The Samuel Bronfman Foundation believes that Jewish Renaissance is grounded in Jewish learning. The Foundation sponsors weekly Jewish enrichment sessions for our staff and colleagues to engage in meaningful Jewish text study and celebrations. We value the opportunity to share our knowledge and experiences with the community, and invite you to read about the topics and key questions of our recent sessions.
Controversy, Collegiality and Context
Facilitated by Elana Stein Hain
When is disagreement healthy? And when does it lead to toxic results? In this session we studied the famed rabbinic story of the Oven of Akhnai as you have never studied it before. We read two different versions of the story - one in the Jerusalem Talmud, the other in the Babylonian Talmud - and discussed what the stories have to say about these issues.
- Why are these two stories different? What is each story about?
- Who is the hero in each story? Who is the villain?
- What is the argument really about?
Feminist Heroine or Just Another Pretty Face?
Queen Esther is often held up as the most powerful of Jewish women for having become a queen who saved the Jews. But what were her tools in becoming queen? How did she acquire the influence needed to save the Jewish people? In this session we looked at some of the Biblical and Rabbinic sources on Queen Esther, and attempted to understand if and how Esther can be a positive role model for us today.
- What tools were at a woman's disposal at the time of the Bible, and are these tools positive or negative?
- Was Esther an obedient pawn in a larger play, or was she the heroine we have come to know over the ages?
Facilitated by Simon Klarfeld
There is an old, mystical tradition of inviting into your Sukkah the "greats" from our tradition, otherwise known as the Ushpizin. Held during the week of Chol Hamoed of Sukkot, this session explored the tradition of Ushpizin. In this session we explored who we may want to invite into our sukkot today and the values we learn from those people.
- What makes someone a "great" in modern tradition?
- How we can build community based on collective memory and shared values?
- How can we use the Ushpizin as inspiration for those shared values?
Rambam: The Laws of Torah Study
Facilitated by Rabbi Avi Weinstein
Study, particularly the study of Torah, has distinguished Jews throughout the ages. Maimonides has provocative things to say about what constitutes the study of Torah. Reflecting a world where it wasn't unusual for people to work three hours a day and study nine, he is the promoter of Torah study par excellence. In the Mishnah Torah, Maimonides explains that the commandment to study the Torah is above all other commandments and expands upon the following questions:
- Who is obligated to study Torah?
- How should Torah be taught?
- What is the proper relationship between a Rabbi and his students?
Rabbinic Anxiety Over Contradictions: The Case of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes
Facilitated by Elana Stein Hain
"And I praised joy…And regarding joy, what can it provide?!"
There have been many philosophical debates within famous Jewish wisdom literature over the writings of Kohelet. Focusing on the seeming contradictions within the text, the controversy surrounding its canonization as well as its use in other philosophical disciplines, we can draw insight into its important themes and conclusions.
- Why did the sages consider excluding Kohelet from the canonized Jewish texts?
- Is there a way to read Kohelet without contradictions?
- Is there a conclusion we can come to about how Kohelet views the world?
Havruta! Two are Better than One, But Not Any Simpler
Facilitated by Rabbi Mishael Zion
Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish, a teacher and a retired gladiator, were known to be the best "Havruta" in the Talmud ("Havruta" means "study partners" in Aramaic). Despite that, or because of it, their relationship ended in tragedy. A traditional mode of Jewish study, Havruta is being discovered by American Jewish organizations and changing the way we think not only about learning, but about working, creating and being. Through Talmudic stories and Jewish textual insights we'll strive to develop a theory of what makes two people into a successful "Havruta", and what we can learn from this mode of engagement for life, work and community.
- What makes a successful Havruta?
- Does a Havruta always consist of a teacher and a pupil, or can there ever be an equal partnership?
- How can we apply the friendship and failure of Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish to our own relationships?
Facilitated by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
Held the week before Rosh Hashanah, this session explores the story of Hagar and its connection to the New Year. The mother of Abraham's first child, Hagar is an enigmatic figure in the story of the two brothers. A close reading of her story, within the context of the morays and customs of the land of Israel in Abrahamic times, will offer insights into identity, justice and teshuvah that we can carry into the new year.
