Leval Yimmot Netzach (Let It Never Fall) – לבל ימוט נצח (A New Melody)

I have composed a new melody for a song that can be sung at the beginning of the Passover seder to describe what is about to happen. Or, you might want to sing it at the end to describe what exactly happened. In any event, it is a description of the order of the Passover seder, but in rhyme!

Check out this sheet music for “Leval Yimmot Netzach.”

Check out the “Leval Yimmot Netzach” text.

Check out this recording of “Leval Yimmot Netzach.

See if you can memorize it before the Seder begins tonight!*

*But only if you have really nothing else to do and/or have discovered a kabbalistic meaning to this song such that the cosmos depends on your memorizing this before the Seder begins tonight.



Fixing What Ain’t Broke (Fekudey 5775)

Below is the non-formatted version of this formatted Devar Torah for Vayyakhel Fekudey 5775:


Shabbat shalom,[1]

You might be familiar with that saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’ fix it.” This is not a Jewish saying.

In this week’s double-Torah-portion of Vayyak’hel Fekudey (וַיַּקְהֵל-פְֿקוּדֵי), we come across a curious phrase that appears only twice in the Torah. The phrase lo yikka-REY-a (לֹא יִקָּרֵֽעַ), meaning “shall not rip” (as in “it shall not rip”) appears in only two places: once, in our portion a few weeks ago, when discussing the efod (אֵפוֹד)—that special tunic worn by the High Priest; and once, in the portion we will read tomorrow morning, also when discussing the efod (אֵפוֹד).[2] In fact, these two verses of the Torah are nearly identical in their description of the efod. It could be that whoever wrote the Torah just said the same thing twice unconsciously. Or, it could be that whoever compiled the Torah as we have it now deemed this phrase lo yikka-REY-a (לֹא יִקָּרֵֽעַ) so important that they needed to repeat this. Yet another possibility is that, if we believe, as many biblical scholars and many liberal Jews do, that the words of the Torah are written by more than one person, we have reason to believe that the different schools of thought and the different Jewish thinkers who are responsible for our Torah felt that our religion must be based on a text that emphasizes that the efod of the High Priest lo yikka-REY-a (לֹא יִקָּרֵֽעַ) “shall not rip.”

So, nu, what’s so important about the efod not ripping?

If we look back at the earliest words that our sages say about what lo yikka-REY-a (לֹא יִקָּרֵֽעַ) means beyond its literal meaning, we turn our attention to the Jerusalem Talmud. You might know that the Jewish people have not one Talmud but two Talmuds: the Babylonian Talmud, and the Jerusalem Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud is a collection of rabbinic teachings written in exile, in the Jewish Diaspora of Babylonia, in present-day Iraq. The Jerusalem Talmud on the other hand, being both an earlier collection of rabbinic teachings and being a product of the Holy Land, is concerned with a variety of laws that weren’t as much of interest to Jews who lived in Exile. For Jews in the Exile of Babylonia, there was little hope that the Temple in Jerusalem would ever be rebuilt and that the Temple would be back to employing Kohanim (כֹּהֲנִים)—that is, the priests—and the Leviyyim (לְוִיִּים)—that is, the Levites, the assistants to the priests, the members of the tribe of Levi who did not merit the priesthood. But, in the Land of Israel, there was more optimism that the Temple could be rebuilt after its destruction in the year 70 C.E.. Though centuries went by without any progress, the authors of the Jerusalem Talmud still were preoccupied with how best to preserve the rituals, laws, and lore of the Temple of old—with the hope that the Temple may be rebuilt.

In the Jerusalem Talmud, we learn that, as much as the rabbis of the Land of Israel still wanted to hold onto the memory of the Temple and as much as they wanted to stay on top of Temple law as described in the Torah, they could not remember why there was a commandment that the efod not rip. The rabbis, in reading and rereading about the efod not ripping, determined that ripping is something that can ruin the purity of certain ritual objects: including, but not limited to the efod. But they still wanted to understand the basis of the original statement, which they even interpreted to be a law, such that someone who ripped the efod would have been flogged. They asked: Did the Torah state that the efod shall not rip because it would be a violation of the law if somebody ripped the efod? Or, did the Torah state that the efod shall not rip because it would be that the efod must be made so that it shall not rip?

Further, the rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud asked: If the efod is by definition something that cannot rip, then why did some rabbis come along and determine that there was actually a punishment for someone who would rip the efod? And, conversely, if the Torah intended to make it a law that the efod shall not rip, then why is this stated in a passive voice, that the efod “shall not rip,” rather than an active voice of “you shall not rip the efod?”[3]

As the rabbis are often wont to do, they ask some pretty good questions about this, but they come to no real answers in the Jerusalem Talmud. Nearly a millennium later, around the 13th Century, we read more of an answer in an anonymously written book called Sefer Ha-Hi-NUKH (סֵֽפֶר הַחִנּוּךְ), which attempts to list the 613 mitzvot that make up Jewish living. In Sefer Ha-Hi-NUKH (סֵֽפֶר הַחִנּוּךְ), we read that the law that the efod not rip so that the High Priest understand the gravity of his job, such that even a small rip to his garments would be a sin.[4] But beyond this, the rabbis teach us very little about the religious significance of this sinful rip for the next few centuries.

If you’re familiar with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, then you might also know that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who lived in the 20th Century had an ancestor also named Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Hasidic master who is now known by the name of his central work Ohev Yisra’el (אוֹהֵב יִשְׂרָאֵל), “The Lover of Israel”. That senior Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that the no-ripping law was symbolic of another part of Jewish life that would be easy to violate: speaking ill of others, and spreading lies about our peers. For Ohev Yisra’el, splitting that sacred tunic with the smallest tear was symbolic of the spreading of malice through just a few wrong words.[5] Another Hasidic master, Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir taught, pertaining more to the spiritual and ephemeral, that the tearing of the High Priest’s garb paralleled the split we can experience when we feel that we are no longer at one with God—that our mouths are no longer speaking sacred, kind and true words: a manner of speech that he would consider God’s very Presence speaking through our mouths.[6] Turning more inward towards the corporeality of this law, the Hasidic Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polnoye taught that the prohibition on ripping didn’t apply to the efod itself, but to the garb of our souls: which is to say, our own bodies. For Jacob Joseph of Polnoye, we were commanded to take care of our bodies, for they are the very precious vessels that house our holy souls.[7] And, because it is mostly the Hasidic masters who took interest in the spiritual significance of these laws, it is worth our considering the words of yet another Hasidic teacher, Sh’lomoh HaKohen Rabinovich. Rabinovich suggested that the prohibition on ripping the efod was put in place so that the entirety of the High Priest’s garb, which included ringing bells, would stay in place. Wherever the High Priest would walk, people could hear the jingle of the bells. Those bells raised others’ awareness—including God’s awareness—that the High Priest was ready to participate in the Temple service and to pray. The bells that rang as he prayed could help the High Priest make sure that his prayers resonated on a higher level.[8]

It is a beautiful treasure to have a tradition that provides so many different, thoughtful and sometimes even inspiring answers to one question. But it also comes at a certain cost, which is: we still might not have figured out why we have opted into a religion that for some reason emphasizes that the efod not rip.

For us tonight, it might be worth our considering that the efod is symbolic of something far greater than the tunic of the High Priest, and even greater than the entire garb of the High Priest, and even greater than our speech, and even greater than our bodies. The efod is perhaps symbolic of the fabric of our religion. The rabbis were careful to state that we must build fences around our Torah: buffers that guard us from getting too close to the intent of the Torah so that we never violate the Torah. It is better that we violate a law designed by humans than a law that must have been decreed by God. The efod is a garb envisioned by God but fashioned by humans, just as the Torah on its own is a system that has its origins in the divine inspiration that moves us towards greater sacred altruism, but it is we who ultimately must make the choice to buy into the system of the Torah.

When we choose to accept a Torah that says we may not rip the efod of the High Priest, we are choosing to accept a religion that says that we are accepting the full Torah with all of its inner weavings. We might add to it some layers of interpretation and some security measures that keep us far from violating Jewish law, but we never destroy the Torah itself so much as we find ways to re-envision and to reread the layers we add to the Torah.

The way that we practice the Torah today might be different from the way our ancestors wore their religion 200 years ago or 2000 years ago. We may have taken the Torah, our efod to the tailor who has reinterpreted our Torah so that Jewish law can respond to the ever-changing questions of modernity, but we have never asked the tailors of our tradition—our laypeople and our scholars—to throw out the Torah and replace it.

This thing we call Judaism is something that we have to come around to and get fixed from time to time. Sometimes it doesn’t fit right, but the truth is that our Torah has never broken; it has never been a broken system. We have had to add new layers to our efod of Torah, so that our Torah fits the fashion of the times.

When it comes to Judaism as an evolving religion, we must know that—because our efod of Torah shall not rip even at the times when the Torah doesn’t fit right—even when our Torah ain’t exactly broke, through the historical layers of interpretation, we can find a way to fix it.

Shabbat shalom.

[1]   Written to be delivered by a congregant on one Shabbat when I was unable to show up due to my attending to a family member’s health.

[2]   Respectively Exodus 28:32 and 39:23.

[3]   Megillah 12a.

[4]   Mitzvah 101/מצוה קא.

[5]   Tetzavveh.

[6]   Or HaMe’ir, Tetzavveh.

[7]   תולדות יעקב יוסף שמות פרשת תצוה.

[8]   תפארת שלמה על פקודי.

JTS Purim Se’udah 5775 Roundup (Part 1 of 5-ish)

Sincere thanks go out to Student Life for assembling this year’s Purim Se’udah, and major props to Chaya Bender for fantastically and awesomely co-chairing the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Purim Se’udah with me this year.

