Who am I? My personal background and orientation as a teacher of Jewish studies
Before I tell of my background and orientation as a teacher of Jewish studies, I want to explain why it is important for me to do so. There is no such thing as objectivity when it comes to human knowledge and judgment. In any presentation of material, there is always a twofold subjective process of selection and interpretation of material – and this is true by the way not only of social sciences and humanities but of natural sciences as well. It is important then to know of my background and orientation that influences both the selection and interpretation of material that I present as a teacher of Jewish studies in order to evaluate such material in a critical way. Less important to me is agreement or disagreement with material that I present, and far more important to me is to cause people to think and to broaden horizons – and especially to inspire to further study.
I grew up in the United States with very little Jewish education, in a home in which we were not observant of Jewish law or traditional ritual practice. My pursuit of Jewish education in a serious way began as a young adult. I spent two years studying on programs of the Conservative movement – one year at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and one year on a study program in Jerusalem. Yet, by far most of my Jewish education has been in the orthodox world, having studied over 10 years in orthodox Yeshivot (study academies) in Israel. In one Yeshiva I taught for a period of several years a course on the Hebrew Bible and issues of Jewish thought. I have a teaching degree as a teacher of Jewish studies from Achva (brotherhood) College, a small secular teachers’ college in Israel. I have a master’s degree in Jewish philosophy (from Bar Illan University in Israel).
I am a teacher of Jewish studies, and not a rabbi. The term rabbi literally means teacher. There is precedent in the Talmudic literature for using the term rabbi in the broad sense of a teacher of Jewish studies, as there were rabbis in the Talmudic period who were teachers of the Hebrew Bible and Aggadah (moral and philosophic material of the Jewish tradition) and not teachers of Halacha (law). However, today the term rabbi is used in a specific sense of an authoritative interpreter of the Jewish law (Halacha), and also in a broader sense of a religious and spiritual leader. As a teacher of Jewish studies, I have no formal rabbinical ordination, and am not a religious leader. I am certainly not authorized to teach matters of practical Halacha (law) – of what is permissible and forbidden. If I relate to issues of Halacha it is from a philosophic point of view, and my intention is not to teach permissible and forbidden behavior but merely to cause one to think and broaden horizons.
I am a teacher of Jewish studies, and not a thinker or philosopher. As a teacher of Jewish studies I do not present any original philosophic thought of my own. Without question my philosophic orientation and outlook as a teacher of Jewish studies influence my interpretation of Biblical and rabbinic sources. I do offer as a teacher of Jewish studies a number of original interpretations of Biblical and rabbinic texts. But, I emphasize that I am not interested in presenting my personal philosophic views – I am most interested in presenting as a teacher of Jewish studies what I understand to be the nature of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish tradition.
I have a second profession as a psychologist and counselor. I have a master’s degree in educational psychology (from the Israeli branch of Northeastern University in the United States), and certification as a marriage counselor as well as certification as a mediator. Psychology is of fundamental importance for me as a teacher of Jewish studies in a substantive and methodological sense. From a substantive point of view, the essence of Judaism as a religion, in my conception, is not faith in a philosophic or theological sense (the adopting of correct philosophic propositions) and not ritual but moral and spiritual guidance especially in the realms of psychology and ethics. From a methodological point of view, psychology is spectacles through which I view and understand the Jewish tradition and religion.
The orthodox Jewish world includes modern orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews, and I belong to the modern orthodox world from a social point of view. I identify very much with my orthodox background and orthodox lifestyle. I have a conservative background from the United States prior to my moving to Israel to live, and I also identify on an emotional level with my conservative background, and feel very grateful to the conservative movement without which I would not have become interested in pursuing serious Jewish education, would not have moved to Israel and would not have begun to live an observant lifestyle of Jewish law and ritual practice. However, today (and for many years this has been so) I have no connection from a social point of view with the conservative movement. I emphasize that my orthodox background began in Israel prior to meeting my wife, who grew up in Israel in an orthodox home with an orthodox education. Prior to meeting my wife I had already been studying in orthodox Yeshivot (study academies), and had already begun to live an observant lifestyle of Jewish law and traditional ritual practice.
Yet, I do not fit in the mainstream of the orthodox world in terms of my religious orientation and outlook regarding Judaism. One thing that I have become aware of as a result of my experience in the orthodox world is that the orthodox world is not monolithic, and there are a variety of streams and approaches in the orthodox world. However, I without question exist on the fringes of the orthodox world in terms of my religious outlook. My wife and I manage together despite very different religious orientations regarding Judaism, as my wife’s outlook is far more mainstream orthodox. We are an example, in my opinion, of pluralism within a framework of Jewish law and traditional ritual practice. I would argue that the framework of Jewish law and traditional ritual practice helps us to live together in spite of differing religious orientations, as it especially represents common moral and spiritual values, as well as a common lifestyle, in spite of our differing philosophic outlooks.
Furthermore, I study and teach traditional Jewish texts on the basis of academic scholarship. Such a critical, academic approach is not accepted on a widespread basis throughout the orthodox world, and is widely viewed as problematic, if not heretical – as there are often disagreements and contradictions between the viewpoints of modern, academic scholarship and the viewpoints that are prevalent and accepted in the orthodox world. There is a clear precedent, though, in the Jewish tradition for a critical, academic approach in the writings of Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher of the 12th century).
The first book of the 14 books that comprise Maimonides’ monumental code of law, the Mishneh Torah, is significantly called the Book of Knowledge (and, it is the first book of his law code not only chronologically but in terms of importance for Maimonides). The word knowledge that Maimonides uses means science in modern Hebrew. However, in medieval Hebrew, the meaning is far broader and refers to rational knowledge, including both philosophy and natural sciences (astronomy, physics, biology as well as psychology). For Maimonides, not only is there no contradiction between religion and science, but science and philosophy constitute the spectacles through which Scripture and tradition are to be understood. In other words, Maimonides had a critical approach to the study of traditional texts in which he relied upon scientific and philosophic material external to the Jewish tradition in order to understand his tradition in a critical way.
Most important, I have an emotional connection to my orthodox background, and I also have a feeling of gratefulness toward my orthodox background (especially regarding all that I have learned in orthodox frameworks) – even though many in the orthodox world would see my views and academic approach as problematic, if not heretical. I emphasize that I identify with my orthodox background because criticism of orthodoxy stands as background to material that I present as a teacher of Jewish studies – criticism that I intend as constructive and issue oriented criticism.