What is the Torah, Actually? Preparing for Shavuot

What is the Torah, Actually? Preparing for Shavuot

Jun 3, 2024 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Public Event video | Video Lecture | Shavuot

We’ve heard its stories; we’ve heard it chanted in synagogue; we’ve seen it hoisted in the air displaying handwritten ink on parchment; we’ve taken classes on it. But what, actually, is the Torah? A law code? A history book? An ancient novel? A saga? None of these categorizations quite fits. In this session, we consider what defines the distinctive genre of the Torah, where this genre comes from, how it reappears in Jewish culture over the ages—and what addressing these questions can teach us about the Jewish religion.

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Across the Divide: Tips for Hard Conversations at the Seder Table

Across the Divide: Tips for Hard Conversations at the Seder Table

Apr 15, 2024 By Jan Uhrbach | Commentary | Pesah

Many of us are approaching seder this year with concern about seemingly unbridgeable divides about Israel. It’s tempting to try to avoid difficult conversations, but Passover isn’t merely a holiday of gratitude for a past redemption—it calls us to move toward transformation and freedom internally and externally, individually and collectively, especially with those closest to […]

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From Symposium to Seder: How The Rabbinic Adoption of Roman Party Conventions Became Our Passover Seder

From Symposium to Seder: How The Rabbinic Adoption of Roman Party Conventions Became Our Passover Seder

Apr 15, 2024 By Robert Harris | Public Event video | Video Lecture | Pesah

In the years following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jewish observance of Passover underwent a seismic shift. In lieu of the now impossible sacrificial Temple ritual, the rabbis adopted the Roman symposium in order to create a new type of festival meal, one that was rooted in new rituals and intellectual discourse. Together we explore what led to the rabbinic decision to conduct the Seder in this way, rather than opting for a different way to commemorate Passover, such as instructing the Jewish people to perform the sacrifice in their homes. We also examine some of the questions and answers in the Haggadah which are central features of the Roman symposium and core to our Haggadah. 

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Amalek and the Torah of Purim

Amalek and the Torah of Purim

Mar 22, 2024 By Yitz Landes | Commentary | Purim

The Purim most of us celebrate is one that marks a moment of redemption – when a descendent of Amalek tried and failed to destroy the Jews. It is the holiday that best encapsulates the sentiment “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat”. And yet, Jewish thinkers have also understood Purim as a day that touches upon the cornerstone of Judaism itself: the covenant between God and Israel via the acceptance of the Torah. How is this connection formed? What is the relationship between Torah and Purim? And, in a calendar already chock full of holidays celebrating the Torah, what place is left for Purim?

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Hagar’s Tears and Ours: Choosing Connection over Despair 

Hagar’s Tears and Ours: Choosing Connection over Despair 

Nov 3, 2023 By Ayelet Cohen | Commentary | Vayera | Rosh Hashanah

Genesis offers us narratives of our biblical ancestors struggling with many of the deepest challenges that we may face in our lives, whether in our familial or interpersonal relationships or as we face the uncertainty, fear, and loss of living in a broken world. Throughout the Genesis cycle we encounter families who accept the fallacy that there is not enough blessing to go around, and thus make terrible mistakes. Parents choose favorite children, siblings are pitted against each other as rivals. This year we return to these stories shattered by the horrific violence of the October 7th massacres, as we see a new and terrifying chapter unfold in the primal conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. We know that there is enough suffering and trauma and outrage to go around. We wonder if there is enough compassion or enough hope to carry us through this time.  

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Dancing with Torah

Dancing with Torah

Oct 6, 2023 By Amy Kalmanofsky | Commentary | Simhat Torah

Judaism’s richness comes from having two Torahs—the Written Torah [Torah shebikhtav], which Moses receives from God, and which we will soon celebrate on Simhat Torah,and the Oral Torah [Torah shebe’al peh], the Torah of commentary that extends from the ancient rabbis to today’s rabbis, scholars, and students of Judaism’s sacred texts and traditions. 

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Why We Gather

Why We Gather

Sep 29, 2023 By Alisa Braun | Commentary | Sukkot

This past motzei Shabbat marked 38 weeks since the demonstrations in Israel against the judicial overhaul began. Once again my social media accounts lit up with photos of the streets of Tel Aviv engulfed in crowds, powerful images of democracy in action. I find the sight of so many people gathering to be awe-inspiring and uplifting, and in a ceremony associated with the holiday of Sukkot, I have found some clues as to why witnessing and joining such gatherings can be so moving.

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How Shall It End?

How Shall It End?

Sep 26, 2023 By Gordon Tucker | Public Event video | Video Lecture | Shemini Atzeret

The Torah presents Shemini Atzeret—the “Eighth Day of Assembly”—as an add-on to the seven days of the Sukkot pilgrimage festival. The lulav is set aside, and the sukkah vacated. So, is it a “holiday about nothing”?  Or can we see in it a most meaningful coda to the Days of Awe, in which we learn profound lessons about endings? Through a close reading of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), the Yizkor prayer, and other significant texts, we explore answers to these questions.   

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Weren’t We Just Forgiven?

Weren’t We Just Forgiven?

Sep 22, 2023 By Joel Seltzer | Commentary | Ha'azinu | Shabbat Shuvah

On all other days, this blessing is a powerful reminder of the countless missteps that befall us every day of our lives. And each day, by asking God for forgiveness, we are being conscious and intentional about the types of people we wish to be. We recount—then we recommit. But on motzei Yom Kippur, this blessing makes little sense. Is it possible that I committed a sin in the last thirty seconds since the gates closed at the end of the Ne’ilah service? Shouldn’t this be my most blameless moment of the entire year, and yet, here I am, beating my breast and beseeching God for forgiveness yet again?