More evidence of this year’s Se’udah will be coming soon to the internet, but for the meantime, the text of A Prayer For the State of Our Library Purim 5775 and Eyn Tenu’atenu and the following 5 films!

1. Children Reacting to Wissenschaft des Judentums 
A film by Jonah Rank. Starring Jonah Rank, Nava Simring (child of Mia Simring and Jimmy Taber), Danya Tabick (child of Roni and Shoshi Tabick), and Zach Sitkin. Camerawork by Ezra Burke, Amram Altzman, Jimmy Taber, Mia Simring, and Yoni Nadiv.

2. Who By Fire? Who By Water? A JTS Library Commercial
A film by Jonah Rank.

3. PSA: Speaking With Kids About The Sheva Na
A film by Jonah Rank, with great assistance from Prof. Benjamin D. Sommer.

4. If Men Rabbis Were Spoken To The Way Women Rabbis Are Spoken To
Written by (alphabetically, and not in order of percentage of contribution): Chaya Bender, Jonah Rank, and Dr. Raysh Weiss. Edited by Jonah Rank. Starring Katie Greenberg, Rory Katz, Bronwen Mullin, Jonah Rank and Dr. Raysh Weiss.

5. Where Have All The First Years Gone?
By Warner Ferratier. With assistance of the following: editor Jonah Rank; actors Zohar Atkins, Margie Cella, Warner Ferratier, Jeremy Fineberg, Aliza Goldman, Shayna Golkow, Daniel Graber, Rav Dr. Yehudit Hauptman, Sam Hollander, Rory Katz, Leora Kling Perkins, Sharyn Perlman, Jama Purser, Rav Dr. Mordy Schwartz, Lauren Tuchman. Special thanks to Irina Gritsevsky and Rafi Spitzer.

Until the next time, happy Shushan Purim!

Shiv’im Panim: 70 Faces of a Rabbinic Education

For my introductory piece to Shiv’im Panim, see “Seeking 70 Faces In Rabbinic Training” at Rabbi Hayim Herring’s blog.

For a PDF of the full piece, click this link.
Otherwise, read below…








Shiv’im Panim: Educating Towards Diverse Rabbinates

“What can you do that no one else can?”[1]

I did not know at first how to answer my friend’s question. Although he knew a few rabbinical students aside from me, he did not know exactly what it is that makes rabbis different from other Jews.

The truth is that, to officiate at a Jewish wedding, you don’t have to be a rabbi. To officiate at any other Jewish life cycle event—even to serve as the mohel who circumcises a newborn Jewish boy—you still don’t have to be a rabbi. Synagogues do not need to be led by rabbis. And history has witnessed many great posekim (decisors of Halakhah—Jewish law) who were not rabbis.[2]

After stumbling over my words for some while, I responded, “We each bring our own personality to our rabbinate.” The answer fell a bit flat, both to his ears, and to mine. Five years of education—give or take—is a long time to develop a personality.

As I write these words, I am entering my tenth of ten semesters of my own studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Rabbinical School.[3] During this time, I have taken a few courses that will obviously relate to the rabbinate of anyone who works with people: a course on pastoral care and counseling, and a course on behavioral health issues. My curriculum has required I study material that relates to the work of a schul rabbi: Talmudic analyses of prayer, marriage, divorce, and mourning; a seminar on life cycle events; and a seminar on homiletics. At the same time that I have taken courses that will enrich my ability to serve as a spiritual leader, I have taken courses that—no matter how they have fascinated me at times—focus so deeply on picayune parts of Jewish history or Jewish literature I can’t imagine ever arising in my day-to-day rabbinate. (“Rabbi, I hate keeping secrets. Should I tell my kids the truth about the Iberian literary influences on medieval Hebrew rhymed prose narratives?”)

It could be that, in an ideal Messianic world, every Masoretic note, every Medieval Hebrew literary work, and every ancient method of dream interpretation will be spiritually meaningful to all Jews. But, until the Messianic era, I’ll occasionally worry that getting caught up in the cultural minutiae of Jewish history deceives me into neglecting those immediate challenges that often face the non-Orthodox Jewish world. In the exclusively Jewish sphere—beginning or weak knowledge of Jewish languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish, etc.), weak motivation for furthering personal Jewish engagement, unfamiliarity with the Jewish calendar and Jewish practices, and disarray in the “organized” Jewish community prevent many Jews from uniting in the project of digging deeper into Torah—in the broadest and in the narrowest senses possible. And if Jewishly-built barriers weren’t enough, Jews have also been afflicted with the obstacles of being human: economic struggles, identity politics, the search for personal meaning, wrestling with psychological conditions, problems with work and with relationships, health issues and more.

Rabbis who work with people (as opposed to rabbis who work with books and books alone) must be prepared to address infinite aspects of the human condition; rabbis must work towards healing the intangible Jewish soul. Simultaneously, rabbis are transmitters of Torah. It is through the language of Judaism that emerges in the peratim peratim—the finer details of our tradition—where we find the words to couch even the most mundane of human affairs in sacred speech: teachings that inspires us to act with greater lovingkindness towards the world, towards each other, and towards ourselves. Rabbis in training need time for Torah study, but at what cost? Isn’t the whole point of the Torah that we must love each other as we love ourselves? Isn’t the rest commentary?[4] Marginal even? Still, I believe that my own rabbinic education—during and after rabbinical school—must include a humbling depth of material: content that makes me discover every day just how much broader and how much more nuanced Torah is than I could ever imagine. To me, a good education should always teach me more about how little I know today—while still not belittling me.

But, how much can one learn about how one knows so little? Even a lifetime is not long enough for me to study all of the works in just my own Seminary’s library. So how much time can we spend in this thing we call Rabbinical School?

Some rabbinical students sign up for a 5-year plan; some spend less time than that in the halls of their seminaries, and some might be seminarians for closer to a decade (and some journeys exceed even that).

One might question both the length of rabbinic studies, and wonder if there is such a thing as the perfect curriculum for a rabbinical training program. As an experiential learner, I personally might not feel 100% “ready” for the Jewish professional world by the time I graduate, but no greater amount of classtime will make me feel readier. I am tempted to guess that no rabbi has learned by ordination everything that a lifetime of a rabbinate can teach. Rabbinic education simply does not end with rabbinical school.

As far as schools go though: Five years is both a long time, and not long enough a time. In the summer of 2013, I conducted an informal survey over social media, phone, e-mail and in-person conversations, connecting with perhaps 30 prospective, future, present, and past rabbinical students of JTS and other rabbinical schools to see what they felt should go into a rabbinical school curriculum. Were any one curriculum to include everything that had been suggested during these talks, a rabbinic education would not be possible to complete in fewer than eight years. Since the standard five years of a rabbinic education can interfere with other life plans of rabbis-to-be, I was not interested in imagining or promoting anything that would extend rabbinical school nearer to a decade of school.

Because of the breadth of knowledge that is needed to prepare students best for a rabbinic profession, I am in favor of all rabbinical schools developing means to permit students to test out of nearly all requirements. I would hope that rabbinical schools could offer students who test out of certain requirements the opportunity to “compensate” the exempted time with further advanced learning (electives, independent studies, “field”-experiential mentorships and rabbinic positions, etc.). Yet, I would want rabbinical schools to be able to permit that curricular exemptions not always be replaced with other requirements, for some advanced students might be seeking to spend fewer than 5 years in school for a whole variety of reasons (second career students looking to resume working life; students for whom a full education is a compromising or impossible expense; students who previously worked as rabbis but “without the title;” students who have had to be absent from school due to prolonged care for themselves, for family members, or friends; etc.).

When a school’s culture relies on financial aid for the continual support of an institution—because students need to pay tuition on time, and administrators need to guarantee that expenses and salaries are paid on time—financial aid complicates the length of rabbinic studies. For programs that offer their students Federal Student Aid, a certain number of credit-hours can be required by the State or Federal government to ensure that governmentally sponsored schools meet governmentally regulated standards. These standards often define education for students quantitatively (the amount of time spent enrolled in classes, and the mathematics of Grade Point Averages) rather than qualitatively (spiritual, professional, intellectual or personal growth). While the system of governmental financial aid helps guarantee that students and administrators can afford to keep their rabbinical schools afloat, financial aid simultaneously requires typically that rabbinical students stay in school longer than they often can afford.

Technically, rabbinical schools do not need State accreditation in order to offer ordination to its candidates;[5] however, the commonality of accrediting rabbinical programs has guaranteed that non-Orthodox rabbinic membership organizations comprise mostly professionals trained at accredited institutions. In the end, there can be something almost unusual, if not suspect, when a privately ordained rabbi seeks to join such a membership organization. (“Does this rabbi ex nihilo know what we learned at our rabbinical school?”) Yet, all formalized rabbinical schools have histories and traditions that go back eventually to exceptional teachers and inspiring principles formulated in a world without accreditation, without MAs and PhDs—degrees that were prohibited from Jews only a few hundred years ago and invented not too long before that. (Rabbi Akiva may have had thousands of students, but he never even applied to grad school.)

In some instances, and more fervently in the Orthodox world than outside of it, generous private donors can sponsor rabbinical schools that do not always offer any State-sponsored degree or State-sponsored financial aid. Before such a change would be able to apply to schools outside of the Orthodox world, we would have to be witness to a major revolution in non-Orthodox Jewish philanthropy. Indeed, one of the greatest challenges facing Jewish communities is discovering the philanthropic model that can finance and incentivize a revolution in Jewish education. Honoring that, I am not yet seriously exploring the option of federally funded rabbinical students in ~5-year programs losing all federal funding in favor of gaining full financial support from kind, dependable donations. Yet, doing so could permit a rabbinical student to opt out of meeting the State’s requirements, and instead meet the requirements of a rabbinic program designed entirely and mutually by the student and that student’s individually hand-picked team of rabbinic mentors. And still, there are other methods by which we can work towards incorporating some of that idealism into a 5-year education (or however long it may take).

