Blog: Hebrew College

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Open Beit Midrash at Hebrew College

There's still lots of specific content I want to write about from my week studying at Hebrew College, but first I'm going to post a general review before things start to fade too much.

Pico review: I'll definitely go back. :-) But you probably want to know more. Read more…


Friday night we gathered for services, dinner, and some singing. Some of the local students brought family members; others did not come. There were also some faculty members from the school there. There were probably about two dozen people total.

We started with kabbalat shabbat and ma'ariv. The Reform movement, at least in my experience, heavily abridges kabbalat shabbat; this is in part to make room for Friday-night torah reading and sermons without being butt-numbing, I'm sure, but I think the psalms in general and the ones in kabbalat shabbat specifically do not tend to resonate for most Reform Jews. I wish we would reconsider with singing. Reading psalms might be boring, but singing them can be quite uplifting. By the way, the one Conservative synagogue where I've attended several times on Friday night also abridges this part of the service, though not as heavily. So it's not just Reform.

Anyway, we sang all those psalms, and of course L'cha Dodi, all to tunes I didn't previously know but could figure out, and it was really nice. Ma'ariv was comparatively short and businesslike. We ended with kiddush, which was about the time I realized that we had not been given the chance to individually light candles, so I looked at the ones that were already lit and said the bracha over them before proceeding.

We prayed from Siddur Sim Shalom. I hadn't previously noticed that there's a small collection of z'mirot (songs) for Shabbat in there. After dinner we sang through some of those; again, I didn't know the melodies, but I was able to fake it. I also didn't previously know the texts, but singing is usually slower than reading (it was here) so I was able to mostly read along. I'm still a slower reader of Hebrew than I'd like to be, but I'm a lot better than I used to be.


We were on our own for Shabbat morning. Read more…

In transit

I'm writing this from LaGuardia, where it's past the official boarding time and the plane isn't here yet. I suspect we'll be late.

Last night after Shabbat Magid came to visit and we went to JP Lick's for conversation and ice cream. (This seems to be canonical; I've gone for ice cream and conversation several times this week.) We sat at a table outside (the weather was good, not too hot nor sticky) until an employee kicked us out and we noticed that it was 12:30. Oops. :-) I don't mind; I hope Magid didn't have any early-morning plans.

Several times over the week when classmates have asked me what I was planning to do that night (or what I'd done the previous night), I've said things like "have dinner with friends". People have commented on my having local friends as if it's unusual; they always want to ask where I know them from. Usually I've said something vague like "college" (technically true of some of my SCA friends, though we didn't necessarily attend the same schools) or "mailing lists". In the age of the internet, is this still that unusual? While it's not true that I know someone in every city, the last several times I've taken a trip, I've had a connection to at least one person on the other end -- even though that hasn't been the purpose of the trip. But, all that said, I found I wasn't ready to broach the SCA or LiveJournal with my classmates.

To continue the theme, when we finished up today around 12:30, I gambled and called Goldsquare (who I'd failed to connect with earlier in the week). I had a 4:00 flight and was calling from Newton, so this was dicey and boiled down to "are you free right now?". Which he and his sweetie were, and we had time to have a bite in Brookline before they kindly dropped me off at the airport. I enjoyed meeting her and catching up with both of them. (Though I hadn't met her, I felt like I knew her at least a little via his writing.)

6:04 and my 6:15 flight is just starting to board. More later.

Later: left 45 minutes late, arrived on time. Either they pad the schedule drastically or we caught one heck of a tailwind. :-)

Thursday and Friday summary

Again, summary now and more later (I hope): Read more…

Wednesday summary

I'm short on time right now, so I'll summarize what we covered now and fill in details later.

Wednesday morning:

  • Study with a partner (and not just on your own) is essential, and it's a core value of this school.

  • II Samuel chapter 21 is the rather disturbing story of how the Gibbeonites get revenge for a wrong done to them by Saul. (King David ends up handing over sons of Saul knowing they will be killed.) Yevamot 78b-79a discusses this in some detail. It's fascinating, and I'll come back to it later.

  • We looked at a modern text on the obligations of Israel to its Arab citizens that hearkens back to the original situation the Gibbeonites were in.

  • We looked at another modern text (by a rabbi who is an adviser of President Bush) applying this same talmudic passage to war and responses to terror. Looking at this and the previous in sharp contrast was interesting.

  • Another theme: halacha is a centuries-long process of seeking ("halacha" from "walk"); it is not just a static handbook.

  • We had some time so we started looking at the story of Serach bat Asher (Mekhilta d'Rabbi Yishmael on Beshelach)

Wednesday afternoon: guest lecture from Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, dean of the rabbinic school, titled "Leadership in Response to Diversity and Change".

