A Kinah in Kislev
On Shabbat Parshat Vayeshev, our resident scholar Chaya Sima Koenigsberg delivered a Seudah Shlishit shiur at the Mount Sinai Jewish Center in Washington Heights to a full audience entitled, “A Kinah in Kislev.” Her lecture, which took place on the 23rd day of Kislev, commemorated the murder of the most well-known medieval Jewish woman, Dolce of Worms, who was killed on the 22nd of Kislev in 1197. Dolce was the wife of R. Eleazar of Worms, who authored the Sefer Rokeah and was the preeminent student of R. Judah the Pious leader of the movement known as the Hasidei Ashkenaz. In the aftermath of his wife’s murder at the hand of two Christian intruders, R. Eleazar composed a lamentation, a poetic elegy, to commemorate her life and accomplishments organized around the verses of the Eshet Chayil chapter. Dolce is described by her husband as an active force at home and in the community. She worked to support her husband’s scholarship and her earnings also paid for the teachers who were hired to teach their children Torah. She cooked for the household and the yeshiva students and mended their torn clothing. Dolce is described as preparing materials for religious articles, like tzitzit and tefillin, sewing Torah scrolls, and mending torn religious books. She was active in the upkeep of the synagogue and teaching women to pray and leading them in prayers. Among her other activities described by her husband are beautifying brides, visiting the sick, and preparing the dead for burial.
There are very few texts that describe the lives and activities of medieval Jewish women, and this text is particularly rich as it touches on home life, economic life, childbearing, communal and synagogue life, ritual, as well as education and literacy. Dr. Koenigsberg presented Dolce as an inspiration and a paradigm of the many areas of family and communal life in which one person can be involved and how much a person can accomplish.
New Bi-weekly Seminar
This past week the Straus center launched a new bi-weekly seminar for the Straus scholars of the Beren campus given by the director of the Straus Center, Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik. The first work being addressed in the seminar is Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l’s famous speech Kol Dodi Dofek. Rabbi Soloveichik began by setting the familial background and historical context and import of the speech. He noted that to be properly understood, Kol Dodi Dofek must be read in conjunction with another speech delivered by the Rav during the same time period called Ma Dodech Midod. Ma Dodech Midod was a eulogy for the Rav’s uncle, which served more broadly as an ode to the legacy of the Brisker style of learning from the Rav’s upbringing. Rabbi Soloveichik stressed that the Rav’s embrace of religious Zionism was a bold shift considering his family’s previous stance on Zionism, and that Kol Dodi Dofek traces the ideational foundations of that embrace. Addressing the work directly, our discussion turned to the Rav’s distinction in the opening of the work between a People of Fate and a People of Destiny as well as the problem of evil. Drawing from a third essay of the Rav, “Catharsis,” Rabbi Soloveichik stressed that the Jewish concept of a hero is one who has a meaningful response in the face of suffering. This powerful ending note served as an introduction for the upcoming chapters, which will be addressed in future seminars. The Straus scholars eagerly await the next installment of this exciting series!
The Holy Family
On November 20th, Dr. David Shyovitz, Associate Professor in Northwestern University’s History Department and Director of the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies and author of A Remembrance of His Wonders: Nature and the Supernatural in Medieval Ashkenaz, addressed Straus Center faculty and a Wilf Campus Straus Scholars in a fascinating lecture that examined the family life and the afterlife in medieval Jewish thought. Tracing sources spanning the Talmud, Saadia Gaon, Moses Taku, Eleazar of Worms, the Zohar, and Sefer Hasidim, and contemporaneous Christian sources, Dr. Shyovitz examined differing beliefs on how families would be constituted following the resurrection of the dead. For example, R. Saadia Gaon took the opinion that such questions are not answerable and are best left unresolved, while the Sefer Hasidim contains a detailed description of how families would be reconstituted at the End of Days. As Shyovitz pointed out, this type of dispute highlights the difficulty in making a claim for the Jewish on any particular issue as there often exists a plethora of perspectives.
Dr. Shyovitz’s current book project, "O Beastly Jew!" Jews, Animals, and Jewish Animals in the Middle Ages, explores the overlapping ways in which Jewish and Christian authors and artists distinguished humans from animals, and Jews from Christians, over the course of the Middle Ages.
Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik speaks at Brigham Young University
On November 19, Straus Center Director Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik and Senior Advisor to the Provost and Senior Program Officer of the Straus Center Dr. Stu Halpern addressed a warm and welcoming packed house at Brigham Young University, in a celebration of the Center’s best-selling book Proclaim Liberty throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States. The visit, organized by Prof. Elizabeth Clark, Associate Director for the International Center for Law and Religion Studies of BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School and Emily Reynolds of BYU’s Wheatley Institution, included a luncheon with faculty from across BYU’s law school and undergraduate divisions. In his keynote lecture, Dr. Soloveichik described Benjamin Franklin’s and Thomas Jefferson’s proposed American seals, both of which drew on different aspects of the Passover story. Dr. Soloveichik argued that political authority needs to be subject to universal moral norms to avoid tyranny (negative liberty) and that strong moral codes can serve to educate our freedom, increasing our capacity to act wisely and well (positive liberty). These foundational ideas in American political thought were inspired by the Bible, as Proclaim Liberty, a source reader of foundational American documents side by side with the Biblical verses that they cite, demonstrates. The Straus Center visit to BYU was the latest in a series of collaborations, including a joint conference on Religious Liberty last May. “Such a pleasure to host Rabbis Meir Soloveichik and Stu Halpern from Yeshiva University here at BYU,” Prof. Clark said. “Rabbi Soloveichik gave a masterful lecture that interwove themes and text from their valuable new book. It was a real privilege for us and our students to have him here.”
On Monday November 4th, the Straus Center scholars and students in Graduate Program In Advanced Talmudic Studies For Women of the Graduate Program (GPATS) had the pleasure of hearing from Gil Troy, the Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Dr. Troy most recently authored The Zionist Ideas, an expansion of the classic collection of Zionist texts found in Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea. Troy’s work is organized chronologically and expands the voices and viewpoints on Zionism, including women’s voices.
In honor of Israel’s 70th anniversary, Dr Troy undertook a goal of conducting 70 conversations about Zionism with varying audiences and venues. To date, he has conducted well over 100 such conversations, spanning 6 countries and 2 languages. Troy’s lecture focused on Israel Education in the Orthodox Jewish community in North America, which Dr. Troy noted, often focuses on an image of Israel’s perfection without addressing the complex and complicated dynamics on the ground. Students who are first confronted with the reality of the flaws attributed to Israel for the first time, particularly on college campuses, are often left dumbfounded and unable to defend the Jewish state in face of its detractors.
In contrast, Dr. Troy described how he prepares students by having serious discussions with them as part of a broader Jewish conversation about Israel. While much of the discussion on Zionism tends to focus on anti-Semitism, and the need to establish a Jewish state in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Troy argued that we must instead on strengthening our core Jewish identity as well as our love of the Land of Israel and of the Jewish people as a starting point of Israel education. These issues were among those discussed and debated among the students during Dr. Troy’s thought-provoking session, which included readings and discussion of selected texts on Zionism.
Be, Become, Bless: Jewish Spirituality between East and West
published by Maggid and the Otniel Yeshiva.
On October 28th, the Straus Center Scholars Program and GPATS hosted Rabbi Yakov Nagen for a joint lunch and learn. Rabbi Nagen, a graduate of Yeshiva College, RIETS, and the Bernard Revel Graduate School, completed his PhD in Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University and currently teaches Talmud and Kabbalah at the Otniel Yeshiva in Israel. His unique approach draws together traditional Jewish sources with ideas from Eastern religions traditions. Among the thought-provoking ideas Rabbi Nagen shared at Stern, was the duality of “being” and “doing” that exists in Judaism. “Doing” is exemplified during the six working days in which one fulfills the directive to Adam to impact the world around him. “Being” is exemplified on Shabbat, when one desists from forbidden forms of work and accepts reality as it is, rather than trying to effect change. Rabbi Nagen impressed upon the participants that “being,” in the present, appreciating the day we are living today, is a key to finding happiness in our everyday lives. In contrast to an approach of “doing” which only brings satisfaction when the goal is met, appreciating the present as it is, accepting the reality around you without trying to change it, makes the journey towards one’s goals a sweet. Rabbi Nagen poignantly shared that his philosophy was forged in the wake of two tragic terror attacks during the second Intifada that resulted in the death of members of the Otniel Yeshiva. Seeing lives full of potential to “do” cut short crystallized Rabbi Nagen’s view that each day lived to its fullest is a gift from Hashem, not fully appreciated if we only focus on end results. He shared his personal custom of reciting the Hebrew date and a verse each day that reminds him of the uniqueness that day holds, never having existed before in Jewish history and never to exist again. This form of ‘being present’ leads to motivation and joy at the opportunity to serve Hashem on that day. In all, the participants of the lunch and learn found Rabbi Nagen’s approach unique and engaging and left with much food for thought. A full exposition of Rabbi Nagen’s philosophy is presented in his new book, Be, Become, Bless: Jewish Spirituality between East and West, published by Maggid and the Otniel Yeshiva.
