The English word “magazine” derives from the Arabic cognate to the Hebrew machsan, meaning storehouse. From Arabic the word migrated to Italian and French before moving to English in time for America’s rebel colonists to store their weapons in brick magazines. Around the same time, book publishers who were bundling a variety of shorter writings into one volume appropriated it. At some point, magazine publishers realized that timely topics were better published as soft-cover soft-page objects than as more expensive hard-cover ones. So for a long time that’s what magazine meant. But more recently, in a return to an earlier meaning, it’s drifted back to cover an assemblage of online articles.
Which brings us to the Lehrhaus, an online magazine that describes itself as “a forum to generate thoughtful and dynamic discourse exploring the depth and diversity of Jewish ideas.” It counts as predecessors both the first American Jewish publication, the Occident, which Isaac Leeser started in 1843, and the journal Tradition, which Rabbi Norman Lamm and others in the Yeshiva University milieu began in 1958.
The Lehrhaus publishes at least two articles a week. Some deal with Jewish public policy, with a particular focus on day school education; others deal with more abstract halachic, historical, or textual matters. Some even concern poetry. All the editors define themselves as belonging to the Orthodox world.
And if the New Yorker has the New Yorker Festival, bringing its authors to the New York City streets, the Lehrhaus now has its “Lehrhaus Live,” a series of talks in Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael this Shabbat afternoon. (Last year the Lehrhaus ran a similar program, its first, at a synagogue in Washington Heights.)
In a way, it’s a return to the original, real-life origins of the Lehrhaus name, which goes back to Berlin in 1920, Lehrhaus editor Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier explained. Philosopher Franz Rosenzweig founded his Lehrhaus “as an adult education center. It translates into beit midrash,” the study house, “while updating it and making it relevant and asking broader questions for people in Germany in the early 20th century,” Rabbi Zuckier said.
Rabbi Zuckier, who grew up in Teaneck, will be among the speakers at Rinat.
“We see our goal as somewhat similar,” he said. “We have a lot of content similar to a beit midrash, but we’re not an online yeshiva. It’s a little more academic than a classical beit midrash.”
Rabbi Zuckier, who lives in Stamford, is finishing up a doctorate in ancient Judaism at Yale, looking at how the early rabbis understood Temple sacrifices in the centuries after the Temple’s destruction.
The Lehrhaus, he said, aims to combat “the problem of online culture, the lack of a shared basis for people to discuss things. It comes from American politics, where you see it in spades, and you see it too in social media.” He said the Lehrhaus “tries to stay out of national politics, that divides more than unites people.” But it has been able to discuss ideas that are controversial in the Orthodox community, such as the Orthodox Union’s ban on women serving as clergy. “We’re a platform for these conversations,” he said. “We hold them in a way that assumes everyone’s best intentions, that respects other people in the conversation, that tries to build and learn from each other rather than tearing down.” Some of the writers in the Lehrhaus opposed the OU’s decision, but the publication’s symposium was praised by the OU’s executive director, Rabbi Allen Fagin, for its “respect and due regard for the complexity of the issues.”
Rabbi Zuckier, 31, said a typical Lehrhaus article is read by “a couple thousand people. It can get as high as ten thousand readers on a piece. We’re fairly active on social media. Our goal was and is to be on the young side. Our core editors are under 40. An important piece of what we’re trying to do is to bring in younger voices.”
At Rinat, he will speak about the Roman emperor Julian’s attempt to rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Julian was a nephew of Emperor Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor. Julian reigned from 361 through 363 CE, and earned the epithet Julian the Apostate for rejecting Christianity in favor of the “the more classical Greco-Roman pagan culture and religion,” Rabbi Zuckier said. “He sought to reestablish sacrifices in many places. He had a goal of rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. For some reasons — which may or may not have to do with an earthquake — he didn’t follow through. He died soon after that attempt, and the Roman empire became very Christian.”
In his talk, Rabbi Zuckier will explore some of that history, and how it is reflected in rabbinic texts.
“This is an unappreciated point in Jewish history,” he said. “It could have gone very differently. We think the Temple was destroyed and that was it. It seems like there was a live option to return to it in the year 363. That would have been a completely different trajectory for Judaism.
“It raises a lot of issues that are actually very contemporary. It relates to the issue of how you view an empire that has control over the Jewish community. What if the British Mandate had said, ‘We want to give you back the land of Israel and rebuild the Temple?’”
What: Lehrhaus Live
Where: Congregation Rinat Yisrael, 389 West Englewood Ave., Teaneck
When: Shabbat, May 18, from 5 p.m. until Ma’ariv, at around 8:57.
Who: Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky will speak on “Liminal Spaces in Halakha: The Curious Case of the Androgynous and Masekhet Bikkurim.” Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier will speak on “Emperor Julian’s Attempt to Rebuild the Temple in 363 CE: The Bayit Shlishi That Wasn’t.” Miriam Gedwiser will speak on “The Three Oaths: Between Halakhah and Aggadah.”