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The Templeton Ideas Podcast is a show about the most awe-inspiring ideas in our world and the people who investigate them.

Transcripts of our episodes are made available as soon as possible. They are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

Rabbi Shai Held is a theologian, scholar, and educator. Named as one of the most influential rabbis in America, he is the President, Dean, and Chair in Jewish Thought at the Hadar Institute, which he co-founded in 2006 in New York City. He is the author of several books, including a biography of Abraham Joshua Heschel; and The Heart of the Torah, a collection of essays on the Hebrew Bible. His newest book is entitled Judaism is about love: Recovering the heart of Jewish life. Shai joins the podcast to discuss his family’s complex relationship with Jewish tradition, the centrality of love in Judaism, and his advice for people feeling overwhelmed by societal challenges.

Tom: Well, Shai, welcome to the show.

Shai: Thanks for having me, Tom.

Tom: I want to start by asking you, where did you grow up? And tell me about some of your fondest childhood memories.

Shai: I grew up in Rockland County, New York, where there is very little to do but go shopping. my fondest childhood memories include hanging out with my father, who was an academic who spent probably 18 hours a day in his office, and I would hang out and sit at his feet. And it’s funny, now when I look back on my childhood, I realize how formative that was for me as I sit in an office that is surrounded by books where I spend a lot of my time. It’s funny how those moments, reverberate in all kinds of ways in our lives. I also spent a lot of time watching cartoons and professional wrestling.

Tom: That is, very fun. I remember some World Wrestling Federation Hulk Hogan matches from my childhood.

Shai: Exactly, exactly.

Tom: Where did that kind of bookishness of your father rub off on you at an early age?

Shai: You know, it’s funny, my father’s bookishness rubbed off on me, but in ways that I’m not sure he knew what to make of. I spent 6th to 10th grade reading the autobiography of every conceivable baseball player. And my father would say, it’s not the best content, but at least it’s teaching you to love reading. And eventually, you’ll start reading things that matter. That was kind of, his take. It was only later that I feel like I, came into my own as interested in great fiction, interested in, philosophy. I was not precocious in that way as a little kid.

Tom: Yeah. And out of curiosity, what was your father’s field of study?

Shai: So, I’ll tell you the obscure version and then the accessible version. The obscure version is my father was a world-renowned expert in Semitic languages and cultures. He read and spoke all these ancient languages.

What he did that made it more relevant beyond the tiny subfield is that he was interested in using philology to understand words in the Bible that hadn’t been understood for thousands of years. So, when I needed to explain to people what my father did, I said he was a Bible professor. But if you asked him what he did, he would have said he was a kind of linguist and philologist.

Tom: Mm hmm.

Shai: What I would say that, really rubbed off on me in a deep way is that he was able, to, stare at a text for hours until it revealed the meaning he was waiting for. And that kind of love of texts and patient, slow reading ended up rubbing off on me in very, dramatic ways. I think it took me probably a couple decades to realize how deeply it had rubbed off on me.

Tom: Tell me about how Judaism was practiced in your family.

Shai: My family had a, I would say, somewhat odd relationship to Jewish tradition. On the one hand, Jewish culture and texts were everything to my family. On the other hand, we were religiously nonobservant. My father, who was really a European Jewish intellectual in this way, wanted his kids to be learned. So, I went to Orthodox day schools, even though we did not do very much at home. I always joke that I was raised in a kind of cognitive dissonance experiment. Send the kid to a traditionally observant religious school and at home, live a secular life and then see what comes out. And in fact, my brother, my sister, and I all ended up in very different places because of that kind of dissonant experience.

Tom: Interesting. Interesting.

Shai: I should say my parents, who were the age of many of my friends’ grandparents, my father was almost 50 when I was born. My parents had been born in Europe and fled with their families as little kids and grew up in Israel. And my parents only spoke Hebrew to me until I was about eight because they wanted me to be able to think in Hebrew. And I, I will say that terms of access to traditional texts, that was a gift I could never repay. You just feel at home in the language. I still have moments, even though my English is much better than my Hebrew, where I’ll be giving a lecture in philosophy or something, and suddenly, I’ll think, how do you say this Hebrew word in English? It’s amazing how you revert to your, most formative childhood, experiences in that way.

