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Case Study in a New Paradigm for Rabbinic Training

Note: Natan recently published this piece on Click here to read the full article.

Last month my student of six years became ordained as a rabbi. The ordination took place in the wood paneled Braun Room at Harvard Divinity School’s Andover Hall – as far as anyone knows, the first time there ever has been a rabbinic ordination on the school’s grounds. He was not ordained into any denomination of Judaism, and he didn’t attend a Rabbinical School. My student, (now Rabbi) Jeremy Sher, besides studying privately with me, had also attended Harvard Divinity School in an “M.Div.” (Master of Divinity) program. I would have been much more leery of ordaining him simply on the basis of our study together, and I also wouldn’t have ordained him only if he had come to me straight from receiving an “M.Div.” from a multifaith graduate program, but the combination of the two worked extremely well. Read More on eJewishPhilanthropy >

A Distillation of Life

The snow is on the ground and winter has finally arrived here in New England. The roads are beginning to narrow with the snowplow’s sloppy drifts piling up around the curbs and our mud room is starting to pile up with wet boots, socks, hats and jackets spilling onto the floor.

And I’m thinking of my old home in Hawaii where we’d walk out of the house with shorts, a t-shirt and flip flops and that’s it.  All year.

My life has taken me all around the world, but especially as grey winter starts to close in, the lush warmth and vibrant colors of my old home start to pull at my dreams. The place where you grew up imprints itself on your soul, and so the green land, swaying trees and crashing waves of Hawaii are a part of me.

But, strangely enough, when I grew up and went off looking for my soul’s deepest roots my path took me all the way across the world to Israel, and not only to the land, but also to the beit midrash, the study house, where I learned Jewish texts like the Talmud and Mishnah and Midrash.

How could my Hawaiian soul find its deepest connection in ancient Jewish texts?

It’s because Judaism is not a philosophy. It isn’t a science. It isn’t “theology” or “psychology” or any other “ology.”  It is a way of life that goes as deep and strong and free as life can go. It started with an ancient people living on their land.

The ancient Hebrews were very connected to their land. The hilly boondocks of Canaan were not good for the big, “industrial agriculture” that made Egypt and Mesopotamia the superpowers of their day.  Those countries grew up around great river basins.  Their material wealth was a result of organizing many slaves and serfs to work the irrigated fields and the technology of canals and pumps to move the regular rhythm of the rivers. No, Canaan was a hilly country dependent on the rain of heaven falling in its season. When it fell you knew it was a blessing from God.  It was a land where you needed to improvise, to care about the details of the local eco-system. One side of a hill was not going to get the same rainfall as the other side.  You needed to maintain good relations with your neighbors who would help with the tasks of small farming and raising flocks and you needed to respect the land if it was going to sustain you and your family for generations. You needed to create the kind of society that God would want to bless.

So the religion of ancient Israel was very much a counter-culture and an alternative to the big powers. It was a religion and way of life that depended on relationships with the whole network of natural and human and divine partners.   Within those relationships the fruits of the earth, the fruits of one’s labors, were seen as gifts, to be valued, as all gifts should be, not just for themselves, but as outward signs of a relationship.

If I were a farmer in those days I’d bring my first fruits up to the Temple in Jerusalem to present to the Kohen.  It was a way of showing that I valued the land and its fertility as a sign of my relationship with the Source of All.  And that relationship was not just with me, the farmer, but when I presented that fruit at the Temple, I recited the whole story of my people. In fact, the core of our Passover Hagaddah, is derived from this first fruits recitation: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt with meager numbers . . . but God brought him up with an outstretched arm….” (See Deuteronomy 26)  Beyond my personal life history, I was a part of a centuries old relationship between the Israelite people and God.  My relationships were not just about the present moment, but stretched into the past and future as well.

It was this religion and way of life that the Rabbis, after the Romans destroyed the second Temple in 70 C.E. and exiled the Jews from their land, managed to transform into texts: the Midrash, Mishnah and Talmud.  It was as if they needed to bottle a way of life, a way of being, and make it portable.   The ancient Israelites would become the Jews, the People of the Book, but not a book the way we think of it. These new genres of literature were not written by one author but were distilled from the wisdom of many rabbis and from generations of people.  They were not meant to be read sitting in a library, silently scanning the page.  You needed a teacher to guide you, and a partner with whom you could discuss them.  You studied them aloud, getting them into your bones and your sinews.    This was because the Rabbis knew that even if we had books, the real home of the Torah was inside the person.