I recommend that those with the power to rebuild rabbinical education for the 21st century do design programs that attempt to cap near the minimum the number of credit hours necessary per semester in order to meet whatever accreditation standards permit the school to be supported as needed by federal financial aid. Beyond that, I suggest that there be an overlay of personally customized training goals that students and rabbinic teachers can set together. I would like to suggest that rabbinical schools should view their curricula’s academic cores as a lead melody that all students must sing, but students and their mentors must work collaboratively and creatively to arrange a suitable orchestration to accompany the song of a rabbinic education. The number of musical arrangements that can be composed around a single melody is infinite, and a good jazz musician also knows how to make slight strategic adjustments to a melody, to make the melody more moving in surprising ways, yet still recognizable.

I sometimes wonder if the number of required academic courses I have taken in my time in Rabbinical School exceeds the number of academic courses required by New York State,[6] especially since the State is not the authority who ordains new rabbis. I speculate that, with fewer academic credits than I will have completed by May 2015, my peers and I would still have acquired a different, but still deeply meaningful rabbinic education that echoes the lessons of several years’ worth of wisdom.

So, the question remains: What should surround that enduring academic nucleus? Some students have told me that they want more time studying rabbinic texts in the beit midrash (house of study). Others seek the interpersonal intelligence attained when studying for a MSW. Still others strive mastering a Jewish artistic practice, or honing their skills in a Jewish craft. From an academic center, a variety of divergent rabbinic paths naturally emerges.

JTS students typically choose a MA concentration from either the Graduate School or the Davidson School of Education, a Masters in Sacred Music, or a Certificate in Pastoral Care and Counseling. I propose that rabbinical schools continue to move in this direction of inviting students to be partners in designing their course of study—especially in expanding this educational direction beyond the formal walls of the academic institution.

First, I’d like mentors and students to determine a vocational path for a student. Is this a student who would like to concentrate on training for a synagogal rabbinate? For a job in Jewish education? Chaplaincy? An academic career? The intellect of the beit midrash? The pursuit of justice? How about organizational and administrative skills? I would like to refer these potential paths for a rabbinic education as Darkhey Torah (“the paths of Torah [i.e. study]”). I do not expect that every rabbinical student will know throughout one’s schooling (or even at the end of one’s schooling) what sort of rabbinate to expect upon graduation. But I believe that having the student decide together with rabbinic mentors how best to be educated for any of the aforementioned Darkhey Torah (or a hodgepodge of the above, or even another Derekh Torah—“path of Torah”) can increasingly help students see a positive correlation between their studies and their prospective careers.

Beyond a Derekh Torah, I would love to see a world in which rabbis each can offer a handy—and unique—answer when asked, “What do you do?” I want to see rabbis who are a whole range of experts. I like to envision rabbis who are adept at a social trade: chaplaincy, counseling, spiritual direction, life coaching, or shadkhanut (match-making). I hope to see rabbis who use their hands for the craftwork of Jewish ritual culture: the architecture of mikva’ot (ritual baths), the precisions of milah (circumcision), the art of ethical shechitah (ritual slaughtering of animals), soferut (scribal arts). I look forward to seeing a class of rabbis who revive Jewish artistic culture: maggidim (Jewish storytellers), payyetanim (liturgical poets), Jewish arts curators, Jewish songleaders, Jewish culinary artists. And I want to see rabbis emerge well-versed in highly technical subjects: hashgachah (Kosher supervisory), earning a MBA, intense familiarity with a particular Jewish literary genre, or a talent for pesikat halakhah (the rendering of Halakhic decisions). For this category, I would recommend the terminology of “trade tracks” in English, or, in Hebrew, Mesillot Mumechiyyut (“Ways of Expertise”). Advantages of rabbis being trained in Mesillot Mumechiyyut are at least twofold. First, several of these trades are trades over which Orthodox Judaism currently holds near-monopolies (shechitah, soferut, the operation of mikve’ot, pesikat halakhah, etc.). The expansion of these trades beyond Orthodoxy can help create a more multifaceted Jewish world. Second, many (though not necessarily all) of these trades provide services that are somewhat profitable (especially if marketed the right way). During hard economic times, and due to a variety of personal circumstances that arise, five years of rabbinical school cannot guarantee eternal job security—especially for a job rooted exclusively in old models of the rabbinate. It can only come to a rabbi’s advantage to have mastered a trade outside of that which could be identified heretofore as something that only a rabbi would do. Though many of the great rabbis of old earned livings outside of their exclusively rabbinic endeavors,[7] we need not ask rabbis today to earn money outside of rabbinic work; we can widen our net and rethink what the daily work of a rabbi can look like.

I write all of this from the vantage point of a rabbinic student who has spent about a decade at JTS, spoken at length with students from other rabbinical schools, ruminated at length on the benefits and disadvantages of different rabbinical programs’ curricula, but never had the experience of serving as an administrator or a full-time rabbi. Though I am not unusually “qualified” to think through an ideal curriculum, I have nonetheless attempted to assemble what an ideal rabbinical school curriculum might look like, if (almost) everything I have heard or considered could somehow add up. In some ways, the resultant curriculum is not all that different from the curriculum of which I have been privileged to be a part at JTS, and in other ways JTS and this vision differ dramatically.

The following outline is an attempt at constructing what might have been an ideal rabbinic program for me and hopefully for others, to intensify the student’s focus on certain subjects and skillsets: perhaps permitting every rabbinical student to answer without hesitation, “What can you do that no one else can?”


Towards a Rabbinic Curriculum of Shiv’im Panim

Though rabbinical students may be united in pursuing the same title (“Rabbi”), and they may all say they want to make lives of Torah more easily accessible to others, those who study to become rabbis differ dramatically from one another. Every rabbinical student set foot onto a path of rabbinic education carrying different personal stories, different beliefs, different strengths, different weaknesses, different intrapersonal and interpersonal skills, different spiritual and aesthetic sensibilities, different learning styles, different motivations, and different goals.

It is said that the Torah has 70 faces (shiv’im panim).[8] Just when we think we can encounter God face-to-face through the veil of the Jewish life we have chosen, we discover that we could have enlivened a different Judaism and still encountered the veiled countenance of the Divine. More simply: There is more than one way to be Jewish. When it comes to over 90% of Jewish practice, we can find no singularly correct answer that applies to all Jews. It might be obvious that Jews differ on their understanding of what constitutes work or rest in making Shabbat a day of rest, and Jews will differ on the minutiae of proper prayer etiquette, and what words we should or should not say in our worship. And going deeper, Jews who have never held a weapon can be quick to forget that the Ten Commandments’ prohibition on shedding blood is not commonsense for all. “Thou shalt not kill” alone feels too broad a law to comfort Jewish soldiers who seek a Jewish military ethic to assure them that their national service may be bloody but sacred. For one Jew, any blood spilled may be an abomination, and for another Jew in other circumstances, a military strike may be a mitzvah. We might not love each of the Torah’s 70 faces, but we inherit the Torah in its entirety, and the Torah is now ours to teach as we see most fitting. Unfolding the layers of the Torah in the ways that enable us to transmit most meaningfully that same Torah to laypeople is vital to the development of religious leaders. Rabbis-in-training, including my classmates and I, come from the same starting point (Torah) but eventually go their separate ways. By structurally reflecting both the commonality and the diversity of our paths to rabbinic formation, we can only emerge wiser, better-equipped rabbis.

Below is an outline of the flexibly designed curriculum of an idealized, fantastical rabbinical school, hereafter called “Shiv’im Panim.” Shiv’im Panim is designed to train both a rising sector of non-professional rabbis through the S’tam Semikhah program as well as professional rabbis (eligible for membership in rabbinic organizations) through the Semikhah Mukhsheret program (the curricular and practical distinctions of which are to be discussed in greater depth below, in Section C). Below, Section A covers the Darkhey Torah that would typically serve, over the span of 7 courses, a thematic “Path of Study” for students choosing to highlight different types of rabbinic careers. In Section B, we will explore the Trade Tracks that Semikhah Mukhsheret students might select in order to hone certain individualized skills that are relevant to their rabbinate. Section C itself is a complete breakdown of how students will be engaged with new Torah throughout the ~5 years it takes to complete one’s studies at Shiv’im Panim, and Section D will touch upon what renders candidates ideal for Shiv’im Panim.


SECTION A: Paths of Study / Darkhey Torah

Rabbinical students at Shiv’im Panim’s Semikhah Mukhsheret program select a Path of Study that will help center the student’s training. (Notably, the S’tam Semikhah students may only select the Beit Midrash Path of Study.) A student’s chosen Path is not expected necessarily to be the “path” of a student’s future rabbinate; however, it is expected that each Path of study can enhance each student’s rabbinate and enable students to specialize in varied rabbinic fields.

Students, with the approval of their academic advisor, can substitute 3 of any Path’s 7 required courses with courses deemed appropriate for the range of a student’s personal or professional rabbinic interests.

The Curricular Schedule Outline in Section C demonstrates how the course of study for any of these Paths temporally fit into the grander program of Shiv’im Panim. (Note that the numbers below each of the Paths listed do not intend to imply that these courses must be taken in a certain order.) Courses whose titles might not obviate necessary content are described briefly in footnotes at the first appearance of such course titles.