Tom: So, you, yeah, you went to an Orthodox school, you were immersed in the world of ideas as a kid in your family. When did you start to feel like that Judaism was your faith rather than something that you were born into, into a certain family, into a particular community?

Shai: Yeah, it’s an interesting question because one of the ways that Judaism and Christianity, for example, are so different is that Judaism is both a religion and an ethnicity. So, from my parents, I inherited, it was kind of mother’s milk, this deep connection to Judaism as a community, as an ethnicity, the religion piece, from the time I was very little.

I was really drawn to theological questions. I remember being, in third or fourth grade and coming home and saying to my father one day, my teachers in school say that God wrote the Torah and gave it to Moses. I know you think that’s not true. How can you both be right?

Those questions really preoccupied and then kind of more deeply over time. I realized that I had been really given this blessing that I did nothing to earn, which is that I was able to explain religious and philosophical ideas to people in ways that made them accessible, and that even people who weren’t particularly focused in those areas seemed to resonate to. in a certain way, I found that, to be my calling, oh, I can explain complicated ideas. I may not be a great philosopher, but I’m a great explainer of philosophy. And I love doing that. The truth is thought one of the great joys of being a rabbi, or I imagine any kind of clergy is that people come to you with the realist, most raw questions they have.

There’s no bull. Let’s talk about real things. Let’s talk about hard things. Let’s talk about things that set us on fire. Let’s talk about things that break our hearts. I, just find that to be such a great privilege and to mediate tradition for people, is just a great blessing.

Tom: As you grew in your form of experience through your childhood, became a teenager, went to high school. Did your interests begin to take on a particular focus, your interests broader? What is that sort of teenage perspective that you had?

Shai: Well, I think that the best way for me to answer this question is to share that when I was 12 years old. My father just abruptly out of nowhere died one day. And obviously that was shattering in every conceivable way, but it kind of created this preoccupation for me with the problem of evil or maybe better the problem of suffering and it wasn’t some abstract puzzle for a seminar room, right?

It was like a visceral I want to know what was God doing when my father had a stroke and died and how is this world? Okay and then after ninth grade, a classmate of mine from high school died in an accident. And that filled me with a combination of bewilderment and anger I don’t understand, I’ve been taught in school that God runs the world.

Well, why is God failing? So, the kind of theological, spiritual questions of why is there such rampant innocent suffering and why does it hurt so much? Were integral to my life in ways that in retrospect, I don’t even know if that was constructive. It was just where I needed to be.

And then as I got older, my questions evolved. But that was really where I would say, the formative years, were spent on, precisely that set of problems.

Tom: So, you did undergraduate and graduate training at Harvard. You did, rabbinical training, formal religious studies as well. Tell me a little bit about what you got out of, each thread of education that you pursued.

Yeah, that’s an interesting question. So first I did my undergraduate degree in religious studies at Harvard, and I would say that the biggest thing I got from that, besides for the obvious thing I could say, which is learning how to think about texts more critically, learning how to think in a more historical vein and not in just a philosophical one. But one of the main things I got was, let me back up for a second and share. in ways that were never made explicit to me, but that somehow, I drank in from refugee parents, I was raised very suspicious of Christianity.

When I got to college, one of the first thoughts I remember having walking around campus was, I must figure out what this Christianity thing is.

I’m going to take some courses in Christian thought because it’s this bogeyman in my head. And I found myself falling in love, and it became a conversation partner for me for decades to this day. I mean, as you can see from my book, Christian theologians are very much a major piece of the conversation both inside my head and in my life more broadly. It was a very complicated experience because I would read Christian thinker after Christian thinker and be inspired and moved by the depth of their religious passion, by their philosophical ideas. And then I would come upon passages where they spoke about Jews. And they would immediately succumb to this kind of vitriolic disdain. And it was a very intense experience. I was still a kid, you know, I was 19 years old, and I was like, why do they hate me so much? But I’m fascinated by them. I don’t want to walk away from them. I want to learn from them, and I want to learn about them.

