Going for perplexity

Going for perplexity

The video burst on YouTube in September 2011 with an abundance of energy and good cheer.

“Dip your apple in the honey,” sang the young Israelis, in a parody filled with catchy music, dancing, shofar blowing, humor, adorable children, and even a Jedi battle. The video, so far viewed more than 3 million times (a lot for a Jewish holiday video even though it is far below the 665 million views of the Shakira song it is based on) was credited to the Fountainheads of the Ein Prat Academy.

The what?

Ein Prat, says Dr. Micah Goodman, the academy’s founder and head, “is the yeshiva I would have loved to learn at.” Dr. Goodman will be speaking in Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck at 8:45 Sunday evening.


Ein Prat opened in 2006. It is coed, unlike the yeshiva where Dr. Goodman studied during his army service, and unlike the yeshiva high school founded by Rabbi David Hartman where he had studied before that. It brings together secular and Orthodox Israelis for intense and brief exploration of what Dr. Goodman calls “the modern Jewish Israeli identity.” Like a traditional yeshiva, its classes include chevruta study, where students study and discuss texts in pairs. But a yeshiva’s syllabus of Talmud and Bible is one of only four prongs of Ein Prat’s curriculum, which also includes the great works of Western civilization, including Shakespeare, Aristotle, and Homer; Israel’s political issues, such as its conflicts with the Palestinians and Iran and question of religions and state, and the study of martial arts and yoga.

Ein Prat offers no degrees. “In that sense it’s a yeshiva, with study of Torah lishma, for its own sake, for the sake of expanding students’ minds and developing who they are,” Dr. Goodman said. Ein Prat has a term that run for the 40 days before Yom Kippur, and others that run a standard four-month semester. Participants attend after their army service and range in age from 21 to 29. After studying at Ein Prat for one term, students move on and out.

“We want our graduates to be out in Israel, trying to spread the word that there’s a different way to be an Israeli,” Dr. Goodman said.

The Fountainheads is one example of the growing network of graduates at work.

So too is a project launched this year, “Ten Days of Gratitude,” which aims to transform the ten days between Yom Hashoah, Israeli’s Holocaust remembrance day, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. Just as the traditional Ten Days of Repentance creates a period of introspection leading into Yom Kippur, the Ein Prat alumni behind the project want to create a period of appreciation.

“They have a vision that one day Israelis will start thanking each other before Yom Ha’atzmaut,” Dr. Goodman said.

“We want to promote a Zionism of gratitude, not pride. The Israeli story, like also our personal story, can fill us with pride. Gratitude is an alternative. Both gratitude and pride are an awareness that something great happened to us. Pride is taking credit for it. Gratitude means something happened to you, but not because of you,” he said.

Dr. Goodman earned a Ph.D. in Jewish thought at the Hebrew University. (His dissertation is on the philosophy of history in Maimonides and Nachmanides). Besides heading Ein Prat, he is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and a teacher at Hebrew University, both in Jerusalem. He teaches Judaism in the public arena, with a television program on the weekly Torah portion and two published books that turned meditations on key works of medieval Jewish philosophy into surprising bestsellers.

In writing “The Secrets of The Guide for the Perplexed,” Dr. Goodman says he “tried to stick to the big, big questions” as he “tried to flesh out from the Guide for the Perplexed what is interesting for Israelis in the 21st century.

At the core of the book, to be published in English next year by the Jewish Publication Society, is the idea that Maimonides’ philosophical work “wasn’t written to guide people out of their perplexity. It was written to guide people into perplexity and help them deal with perplexity, to leverage perplexity into becoming sensitive human beings.

“When you ask the greatest questions possible, and you’re trying to find out the great enigmas of life, and suddenly your mind reaches a wall, you understand there is something very big here you can’t understand. In that awakening, two things happen. One is that you are aware of your boundaries. At the same time, you are aware that there is something beyond you. There is a sense of the transcendent, of mystery, what Heschel called ‘radical amazement.’ Rambam – Maimonides – “was thinking of something like that when he was speaking of perplexity.

“Perplexity is about having mystery in our life that instills a sense of meaning in our life,” he said.

Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill of Teaneck, a professor of religion at Seton Hall University who has written about Dr. Goodman on his blog, contrasts Dr. Goodman’s work on Maimonides to the work of Rabbi David Hartman, whose “Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest” was published in 1977.

“Hartman viewed Maimonides as teaching us about rationality, this-worldly endeavor, universalism, and understanding Torah philosophically,” Rabbi Brill said. “Goodman’s Maimonides is skeptical and therapeutic, seeking to embrace the yearnings and messiness of life while teaching us to heal ourselves.”

Dr. Goodman’s second book concerns another 12th century classic, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s “Kuzari.” Presenting the guide to young Israelis, Dr. Goodman said, was “only a partial story, because Maimonidean rationalism is only a part of who I am, of what Judaism is. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s critique of rationality is also part of what Judaism is. I had to write the second book that completes the first work.”

There were two main points he wanted to make with his second book.

The first: “Rationalism is not rational. Rationalism means that you believe in the capacity of your intellect. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi argues that you can believe in many things, but to believe in your intellect is not rational.

“He tries to prove that rationalism is not rational. He tries to promote a world where we’re aware that irrational things exist and have effects on us even though we can’t understand them. Unlike Maimonides, he’s not afraid of imagination. He wants to bring our intellect and our emotions together.”

Dr. Goodman’s second point concerns the format of the Kuzari, which is cast as a philosophical dialogue between a Jewish scholar and a gentile king.

“I argue that the scholar is not the only person who expresses Halevi’s opinion – both characters express Halevi’s opinion. The book promotes a strong sense of Jewish uniqueness, and some would say chauvinism. At the same time, it says we should be guided by a gentile king. That’s the perplexity of the Kuzari.”

His next book will be “The Last Speech of Moses,” an exploration of the philosophy underlying the Book of Deuteronomy.

“Moses realized the greatest challenge for the Jewish people is becoming powerful,” he said. “How do Jews become powerful without being corrupted? I’m trying to listen to how Moses guides the people.”

Dr. Goodman’s parents were Americans who moved to Israel in 1969. His parents met working for the Peace Corps in Bolivia. His mother converted from Catholicism. He was born in 1974. As a child, he found the mixture of a Catholic grandmother, American parents, and Israeli Orthodox friends to be confusing.

But as he grew older, “it also became more exciting,” he said. “This mixed background is part of my passion and curiosity. Coming from diverse worlds helped me create bridges between worlds.

“I’m trying to offer an alternative way of being a Jewish Israeli.

“There’s a new hunger in Israel for Judaism, especially for Jewish philosophy. It’s not channeled to halacha, to law; it’s channeled to ideas.

“Israelis are becoming Jewish. Its becoming their core identity. That’s something very exciting in Israel, and the success of Ein Prat is a testimony to that happening.”

Save the date
Who: Dr. Micah Goodman

What: A talk on “The Collapse of Israel’s Secular-Religious Divide
and the Emergence of a New Zionist Paradigm”

Where: Congregation Rinat Yisrael, 389 West Englewood Ave., Teaneck

When: 8:45 p.m., Sunday, June 1

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