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The Art & Letters of Repentance

The Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought

The Most Famous Artistic Image of Yom Kippur: Maurycy Gottlieb's Meditation on the Machzor and Mortality

Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik | Director of the Straus Center 

Maurycy Gottlieb’s Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur has rightly been called one of the most famous Jewish artistic works, and the most well-known image of Jewish prayer. Yet even a cursory examination of the image reveals that many, if not most of the individuals in the painting do not seem to be praying at all; and an analysis of the figures created by Gottlieb reveals a motif that is both shocking and profound. Addressing the many mysteries surrounding the painting will allow us to better understand not only the meaning of Yom Kippur, but the very essence of Judaism itself.

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Shakespearean Shipwrecks, the Drama of Jonah, and the Meaning of Yom Kippur

Dr. Shaina Trapedo | Straus Center Resident Scholar 

The story of Jonah, runaway prophet and ambiguous penitent, has inspired some of the most compelling pieces of prose in the West— from Shakespeare’s Tempest to Melville’s Moby Dick. What is it about this sensational biblical episode that makes it a fitting reading for the holiest day on the Jewish calendar? Moreover, why are stories, more than sermons or other forms of spiritual service, the most effective tool for helping us navigate questions of self-worth, belonging, and purpose? By looking at Jonah through the lens of Renaissance drama, as well as the relationship between drama and devotion, this talk explores how the Book of Jonah uniquely empowers its audience to enact personal transformation and seek the common ground of collective responsibility.

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Kol Nidrei in Culture, History, and Behavioral Economics

Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman | RIETS Rosh Yeshiva 

The haunting intonation of Kol Nidrei sets the tone for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. The prayer is well known to Jews worldwide and is even familiar through popular culture. However, there is nothing in this recitation that points to the themes of the Day of Atonement. It seems to undermine the effort of absolution, and has contributed to antisemitism throughout the generations. In fact, it was not always endorsed by the rabbinic leadership. How has this passage become so central to the Yom Kippur experience, despite every argument to the contrary? Can culture, history, and modern wisdom give us any insights into this mystery of Jewish custom?

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Illuminating the Machzor: The Avot in Medieval Art

Dr. Chaya Sima Koenigsberg | Former Straus Center Resident Scholar 

Jewish illuminated manuscripts are among the most treasured artifacts that have survived the trials of Jewish history and whose imagery provides a window into the Torah worldview of the Jews who commissioned them hundreds of years ago. What messages do machzor illuminations of biblical and midrashic scenes hold for the modern Jew? Why do images of the Binding of Isaac, among others, depict Abraham as a medieval Ashkenazic Jew? Did the Jews who commissioned these images believe Abraham wore the same hat as they, or is there a deeper message regarding the ''merit of our forefathers'' being conveyed?

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Satanic Verses and the Sound of the Shofar: The Source of Evil in the Eyes of Milton & Rabbi Levi

Rabbi Dr. Dov Lerner | Straus Center Clinical Assistant Professor

Jewish tradition teaches that every single night we should identify Satan as an enemy and pray for his demise, and at the pinnacle of the New Year liturgy, we emit a surreptitious plea for his demolition. So we ask: Who is Satan? Where does he come from? What does he want? How do we defeat him? Though Satan has taken many forms over the course of human history — in myth, picture, and fiction — two specific schools of thought address these questions, inviting us to consider who we are and how we should live. 

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