So, I would say that that piece became a central concern of my life in college. Then I went to rabbinical school at JTS, Jewish Theological Seminary, where I also did an MA in medieval philosophy.

JTS was wonderful for me in certain ways, difficult for me in others. It was wonderful in that it was a religious place where no questions were off the table. You could talk about difficult questions. You could engage with historical criticism and the challenges it raises for faith and all those kinds of things.

On the other hand, it’s sometimes felt like a glorified master’s program more than a seminary, and then while I was working as a rabbi at Harvard, Harvard. A couple of years into that job, I started working on a PhD in the religion department at Harvard. essentially part time. And my PhD was interesting in that in many ways, in my coursework, I was being trained to be a critical scholar of religion. And in my heart, I still wanted to be an insider, a caretaker more than a critic in a lot of ways. So, it was interesting to me to constantly think about how I can use these tools to make me more sophisticated and more effective at what I do and make me more self-critical at what I do. But at the end of the day, I’m writing for a community and what Christians will call writing for the church, right? I mean, I’m writing for the Jews. I like to say more than I am for the professors of Jewish studies.

Tom: Well, I want to turn to your new book entitled Judaism is about love. So, first, from your personal experience, I want to know, what crystallized in your mind that Judaism is principally about love.

Shai: It’s an interesting question. the story with which I opened the book was really, powerful for me, and I’ll just share it if I could for a minute, which is that I was speaking to a group of graduating rabbinical students at one of the major American seminaries. And I said, almost in passing, Judaism is a story about a God who loves us and beckons us to love God back. And this student somewhat sneeringly said, that just sounds like Christianity to me. And I felt a combination of indignation and heartbreak and I said to him, you know, it’s so interesting to me that you say that because I was thinking about the twice a day liturgy in which Jews say, with vast love, have you God loved us?

And then we read from Deuteronomy right away. And you should love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all you might. That is Deuteronomy. God loves us and beckons us to love God back. I mean, I literally was just talking about the morning prayers that you say every day. So why does that seem like Christianity?

And years later I was sitting with Tina Bennett, who is my agent. And Tina said to me, so shy, what are you really trying to say? And I’m not sure. where this came from. I just said That Judaism is about love and so many people seem to deny it. And she was like, well, that seems like a thesis you ought to put out into the world. And I was like, yeah, you know what? That’s what I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time. So that was one moment. And then I don’t talk about this in the book, but I had another experience that was interesting.

A few months later, I was teaching at an interfaith conference of high school students, and this shows you how old I am. The students were divided into Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, right? It was like something out of Will Herzberg, right? So, I’m teaching the group of Protestants, and I say, again, in passing, so remind me, what does Jesus say is the great commandment?

there are 20 kids in the room, all 20 hands go up, I call on one, he very proudly tells me about loving God and loving neighbor. And then innocently I say, great. And what was Jesus’ quoting? No hands. Not even one. And I’m standing there as a rabbi with this group of Christian kids and thinking to myself, this is interesting.

Of course, you think Judaism is loveless. You don’t realize that Jesus is quoting the Bible, the Hebrew Bible, right? The Torah. and those two stories in so many ways set an agenda for me, a kind of dual agenda. One was to help Jews reclaim what is rightfully ours, and not to the exclusion of others, but what is rightfully ours and in my more aspirational moments, maybe to help Christians develop better and more sophisticated ways of thinking and talking about Jews and

Tom: Yeah. Yeah.

