Rabbi Mishael Zion– the Director of the Mandel Leadership Institute’s Program for Leadership in Israeli Jewish Culture – spoke to us this past Shabbat towards the conclusion of our unit on Jewish denominations. His shiur explored different paradigms of leadership within [Rabbinic] Judaism, and he juxtaposed the different narratives (as seen in the Tosefta, Bavli, and Yerushalmi) that recount Hillel Hazaken’s appointment as the nasi (patriarch/president) of Israel. Rabbi Zion grounded his analysis of these passages in Weber’s three paradigms of authority: Rational-legal authority, Traditional authority, and Charismatic authority. Overall, Zion was thoughtful, attentive, and dynamic, and his analysis was creative and rich with insightful references to contemporary scholasticism.
As a student of the Talmud, Weber’s paradigms of authority are familiar. The Rational-legal authority is exemplified by a sage’s ability to reason and argue. The Traditional authority is seen in the chain of traditions transmitted from master to student. And the Charismatic authority, while less explicit, is embodied in the creative audacity that gave rise to the rabbinic movement in the first place.
As is often the case in rabbinic literature, the location of a narrative influences the details and the values of that narrative. The Tosefta, the primary source for this text, relates that only after Hillel demonstrated all three qualities was he appointed the Nasi. However, in many ways, I think the Tosefta’s standards are unattainable – it is too much to expect that our leaders will be able to exemplify all three values in any given case. Perhaps with this realization in mind, the Babalonian and Yeruahalaim Talmudim each find a single value to prioritize. The Yerushalmi prioritizes the weight of tradition – Hillel becomes the nasi because he can transmit to the people of Eretz Yisrael the teachings of Shemaya and Avtalion. The Bavli, on the other hand, prioritizes the ability to reason and argue, and the values of tradition and innovation are afforded less significance.
Studying these texts today, however, I worry because after 1500 years the legal formalism espoused by the Bavli continues to predominate halakhic decision-making.
Several weeks ago, during a conversation at dinner near Kfar Hastudentim, a fellow member of Cohort Four used an analogy to express her thoughts on Shabbaton in Jerusalem.
“It’s like the entire city just takes a breath,” she said.
Since then, I have thought about that analogy each week before the alarm sounds across Jerusalem and Shabbat begins. The buses stop running; fewer and fewer cars race down the streets; the stalls in the shuk shut down. As the city comes to a pause, I take a deep breath, go to shul, and let it out as I daven Kabbalat Shabbat and welcome in my weekly 25-hour sanctuary in time.
When we came to Tzfat for our first Shabbaton, this feeling of the city coming to a halt was all the more profound. The stores closed earlier; the smell of challah and soup pervaded the air from early Friday morning; not even an echo of a car horn could be heard. As the city moved into Shabbat mode, I took a deep breath in, walked to shul with several other Nachshon Fellows, and, pressed up against the wall of the women’s balcony, I found that I couldn’t let it out.
I loved to see so many women in shul, standing together, davening together, welcoming in Shabbat together. Yet, as I stood there, pressed up against the wall of the women’s balcony, I couldn’t even hear the men davening below me, let alone join in and sing along with them. Eventually, we pushed our way through the crowd until we made it to the door, gasping for cool air once we made it outside.
Still, I was waiting to release that deep breath that comes with the welcoming in of Shabbat. We wandered around town for a bit, finally making our way to the Breslov shul, preparing ourselves for the unfamiliarity and potential discomfort that we hadn’t been prepared for at the first shul. We walked in to find a smaller crowd of women up on the balcony, but it was immediately evident that all of these women were there, not out of seeming obligation, but out of genuine commitment. They went according to their own pace, but all with a powerful dedication to their prayer. As I joined them and davened my own Amidah, I finally felt that deep Shabbat breath release.Continue reading →
By Miriam Lichtenberg
“If it’s stagnant, it’s not Halacka [Jewish law],” declared Rav Smuel Klitsner, director of the Women’s Ordination program at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a pioneering Orthodox women’s Beit Midrash in Jerusalem. The Nachshon fellows were privileged to hear from him as part of a lecture series in attempting to understand different strands of Judaism and their approach to questions of Jewish law. The aforementioned quote was the thesis of Rav Shmuel’s lecture – Jewish law is a living, breathing, being and must be approached in such a manner. To approach it in any other way is to disregard the way of the halachik process.
