Deeply Held

Deeply Held

Rabbi's Shabbat talks to focus on joining theology to responsibility

Students learn at Mechon Hadar in Manhattan.

Rabbi Dr. Shai Held, a cofounder of the Upper West Side phenomenon called Hadar, will be scholar in residence at Kol HaNeshamah on April 26-27.

Held recently was selected – for the third year in a row – as one of the Newsweek/Daily Beast’s Top 50 Rabbis.

On the Daily Beast’s website, Held, along with Hadar’s other founders, rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Ethan Tucker, who share slot 32 this year (up from 33 in 2012), stare out, each looking in a slightly different direction. But Held isn’t exactly a dorky version of a Jewish pop star. Instead, he is a serious scholar, who will discuss Abraham Joshua Heschel, God, and humiliation in a series of talks of escalating depth, emotion, and intimacy.

Held grew up in Monsey and was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He was educated at the Ramaz School and then at Harvard, where he earned both a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate. He won a Covenant Award for Jewish education in 2011, spent a few years on staff at Harvard Hillel, and now is the dean and chair of Jewish thought at Mechon Hadar.

His first talk, on Friday night, is called “Why Amazement Matters.” It is, he said, “a summation in very brief form of the core argument of my book” – his doctoral dissertation, “Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence,” is to be published by Indiana University Press later this year. The argument is that Heschel, the great 20th-century theologian, believed “that wonder leads to a radical commitment to ethics and self-transcendence.

“For Heschel, self-transcendence is as simple as ceasing to put your ego at the center of all your thoughts and commitments,” Held continued. Is it really so simple? “Well, it’s not so simple to do,” he conceded. “But it is simple to say and understand.

“The core piece of what it means to be spiritually awake is to cultivate concern for people who are uncared for. That’s why he was consumed with the prophets, for justice for the oppressed.

“For Heschel, social justice and spirituality are inextricably intertwined.”

Heschel’s worldview explains “why it was so important to him to fight with the Rambam,” Maimonides, Held continued. “Heschel really believed that the kind of God you worship cannot help but have implications for the kind of person you aspire to become.

(Maimonides’ God is similar to Aristotle’s unmoved mover, a distant and impersonal force; the unreachable Creator, “Elohim” of Genesis 1. Heschel’s God was more personal; a God who cared about the created world, the personal “Adonai Elohim” of Genesis 2 and 3, who walks with His creation in the Garden, clothes them, and provides for their needs.)

“Whether or not this is fair to the Rambam, Heschel worried like crazy that if you worship Aristotle’s God, who is fundamentally indifferent, then you would end up creating a human ideal that is basically cold and emotionless.

“That’s why it was so important for him to affirm the reality of the God of the prophets, because that God cares profoundly about people who suffer. That God tears your indifference to shreds.

“If you really care about the God of Isaiah, then widows and orphans become your problem. And Heschel learned from the horrors of the 20th century that the greatest fault is indifference.

On Shabbat morning, Held will teach about the Tower of Babel. That story, he argues, is not about people trying to reach heaven, but “is a brief against the terrors of totalitarianism and conformity.” He reaches that conclusion by “trying to model close text reading,” he said.

The third talk, at s’udah sh’lishit, “is something I’ve been working on and thinking about for the last year, and it’s very cool and interesting,” he said.

“If you ask a learned Jew what the cardinal sins are, they will say, murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality” – the Talmud’s definition – “but actually a whole variety of Jewish legal sources say that that there is fourth prohibition, against humiliating another person.

“I will explore where the rabbis find it – beginning in the story of Judah and Tamar.” In that story, Tamar marries Judah’s older son, who dies. She marries his next son, who also dies. She realizes that Judah will not fulfill his promise that she could marry his third son, so she tricks her father-in-law into a tryst, disguising herself as a cult prostitute. When she became pregnant, an enraged Judah ordered her execution as an adulterer. She revealed the truth, that Judah was the father, in a way designed not to embarrass him in public. It is from this story that the sages derived the principle that you may not humiliate anyone, no matter how just the cause.

“It is an interesting opportunity for people to talk about humiliation,” Held said. “It’s extremely moving. What this brings out is what does it mean to be completely committed to recognizing the irreducible dignity and value of the person in front of you. Of not hurting them, no matter how much you might want to.

“All of the talks this Shabbat on some level connect to the relationship between theology and human responsibility,” he said. “Each one is about how serving the God of Judaism ought to intensify your commitment to the health and well-being of other people.”

Mechon Hadar, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is the country’s first full-time egalitarian yeshivah. It provides study programs and helps independent minyanim grow and flourish. “I created Mechon Hadar because I had spent my life looking for a particular kind of institution of Jewish learning and spirituality,” Held said. “I did not want to spend the rest of my life feeling ‘if only I’d tried,’ so I decided to create it.

“It has three animating principles. First, I wanted to create an institution that is totally immersed and committed to Jewish tradition and sources, and at the same time completely unapologetic about the equality and full participation of women.

“Second, I wanted to create an institution that was committed to learning from secular culture, general philosophy, and academic Jewish sources, but never forgot that it was first and last a religious institution.

“And third, it had to be an institution that took seriously the idea that to be a religious person is to commit oneself in a really genuine way to a life of chesed and caring for other human beings, particularly in their moments of vulnerability.

“We live in a world where religion often is associated with acts of cruelty and brutality. We want to embody a Torah of love and kindness. That is why anybody who studies at Hadar for more than a week automatically works with Alzheimer’s patients.”

The school has a relationship with Jewish Home Lifecare, an institution on 106th street. “Students get a lot of support in learning how to be present, when your impulse is to flee. You learn how to care, when what you really want to do is run away.”

Steve Eidman, the president of Kol HaNeshamah, said that it was appropriate that Held’s visit will be the first annual memorial to longtime member Shirley Passow of Englewood, who died last year, soon after her 90th birthday.

“She was an amazing woman,” Eidman said. Passow, who devoted many years to raising her three children and then went to graduate, had a 17-year career as an urban planner. After that, she went to law school, and worked for 11 years as an assistant attorney general. She also “was a fixture in our synagogue,” he said.

“She loved when we had scholars. She’d ask the most pointed, the most penetrating questions.” So when she left the shul a small bequest, with no strings, its leaders decided that the most appropriate way to remember her would be with the sort of talk she would have loved.

“Shai Held is not only a brilliant scholar, but he is also a warm, approachable human being,” Eidman said. “That combination is all too rare. And Shirley Passow, too, was exactly that – very caring, very concerned about the well-being of her friends, her fellow congregants, and the welfare of people, Jew and non-Jew, everywhere.”

Who: Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar

What and Where: Will be speaker-in-residence at Congregation Kol HaNeshamah, 113 Engle Street, Englewood

When: Friday, April 26, at 9; Saturday, April 27, at 1:15, and again later in the day

Why: In memory of Shirley Passow

For information: 201-816-1611 or

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