An Interview with Rabbi Shai Held

Rabbi Shai Held is Co-Founder, Rosh Yeshiva, and Chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar. Before that, he served for six years as Scholar-in-Residence at Kehilat Hadar in New York City, and taught both theology and Halakha at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Shai has a PhD from Harvard University with a dissertation on A J Heschel; his main academic interests are in modern thought and Religious Zionism. His canon of authors he admires consists of Rabbis Reines, Kook, Unterman, Reines, Heschel, Soloveitchik, Hartman, and Greenberg.

Two weeks ago, he penned the following op-ed advocating a humanistic religious Zionism based on Rabbis Unna and Kook and that the Torah has humanistic and non-humanistic interpretations. It seems to encapsulate his views.

Speaking in 1945, Orthodox Zionist leader Moshe Unna made an impassioned case for what he called “Jewish humanism.” Unna was calling not for humanism in the sense of putting human beings rather than God at the center of the universe – a view no religious thinker could embrace – but rather humanism in the sense of an uncompromising commitment to universal human well-being and mutual responsibility. Humanistic ideals, Unna emphasized, are inherently universalistic; they are, he said, “moral and cultural values that generate a commitment to the world and to humanity.”

Unna concluded his talk with a courageous declaration:…”It is crucial to emphasize the word ‘humanism.’ It is not enough simply to say ‘according to the Torah,’ because from the Torah many different things can be learned. ‘The Torah has 70 faces,’ and one can even learn from it the obligation to commit acts of terrorism … The word ‘humanism,’ therefore, comes to explain and clarify which values from among those values found in our literature we seek to internalize in our educational system.” What Unna was saying is that we cannot pretend to derive our values from a simple, straightforward reading of Torah, since Torah contains multitudes, and can be read as advocating universal humanism, on the one hand, and radically particularistic chauvinism, on the other

The world is not divided between those who read selectively and those who don’t. It is more accurate to say that the real division is between those who acknowledge that they read selectively, and those who do not – or who, given their assumptions, simply cannot. Read the Rest Here.

Rabbi Held also composed the widely circulated prayer after the Asian Tsunami

Ruler of Creation, Master of the world:
Have mercy on all those who are suffering from the raging waters and the storming waves. Have compassion on Your creatures –
Look, O Lord, and see their distress; Listen, God, and hear their cries.
Strengthen the hands of those who would bring relief, comfort the mourners, Heal, please, the wounded.
Grant us wisdom and discernment to know our obligations,
and open our hearts so that we may extend our hands to the devastated.
Bless us so that we may walk in Your ways,
“compassionate ones, children of compassionate ones.”
Grant us the will and the wisdom to prevent further disaster and death;
Prevent plague from descending upon Your earth, and fulfill Your words,
“Never again shall there be another flood to destroy the earth.”
Amen. So may it be your will.

From my outside perspective, it seems Held finds the Conservative movement unable to support a text-based beit midrash culture, but finds much of contemporary Orthodoxy overly dogmatic and belligerent. I asked him a few questions to clarify his position and received the following interview below. I wanted him to speak about his views of Rabbinic authority, but he demurred, wanting to avoid what he considers overheated polemics in which he thinks no one is persuaded by positions they don’t already agree with. Held reflects the part of Jewish community that wants an halakhic alternative to the perceived negative image of Orthodoxy (as he portrayed in his article on Rav Unna,) a community that Held thinks is predominately hermeneutically closed and increasingly oblivious to moral challenges. He did not want to discuss the topics directly, hence the broader discussion below. Questions to Rabbi Held should be kept polite and educated.

1) People are always asking about the denomination affiliation of Hadar, can you help clarify it for us?