  • Two fundamental questions of leadership: "why me?" and "who knows?".

  • Torah passage where Moshe asks God to appoint a leader after him (Pinchas): enumerates some criteria.

  • Bamidbar Rabbah elaborates on "lord of the spirits".

  • Midrash Tanchuma on Pinchas is about diversity in others (including those being led).

  • Leadership is not inherited here; it's a meritocracy (unlike priesthood). Meritocracy can be better for supporting change; inheritance can be better for maintaining the status quo.

  • Themes of connecting with individuals versus serving groups. (Oh boy do I see that tension in my congregational experiences!)

  • Leader as midwife.

Other notes

The Tanakh I brought with me (JPS Hebrew-English, the larger of the editions I've seen) is the perfect size for supporting my iBook on the dorm desk (to get the screen closer to my eyes and the keys up a little). This feels almost, but not quite, sacreligious. :-)

Thursday night about half of the students (and one of the faculty members) went out for dinner. I had hoped everyone would come, but most of the students are local and thus have other obligations (spouses, kids, etc). It was a nice dinner with those who did make it.

That's turning out to be a key difference between this program and my experience of Sh'liach K'hilah. In SK, no one was local: almost everyone stayed in the dorm on campus, the days started early in the morning and ended late at night, we were with each other most of that time, and there were basically no outside distractions. The group had a real chance to get cohesive. Here, two-thirds of the students disappear soon after classes end at 4 or 4:30, only a few of us are staying in the dorm, and while I'm enjoying my interactions with most of my classmates as individuals, the group isn't really gelling strongly. That's not better or worse, just different. On the plus side, it's giving me time to spend with local friends. :-)

After the dinner tonight I met up with Siderea (yay!). We walked around the area near the Hynes T stop, including 15 minutes in the Boston Library (it was near closing time). It's a neat place -- a library with a strong secondary identity as a gallery. Tonight they had a nifty exhibit of miniature books (I mean really tiny; they used coins as size indicators in some cases). Some of the miniature books came with miniature magnifying glasses, which was a nice touch. Some of the books were a little larger and I could imagine one actually holding them and reading rather than just showing off. After we got kicked out of the library we walked around the area some and then spent a while sitting in a cafe talking geekery. :-)

Part of the T is out of service, so for the last few stops heading back to the school we got kicked off the train and transferred to a bus. For all that the trains do a good job of communicating upcoming stops, the bus I was on sucked. There was a banner-style digital sign up front that was dutifully scrolling date and time past us twice a minute. Once I saw a request that people give up seats to the elderly. But it was not used to name upcoming stops -- and since it was stopping at the T stops, not on every corner, that would not have been burdensome. It irked me because I had not memorized the map (hadn't anticipated the problem) and I would not recognize my stop at night from inside the bus. The bus was packed, so walking to the front to ask the driver wasn't going to happen. I had to ask other passengers (characteristically, most did not know what stops we were passing), which was frustrating. I wonder if this was a failure of the system or a failure of that particular driver.

Tuesday afternoon

Continuing with the early history of Moshe and people influential in his life, we spent much of the afternoon looking at Exodus Rabbah 1:26 and its sources. The torah tells us that Paro's daughter retrieved Moshe from the river, that he was beautiful, that she knew he was a Hebrew, and that she raised him as her own anyway. The midrash says that he was a real magnet; people were overcome with his beauty, and even Paro had a soft spot for him. Paro's magicians warned him, when they saw him playing with Paro's crown and putting it on his own head, that this might be the one they'd warned him about, the one who would take away his kingdom. They proposed killing him, but Yitro (!) said no, he's a child and doesn't understand, so how about a test: bring out a gold coin and a glowing coal. If he goes for the coin then ok, you can kill him; if he goes for the coal then leave him alone. They do this, Moshe goes for the coin, and the angel Gavriel pushes his hand to the coal instead. Moshe puts it in his mouth, which is why he is later "slow of speech".

Ok, lots there. Some thoughts:

First, Paro's daughter. How did she pull this off? Was she the only one who knew Moshe's origin? How did she explain suddenly showing up with a child? (What'd she do, fake a pregnancy?) I'm willing to assuume that she could silence her hand-maidens. Or was she thumbing her nose at her father, but the child was oozing so much cuteness that he didn't care?

Paro's daughter paid the wet-nurse, who was a slave and presumably didn't need to be paid? Compassion, or something else?