Straus Semikha Fellows Culminate Rabbinic Seminar with Visit to Charleston, SC
June 11th, 2018
As part of its ongoing study of the role of Judaism and Jews in Early America, the Program on Early America and the Jews at the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought returned to historic Charleston, this time with rabbinical students, to explore Jewish Life during the Civil War. This visit served to culminate a spring 2018 Straus Semikha Fellowship that focused on “Rabbis, the Bible, and the American Civil War: Lessons on Leadership and Faith” with the goal of developing intellectual leaders of Jewish Orthodoxy in particular, and American Jewry in General. During this brief trip, the semikha fellows toured K.K.B.E Museum, Coming Street Cemetery, Fort Sumter National Monument, The Old Slave Mart Museum, Rainbow Row, The Poyas-Mordecai House, and City Market.
A Conversation of Biblical Proportions
May 8th, 2018
What could be better than a night at the movies with Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik and John Podhoretz? Especially when the movies are about Moses? In a pre-Shavuot event in a packed auditorium at the YU Museum, the two men traded pointed observations as they screened film clips, exploring the depiction of Moses on film—and what those depictions say about our times and our culture.
The program began with a clip from the most iconic of Biblical films: Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments, made in 1956. The film has special effects that might seem laughable to today’s filmgoers; yet it remains larger than life, earnest in its portrayal of the Exodus, and full of cultural, social and moral themes. In a clip of DeMille introducing the film to contemporary theater audiences, he calls the Exodus story the “birth of freedom,” noting the timeliness of the question: “…whether man should be ruled by God, or by a dictator ... are they the property of the state, or are they free souls, under God.” This battle, DeMille says, continues throughout the world.
DeMille—a religious Christian whose mother was born Jewish—was his era’s Steven Spielberg, the founder of the “large-scale, ponderous, no-expenses-spared movies,” said Podhoretz, film critic for The Weekly Standard, editor of Commentary, and columnist for the New York Post. Starring a hunky Charlton Heston and featuring one of the largest sets ever created for a film, The Ten Commandments was, at the time, the most expensive movie ever made. It was also a uniquely American story, Podhoretz said, part of a craze of Bible movies that reflected the cultural themes of post WWII, 1950’s middle-America, a time when more Americans went to church than ever before (or since). DeMille was a staunch anti-communist, and his reference to man being “ruled by God or dictators” is a not-so-subtle reference to the “Godless communists.” Communism was on everyone’s mind, discussed in church and on “Meet the Press.” At the same time, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing—the Montgomery bus boycott happened in 1955—and DeMille, in his references to slavery, was loudly proclaiming a pro-civil rights message.
DeMille worked hard to create an accurate representation of the Exodus, from costumes to dialogue, and even filmed it on location in Egypt, Mount Sinai and the Sinai Peninsula. (Rabbi Soloveichik noted that after DeMille finished the film he gave the tablets to Mount Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, “so for a time, the Ten Commandments actually sat on top of Mount Sinai.”) And while DeMille does get some of the facts and timing of the story wrong, he accurately portrays a midrash that says God will speak to Moses in the voice of “his father.” With Charlton Heston as the voice of God in the burning bush, DeMille correctly depicts the idea that while Moses was raised with the Egyptians, his primary identity lay with the Hebrews, his real family. “That is the central drama of the story,” Rabbi Soloveichik said.