  1. Theological, Historical & Practical Dimensions of Jewish Leadership[9]
  2. Synagogue & Jewish Community Models[10]
  3. Crisis Management & Trauma Care
  4. Disabilities, Mental Illness & Aging in the Jewish World
  5. Survey of World Jewish Ethnicities[11]
  6. Innovation in the Jewish World[12]
  7. Elective



  1. Crisis Management & Trauma Care
  2. Disabilities, Mental Illness & Aging in the Jewish World
  3. Pedagogic Skills
  4. Development of the Human Brain & Psychology for Clergy
  5. Innovation in the Jewish World
  6. Moral & Sexual Development
  7. Survey of World Jewish Ethnicities



  1. Crisis Management & Trauma Care
  2. Disabilities, Mental Illness & Aging in the Jewish World
  3. Development of the Human Brain & Psychology for Clergy
  4. Moral & Sexual Development
  5. Creating Mentoring Relationships
  6. Synagogue & Jewish Community Models
  7. Elective



  1. Survey of World Jewish Ethnicities
  2. Non-Hebrew Language Elective I[13]
  3. Non-Hebrew Language Elective II

4-7. MA/Concentration Electives


Beit Midrash

  1. Survey of Jewish Legal Literature I[14]
    2. Survey of Jewish Legal Literature II
  2. Independent Beki’ut Study
  3. Parashat Ha-Shavu’a through Classical Commentaries[15] I
  4. Parashat Ha-Shavu’a through Classical Commentaries II
  5. The Post-Biblical Jewish Canon I: From the Apocrypha to Arba’ah Turim
  6. The Post-Biblical Jewish Canon II: From Arba’ah Turim to Contemporary Jewish Writing


Social Justice

  1. Keyruv, Community Organizing & Organizational Behavior
  2. Theological, Historical & Practical Dimensions of Jewish Leadership
  3. Synagogue & Jewish Community Models
  4. Disabilities, Mental Illness & Aging in the Jewish World
  5. World, National & Local Politics & Activism Through a Jewish Lens[16]
  6. Survey of World Jewish Ethnicities
  7. Elective



  1. Keyruv, Community Organizing & Organizational Behavior
  2. Theological, Historical & Practical Dimensions of Jewish Leadership
  3. Synagogue & Jewish Community Models
  4. Innovation in the Jewish World
  5. World, National & Local Politics Through a Jewish Lens
  6. Communal Economics: Skills & Philosophies in Jewish Fundraising & Philanthropy
  7. Elective



(Exact program to be determined in collaboration with Academic Advisor)


SECTION B: Trade Tracks / Mesillot Mumechiyyut

Prior to ordination, Semikhah Mukhsheret students (but not S’tam Semikhah students) master one trade listed below (grouped together by category for ease of reading) or another trade of which the student’s academic advisor has approved; or have a professional, Masters, or Doctoral degree or certificate in a field approved by said advisor. Certain subjects may require additional study either at another institution or with the independent study of an approved private instructor. If the Shiv’im Panim cannot provide adequate related training through its own offering of courses, students may expect to spend 1-3 summers concentrating on this trade. A beit din (“court”) of 3 faculty members must approve a student’s completion of studies for a selected trade. Section C’s Curricular Schedule Outline details how training for these Trades may fit into the grander scheme of Shiv’im Panim.

Social TradesChaplaincy Certificate | Counseling, Spiritual Direction, MSW | Shadkhanut Jewish Hand TradesMikveh Architecture | Mikveh Guidance | Milah | Shechitah | Soferut
Jewish Art TradesJewish filmmaking/storytelling/theater | Jewish creative writing | Jewish culinary arts/nutrition | Jewish liturgical arts, Payyetanut | Jewish musicianship, Chazzanut | Jewish visual artistry/arts curating Knowledge TradesHashgachah | MBA | Mumechiyyut in 1 Jewish literary genre (such as Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim, Mesorah, Midrash, Pesher, Qumran texts, Halakhah, Chasidut, Kabbalah, Musar, Apocrypha, etc.) or written work | Pesikat Halakhah

SECTION C: Curricular Schedule Outline

Below are five charts: each chart detailing the course of study for each of Shiv’im Panim’s standard five years of study. Although personal circumstances will find certain students with reasons to complete the program in shorter or longer lengths of time, these five years are intentionally cumulative in their coverage. Students, with the approval of their academic advisor, may be exempt from any required course in the material of which the student has been deemed proficient. Students might therefore complete the program in fewer than five years, proficiency and fortuitous scheduling permitting. Except under unusual circumstances, no student may be ordained from Shiv’im Panim with having been a full-time student for fewer than 6 semesters. With the exceptions of students transferring from another rabbinical school who are exempted from courses the material of which was proficiently completed elsewhere, for every two course credits from which a student has been exempt, a student will enroll in one elective course credit, which may be a credit towards an independent study designed for the student’s Trade (as described in Section B).

Students will be well-advised to consult regularly with their academic advisor to ensure that they are successfully set on a trajectory of meaningful learning towards a personalized rabbinate. Additionally, it is recommended that students regularly volunteer time during rabbinical school, as a commitment to both tzedek (justice) and chesed (charity). Separately it is strongly encouraged that students regularly attend therapy sessions, to help students better, continually, and compassionately understand themselves and others. Shiv’im Panim is able to provide counseling services for students seeking therapy.

Liturgical leadership and handy skills—though occasionally practiced in the series of Laws, Contemporary Practices and Halakhah courses that appear throughout most of the schooling—will be covered more intimately over the course of special Workshop days, as outlined below.

Shiv’im Panim’s program begins in Israel—enabling students, after the Israel year, to reside afterwards in the same locale for 4 years without interruption caused by the schooling itself. The program begins with a focus on daily tefillah, and then kashrut. While in Israel, various courses will enable students to experience various sites and communities in Israel firsthand. Towards that end, the first year also attends to matters of Israeli history and the religions of the Land of Israel. Students will study Hebrew and Biblical criticism amidst their Torah study. Upon students’ agreements to attend Shiv’im Panim, the Rabbinical School administration will be in touch with any significant others of students to support them—as appropriate—in obtaining work visas in Israel; MASA or other applicable grants; registration at an Ulpan or other Hebrew language immersion opportunities; and assistance with career placement, financial aid, and medical support.

Students who seek a rabbinic education that results in Semikhah (ordination) but no accompanying professional degree (as opposed to Shiv’im Panim’s Semikhah Mukhsheret [“Certified Ordination”] rabbinical students who will graduate with professional degrees for having completed an accredited educational degree, such as an MA or MHL) can enroll in Shiv’im Panim’s S’tam Semikhah (“Just ordination”) program, ordainees of which would not be granted permission—and would not be supported by Shiv’im Panim’s administration in an ordainee’s efforts—to join a rabbinical membership organization. Notably, Shiv’im Panim’s design as such of both a professional rabbinical school and a non-professional rabbinical school, with profound overlap between the two, is intended to fill a sociological gap in the non-Orthodox Jewish world. In 2015 C.E., the population of an Orthodox synagogue along much of the urban centers of the East and West Coasts of the United States can expect to count among its minyan a gaggle of ordained rabbis who work in non-rabbinic professions: law, business, medicine, and beyond. The intensive training of, essentially lay, rabbis in the Orthodox world guarantees that Orthodoxy will be supported from the ground up with knowledgeable laypeople. The creation of a rabbinically educated laity outside the Orthodox world can help inspire a new generation of highly Jewishly-educated liberal Jewish laypeople who can be assured that Torah study is richest when understood as a communal enterprise, and not an exclusive jargon reserved for functioning clergy. Shiv’im Panim’s S’tam Semikhah program is inherently designed for people who have no intentions of serving as a rabbi, but who want to deepen their knowledge and share it informally with their families, friends and communities. Whereas Shiv’im Panim’s ~58-course (~5-year) Semikhah Mukhsheret program vouches for its ordainees’ membership in rabbinic membership organizations, the S’tam Semikhah’s ~36-course (3-year) program omits certain courses related to professional skills as well as the academia of Jewish intellectual and linguistic cultural history. Moreover, the S’tam Semikhah program, in which students do not select a Trade Track, is open only to students who select the Beit Midrash Path of Study (described in Section A). Should a S’tam Semikhah ordainee decide to continue their rabbinic studies at Shiv’im Panim’s Semikhah Mukhsheret program, the ordainee may re-enroll at Shiv’im Panim, excepting unusual circumstances, only after one academic year since the S’tam Semikhah date of ordination has passed. All course credits completed while a S’tam Semikhah student had been a student at Shiv’im Panim would count towards the completion of the Semikhah Mukhsheret program—namely, every requirement from which S’tam Semikhah students are exempt (unless said ordainee had, while still a S’tam Semikhah student, enrolled anyway and been evaluated as proficient in courses from which the ordainee had previously been exempt). S’tam Semikhah ordainees who had not previously studied as part of Shiv’im Panim’s program in Israel are encouraged to spend time studying in Israel nonetheless at some point prior to their ordination in the Semikhah Mukhsheret program.


YEAR 1 FALL (in Israel) YEAR 1 SPRING (in Israel)
Survey of Torah**** History of Israel*****
Varieties of Tefillah in Israel (incl. field trips)**** Religious Sites in Israel & Abrahamic Faiths*****[17]
Contemporary Hebrew I***** Contemporary Hebrew II*****
Talmud: Berakhot and Megillah**** Talmud: Chullin and Avodah Zarah****
Laws, Contemporary Practices and Halakhah: Weekday Tefillah****[18] Laws, Contemporary Practices and Halakhah: Kashrut****[19]
Over the course of the Israel year, 3 days each semester includes Workshops on leading Weekday Tefillah (including Torah trop). Attendance as learners and/or sharers is to be required for all students.In the summer upon returning from Israel, students are encouraged to complete 1 CPE unit and to fulfill their CPE requirement. This requirement must be fulfilled before the summer preceding Year 4. Notably, the 5-year curriculum is designed so as to provide time during the year for CPE.****Comparable course (independent study, parallel course at Shiv’im Panim’s home-base, or relevant course approved by academic advisor) must be taken in its stead if a S’tam Semikhah student is unable to be part of the Israel program.