I'd previously heard midrashim that Yitro was in Paro's court (also Job and Bila'am). I'm still puzzled by it. How much does Yitro know -- is he just proposing a test of an anonymous child, or does he see something of the future? While we're on personnel, I'm mildly curious about the significance of Gavriel in particular being the angel who shows up. I don't have a strong argument for anyone else, but I just wonder where else Gavi shows up.

This is the second time that Paro has heard "there there, it's just a child and can't mean anything by that". By the way, note that this argument is among Paro's advisors; Paro himself doesn't offer an opinion.

One effect of the coal is as stated -- to support the speech issue recorded by the torah for Moshe. Another might be to disfigure this beautiful child so people will stop paying so much attention to him. (The midrash says that Paro's daughter wouldn't let the child leave the palace, but later Moshe (age unknown but closer to adulthood for sure) goes out and kills the Egyptian. Did this incident help him to move more freely? (Is the killing of the Egyptian also a killing of Moshe's identity as an Egyptian?)

Moshe went for the gold (the wrong answer) initially.

Things pointed out by the rabbi: This is the only place in torah (in tanakh?) where an infant cries; the others are older. The introduction of Moshe is with a cry (speech); his undoing is also related to speech (hitting the rock instead of speaking to it, and yelling at the people). here are echos of B'reishit in Moshe's early story; the phrase translated as "handsome" is "ki tov", the same description applied to the days of creation, and he is placed in a "teva" (same word as the ark built by Noach).

"Moshe" doesn't mean "I drew him out of the water" like the torah tells us; it's an active participle. Moshe does the drawing out; he's not being drawn out. (I think I mentioned this yesterday.)

After we'd talked about this for a while we started to look at a text from the S'fas Emet, a 19th-century Chassidic writer. I might be reaching the conclusion that I'm not a fan of the S'fas Emet, but it's possible that we just didn't allow enough time for a difficult text. Maybe I'll write more later.

Tuesday morning (part 2)

Another mishna we looked at Tuesday morning was Eduyot 5:6-7: Akabya ben Mehalalel made four rulings. (The two we could find were pickyune.) The rabbis told him to retract them and they'd put him in charge. He said "no can do; it'll look like I did it for the wrong reasons". So they ostracized him (the verb is "nidu"). As he was dying he told his son to retract those teachings; when the son asked "why didn't you do it?" Akabya gives a different answer: that he learned those teachings from a majority and was thus bound to follow them, but the son is not so bound. The son asks for an introduction (a reference?) to the rabbis and Akabya says no, you'll sink or swim on your own actions.

So, a few thoughts. First, the rabbis put him in an awful position; he couldn't accept that offer and got in trouble for declining. But there's got to be more to it; rabbis disagree with each other all the time in the talmud. (Even Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi, who compiled the mishna, is sometimes recorded as a minority opinion by it!) Shouldn't it have been sufficient for Akabya to stop teaching the things that had fallen out of favor? Why did he need to actively renounce them? I presume this is not the case of the elder who teaches falsely to inspire practice (which we talked about yesterday), because (1) they don't try him for a capital offense and (2) they're ready to make him their leader.

And why didn't Akabya make the same argument to them that he did to his son -- that he learned from a majority, and we follow the majority, and it's not his fault that a different majority is in charge now?

In sticking to his original teachings he seems to be saying that you've got to stand by what you see as truth -- but then he tells his son that he can do something different, that truth isn't absolute. I think it's not about truth; he's giving his son a legal out, perhaps making sure that his son never heard the teachings under the same conditions that he did.


We then turned to Yevamot 1:4, which resonates more strongly today. The jumping-off point is convoluted and I don't understand it (I'm not the only one), but we bypassed that to get to the meatier part. (Our professor described this tractate as kind of a "shell game"; it's about family relations and sometimes you have to diagram it to understand the issue of the second cousin's wife's half-sister's son, or whatever. Err, I made that example up.) Anyway...

Hillel and Shammai disagreed about almost everything, even in matters of who could marry whom, but yet there were still marriages between their houses. And they disagreed about kashrut, but they did not avoid handling each others' utensils. (For example, if a Hillel pot ended up mixed in with your Shammai pots and they touched, you didn't worry about whether your pot was at risk of being treif.)

The point seems to be that we treat people by the standards of their own traditions, not ours, if they are acting in good faith. If Hillel says his daughter is allowed to marry Shammai's son, Shammai has to consider her elligible. If Shammai eats in Hillel's house and Hillel says the food is kosher, that's good enough for Shammai. In both cases, this is true even if, in your house, the daughter wouldn't be elligible and the food wouldn't be kosher. This is a huge issue today, with people from one strain of Judaism saying that those from another aren't good enough (or their food isn't good enough or their prayer isn't good enough). We're used to judging others by our own standards, but what would happen if we all tried to judge each other by the others' standards? There might be a lot more harmony.

