The Heart of Torah: A Discussion with Rabbi Shai Held

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The following interview was first published in the Jewish Publication Society’s newsletter and can also be found on JPS’s website. Rabbi Shai Held is president, dean, and chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar and directs its Center for Jewish Leadership and Ideas in New York City. He is the author of Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence and a recipient of the Covenant Award for excellence in Jewish education. The Heart of the Torah is now available. 

Q. How did these two volumes of essays come to be? What led to you deciding to publish them?

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A. The essays that comprise The Heart of Torah began as a series of emails to an ever-growing list of subscribers. From the beginning, what was so striking to me was the sheer diversity of who was reading them—Jews from around the world and across the denominational spectrum (and over time, Christians of various stripes as well). Rabbis and educators from every corner of the Jewish world would write to tell me about a sermon or a class they had prepared based on one of the essays; lay people would write and suggest alternative interpretations of texts I had discussed. I have had few experiences more satisfying than writing for such a diverse and passionate audience.

From an early point, readers began asking whether the essays would eventually be available in book form, and within a few weeks The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) reached out to ask about publication plans. I was and remain honored to be included in JPS’s illustrious authors list.

I began to write the essays because there were certain concrete interpretations of favorite texts I wanted to share but also because I wanted to model a mode of reading that is at once deeply immersed in tradition and unapologetically open to learning from a variety of modern fields and disciplines. My hope is that readers walk away from studying the essays having learned something concrete, having internalized a certain mode of reading, questioning, and challenging.

Q. How does the title “The Heart of Torah” connect to the essays?

A. The title “The Heart of Torah” is meant to suggest two things. First, my hope in writing these essays was to bring together the smallest questions of textual interpretation with (some of) the biggest questions in theology, spirituality, and ethics, and to show how the former often yield insights into the latter. The Heart of Torah seeks to address many of the issues that lie at the very heart of Judaism’s religious vision: What kind of God do we serve? What does it mean to live in covenant with the transcendent Creator of all? What kind of human beings does Torah ask us to become? What does it mean to be responsible to and for those who are weakest and most vulnerable? How can Jewish spirituality serve as an alternative and antidote to materialism, consumerism, and selfishness? What do we mean when we talk about grace, and gratitude, and generosity, and love, and kindness?

But “The Heart of Torah” has another meaning as well. It is common to hear Judaism described as a “religion of action.” To be sure, it is that. But many contemporary Jews too often lose sight of the fact that Judaism is also, profoundly, a religion of inwardness and emotion. “The Merciful One desires the heart,” the Talmudic Sages say; “the main purpose of the all the commandments is to straighten the heart,” the medieval sage Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra adds. Many of the essays in The Heart of Torah attempt to draw out what Judaism asks of us emotionally: What does it mean to love our neighbor? How do we go about cultivating compassion? How is compassion different from pity? What does courage look like? Why is acknowledging our vulnerability so integral to building real relationships?

In other words, The Heart of Torah goes to the heart of the matter—to what is central to Judaism, and insists that a major part of the heart of the matter is the duties of the heart.

Q. Mah nishtanah? How is this Torah commentary different from all other Torah commentaries?

A. As in all my writing, in The Heart of Torah I bring together literary, philosophical, and psychological lenses.

The literary: I focus not just on what the Torah says but also on how it says it. How does a subtle literary cue hint at a broad theological and existential point? How does the repetition of a particular word or root offer insight into the key point(s) the Torah seeks to make? Most importantly, I explore how biblical texts speak to one another and thereby deepen and complicate our understandings. I show how the deeper meaning of biblical texts can often be found in the “conversation” between two texts rather than within any of them.

The philosophical: I strive to make complex and often elusive philosophical issues accessible without “doubling down” or over-simplifying.

And the psychological: Many of the essays explore the complexity and intractability of the human spirit: Why do we so often resist empathy and compassion? Is memory a blessing or a curse? Why do we so stubbornly resist accepting and even embracing our own vulnerability?

One of the things that distinguishes The Heart of Torah from many other Torah commentaries is the sheer range of commentaries consulted. I make abundant use of Rabbinic midrash and medieval Jewish commentary, but I also draw on a broad range of modern academic scholarship on the Bible, often by devoutly Christian authors. I have found it enormously fruitful to have Rashi talk to Patrick Miller, Ibn Ezra to Terence Fretheim, and R. Akiva to Jacob Milgrom. I do not pursue eclecticism for its own sake, but time and again I have found that by examining a wide range of commentaries from a broad array of contexts, I understand the Torah better and more clearly. In all this, I take as a guide Maimonides’ influential insistence that we should “accept the truth from whoever says it.”

I am also willing to admit when a text strikes me as morally or theologically troubling. Thus, for example, I ask how Torah, which usually challenges us to overcome our fears and visit the sick, can stigmatize the metzora (one afflicted with a scaly skin disease) and bar him from the camp; and I probe the question of how the Torah can extend beyond abhorring Amalek’s inhumanity to condemning all Amalekites for all time. My goal is not to defend the Torah but to engage with it deeply and honestly.

In every instance, I choose to read as humanely as possible. So I suggest ways that even troubling texts can be understood to teach compassion, and to mandate soul-searching and introspection.