The first time I heard of Machon Hadar was when the book Empowered Judaism by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer came out in 2010. The book was based on an obvious question…. Obvious to anyone with a strong Jewish background in authentic Jewish practice and schooled to study Jewish texts in the original Hebrew and Aramaic. Obvious to such a literate Jew (or someone who aspires to same) who also subscribes to gender equality, is wise to the fact that non-Jews are not only the children of God but also capable of channeling the deepest spiritual truths, and believes that a rejection of the scientific knowledge garnered from the intellect that God has bestowed on humanity is a rejection of God Herself. The question is not profound it is pedestrian:
Why is it that when I walk into an Orthodox house of worship, that even though I must put aside MY Judaism with many of my beliefs and standards, I feel as though I am exposed to an authentic rendition of Jewish practice and learning. Why is it when I walk into my local Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist congregation whose ideologies more closely reflects my own, I am for the most part…. left without a charge?
The answers Kaufner provides are mostly programmatic and the book is well worth reading for anyone whose institutional Judaism is, by default, mostly nostalgic and who finds comfort in his or her local Chabad or visiting the Yeshiva or shul of their youth for a quick but hardly sustaining fix.
In a nutshell, Kaufner and his cohorts argue that the non-orthodox variations of Judaism have been backed into a catch-all, processed Judaism-Lite where they become the de facto address for less than literate remnants of the Tribe. These non-Orthodox varieties were created by educated and progressive scholars and thought-leaders but were forced to dumb-down their content, context and delivery to reach the lowest common denominator. If your local Conservative Synagogue were an opera house it would perform Aida in English, calling out page numbers and offering prompts as to when audience members should applaud, be seated and remain quiet.
Independent minyanim were organically created prayer groups, sans Rabbinic and other adult supervision, which started in American college and graduate schools. They were launched by the best and brightest graduates of Hebrew Day Schools including Solomon Schechter schools. These young adults found each other and created spaces and times to pray and study while they pursued their higher educations. Many of the leaders were children of Conservative Rabbis or Judaic and Ancient Near Eastern studies academics. The three founders of Machon Hadar all met at Harvard (no one’s perfect). Kaufner, the son of a Conservative Rabbi, Ethan Tucker the son of renowned Conservative Rabbi Gordon Tucker (and Hadassah Lieberman), and Shai Held, the son of Moshe Held, a world renowned scholar in Ugaritic and Akkadian that I studied under at Columbia, back in the day. These guys do not look over their shoulder for approval and acceptance as many Conservative Rabbis do. They have a refreshing sense of entitlement necessary, I would venture, to reclaim Judaism on their own terms.[i]
It took me six years to answer an ad for an Executive Week-long Yeshiva at Machon Hadar which rents space a whopping 3 blocks from my NY apartment….. kinda like the girl next door…
Family members and friends routinely go on yoga retreats or to a spa, I thought, why shouldn’t I go back to yeshiva…
What appealed to me was that there was a placement exam for those claiming to be Talmudists. This might be the real deal, I thought. I received a call with an e-mail containing a link to a Talmudic text from Rabbi Miriam-Simma Walfish, Yeshivat Hadar Faculty. I was given no context for the text and stumbled my way through, making sure that my mistakes sounded like learned mistranslations.[ii] Rabbi Miriam was very understanding and granted me advanced placement…. This was going to be fun!
For the next week I spent every morning in a study hall that looked identical to the one of my youth, and was populated by the brightest, cheerful, mostly Ivy League college students. These young scholars had interrupted their higher degrees in Physics, English Lit, Sociology, Pre-Law and Pre-Med to rigorously study Jewish texts as Hadar Fellows for the summer. There were about 100 of them and 40 of us (older) “Executives”.
We started every morning with the morning service, donning Talit and Tefilin and using a nusach guaranteed not to offend anyone’s religious and egalitarian sensibilities.[iii] Dare I mention that we were men and women? This new generation of Fellows were as natural and comfortable with co-educating and cross-davening as fish in water. For me, it was as if the end of days had arrived (did I just say that?)
After breakfast we broke up into groups based on our proficiency. I was paired with two lawyers who had been attending the week-long summer yeshiva for a few years. We were given original Aramaic Talmudic texts to prepare. I felt the rust of bitul Torah and the deficit of a lack of formal schooling in Aramaic diction (not part of the curriculum at the traditional Yeshivot I had attended). We spent the mornings of the entire week analyzing the Talmud’s understanding of damages to be paid for secondary and arguably, unrelated pain and/or incapacitation caused by someone who inflicted a wound on another. Most of the Talmudic discussion was based on the interpretation of two either emphatic or spurious words in the Biblical text.
if he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit; only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be healed, surely healed. (Exodus 21:19)
אִם-יָקוּם וְהִתְהַלֵּךְ בַּחוּץ, עַל-מִשְׁעַנְתּוֹ–וְנִקָּה הַמַּכֶּה: רַק שִׁבְתּוֹ יִתֵּן, וְרַפֹּא יְרַפֵּא
Very technical, very challenging and very engrossing. After our hour of preparation, we were skillfully lead through the texts by our Rebbe, Rabbi Aviva Richman.
Her ability to slice and dice, decipher and explicate the conflicting texts was better than any Talmud shiur I have been privileged to attend…. seriously. Interestingly and uncharacteristically, I enjoyed her direction more with regard to the legal texts and less when she introduced more spiritual or theological elements to the discussion. With a smile, she tagged me as the class cynic and I was happy to oblige.
