Fall Series: “Living a Life of Meaning”

After an overwhelming response to our two online learning series during the spring and summer, JTS is launching a new series of webinars starting Monday, October 5, in which our renowned faculty and scholars will reflect deeply on the current disruption in our lives—including, for many, close encounters with mortality. Called “Living a Life of Meaning,” each 90-minute session will explore the role that Jewish values, ethics, and Torah play in the quest for a well-lived life. 

Participants sign up for the whole series of 11 webinars but may join whichever sessions capture their interest, as each session is also designed to stand on its own. Discussions will range from the Kotzker Rebbe’s teaching that “nothing is as whole as a broken heart” to the Torah’s take on happiness; from medieval and modern understandings of the purpose of mitzvot to biblical meditations on living with uncertainty and vulnerability; from the responsibility of bearing witness, to the nuances of how we transmit our heritage and values to the next generation.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have seen a tremendous thirst for deep and meaningful Torah study informed by top-notch scholarship,” said Rabbi Julia Andelman, JTS’s director of Community Engagement. “Hundreds of people—from almost every state and province in North America and over a dozen other countries—now join us every Monday to learn with JTS’s outstanding faculty and fellows, who are bringing their expertise to bear on this unprecedented moment.”

Here’s a lineup of sessions, which will take place each Monday from October 5 to December 21, from 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. ET. (We will break on November 16 for a special interfaith event called “Dialogue of Love: Interreligious Cooperation and Global Well-Being.”)


October 5

Anticipating Death and Finding Satisfaction in Life: The Profound Wisdom of Kohelet

With Dr. David Kraemer, Joseph J. and Dora Abbell Librarian and Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics

Wise people will have different views about what constitutes a “Life of Meaning.” But no one researched this question more completely than the biblical author, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). In this session, we review his report in Ecclesiastes ch. 2 and evaluate his conclusions concerning what truly makes a life “well-lived.”

October 12

Generosity, Gratitude, and Faith: Rav Eliyahu Dessler’s Integrative Approach to Creating a Meaningful Life

With Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, Rabbi Judah Nadich Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics

What is the relationship between our level of generosity and our beliefs, our attitudes, and our actions? For Rav Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953, England/Israel), love, faith, empathy, and social bonding are consequences of generosity—not its causes. In this session, we will discuss Rav Dessler’s insights and his vision for living meaningfully.

October 19

Gifts of Wisdom: The Historical Traditions and Values of the Ethical Will

With Dr. Stefanie Siegmund, Women’s League Chair in Jewish Gender and Women’s Studies 

At pivotal moments that make us think about death—encounters with serious illness, the loss of loved ones, advancing age, or even bringing children into our lives—we turn to lawyers to write or revise our wills. Writing a will is an opportunity to consider our priorities as we plan to distribute our estates to the people, organizations, and causes that we care about. What if you also tried to write a letter that would be read by your descendants, perhaps even at your funeral, about your values? What would you say? How does Judaism inform these values? In this session, we will study testaments left by a medieval Jewish man and a late Renaissance Jewish woman to explore their values and their gifts, and to contemplate reclaiming the tradition of the ethical will.

October 26

Spiritual Meaning and Inspiration in Hasidic Teaching

WIth Dr. Eitan Fishbane, Associate Professor of Jewish Thought

In the voluminous and rich literature of hasidic homilies from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries (in Poland, Ukraine, and beyond), we encounter a pervasive and multifaceted effort to read the Torah as a portal into the discovery of renewed spiritual meaning, the wonder and mystery of the inner life of the person, and the discovery of God and the sacred in all the elements of the world—especially in the Torah and the mitzvot. In this session, we will explore several powerful examples in which hasidic spiritual masters read the Hebrew Bible figuratively in order to often playfully and brilliantly convey deep spiritual insights about the nature of life, of the world, and of God‘s immanent presence in our lives.