- Why do we read the story of Hagar on the first day of Rosh Hashanah? What lessons do we learn by putting it next to the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, which we read on the second day?
- How do we reconcile predetermined statements about character in the Torah with the possibility of repentance and growth?
- How does this story frame the values of mercy and justice? Which do we ask for on Rosh Hashanah?
Friendship in the Age of Facebook
Facilitated by Daniel Septimus
With the rise of Facebook, the very definition of the word “Friend” has changed. Friends are something we count and “friending” is a verb. But while Facebook may have helped us quantify our friends, it may have obscured the concept of friendship itself. What is friendship and why is it important? Rabbinic literature offers some unique takes on the purpose and nature of friendship. We will explore some fascinating rabbinic tales and teachings and contrast them with other models of friendship, while looking at contemporary sociological trends, as well.
- What do Jewish texts have to say about models of friendship?
- How do we define a friend? Why do we need friends?
- How do friendships differ from familial relationships?
- Are friendship and community the same thing?
Zionism and the Dream of the "New Jew"
Facilitated by Dr. Daniel Gordis
This session explored three classic Zionist poems: Bialik’s “The City of Slaughter,” Alterman’s “The Silver Platter,” and Shlonsky’s “Toil.” All three poets believed that Zionism would “heal” the broken Jew, and each seemed to have a different vision of what that would entail. The discussion asked its participants to contemplate whether the authors’ visions have been realized since the creation of a Jewish state, and what work remains left to be done.
- What is our image of the kind of Jew we hope will emerge in the 21st century? How does it compare with what each of these poets hoped for?
- Has Israel and Zionism been good for the substance and image of the Jew, or problematic? In what ways?
- If the purpose of Zionism was to create a new type of Jew, has Zionism been a success?
- Is American Jewish life also about creating a “new Jew”? Why? How?
The Ins and Outs of Judaism in the 21st Century
Facilitated by Rabbi Adina Lewittes
The boundaries of Jewish identity and practice have evolved throughout history in response to continually changing contexts in which Jews and Judaism existed. Demographics, politics, economics, ethics as well as science and technology have conspired in each era and place to influence the parameters of what was deemed authentic Judaism.
Today we stand in the midst of another such revolution, with Jewish identity and practice evolving before our very eyes. As the questions about “who is in and who is out?” and “what is in and what is out?” make for an increasingly diverse and complex Jewish landscape, we are poised for another great paradigm shift in how Judaism is defined and expressed.
- In today’s world, should Jewish identity be more a matter of one’s biology or one’s behavior?
- As part of our in- and out-reach efforts, how can we evolve not only a language of Jewish opportunity but also one of Jewish responsibility?
- Are there limits to inclusivity and diversity?
- What serves to bind the Jewish people in an increasingly fragmented and diverse Jewish world?
- What are the ways into Judaism for those on the outside? Do the number and kind of our gateways correspond to the many and varied identities and communities that comprise the Jewish world? Is there a place for secular conversion?
Jewish Peoplehood in the Thought of Mordecai M. Kaplan
Facilitated by Professor Eric Caplan
Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) was one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of the previous century. He devoted a great deal of his work to exploring the meaning and purpose of Jewish peoplehood. In this session, we examined Kaplan’s approach to Jewish peoplehood and explored the following questions:
- How does a group become a “people”?
- How is Jewish peoplehood sustained?
- What is the connection between Jewish peoplehood and Jewish religion?
- What does the Jewish people ‘owe’ individual Jews? What does a Jew ‘owe’ his/her people?
- What is the mission of the Jewish people? How do the materials of the tradition help Jews realize this calling?
Putting Your Light on the Line: Letting the Festival of Lights Illuminate Your Life's Purpose
Facilitated by Rabbi Jen Krause
Placing a Hanukkah menorah in the window, a practice detailed in Judaism's most ancient texts, often was a life-or-death decision. In fact, Hanukkah itself never would have come into being had a rag-tag group of men not summoned the clarity and girded themselves with the incisiveness to know precisely that for which they were willing to put their lives on the line. Even as thousands more American soldiers voluntarily go to risk life and limb in two theaters of live combat on behalf of a grateful nation, placing a Hanukkah menorah in the window no longer is a high-stakes proposition for the Jewish people.