Rav Klitsner has spent his life in this effort, working to show how halacka can be both timeless and timely. How he sees it, every halachik question needs to be approached very carefully, starting off with understanding what the Torah has to say. Or if it is not a question the Torah can answer, what does the cumulative precedential source material have to offer? That is then placed through the prism of reality – what are the practical ramifications of this halkhik question? Who will be hurt by it? These questions are what create Halkha. Rav Klitsenr proceeded to give us a few examples of how this method has been used to save lives, or free women of marriage who did not know where their husbands were – examples of how this Halkhik process has been needed in order to live a full Halkhik life. .
I found Rav Klitsner to be amazing for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that he dedicates his entire life to this pursuit of Halkhik discourse. He not only talks, but he takes action to make his understanding of Halakha a reality. He is revolutionizing the Orthodox Halakhik process by spearheading the first Orthodox Women’s Ordination program in Israel. Understanding his approach to Halakha, and the immense thought and care he puts towards it, was inspiring and uplifting. To know that Orthodox Halakha, according to him, is something so sacred and needs to be approached in such a manner was moving. Continue reading →
By Avidan Halivni
On Sunday, March 11, the Nachshon cohort had the privilege of meeting with a series of high-level professionals, each engaging in their own way with the intersection of Judaism and social justice. I came into this day eager to learn from and with accomplished and passionate individuals whose Jewish identity gave way to a career in Jewish service. The day was facilitated by Dyonna Ginsburg, the executive director of Olam, an umbrella organization for various Israel- and Jewish-related social justice groups. She framed our time together with a text study about obligation and the objects of our obligation in the twenty-first century as Jews and as people, a conversation that would set the tone for understanding the people we were to meet throughout the day.
Ms. Ginsburg chose as her starting point the oft-cited lesson from Baba Metzia 71a, that when there are Jews and non-Jews in need, the Jew takes precedence for one’s help; all the way to when the poor of your city are measured against the poor of another’s city, “the poor of your city are preferred.” This Talmudic dictum would serve as sort of a straw man for Ms. Ginsburg for the session as a way to deepen our tribalistic understanding of our social responsibility. Firstly, she pointed out that this hierarchy merely exists in regards to lending money, undermining the all-encompassing tone that, when viewed in isolation, this line implies. She also pointed to later responsa written by highly esteemed authorities, such as the Hatam Sofer (19th c.), who declared that when the poor of another city are in more dire need than those of your own city, the obligation falls on you to help them first, for their need is more pressing. I appreciated the exposure to the multi-vocality of the rabbinic corpus on this particular issue and was impressed by Ms. Ginsburg’s command of the language and spirit of the traditional discourse as a foundation for her session.
I was particularly struck by one text that she brought by Rabbi Micha Odenheimer from 2011. Rabbi Odenheimer challenges the notion that our responsibilities can even be conceived in concentric circles, as depicted by the Talmudic rhetoric and its later interlocutors.
Our weekend in Tzfat was dedicated to the concept of holy spaces. We practiced creating a very specific kind of holy space when we made our tefillin with Rabbi Noach Greenberg, and we explored the definition of holiness itself leading up to and throughout the weekend. The definition of holiness that I have always been drawn to is the distinction from the mundane. Something that is holy is something that is different. This is also an subjective matter, what is holy for me might not and probably isn’t what is holy for my roommate or neighbor.