To be honest, I find questions about denominational affiliation unhelpful and unnecessarily confining. I am often reminded of something Professor Heschel one said. Asked whether he considered himself Orthodox or Conservative, he replied: “I am not a noun in search of an adjective.” Now, we know there are many people for whom denominations are extremely important and even constitutive of their identity, and we respect that– but that is not who and what we are. We are a community and an institution that is oriented around Torah and Mitzvot and trying to discern what it is that God wants from us, as Jews and as human beings. We are proud to have students who come from a range of backgrounds who have nonetheless found their way to a shared vision and language of a committed, practicing Jewish life in the contemporary world.

I am not interested in being boxed into some small sliver “between Conservative and Orthodox.” I am not sure it’s helpful in this day and age to cut up the Jewish world that way, and I don’t want to live in some small ideological enclave, hermetically sealed from the passions and insights of the rest of the Jewish world. I am not sectarian: I want to speak to, and learn from, a broader swath of the Jewish world.

By the way, it’s interesting to note that among students at Hadar who identify with a denomination, more think of themselves as Orthodox than as anything else.

The mode of learning we are committed to at Hadar means believing both that Torah is Divine and that there is also wisdom and insight to be gained in and from the broader world. It is a mode of learning and of being religious that does not ask us to check either our minds or our moral intuitions at the door, and that learns from people rather than just seeking to convert or be mekarev them. It’s extremely important to us to take hold of Torah in such a way that I am always open to the possibility of learning from the person in front of me, and to revising my understandings in light of that encounter. In our world, there are a whole array of questions– theological, ethical, and Halakhic– that are open-ended, complex, and elusive; we are far more interested in complexity than in wedge issues and litmus tests. God is far greater and more expansive than the self-appointed arbiters of authenticity usually assume.

Also, I’m really not sure I know what the words Orthodox and Conservative mean in this day and age. Does Orthodox refer to Satmar or to Zvi Yehudah? Does it refer to the Bratzlav of Shuvu Banim, the legal formalism of R. Bleich or the dynamic Halakha in the tradition of Rav Uziel and Rav Hayyim David Halevy, the Misnagdic yeshiva world of Rav Eliyashiv or the post-modern neo-Hasidus of Rav Shagar? How much does this catch-all word “Orthodox” really tell us?

2) Explain your vision of Mechon Hadar.
First, we wanted to create an institution of learning that is truly intellectually open, that takes secular culture and Western philosophy and academic Jewish studies seriously, but never forgets that it is, first and last, a religious institution, a Mekom Torah, that teaches the Divine Torah. Second, we wanted to build a community that is unapologetically egalitarian, that is committed to women and men participating equally in both Torah and Tefillah, but without thereby diluting religious passion. Egalitarianism as an authentic and unabashed understanding of what it means to take Tzelem Elohim seriously in the modern world. Third, we wanted to build a place of learning that taught and embodied the notion that the culmination of the religious life is the commitment to hesed– Vehalakhta BiDerakhav as a commitment both to concrete actions (The Gemara in Sotah) and to the cultivation of virtue (Midrash Sifre Devarim). (That’s why every student who is at the yeshiva for longer than a week becomes a volunteer at the local senior citizens’ home– not as an extracurricular activity of some sort, but as one of the culminating features of what it means to learn Torah.)

3. What has your study of Heschel taught you?

I have tremendous reverence for him, and see it as an enormous privilege to have spent years studying one of the true giants of the spirit. I’ll mention just a few ways he’s impacted me here:
1) Heschel’s genius, in my view, is that he sought to couple Halevi’s personalism with Rambam’s universalism– he spoke of a God who cares, who is deeply personal, and/but who loves all of humanity and not just the Jewish people. For Rambam, the central event in Jewish theology is creation; worshipping the God of creation enables Rambam to be a universalist of sorts. R. Yehudah Halevi, in contrast, worships the God of history, Exodus and Sinai. The strength of this approach is that Halevi maintains a God who cares, who is involved in human life, and who can be engaged personally; the strength of Rambam is his universalism. I use the Rambam-Halevi dichotomy not so much as a historical claim, but more as a heuristic one similar to the distinction Rabbi David Hartman has drawn again and again over the years.