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The Yom Kippur Avodah as a Template for Spiritual Practice 

The Yom Kippur Avodah as a Template for Spiritual Practice 

Sep 19, 2023 By Eliezer B. Diamond | Public Event video | Video Lecture | Yom Kippur

It is generally thought that the Yom Kippur Haftarah taken from Isaiah is supposed to be read as being in tension with the Torah reading from Aharei Mot (Leviticus 16).  While the Torah reading focuses almost exclusively on the rites performed by the High Priest in the Temple on Yom Kippur, Isaiah declaims that the ritual piety without social justice and Shabbat observance is nothing more than worthless hypocrisy. 

While this observation has merit, it can encourage the view that ritual has no ethical or spiritual content. In this session we see that the Avodah, the Temple rites, can indeed serve as a model for a life of spiritual discipline.

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Clay in the Potter’s Hand

Clay in the Potter’s Hand

Sep 15, 2023 By Joel Seltzer | Commentary | Yom Kippur

Several years back, my wife and I took a summer vacation on Block Island, a 17-mile sanctuary of beaches, water, and biking off the southern coast of Rhode Island. We checked into a lovely bed and breakfast and made our way down the path towards our secluded beach cottage. The room was tiny, but a […]

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The Torah’s Stories—and Our Own

The Torah’s Stories—and Our Own

Sep 15, 2023 By Shuly Rubin Schwartz | Commentary | Rosh Hashanah

During these Yamim Noraim—these Days of Awe—we might expect to be poring over biblical texts that exhort us to act honestly, compassionately, and justly: the Ten Commandments perhaps, or the Holiness Code of Leviticus 19. Instead, the Torah portions we read as we usher in the New Year are stories that are filled with unbearable pain—first, in Genesis 21, Abraham banishes his wife Hagar and their son Ishmael, and then, in Genesis 22, he almost sacrifices his son Isaac. As we gather to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, why do we hear stories that are filled with themes of alienation, betrayal, and loss?  

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Exile and Return as a Spiritual Paradigm

Exile and Return as a Spiritual Paradigm

Sep 6, 2023 By Mychal Springer | Public Event video | Video Lecture | Rosh Hashanah | Yom Kippur

The haftarot of the High Holidays link personal teshuvah with the return to the land of Israel.  When we hold these two returnings together the spiritual and communal dimensions of teshuvah come into powerful focus. We explore the exiles of our soul and pathways of return in this season of teshuvah.

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The Torah of the New Year

The Torah of the New Year

Sep 6, 2023 By The Jewish Theological Seminary | Public Event video | Video Lecture | Rosh Hashanah | Shemini Atzeret | Yom Kippur

Join JTS faculty for a close reading of several of the biblical texts that we read during the fall holiday season. Discover new insights into these readings and reflect on what meanings they hold for us today.

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Teki’ot Suite for Shofar and Trumpet

Teki’ot Suite for Shofar and Trumpet

Aug 28, 2023 By The Jewish Theological Seminary | Short Video | Rosh Hashanah

H.L. Miller Cantorial Student Justin Pellis (’25) asked himself, “How can I approach the Shofar in a new way?” To answer, he composed “Te’kiot for Shofar and Trumpet” which debuted last fall and we are pleased to share in preparation for Yamim Noraim.

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Leaving Egypt with Compassion and Justice

Leaving Egypt with Compassion and Justice

Apr 8, 2023 By Ben Levy | Commentary | Pesah

The Torah reading for Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesah (Exodus 33:12–34:26) describes the aftermath of the Golden Calf. How do we make sense of this choice?

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The Primacy of Questions

The Primacy of Questions

Mar 31, 2023 By Joel Seltzer | Commentary | Shabbat Hagadol | Tzav | Pesah

The truth is, of all the Jewish holidays of the year, Pesah, requires the most forethought, the most planning, the most cleaning, and yes, the most questions! The Jewish tradition understands deeply that ritual does not simply “occur,” instead it is the result of painstaking preparation and “beginning with the end in mind.”

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Liberating our Planet: Climate Torah for the Passover Seder

Liberating our Planet: Climate Torah for the Passover Seder

Mar 31, 2023 By JTS Dayenu Circle | Commentary | Pesah

This year for Passover, JTS is proud to share Liberating our Planet: Climate Torah for the Passover Seder. Passover is an annual reminder that profound changes to our lived reality are possible, and now more than ever, we as a Jewish community need to pursue profound action to stop the climate crisis. This project is […]

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Between Words and Pictures: Medieval Illuminated Haggadot from the JTS Library  

Between Words and Pictures: Medieval Illuminated Haggadot from the JTS Library  

Mar 23, 2023 By Marcus Mordecai Schwartz | Public Event video | Pesah

This session explored some of the priceless treasures in JTS’s collection of Haggadah manuscripts. We consider how the text of the Haggadah and the accompanying hand-drawn illustrations are—or are not—in conversation with each other and make some other unexpected discoveries between the covers of these rare medieval manuscripts. 

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Remembering Together

Remembering Together

Apr 22, 2022 By William Plevan | Commentary | Pesah

The celebration of Pesah is an outstanding example of the central role that memory plays in Jewish tradition. Underscoring the importance of memory for sustaining human societies, Elie Wiesel wrote, “Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” Communal memory, of course, goes far beyond what any one individual can remember and experience. And yet, what makes memory so powerful as a vehicle for communal identity is that it speaks to us on a personal level.

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