who is American and lives in Jerusalem
by Peter Menkin
In this interview the writer hopes to elicit from Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld, teacher of matters Orthodox Jewish much about the internet teaching website and organization www.torah.org . Through this interview, the final in a three part series on Religious Education, we begin a three part number of interviews with different Orthodox Rabbi’s who teach and write for that website. Each has a slightly different perspective of religious education and what they teach. More, it is their subject that is the primary object of their difference. But all three are Orthodox, and all three are Rabbis—all three are both writer and teacher. So without much ado more, here is the first of the interviews in this final of the three part series on Religious Education. The first two in the series had as subject a Southern Baptist, and an Episcopalian from the USA.
INTERVIEW WITH RABBI DOVID ROSENFELD
- 1. Question by Peter Menkin: As a writer and teacher at Torah.org you receive a lot of inquiries, questions and answers from your many students. What of your subjects covered have proved to receive the more thoughtful answers from students. Will you share one or two of those answers and also tell us something of your students in general? About students you have in a month or a year, you’ve said, “Counts grow slowly but steadily – more a function of how long-standing a class is. Pirkei Avos (started in late 1998) has over 11,000 students. Maimonides (begun 2008) has >4500.” Talk to us about the attraction of “Pirkei Avos” and its subject.
I’ll mention first of all that a big fraction of the correspondence I receive is not all that relevant to the material I teach. Some people just write to say thank you. Others come with their own issues and problems. I suppose they turn to me because they have no one else in their lives they feel can advise them, and they feel based on my writings that I would be an appropriate person. Lastly, a few correspond regularly with me and we develop a relationship – and there too our correspondence doesn’t necessarily have much to do with my classes.
Of the relevant questions and comments I receive – perhaps averaging one every other class, it’s of course hard to generalize with such a large audience. My students can range from non-Jewish, totally uninitiated, to advanced Talmudists. I guess as a rule the beginners do not feel equipped to challenge me. The questions more generally come from my most advanced readers. One general observation I would say is that the material itself generally does not put my readers off. Strongly moralistic or not politically correct statements – say such subjects as the Jewish view on the separation of the sexes or the specialness of the Children of Israel – do not seem to elicit much flack. Look, for the most part my readers are coming seeking spirituality. They want guidance and absolutes, not wishy-washy politically-correct sweet nothings.
More often it’s not the actual material I teach but my passing comments that generate the flack – sometimes a careless wisecrack, at times disparaging remarks about Christianity or less-religious denominations of Judaism. (Criticisms of Islam have never elicited negative reactions.) As a writer, I’m actually often surprised how my readers pick up on the careless side comments which I hardly paid attention to myself. Over the years I’ve learned to become attuned to and avoid the types of remarks which folks object to.
In terms of the course material I teach, one aspect which I find enormously refreshing is the fact that I teach classic material in its original. (Pirkei Avos is a section of the Mishna, which was put into final form in the 3rd century C.E.; Maimonides lived and authored his works in the 12th century.) The students see the writings of great scholars in their original (translated from the Hebrew as accurately as I can – although important nuances will always be lost). They are not reading some modern doctored up writings – the world according to Dovid Rosenfeld. They can view and see the wisdom of the words of the Sages themselves. There is nothing to hide or to whitewash. Their words are timeless, as relevant today as they were when they were written.
Additional comment by Rabbi Dovid:
It’s refreshing that the readers get to see the material in the original. I am not just giving my own wisdom, but the wisdom of the sages. It gives a lot of authority to it. It is something that people can appreciate that it’s timeless. People grapple with free will vs. God’s free knowledge and how does God judge men.
People can study on a superficial level, or profoundly. (This is [all offered] in English from a translation from the Hebrew text.) I think that is one of the pluses of beginning with the text with what the sages say. For the most part … people see for itself the depths of it.
Sometime it sounds like Ben Franklin giving nice advice, but I say how this is sacred and the meaning of life and God’s eternal life. It is very fertile and I try to bring it out in contemporary forms. As a writer I start typing and get inspired.
