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!

Applied Happiness (Bulletin Message for Congregation Sons of Israel in Amsterdam, NY: Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah 2014/5775)

After the solemnity and awe of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the first season of happy holidays are finally approaching. As we greet Sukkot’s arrival on the 15th day of 5775, we also greet each other with the words chag same’ach (“Happy festival”)! Although we will not hold services on Sukkot proper, we will gather for two special days that mark the border where Sukkot ends.

The first day of Yom Tov (literally, “Good Day,” meaning festival) is Shemini Atzeret. One of the classic explanations of the purpose of Shemini Atzeret goes like this: All of Sukkot had been like a big feast for God—a 7-day party where we kept dining in the royal Divine court. At the end of this party, the Host of Hosts says to us guests, “I’d love if you can stay a little longer—just one more small bite.” Shemini Atzeret is the small nosh we have, so we can still eat sacred fruits in the company of the Eternal Sovereign (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 55b).

Moreover, because Judaism is a religion that sanctifies the 7-day week, when we can extend whatever happens on the 7th day into the 8th day, we undergo something supernatural. We bend time. We drag the joy of one day into the emptiness of another. This fusion of two days must be what leads Rabbi Isaac Me’ir of Gur (1799-1866) to teach, “The notion of 8 transcends nature.”

Not only is 8 a special number, but Sukkot nearly becomes a 9-day festival when we add onto it the climactic celebration of our completing the Torah reading for the year: Simchat Torah. One of the customs of Simchat Torah is to dance with the Torah in what we would call a hakkafah (“a circling”). In the days of the Talmud, it was a custom of our people to do a special ritual when they purchased new land. They would take a walk around the new property, and, by walking the borders of their new possession, a piece of the Earth would become their own. We declare our ownership and responsibility of the Torah when we dance in circles with the Torah, teaches Rabbi Isaac Me’ir. We might have finished reading the Torah for one year, but our lease is far from up. We’re renewing our contract.

Taken from another angle, Rabbi Isaac Me’ir transmits the words of the Kotzker Rebbe: Sukkot is a time of great festivity. What do we do with our surplus of happiness? We take our joy and place it in our Torah (Chiddushey HaRim, Sukkot). The Kotzker Rebbe’s teaching is not about how to be happy, but what to do with our happiness.

Let’s come together this Shemini Atzeret and make a little more time just to be together. Let’s stay another day and come on Simchat Torah to express our gladness—to impress our Torah, the pride and possession that binds us together as a community. Let us embed within it the joy that motivates us to do good in the world, to bring peace, and to pursue the happiness that helps us transcend the limits of nature.

Break for a Day of Opportunity: Rosh HaShanah 5775 Day 1 Sermon

Click this link to access a formatted PDF of my sermon for the first day of Rosh HaShanah 5775.

See below for the unformatted version of the 5775 Day 1 sermon.