When we went to the mikvah to learn about the idea of Niddah, purity, impurity, and the ritual practices behind it, I learned about a holy practice of the woman who spoke to us. She said that she found this time from the start of her menstrual cycle to her cleansing at the mikvah two weeks later as a time of holiness, a built in honeymoon every month in which she found the holiness of physical connection with her husband from the absence of it.
I’ve always struggled with the practice of niddah. It is one of the three mitzvot that women are commanded to participate in. I struggle with it because I’ve studies the biblical application of purity and impurity, in which men and women were both subjected to this differentiation of tuma and tahara at a fairly equal rate–however in the interpretation of the rabbis in our rabbinic corpus, only women are required to participate in this mitzvah.
In my family, discussions of theodicy, the conflict between the existence of God and the existence of evil in the world, come up quite often around the dinner table, and every time that they do, my grandfather brings up this quote by Marianne Moore: “Would to God that I, too, might have that fierce faith whose touch makes temporal the most enduring grief.” This quote, in itself, explores one of the main themes that Rabbi Leon Morris addressed in his shiur to the cohort, “The Whole Truth? Balancing Personal Integrity with the Claims of Tradition.”
We call God “great and mighty” over and over again from the words that we say every day in the Amidah to the chants of God’s attributes during the High Holidays. But at the same time, throughout our history, we have suffered. Not one, but two temples have been destroyed; a numerous different nations throughout our history have tried to drive us out or exterminate us. How can we believe in a mighty and supposedly omnipotent God in a world where so many innocent people are killed? Should hardship cause you to lose your faith or to strengthen it? This is a personal question, and I can only answer it for myself, but every time I think about it, I always come back to that quote that my grandfather loves, and especially the second half of it, “…Whose touch makes temporal the most enduring grief.” The question, for me, at least, is less of how do I believe in God in a world with so much hardship and with the presence of hardship in my own life, but how do I keep my faith? Now, you may think that those two things are the same, but I believe that while God is a part of faith, God is not all that faith is. Faith is also a shared history, a set of shared traditions, and a shared community. And that, I would argue (and I think Rabbi Morris, from this shiur would agree with me,) is what we should be addressing.
Is the faith that we want to keep the “old school faith” that our forefathers supposedly had?
Is that the kind of faith “good faith” whatever that means? And what impact should the changing of our religious communities have upon our faith? Rabbi Morris, on his source sheet for this shiur, included a passage from the Mishkan HaNefesh, the new Reform High Holiday machzor that discusses that our faith has become “partial and frayed,” and that we “allow hard questions to consign religion to irrelevance.” These things may be true, but there are both positive and negative aspects to them.
As part of our inspirational day learning about Tikkun Olam with Dyonna Ginsburg, Executive Director of Olam Together, our cohort heard from a panel of professionals addressing the pressing issue of African Asylum seekers in Israel. After learning all morning about the theory, career options, and Jewish texts associated with social justice work, this panel was meant to serve as a tangible case study during which we met people who were motivated by their Jewish values to work on a relevant problem in Israeli society today.
Our panel was made up of three people—two who work for organizations trying to help asylum seekers in Israel, and one asylum seeker who made the treacherous journey from Darfur to Israel. Jean Marc, who works for CIC, explained the reasons behind Israel’s policy decisions and gave background on the 38,000 people currently seeking refuge in Israel. Rachel Gerber, who works for the Jerusalem Center for Afican Refugees shared her personal experiences helping asylum seekers and her frustration that Israel cannot come to a humane solution to this program. It was inspiring to learn that Rachel grew up at Camp Ramah, just like me, and found her passion for working with refugees in college. For many in the room, it was easy to see ourselves in Rachel’s place in a few years. Jack, the Darfurian Refugee’s Story was incredibly impactful and the whole group felt lucky to have the opportunity to hear his experience firsthand. There was a tremendous amount of respect in the room for him, and I am glad that we can all now put a human face on this issue.
However, the most amazing part of this program is seeing how it continues to engage fellows.