AS EXAMPLE, A FULL LESSON FROM TORAH.ORG
WITH TWO EMAIL RESPONSES AND ANSWERS
LOVE KNOWS NO BARRIERS: MAIMONIDESE
Chapter 6, Mishna 3
|Maimonides on Life|
|by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld|
|“There is a universal obligation (lit., ‘an obligation on every person’) to love every member of Israel as himself (lit., ‘as his body’) as it states, ‘And you shall love your fellow as yourself ‘ (Leviticus 19:18). Therefore one must speak positively about his fellow (lit., ‘speak of his praises’) and be careful (lit., ‘sparing, sympathetic’) with his property — just as he is careful with his own property and concerned about his own honor. One who honors himself by shaming his fellow has no share in the World to Come.” This week the Rambam discusses the importance of loving every Jew, based on the famous verse in Leviticus “Love your fellow as yourself.” |
This great principle of the Torah, as the sage R. Akiva termed it (Sifra Kedoshim 4:12, brought in Rashi to that verse), follows the Rambam’s previous law. Last week the Rambam discussed the obligation to “cleave to the wise.” This week we are told to indiscriminately love all the Jewish people. This obligation is a beautiful and oft-quoted one, but it really engenders a very basic question. How does one make himself love someone else?
It’s great to say that we must love every Jew, but how are we expected to just turn on an emotion, especially one as strong as love? How can I be expected to love every single Jew, the vast majority of whom I’ve never before met and don’t know from Adam? So clearly the love the Torah here commands cannot be understood as some head-over-heels infatuation with every other Jew. We are not expected to be excellent friends with strangers we have never met. Rather, the feeling must be one of an underlying sense of kinship. I feel an innate affinity and comradeship with my fellow Jews. We all share the same basic goals and values. There is a universal bond which unites us. This would thus seem to be a very practical obligation. I can’t really feel a strong emotional fondness for every Jew I meet but I must view him as a fellow compatriot — and must treat him as such. Likewise, the Rambam illustrates this law in very practical ways — that we be considerate of our fellow’s honor and property.
We might not be able to elicit an intense emotional response when we come across a fellow Jew, but we can and must modify our behavior towards him. And quite likely, in so doing our attitude towards him will improve as well. Some understand the prohibition against charging interest in a similar vein. Any serious economy cannot run without the charging of interest. If not for it, all surplus money would be stagnant, not reinvested into the economy, and no one other than direct producers would earn any income. (I’m not an economics guy (in the slightest), so this is a very crude layman’s explanation.) So too, the Torah permits that we lend money on interest to Gentiles (which historically was the somewhat-less-than-desirable (and often rather dangerous) role many enterprising Jews had in society). However, to our fellow Jew the Torah forbids it. For just as one would certainly offer open, unstinting aid to his brother in need, so too we must do towards every fellow Jew. My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu) once illustrated this idea with the following scenario.
Say you’re somewhere on the other side of the world — hiking along in the Himalayas or snorkeling through the Great Barrier Reef (distant enough? . You then come up for a break and bump into a slight acquaintance — say your neighbor from across town or a fellow member of your synagogue of 500. You’d go wild with excitement: “Hey! How’re you doing? So good to see you! etc.” Now had you passed him by back home in the local supermarket you might have at most offered him some semi-coherent grunt and gone on with your business. (I’m writing from a guy’s perspective, that is. But relative to your present surroundings, see someone you actually know, however slightly, and you feel extremely close. This too is the obligation we have towards our fellow Jews, of all stripes. We must recognize that in a very deep sense we all share the same values, goals and national mission — regardless of differences in our outer trappings, our styles, personalities, backgrounds, or even languages.
We must not view him in terms of if he’s my “type” and the sort I could develop a strong personal friendship with. I must rather view him as one with whom, relative to the world at large, I feel extremely close. In Proverbs (18:1) King Solomon wrote, “The separated one (‘nifrad’) will seek out his passions.” Why is a pleasure seeker referred to as a “separated one?” Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona (Spanish medieval Talmud scholar and ethicist) explains that once a person follows his or her desires, no two people are alike. Each has his own set of lusts and urges, and each will go his separate way. One kid will skip school for the basketball courts, one will become a computer hacker, one will memorize every statistic and batting average in the league, etc., etc. Human beings, once loosed on their passions, have less and less in common, and for that matter, exhibit less and less humanity. If, by contrast, two people are united in common cause, then they are not “separated”.
They may differ in approach, style, personality, and role, but they are all bound by a common overall mission. Personality-wise, a fellow may just clash with you. He would never be the sort you’d actually develop a strong personal friendship with. But that’s really besides the point — because you’re all on the same team. Just as an army or sports team requires many positions and many players, each fulfilling his own unique role while working in harmony with the whole, so too Israel, to fulfill its national mission, requires all sorts of individuals to constitute a nation of G-d. In the Book of Esther, Haman, the wicked prime minister of King Ahasuerus, conspired to annihilate the Jewish people.
When he approached the King to present his request, he described Israel as “one people, scattered and dispersed among the nations” (3:8). We were spread out and vulnerable, a small minority in each of the 127 provinces in which we dwelled. And in a deeper sense, Haman was absolutely right. The Jews at that time were very superficial, attempting to blend in with their Gentile host society. (See Talmud Megillah 12a that the Jews of the time sinned “for show” — in order to curry favor with the Gentiles.) And so, in 127 provinces, there were 127 types of Jews, all more closely resembling (or trying to resemble) their Gentile neighbors than their fellow Jews abroad. I mean, how strong a bond does a young, assimilated American Jew feel with a Jew from India or Morocco (who (Heavens!) doesn’t eat cholent and gefilte fish on the Sabbath)? (Or even worse: You say “Good Shabbos” and he says “Shabbat Shalom!”) I recently read the statistic that the majority of American Jews under the age of 35 would not consider the destruction of Israel a personal tragedy for them. Of course it would be tragic, but not in a personal sense — and not really qualitatively different than hearing of genocide in Rwanda, Darfur or any of the other troubled areas of the world. Why, I might happen to be umpteenth cousin with some of those Israelis, but we belong to a different culture, have different values and interests, speak a different language, have different ideas on how to bring about peace in the Middle East, etc. Not a whole lot to draw us together — certainly not culturally or ethnically.
And so, correctly claimed Haman, the Jews of the time were vulnerable — hopelessly so, and theirs for the taking. We were not a united people, possessing the strength of G-d’s chosen nation. We were a bunch of isolated individuals, each attempting to ingratiate himself within a different community and different society — and hopelessly outnumbered by the many Gentiles among whom lived and who could so easily and at any time turn against us. To combat this, Esther instructed Mordechai, “Go, gather all the Jews…” (4:16). In simple meaning, she was instructing him to notify the Jews of Shushan to fast for her. But the deeper meaning is that they must combat the slur of disunity Haman so rightly cast upon them. We must overcome our differences and prejudices and recognize that we are all a single entity, a nation of G-d, and consequently, capable of withstanding all enemies within and without. As the Rambam here states (to translate literally), we must love our fellow Jew as our body. Kabbalistically speaking, we are all a single, unified organism, all different aspects and different appendages of the same whole. And only with such a unity can we stand together, wherever we may find ourselves, and possess the strength of a nation of G-d. (Part of the ideas above based on an article which appeared in the (short-lived) journal _Jewish Thought_ Vol. 1 No. 2.)
|Maimonides on Life, Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org|
Email letter to Rabbi Dovid:
Dear R’ Rosenfeld,Yashar Ko’ach!What you wrote/how you described this Mishna was extremely beautiful.Thank you. I’m going to share this with many others… especially, my nieceswho are currently dating. I hope it sheds some light for them, if they haven’t figured it out, yet.Shabbat Shalom,
Response to Haddasa
From: Dovid Rosenfeld email@example.com Subject: Pirkei Avos – Chapter 5, Mishna 19 To: firstname.lastname@example.org Date: Thursday, July 29, 2010, 10:17 PM
Thank you very much! I appreciate your writing and hope others benefit. Be well – Shabbat Shalom (this week!) Dovid
Email letter to Rabbi Dovid
On 10/8/2011 4:52 PM, xxxxxx xxxxxx wroteResponse to xxxxx xxxxxx
Good morning Sir,
I am an protestant pastor, River of Life, in Starke, FL. Your writings are a regular source of information and inspiration. Thank you for your faithfulness.
Our study group is seeking for an answer as to whether “land” might be considered to be holy or is it considered holy by the presence of the Holy One or by the presence of a servant of the Almighty.
Thank you for your kind response
Hi, I’m sorry I’m so far behind in my email correspondence. Thank you so much for your appreciation! The issue you raise is a good one. My opinion is that the Holy Land is actually imbued with its own holiness and special character. Before the Israelites entered the land it was raising giant fruits and giant people. This is because they were not attuned to its spiritual potential and so it was spent on the physical plane. People that are worthy to appreciate it can grow enormously spiritually from it. Be well – success in your endeavors, Dovid :.
Comment by Peter Menkin: In a response to an earlier phone call made to you at your home office in Israel, we talked about the internet and its Torah.org role. You said: “I’m very impressed… Brother Menken had the foresight. He was one of the first ones to recognize how powerful a tool the internet is. I think an especially nice thing about it is using email and internet. First you can hear back from all corners of the earth. People now have Torah knowledge at their fingertips because of the internet. Email has a style, a life of its own. It’s a way to spread Torah; it’s not like reading a book…not a formality. If speaking, that is too relaxed. The web is a very good medium for connecting to people for teaching Torah and religious matters. You can get the content; internet is not as stuffy [as some other forms]. Not overbearing. It has been a powerful means of reaching out to people. Torah.org has mastered that…Rabbi Yaakov Menken (Rabbi Dovid’s brother-in-law) was right when he and my sister got married. Now it is the big organization that it is.”
- 2. Question by Peter Menkin: Please tell us more about being both Rabbi and computer programmer; speak to us some about the role of Jewish Education in the area of Torah.org and if you think this is a special kind of internet system of education that reaches people who would not usually be reached. Can you tell us more of whom they may be and where they live? I especially want to know what kind of interests the far flung hold.
First of all, I feel Torah.org has done a wonderful job disseminating Jewish wisdom to the masses. I find in particular email to be an especially powerful medium for reaching out to the uninitiated. Not only does it enable us to reach the four corners of the globe – to places where students would never have access to physical resources or live lectures, but email has a life and style of its own. It is more light and relaxed than reading a book or article, yet it is more formal than speech or correspondence. I feel it is the perfect medium for conveying ideas in an open, non-threatening manner. You can present solid material in a relaxed environment, on the reader’s own terms, without sacrificing the content of the message.
Of course one of the big downsides of Internet classes is that the students who are reached may have no serious access to any sort of Jewish infrastructure – synagogues, live teachers, a Jewish community. Thank God, using the Internet we can reach people who would have never had access to anything Jewish. But it’s only a small taste. There is no replacement for a real Jewish community and live Torah study.
In a sense I find myself the leader of huge flock of strangers. (Pirkei Avos, (begun in 1998) has over 12,000 students; Maimonides has over 4500.) Thousands of people turn to me for guidance and inspiration. They may live anywhere in the world, and be of any age and level of observance. A good fraction is not Jewish at all. As a result, I can hardly write specifics in my classes. There is no possible way I can tell what people they should observe, what they should be doing at their particular stage of life or level of observance. The same class is read by people as religious as I and by some Jew / Gentile in say, Pakistan who is at this moment getting his absolute first impression of Judaism.
