The Infinite Depth of Judaism (in Israel)

Make sure you also check out my Instagram feed from the past couple weeks and the Israel 2019 story highlighted on my profile. Thank you to my hevruta partner Michael for the picture of me studying a text.

As my final blog post of my 2019 Israel trip, I’d like to philosophize about two points, both related to this trip and related to my Jewish experience beyond this trip. First, that Jewish knowledge is seemingly infinite makes an inability to truly master it a “feature, not a bug.” Secondly, and necessarily following from the first point but more visible in Israel, there are infinite shades of religiousness, which sounds obvious but is often not.Much of the past couple years has been spent stressing that I will not master all there is to know in my short few years of school. Do I need to take more time in school? Am I just hopelessly incompetent? These thoughts play on my anxiety. Learning at Pardes, though, where to goal was not to master anything for an exam, I still felt this way. Even more, I found my fellow students and even teachers had gaps in what they knew. Sometimes they knew things I didn’t know, but there were still things they didn’t know. I learned the Talmud is the longest ancient text by far, and that not even Rashi mastered it well enough to be the actual author of all the material we think of as “Rashi” in Talmud commentary. The great sages were always debating and, in the reports of those debates, coming from places of imperfect knowledge and acting in error.

I‘m starting to think that this that this is the whole idea. Jewish life and learning is supposed to humble you. It’s not supposed to be something you can master. Mastering a certain subset well enough that I can serve a congregation professionally, well, I may be getting there. But feeling like I have unquestionably mastered everything I might need? Not going to happen, not because of some problem with me particular, but because I am just one person, imperfect compared to the aggregate of our tradition’s wisdom, which is still imperfect compared to all the wisdom that could be known.

Someone pointed out it’s like a driver’s license. You get a license when you know enough to drive on your own. You keep becoming a better driver for years and need to keep practicing it for a lifetime.

An idea that might not seem related is the range of observance that exists in Judaism. There is religious vs. secular; certainly that’s how things are often framed in Israel. It’s easy to feel that one is secular compared to the religious people who observe “all” the mitzvot; that the men with black hats and payot are a different category from me entirely. Except, it’s not like that: Jewish life and learning has no end for everyone.

One way to explain this could be to point out that, when you’re among Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, it’s obvious that even Orthodoxy has so many divisions and Orthodox people are people who have all the regular range of people and personalities you find in any population. You could look closely and notice that there are different types of hats and jackets and facial hair, different standards of modesty for women, different ways of studying and praying.

The other way to explain this is: there’s all type of people going to Burgers Bar in the Old City and having a hamburger. Or some have schnitzel. It’s not like the Orthodox Jews in the Old City only have a pure spiritual experience and that every action they take is some Orthodox practice that secular people don’t do. People are excited to be out at night in the city and having a hamburger with their friends or family. Meanwhile, secular people, in Jerusalem or in Tel Aviv, are excited to be out at night in the city and having a hamburger with their friends or family. Maybe one hamburger is kosher and the other is a cheeseburger. Still, it’s easy to pay attention to the differences between people, but of course people have much more in common than different. And if you think about it, this even is true about practicing Judaism, especially among Jews in Israel. Secular cultural Jews still end up doing mitzvot and religious Jews aren’t perfect. Honoring your father and mother is a big commandment, but it’s not like you can ask someone if they keep this mitzvah and know if they’re “religious” or not.

Why Jewish Learning? Why in Israel?

For the trip to Israel I’m on now, to complete my iFellows experience, I chose to engage in Jewish learning. Why travel all the way across the world to go to school?

I’ve never before done extended Jewish learning for it’s own sake, like in a yeshiva (at type of traditional Jewish school). Pardes isn’t exactly a traditional yeshiva, and two weeks isn’t exactly extended, but it’s still a pretty good experience. There are some things that are different about traditional Jewish learning than about regular academic learning, even in an ordination-oriented Jewish graduate program like I’m in back at home.

Traditional Jewish learning is essentially a spiritual practice. The idea isn’t that you study something so that you know it; or at least, that’s not the reason to continue in study. I’ve been studying Tractate Nedarim, a section of the Talmud about making vows which is mostly irrelevant to modern life, even modern observant Jewish life.

I think there are two reasons to do Jewish learning. First, there’s the learning method of chevruta: learning in pairs, in the study hall (beit midrash, literally “house of seeking”—love that!). Learning forces you to engage with another person. While the word “chevruta” is related to the word for “friend,” it’s not all about being chums. Looking at Jewish text forces you to actually engage in discussing a challenging issue with another person. It forces you to pay closer attention to what is actually in the text. Essentially, it’s learning how to listen.

Secondly, Jewish learning forces you to engage in disagreement. Most traditional Jewish learning is the study of gemara, the core of the Talmud that is the record of ancient rabbinic disagreements. Rabbis (like Maimonides) since have codified Jewish law, taking out the disagreements, but it’s the machloket (disagreement) we’re studying. This teaches you how to disagree. You can learn about disagreements over nedarim (vows) that don’t really matter but then take those skills in engaging with challenging people and ideas to other areas of life.