In the afternoon sessions, we broke away from the Fellows and joined together, combining all levels of proficiency for break-out sessions led by the scholars of Hadar and some invited guests. These were not scholars giving well-rehearsed stump speeches, taught many times before but rather active learners sharing with us subjects they were themselves struggling with and discovering. Shai Held spent an hour comparing and contrasting the secular philosopher Martin Buber with the controversial halachic behaviorist Yeshayahu Leibowitz. Listen here. Ethan Tucker shared with us his discovery of Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasnera, known as the Dor Revi’i, who was a great grandson of the anti-enlightenment and anti-Zionist haredi scion; the Hatam Sofer. The Dor Revi’I was not only one of the first haredi Zionists but, more to the point, embraced the evolved moral/asthetic sensibilities of the Enlightenment over the accepted ethical standards of the Torah world. See here. Jason Rubenstein shared with us representative comical aggadic texts regarding the afterlife and discussed why the Rabbis took so flippantly a subject which was the stock and trade if not the ultimate payout of other competing religions such as Christianity. One of the most interesting sessions was on medical ethics and lead by guest scholars Nancy Dubler, a world renowned expert in medical ethics and her student/colleague R. Edward Reichman who (amongst other insights) shared the story of the martyrdom of Haninah ben Teradion as Talmudic case law supporting the difference between withholding (permitted according to halakha) and withdrawing (not permitted) life-sustaining treatment. [iv]
We ended every day with dinner including further discussion of the day’s learning and getting to know our fellow travelers. A week of these day-long sessions was reminiscent of the swimming in the sea of Torah of my youth. Machon Hadar’s leadership is convinced that this type of multi-day holistic deep-dive or immersive experience will be key for generating the kind of intensity required to navigate today’s world Jewishly.
My fellow executive travelers were of every flavor and level of learning and each added to the experience and to my enthusiasm for the potential of the Machon Hadar model. There was a reform Rabbi from Florida and the wife of an American diplomat who has advised every administration in Middle Eastern affairs for the last 30 years. Both of my study partners were lawyers, and one was actually pursuing a graduate degree at JTS. There was even a Professor of Old Testament, born Jewish but raised and practicing as a Christian… who I have continued to correspond with and who deserves special mention. Dr. J. Richard Middleton caught my attention on day one. Those of you who know me, know of my aversion to Jewish Messianism, at least now that we have returned to Zion. I had not planned on sporting my LoBa kippah at the Machon since I didn’t expect to find any Na Nach’s or Chabadniks wearing their religion on their heads either. You can imagine my surprise when I first spotted Richard wearing a “long live the King Messiah” Chabad yarmulke… only to learn that he was truly a Messianic Jew! Born biologically Jewish but raised in Jamaica as a Christian and now an Old Testament Scholar Richard is currently working on the theology of lament as expressed in Abraham and Job (see here). Richard had corresponded with Shai Held who had suggested he join our group for the week. Richard wrote up his impressions on his blog. When Richard told one of his Jewish relatives that he was going to Yeshiva she gave him the kippah. The perfect expression of form and function, media and message. The Rebbe must be smiling in his Ohel.
Needless to say, I brought my LoBa Kippah to class and Richard and I struck our pose. Wouldn’t that all kippot could get along so well..
I’m looking forward to learning more at Machon Hadar…. let me know if you want to join me….
[i] Machon Hadar represents a best-case example of what Scott Shay in his book Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry argues has been the historic and de facto role of Conservative Judaism and should rather be it’s mission; to serve as fertile soil and a Petri dish for creativity and break-away mini-movements such as Reconstructionism, Havura Judaism and Hard. See chapter X, Reimagining the Conservative movement.
[ii] If you’re interested, here’s the text I was shown:
חולין ומשמשיהן פטורין מן הסכה. אוכלין ושותין עראי חוץ לסכה
And after I stumbled through this… then
[iii] See Guidelines and Information about Davening at Mechon Hadar which we received before the week at the yeshiva: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B9fRO_dfXpziZWk2NzB0YUpnUjlqM2ZXNWItczBSc0hYMU4w/view
[iv] from “Open then thy mouth, that the fire may enter and the sooner put an end to thy sufferings,” advised his pupils. But Haninah replied, “It is best that He who hath given the soul should also take it away: no man may hasten his death.” (withdrawing) Thereupon the executioner removed the wool and fanned the flame, thus accelerating the end, and then himself plunged into the flames and tey both went to heaven (Avodah Zarah 17b) … see: R. Zalan Nehemia Goldberg. In the fall of 1978, R. Goldberg published his opinion in Moriah one of Israel’s leading halachic journals where he maintains that, under specific guidelines, removing a ventilator from a patient who is a terefa would not constitute homicide. The obligation to “heal” or “save” this patient’s life would not apply since the efforts would be futile, and, of critical importance, “we have no obligation to save one’s life where he prefers death to life.” R. Goldberg cites two sources to support his contention that we have no obligation to save this patient’s life against his wishes. R. Hanna ben Teradyon, the great martyr (Avoda Zara 18a), was wrapped in a Torah scroll and put to death by fire. His executioner placed tufts of wool soaked in water on his chest in order to prolong his suffering. Ultimately, R. Hanina permitted his executioner to raise the flame and remove the wool in order to hasten his death. Since R. Hana acquiesced to the hastening of his death, R. Goldberg infers that there is no obligation to prolong a life of suffering in the face of impending death. See here p 52