‘The Heart of Torah’

‘The Heart of Torah’

Rabbi Shai Held talks about his commentaries, just published by JPS

Rabbi Shai Held speaks at Limmud NY, held in Princeton in February.
Rabbi Shai Held speaks at Limmud NY, held in Princeton in February.

As the editor in chief at the Jewish Publication Society, Rabbi Barry Schwartz selects the books that the house will publish. (Adam’s Animals’)

“Our books are mainly academic and what we call popular academic,” he said. “The term I like is accessible academic. We are the oldest Jewish publisher in the country, and we are best known for our biblical translations and commentary. We also publish Jewish history and theology. Most of it is for adults, but we also publish some material for teens and young adults.

“We just published the first-ever bnai mitzvah Torah commentary. But we do serious work, and classics and Bible commentary still is the core of what we do.”

He knows that he cannot wait for authors to submit unsolicited manuscripts to him, he said. Instead, he has to be alert to possibilities.

That led him to Rabbi Shai Held.

Rabbi Held — who grew up Orthodox in Monsey, went to the Ramaz School in Manhattan, earned an undergraduate degree and eventually a doctorate in religion from Harvard, was ordained at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, and is a founder and now the dean of the nondenominational Mechon Hadar — wrote, emailed, and posted Torah commentary online for two years.

“As a rabbi and as a publisher, you can imagine that I read many Torah commentaries,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “From the first time I read them, Shai’s struck me with their depth and their compassion.”

So when he encountered Rabbi Held, whom he had not known, at a Bergen County day of study, “I introduced myself to him,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “I said I want to publish them. And the rest was history.”

Because it was published first online, readers could react to it, and they did. They sent Rabbi Held many suggestions and citations, and he was able to include many of them in the hard copy (albeit softcover) version. (And there is a hard-cover gift set available, and it has sold well, Rabbi Schwartz said.)

As it turns out, there were too many commentaries to fit into one volume, so they have been divided chronologically into two. “The book has had a wonderful reception,” Rabbi Schwartz said.

“It is both academic and very accessible. It is no accident that we named it ‘The Heart of Torah.’ We meant that in several ways.”

“The Heart of Torah” is a generous and open-hearted work. That’s a conscious choice, based on Rabbi Held’s beliefs, personality, history, and experience. “At some level, everyone decides on how to read in light of what you consider central, but ethically and theologically,” Rabbi Held said. “Which means, for example, that when talmudic sages suggest that loving your neighbor as yourself or that humans are created in the image of God is the greatest principle of the Torah, they are choosing that orientation.” They are choosing love.

“When the midrash says that the beginning and the end of the Torah is lovingkindness, what they are saying is that Torah is the light of a life of lovingkindness.

“I am continuing on the path that they laid down.”

Not that he wants to sugarcoat, he said. “It is important that this book also talks about difficult texts, and that it does not pretend to solve them. This is not apologetics.” For example, he said, take Amalek, the great enemy of the Israelites, and of the Jews who followed. “It is one thing to say that someone who is guilty of harming you is an enemy — but it is another to say that his great- great- grandchildren are. I want to write about that problem, not to let it go.”

Another difficult issue he addresses is “metzorah — the scaly skin disease. The idea in the Torah that you take a person who is suffering from illness and you are legally obligated to isolate that person further — that bothers me.”

But the book is overwhelmingly generous, loving, and open.

It is a theology of love, he said; love in the face of doubt and despair, love that cannot always be defended logically but does not always have to be.

“I am not sure that if I looked at the world empirically, I would think that yes, God is good, but I am wrestling with a commitment to what we learn from revelation,” Rabbi Held said.

“I think that one of the central claims of biblical theology is that there is a God who is concerned with love and the dignity and well-being of human beings,” he continued. “There are many texts that stand in tension with that, but I am deeply committed to the task of reading the whole canon in light of that.