In fact, at Pardes, being a not-entirely-traditional-Yeshiva, I’m also taking a class in constructive conflict that mixes traditional learning with psychology and modern media. (They actually have a whole curriculum on it you can buy.)

So, why do this in Israel? It seems like an obvious place to do Jewish study in Jerusalem. I could have done it elsewhere. But I think that Jersusalem is a place where every type of person who takes Judaism seriously congregates, and studying Judaism doesn’t have to be a counter-cultural act. It just seems to be in the atmosphere. I get to see the rhythms of the Jewish calendar on the street, see different types of religious Jewish people praying in different ways. I even got to stop in a much more traditional Yeshiva. Ultimately, the atmosphere of learning in a traditional Beit Midrash is just amplified by doing it here.

Thinking About Religious Pluralism

This past weekend turned out to be quite the pluralistic Jewish experience in Israel. I started out at the Kotel on Friday moring; found my way to some very liberal, somewhat liberal, and secular expressions of Judaism in Tel Aviv; and ended up Sunday night (okay, Sunday is not officially the weekend in Israel) in Meah Shearim (arguably the most religious Jewish neighborhood in the world)!

I didn’t plan it that way. I just had things I wanted to do and experience in Israel, and not a lot of time to do them. And maybe I’m weird: I collect Jewish experiences like other people collect souvenir spoons. I like them all. I like praying in the Orthodox men’s section of the Kotel; I liked going to Beit Tefila Yisraeli, the very liberal (almost secular) service held along the ocean in the classy Tel Aviv Port shopping area. I most liked going to a little Masorti (Israeli Conservative) synagogue, Kehilat Sinai, near my hotel in Tel Aviv. Sometimes I enjoy a bit of secular Israeli culture. I appreciate how the charedim (ultra-Orthodox) live.

What I find challenging is that not everyone is like this. It seems like more people have their way of doing thing that they think is right, and are somewhere between hate and indifference on how they respond to other levels of religiosity; they don’t find it an interesting experience in quite the way I do.

The question, then, is, so what? There are really two ways to approach religion.

There is an inward facing approach. Some people want to do what they thing is the right thing to do and not pay much attention to what anyone else does. People want the prayers to be said in their synagogue, the food to be prepared in the right way at home; or, for that matter, they don’t pray or keep kosher and don’t really think much about that other people do.

The outward facing approach wants to change the world. Religion is a source of moral teaching and the whole point is the make the world a better place.

The outward facing approach definitely resonates with me, although as a pluralist I don’t care exactly how you practice religion or even if you practice anything that looks like a traditional religion, but I want it to be available as a technology for improving the world. I want to teach and see more people finding value (and values) from religious tradition, and I’m happy to participate and serve in any Jewish community except the one that thinks it has nothing to learn and no need to grow. This just seems to be some innate orientation of my personality. I want to see religious groups grow and change to get their sacred message out there more and more.

But I might be totally wrong. There is certainly a traditional way to look at Judaism where God asks me to do mitzvot. As long as I can find a minyan that does things my way I don’t need to care how many people are on the beach (or even at a different synagogue) instead of in synagogue on a Saturday morning. This isn’t my outlook, but it is an outlook I encounter often enough. In contrast to above, it’s that a religious group needs to keep what it considers sacred and preserve it from change and outside influence. I can’t say for sure, but I think this might be a more common view of religion.

I’m not sure if one of these approaches ought to be at a higher level than the other. I’m not sure if they can coexist or which approach better lets us coexist but as far as religion goes, this is not a new issue and so probably not one that we’ll tie up with a bow in a generation. I tend to root for my pluralist outward-facing outlook but I’m also pretty sure this is a place where I should be humble about being sure I’m right about anything. Fortunately this is my blog, i.e., it’s a space where I can write about stuff I’m experiencing that isn’t completely settled.

What do you think?

Back in Earthly Israel

I’m back in Israel. It takes a few days to adjust. I have affection for and familiarity with it, but it is a foreign country.

There is in Judaism an idea of Jerusalem shel maalah and Jerusalem shel matah—heavenly and earthly Jerusalem. I’m back in earthly Jersualem. There are all these little things to figure out. For example, unlike anything I’d ever encounter in Boston, I’ve been warned the Israeli police have been actively ticketing jaywalkers at an intersection near my hotel.

It’s summer, it’s dry, everything outside is hot and dusty. I’m not spending this trip in the center of the city but in a more regular neighborhood marred by traffic and litter and utilities and all the other evidence of humans living in cities that is hidden away when you go to Disneyworld or some other touristy or wealthy area.

Back home, Israel is a talking point (whatever side of “the issue” you’re on); when you get here, it’s just a place you’re visiting.

