Insightful Jewish Interpretation of the Pentateuch: SBL Panel Discussion of Shai Held, The Heart of Torah

Rabbi Shai Held is Dean and Chair of Jewish Thought at the Hadar Institute, an ecumenical egalitarian study center in New York City that he helped found in 2006, along with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Ethan Tucker.

My initial introduction to Shai Held was in January 2015 when he contacted me to discuss the imago Dei in Genesis 1, in preparation for a public lecture he was going to give on human dignity and police violence against African Americans. He had read my book The Liberating Image and wanted to clarify some aspects of the interpretation. We first communicated by email, then had a telephone conversation on the topic.

Since then I have attended the Hadar Institute (previously called Mechon Hadar) for two of their annual Executive Seminars and I wrote an initial blog about my experience.

Middleton with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Shai Held at Hadar, July 2016

Shai Held (son of Ugaritic scholar Moshe Held) has written an in-depth study of the theology of Abraham Heschel (Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence) that explores the complexity of his thought. This is his published dissertation, written under the supervision of Jon D. Levenson at Harvard.

Held’s latest publication is The Heart of Torah, 2 vols. (Jewish Publication Society, 2017). This is a compilation of short theological-ethical essays on selected passages from the weekly Torah portion in the Jewish lectionary cycle. Volume 1 covers texts in Genesis and Exodus, while volume 2 covers texts in Leviticus to Deuteronomy.

I (along with approximately 7,000 others) subscribed to receiving these essays every week by email; and I have been profoundly moved by Held’s insights. So when I found out that the essays would be published in a two-volume collection, I contacted a number of Christian biblical scholars to join me in writing endorsements for the publication.

I have also organized a panel discussion on The Heart of Torah at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Diego this coming November. The panel will consist of both Jewish and Christian biblical scholars, who will share their responses to the book and its project. 

Although the exact date and time has not yet been set, this is the lineup of presenters.

Presiding:

  • J. Richard Middleton, Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College

Participants:

  • Ellen Davis, Duke Divinity School
  • David Frankel, Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies
  • S. Tamar Kamionkowski, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
  • Jacqueline Lapsley, Princeton Theological Seminary
  • Dennis Olson, Princeton Theological Seminary
  • Marvin Sweeney, Claremont School of Theology

Response:

  • Shai Held, The Hadar Institute

This panel discussion is jointly sponsored by the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures program unit and the National Association of Professors of Hebrew.

Here is a newspaper article (The Times of Israel, September 2017) on Shai Held’s combination of Jewish piety and social ethics

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Walking and Driving while Black—Differences within America and between America and Jamaica

Here are two tales of police encounters, both by black men in America.

One is by Esau McCaulley, my colleague who teaches New Testament at Northeastern Seminary. The other is by Garnette Cadogan, a writer friend who moved from Jamaica to the USA some years ago.

Driving while Black

In “Driving while Black,” Esau describes his experiences with the police as a black man driving in Alabama, his home state. He then contrasts this with his later (quite different) experiences in New England.

Esau’s piece was published in July 2016 on an Anglican website called Covenant.

Walking while Black

In “Walking while Black,” Garnette describes his love of walking, which began on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, when he was a schoolboy. He then describes his very different experience walking the streets of New Orleans, and later New York.

Garnette’s piece was originally published in October 2015 in the inaugural issue of Freeman’s (an anthology of writings collected by John Freeman); the theme of this issue was Arrival. The piece was re-published in July 2016 on the website of Literary Hub.and also in The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race (Scribner, 2016), ed. Jesmyn Ward.

Each of these is well worth reading.

You can access them on the web—Esau’s here, Garnette’s here.

Or you can download them as PDFs—Esau’s here, Garnette’s here.

I’d be interested in your thoughts; and I’m sure the authors would be too.

You can hear a PRI interview with Garnette Cadogan about his walking experiences here.

And you can watch his TEDx talk on walking here.

Does the Bible Support or Dismantle Racism?

My friend and colleague at Northeastern Seminary, Esau McCaulley, recently (Wednesday, October 11, 2017) gave a talk for the Nickel City Forum, a monthly meeting of Anglicans, held in Buffalo, NY, to discuss complex issues of faith and life in today’s world.

I myself will be giving a talk for this same group on Thursday, February 8, 2018. My topic will be how best to read the Genesis 1 creation account in our current polarized religious culture.

Esau’s talk was entitled: “Does the Bible Support or Dismantle Racism?

He began his talk with a quotation from Fredrick Douglass (1818-1895), “an African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman” (Wikipedia), who lived for a time in Rochester, NY.

Due to Douglass’s significance for Rochester, the University of Rochester hosts The Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies.

Here is the quote, taken from Douglass’s 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.

“I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. . . . What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”

You can read Esau’s timely analysis of how the Bible counters racism here.