Shanah tovah—a good new year!
I1 am delighted to be back at Congregation Sons of Israel in Amsterdam2 this year.3 I am blessed with an unusual opportunity as a rabbinical student: to work twice with the same community. Since two years ago, when I last served here as Student Rabbi, some people in our lives then have left our lives now. And since that time, we may have merited to welcome new people in our lives.
As for me: My own life has changed dramatically in at least two ways. First off, I got married. Many new friends and family members have entered my life. I went overnight from being an uncle to one nephew, to becoming the uncle of three nephews and three nieces—which is altogether six “niblings,” as I like to call them. (That is, by the way, a 500% increase.)
Second, the change that frightens me most is my becoming a senior rabbinical student. This is my fifth of five years at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Rabbinical School. On top of that, since I studied Jewish Music as an undergraduate at JTS—the Jewish Theological Seminary—this is actually my ninth of nine years at the Seminary. This ninth year is the marker of a near-decade at JTS, and it is likely to be the end of an era for me. Just a few days before Shavu’ot, if all goes well, I will graduate from life as a student. I will soon enter the workforce. I will soon move from a primary occupation where I pay tuition, to a primary occupation where I’m paid a salary.
The rabbinate is tough work. But then again, so is being a medical professional, or a legal professional. Or a politician, or a camp director. Or an investor. Or a teacher. Or a repairperson. Or a caretaker. Or a parent. Or any kind of work—salary or not.
And this makes me nervous.
As a whole, we Americans work more hours a week, with fewer vacations, with later retirement than any other nation.4 Along these lines, President Barack Obama has noted that “the United States is the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave.”5 Every country in Europe demands that employers provide paid annual leave. In contrast, our government does not require that employees get any paid annual leave whatsoever. Between 1990 and the beginning of this decade, wages have not shot up so tremendously. Meanwhile, the cost of living in the United States increased approximately 67%, and employment opportunities decreased despite a national increase in worker output.6 For those of us lucky enough—or unlucky enough—to be employed in America, we might take comfort knowing that the 9-5 work-day might still exist in some sense: that the national average of hours put in for a full-time job during the work-week has shot up now, but only to 8.5 hours. That being said, working Americans with full-time jobs are on average working now over 11 hours on the weekend.7 And, as for when the employee leaves the office, the workday is still not over. In 2011, over 1/5 of employed e-mail users reported to be “expected to respond to work e-mail when they’re not at work,” over 1/4 were said to check e-mail on vacation, and approximately 1/2 would check work-related e-mail on sick days.8
You and I might not be workaholics, but the United States is a workaholic.
We are lucky when we can take a break from our responsibilities. We cannot necessarily expect our employers to tell us when to take our breaks. As the internet becomes a more pervasive part of life in the USA and the developing world, and as people spend more time with cell phones, and business demands, and demands for instant gratification; we spend less time with each other.
Americans who work can’t be left alone. Nor can they be with the people they love the most.
I want to share with you a teaching from a rabbi who passed away this July: Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. To say that he was eccentric might be an understatement. He led a very unusual life.
Born in Europe, Zalman Schachter and his family fled the Nazis, leading him to a safehaven in Belgian Antwerp, whereat he joined, and studied Torah among, Chasidic Jews. Not long after moving to the United States and becoming an ordained Chabad rabbi, Reb Zalman became disenchanted with the Orthodoxy around him. He called for an experiment in renewing Judaism: with more music, more meditation, more inclusivity, and more of the attributes that made the 60s such a radical and controversial time, including drug use and the spirit of free love—which, by the way, are not exactly “kosher” in the Jewish tradition. Reb Zalman’s love for meditation led him to explore other faith practices—so much so that, in 1975, he became a Sufi Sheikh (all while he was still a practicing rabbi and professor of world religions).
We might not be mystics, and we might find discomfort—and we might disapprove—when we consider Reb Zalman’s life. Yet, his obsession with world religions might be an exact parallel of the dream Jews have only begun to realize over the past two centuries: How can we be citizens of the world, and also be members of Am Yisra’el (עַם יִשְׂרָאֵל)—the people Israel? More forceful than an inquisitive dream, Reb Zalman liked to state this question in the form of a challenge: “If you’re such a universalist, why be Jewish?”
In a way, because Reb Zalman was a champion of so many cultures, he could possibly be among the best people to answer this question.
The short version of Reb Zalman’s answer—why be Jewish when the secular world is so grand—goes like this: Every people has special gifts to give the world, and the world needs those gifts. The Ancient Greeks gave us philosophy and math. The Buddhists and Sufis have given us different meditation practices. What do the Jews bring? We bring a few gifts.
First off, the Jews bring this idea that we have to be mindful of what we consume, and that what we consume must be attained through ethical means. We call that kashrut (כַּשְׁרוּת)—“keeping kosher.” Second, we Jews have this notion that wisdom should lead to action—that what we study, which we call Torah (תּוֹרָה), is not only to be read, but to be lived. And third, we Jews bring to the world an understanding that there are two kinds of time. The first kind of time is time as a social construct9: We decide when it is time to go to work, when it is time to check e-mail, when it is time to watch TV, etc. And then there is natural time10: time to say Modeh Ani (מוֹדֶה אֲנִי)—“I thank You, living, steadfast Sovereign, for having returned my soul to me”—and other morning blessings as the Sun rises up; time to say the bedtime Sh’ma (שְׁמַע) when night has fallen. Moreover, our sense of natural time checks in with our bodies and tells us that we need to rest. Human nature was designed for a weekly 25-hour break fromt the rest of the world, a special break we call Shabbat (שַׁבָּת). And our bodies don’t work exactly like clockwork. We need more rest than just one Shabbat a week. Because our bodies cannot handle working six, or even only five, days a week for weeks on end, throughout the year, the Jewish gift of natural time reminds us that there will be different times—separate holidays—over the year, when our bodies call for days of rest beyond Shabbat. The gift of balancing socially constructed time with naturally determined time is one of the greatest gifts that the Jews can bring the world.11
Technically, today is not Shabbat. Today is Yom Tov (יוֹם טוֹב), literally “a Good Day,” and I suspect we call today “a Good Day” because we know it is Good to rest. We believe it is good to be with friends and community. In the Maftir (מַפְטִיר) reading today12, we read that on the first day of this Jewish month of Tishrey (תִּשְׁרֵי)13, we are required to observe several different rites. Aside from offering various sacrifices, we are told 3 things:
Rosh HaShanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה)14 will be a mikra kodesh (מִֽקְרָא־קֹ֨דֶשׁ֙)—“a sacred calling” to gather together.
We may not perform any work on Rosh HaShanah. And…
Today shall be a Yom Teru’ah (י֥וֹם תְּֿרוּעָ֖ה).
The question we are left with is: What is a Yom Teru’ah? Our translation15 says “a day when the horn is sounded.” But, we have reason to doubt this translation. You might be familiar with a more “literalist” sect of Jews known as Karaites. Karaites are a group of Jews who split from “rabbanite” Jews when the Karaites essentially said, “No more rabbis reinterpreting the Bible for us. We’re going to take matters into our own hands and read the Torah as it is.” Well, Karaites observe Yom Teru’ah, but they don’t blow a shofar (שׁוֹפָר), because they consider it to be too much of a “work”-like activity, and we’re supposed to do no work on this Yom Teru’ah. Yet, without blowing any horns, Karaites agree that today has to be a Yom Teru’ah!16
In Aramaic, one of the languages in which parts of our TaNaKh (תָּנָ”ךְ)—our Bible—is written, the root letters of the word Teru’ah appears in the word yitre’ey (יִתְרְעֵי),17 which means something along the lines of “choosing,”18 “willing,”19 “desiring,”20 or “being acceptable.”21 The most frequent of these meanings is the notion of יתרעי as “choice.” Yom Teru’ah, as I see it, is a Day of Choice: a Day of Opportunity. On this Day of Opportunity—this Day of Presence22—we gather together for the Mikra Kodesh, we commit to no work, and we permit ourselves to become enveloped in the Mystery of Yom Teru’ah— the miracle of Being Present. We can make this miracle happen. We can be present when we say “No” to work (hard as that can be): when we rest, when we dwell among those whom we most love.
In an attempt to bring life to the Torah’s dream of Shabbat, our rabbis, nearly two millennia ago, identified 39 kinds of activities that qualify as “work.” These sages prohibited planting, plowing, harvesting, grinding, dancing, baking, weaving, tying, hunting, building, and 29 other kinds of actions that might not seem like “work” to us; however, these actions somehow alter our reality, changing the universe around us, reawakening a world that needs to rest.
There is a misconception that Shabbat is a day of Don’ts. It is in fact a day of Don’ts and a day of Dos. We don’t write on Shabbat, but we do read. We don’t touch money on Shabbat, but we delight in the pleasures and leisures we have already earned. We don’t send e-mail, but we do gather and have those face-to-face conversations we’ve been missing during the work week. For every Don’t, there is a Do, and our world is thirsting for a true Shabbat: this week, next week, the week after next, and every week from here on out.
Some translate the word mitzvah (מִצְוָה) as “commandment,” and others say it is “a good deed.” I believe that a mitzvah—related to the Aramaic word tzavta (צַוְתָּא), meaning “togetherness”—is “a connection.”23 Shabbat is a mitzvah not because it’s a commandment. Shabbat is a mitzvah because it’s a connection. Shabbat connects us to our bodies, which need a break; to our souls, which need a rest; to our world, which needs some stasis; to our community, which needs togetherness; and to our God, who needs our presence—for God, for ourselves, and for each other.
Because a mitzvah is a connection, the best I can do is to urge each of us. I cannot command; I can only compel. I would like to urge each of us to know that we need more Shabbat in our lives. We need more rest from work.
