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Seminary Memories

Photo by Francesco Alberti on Unsplash

We studied to become Conservative Rabbis at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. My friend and classmate Rabbi Sol Hurwitz (not his real name) lives in New York City. His son, Baruch, is an Orthodox rabbi there. Not long ago, Sol took his 12-year-old granddaughter to the planetarium. During the show the narrator mentioned that the earth was billions of years old. Sol's granddaughter, a student at a Beis Yaakov Orthodox girls' school, asked her grandfather how this could be. "The world was created 5,780 years ago. That's what we learned in school." Sol explained that the Chumash is not a science book, but rather a book whose aim is to teach us moral lessons about life. We don't really know what the Bible meant when it said that the earth was created in six days, he explained. When Sol's granddaughter returned home, she told her father, the rabbi, the story. "From now on," her father said, "when it comes to Chumash, you don't talk to Grandpa, you talk only to me."

That was the seminary's approach to teaching Bible. The Bible was not literally written by God and given to Moses; rather, it was written by human beings who were divinely inspired. At the seminary, the Bible was studied in the context of the time in which it was written. The covenant between God and the Jewish people, for example, was taught in the framework of ancient contracts discovered by modern-day archeologists. Being a human document, misunderstandings and mistakes also entered the picture. For example, in the Bible, Abraham, on more than one occasion, introduces his wife Sarah to a foreign ruler as his sister. The Biblical authors knew from oral tradition that he did so, but could not understand why. Wasn't this putting his wife in great jeopardy? And, indeed, this led them to make up stories (midrashim) in which these rulers, innocently enough, almost took Sarah as a wife, until God intervened. In truth, modern scholarship has shown that introducing one's wife as one's sister was common in Mesopotamian societies at that time. It was a way of bestowing honor on one's wife, as affirming her high status in society. Nothing more. This fact had been lost in time, and the Biblical authors knew nothing of it. They then had to contrive stories around the misunderstood and puzzling practice. That's how we learned the Bible at the seminary.

If the Bible was a human document, then scribal errors in letters or in words could also occur. Fixing these errors is called emending the Bible. One of my favorite examples concerns Noah. The Bible says that Noah was "a righteous man, upright in his generations (bedorotav)." What does "in his generations" mean? The rabbis were of two schools of thought. One school taught: yes, Noah was upright but only in contrast to his wicked generation. Had he lived in a more righteous generation he wouldn't have stood out in his uprightness. A second school taught that Noah was exceptionally upright. If he had succeeded in being upright in his generation, how much more righteous would he have been in a more upright generation. Both these explanations base themselves on the phrase "in his generations". H.L. Ginsburg, professor of Bible at the seminary, offered this convincing emendation. The Hebrew word, bedorotav, "in his generations," is a scribal error that occurred in the transmission of the Bible from one generation to another. The original word was "bidrachav," "in his ways." The two words in Hebrew look almost alike. Emended, the Biblical verse is crystal clear: "And Noah was a righteous man, upright in his ways."

We had some wonderful teachers at the seminary. Three stood out for me. Many of the first and second year rabbinical students were new to living an observant life. The professor who guided us and most put us at our ease was Seymour Siegel, professor of Ethics and Talmud. Rabbi Siegel, a bachelor who lived in a large apartment on Riverside Drive, just blocks from the seminary, would go out of his way to make his home accessible to us. We learned many practical things about living an observant Jewish life by observing him. Rabbi Siegel became well known in later years as President Nixon's rabbi. He felt that the Jewish people owed a debt of gratitude to President Nixon for coming to Israel's aid during the dark days of the Yom Kippur War. Rabbi Siegel stood by the president even in the scandalous last days of his presidency. One of Rabbi Siegel's favorite compliments, and he was generous in his praise, was "ashrei yoladetcha", a phrase taken from the Ethics of the Fathers, which means, "happy is the woman who gave birth to you". Rabbi Siegel passed away in 1988 at the age of 61.

Professor Saul Lieberman taught Talmud to the upperclassmen. He was considered the foremost Talmud scholar of his generation. I was always worried that he would call upon me to explain a difficult passage of the Talmud. But he never did. He was understanding and compassionate enough not to call upon those of us who chose to sit well back in the auditorium where he taught. He always focused his attention on those who chose to sit in the front row. How did Rabbi Lieberman become so learned? He liked telling the following story about himself. It was the custom when he was a young yeshiva bochur in Europe to eat meals at the homes of host families and it was always a scramble. In the morning while all the bochurs were looking for a breakfast host, the young Lieberman would be in the study hall learning. "You see," he would say, "I simply told myself that my breakfast starts at 12:00 noon." I have used this strategy in my own life from time to time, with good results. Rabbi Lieberman was known to be the havruta, the study partner, of Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Laureate, who would come to the seminary every afternoon to study with his mentor. Professor Lieberman died a peaceful death on an El Al flight to Israel. It is told that he simply took his seat and never awakened.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the acclaimed author of God in Search of Man, Heavenly Torah, and The Sabbath, taught us Jewish theology. He was a deep thinker, a poet, a very spiritual person. In class, however, he tended to ramble. He was at his best when he told us stories about himself. Once, when he was 10 years old, he told us, he began to have doubts - like a Christian boy begins to have doubts about Santa Claus - he began to doubt that there really was a Land of Israel. And then one day, the pharmacist of his small town in Poland, a secular Jew, announced that he was going to visit the Land. When he returned, the Jews were flush with excitement. "Tell us everything you saw," they asked him. "Tell us especially about the Western (Wailing) Wall." Little Abraham Joshua was among the listeners. And this is what the pharmacist said: "The Wall, well, it was a wall, like all walls. A wall." Professor Heschel would say, "He saw it with his eyes; I saw it with mine."

Professor Heschel also liked to tell the story surrounding the German poet Johann Goethe's last words: more light. Books have been written about what he might have meant. When Heschel was a graduate student in Germany he decided to honor the great poet's memory by paying a visit to where he lived the last years of his life. Heschel discovered that it was a third-floor attic room, so small that there was barely enough room for a cot and a piece of furniture or two. There was just one very small window. That's where Goethe, lying on that cot as death approached, is said to have spoken those two words. "Sometimes a thing is what it is," Professor Heschel would say, "and we need not make more of it than it is."

After five years of study we were ordained and became rabbis. Just as the seminary tried to mold us into its ideal of a knowledgeable Jew of good character, so now it was our turn to do the same among the people we served.



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Thursday, 13 June 2024

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