Shai: So, that became the project. And what I, realized over time was that. I found love to be an incredibly interesting and fruitful lens through which to see all kinds of other questions.

like some of the ones I take on in the book, like the relationship between the particular and the universal, the local and the global. Things like, how we should relate to people who seek to harm us., what compassionate presence does and doesn’t look like. There are so many questions that I felt like love was, I don’t know about the angle, but certainly an extraordinarily productive one.

Tom: I’ll be curious to see what our listeners gravitate towards in our conversation today. I mean, we’re going to have listeners who are Jewish, non-Jewish people who see themselves as, people of faith, not of faith. So, I’m still going to ask you just a series of blunt questions and you can respond however you like. So first, just really the straight question here. Who is the Jewish God?

Shai: My argument is that the Jewish God most fundamentally is a God of love Who loves us unconditionally and has expectations of us. one of the ideas that’s become very important to me, in some ways I think parenting really helped me crystallize this, is the idea that God’s love comes with expectations but without conditions. And I think very often we as human beings in our culture get confused about this. We think to love our kids unconditionally is to just let them do whatever they want. Or we think that to have expectations is to make our love conditional. And I think the contrary is the case. I think Judaism is really committed to the idea that God believes in us as agents. God believes in our ability to affect the world positively. My argument is that some of the most foundational and powerful Jewish texts are ones that argue that what makes God, God is the inexhaustible depths of God’s love.

The 11th chapter of Hosea is a chapter that I turn to a lot in my writing and in my teaching where God basically says, human beings can give up on people they love, but I’m God, I can’t do that. You might expect if you were a medieval philosopher, the opposite argument, human beings really love, but I’m God, I don’t love. but no, the argument of Hosea is the opposite. Human beings love, but God loves with a capital L. Heschel has this wonderful formulation where he says, Attributing love to God is not anthropomorphism. Attributing love to people is theomorphism. That’s just a stunning formulation, I think.

Tom: Yeah.

Shai: Let’s drill down a little bit in the concept of love. Judaism is about love. God is fundamentally about love. What does love to consist of? As you understand it through, Jewish scripture, your studies, and your reflection.

One of the things that I steadfastly insist is I’m not foolhardy enough to attempt a definition of love. That said, I think of love primarily, at least in, a religious context, as a disposition to feel in certain ways and act in certain ways. Love is not an emotion. And the way that I mean it is when we say love your neighbor, that doesn’t mean you have to walk through the world where your primary experience at every moment is an overwhelming love. It means that your orientation, the way you comport yourself, to use a term that I coined in writing this book that is pretentious, but I found it helpful. It’s an existential posture, a way of, of being oriented to the world. Now, if it never manifests in emotions, it will fade as an orientation, but it should not be equated with an emotion. And one of the things that I argue in general in my teaching is that you can’t build a spiritual life on an emotion because emotions are fleeting. Emotions come and go. You must meditate for 15 seconds to realize that. Right? We’re like, oh, 5 minutes ago I was in a good mood and now I’m feeling like the world is an abyss.

How did that happen? And I learned that about marriage too. I don’t think marriage is built on the emotion of love. Marriage is built on the posture of love, which again must manifest in moments of emotion. But no one walks through the world feeling like, oh, what’s your primary feeling right now? I’m in love with my spouse. that’s just not how emotion works. So, I think that to let go of defining love as an emotion is to enable us to think in more sophisticated ways about our experience, about what is asked of us, about how we ought to orient ourselves in the world.

Tom: Let me ask this. Judaism is about love. Who is this love directed towards? Who’s that object or referent of this love?

Shai: Well, okay, so I think we must take this question from a couple of angles. If we talk about God’s love, one of the things I try to argue is that it is always a mistake, almost a blasphemy, if you will, to talk about how God either loves the Jewish people or God loves everyone. Because I think that what Jewish tradition says is God loves the Jewish people and everyone. God loves everyone, but God loves every individual as well. Rabbi Akia, one of the kinds of central figures of the, Talmud, talks about how every human being on the face of the Earth is beloved because we are created in God’s image.