If you can, close your eyes.24 (And, if you can, don’t fall asleep.) Imagine yourself on Friday night. Friday night this week. It’s a bit past 6:30. Shabbat is beginning. Are you home yet? If not, how long will it take before yo ucome home? Remember—“the day is short, and the work is long.”25 In fact, the day is shorter than the work is long. There will always be more work to do. This is the hardest part now. It is just past 6:30, and Shabbat is beginning. The world is asking you, “Am I ready yet?” Really, the world is asking you, “Are you ready yet?” Shabbat is coming, and the world is longing just to stand still. Are you ready? Ready to let go of insurmountable obligations? Ready to say, “The world is not perfect, and I can perfect it better if only I rest?” The world is waiting for us to tell the world, “You’re good enough;” waiting for us to say, “I will take a break. Work, I will return again to you soon.” Keep your eyes closed. Imagine each of those overwhelming obligations that will consume you at 6:30 on Friday. They are standing before you. Take a deep breath. Take in each of those obligations as you breathe in. Breathe in those obligations. Now release all of those obligations as you take a deep breath out. With your eyes still closed, imagine one thing you will not do this Shabbat. Everyone thinks of work differently. For some people, work is going into an office. For some people, work is watering plants. What kind of work are you going to refrain from this Shabbat? When you’ve chosen a Don’t for yourself, hold onto it. Now, with your eyes still closed, think of one thing that is not work-related, one thing that you can commit to doing this Shabbat. Now, once you’ve decided on that thing that you will do this Shabbat, hold that image. Think back to what you told yourself you won’t do this Shabbat, and breathe it in. Imagine what you’re committed to doing, and breathe that out. Breathe in the Don’t. Breathe out the Do. Breathe in the Don’t. Breathe out the Do again. You may now open your eyes.
I learned recently from Rabbi Dr. Laura Gold, a licensed psychologist and a teacher of mine at the Seminary, that, we sometimes hold back from saying the “No” that we believe we ought to say because saying “No” makes us feel too uncomfortable. We may tell ourselves that we’ll start saying “No” once we feel more comfortable with doing so. But if we know we should be saying “No,” we can’t wait until we feel fine about saying it, as if merely thinking about the merits of saying “No” and the passage of time will somehow make the discomfort fade away… If we know we should say “No,” we just have to feel our discomfort and say “No.”26
As far as giving up work goes, it’s hard to say, “I’ll just quit work for a day.” What about the money I need? What about the people we’ll let down? Doctors always have more lives to save. Rabbis always have more souls to save. Store-owners always have more customers to please. The work is never over, and it never will be. The reason to say “No” is because we must say “No.” (In fact—and this might help to know—we are more efficient workers when we’re less tired.)
I want to share with you something that blew my mind recently.
Dan Buettner is an American-born explorer, and he travels the world in search of what he calls “blue zones.” “Blue zones” are places on Earth where people, in large numbers, live past the age of 100. These are the kinds of communities where, if you’re 99 years old, there’s a whole group of people who can tell you, “You’re too young to understand.” Buettner has explored “blue zones” in Italy, in Japan, and throughout the world. But—believe it or not—one of the greatest “blue zones” in the world is in the United States itself: in American communities of Seventh Day Adventists. Seventh Day Adventists, though Christian, do something really similar to what our rabbis had in mind for us Jews. On Friday night, Seventh Day Adventists drop whatever they’re doing, and they observe a 24-hour sabbath, during which nobody works. On their Sabbath, Seventh Day Adventists gather to socialize, to pray, and to take nature walks. I don’t know about you, but this sounds to me pretty darn similar to Shabbat (except for the nature walks, which, quite frankly, aren’t a bad idea). This consistent Sabbath-observance permits Seventh Day Adventists to live to be 97-year old heart surgeons, 103-year-old surfers and 104-year-old weight-lifters.27 It is almost as if, as a whole, Seventh Day Adventists are able to live longer, beacuse they take more breathers. After all, on the Seventh Day, when God finished creating the Heavens and the Earth, shavat vayyinnafash (שָׁבַ֖ת וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ): God rested, and God breathed.28
The worlds needs a breather. The Jewish people can give the world the gift of rest. After 2 centuries of proving that we can be the hardest-working financiers, doctors, lawyers, clergy, musicians, artists—in every field from poetry to dance to filmmaking—the Jewish people has proven itself to be talented workers to the outside world. In fact, some of us Jews make up some of the most talented people this world has seen! But, in becoming so hard-working, we have not been fair to ourselves. We permitted America to become a workaholic. If the whole point of our Torah is to treat others as we would like to be treated,29 then we must ask what right we have to enable a workaholic nation.
As for me, I’m very afraid. When I become a rabbi, will I spend all my waking hours at a synagogue? Will I be visiting congregants in hospitals all night? Will I be studying Torah all day? Something’s got to give, because when you’re a rabbi, Shabbat just might be a workday. Yet, I’m going to need Shabbat. Maybe I can take off Wednesdays, or leave some personal time on Tuesdays. However I manage it, I pray that I have the strength to say “No” to workaholism, to say that the world can go on even when I’m not at work, to know I always will have more work, and I will never fulfill all my obligations.
Shabbat is not just a day of the week. Shabbat is a way of life. Shabbat is a gift Jews can bring to the world. I invite us all this year to come together for a mikra kodesh—to offer our gift of Shabbat to the world.