Sociologically, the 1950s was a time when Jews began to dominate popular culture, and when there began to emerge a “national philosemitism” that connected the American story with the Jewish story of finding a homeland. The irony, noted Rabbi Soloveichik, is that it took a religious Christian to tell the story of the Jews—while many American Jews were uncomfortable with public Jewishness.
Many find the film campy, but it can be spellbinding, Podhoretz said. This is partially because its dialogue, which is Biblically-based, solves the problem that all period films have, of sounding anachronistic. “People have a hunger and a love for films that takes us out of our own head,” Podhoretz said. “Even the unplaceable accent of Yul Brenner [who stars as Pharaoh] has the effect of making us wonder, ‘Where are we?’”
Some 40 years later in 1998, three secular Jews, David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg of DreamWorks, produced the animated musical Prince of Egypt. With a voice cast that includes Val Kilmer as both Moses and God—"the only guy less Jewish than Charlton Heston,” joked Rabbi Soloveichik, the clip features a tortured Moses, full of pain and regret as he watches the plagues pummeling the Egyptians. “It’s a perfect snapshot of the American Jewish mindset, Podhoretz noted. “We’ve found paradise in America, and now we have the luxury to say, it wasn’t nice how we were saved.” In contrast, the pre-mid-20th century Jews, having survived very recent persecution, would have had no trouble celebrating God’s destruction of Egypt. “The notion that there would be deep regret is absurd,” Podhoretz said.
Fast forward to 2014, when Ridley Scott, renowned for films like Alien, Bladerunner and Gladiator, directed Exodus: Gods and Kings. A colossal flop that was panned by critics, it was, Podhoretz said, “a 200-million-dollar movie made in reaction to Mel Gibson’s successful and anti-Semitic Passion of the Christ.” We see a clip of Moses, submerged in mud with only his face poking above the muck (“which comes from where in the Chumash?”), talking to God, portrayed as a petulant 11-year-old boy. Podhoretz described a later scene in which Aaron watches Moses speaking with the little boy/God, but Aaron sees only Moses speaking to himself—implying that the Divine revelations in the Exodus story are delusions. “It’s an explicitly atheistic Moses as a psychotic lunatic thinking God is an 11-year-old boy,” Podhoretz said. “It’s a reverse mirror and a bizarro world image of the DeMille movie.”
Sadly, Podhoretz noted, Scott could have successfully brought the ancient era to life, as he did with Gladiator. “But the bottom line is that movies reflect their times, and there is no studio that would make a pious movie about Moses in 2014,” he said. “DeMille was a pious man, and that can’t be faked. DeMille’s movie was a movie of its time, and this is also a movie of its time. DeMille, for all his camp, was authentically insightful.”
Finding Meaning in Modernity
April 17th, 2018
On the eve of Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut, Leon Kass, philosopher and bioethicist, and Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, director of The Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, discussed memory, patriotism, Israel and meaning in an animated dialogue at Congregation Shearith Israel.
In his latest book, “Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times,” Dr. Kass explores topics ranging from courtship to intimacy, human dignity, physician-assisted suicide, eugenics, liberal education, patriotism, and religion. Dr. Kass, a longtime professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago and the Madden-Jewett Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, runs the gamut of Western Civilization. His book travels from the Decalogue to Aristotle, from Erasmus and Euripides to Herodotus and Thucydides, from the Peloponnesian War to Socrates, Plato, and Rousseau, from the Gettysburg Address to Churchill — all in inventive and eye-opening ways.
Following an introduction filled with praise, appreciation and jokes about their home town of Chicago, Rabbi Soloveichik and Dr. Kass began with the topic of memory, specifically as it relates to the commandment to honor our parents. “One of the most striking things that you write in the chapter on the Ten Commandments, is that the obligation to honor one’s father and mother is a radical innovation of the Torah,” Rabbi Soloveichik said. “How is this so?” Dr. Kass explained that this commandment was an innovation in two respects: “To place the mother in equal standing with the father is absolutely novel in the ancient world,” he said. “Second, other cultures give greatest honor to the heroes, warriors, athletes, statesmen and poets, while the Jews, in contrast, choose to honor our own father and mother.” This commandment comes on the heels of the commandment to remember the Shabbat — remembering God’s creation of the world, which was hallowed on the seventh day. “Each week we are called to remember creation, and to imitate our creator,” he says. “In the same way, we are enjoined to remember our own particular creators, whom we owe a special debt of gratitude for the gift of life and nurture.”
