/ Rabbinic Torah Seminar (RTS)

Summer in Jerusalem: Heat and Holiness

Jerusalem is not just the place where rabbis of all types convene, it is the place that enables the convention.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and holds the Kaufman Family Chair in Jewish Philosophy. He is author of the highly regarded 2016 book, Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself, and is the host of the award-winning For Heaven’s Sake, one of the most popular Jewish podcasts in North America. Donniel is the founder of some of the most extensive education, training and enrichment programs for scholars,

Summers in Jerusalem are always hot – at least during the day. This year they have been hot in the nighttime, as well. As the weather cooled and tempers flared, religious and secular opened up a new front in Jerusalem, with ultra-Orthodox Jewry trying to lay claim to the public persona of the city. These events do little to endear Jerusalem to the eyes of Israelis and the world. The true tragedy, however, is that this is the only Jerusalem that people see.

This summer in Jerusalem, however, I experienced something very different. I was privileged to convene and live with 125 North American rabbis – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal and post-denominational/pluralist – who came to the only place on Earth they all feel they share together – Jerusalem. They did not come to a Jerusalem of sectarian strife, or to a Jerusalem that is the sole inheritance of a particular denomination, but to a city which can serve as a neutral turf for them to meet each other and learn from each other. They came as denominational rabbis; but they joined together as students of Torah.

This year they came at a particularly difficult time in North American Jewish life, a year in which our community was experiencing deep financial, moral, and spiritual pain as a result of the economic crisis which has befallen us all. They came to learn how our tradition can provide resources to cope with and grow from this crisis. They came out of a desire to learn how 3,000 years of Jewish tradition and ideas can be brought to bear on contemporary Jewish concerns. They came to explore how the depth of our tradition can serve as a source of inspiration for the future of Jewish life. With all that divides us, they came for these concerns still unite us.

They also came as lovers of Israel, as rabbis who are committed to making a relationship with Israel an integral part of the Jewish lives of their communities, and who came to learn about ways to talk about Israel and to teach it, so that Israel will not be viewed merely as an “overseas allocation” of fund-raisers, but as an integral part of North American Jewish life.

In North America, where Jews and rabbis are deeply divided along denominational lines, such conventions are generally possible when they are under the umbrella of an organization focusing on the physical survival of our people. When rabbis are lobbying Congress or challenging Ahmadinejad, they cease to be Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform; once those differences are neutralized, conversation becomes possible. When they remain aware of their own denominational identities, however, working or learning together is generally impossible.

This summer, as has been the case for decades now, the Shalom Hartman Institute made these meetings possible in Jerusalem. It is in Jerusalem that the rabbis are able to relax their denominational differences and connect to that which they have in common. They come out of an understanding that we all share a love of God, a love of Torah, a love of Israel, and the commitment to deepening the Jewish lives of our people. While we may live different Jewish lives and teach different messages, a common core and shared foundation still remains.

In one of the texts we studied, from the Mishnah in Tractate Yevamot, we learned that the students of Hillel and the students of Shammai, despite their deep differences, never refrained from marrying each other and eating in each others’ homes. We learned that while religion sometimes demands a leap of faith requiring one to fulfill the word of God even when one does not understand it, the Mishnah in Yevamot teaches that it also requires a leap of loyalty – a decision to love one’s fellow Jews even when one’s denominational halakhah seems to make that impossible.

I was blessed this summer to be in the presence of people who are ready to make that leap of loyalty. A Reform rabbi can learn in havruta with an Orthodox rabbi, and a lesbian rabbi with one who is straight, together creating a safe space in which differences are not belittled, but at the same time are not allowed to exhaust the conversation. In these conversations, we begin to lay the foundations for Jewish community.

Jerusalem is not just the place where we convene; it is the place that enables the convention. It is in this capacity that I experienced the holiness of Jerusalem, a holiness which fosters respect, loyalty, and mutual consideration. May this be the Jerusalem we all get to experience, for this is when Jerusalem is truly a city of gold.

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