It’s the little, earthly things that are different. The app to get a taxi here is Gett, not Uber, and that’s new since last time I was here, and I didn’t understand how the payment worked, and the driver got annoyed at me. Sometimes people think Israelis are rude or trying to rip you off but I’ve been here enough to know that’s not the case, but the social norms are still foreign. The driver seemed to be annoyed that he was holding up traffic, which was actually nice compared to American Uber drivers who have no problem blocking the rest of the street while waiting for their customer so they don’t jeopardize a review… it’s just different. Not a big deal, figured out now, but when you touch down in a foreign country and aren’t part of an organized group, suddenly you have to think about stuff you never have to think about: how to order a coffee, whether or not you’ll understand the person at the store well enough to actually get the thing you wanted to order. 

The use of English in Israel is funny. I speak enough Hebrew that I’m not obviously a tourist; some people will hear an accent or see that I have US credit card when paying for something and talk to me in English but it seems to be more based on the temperament of the person in the store. And the things that are in English seem to often be that way because it’s trendy. I was walking around a shopping mall, and there was a lot of English, not in a way that was helpful to foreigners but because stuff with English is foreign, as in, good. I mean like a restaurant name in French or Italian seems fancier in the States… a restaurant name in English seems fancier in Israel.

A long time ago it became a thing to call native-born Israelis “sabras,” based on name of a cactus that was prickly on the outside and sweet on this inside. That applies to Israel as a whole, really: the sidewalk outside is hot and dusty and inside the place you are going, it is cool and clean. There is, maybe even, something Jewish about this: we don’t big build cathedrals to look good from the outside, we make sure the people have hospitality inside. I don’t want to generalize too much about a whole country; people are people, and people in Israeli are mostly trying to be helpful and do the right thing just like anywhere else in the world. Maybe the electric plugs are different, but I can’t help feeling that there is still something about being in the Jewish state that matches with my Jewish values: still a little less capitalism, a little more sense community, people celebrate the same holidays. They sell the good glass Shabbat candle holders at the convenience store.

My view in Jerusalem so far has been less Kotel and Dome of the Rock than average apartment buildings with TV antennas and water heaters on the roof. But some of the trees have pomegranates growing on them!


Over the past year-plus I’ve been privileged to be part of the iFellows, a “master’s concentration in Israel Education” run by an organization called the iCenter.

iFellows is a program open to Jewish education, communal service, and ordination students from most of the schools offering such programs in the United States. It also includes as participants shlichim (emissaries), Israelis working in diaspora Jewish organizations. The program consists of three seminars over the course of a year, work with a mentor over the course of a year, an analytical paper, a practicum, and a trip to Israel. I also receive credit for an elective towards the Master’s of Jewish Education degree I am working on from Hebrew College. Almost all of it is paid for by the iCenter’s donors, including travel and lodging for the three seminars in the Chicago area. There is a stipend provided towards creating your own Israel experience.

Israel, and specifically my first visits to Israel in high school and college, were a major influence on my Jewish life and activity. So, I wanted my current program of study to serve the Jewish community to include an Israel component. On the other hand, one of the reasons I chose to attend Hebrew College’s cantorial school is that it didn’t require me to spend a year living in Israel, which would be too disruptive to my family. Being able to participate in iFellows, with a trip to Israel seemed like a good compromise.

Throughout the course of the program, though, it was so much more than a trip to Israel. One of the biggest benefits of the program was being able to develop personal relationships with students at other Jewish education and rabbinical/cantorial schools. It was a great chance to learn from them, network with other people similarly working to serve the Jewish people, and expand my knowledge of the Jewish world.

The program was also a way to develop further as an educator and leader, outside of Israel. The iCenter takes an approach of education as a primary goal (as opposed to advocacy on specific issues) and that resonated with me. My mentor, Dan Tatar, helped me work through lesson plans for classes I was teaching during the past year and asked me be a group leader in a singing event. The paper I had to write and practicum, for which I gave a short recital and talk about Israeli music, were experiences beyond what I would ordinarily have gotten through my cantorial school curriculum.

Finally, it gave me more perspective on Israel. What I realized the most is all the issues which lead to debates are even more active issues in Israel itself. It can seem on social media that Israel is a monolithic thing and people outside it can debate a certain policy or social issue. But really, all those issues are much more real inside Israel itself. It’s easy to get upset on Facebook that “Israel” is doing a certain thing I don’t agree with, but what I realized after exploring some of these issues further, including with Israelis, is that on pretty much every issue is complexity and different sides to the issue within Israel itself (the same as with any issue here).

Today I am starting on the final part of my iFellows experience which is the trip to Israel. The stipend doesn’t totally cover my expenses, but it makes it much more affordable. Since I’ve never done extended Jewish study in a traditional way (like in a yeshiva, as opposed to an academic institution) and since I’ve been hearing for years about Pardes which offers that type of study in English in Jerusalem, I’m headed there right now. As a final component of my iFellows requirements, I’ll be documenting on this blog my experience.

Oh, and one more benefit of iFellows: after flying to Chicago three times I’ve learned a few things about flying. Like, a shirt with pockets is really helpful when stuck in coach and not able to reach your bag. And that TSA PreCheck is totally worth it.

Blogging from the bar in Heathrow on my way to Israel!