*****Course not required for the S’tam Semikhah program.


In their second year, students will return from Israel and study at Shiv’im Panim’s home-base. Throughout this year, students will study different Jewish philosophical approaches to age-old questions about belief, practice and identity. The fall semester will cover the books of Prophets and Writings, and the Spring will see to the first of rabbinical students’ required history courses (ancient Jewish history) and be introduced to the great project of Jewish exegesis.

As this year may witness students beginning to accept part-time paid rabbinic work, the focus of this unusually heavy year simultaneously explores Shabbat, some holidays, and a full gamut of life cycle events. Such knowledge and skills, when acquired, will help students serve later on in different rabbinic roles and help make the rabbinical school education more affordable.


Jewish Thought & Personal Meaning I[20] Jewish Thought & Personal Meaning II[21]
Laws, Contemporary Practices and Halakhah: Shabbat[22] Laws, Contemporary Practices and Halakhah: Yom Tov & Chol HaMo’ed[23]
Talmud: Shabbat and Eruvin Talmud: Sukkah and Pesachim
Laws, Contemporary Practices and Halakhah: Life Cycle Events Part 1[24] Laws, Contemporary Practices and Halakhah: Life Cycle Events Part 2[25]
Survey of NaKH (Prophets and Writings) Ancient Jewish History*****
Aramaic & Old Hebrew Grammars*****[26] Introduction to Jewish Exegesis[27]
Over the course of the year, 3 days each semester include Workshops on leading Tefillah for Shabbat & Yom Tov (as well as Haftarah/Ruth trops). Attendance, in order either to learn or to share, is to be required for students in the Year 2 Cycle; however, attendance will be optional for all other students.In addition, 1 day each semester will provide a required lecture or workshop on the subject of social justice. Attendance for either learning or sharing is to be required for students in the Year 2 Cycle; optional for all other students.****Comparable course (independent study, parallel course at Shiv’im Panim’s home-base, or relevant course approved by academic advisor) must be taken in its stead if a S’tam Semikhah student is unable to be part of the Israel program.

*****Course not required for the S’tam Semikhah program.


Halfway through their education, students will begin training in certain professional skills of the rabbinate. With homiletics and education fieldwork and Talmudic studies of life cycle rituals, students will complement their studies from the previous year with sugeyot especially focused on marital and divorce law, plus halakhic discussions of holidays not covered during the 2nd year. Focusing on interpersonal spiritual concerns, students will study Jewish mystical traditions, focusing on both the supernatural and the personal. Concurrent with these traditions, stemming predominantly from the Middle Ages, come a Medieval Jewish History course and a survey of Medieval Jewish Literature. The latter half of the year will introduce students to elements of the modern Jewish world: modern history, modern literature, and the formation and philosophy of contemporary Jewish denominations.

Talmud: Kiddushin and Gittin Core Elective #1*
Education Fieldwork Seminar*****[28] Core Elective #2*
History & Texts of Jewish Mysticism & Personal Meaning History & Philosophies of Contemporary Jewish Trends
Medieval Jewish History***** Modern Jewish History*****
Homiletic Speaking & Writing In Person & Via Technology***** Laws, Contemporary Practices and Halakhah: The Jewish Calendar & Non-Yom-Tov Holidays[29]
Survey of Medieval Jewish Literature I*****[30] Survey of Modern Jewish Literature II*****[31]
Over the course of the year, 3 days each semester include Workshops on leading High Holiday services (including shofar blowing & High Holiday morning Torah trop). Attendance, in order either to learn or to share, is to be required for students in the Year 3 Cycle; however, attendance will be optional for all other students.In addition, 1 day each semester will provide a lecture or workshop on the subject of neurotheology. Attendance, in order either to learn or to share, is to be required for students in the Year 3 Cycle; however, attendance will be optional for all other students.*Over the course of the curriculum, 4 Core Electives must be selected, one from each of all but one of five categories: (1) biblical literature, (2) midrashic literature, (3) halakhic literature, (4) history, and (5) professional development. Under circumstances approved by the student’s academic advisor, students may select other electives for other purposes, including substituting Trade or Path studies with these course credits and/or time slots.

*****Course not required for the S’tam Semikhah program.


In their fourth year, rabbinical students will study the High Holidays and—having studied life cycle events and all the remaining holidays—will be able to take on most tasks asked of a year-round synagogue rabbi. Students will begin taking electives of their choosing, in accordance with the Paths and Trades selected for their studies.

Synagogue Internship Seminar I***** Synagogue Internship Seminar II*****
Core Elective #3* Core Elective #4*
Path Course #1** Path Course #2**
Talmud: Rosh Hashanah and Yoma****** Path Course #3**
Laws, Contemporary Practices and Halakhah: High Holidays******[32] Path Course #4**
Trade Course #1*** Trade Course #2***
Over the course of the year, 3 days each semester include Workshops on leading non-Yom Tov holiday services (including Esther and Eikhah trops). Attendance, in order either to learn or to share, is to be required for students in the Year 4 Cycle; however, attendance will be optional for all other students.In addition, 1 day each semester will provide a required Lecture or Workshop on the subject of interfaith and/or interdenominational work. Attendance, in order either to learn or to share, is to be required for students in the Year 4 Cycle; however, attendance will be optional for all other students.*Over the course of the curriculum, 4 Core Electives must be selected, one from each of all but one of five categories: (1) biblical literature, (2) midrashic literature, (3) halakhic literature, (4) history, and (5) professional development. Under circumstances approved by the student’s academic advisor, students may select other electives for other purposes, including substituting Trade or Path studies with these course credits and/or time slots.

** Students may forego the slots set aside for Path Courses if such students have completed, or plan to fulfill, these Path requirements at another time. Note that students, for example, pursuing a MA will require more time-slots than currently allotted for Path Courses over the course of each semester. Meanwhile many other students will be able to fulfill their Path requirements over the course of the time set aside for Path electives.

***Students may forego the slots set aside for Trade Courses if such students have completed, or plan to fulfill, these Trade requirements at another time. Note that students, for example, pursuing a MA will require more time-slots than currently allotted for Trade Courses over the course of each semester. Meanwhile other students may be able to fulfill their Trade requirements over the course of the time set aside for Trade Courses. Note that S’tam Semikhah students do not take Trade Courses.

*****Course not required for the S’tam Semikhah program.

******Comparable course (independent study, parallel course at Shiv’im Panim’s home-base, or relevant course approved by academic advisor) may be taken in its stead if a S’tam Semikhah student intends to graduate after 3, rather than 5, years of study at Shiv’im Panim.

Nearing graduation, rabbinical students will become teachers and will study modern issues of Halakhah. Students will study philosophies and approaches to communal and personal development, and complete their studies of their personally chosen Paths and Trades. The final semester is designed to be a lighter load for students who are interviewing for new positions, who are writing theses, or who may have otherwise remaining academic responsibilities for their rabbinic studies.

Trade Course #3*** Graduating Seminar*****
Trade Course #4*** Trade Course #5***
Responsa & Halakhic Vacuums******[33] Trade Course #6***
Moral Development & Jewish Ethics***** Path Course #7**
Path Course #5**
Path Course #6**  
Over the course of the year, 3 days each semester include workshops on tying tzitzit and tefillin knots, and other handy trades. Attendance, in order either to learn or to share, is to be required for students in the Year 5 Cycle; however, attendance will be optional for all other students.During this year, students are expected to deliver a Senior D’rashah or equivalent form of offering personalized Torah with a chiddush in a format in accordance with a potential career Path (i.e. shi’ur, theatrical play, original song cycle, etc.).In addition, 1 day each semester will provide a required Lecture or Workshop on the subject of meditation and contemplative rituals (emphasizing rituals outside of the exclusively Jewish realm: i.e. yoga, chanting, expectant waiting, etc.). Attendance, in order either to learn or to share, is to be required for students in the Year 2 Cycle; however, attendance will be optional for all other students.

** Students may forego the slots set aside for Path Courses if such students have completed, or plan to fulfill, these Path requirements at another time. Note that students, for example, pursuing a MA will require more time-slots than currently allotted for Path Courses over the course of each semester. Meanwhile many other students will be able to fulfill their Path requirements over the course of the time set aside for Path electives.

***Students may forego the slots set aside for Trade Courses if such students have completed, or plan to fulfill, these Trade requirements at another time. Note that students, for example, pursuing a MA will require more time-slots than currently allotted for Trade electives over the course of each semester. Meanwhile other students may be able to fulfill their Trade requirements over the course of the time set aside for Trade electives. Note that S’tam Semikhah students do not take Trade Courses.

*****Course not required for the S’tam Semikhah program.

******Comparable course (independent study, parallel course at Shiv’im Panim’s home-base, or relevant course approved by academic advisor) may be taken in its stead if a S’tam Semikhah student intends to graduate after 3, rather than 5, years of study at Shiv’im Panim.


SECTION D: Admissions Requirements

Prior to acceptance, students must demonstrate their ability to read Torah and Haftarah, as well as to lead weekday tefillah. Students are required at least one year of a yeshivah-style education with Talmud (or 1 year’s worth of college-level Talmud study), with the ability to decipher Rashi script, before acceptance to the program. Shiv’im Panim shall provide, or collaborate with, a yeshivah-style learning program in which prospective students or conditionally accepted rabbinical students may enroll for at least 1 year prior to acceptance into the rabbinical school. The purpose of this year of preparatory education is to increase familiarity with classical Rabbinic argumentation, topics, laws and language, plus Hebrew and Aramaic grammar and vocabulary. Although not required, it is recommended that students have worked in a field not related exclusively to the Jewish world for at least one year prior to entering The Rabbinical School.