I think this is one of the places where the Bible makes an interesting move in relation to, the culture in which it was formed. And that is that we know from historians that all over the ancient Near East there is at least in theory a preoccupation with the well-being of widows and orphans who are the paradigmatic vulnerable people in a society.

Where the Bible does something that as far as we know is unprecedented in the ancient world is essentially it expands the category of widow and orphan. to widow, orphan, and stranger. Stranger meaning, someone who is not part of the in group or the kin group, and who is therefore vulnerable to exploitation. And what I’ve tried to suggest is that that’s a moment when the Bible stops talking about our vulnerable. I mean, would that we lived in a society in which we took care of our vulnerable. But the Bible wants to up the ante and say not just our vulnerable but the vulnerable.

Tom: Yeah. There’s a kind of a pushing, of the envelope there beyond community.

Shai: Why aren’t humans more inherently loving if we’re created in God’s image? Like, why is it such an uphill battle to love? It just seems unnecessarily; the benchmark is so high, and it feels like we’re approaching it from such a slow start.

Yeah, I mean, evolution is a complicated thing, right? It left us with incredibly aggressive impulses, and an incredible array of pro social impulses too. Which is why it’s always a mistake, to have conversations with kids in which we say things like, oh, we believe human nature is good. We believe human nature is bad. Human nature is, in fact, quite complicated. And so, the question is, which of the impulses that are born in us are we going to nurture and cultivate? What is moral education? It’s not teaching kids something that they don’t somewhere know. It’s about drawing out certain things that are also in them.

Here, Waal’s research really, interesting. for listening. You know, one of the things he likes to say is, pessimists and skeptics like to talk about chimpanzees, but I like to talk about bonobos also, because bonobos are gentle, they’re loving, they’re community seeking, and they’re also part of our heritage.

Tom: Yep.

Shai: So, I don’t have a why in a metaphysical sense. to answer that question, but I think there is tremendous potential in the human being, and the opposite.

Tom: Yep. Yep. I want to ask you about what would you say is the overall goal of Judaism? Like what would result if Judaism were practiced well by people consistently over time? What do we see on the horizon? What’s the vision there?

Shai: What a wonderful question. A question probably we don’t ask enough in general. I would say a couple of things. It would start with embodying a truly holy community. which means a community that loves God, one another, and those beyond its own boundaries. That would be Judaism’s first ideal. Its second ideal is obviously its dream of a whole world that is perfected and redeemed.

Although, I’m not sure that that is considered the responsibility of Jews to enact, but it’s part of Judaism’s picture. some days when I think about questions like this, I think of answers that seem very simple, even though they’re incredibly demanding. Things like, if Judaism were practiced well, we would have a community that was a model of love for everyone else.

it’s funny, it sounds like such a simple thing to say, and yet, as we all know, just from getting in the car in the morning, and showing up in an office, or whatever it is we do, it’s hard. And religion often ends up doing the opposite of what it’s supposed to. It blesses our comforts.

It sanctifies our prejudices. the sanctification of grudges.

Tom: Yep. Yeah.

Shai: so fundamental. my dream is that people should walk by a synagogue or a Jewish community center or a Hillel building. and think, oh, that’s a Jewish institution. It must be a bastion of love and compassion. that’s my dream.

Tom: Yep. Another question. Last couple of centuries, it’s been increasingly common for people to view God just as a projection of ourselves. Theology is anthropology. How do you respond to those, both inside and outside the Jewish community, maybe people just flat out tell you God’s an outdated concept and your principles and teaching about love, we can dispense with the idea of God because it just leads to too much confusion. Let’s just go straight to the point.

Shai: Well, I do have friends and students who have said to me, how do you feel about the fact that the things you say about love and ethics, I find very moving and resonant and challenging, but the whole God thing, I just don’t know how to relate to and doesn’t speak to me. And I’ve said to them, look, we live in a world that is fundamentally ambiguous. I understand why belief in God is hard. I’ve experienced belief in God is hard, honestly, a lot of the time. So, if What engaging with Torah in general, or my book, does for you is challenge you to live a more loving life. I count myself blessed. I think that’s a good thing. The reason that I am drawn to God is not because I think you can’t live without God.