November 2

The Torah’s Take on Happiness

With Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, director of JTS’s Block / Kolker Center for Spiritual Arts 

Moses’s final speech concludes with a declaration of the happiness of being a Jew: “Happy are you, O Israel!” But does the Torah describe any individual as happy? While the pursuit of happiness is one of the founding ideals of American culture, the Torah is remarkably sparse in its references to anyone’s happiness. What is the Jewish understanding of happiness, as expressed in the Torah and its interpretations? Is the American ideal of happiness a Jewish concept at all?

November 9

Nurturing Character, Community, and Meaning-Making Through Jewish Education

With Dr. Jeffrey Kress, Dr. Bernard Heller Chair in Jewish Education 

Even as we are zooming forward into a new, Covid-altered educational landscape, there are goals of Jewish education—whether in schools, camps, home, or other settings—that are enduring. In this session, we will look at Jewish education through the lenses of character, community, and meaning-making to provide context for current discussions of online and hybrid learning, and to expand our thinking about the goals and processes of Jewish learning.

November 23

The Wholeness of a Broken Heart

With Rabbi Mychal Springer, manager of Clinical Pastoral Education at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City and adjunct professor, JTS

Life’s challenges raise up the reality of human vulnerability. Too often, people experience the heartbreak of suffering. In this session, we will explore the paradoxical teaching of the Kotzker Rebbe that “there is nothing more whole than a broken heart.”

November 30

The Certainty of Uncertainty

With Dr. Alan Cooper, Elaine Ravich Professor of Jewish Studies

Psalm 84, quoted in the Havdalah service, assures us that human felicity arises out of trust in God. But trust is hard to come by and felicity seems remote in times of duress. In this session, we will examine biblical texts that acknowledge the challenges of doubt and uncertainty and offer ways of meeting those trials with hope, faith, and trust.

December 7

Trauma and Testimony in an Oversharing Society

With Dr. Edna Friedberg, JTS fellow and historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 

The pandemic has forced us to live much of our lives online. But what happens when experiences that used to be private and intimate are exposed to the glare of public scrutiny? How is the impact of experience changed by retelling it, and does sharing our experiences make them more meaningful? Join Holocaust historian Dr. Edna Friedberg for a discussion of how refugees from war-torn Europe were recast as “Holocaust survivors” and how trauma morphs when repackaged for broader consumption. The session will include pioneering early audio and film recordings of survivors as young people in the 1940s and 50s.

December 14

Mitzvot and the Path to Human Flourishing

With Dr. Yonatan Brafman, Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics; Director of the MA Program in Jewish Ethics

The medieval decisor and philosopher Moses Maimonides claimed that the mitzvot (commandments) are a divine law. By this, he meant not only that the mitzvot originate with God, but that they were a medium by which people could flourish both politically and personally—which for Maimonides meant the attainment of intellectual comprehension. This session will explore the significance of Maimonides’ view and how two modern Jewish thinkers, Mordecai Kaplan and Eliezer Berkovits, built on Maimonides’ ideas to develop their own understandings of how observance of the mitzvot can advance human growth and the attainment of perfection.

December 21

The Book Smugglers of the Vilna Ghetto: Choosing a Life of Meaning Under the Specter of Death

With Dr. David Fishman, Professor of Jewish History

In Vilna, “the Jerusalem of Lithuania,” a group of Jewish writers and intellectuals risked their lives to rescue Jewish books, manuscripts, and art from the Nazis. While working as slave laborers for a Nazi looting agency, they “stole” Jewish cultural treasures from their masters, smuggled them into the ghetto, and hid them in underground cellars and bunkers. The few members of this group who survived the war returned to Vilna after its liberation and led an operation to retrieve the treasures. The book smugglers of the Vilna Ghetto believed that culture and Jewish heritage were ultimate values, greater than their own life or death. They chose to engage in a life of meaning, even as their deportation and murder was imminent. This inspiring story of Jewish spiritual resistance can help us reflect on what ultimate values we might lay down our lives for.