Students must act ethically and make Jewishly informed decisions about their speech patterns (i.e. hakkarat hattov—acknowledging the good—and shemirat halashon—guarding one’s tongue—etc.) and human behavior. Moreover, students must express their personal commitment to Jewish continuity. Students must have observed Shabbat, have kept kosher and have had a daily-regulated relationship with prayer for at least 1 full year prior to acceptance to Shiv’im Panim, and must continue to do so regularly during their schooling.

[1] I thank Rabbi Hayim Herring for encouraging me to write this piece as part of the project surrounding the book he recently edited with Ellie Roscher, Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education (Avenida Books: USA, 2014).

[2] In the middle ages, when rabbis were few, cantors often functioned like posekim (decisors of Halakhah) for certain communities. Notably, their functioning as posekim was not always taken well. For a brief overview, see Landman, Leo, The Cantor: A Historical Perspective, Yeshiva University (New York, NY: 1972), pp. 15-20.

Israel Meir Kagan, the author of such major works of Halakhah as the widely read Mishnah Berurah commentary on the Shulhan Arukh, was never ordained as a rabbi—until he received the title by telegram in a time-sensitive situation when the Polish passport control required that he name his profession something that they could understand. For one version of this story, see Frand, Yissocher, Listen To Your Messages: And Other Observations On Contemporary Jewish Life, Mesorah Publications (Brooklyn, NY: 1999), p. 89.

Even more controversially, as of this writing, the Orthodox institution Yeshivat Maharat has not explicitly bestowed the title “Rabbi” on any of its women graduates. Still Yeshivat Maharat’s homepage notes that its women “graduates are authorized to be poskot ([the plural feminine Hebrew word for] legal arbiters).” See Yeshivat Maharat | Confirming Orthodox Women as Halakhic and Spiritual Leaders at http://yeshivatmaharat.org/, accessed on May 27, 2014.

[3] I would like to note here that much of the information in this essay represents my understanding of what I have learned largely from my own experience as well as speaking with rabbinical students and rabbis affiliated with different rabbinical schools—including a few, though not many administrators. Although I hope that I am accurately able to represent the reality of rabbinical school policies and curricula discussed here, incorrect information presented as factual here is a result of my own misunderstanding.

[4] A paraphrasing of Hillel in Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a.

[5] See for example, “What Does Accreditation Mean?” at http://www.50states.com/college-resources/accreditation.htm#.VLw1ii7F_oh accessed on January 18, 2015. Notably there is also no single Jewish law that would require State approval of one’s ordination.

[6] As of this writing, JTS’ Graduate School often requires 30 academic credits directly related to the MA, plus the fulfillment of (or the demonstration of proficiency in) several prerequisites, and attendance at a special seminar for first-year graduate students during their first semester. Other requirements might ensue, including comprehensive exams or another form of standard test or project that summatively concludes the student’s work towards the MA. The totality of this work towards the MA could be completed over the course of two years’ time. Meanwhile, during the past 8 years during which I have been a student of some form at JTS (where I was an undergraduate), it has been a reasonable expectation that—with the possible exception of slightly smaller course-loads usually during the penultimate or final years of rabbinical school—full-time rabbinical students could be expected to be enrolled in approximately 18 credits per semester while possibly fulfilling the requirements of a field rotation or other professional work.

[7] Rav Chiyya bar Yosef sold salt (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzi’a 48b), Rav Huna was a farm laborer (Ketubbot 105a), and the legend goes that Rashi was a winemaker.

[8] Bemidbar Rabbah 13:16.

[9] Such a course would explore theological dimensions of leadership, along with crash courses in relationship-building, fundraising, intrafaith and interfaith collaboration, time management, self-care, and boundaries; as well as reflections on models of leadership throughout Jewish history: Moses, the Sanhedrin, the Geonate, the tzaddik of Hasidism, and more. Such a course would benefit from guest speakers and field trips.

[10] Such a course would explore logistics surrounding founding and maintaining (socially, financially, spiritually and beyond) chavurot, independent minyanim, synagogues, JCCs, Jewish day schools, afterschool Jewish educational programs for children, and more. Such a course would explore intrafaith and interfaith collaboration between individual Jewish communal models and other communal models. Such a course would benefit from guest speakers and field trips.

[11] Such a course might cover populations of Jews whose identities are rabbinically acknowledged (Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Romanite, Yemenite, Moroccan, Syrian, Iraqi, Persian, etc.) as well as people whose Jewish identity is, or has been, contested (Karaites, Samaritans, Igbo Jews/Hebrews/Israelites, Messianic Jews, Jews for Jesus, Black Hebrews). Such a course would benefit from guest speakers and field trips.

[12] Such a course would outline a history and prospectus of revolutionary technological, pedagogical and otherwise practical (e.g. liturgical, communal, etc.) innovations in Jewish history—ancient, medieval, modern, as well as what is being developed, and what is to come.

[13] Options might include languages integral for the study of Jewish thought and Jewish history (for example, Akkadian, Ethiopic, French, German, Greek, Latin, or Spanish) or languages that have been largely spoken by Jewish populations (for example, Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish, or Ladino).

[14] Several surveys could focus on Mamonot (Civil Law), Nefashot (Criminal Law), Terumot (Temple Law), Tohorot (Purity Law), or Kelalim (Principles of Jewish Law), from their ancient origins through their treatment in contemporary Judaism.

[15] Classical commentaries include works of midrash, medieval and modern mefareshim (Biblical commentators), Chasidic and Kabbalistic teachings (including Zohar), and Talmudic and legal citations of passages from the weekly Parashah.

[16] Such a course might cover current events and political systems relevant to Israel, to the locale of Shiv’im Panim, to the students’ own areas of residence areas; as well as theological reflections on Jewish activism. Such a course would benefit from guest speakers and field trips.

[17] To include field trips & guest speakers, including religious leaders of different faiths & denominations.

[18] To cover topics including use of lu’ach and creative approaches to tefillah.

[19] To cover topics including shechitah, kashrut for Passover, the categories of milk and meat, and modern additions to Kashrut—including Tav Hayosher, Magen Tzedek, eco-kashrut, and Tav Chevrati.

[20] Topics of inquiry to include God, creation, religion & science, revelation of Torah, self & other, gender, and peoplehood. Course will include surveys of various historic and contemporary primers to Jewish thought and Jewish living—ranging from Maimonides to Joseph Telushkin.

[21] Topics of inquiry to include chiyyuv, minhag, creative spirits, rabbinic identity and authority past and present, and the afterlife. Course will include surveys of various historic and contemporary primers to Jewish thought and Jewish living—ranging from Maimonides to Joseph Telushkin.

[22] Subjects to include Tefillah, Melakhah, Sh’vut, Pikku’ach Nefesh and Eruv.

[23] Subjects to include Tefillah, the 4 Species, Sukkah, Chametz, and the Seder.

[24] To include trips or observations of berit millah, zeved/simchat bat, pidyon habben, wedding, and sheva berakhot ceremonies; also covering questions of kohen/levi identities and responsibilities, and gender-non-specific birth ceremonies.

[25] To include trips or observations of ceremonies related to disunions of partnerships, levayah, shiv’ah, conversion, prayers for healing, b’nei mitzvah, and taharat hammishpachah; also covering creative contemporary rituals: e.g., coming out ceremonies, sex-transition ceremonies, etc..

[26] Topics of inquiry to include Biblical Hebrew, rabbinic Hebrew, Aramaic of the Targum, and Aramaic of the Talmuds.

[27] Course to cover the history of midrashic literature, as well as a brief survey of medieval and modern mefareshim (Biblical commentators), as well as Chasidic, Kabbalistic, and contemporary Biblical exegetical collections.

[28] Through this course, each student will works as a Teaching Assistant with, and observe, an experienced Jewish educator in a setting where the educator serves as both the setting’s main educator and the rabbinical student’s mentor. During this time, the rabbinical student will be expected to teach certain sessions, or parts of sessions, in the mentoring educator’s class.

[29] Subjects to include Tefillah, Purim, Hosha Na Rabbah, Tish’ah BeAv, the Three Weeks, minor fast days, the Sefirah, and Israeli national holidays.

[30] Including Medieval Hebrew rhymed prose narrative, piyyut, and secular poetry.

[31] Course to cover Haskalah literature, Zionist Hebrew poetry & fiction, Yiddish poetry & fiction, and Jewish poetry & fiction in English.

[32] Subjects to include tefillah, shofar, Tashlikh, Teshuvah, Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, and Kol Nidrei.

[33] Topics of inquiry to include both a review of rabbinic responsa throughout the ages as well as questions regarding Jewish thought or action that are not yet answered in rabbinic legal literature.

A Mystical Manuscript Commenting On 12 Angry Men

WARNING: The following may or may not be satirical. I still can’t tell.

Today, I authored for the first time my own mystical manuscript. It’s not technically Kabbalistic because I refer to a Chasidic teacher, but it might not be technically Chasidic, because I did not intend it very seriously, but now children from all over the world can analyze this illuminating manuscript that explores the humor, the pursuit of justice, the oneness, and the theology that guides us through our lives as we contemplate 12 Angry Men in Yiddish, Hebrew, English and Aramaic.

Prepare to be illuminated… by clicking HERE.

Senior Sermon on Lekh Lekha 5775

In a student’s last year of studies at the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, one of the outgoing requirements/rituals is the delivery of a senior sermon. Here’s the senior sermon I delivered yesterday. Click HERE for the formatted version.

Read below for the unformatted version.


