Arguing for heaven’s sake
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Arguing for heaven’s sake

Rabbi Leon Morris will beg to differ — amicably — at Temple Sinai in Tenafly

Rabbi Leon Morris, above, is president of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem (Photos courtesy Pardes Institute)
Rabbi Leon Morris, above, is president of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem (Photos courtesy Pardes Institute)

It’s possible that the deepest of all Jewish instincts is the need to argue. To look at texts and say, “yes, but.” To listen to your teachers and say, “Are you sure?” To listen to your family and friends and say, “You’ve gotta be kidding.”

And to do all of it out of a burning need. Not a need to be obnoxious, not a need to pick a fight, just a need to question. To be driven by a relationship with words and ideas. And in the end to be drawn closer to the words and to your sparring partner because of it.

Rabbi Leon Morris understands that deeply.

He’s the president of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, the Jerusalem-based “nondenominational Jewish learning community” that encourages Jews of all backgrounds, ages, and dispositions to argue text amicably together.

He’s also going to be the scholar-in-residence at Temple Sinai in Tenafly.

On Friday night, Rabbi Morris said, he’ll give a talk “based on a five-part adult educational theory that Pardes produced last year to explore the rabbinic roots of constructive disagreement.” It’s called “Machloket Matters.” A machloket is an argument, and a machloket conducted “l’shem shamayim” — for the sake of heaven — is undertaken for the insight and wisdom that can grow out of such arguments, and for the pleasure that comes from gaining insight and wisdom by sharpening your wits, your ears, and your heart.

Students of all ages engage seriously with Jewish texts at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

“The idea of machloket l’shem shamayim always has been part and parcel of Pardes,” Rabbi Morris said. “And if there ever has been a time when American Jews needed it, this is the moment.”

There are a few classic texts about disagreements that many American Jews know, but there are far more that have remained a bit more obscure, Rabbi Morris said. He will talk about one that he calls “49 Versus 49.” “In that midrash, God says to Moses, ‘I am giving you the Torah and in it each teaching can be applied to find 49 reasons that matter is considered pure, and 49 reasons the matter could be considered impure.’ What does that mean, when we don’t have a perfectly clear picture? When our human understanding is limited?”

Even when you add 49 and 49, you are short of 100 percent. “The truth is elusive,” Rabbi Morris said. “How do we live in a world where we have only my 49 and your 49? When there is not a 50/50 reality at play?”

On Shabbat morning, “I am teaching about Moses’s breaking the tablets as a way of uncovering the meaning of Jewish life and Jewish study,” Rabbi Morris said. “There is a whole strain of midrashim that see Moses breaking the tablets not in a fit of anger but as a very calculated move, to teach something essential about Jewish life. In these midrashim, Moses is congratulated for breaking the tablets.

“What does this say about the idolatries that we create within religious life? What does it say about Torah as an expansive interpretive project?”

And then, on Sunday, he’ll talk about “the ways in which Israeli Jews and American Jews are on the one hand different, and maybe increasingly so. About how they are divided. And yet, each community, left alone, is incomplete. What we need is what is most distinctive about American Judaism and what is most distinctive about Israeli Judaism. They are complementary.”

Rabbi Leon Morris talks to a participants in an executive learning seminar.

Rabbi Morris knows a lot about how those two communities are complementary; he, his wife, Dasee Berkowitz, and their three young children made aliyah just five years ago. And he knows a great deal about how American Jews often divide into tribes and might combine into a larger people, because throughout his career he has performed the hard-to-pull-off trick of being firmly planted in more than one camp at just about the same time.

What does that mean?

Leon Morris was born in Connellsville, Pennsylvania. It’s a small town, 60 miles south of Pittsburgh, Rabbi Morris said; “when Pittsburgh was in its steel-making heyday, Connellsville was one of the country’s largest producers of bituminous coke.” A Jewish community flourished there; its members ran the stores that fed and clothed the miners and their families. But “by the time I was born,” just about 50 years ago, there were just 10 Jewish families. Our synagogue was a 45-minute drive away.”

That synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, was Reform, and Rabbi Morris loved it. “I always was nurtured by the Reform movement,” he said. “I am a product of it.”

He went to the University of Pittsburgh, where he was deeply involved in Hillel. “I loved Hillel; I have always been drawn to Jewish environments like Hillel, that are diverse.” After college, he spent a year as a volunteer with the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, working in India. “That year exposed me to how wide the Jewish world is,” he said. Then he went to HUC-JIR in New York.

“I have always loved environments like Hillel, like Limmud, like Pardes, where Jews from all perspectives come together,” he said. He studied at Pardes for two summers and then for a full year. “It brings together all the voices in the beit midrash, and I feel that Torah is enhanced with all those voices, and it all resonates so closely with my own story.”

How does he identify himself now? “I think that these labels are increasingly fuzzy,” he said. “I identify in many different ways.” He’s taught in Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox settings; his own personal practice is rigorous.

Still, he said, “Reform is my edah.” He defines that word, which generally means community or group, as “my Jewish ethnic group. It’s the community that raised me. It’s the community that I know the best. I like having one foot in that world, and the other foot in the larger Jewish world.

“And it is the community that at times I wrestle with, always lovingly.” It is the community, in other words, with which, inside which, he often engages in a machloket l’shem shamayim.

Rabbi Morris and Ms. Berkowitz have chosen to bring up their children, he said, “in Jerusalem, in a way that is the polar opposite of the way I grew up.” He and his family “are part of an amazing synagogue called Kehilat Zion, founded by the visionary, amazing Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum. She has created a community that is based on the idea of why do you have to have separate synagogues for Sephardim, for Ashkenazim, for people who are observant, for people who are not observant? Her vision of Kehilat Zion is of a place that includes as many of these elements as possible.”

He is in the United States on a weeklong tour to promote Pardes, he said straightforwardly. Pardes now not only has summer and yearlong programs but also a two-year program for day-school educators and a one-year program for experiential educators. It has “a five-day executive learning seminary for people of all ages.”

And what does this wide range of students do in Pardes? They argue with the text, with each other, with tradition, as they stay deeply rooted in the Jewish world. And all of it, Rabbi Morris said, l’shem shamayim.


Who: Rabbi Leon Morris

What: Will be scholar-in-residence at Temple Sinai, 1 Engle St., in Tenafly; on Shabbat morning; members of Temple Emeth of Teaneck and Congregation Adas Emuno of Leonia will join as special guests.

When: From Friday, November 1, to Sunday, November 3. He will speak on Friday night at 7:30; on Saturday morning he will lead Torah study at 9 a.m. and at services that start at 10:30; on Sunday he will speak at 9:30 a.m. for the brotherhood breakfast.

Who is invited: The community

For more information: Go to templesinaibc.org.

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