And not just inside the individual person. The life of the Torah resided in community.   When you got together in the beit kenesset, the gathering house (which translated into Greek is synagogue) you could feel yourself part of that same past and future that the ancient farmer would invoke when he brought up the first fruits.  Wherever ten Jews gathered to pray or study, when we used our ancient holy language, it was as if the nation, past present and future were there.

So, Judaism is a tradition that starts with our agrarian roots which taught us to appreciate life as a gift and a network of relationships.  It evolved into an intellectual and religious tradition that distills the rich life-giving sap from those roots. This distillation of life is flexible and strong and ties us to our bodies, to eating, family, community, beauty, work, play and rest. Perhaps that’s why when I was a young man ready to explore the world, I went from the lush trees, beaches, green mountains and blue water of Hawaii, to the study houses of Israel, and I found as much life in those texts as my soul could desire.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Hawaii or Israel or Massachusetts. Life is where you are, and Judaism is a resource for appreciating and enjoying life to its fullest and for working to see that all of our relationships are healthy and all our relationship partners are thriving: the land, the animals and plants, the air and water, our communities, families, all peoples. It is through all these relationships that we truly find home, find our soul and connect to the Soul of the World.

New Class starting in February

Mishnah Ketubbot: Marriage, Money and Gender

Wednesday Nights, Mar. 2 – May 18 at Congregation Eitz Chayim, Cambridge

We’ll explore the first chapter of Mishnah Ketubbot in this course. Looked at from the perspective of its literary/anthropological patterns, this chapter reveals insights into the way the Rabbis of the Mishnah viewed men, women, and marriage.  It also opens fascinating vistas into how cultures of all kinds deal with money, language, emotion and law.  Texts will be in both English and Hebrew.

Classes will meet at Congregation Eitz Chayim in Cambridge, MA.  This class is presented in cooperation with Kevah: Making Space for Jewish Learning. See  Ten class sessions will meet on Feb. 24, March 2, March 9, March 16, April 6, April 13, April 20, May 4, May 11, and May 18.  May 25 will be set aside as a makeup day in case of snow.

For more information and to join, please contact the group organizer Jeremy Sher at

Slow Money Maine: Forum on Building a Healthy Local Food Economy

Thursday, January 7, 7 p.m.

Congregation Adas Yoshuron and Rabbi Natan Margalit will host a panel discussion on Slow Money Maine on Thursday, Jan. 7, 7 p.m. with panelists Bonnie Rukin, Coordinator of Slow Money Maine, Samuel Kaymen, soil enthusiast and investor, and Jeff Wolovitz, owner of Heiwa Tofu. Slow Money takes its name from the Slow Food movement. It works to support local food economies by connecting investors with local food producers. The program will explore ways in which people can make the shift from a mass-produced, industrial food system to a more cooperative, local, community-based food economy. The speakers will provide their own unique perspectives on this innovative movement and Rabbi Margalit will offer a perspective on how Slow Money connects with core Jewish values and ideals. There will be time for question and answers and a wide-ranging discussion of our food economy, Judaism, health, and sustainability. The program is free and open to the public. For more information email or call 594-4523.

Everyone Counts. Every Action Makes a Difference.

What can we learn from ancient Jewish texts about the current distressing and frightful geopolitical situation so filled with war, refugees, mass shootings and terrorist attacks?

I think a lot, and it is often surprising where insight can be found. For example, I was recently reminded* that Maimonides, the great medieval rabbi and philosopher, gave us the principle that all verses of the Torah are holy, no exceptions.

Maimonides chooses Genesis 36:12 as one examples of a lowly, ignored line of the Torah. It says, “Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Elifaz . . .”.  Now Maimonides was a very smart guy, and even though it’s buried in a long, boring, list of “so and so begat so and so, who begat so and so, etc., etc.,” this verse is actually pretty interesting.  It’s so interesting that the Talmud, several centuries after the Torah, asked who this Timna was — and then they told a story about her.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) says that Timna was actually a princess: they astutely note that there is another reference to Timna in a nearby list of princes and princesses.  If so, they ask, how did this princess wind up being a lowly concubine?!