1. Jonah Rank.
2. In New York.
3. Delivered on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah 5775: September 25, 2014.
4. “Americans Work More Than Anyone” by Dean Schabner on ABC News, May 1, 2014: http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=93364 accessed September 24, 2014.
5. Obama, Barack, “Family-Friendly Workplace Policies Are Not Frills—They’re Basic Needs” on The Huffington Post. From June 23, 2014: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/barack-obama/family-friendly-workplace_b_5521660.html?1403532355 accessed Septembet 24, 2014.
6. “Overworked America: 12 Charts That Will Make Your Blood Boil” by Dave Gilson at Mother Jones (July/August 2011); accessed at http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/06/speedup-americans-working-harder-charts on September 24, 2014.
7. Bureau of Labor Statistics (U.S. Department of Labor), “American Time Use Survey — 2013 Results,” published June 18 2014, accessed at http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/atus.pdf on September 24, 2014.
8. “Overworked America: 12 Charts That Will Make Your Blood Boil” by Dave Gilson at Mother Jones (July/August 2011); accessed at http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/06/speedup-americans-working-harder-charts on September 24, 2014.
9. Reb Zalman would refer to this as “commodity time.” See Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi with Joel Segel, Jewish With Feeling A Guide To Meaningful Jewish Practice (Riverhead Books: New York) 2005, p. 37.
10. Reb Zalman would refer to this as “organic time.” Ibid.
11. Ibid., pp. 186-192. Reb Zalman references other ideas the Jews can bring to the world: most notably, how to excel in exile (i.e., p. 195).
12. Book of Numbers 29:1-6.
13. Technically, not mentioned by name here in the Torah.
14. Technically, not mentioned by name here in the Torah.
15. From Mahzor Lev Shalem (edited by Ed Feld: Rabbinical Assembly: NY, 2010), p. 106.
16. See, for example, Shawn Joe Lichaa’s “A Karaite’s Experience of Yom Teru’ah” at TheTorah.com: A Historical and Contextual Approach accessed at http://thetorah.com/a-karaites-experience-of-yom-teruah/ on September 22, 2014.
17. Below is a broad, but not necessarily comprehensive, listing of instances in which variations on the term יתרעי (as soon to be defined) appears in the Pentateuch.
18. See for example, Targum Onkelos to Numbers 16:5: …וית דיתרעי ביה יקריב לשמושיה…; and similarly at Genesis 6:2, Numbers 16:7 and 17:20 and Deuteronomy 4:37, 7:6, 7:7, 10:15, 12:5, 12:11, 12:14, 14:2, 14:23, 14:24, 14:25, 15:20, 16:2, 16:6, 16:7, 16:11, 17:8 17:10, 17:16, 18:5, 18:6, 21:5, 23:17, 26:2, 30:19 and 31:11. Note that this sense is not used in Targum Onkelos to Exodus or Leviticus.
19. See for example, Targum Onkelos to Exodus 25:2: …מן כל גבר דיתרעי לביה…; and similarly at Exodus 35:5, 35:21, 35:22, 35:26 and 36:2. Note that this sense is not used in Targum Onkelos to Genesis, Leviticus, or Numbers.
20. See for example, Deuteronomy 12:20: …ארי תתרעי נפשך למיכל בשרא…. See also Genesis 34:19 and Deuteronomy 14:26, 21:11 and 21:14. Note that this sense is not used Targum Onkelos to Exodus, Leviticus, or Numbers.