Ideas to consider:
- Hanukkah is an opportunity for us all to challenge ourselves: to explore what we would fight for, as it is written in both the Oath of the United States Armed Services and in the Oath of U.S. Citizenship, "without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion."
- What does the meaning of lighting a Menorah hold for you as an individual?
Hachnasat Orchim: Constructing The Welcoming Tent
Facilitated by Rabbi Steve Greenberg
What is the classical mitzvah of welcoming in strangers? This class explored the Biblical, Talmudic and Medieval frames of this mitzvah in order to explore the larger question of welcome. Especially for an exclusive community that accepts in-marriage as a principle and prides itself on the strength of its inward ties, in what way might our contemporary challenges of inclusion be related to this religious duty?
- How do we accept the legitimacy of our addiction to familiarity and still construct a truly welcoming community?
- What are the symbolic, conceptual, and theological and educational challenges and opportunities of making a community of friends sill open in welcome to others?
What Does the Good Life Look Like? 'Walking in God's Ways,' and the Life of Hesed
Facilitated by Rabbi Shai Held
Five times the Book of Deuteronomy commands us not just to perform the Mitzvot, but also "to walk in God's ways." But strangely, it never tells us what this walking consists of-- what could it possibly mean to "walk in God's ways," or, in more philosophical language, to "imitate God" (imitatio dei)? This session explored two themes: 1) the idea that "walking in God's ways" consists of living a life of Hesed, or lovingkindess. In fact, for the Rabbis, and for Maimonides, the culmination of the spiritual life is achieving a new depth of kindness and compassion; 2) the idea, implicit in the Biblical and Rabbinic sources, that our goal is to live a life where our inward attitudes and our outward actions are in perfect sync, where we the "inner" and the "outer" are perfectly integrated.
- How do the Rabbis decide which of God's characteristics and actions should be emulated and which not?
- How do we create religious communities that keep their eye on the goal of cultivating Hesed?
- How does one cultivate integration of internal attitudes and external actions?
Beauty and the Bandit: A Talmudic Love Story
Facilitated by Sara Wolkenfeld Tillinger
This class introduced the personalities of two famous Talmudic rabbis, Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, and examines values that were central to their lives. Both these Talmudic characters rose to prominence as rabbinic authorities in the second generation of Talmudic sages in the Land of Israel. Both cared passionately about Torah, morality, and Jewish peoplehood. These passions led them to have an intense, even volatile, relationship with one another. Exploring their relationship allows a closer look at the importance of argumentation in the Jewish tradition, and the value of incorporating the voice of the other/the opposing view into Jewish conversations.
- What types of people does our tradition celebrate as great sages?
- How does the Talmud portray rabbinic disagreements? Are these disagreements assigned positive or negative value?
- What characterizes Talmudic friendship and rabbinic love? Are these characteristics consistent with our modern notions of what constitutes a loving friendship?
Coping with Adversity
Facilitated by Rabbi Avi Weiss
Through exploring rabbinic sources and the contemporary source of Harold Kushner and Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in particular, this session delved into the delicate partnership between the human being and God, and helping make this world a better one. One source to contemplate included:
In short, the “I” of fate asks a speculative metaphysical question with regard to evil, and this question is not susceptible to solution and has no answer. In the second dimension of man’s existence, destiny, the question of suffering takes on new form. What is an “Existence of Destiny?” This is an active existence in which man confronts the environment into which he was cast with an understanding of his uniqueness, value, freedom and capacity without compromising his integrity and independence in his struggle with the outside. The slogan of the “I” of destiny is “Against your will you are born, and against your will you die [but with your free will do you live].” Man is born as an object, dies as an object but it is within his capacity to live as a “subject” – as a creator who impresses on his life his individual imprimatur and who lives autonomously. According to Judaism, man’s mission in his world is to turn fate into destiny – an existence that is passive and influenced, to an existence that is active and influential; an existence of compulsion, perplexity, and speechlessness, to an existence full of will and initiative.
(Fate and Destiny by Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik)
- If God is good, why is there evil in the world?
- Why do bad things happen to good people?
- Is there a difference between why bad things happen to good people, and when bad things happen to good people?
- Are there conditions in life that we can do nothing about?
- What has been your general approach to dealing with challenges and adversity in life?