2) Another important lesson I learned from Heschel– and it has been extremely important to me from the time I was in yeshiva until the present day– is the impassioned rejection of what he famously termed “pan-Halakhism,” the idea that Judaism simply is Halakha. Heschel never tired of showing that such an approach is both spiritually deadening and false to the sources of Jewish tradition. One who claims to have Halakha but not Aggada in fact has neither. Religious behaviorism (think of Leibowitz, for example) is a falsification of Torah and its preoccupation with the duties of the heart, the cultivation of virtue, and the importance of theology and (traditionally) metaphysics.

3) Heschel’s critique of modernity (and here there are obvious echoes of Heidegger) is essentially that modern people are focused on what he calls “expediency,” or using the world for our own ends. Torah, in contrast, asks us not just to manipulate but also to appreciate; the best antidote to a culture of expediency is a return to wonder. For Heschel, then, Torah’s preoccupation with wonder is not an esthetic concern, but a radically ethical one– unless we can overcome our propensity to turn everything (and everyone) into a tool for our own benefit, we will eventually bring the world to total destruction and devastation. The animating principle of Jewish ethics and spirituality is the quest for self-transcendence– that is, the realization that I am not the center of the universe, and that “something is asked of us.” One of the primary and paradoxical meanings of self-transcendence, by the way, is that we find the meaning of our lives by getting over ourselves; I find my own purpose by dedicating myself to a purpose that is far greater and more enduring than myself.

4. How has the thought of Rav Soloveitchik influenced your thought?

R. Soloveitchik’s preoccupation with human agency and creativity has been enormously influential for me; his utter rejection of quietism and passivity helped me see the Jewish tradition and the life of faith in new and deeper ways. The notion that we are called upon to be authors of our own destiny, and that we have a distinct purpose assigned to us by God. In addition, the notion of being an agent, being active and rejecting passivity, gave me incredibly inspiring theological language in which to understand Zionism, without the messianic overlay that has led to such theological, political, and moral difficulty.

I find R. Soloveitchik’s idea of prayer as self-redemption masterful– first, he shifts the center of gravity away from “what will God do in response to my prayer”” to “what will ideally happen to me in the very act of praying before God?” And second, he introduces the extremely powerful and challenging notion that speech equals dignity– and even more radically, that it equals redemption (ge’ulat hayahid). It’s also an amazing display of hermeneutical virtuosity– weaving an extremely compelling theological idea out of an ostensibly straightforward Halakhic source (the obligation lismokh geulah litefilah).

5. Besides Heschel and Soloveitchik, which Jewish thinkers influenced you?

R. Yitz Greenberg’s insistence that we take the infinite dignity of every human being seriously and that we bring this Torah with us as we stare at a broken and pain-ridden world is something I carry with me every day of my life– it’s part of what I mean when I talk about refusing to purchase our faith by shutting our eyes to the world. Adderabba, what it means to have faith is to live with the chasm between what Judaism teaches– the infinite value of every human being, and reality as we face it– life is cheap and human beings are expendable. Living with that tension is at the very heart of a life of authentic faith.

Martin Buber in many ways anticipates and critiques the narcissism of a great deal of contemporary spirituality. This is part of what he means when he emphasizes “encounter” rather than “experience”– whereas the former is about me and an other, the latter is ultimately only about me and my own inner world. The way I like to describe this is that much of the time in human relationships there is no me and you, there is only “me and the way you make me feel.” In that case, I may flatter myself that I am having deep spiritual experiences, but in fact I am only pleasuring myself (see Buber’s “Religion as Presence” lectures). In some ways, Rav Amital’s critique of some aspects of neo-Hasidism is an obvious parallel.

