A very Positive Day at U. Md’s “Day of Jewish Learning”

Regular readers know that I attend a fair number of lectures and presentations. I enjoy them, and at least I think I usually learn a little something. But my patience to sit is limited, so I rarely attend events where I have to sit still for more than an hour or two. I did, though, on Sunday, when I drove to the University of Maryland (a different world, but only about 10 miles away), and attended a day called “Routes: A Day of Jewish Learning”.

It opened at 10 a.m., and ended at 5. There were to be approximately 70 different presentations – 7 hourly sessions, with about ten choices for each. I assumed that I could find at least a few sessions that would interest me, and that, if it were a good day, I might stay until, say, 2 p.m.

In fact, I attended six sessions and found each of them (OK, with one exception) fascinated me.

Here is a brief description of each of the sessions I attended:

1. Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg on “The Human Being in the Image of God: an Exploration of Judaism’s Fundamental Principle”. An extremely well respected Orthodox rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Greenberg described “the image of God” not as an anthropomorphic concept, but to show that each individual is “unique”, “equal”, and “of infinite value”, and that the principles of human society should be based on this value, which is central of Judaism.

2. Naomi Paiss of the New Israel Fund, speaking on “The politics of gender exclusion in Israel”. Paiss is the the Director of Communications for the NIF. Her presentation, extremely well supported by a Power Point and video presentation, was very well constructed. She discussed all of the ways that some of the ultra-orthodox (Haredi) communities in Israel are acting in violation of Israeli law and court decisions on gender equality, and how the Israeli government has not been able to (or willing to) take a strong stance against this very disturbing tendency. She did not even mention the question of women praying at the Western Wall, which has been a flashpoint for some time now, but discussed segregated buses, segregated streets in some neighborhoods, signs that women should not get too close to synagogues, the destruction of billboards in Jerusalem which have photos of women (irrespective of the women’s dress), and the bizarre utterances of some rabbinic figures who have told male members of the Israel Defense Forces to walk out of any session where a woman might sing, even if they have to walk into enemy fire and be killed. The session was signed for the deaf – the signer was not Jewish and was not a close follower of Israeli affairs. She was absolutely shocked that such things were going on.

3. Hebrew University Professor Israel Bartal (spending this year at Rutgers) talking about the shtetl (the eastern European communities with heavy Jewish populations prior to the Holocaust). His thesis is that the shtetl “of memory” is not the shtetl “of history”; he has been studying eastern European Jewish Life for over forty years. He read excerpts from the literary writings of Mendele Mocher Sforim, I.L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem (three of the best known Yiddish language writers of the 19th and early 20th century) – where they described shtetls as being virtually exclusively Jewish, overwhelmingly poor, isolated, unplanned and falling apart. He then read some memoirs (including those of two of these authors) and showed the difference in the non-fiction descriptions. He claimed that there were virtually no shtetls without sizable non-Jewish communities and interchange between the two religious groupings, that no shtetls were as isolated as claimed, and that in fact, they were quite well planned as urban communities, by the planners hired by the nobles on whose estates the shtetls were first developed. The Yiddish authors, he said, were primarily influence by the Haskalah, or modernization movement, which was so strong in eastern Europe a hundred years ago, and that the description of shtetl life as a backwards existence fit into the socio-political goals of the authors.

4. Maryland Hillel Rabbi Ari Israel spoke on the 16th century Jewish mysticism of Safed (Sfad) and its influence in later years, concentrating on Rabbi Isaac Luria. His influence went in many directions. For one, his thinking formed the spiritual base for Shabbatai Zvi, who proclaimed himself to be the Messiah in the 18th century and turned the Jewish world upside down until, under pressure from the Ottoman sultan, he declared himself a Muslim. More importantly for today, Luria’s thinking has brought about the entire kabbalat Shabbat service, where the “Sabbath Bride” is welcomed. Luria, according to Israel, created this service not to honor the Sabbath (which was already being honored), but to prepare the world for redemption and the arrival of the Messiah, but that the service has been changed over the years to focus exclusively on the Sabbath. Another of Luria’s innovation was the concept of tikkun olam, or repair of the world, – again to bring about the arrival of the Messiah. Tikkun olam is talked about all the time today, as an end in itself, but again not as a precursor to redemption. I can’t say I know enough to say that Ari Israel’s description of the Lurianic influence is accurate – but it certainly was eye opening.

5. I heard David Bernstein, head of the “David Project” (no relationship), speak on “A Burning Campus: Re-thnking Israel Advocacy on American Colleges and Universities”. This was the only presentation that I frankly was a bit disappointed in. Bernstein’s position seems to be that the vocal anti-Israel forces on campus are a problem, but not THE problem. THE problem, he says, is indifference on the part of so many students. So he spoke about changing emphasis, from counter-attack to education. Interesting, but I wish there had been a little more specificity in the presentation.

6. The final presentation, by National Gallery of Art curator Liz Diamant, was an historical tour through Haggadah illustration, from the 13th century Catalonia Haggadah (from Barcelona) through the “Golden Haggadah”, the Sarajevo Haggadah and many others, through the more modern Moss and Szyk Haggadahs. Concentrating on drawings of the Four Sons, Diamant led a fascinating hour long discussion.

I didn’t stay for the 4 p.m. session (to be honest, I wanted to get home and watch the Caps game), but the day was a complete success – and I wish I could have attended many of the other sessions, led by such speakers as political activists Stuart Eisenstat and David Makovsky, Theater J artistic director Ari Roth,good friend Esther Safran Foer, Maryland professors Yoram Peri and Charles Manekin, Ambassador Richard Schifter, Norman Shore and others. Maybe next year.

One thought on “A very Positive Day at U. Md’s “Day of Jewish Learning”

  1. Hi Arthur,

    1. Many years ago, while teaching a summer course in Judaism (I’ve done that, too), I realized what the other Greenberg (but no relation) taught — that the heart of Judaism’s moral reference to humankind is the fact that we are created in the image of God. The Hebrew word, “tzelem,” is one of those “how do I translate this?” words, since, it I’m not mistaken, it’s only used in the context of “tzelem Elohim,” image of God.
    2. Solomon Schechter wrote a rather amazing essay on Tzfat and its mystics. A superb read and a tour de force of history-writing. It used to be out in paperback in a collected works of Schechter. I recommend it highly.

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