Tzohorayim tovim; good afternoon.[1]

Before I begin, I want to thank my friends, family and teachers who have come to JTS today in honor of this big day for me. Were it not for your love, support and teachings, I would not be able to stand here today. Special thanks are due to my family who is here today: my in-laws (in all the way from Skokie, Illinois), my sister Shuli, my great-uncle Irving, and my parents, whose love for Judaism rubbed off on me so much that I decided to make Judaism my lifework, just as they did. Of course, a special thank you is in order to my father for being my first rabbi, and for having agreed to mentor me in writing this senior sermon. As someone very attached to my family, I am also thinking of my family whose schedules did not permit them to travel to the Seminary today: my brother and all my siblings-in-law, my nephews, my nieces, my cousins, my uncles, my aunts, and Grandma, to whom I used to give Hebrew lessons when I was in 1st grade. I am also thinking today of my family who no longer walks this earth: in particular, my grandfather Pop, without whose love and generosity I never could have had the gift of a day school education or the opportunity to have studied at JTS for 9 years. And, you know, you spend enough time going to minyan at JTS, you eventually meet your life-partner. Or at least I did. Raysh, thank you for being my daily inspiration, my teacher, my rabbi (may your official ordination come speedily and in our days), my best friend, and my נַפְשִׁי קְשׁוֹרָתִי, my soulmate, who renews everyday my relationship with Torah, with the pursuit of justice, with the pursuit of happiness, and with life.

When I was in first grade, my father asked me what book I had read for the book report that was due that day.

Nothing At All,” I replied.

“You didn’t read anything?” asked my father, shocked by the idea that I hadn’t done my homework.

“No,” I said. “I read Nothing At All.”

“You didn’t read a book!?” My father was concerned.

I was really trying my best to express myself, but apparently, my father was unfamiliar with Wanda Gag’s children’s book Nothing At All. Though my mother had been entertaining herself listening to the conversation from across the room, she eventually did intervene and clarify that I had actually read something; I had read a book called Nothing At All.[2]

In first grade, I learned the power of words having more than one meaning. Little did I know in first grade that I was destined for a lifetime of wordplay. For me, wordplay is one of the most exciting and meaningful parts of the Jewish religion. Rabbi Akiva would argue that every single word in the Torah hid within it a teaching that no other word in theTorah intended to teach. Rabbi Yishma’el is said to have argued the opposite:

דִּיבְּרָה תוֹרָה כִּלְשׁוֹן[3] בְּנֵי אָדָם.

The Torah spoke in the language of humans.[4]

Though a lot of early rabbinic literature agreed with Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yishma’el’s counter-argument came to be adopted by the entire rabbinic collective.[5] That being said, Rabbi Yishma’el’s assertion—that “the Torah spoke in the language of humans”—still bears multiple meanings. On one level, this aphorism reminds us that our Sacred Teachings were ultimately transmitted through the words of imperfect humans. Hence, our teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of blessed memory would fondly teach that the Torah is a midrash—a rabbinically sanctioned allegory for, or an interpretation of—in this case, revelation itself.[6] The Torah is not the revelation, but it is our attempt at recallingrevelation.

I want to suggest yet another reading of Rabbi Yishma’el’s principle for how we read Torah:

דִּיבְּרָה תוֹרָה כִּלְשׁוֹן בְּנֵי אָדָם.

The Torah spoke in language referring tobeney adam, to humans, to express its deepest feelings.

The Torah spoke in the language of humans, which is to say, the Torah anthropomorphizes: It makes human that which is not human. A clear example of this principle is how the Torah speaks of God. In the Torah, God has a mighty hand that strikes our enemies, an outstretched arm that releases us from Egypt, a face we cannot see, a nose that snorts anger, and feet in need of a footstool. God talks and God even walks. God is anthropomorphized in our Torah. Though God is not a human, the “Torah speaks ofbeney adam, of humans, to express its deepest sentiments,” and, thus, the Torah turns God into a human.

I believe that this storytelling device—turning characteristics into characters, principles into principals (spelled with an A at the end)—is a very powerful tool of pedagogy and communication. There is a reason that Oscar the Grouch is a character on Sesame Street, but Grouchy the Mood is not.[7] Anthropomorphism lies at the very core of Judaism’s foundational myths. Were it not for our ability to anthropomorphize moods and ideas, we would hardly have any true stories to tell that took place before the 8th Century B.C.E.—and probably even later.[8]

Jews do not read the Torah literally. We leave literalism to literalists. Instead, we inherit traditions of interpretation. When we read the Torah, we uncover the layers of interpretation that inhabit each word.

About 200 years ago, Rabbi Naftali Tz’vi Yehudah Berlin taught that the entire Torah is poetry—multi- faceted, aesthetic, illusive, and allusive.[9] About two centuries before him, the Ba’al Shem Tov drew on a Jewish teaching that was perhaps 1,000 years old in his own day: that every person is a small universe, a microcosm in which the Torah takes place.[10]

Arguably, the most famous part of this week’s Torah reading, Lekh Lekha, comes when Avram first receives a sacred communication. This is a communication from the God whose four-letter-name yod-heh-vav-heh seems to be, as the Biblical scholar William Albright noted, a causative verb that means “Making Become.” The God of Becoming says toAvramLekh lekha,” meaning “Go for yourself,” or perhaps, “Go towards your self.” In essence, the Being of Beings, or perhaps better yet the Becoming of Becomings, tells Avram, “Now is your time to come into this world—to become who you really are.” The God of Process promises to show Avram an undefined place at an undefined time. So here wasAvram, setting out on a journey, seeking the Torah of the God of Becoming, and where does he end up? In Shechem, beneath a tree made famous by pagans:Elon Moreh. What kind of place was that for a nice Jewish monotheist?

In his JPS commentary to Genesis, Professor Nahum Sarna picks up on the common translation of Elon Moreh, “the terebinth of Moreh” (a terebinth being a kind of tree). He notes that Shechem must have been famous for its “traditions about trees of special significance.”[11] He enumerates five other points in our TaNaKH where Shechem is mentioned alongside a special tree. Sarna reads the word Moreh, meaning “teacher,” as indicative that we should read Elon Moreh not as a place-name, but as a reference to a tree that was known as a sort of oracle.[12] Indeed, rabbis throughout the ages read this place-name similarly. The Zohar suggests that Elon Moreh was a place of study, and other sages would come to teach that Elon Moreh was a place of prophecy, or even the place where the Torah would be revealed. But again, what would a place of pagan idolatry have to teach a person as radical and iconoclastic as Avram?

The Ba’al Shem Tov’s understanding of the Torah as a narrative that repeats in our own lives is true. Our Torah was not created in a vacuum. Our religion was not created in a vacuum. And we were not created in a vacuum. Reading that Avram rested beneath a pagan tree is a startling reminder that none of us exist in a vacuum, and even a personality as great as Avram had what to learn from the pagan world. It is foolish to presume that any of us could be where we are today were it not for our living in environments that offered ideas and values that we can identify as Other. It would be equally foolish for us to presume that we must entirely remove ourselves from the Other. And according to the rabbis, we don’t.

You might recall that midrash whereAvram smashes the idols in his father’s shop.[13] Avram’s father’s name is Terah—which is no coincidence! Terah is the utterance of the idol-maker who builds his god of clay, looks that figurine in the face and says, “Terah!”—meaning “Breathe!”[14] Only centuries later would a Psalmist come along and say of idols:

אף להם ולא יריחון

They have a nose, but they cannot breathe.[15]

Terah would never hear such a song sung in his own lifetime. Instead, the principle of Faith In Idolatry, which the Torah personifies, anthropomorphizes and names “Terah,” eventually gives birth toAvram. But then who exactly is this Avram?

        Avram is an idea. Avram is made up of two words: Av—“parent;” or better yet, a “source”—and ram—“exultantly great.”Avram is The Great Source. Avram is The Great Source of The Idea we call not “monotheism,” as you might expect, that is, belief in one God, but “henotheism”—that no matter how many gods there are, we serve only One God.[16]

It may be the case, as some have argued, that neither Avram nor Terah ever walked this earth in the body of a singular human being. Yet, humans living long ago must have latched onto expressions ofAvram—of henotheism—and expressions of Terah—of idolatry. So Avram certainly existed, and Terah certainly existed—as movements, as tendencies, as philosophies, though not necessarily as individual humans. דִּיבְּרָה תוֹרָה כִּלְשׁוֹן בְּנֵי אָדָם. The Torah speaks in the language of humans—turning characteristics into characters, principles into principals (again, spelled with an A at the end). When we anthropomorphize, it makes for far better storytelling than a psychology textbook, or a philosophic treatise.

But we might still be wondering what Elon Moreh—the teaching tree—could have taught Avram. For this we move to the 15th Century, to the Spanish commentator Isaac Arama. In Akeydat Yitzchak, Arama writes that Avramarrived at Elon Moreh

בְּשָׁלוֹם וּבְהַשְׁקֵט,

In peace, and in quietude,

אין שָׂטָן וְאֵין פֶּֽגַע רע,

Without adversary, and without the harm of evil,

עם הֱיוֹת שהיתה שְׁעַת חֵירוּם.

Though it was an alarming moment in time.

As Avram’s worldview was turning upside down, Isaac Arama says Elon Moreh was a place of peace; in a world of metaphysical static and noise, Elon Moreh was a place of silence.

So, our hero Avram sought peace and could only find it along the once-trodden path of idolatry, from whichAvram had fled not too long ago. But this should not startle us too much; our rabbis often attempted to turn places of idolatry into places of Torah. After all, in Elon Moreh, at least people thought about powers greater than themselves. ForAvram and for our sages, Elon Morehdeserved a little credit—for giving us a starting point for a great idea. Terah begatAvram; idolatry gave birth to henotheism.[17]

But, what drew Avram to Elon Moreh specifically? Did Avram go there to fill a space of no god with the Oneness of the One true God? Did Avram go there because that Divine Lure had uprootedAvram, leading Avram and Avram’s family along a challenging journey, leaving Avram worn and exhausted—in need of a place of peace and quiet where our ancestor could meditate?

