The Study of Torah, Jewish Unity and the Middle Way
I am writing these words in Jerusalem after a very difficult summer, during which a vindictive enemy once again showed the relevance of the verse from the Haggadah that "in every generation they stand up against us to destroy us, but God saves us from their hands". 72 Israeli soldiers and civilians were killed during Operation Protective Edge, including Second Lt. Yuval Heiman z"l, the oldest son of our veteran worker Zohara Heiman, who fell defending Kibbutz Nir-Am near the Gaza border.
I believe that there are three major ways in which the Schechter Institutes can help Israeli society at this difficult time:
Comfort and strengthen the Jews of Israel by studying Torah: We are now reading the seven Haftarot of consolation which are recited between Tisha B'av and Rosh Hashanah. They open with the verses from Isaiah, chapter 40: נחמו נחמו עמי – "Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem".
And how should we comfort the people of Israel? Throughout Jewish history, when Jews faced external enemies they went back to the sources for comfort and inspiration. This is epitomized by a famous verse from Psalms (119:92): לולא תורתך שעשועי אז אבדתי בעניי – "Were your Torah not my delight, I would have perished in my affliction."
When our enemies attack us, Israelis want to know: why are we here and why should we stay? The four Schechter non-profits provide the answers by going back to the sources and imparting the sense of history and destiny which our texts and tradition supply.
Jewish Unity: There was one very positive outcome of the latest war -- an incredible sense of unity throughout the State of Israel. Tens of thousands volunteered, contributed food and money, and attended the funerals of the fallen, especially of the lone soldiers from abroad. Jewish unity has been one of the goals of Schechter since it was founded 30 years ago. It is epitomized by the Liebhaber Prize for Religious Tolerance which we have been awarding since 1997 and by the Spring of Religious Tolerance Campaign which we conducted in 2014. We hope to build on the unity of the summer of 2014 as we continue to teach this major Jewish value throughout the year.
The Middle Way: Finally, the latest war in Gaza was part of a worldwide phenomenon of religious fundamentalism and extremism. Israeli society, thank God, does not usually express its extremism via physical violence, but there is still quite a bit of fundamentalism and extremism in Israel today. As I have explained in my new book (Responsa in a Moment, Vol. 3, pp. 16-26), "the middle way" in Judaism is the best. As we learn in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Hagigah 2:1, fol. 77a): "This Torah is like two paths, one of fire and one of snow. If he strays into one, he dies of fire; if he strays into the other, he dies of snow. What should he do? He should walk in the middle". Indeed, Bahya ibn Pakuda and Maimonides in medieval times and Rabbis Nachman Krochmal, Zekhariah Frankel and Solomon Schechter in modern times all advocated the middle way. This too is the way of the Schechter Institutes since 1984. We are the middle way between fundamentalism and secularism, the middle way which now draws over 55,000 Israelis to our educational programs every year.
As we enter our fourth decade, the Schechter Institutes will continue – thanks to your crucial support -- to comfort and strengthen the Jews of Israel by going back to the sources, to unify the Jewish people, and to advocate and teach the middle way in Judaism.
With my best wishes for a year of Shalom,
Prof. David Golinkin
President and Jerome and Miriam Katzin Professor of Jewish Studies
Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies