Student Addresses to Graduates

The Mansion of Jewish Learning

Remarks delivered by Patricia L. Bizzell, MJLS'10, MAJS'13

The mansion of Jewish learning is entered by a hidden door. It is not hidden from everyone, perhaps, but it was hidden from me, and many Jews like me, who either had no Jewish education in their youth, or drifted away from it in the midst of their busy lives. I will forever be grateful to Hebrew College for illuminating the pathway to this hidden door.

I always knew that the mansion was there. It loomed in the background of my mental landscape. Adult-ed classes at my synagogue let me peek through the windows. And, of course, I’d been around back to the kitchen.

But I never thought I could come in through the front door. I really didn’t know how to find it. Was I too busy? More likely, afraid! I knew how little I knew — at least I knew that much.

My wonderful teachers at Hebrew College took me by the hand and guided me up to and through that hidden door, and you, my fellow graduates, know the great variety of riches I found within the mansion.

On the ground floor, I found the Hebrew-language classes. When I entered, I was as ignorant as the boy in the Chasidic tale who can pray only by reciting the aleph-bet. Fortunately, on this ground floor, there are many rooms, many ways to enter the study of the beautiful Hebrew language and achieve some success with it. Now I know at least enough to do some text study, read some poetry and follow the chatter of my daughter and her friends when we take them out to dinner in Tel Aviv.

A broad and elegant staircase leads upward in this mansion — they call that staircase “Me’ah.” Upstairs, in the first room I enter, I find Philip Roth, locked in a deadly love dance with his own Jewish identity. I never liked his fiction, with its hypermasculinity, but I did learn to appreciate it in a Jewish philosophical context. Try Roth’s book "Operation Shylock" with this perspective in mind and see what you think.

Speaking of Jewish philosophy, next door, Spinoza reads aloud his passionate letter to Alban Berg, urging the young man to hold fast to his Jewish identity. I was surprised. I thought Spinoza had walked away from his own Jewish identity.

Moving on, I hear a murmur of voices from the next floor up, so up I climb. In amazement, I find Rashi in the first room I enter, gently explaining the story of Joseph to an eager flock of students. I sit down among them, and hear Rashi unpack a detail that once bothered him: Who was that nameless man who told the young, feckless Joseph where to find his brothers out in the fields? Why, that was an angel! says Rashi.

I tear myself away, and out in the hall I decide to follow a single mature student who seems to be wearing some sort of breathing apparatus. Yes, he and I both will need some extra oxygen to endure the rarefied air in which Ramban expounds. Sitting on a hard bench in this austere room, I learn about the Divine Attributes — or rather, I learn why mere humans can never describe them. God cannot be said to possess attributes, such as mercy, for these would appear to be separate entities within God, and God is utterly one — not only solo but without any internal divisions. Indeed human language is inadequate even to state that “God exists,” for the divine existence is so utterly unlike our own. We can only hope to purify our intellectual souls of illogic and superstition so that after death our souls may be united with the ineffable, incorporeal One.

A bearded figure in a caftan, carrying many books, passes by the door in a hurry and distracts me. I follow him into a small lecture hall and I see it’s Ramban, about to deliver a lesson from his Torah commentary. Today, he wants to talk about two biblical texts that might seem contradictory, “Remember the Sabbath Day,” in Exodus 20, verse 8, and “Observe the Sabbath Day,” from Deuteronomy 5, verse 12. As usual, Ramban begins with someone else’s opinion, in this case that of the Talmudic rabbis who explained that both verbs are needed because one applies to men and one to women.

“But I wonder!” says Ramban. "Are we talking here only about human men and women, with their different obligations?" He thinks not; he links the two verbs to masculine and feminine sefirot, as the divine attributes are called in that Jewish mystical learning called kabbalah. Since we are face to face, Ramban attempts to explain the mystical significance here, and I’m sure the other two students are getting it, but I’m mystified. Fortunately, soon he turns to another controversy over the Sabbath, between Hillel and Shammai, about whether one needs to save the best food for the Sabbath day. Hillel says no, and RamBAN agrees, but he’s still careful to make sure Shammai gets the honor for naming the Jewish days of the week in relation to the Sabbath.

I linger with Ramban for a very long time. I appreciate his supple and elegant rhetoric, and his capacious habit of mind, so well able to see many sides of any controversy. But outside his hall, there’s another staircase, and it’s lit with a soft blue glow. Where can it lead? I must find out.

I climb to a room so brilliantly lit by glowing sapphires that my eyes are dazzled by the splendor. I dimly discern a pattern in the lights, but I can’t look directly at them. Indeed, I can hardly enter the room at all, for this is the portal to kabbalah. I know I am not ready nor worthy.

As I step back, I see that somehow, miraculously, other rooms on this level stretch far into the distance, out of my sight. I could remain here for the rest of my life and never get to the end of them. In each is an opportunity for Torah study, and the possibilities are endless. I step into just one, and find myself confronting the Hebrew text of the Books of Kings. Good thing I lingered on the ground floor in those Hebrew classes. I actually feel empowered to analyze some of the translation cruxes in these deceptively simple books, and venture my own solutions, as when in First Kings 21, verse 21, I translate “bee-ar-ti” (bet-ayin-rosh-tav-yod) as “I will burn you out” in Elijah’s terrible curse on Ahab.

At this point you are probably ready to curse me for this terribly extended metaphor of mansion rooms, so I take my leave of it. But in preparing my remarks for today, I struggled for a way to convey the truly exciting and inspiring intellectual and spiritual riches that my time at Hebrew College has brought me. Every graduate here today could take you on his or her own tour of this mansion, and its riches are so extensive that no two trips would be the same.

I want to emphasize, too, that these riches are made available at Hebrew College to people like me, in the midst of busy lives, with minimal Jewish education going in, but driven somehow on a search to find deeper meaning in our lives. Unlike those here today who are heading into Jewish professional work of various kinds, I have studied only for love. I’m a professor of rhetoric and American literature. I don’t expect to use my degree for professional advancement. The greatest gain for me has been the sense of closeness to God that I so often feel when I am studying.

Let me conclude with one more metaphor, and that is to compare Hebrew College not to a mansion, but to a sukkah, which is also supposed to be a place of study. But is not a sukkah too fragile for this work? I’ll paraphrase Samson Raphael Hirsch:

Untroubled is the life we lead in the sukkah, built by trust in God and covered by the love of God. Why worry that your dwelling is only temporary, that one day it will leave you or you will leave it? The covering may wither in winter storms, or God may call you outside, but the sheltering love of God is with you everywhere, constantly, and wherever it bids you to dwell, whether in mansion or transitory classroom, you may study as calmly and securely as if it were to be your house forever.

May it be so!

Patricia Bizzell is the Reverend John E. Brooks Professor of Humanities at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., where she has taught since 1978.

The Many Aspects of Prayer

Remarks delivered by Lev Meirowitz Nelson, Rab'13, MAJS'13

I’m honored to have been selected as my class’ representative today, but I have to admit that when I was asked to speak, I didn’t really know what kind of talk was called for. So I did what most of us in the rabbinical school have learned to do when we’re not sure how to proceed in life — I went to talk to (Dean) Sharon (Cohen Anisfeld). As she explained that my predecessors in the past three years have talked about creativity, pluralism and a sense of groundedness — all values Hebrew College holds dear — I began to realize that the aspect of our school I most wanted to share with all of you today is prayer.

The moment I realized how much I had to learn was a day toward the end of my first year, when Rabbi Ebn Leader was subbing for our instructor in nusach, the singsong melody of classical Jewish prayer. Ebn drew a triangle on the board and labeled the three corners God, congregation and prayer leader. Then he told us that a great leader of davening — in Hebrew, a "shaliach tzibbur," emissary of the community — has to be aware of what is going on in each of the three relationships indicated by the triangle: between the leader and congregation, leader and God and between the congregation and God.

Now, I have to stop here for a moment and tell you that I came to Hebrew College from Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 2008, at the time a mecca for knowledgeable young Jewish adults. I was involved in Hadar and Kol ZImrah, two independent prayer communities that saw themselves on the forefront of high-quality davening experiences. When I imagined learning the art of how to lead services as climbing the stairs of my fifth-floor walk-up apartment, I figured I was a good four, four and a half flights up. Sure, a few things to learn, but pretty far ahead of most everyone else. That day in Ebn’s classroom, it was as if I had opened the door at the top of the stairs and found not my familiar apartment but the Empire State Building — flights of stairs going up and up and up that I hadn’t even known existed, leading to levels I couldn’t begin to imagine. I could say a thing or two about my relationship as a shaliach tzibbur with the folks I was leading, but being aware of what was happening between me and God? Much less between each of the dozens of people in the room and God? Oy.

So, what was a dutiful young rabbinical student to do? I started climbing.

Let me tell you briefly about two memorable experiences from the last five years of stair-climbing. The first is the Blind Minyan, put together one Thursday morning by my classmate Tiferet Gordon and second-year student Bekah Goldman. Tiferet and Bekah asked us each to bring a blindfold to davening. Then they led us through a bare-bones version of the morning service, a few key verses sung over and over. Without being able to read the siddur, and without the distractions of the room around me, I was forced to focus on what was going on inside of me, and I was challenged to let go of my self-sufficiency, listen carefully and rely wholly on their leadership. Davening blind changed my perception of two sides of the triangle — what was going on between myself and God and between myself and the other people in the room.

The second story comes from a group of rabbinical and cantorial students that met with Ebn last year to explore the ancient Jewish practice of Targum — translating the Torah as it is being read into the vernacular — and how we could use it creatively to make the Torah service more relevant for our future congregants. On this particular week, we were reading Tzav, the second parshah in the book of Vayikra, which deals with the minutiae of sacrifices. Now, our teacher Professor Nehemiah Polen’s passion for Vayikra means that nobody who takes his class ever reads the book again in the same way, so I won’t dare say it is boring, but to the uninitiated reader it does come across as a bit, shall we say, technical.

Members of our group who had theater and dance backgrounds, however, suggested that since the text reads like a set of stage directions, we should perform it that way. The grace and beauty of their interpretation, done in mirror image on either side of the table as the Torah was being read, brought the whole scene magnificently to life and helped me see with fresh eyes the threads of continuity that link our most ancient forms of worship with the ritual of today’s synagogue.

So that brings us to today…but what about tomorrow? There is a trope out there in the liberal Jewish world that the future of synagogues lies in becoming centers of communities with a variety of access points — exciting adult education, fun singles mixers, engaging family programming, compelling Hebrew school and so on. And there is certainly truth in that. But Hebrew College has taught me that what happens in the sanctuary on Shabbat also matters. Prayer matters. And when prayer is done well — in a way that challenges and supports, excites and soothes, teaches and inspires — it ignites a spark in the community that catches and spreads warmth and light to every part of people’s lives.

Prayer, I have learned here, can be many things. It can be actual supplication for personal needs we hope God will answer, or an articulation of those needs that helps us recognize them and opens us to finding help elsewhere. It can be an actual unification of divided aspects within God that brings blessing to the world, or it can be a regular retelling and reestablishment of our sacred master narrative. It can be a means of bringing people together, or a means of attuning the individual to God’s presence in the world. It can be a tool for inculcating gratitude and awe in our daily lives, or it can be a daily enthroning of God and acceptance of divine sovereignty. It can be a moment of encounter with the Creator, or simply a rote routine of mumbled, familiar words. It can cement or destabilize our identities. It can be poetry, conversation, meditation, history, theology, song. Yes, it can even be dance. And the incredible thing is, we don’t have to choose. Prayer can be all of these things at once, or one at a time in quick and unpredictable succession. Handled creatively and thoughtfully, with sensitivity to Ebn’s three axes, prayer can be a dynamic, living, breathing part of our personal and communal lives.

Because Hebrew College puts tradition, creative reinterpretation and diversity at the core of its mission, we have spent the last five and six years exploring prayer through the lenses offered by many different classmates and teachers. Each of us — rabbinical, cantorial, education and master’s students — graduates today with different strengths, preferences and approaches to prayer, but with a common commitment to making it live and breathe in the American Jewish community.

I’m deeply grateful to all the people who have been with us on this journey, and I look forward to continuing to climb the stairs.

Lev Meirowitz Nelson begins work this summer as director of education at Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights in New York City.