In Elon Moreh, Avram brought along not the God of the outstretched arm or the snorting nose, but the God who requires no anthropomorphisms—the god of Process, of Being, of Energy, of Courage, of Righteousness, and of Intellect; the God who moves us to deeper levels of sensitivity and inspires us to develop great ideas for humanity. At Elon Moreh,Avram found the peace to meditate on the God who defies all description and metaphor, the God who is almost Nothing at All. Avram went to Elon Moreh to listen: to listen in silence—to listen in silence for the Oneness of the God who embodies nothing yet encompasses the universe. In the silence of Elon Moreh,Avram listened for the God who looks, sounds, tastes, feels and smells like Nothing at All, but at the core is Something: the God who is the Something that is All.


[1]   Footnotes in this senior sermon were not read aloud. This is such an example.

[2]   Although this is the version of the story I did tell at my senior sermon, I have now been informed by my sister Shuli that she was most likely the one intervened and clarified.

[3]   I thank Rabbi Dr. Joel Roth for calling to my attention (after the sermon) that my selection of the version of this teaching with the reading of כלשון (literally, “as/like/as-if the language”) rather than בלשון (literally “in the language”), as seemingly later traditions would put it, is essential for the theological and literary stance I am purporting.

[4]   Seemingly attributed to Rabbi Yishma’el in the Babylonian Talmud, Kereytot 11a.

[5]   Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 41b.

[6]   Saying that the Torah is an interpretation of our encounter with the Divine, and not a record of our encounter with the Divine might lead us to question how trustworthy our Torah is. It might beg us to ask: Had all of us in this room been standing at Sinai 3 millennia ago, would we have written the same Torah that we read in our synagogues today?

[7]   Grouchy the Mood would be some invisible, nebulous entity who overcomes certain characters at different points. Instead, the only character on Sesame Street who is grouchy is Oscar the Grouch, the embodiment of Grouchy the Mood par excellence.

[8]   Within my understanding of early Jewish religion, our mythology owes more credit to transformers than Michael Bay’s Internet Movie DataBase profile. (Because I realize that I am delivering this sermon at the premiere institute of critical Jewish studies in America, I hereby note that Michael Bay directed four live-action Transformers films. I will now return to my senior sermon.)

[9]   See Ha’amek Davar: Kidmat Ha’amek III (העמק דבר: קדמת העמק ג’).

[10] For a historical exploration of this tradition, see my “When Humanity Became the World: When You Became the Torah” at theBIMA Artists Beit Midrash Source Blog (published June 28, 2012 and accessed October 21, 2014) at http://bimaartistsbeitmidrash2012.wordpress.com/2012/06/28/when-humanity-became-the-world-when-you-became-the-torah/ .

[11] P. 91 of his commentary.

[12] Focusing on the word Moreh, the Zohar suggests that Elon Moreh was a place of teachers and students: a sort of public beit midrash—a Jewish house of study (I: 80a). Scholars are doubtful that there was a beit midrash in Abraham’s time because: How could Abraham have studied Torah if neither Jewish Lights Publishing nor ArtScroll had been founded in his time? Nonetheless, this idea that Elon Moreh was a place of insights can resonate without us having to imagine a place of Torah study. The words Torah and Moreh come from the same Hebrew-root of Yod-Resh-Yod, meaning “projection.” The Torah is a teaching, and a teacher is one who projects information. This idea of projectionmust have interested the grammarian, Rabbi David Kimhi of the late 12th Century and early 13th Century. He elaborated a teaching of his famous predecessor Rashi (at Genesis 12:6), suggesting thatElon Moreh was a place whereat Avram projected a prophecy—a troubling vision of how Avram’s great grandchildren would come to fight with the people of Shechem in response to Shechem’s torturing Avram’s great granddaughter Dinah. At that place of prophecy, says Kimhi, Avram prayed that Avram’s fourth generation would be saved in the events of this catastrophe; andAvram’s descendants did indeed persevere. In fact, Kimhi writes that it was revealed to Avram here that Elon Moreh would become the site of the revelation of the Torah. After all, as many mystics would later note, that “oracle tree” of Elon Moreh might be an allusion to the Ilan Kadosh (“the holy tree”), which is that Etz Chayyim, that Tree of Life for those who hold onto it: a.k.a. the Torah itself. Attributing even more power to this site, the Chasidic master Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Epstein, who lived in the late 18th and early 19th Century, suggested that Elon Moreh must be related to the Hebrew word Harah—pregnancy. Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Epstein taught that Elon Moreh was an allusion to Harat Olam—the Divine pregnancy that gave birth to our world.

[13] Genesis Rabbah 38:13 on Genesis 11:28.

[14] Here, I must note that I am indebted to Dr. Choon-Leong Seow, whose commentary on the Book of Job is, as he is (as I learned from studying the Book of Job with him in my first year of JTS), inclined towards a particular and relatively conservative yet creative approach to reading the text of the Hebrew Bible that I have found meaningful. I hope that I can here do some justice to explaining some of the reasoning behind—or at least the method of—one of his principles of reading the TaNaKH. Through such a lens as Seow’s, the reader is inclined to work with the presumption that there is rarely a problem with the consonants of the Hebrew text; however, the reader may be willing to doubt whether the Masoretic notations of vowels has been transmitted without error. Such an approach might appear unfavorable towards Masoretes; however, it does not deny the authority or the rigorous effort of the Masoretes of the Ge’onic era in their attempting to systematize a grammar for the Hebrew Bible. In a way, this approach of Seow’s and others is a theory that requires us to acknowledge some degree of yeridat haddorot (“the decline of generations”)—that while the consonants were preserved well, the vowels were obscured. We know this to be somewhat true, for the pronunciation of God’s four-letter-name was lost. Moreover, we can believe that regional differences in dialect led over time to people pronouncing the same words differently (both in terms of consonants and vowels)—such that the original pronunciations of words would get muddled over time. While midrash as a genre often suggests the changing of vowels (and sometimes the changing of consonants) in particular words, so as to yield meanings a more common reading of the text would suggest, we can believe that some of these readings were not mere rhetoric, but were matters of serious debate, affecting personal practice. We read a literally striking example of this, in the Babylonian Talmud, at Bava Batra 21a-21b, where one such debate leads to one Jew literally killing over another based off of one’s misvocalization of a single word. In short, we have reason to believe that the vocalization of the Masoretic text was, for centuries, in critical flux. Because of this, we have reason to trust the consonants of the text we have inherited more than we have reason to trust the vowels of the text we have inherited. In light of phenomena of conservative orthography—that is to say, when the scribes of our tradition selected to write fewer consonants and not to write the matres lectionis (the non-consonantal appearances of symbols that, in other contexts would be consonants, but thereat indicate, without effecting, vowels, such as the א in רֵאשִׁית, the ו inמוּם or הוֹן, or the י in הֵשִׁיב)—the reader of an unvocalized text of the TaNaKH might note instances wherein the consonantal text could have been vocalized differently by Masoretes had the consonantal tradition they inherited included the matres lectionis. It then becomes the duty of the reader of the TaNaKH to note when a word’s meaning is allusive, especially when the vowels that the Masoretes attributed to the consonants render the word less meaningful than the way in which we might choose to vocalize a text, had we ourselves been Masoretes living a millennium ago, attempting to vocalize a text that, in its oral transmission, had been misvocalized at times to the point of incoherency. Thus, it is my assertion that תֶּֽרַח may be a misvocalized name. After all, when it comes to those same “weak letters” that also constitute the matres lectionis, it is nothing short of common when one of these letters disappears for reasons that can only be summed up as: exceptional, or following a pattern culturally determined as that which sounds subjectively euphonic (patterns that do not repeat in all eras of the Hebrew language). It is my belief that תרח is a name plagued either by the vocalization of תֶּֽרַח being an exceptional second-person masculine singular imperfect hif’il verb form (as uttered by a proto-Semite, as opposed to today’s conjugation of תָּרִֽיחַ) or another similar verb; or the letters of תרח having been intended only ever to be pronounced, differently from תֶּֽרַח, as, sans matres lectionis, תָּרִֽחַ or the like.

I thank Rabbi Dr. Joel Roth for calling to my attention (after the sermon) that it is helpful for the grammatically inclined to have my translation of Terah be grounded in something.

[15] Psalm 115:6.

[16] You might recall that God in the beginning of Genesis says, “Let us make humanity in Our own image.” Though God may be speaking in the Royal We, the quotation may also be the Torah’s acknowledgement that our neighbors had many gods. Our Torah never speaks fondly of our neighbors’ gods, but it does not deny their existence.In Pirkey Avot 4:1, Ben Zoma teaches: (איזהו חכם? הלומד מכל אדם.””) “Who is wise? One learns from all humans.”Our henotheism does not immediately excuse xenophobia.

[17] Terah brings into this world Nahor—whose name essentially means “nostril:” a succinct reminder of the idol-ideology, that  an ideal idol breathes. Unfortunately Avram’s kin (הָרָן) Haran—meaning literally “the joyous one”—dies, perhaps having gone too far in exploring the ecstasy of spiritual mystery. Indeed, just asHaran’s life is shrouded in mystery, Haran produces the child Lot, whose name means “enveloping,” “cleaving,” and even “mystery.” It is the cleaving youngster Lot, the Enveloping Mystery who accompanies Avram on their journey of bringing new follows along to aspire towards a sacred ethical, henotheistic life. Though Lot’s name may have signified different mysteries throughout the life and times of Lot, it is telling that Avram—the philosophical Great Source Idea—needed to be accompanied by, and balanced by the wonder and awe of Lot. When Lot accompanied Avram, henotheism found company in mystery.

Geshem Sheet Music (but really just for the piyyut that begins Zekhor Av Nimshakh Acharekha KaMayim)

Check it out here!