21. See for example, Targum Onkelos to Leviticus 1:4: …ויתרעי ליה לכפרא עלוהי…; and similarly at Genesis 33:10 (where the meaning is more related to “finding acceptable”) and Leviticus 22:23 and 22:27. Note that this root-sense is never used in Targum Onkelos to Exodus or Numbers.
Alternatively, note that the root of ת.ר.ע. appears in the word יתרעון, which appears to mean “shattering” at Leviticus 11:35: …תנור וכירים יתרעון…. This notion of shattering or destruction also appears in Targum Onkelos to Exodus 34:13, Leviticus 14:45, and Deuteronomy 7:5 and 12:3. This appears to use the root of ת.ר.ע. fully—whereas previously referenced instances of יתרעי are likely itpe`al (אתפעל—reflexive) forms of a triliteral root that does not include the letter tav.
Also, note that Targum Onkelos to Genesis 18:2 and Exodus 12:22 uses מתרע to refer to the “opening” of Abraham’s tent—related to the Hebrew word שַֽׁעַר (“gate/opening”), with the shin (ש) becoming a tav (ת) and the order of the ayin (ע) and reysh (ר) being reversed. This same sense of “opening” recurs in Targum Onkelos to Exodus 32:17 and Leviticus 8:3 and 10:7.
Also of note is that Exodus 17:3’s ואתרעם appears to come from the root of ר.ע.מ.—hence the grumbling of the people Israel having little to nothing to do with the root of ת.ר.ע.. (and also little to nothing to do with one of the probable roots of יתרעי—ר.ע.י. (reysh, ayin, yod), א.ר.ע. (alef, reysh, ayin)., or ר.ע.ע. (resh, ayin, ayin).
22. Note the frequency with which the terms related to יתרעי, especially in Deuteronomy, come in the context of a chosen “place.”
23. Bradley Artson, “Mitzvot: Imperatives of a Loving Heart” in CJ: Voices of Conservative Judaism, Fall 2011: http:?/www.uscj.org/Mitzvot_Imperatives_8679.html . Note also that this definition is a traditional Chasidic teaching, attributed to the Ba’al Shem Tov, and likely preceding the Chasidic movement.
24. Closing one’s eyes is not recommended for anyone reading this sermon via visual means. The remnant of the meditative exercise herein can still remain effective sans closing of eyes. Parts of this exercise pertaining to eyes closing or opening should be ignored for the visual reader of this sermon.
25. Pirkey Avot 2:15. Note that the order and divisions of the teachings of Pirkey Avot vary widely from print to print; thus, the numbers here might appear to be slightly “off.” For a thorough review of Pirkey Avot’s history, see Shimon Sharvit (שמעון שרביט)’s Massekhet Avot L’Doroteha (מסכת אבות לדורותיה): Bialik (Jerusalem, 2004).
26. The italicized words here are from Rabbi Dr. Laura Gold: e-mail exchange on October 1, 2014. I have chosen to use her words from that e-mail (even though I did not in the sermon)—as I always prefer to give a teaching in the words of the teacher from whom I heard it first (lest I contort anyone’s words).
During my giving of this sermon on Rosh HaShanah, I did not have the fortune of quoting her. I hope that my paraphrase of Gold’s teaching then did justice for the sake of teaching in the community in Amsterdam, NY.
27. At https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CCEQtwIwAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ted.com%2Ftalks%2Fdan_buettner_how_to_live_to_be_100%3Flanguage%3Den&ei=nBMsVLyqB_b9sASKyYCgDw&usg=AFQjCNEWpEFJ7yUJKgVU1HyNZNj-aT80vw&sig2=j6s3aCeAGHMlakvKWqQrVw&bvm=bv.76477589,d.cWc accessed on September 24, 2014.
28. Exodus 31:17.
29. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a.