“If you want to do theology in this day and age, it is important, I think, to wrestle honestly with the text and your own doubt. There are good reasons not to believe. I think that it is totally impossible for believers to speak with condescension to and about nonbelievers. The world is just too ambiguous for that.”

As Rabbi Schwartz pointed out, although “The Heart of Torah” is academic, it is written in an extremely accessible way, as if your really smart, really sweet friend were talking to you. The accessibility wasn’t accidental, Rabbi Held said. “I wanted to write as me. I didn’t want an assumed authorial voice, the author as character. I wanted to write in the voice of someone who loves Torah, has his eyes open to the world, and also always tries to be attentive to the truth of people’s suffering.

“To me, the philosophical and the pastoral are always shaped and modified by the pastoral,” he continued. “How does what I say land with someone who could have lost a spouse when they were 32? Have lost a child? That matters a lot to me.

“One of the things I have said in lectures is that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten much more wary of the project of theodicy. I don’t want to fall into the trap of steamrolling over someone else’s pain. I like to believe that the God I believe in wants it that way.”

There are other, better ways of helping someone in pain than producing clichéd explanations or solutions, he said. “There are times when it is best just to shut up. To stop talking. Just to be there.”

Rabbi Held looked back on some of the experiences that led him to this conclusion. “One of my first pastoral experiences was with a woman who was talking about how her father was in jail for murdering her mother,” he said. “I wondered what my responsibility here was, and I realized that it was just to make her feel heard. Not to explain her experiences to her, but to affirm her, to affirm her experiences, and not to be afraid of her.

“That’s the way I try to be with all people.”

Not that it’s always easy, he added. “When I was a Hillel rabbi” — when he worked on his doctorate, Rabbi Held was the egalitarian rabbi at Harvard Hillel — “a student came to me. He had become a baal teshuvah, and discovered that he was a kohen. He asked me what he should do.” (He was dating a non-Jewish woman and Orthodox halacha says that a kohen may not marry a convert, let alone a non-Jew.)

“I took the opportunity to explain to him the divisions all over the denominational map. What different people thought of it. What answers they had. He was exasperated by this conversation, and he went upstairs to the Orthodox rabbi, who said ‘Just break up with her.’ And he did, and he was happy.

“Not everyone is happy in this ambiguous world that I have to live in, and I understand that. Sometimes I wish that I didn’t have to live in it. But I have no choice but to live in it.”

Rabbi Held quoted Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, who wrote the introduction to “The Heart of Torah” — and maybe here is as good a place as any to add that the blurbs for his book come from a wide range of scholars, from Jon Levenson at Harvard to Rabbi Asher Lopatin to Rabbi Aaron Panken to Tovah Hartman to Rabbi Sharon Brous to Rabbi David Wolpe, to name just a few of many. “He said that the difference between a theist and an atheist is not how much but how often they doubt.

“So do I believe? Sometimes I believe totally. Sometimes I do not believe at all. These questions matter to me, because at the end of the day I am trying to help people who care about these questions to find ways to talk about them, and to wrestle with them in Judaically grounded ways.

“Sometimes I am torn between being an advocate and being a facilitator,” he continued, a bit ruefully. “That is, an advocate for the God of love, who summons us to live lives of love, and a facilitator for the conversations about what we mean when we say God. Both those voices matter to me.

“In the book, the advocate is stronger than the facilitator, because here I am explaining texts,” he added.

Rabbi Held has been touched by the responses his essays have evoked. “It’s been moving, listening to the conversations,” he said. As he continued to post them, the range of readers continued to expand. “I’ve been hearing from the entire range of Jewish denominations,” he said. “And there are a growing number of Jews who identify as secular, and also a growing number of Christians.

“I’ve had right-wing semi-charedi people saying ‘I read your essays, but I don’t tell my friends,’” he said. “I feel enormously grateful for that.

“I do not take for granted that I can sit at my desk and write about how I feel about a parsha, and have people around the world read it and react to it. That is a blessing that I did not earn.”

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