6. Which Non-Jewish thinkers influenced you?

My decades-long engagement with Christian theology has taught how important it is for theology to talk and be about love. To be clear: it is not because this is a Christian importation into Judaism, but because it lies at the very heart of Torah itself, and yet somehow (American?) Jews have lost the ability to talk about it, and presumably to feel it. The daily liturgy is fundamentally about a claim that God loves us and has therefore given us Torah (Ahavah Rabbah Ahavtanu) and that we are then called upon to reciprocate that love (VeAhavta). I like to think of Torah as about three loves– love of God, love of neighbor, and love of the stranger. We need to become far less abashed about internalizing and teaching this language. After all, Rabbi Akiva tells us straight out that “God loves you” (Haviv Adam Shenivra Betzelem).

One enduring interest is the work of the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, who insists that there is no secular pre-religious reality (no ungraced nature), but that human beings are always already oriented towards the transcendent. There are really interesting parallels in this regard between his thought and Heschel’s.

I have also been deeply influenced by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, whose clarity about mindfulness and what it entails has been an enormous challenge and comfort to me in my own life, and whose words have also shaped my understanding of what it means to be a teacher and a pastor. His words have also enabled me to see things in Jewish sources, especially but not exclusively Hasidic ones, that I had missed before (the extent of Rebbe Nachman’s emphasis on kindness to oneself, for example).

7. What are your thoughts on Pluralism?
The more I studied Christian theology over the years, the more I took it seriously, the harder I realized pluralistic theology really is. I want to emphasize that I am opposed to cheap and easily purchased versions of pluralism that effectively say that all religions are at bottom the same. There is a sad propensity among many liberal thinkers ironically to flatten and efface difference in the name of celebrating it. I say this not out of disrespect for Christianity, but on the contrary, out of deep respect for it: I want to take theological and metaphysical claims seriously rather than simply eliding them.

To my mind, the deepest problem with the pluralism of thinkers such as John Hick is the presumption that he has a “view from nowhere” (his, you might say, is a “pluralism from nowhere”), that he can stand outside and above all particular religious traditions and point to the universal core they all purportedly share. I share most contemporary philosophers’ suspicion of the plausibility of such a view. More, as a religious person, I’m more interested in what people can find ways to embrace while standing inside of their own religious traditions, rather than presuming to transcend them. I worry about a pluralism that ends up making a claim virtually no actual believer would recognize, let alone embrace.

9 responses to “An Interview with Rabbi Shai Held

  1. Nice piece that provides a lot of food for thought. Thank you for posting this.

  2. One reason I find Rabbi Held’s ideas so appealing is that the approach is study, passing what they are calling in finance, stress tests. I can find Rabbi Heschel’s prose too rapturous for my taste, I can come from a Reform or Charedi background, I can even prefer a shtibel with a kidush club, and the structure, the general schema remains stable. The basic idea as I understand it involves three features… a religious Jewish culture centered on traditional texts read and interpreted in a modern open way, an ideal of universal human well being and mutual responsibility, and a sense of possibility and a commitment to moral progress, whether through chesed, egalitarianism, political action, etc. Unlike Arthur Green’s approach that very much hangs on the value of kabbalah and chasidus, the Hadar derech has room for analytical halachic and philosophical reasoning. It is more of a project than an accomplished closed system, which for me is a big plus. It can accommodate the past of psychoanalysis and Continental philosophy, and is flexible enough to incorporate at least some of the ideas yet to come, so that Jewish learning and thinking always remains new and alive.

    My problem is similar to Zizek’s complaint about modern sexuality. He said somewhat jokingly that the internalized command of having an active, hedonistic, sexual life is even more difficult than following the old rules of Puritan repression. Looking how Rabbi Held dots the i’s and crosses the t’s, I feel I would end up with an even more repressive and demanding superego than under the old dogmatic regime. It is way too serious, too heavy, too perfect. Where is neginah and humor and a light handed approach to life? Where is ironic distance and cynical wisdom? Where is gossip and being bitchy? If we are going to talk of transformations of narcissism, we must include such possibilities as well. Being concerned with the Other because both Levinas and a midrash agree is just moralizing. Avodah is not just top down beating yourself up in ever more complex ways. It is allowing each of us to have a sense of fun and pleasure in being alive and very imperfect. There are many strategies of giving up on narcissistic grandiosity. Being Jewishly perfect is as such self defeating. It makes one ‘hold from oneself’ even more. Vtzarich iyun…

  3. I like how R Held gave us the inner workings of his thought process, especially the pieces on how he reads Heschel.
    Would love to hear more discussion of aesthetics, which seems irreducible, on the one hand. And then the class dynamics and economic underpinnings of the thing on the other. But this is a much better start to discussing Hadar than previous attempts.