Thus, what I humbly attempt to do is avoid discussing specifics and details of practical Jewish law. I rather attempt to show the beauty of the Torah, to find lessons and messages which can be appreciated by both the advanced and the uninitiated at once. But again, there is a real thirst for authentic knowledge out there. I generally do not get the feeling my words are being read by cynics or agnostics ready to challenge every point I make. People want to know what religion and Judaism is all about. I rarely feel I need to hide information. I simply attempt to find the messages most relevant to all.
Additional comment by Rabbi Dovid:
People come from all walks of life and everywhere. I feel like … Americans relate to my way of thinking better, but I get positive feedback everywhere. All sorts of places. With the internet you can reach people everywhere.
I’m really a leader of a flock of strangers to an extent. It is hard to gauge who they are and try to intuit from their email: are they female, young or old…there’s more of a polite and soft spoken tone I use in response. I think the internet is great for understanding, it is an amazing first step what the internet can do. But it is not really a full Jewish education. It is not enough to raise spiritual people.
I have to be a little low-key, or I could be talking to someone who doesn’t know anything about Jews. So I don’t try to be anything but general myth: spirituality and God. I don’t say--you must do this and obey this. That is another thing. If you are a Rabbi or minister you can tell them what they should do, what their next step should be. You try to raise them up. You tell them what the Torah is and through the internet raise their eyes. There is only so much you can do—communicate.
Comment by Peter Menkin: In our phone discussion earlier, you talked about being a Rabbi and how it is an important professional area for you that have enhanced your Religious identity and life. You said this to me from Israel to my home office north of San Francisco by phone: “All of my studying apart from the specific teaching work, all my study is personally enriching. Judaism is strong in understanding yourself. Part of one’s personal development. In Christianity if you were going to a seminary, that would be because you want to be a person-of-the-cloth. Education in Judaism is so emphatic; it is to produce religious G-d fearing Jews. I feel personally my own Torah study is an important part of my life, whether I do it professionally or not.”
- 3. Question by Peter Menkin: How do you pick your topics and know what to say? I know this enters the teacher-writing aspect of your work; people want to know how writers write. Tell us about how you as writer write and also about preparation to do so—to write. Oh, yes, in this multi-part question, talk a little about R. Yochanan Zweig who has influenced you and your studies.
Well, first of all, as I discussed earlier, I attempt to choose topics of interest to all, from the advanced Talmudist to the absolute newbie. My preparation is pretty loose in general. I study the material I will teach and review some of the classic commentaries. But then I just begin brainstorming and attempt to find a related topic of general interest. As often happens with writers, I begin typing and then the ideas flow. At the same time of course, the material I teach speaks for itself, and I feel contains valuable lessons without a lot of my own embellishments.
One general point in terms of preparation is that very little of my own rabbinical schooling and even my daily Torah study relates to the material I teach. In yeshiva we study almost exclusively Talmud and Jewish law. So on the one hand very little of my knowledge contributes to my writings. On the other, one of Judaism great insights is that Torah knowledge broadens and develops a person, both intellectually and spiritually. When a person studies and masters the Torah, he slowly becomes a person who embodies its ideals – and who can put the Torah’s lessons together and explain it to others.
I quote my teacher R. Yochanan Zweig often. He is one of the most insightful people I know, who brings enormous depth into any topic he studies and teaches, ranging from advanced Talmud study to basic Bible study.
Additional comment by Rabbi Dovid:
He is very creative and insightful. When I studied with him, and worked for him writing up his audio lectures, I studied some of his material. It opened up to me the depths someone can study the Torah and Scripture. Thank God I can take a lot of lessons from him and share them with a large audience.
Torahmedia.org has an audio collection, and I provided several tens of Rabbi Zweig’s lectures for them, (100). Some are free, some are for paid subscribers. They have their own website. Thank God he is still teaching. He has a small Yeshiva in Miami Florida. Coming from New York it is far away. It is considered an out of the way place. It is considered a small Yeshiva.
This article (sans Additional comments by Rabbi Dovid) appeared originally in Church of England Newspaper, London.