Rabbi Soloveichik asked about friendship, a strong virtue in Greek philosophy and for Aristotle in particular, wondering how it compares to the Jewish perception of friendship. “The Bible is relatively stingy on friendships and strong on marital love and parenthood,” Dr. Kass said. This is largely due to the differences in culture: “The Greeks celebrate maleness and gaining a name for yourself by prowess in this world, versus a way of life the core of which is to carry out the covenant made by Avraham to your children from generation after generation,” Dr. Kass said. “Friendship belongs to a world of male dominance where male-male relationships are primary.” Indeed, noted Rabbi Soloveichik, at eight days old, at circumcision, Jews are already envisioning a child getting married.
In the larger secular world, Rabbi Soloveichik pointed out, young people think of themselves more as friends then as future husbands and wives or fathers and mothers. As a University of Chicago professor for 34 years, Dr. Kass, along with his late wife, Amy, addressed this issue in a seminar called “On Courtship.” In the course, students were challenged to discover the purposes and virtues of courtship, love, sex and marriage through texts by such writers as Homer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis, Allan Bloom and even Miss Manners. Dr. Kass discussed the evolution of the students’ attitudes throughout the course: At the beginning, Dr. Kass said, students made comments like, “the idea of being married to same woman of 25 years is preposterous” and “relationships with men should be impermanent.” Toward the end of the course, however, attitudes had shifted; an inner self had emerged. “These students want to be taken seriously, to love and to be loved,” Dr. Kass said. “They want to make a life with someone. They’re frightened by bad examples they’ve seen around them, they’re taught all the wrong things by the general culture and by professors. But it’s not hopeless. We can encourage young people to trust their deeper selves, and put the right things in front of them.”
Moving on to the state of America, Dr. Kass and Rabbi Soloveichik discussed the Gettysburg Address. In it, as Dr. Kass sees it, Abraham Lincoln affirms the Declaration of Independence but calls for a different kind of freedom, which is directly to his overarching mission “to create for future generations an interpretation of war” that affirms the dignity of life and the principle that “all men are created equal.” He argued that “Lincoln has transformed a merely intellectual truth, held as self-evident and accessible to universal human reason (the Declaration’s formulation), into a truth requiring practical demonstration by particular people — our fathers — who dedicated themselves to doing so.” That is, Lincoln’s transformation of American politics was at its core not political at all. It was ethical, grounded in a recognition of inherent human dignity. The words of the Declaration are only the beginning, a reminder that our moral work is never finished.
Dr. Kass described spending Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut in Israel, with his children and grandchildren. He was moved by a visit to a new memorial for fallen soldiers in Kfar Etzion, which was filled with dramatic reenactments, pictures, and letters. “There’s no place in America where you can feel so immediately what this means for those still living Israelis, to feel so connected to people who sacrificed their lives here.” Reviewing the Israeli Declaration of Independence with his granddaughter, he felt, “in awe of the document. There’s something quite remarkable to see what, on the threshold of independence, people connected with thier history and set forth the values they want to live by.”
Finally, Dr. Kass compared Israeli and American students. The Israelis, he said, have a “seriousness of life,” while Americans “work forever to trace to the fundamental questions. There’s much foolishness from the brightest students, and few opportunities for discovering wisdom,” he said. “There’s cynicism everywhere and irony is applied to everything to anything people hold dear.”
But beneath the cynicism, students still possess an age-old desire for a place in the world that makes sense, “a pursuit of truth rather than lying to yourself all the time, a place in community and a connection with the spiritual and the divine.” How to access this? It will require no less than a student revolution — the radical idea that moral relativism is a lie, and that much can be learned from old books. “These books,” Dr. Kass said, “can teach us something important to help us lead a meaningful life.”