A letter from Jerusalem 2011

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    A letter from Jerusalem from Torah Table Talk

    Sunday, July 17, 2011

    Dear Friends:

    I cant quite believe that over two weeks have gone by since Marilyn and I arrived in

    Jerusalem! After three glorious days in Rome and a restful Shabbat in Rehovot, we settled

    into our temporary apartment in Jerusalem. On Monday morning, I dove into my studies at

    the Shalom Hartman Institute. It has been an amazing and intense two weeks of study and

    dialogue nearly a hundred hours of study over the course of nine days!

    A word about the Shalom Hartman Institute: it was founded about thirty years ago by Rabbi

    David Hartman, an Orthodox Rabbi and respected theologian, who made aliyah after serving

    a congregation in Montreal for many years. Rabbi Hartman, a student of Rav Soloveitchik, is

    passionately committed to Jewish pluralism and intellectual integrity. In the Orthodox world

    he is both reviled as a rebel and honored as a man of great integrity. His daughter, Tova,

    founded Shira Hadasha, the egalitarian Orthodox minyan in Jerusalem in which woman read

    Torah, lead services and are called to the Torah. The Hartman Institute is a fascinating place

    that brings together scholars and social commentators to wrestle with the issues affecting

    Judaism and Israeli society today. The Hartman Institute encourages freedom of thought and

    has embraced both religious and secular thinkers who have something to add to the

    conversation about Jewish life in the twenty first century. It is both a think tank that addresses

    the issues affecting the Jewish people and Israeli society and an academic institution that

    encourages research into Jewish thought, bringing secular and religious Jews closer together

    while creating a conversation about what type of society Israel should create and what type ofvalues it should be built on.

    One of the programs of the Hartman Institute is a yearly two week seminar for rabbis from

    North America. Rabbis from all denominations come together to study and engage in serious

    dialogue on Jewish thought and life. This year there were 130 rabbis from every

    denomination and some who would have defined themselves and post denominational

    Jews.

    Each year the Hartman Institute chooses a different theme around which the classes and

    discussions revolve. The theme this year was Jewish Peoplehood: The Meaning of the

    Collective in Modern Jewish Life. We explored a variety of question relating to what it meansto be part of a community and a people in an age that celebrates the individual and personal

    autonomy. What does it mean to be a part of a collective? How do we reconcile individual

    choice with the needs and demands of the community? How do contemporary Jews see

    themselves? How has the concept of Jewish peoplehood changed over the course of the

    centuries? Over a period of two weeks, we met with scholars of Bible and Rabbinic thought,

    studied medieval Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah, and looked at modern Jewish thinkers to

    see how they addressed some of the questions affecting the Jewish community today. Our

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    day began with a brief introduction by the teacher of the day about the texts we would be

    studying. We then had about two and a half of Havrutastudy. In Havrutastudy, one wrestles

    with Bible, Midrash, Talmud and other Jewish texts in small groups usually between two and

    four people. The learning is done out loud, with one person reading and translating and

    everyone sharing their thoughts with his or her partners. Hartman has a large Beit Midrash,

    (literally a house of learning or a study hall) with all the resources we might need in studying

    in partnership with others. Imagine entering a room with a 130 rabbis all reading and talking

    out loud. Torah study is not quiet and contemplative activity but a social process of dialogue

    and discussion. With so many rabbis, groups spilled out into the courtyard outside the Beit

    Midrash, and into other rooms throughout the institution. Rather than being jarring, hearing

    the sound of others vigorously arguing about sacred texts empowers all who are present and

    creates a sense of vitality.

    Following Havrutatime, the instructor for that day would give a shiur, a lesson, in which he or

    she would offer his or her own take on the texts and themes for the day; We were fortunate to

    study with some of the most outstanding scholars in the Israel, today: Micah Goodman, the

    author of a bestselling book on Maimonides Guide for the Perplexed (only in Israel could abook on Jewish and Aristotelian Philosophy become a best seller); Israel Knohl, a scholar of

    Bible at Hebrew University; Moshe Halbertal also from Hebrew University; Melilah Hellner-

    Eshed, a scholar of Zohar and Jewish mysticism. The point of our studies was not just

    academic it was to explore the meaning of these texts for the Jewish world today. After an

    hour and half class with the instructor, we then broke up into smaller groups of about ten to

    discuss our instructors thoughts and ideas. In the afternoon there were a variety of electives

    we could attend on different topics from contemporary Israeli society to theology and

    Halachah. We had a short break after this in the afternoon and then most evenings we

    returned to Hartman for an evening lecture or discussion. We were fortunate to learn with

    Rabbi Hartman himself, and other contemporary commentators including, Yossi Klein HaLevi,

    Doniel Hartman, Tal Becker and Daniel Kurtzer (former American ambassador to Israel).

    Needless to say, by the end of the day, we were all exhausted and exhilarated. I couldnt help

    but think of a Far Side cartoon I saw some years ago:

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    So maybe youre wondering: What kind of vacation is that? Why would someone want to

    spend none or ten hours a day studying Torah? Personally I cant think of a better way to

    spend my time! Besides enriching my work as a rabbi, such study is what life is all about as

    far as I am concerned. For me, this is Olam Habah, the World to Come: the opportunity to

    learn and grow, to savor words of Torah and to celebrate this precious gift. In one of our

    classes we read a modern Yiddish poem, entitled The God of Israel:

    In a gray-gray once-upon-a-time,

    From a mountain top into a valley,

    God dropped two handfuls of letters,

    Scattered them over the roads of the earth.

    They sparkled with speech, blazed with saying,

    And since then -

    For thousands of years we seek them

    For thousands of years we save them

    For thousands of years we explained them,

    And there is no solution on earthFor the letters, the sayings, the words

    Another manuscript, and another manuscript,

    Entangled, bound, locked together -

    letters in love with letters.

    If only I could convey to my students that joy of learning Torah: not just the learning but the

    experience of sharing such learning with others. It is interesting that there is no official

    davenning that takes place at Hartman. If one wishes to have a minyan one can organize it

    privately. This is a place we come to learn. They realized early on that prayer is the one thinkcontemporary Jews cant agree about, so they refrain from holding an official minyan in the

    Hartman Institute. Learning and Torah are something, on the other hand that all Jews can

    agree upon so that is where we create a sense of community besides there are more than

    enough minyanim in Jerusalem to satisfy everyones needs!

    Things are great here in Jerusalem. I dont remember any time in recen t years when there

    was such a sense of quiet and security. Last year there were still security and military officers

    checking ones bags at the entrance to Mahaneh Yehudah, the Jewish market place. They

    are no longer present. While people are unsure what the fall will bring with the UN vote on

    Palestinian Statehood there is a sense of calm and quiet that Israelis are enjoying rightnow, whatever the future may hold. The biggest controversy in Israel right now is the cost of

    cottage cheese (its too high)! Of course, there are other more serious issues on peoples

    mindsI dont know of any society that is as self-reflective and self-critical as this one.

    Best Wishes from Jerusalem:

    Rabbi Mark Greenspan