I asked if this was just about schools (or strains) of Judaism, or if the same argument applied to individuals. If someone of Beit Hillel says the food is kosher by Hillel standards, great. If Ploni says the food is kosher by his standards, do we similarly consider the food kosher? I asked the question but didn't get an answer. I know that some of my friends have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy and others use their own standards in that situation. I'm not sure what's right; Beit Hillel has the weight of Beit Hillel behind it, and the Satmar Chassidim have the weight of Satmar behind them, and the Reconstructionist movement has the weight of Reconstructionism behind it, but what has good old Ploni got? Is the difference in how well the standards are articulated? (That is, you can consult sources to understand what Hillel considers kosher, but not what Ploni does.)

Interlude: non-class stuff

First, thanks to "Mr. Fixer", as he is known on LJ, for calling and talking me through my emacs issues (on the Mac). It turns out that there are three ways to launch emacs (different emacses) on this machine; one I didn't know about and the other two were clashing over the .emacs file. For my own future reference: running emacs from an xterm works, and so does running from the Mac shell if I use the "-q" option to surpress the .emacs file. (Since the .emacs file is for a different version, with settings for fonts and colors that don't matter when running in a shell, that's fine.)

I discovered tonight (when trying to install a mouse driver Hakamadare clued me in about) that I don't know the root password for my machine. Err, oops. I wonder how I can fix that. (Maybe I'm lucky and the person I got the machine from remembers.)


Wednesday night I joined Andrew and his family, Mabfan, and Gnomi for dinner, conversation, and ice cream. I had a good time. How can you not, when in a single evening you can geek about halacha, science fiction, comics (that was mostly Mabfan), TV, and music? :-) Mabfan or Andrew, please remind me of the name of that TV show you were so excited about getting on DVD?

Much time was spent trying to find a way, within halacha, for someone (I won't out you here) to read the new Harry Potter book on Shabbat. (Some of my suggestions were rejected because they would involve waiting until morning; apparently solutions that don't involve starting by quarter past midnight aren't interesting.) I hope you find a solution, but if not, I suspect a 22-hour delay isn't fatal... :-)


Erik (one of my cats) is staying with a friend while I'm here, and apparently he's very comfortable in her house. She can offer him avian theatre (we don't get many birds visible from cat-accessible windows), and he quickly established his place in the household. Good, as he'll be going back for Pennsic in a couple weeks. :-) I miss the cats, but knowing they're in good hands helps.


Never mind the academic stuff: I'm beginning to wonder if I would have the physical stamina to attend this school if I lived in this city. That's one steep hill! I'm staying in a dorm at the top of the hill for this program (so no biggie), but the houses up here are all in the multi-million-dollar range, so ordinary people don't live here. (Actually, I wonder about the people who live in some of the humongous houses up here. Are they insanely rich, or large families or other groups? Some of these places look like they'd easily be 10,000 square feet.)

There appear to be no vending machines on Hebrew College's campus. How odd.


I've had a few instances of an odd style of encounter here, and I wonder if it's a Boston thing or if I'm just unlucky. I have asked people on the street (or in the T) what should be simple questions (e.g. "which of these intersecting streets is Center?" when there's no sign), and people who seem to be from around here don't know. In the example I just gave, it was a group of students who'd just gotten off a city bus. On the T, I asked someone who seemed to be a regular T rider (based on overheard conversation) "does this train go to Government Center" (a big stop), she said she didn't know, and then she got on my train (after I got the answer elsewhere) and rode it past that stop. There have been a couple other cases, too. Is this a "don't wanna talk to strangers" thing, or what?

Tuesday morning (part 1)

Tuesday morning started with davening, which was optional. (They made a point of saying that this is a study program and they don't assume everyone is religious and that's fine.) We got a minyan by the t'filah. The leader ended with a beautiful poem by Solomon ibn Gabriel (11th centuury Spain). I have a copy in Hebrew; I'll translate and post when I get home.

In the morning session we looked at several passages from mishna. (We're working forward in time in this class; tomorrow we'll do some gemara.) There are two broad approaches to text, the professor said: you can go verse by verse through scripture elaborating and deriving law, which is thorough but results in a hodge-podge, or you can gather up the various derived lessons and sort by topic, which is what the mishna set out to do. It's a worthy goal, but then the gemara came along and commented on each of those mishniyot, so the full talmud is back to the original chaos. :-) But hey, I enjoy the study either way, and if you actually want to jump straight to the answer (look something up), that's what law codes are for. Read more…