one of the patriarchs of the Jewish people — a bit hapless perhaps, but remembered as fundamentally good and righteous; Sisera, on the other hand, is an enemy and an oppressor of the Jewish people. And yet Jews come together each year to listen to the cries of both mothers, Isaac’s and Sisera’s. As the late Rabbi Yehuda Amital wrote, “There are countless differences between Sarah our matriarch and Sisera’s mother. Yet despite the worlds that divide them, there is one thing they have in common… the natural terror a mother feels for her son.”
Holding these two mothers together in memory is crucial, because at this late date, when so much blood has been shed and so many dreams shattered, perhaps the anguished cries of parents afraid of losing their children is the only thing that can actually bring people together.
No matter our political persuasion, no matter our sense of what military response is necessary at any given time, one thing ought to remain clear: It is never a crime, never an act of treachery, to hear the cries of the mother of one of our enemies. We are invited — required, in fact — to do just that on Rosh Hashanah. If we are obligated to hear the cries of the mothers of our sworn enemies, how much the more so the cries of mothers of those innocents killed in the crossfire.
I have said nothing here about just and unjust war, about possibilities or perils in charting a way forward in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; I leave all that for another day. I simply want to remind us that at some level, the cry of a parent is the cry of a parent. If we cannot hear those sobs, then let us cry for our own humanity.
Implicit in all this is a simple yearning: Maybe one day, when all other options have been exhausted, it is the shared fear of parents that will yet bring us together. Perhaps. when all hope seems to be lost, Isaac’s mother and Sisera’s will show us the way forward.