It’s that the world doesn’t really make sense to me in secular terms, right? religion is not just oh, we both have a secular world and then I have another layer above it called theism. It’s my fundamental experience and perception of the world is that it’s shot through with sacredness. And Moral realism is really, important to me.

That is, the idea that, to violate another person is not just something we don’t like. It’s something that is wrong objectively in the universe. If all we are is what Bertrand Russell called collocations of atoms, I find it very hard to understand where moral reality dwells. I don’t regard that as an argument because I think there are things you can say in response that are easy and reasonable, like, okay, well, I’m not a moral realist.

Or you can point to some philosophers who have argued that they can be moral realists without God. I just, in my perception and experience of the world, some of its most fundamental aspects. just make more sense in a world that was brought into being by a purposive loving agent. I’m not really interested in or engaged in the project of proving that.

And I’m not trying to convince you so much as to offer you a lens. Here’s what the world could look like when seen through this lens. If it resonates with you, You’re totally welcome to it. And if it doesn’t, I understand. The world is a complicated place.

Tom: I want to ask you some personal questions to kind of bring us back full circle and wrap up. So, what or who are some of your Personal inspirations as you work as a rabbi, as a scholar, as an educator, who or what, gives you, the strength and inspiration to work, to improve, to strive.

Shai: Yeah, you know leaving aside classical Jewish sources for a minute which is the bible and the Talmud and the Midrash, but Heschel who we talked about a little bit earlier His vision of a God who cares and what that entails for our lives, I find to be really challenging, some days sustaining, and some days unsettling, and some days both.

My teacher, Rabbi Yitzgrimberg, who chose not to be in a university, but instead to write for the community, and in many ways, that’s been my own path, and that, one that was kind of paved by him.

I also want to say that in many ways, the heroes that make me do what I want to do are really the unsung ones. The chaplain at an Alzheimer’s unit. The woman who runs a nursery school for autistic kids. The people who embody compassion in the way they make their way through the world. that is such sacred, powerful work, and they embody and show the rest of us that it’s possible to live that way.

I find that kind of work really, really, incredibly inspiring.

Tom: Yeah. What guidance do you have for young people you talk to who look out at the world and see so much dysfunction, so much injustice and feel overwhelmed by it?

Shai: I think that when you look at the big picture, it is, especially in dark times, easy and understandable to become deflated and disheartened.

And in moments like that, my impulses always pick a small corner of the world and try to bring healing to it. You are not asked, as a human being, to redeem the world. You are asked to bring holiness to the places where you are. So, you may not be able to solve homelessness, but you can make sure that a homeless family has meals.

You may not be able to fix America, but you can make America a more just place in some small way. not that you shouldn’t be ambitious, but I think that sometimes it helps to just focus. Because when you’re thinking about everything, it becomes a prescription for paralysis. And

Tom: Yeah.

Shai: not helpful.

Tom: what gives you hope about the future?

Shai: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how, and the days when I really believe in God. Belief in a transcendent God means that the only thing that is truly ultimate is God, and that therefore no human status quo is permanent or eternal. And I’m very moved by that idea that, oh, I know it seems like racism will always be a major piece of human experience.

Iinjustice will always prevail. No, only one thing is eternal. That’s God. That does not land easily with me, but it is something that I’m grappling with a lot these days.

Like what should the consequences of believing in God mean for hope? And I’ll tell you something I think is interesting that I would like to research at some point and think about more is what are the ways that theistically grounded hope and secular hope are different? I think that that’s a rich set of questions to think about, about the sheer range of human experiences. There’s a lot to say there, I suspect.

Tom: Well, I really enjoyed our conversation today. There’s so much else I want to talk to you about, but I do want to thank you for coming on the show today and look forward to our, next, time we cross paths.

Shai: Thank you so much, Tom.