Posted on July 29, 2014 by Jamie Bornstein
“Zvi ruined my life.”
That was the common refrain heard in the hallways of Pardes at the conclusion of Rabbi Zvi Wolff’s class in 2005.
Said with a shake of the head and a smile, we uttered these ironic words with love. We even considered making t-shirts.
For several hours every week the brilliant Rabbi Wolff would teach us the finer points of practical Jewish law. His humility, his humor, and most importantly, his deep sincerity made his class irresistible to most. A highlight of one’s day.
There was only one problem. For most of us who came from non-observant backgrounds, we soon realized that the cost of joining his class was the possibility of losing a little part of ourselves.
Each day we learned a bit more than perhaps we wanted to know… and with that knowledge came a sometimes unavoidable inclination to live out the words of the texts.
Class by class, bit by bit, Zvi slowly ruined our lives.
The laws of meat and dairy? Cheeseburgers. Gone.
The laws of Shabbat? Driving to shul. Gone.
The laws of shofar? Sleeping late on Rosh Hashanah. Gone.
And we couldn’t get enough.
The thing is, Zvi never asked anything of us religiously. There were never explicit or implicit expectations about our observance. Not once did he insinuate that we were living our lives inappropriately. Not once did he pass judgment. Not once did he make us feel that his way of life was in any way better than ours.
Instead, Zvi simply taught what he loved, and what he lived, and he taught it with passion and humor.
Zvi taught us how to navigate texts and read codes of Jewish law that we previously thought inaccessible and obscure. He proved that we could own the texts both literally and figuratively. And he demonstrated to us through his sincerity, excitement for the material, and his humble willingness to entertain any question (no matter how provocative) how these texts were a beautiful and powerful force in his own life.
Yes, Zvi took things from us, but what he gave in return far outweighed the losses. Zvi was ruining our lives, and it felt great, because from the broken pieces we crafted something far more special; lifestyles lived based on educated choices, true ownership of our heritage, and a love of its complexities, nuances, challenges and mysteries.
We entered his class as fans on the sidelines and left as players on the field. For some of us this meant crafting new lifestyles built upon commitments to traditional observance and halacha – Jewish law. For others, Zvi’s teaching engendered a commitment to deep engagement of Jewish life outside of halachic norms, yet deeply influenced by the rabbinic tradition. For all of us it meant an empowered ownership of our heritage and the ability to craft our Jewish lives based on knowledgeable choices.
Zvi has since retired and I feel deeply grateful that I had the opportunity to learn from him.
While Rabbi Wolff is a truly gifted teacher, incredibly, at Pardes he is not unique. And this is what makes the Pardes experience so remarkable. Across the board the faculty is at once highly learned, incredibly adept at teaching skills, deeply passionate about sharing their personal Jewish experience, and deeply committed to respecting the lifestyle choices of each student.
The Pardes faculty put their Jewish hearts on the table day after day and in turn their students do the same, regardless of whether there is political and religious alignment between the two. It is this cocktail of ages, genders, backgrounds, and beliefs, brought together by a mutual love of Torah learning, and a mutual respect for different lifestyles, that creates the rich and magical Pardes experience.
I miss Pardes terribly. I miss it because in the eight years since I returned from the Year Program I have found very few venues in the North American Jewish community that so intuitively combine passionate Torah learning and authentic openness. Instead I have too often encountered voices relying heavily on rebuke and guilt, and lightly on learning, tolerance and inspiration.
Here in Boston I’ve heard Rabbis critique congregants for supporting local markets and restaurants deemed to have sub-standard kashrut, but I have not heard them offer opportunities to learn more about the laws of kashrut, what these establishments are lacking, or why kashrut as a concept is meaningful.
From the bima I have been told that the decision to send our daughter to public school was a breach of our obligation to the Jewish community and our local day school, but I was not invited to discuss my decision, or to learn more about the values, textual or otherwise, driving this assertion.
In virtually every synagogue I’ve ever attended I have seen children and adults alike chastised for taking a cookie before Kiddush is recited, but I have not once heard a Rabbi teach the laws of Kiddush as a way to inspire an elevated level of etiquette.
I could go on.
In short, what I have found is an overwhelming willingness to rebuke behavior yet an unwillingness to inspire the desired choices. What I have found is a destructive pedagogy of guilt rather than a constructive pedagogy of creating ownership and buy-in through text, learning and the creation of meaning.
What I have found is the very opposite of Pardes.
If I had a million dollars I would send the rebuking Rabbis and community leaders of North America to Pardes, and I would ask my dear teacher, Rabbi Zvi Wolff, and the rest of the Pardes faculty, to do what they did for me; to ruin their lives for the better.
Jamie Bornstein is the Assistant Director of Pardes in North America. He is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and earned his MBA at Boston University. He lives in Sharon, MA with his wife, Carrie (Year Program 2005-06), and their three children.