Timna, the rabbis said, was indeed a princess, but she decided that she wanted to join with the people of Abraham.  Perhaps she was impressed with the new idea of One God. We don’t know.  But, for some reason, the family of Abraham rejected her.  Having given up her royal life she looked around for someone, anyone, related to Abraham’s family who would take her in.  Esau’s son was as close as she got and then only as a concubine, not even a regular wife.

We can imagine the pain and shame and anger that she might have had about this whole situation.  Then we read the second half of the verse: “Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Elifaz, and she gave birth to Amalek.”  In Jewish lore Amalek becomes a notorious tribe, the archetypical enemy, a symbol of pure evil and senseless hatred.  Amalek is known to attack the children of Israel at their most vulnerable and weakest points.  Amalek simply wants to destroy, ruin and cause pain.  Amalek likely knew the story of his mother’s real identity and yet he found himself with the terrible, lowly position as the son of a concubine, the bottom of the heap. He must have felt even greater shame, frustration and anger. We can imagine his feelings slowly metastasizing within him and turning into a violent and cruel hatred.

The Talmud concludes its story by saying that the family of Abraham shouldn’t have rejected Timna.

So, when Maimonides was looking to show the principle that every verse in the Torah is holy, I think he, in his wisdom, was really getting us to see an even more important principle: every person is holy. Every human being is worthy of respect and care, and tossing someone aside, thoughtlessly casting anyone away will always come back to haunt us.

In our time of refugees, of senseless violence, war and extremism, there is no more important principle for us to learn.  Of course, every person is responsible for their actions, and there is no excuse for violent, criminal acts. But, even as we face terrorist attacks, gun violence, and war, we as a society can do better than demonizing, rejecting, lashing out in fear and righteous anger.

When we see refugees who are looking to join us, of course we need to take care to protect ourselves from harm, but we also need to understand that simply pushing people away is no solution. Pushing people away, treating people as if they don’t really count, will only push people into the hands of extremists all too ready to exploit those feelings of shame and frustration and turn them toward hatred and violence.

The issue is larger than just the current refugee crisis. Unfortunately, we live in a waste culture, which likes to hold onto what is attractive, convenient, and familiar — and put everything and everyone else out of sight and out of mind.  This culture is not only out of sync with spiritual principles of responsibility, connection and caring, but it is out of sync with nature and the way that the natural world works.

In nature, everything is interrelated, interconnected, and nothing is insignificant.  An ecosystem is sustained as much by the fallen tree as by the living one; as much by the bacteria in the some animal’s gut as by the majestic eagle soaring overhead.   We may have a tendency to judge something high or low, important or trivial, but nature works in complex systems in which an insect or a bat might be as significant as a large, attractive animals like a polar bear or a panda.  Our spiritual traditions have always told us that a poor stranger, a foreigner, a child or an old woman can be as significant and important as a prince and queen or a general.

We have gotten ourselves into this political, ecological, and economic mess by thinking that we can extract materials from one part of the world, consume products in our little safe and convenient bubble, and  then dump the waste into yet another part of the world out there; by thinking that we can destroy, incarcerate, reject and simply put out of sight and out of mind all those Others — people of other religions, races, other countries, the poor, the old and the sick — who are threatening our safe bubble.  But we are seeing that it all comes back to us. Nature and human affairs are really one.  The spiritual insight and the natural one is: we are all significant and we are all related.  And all our actions, even small ones, have consequences.

Just as Judaism says that every line of the Torah was given by God, so Judaism says that all people are created in the image of God.  We learn from nature and from Torah that we are all related, all responsible and all worthy of caring and compassion.  We are now coming to the point in our modern lives when these ancient insights are being rediscovered in ecology, in new perspectives in economics, criminal justice, medicine, health and other fields.  Our deep need is finally, hopefully, getting us to look not just at our small part, but at the larger inter-connected whole.

Perhaps the recent Climate Summit in Paris, where almost 200 nations finally decided that we need to work together to change the way we produce and consume energy, is a sign that this shift is starting to take hold.  Let us all put our energies into this shift toward putting our world back together, before it all falls apart.

Organic Torah’s mission is to promote this reconnection to one another and to our world.  Please donate.

*For this idea and for the Timna story from Sanhedrin 99b, I’m grateful to Rabbi David Kasher, in his recent d’var torah on Parshat VaYishlach.