The Jerusalem Shabbaton was an incredible opportunity to hear from a variety of individuals of different religious backgrounds and learn about what they find most important about Jewish life. Out of all of the speakers, Rabbi Melchior’s ideas about the importance of dialogue between groups of different people in order to create a strong Jewish and Israeli nation resonated with me most deeply. Rabbi Melchior discussed some of his many achievements, such as helping create Birthright Israel, representing a left-wing religious party in the Knesset, forging peace between Israelis and Islamist groups, and creating curriculums that would bring religious and secular Jewish students together to learn from each other. The magnitude of which one man was able to create such important change inspired the cohort, and myself, as we embark on our own personal journeys to enact change in the Jewish communities for the future.
Rabbi Melchior framed his talk around the consequences of inaction, and the ways in which small voices can make large changes. He explained that just like the Israelites who were afraid to leave Egypt, many Jews today are placated by the idea that we have a Jewish state, yet do not want to change or criticize it out of fear of responsibility, freedom, and leadership. However, these are the only ways to maintain a peaceful, successful Jewish state.
Throughout his talk, Rabbi Melchior explained the sources of the main issues plaguing Israel today. In Israeli democracy, all parties feel demonized and excluded. The Haredim who run the government are angry because the left wing media controls the country, yet secular Israelis complain that the Haredim are actually the governors of Israel. Israel’s religious Jews feel as if the country is too secular, while secular Jews feel that it is too religious. With a lack of dialogue and an emphasis on talking only to those with which one agrees, it is impossible to foster long lasting peace and maintain a successful democracy.
Rabbi Melchior claimed that education is the best way to solve the problems in Israel today.
I’ll be honest, before this experience, I had never touched a pair of T’fillin, let alone create them from scratch, wrap them or learn the reason behind why Jews wrap them. I grew up at a Reform Jewish camp and a Conservative synagogue, yet I had never seen any of my Rabbis wrap T’fillin. The first time I heard about T’fillin really being needed was when my brother needed a pair for the Israel program he was participating in one summer. Aside from that, what I just saw as a pair of black boxes with black leather straps was not a part of my life, or a part of my Judaism.
Not every point of the T’fillin making process was comfortable for me. As we sat as a cohort in Rav Noah’s studio, fellows had many interesting questions on the process of making T’fillin and on Rav Noah’s own personal feelings on the Mitzvah. I was continuously reminding myself that this was an amazing educational opportunity that not everyone gets the opportunity to have. Even if I were to never wrap the T’fillin again after the first time trying it, I would have a pair with me when needed or if I ever found somebody I would want to have them. More importantly, I now understood what those “black boxes” are. Continue reading →
By Shira Botzum
Our weekend in Tzfat was filled with emotions both high and low and a multitude of thought-provoking new experiences. Some parts were incredibly meaningful; others, incredibly challenging. We attempted to explore what spirituality and holiness mean and how they are accessed within a limited but still diverse range of the Jewish community. This included some work-intensive and thought-provoking activities, such as making our own tefillin and hearing from a range of speakers on some fairly intense topics. It also, however, included some highly entertaining and relaxing activities, such as our concert with the hassidic band Simply Tzfat.
We had been on a bus for over four hours and worked hard on our tefillin for another three—eyelids were drooping and everyone was looking forward to getting to their new beds. We were then led to a small room where we packed in tight; sitting on chairs, steps, whatever space was available. A familiar melody began emanating from a guitar at the front of the room and slowly, the atmosphere shifted. As the musicians of Simply Tzfat started playing through a set list of traditional Shabbat songs, our group woke up from our drowsiness and started singing along. People were humming, putting their arms around each other, some standing on chairs—the energy in the air was infectious. Eventually, a few brave souls got up and started dancing, quickly pulling the rest of us in to join. We spent a fun and lively hour filling the room with our energy and getting in the Shabbos spirit. The evening was a lovely end to a long week and a beautiful start to our weekend together in Tzfat.
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