  4. >Also, I’m really not sure I know what the words Orthodox and Conservative mean in this day and age. Does Orthodox refer to Satmar or to Zvi Yehudah? Does it refer to the Bratzlav of Shuvu Banim, the legal formalism of R. Bleich or the dynamic Halakha in the tradition of Rav Uziel and Rav Hayyim David Halevy, the Misnagdic yeshiva world of Rav Eliyashiv or the post-modern neo-Hasidus of Rav Shagar?

    There are those that understand denomination in ideological terms, and those who understand denomination in communal terms. There are surely other ways of understanding denominational divides. My point is that even if there is very little ideological sense in dividing Orthodox and Conservative (and, come to think of it, surely there is!) it is sensible to talk about two very different communities. Orthodox communities have certain features, strengths and flaws, and so do Conservative communities.

    By seeing everything in ideological terms, I wonder if Hadar lacks the resources to truly build a community for those who don’t put matters of intellect first. It’s one thing to tell Ivy League grads that they should free themselves of their communal, ideological assumptions. It’s quite another to build a community populated by bankers, construction workers and professors.

  5. I love this dialogue and admire R’ Shai’s spirit and intellect, but share the reservations the above commenter expresses regarding the relevance of Hadar for the wider world. Would that my community, here in Baltimore, be able to sustain such a lofty-yet-engaged approach. Outside New York things are different.

  6. Interesting juxtaposition with the previous piece on “Asking the Big Questions today on a college campus”. Hadar and JLF have some commonality in promoting Jewish Literacy – but, seem to diverge in both style and application.

    Perhaps both approaches are needed, Hadar for introverts; JLF for extroverts???

  7. Is Hadar’s vision lived out in any Jewish community? Who turns to Mechon Hadar for definitive halachic, moral, and religious guidance? I love Hadar and I have tremendous admiration for Rabbi Held, and Rabbis Tucker and Kaunfer, but I have a sinking feeling that they’re the Hartman Institute, Part II – a wonderful collection of scholars and thinkers who are simply unable to gain traction within the broader laity.

    • Maybe there is no broader “laity.” Hadar is its own community, Hartman has spawned communities and is made up of scholars who belong to different communities. Rejecting denominationalism is as much about rejecting a label as acknowledging that you are not going to liberalize Orthodoxy or revive Conservatism and that setting that up as a goal is a waste of energy. Do your own thing and if people import some of your ideas into their communities than good. If not, then it’s not your failure because that wasn’t the impossible goal that you set out for yourself.

      People aren’t just sick of denominations, they are sick of having to deal with people with whom they share the same denomination but have nothing to talk about. The goal, to appropriate the the quip, is to daven with the people you can talk to, and talk to the people you daven with, because talking (in other words, fostering a community) IS as important as davening.

  8. >I am not interested in being boxed into some small sliver “between Conservative and Orthodox.”

    At the first LimmudNY in ’05, Rabbi Held gave a lecture comparing Rahner’s Anonymous Christianity to Rav Kook’s view of secular Zionists in Israel, and the similarity of the criticism that both figure’s ideas received. During the Q&A, he and Rabbi Steve Greenberg (in the audience) shared a light-hearted exchange which basically went as follows:
    SG: …well, that’s because you’re actually an Orthodox Jew in a Conservative body.
    ShH: And you’re a Conservative Jew in an Orthodox body!

    Well, I guess that settles it.

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