A Center for the Study of Existential Torah

I am reluctant to say that Etz Hasadeh, a center for the study of existential Torah, is guided by a single value, especially since, as Heidegger teaches, a value is, as its name implies, relative. To say truth is a value is already to devalue it, to make it seem to be valuable only insofar as it offers utility, rather than because of its inherent worth. That said, the core value and appeal of Etz Hasadeh is wisdom with community and holiness also playing a role.

I founded Etz Hasadeh, a center for the study of existential Torah, to help people lead elevated, thoughtful, wise, and awe-inspired lives.  I believe a life of engaged Torah study can help us “become who we are” (Nietzsche), and I also believe that when we bring our whole selves, with all of our experience, background, prejudice, ignorance, expertise, and unique vantage to Torah study we enable it to become what it is, a tree of infinite vitality. As a perennial student my aim is to create a space where Torah is not a matter of expertise or erudition, but a synonym for what is. If, as the Midrash teaches, the world was created with Torah, then Torah study cannot just be about p’shat, about facts, about the correctness of arguments, or matters of “permitted and forbidden.” It has to be primarily and fundamentally about life itself, about the cosmos, about the most pressing and basic questions of life’s meaning. Through Etz Hasadeh seminars, students learn not how to be more observant of Jewish law, but how to think, question, and connect their own story to stories from the past.

 

Through my work at Etz Hasadeh I aim to show that texts which are often read narrowly through a historical or halachic lens can also be read more broadly through a psycho-spiritual, philosophical, and poetic/metaphoric lens. My approach has enabled me to engage unaffiliated Jews and non-Jews, Jews who are looking for a non-fundamentalist, critical approach to the religion of their youth, as well as traditional students for whom yeshiva education was necessary, but insufficient for addressing their spiritual yearning.

 

The Jewish world, like the world at large, is too often polarized. In one corner are the new-age spiritualists, in another, the skeptics/academics; in one corner are the atheists, in another the believers. Etz Hasadeh offers existential Torah as a common ground where people of different backgrounds, needs, and commitments can come together (kehilla) to share in the joy of personalized learning. As a scholar and a rabbi, I believe that the pursuit of truth, both the outer and inner truth, is holy. I therefore believe that every question and every discipline should have a seat at the table. I also believe though, that the table is a holy one, and is not the same as an academic seminar. My approach is more heart-centric and spirited than an academic seminar; more spiritual and warm than a group therapy session, and more philosophical, poetic, and universalistic than a traditional shiur. I follow the litvish view that learning itself is a holy act. As such, I begin my classes with a blessing, and attempt, as much as I can, to integrate song, meditation, and other contemplative exercises into the learning space.

 

Many of the Jews who come to Etz Hasadeh are looking to connect or reconnect to their Jewish identity, but not necessarily to go to shul more or be told how to live. They are looking for an hour out of their busy lives to think about the higher things in life in a Jewish context. Some may not be knowledgeable about the Talmud, but they find it “cool” to learn ancient texts that seem so fresh and odd. Others, are looking to supplement their packed Jewish life with thick, quirky Jewish educational content that isn’t bound to a school, denomination, or synagogue. I find that people want to be surprised and want to learn how to find the familiar, strange. Etz Hasadeh uses Jewish text study to build muscles that have generativity beyond Judaism and Jewish life. We teach people how to live, think, and dwell poetically in a world where much is taken for granted.

 

In many ways, Etz Hasadeh is a Socratic school, a way of getting people to become introspective and consider just how much they don’t know. Yet what makes it Jewish and religious, and differentiates it from mere philosophy, is that it frames this process as a covenantal endeavor. Questioning isn’t just the piety of thought, as Heidegger contends, but is also a form of avodah, service to a higher Power. It is the fertile ground that makes it possible to pray, or simply to live a more inspired life. Skepticism defeats itself; but Torah is skepticism in the service of awe. Wisdom is not just negative theology; wisdom is also the ability to become comfortable thinking metaphorically and poetically. Etz Hasadeh offers a home where the skeptic is welcomed and embraced, but also challenged. Etz Hasadeh, meanwhile, is not a place that offers solutions or prescriptions; there is no kiruv other than to help people draw close to the mystery of (their own) Being. It is, I think, not just a place in the present where both the atheist and the believer can learn, but also an offer to the Jewish future of how our textual tradition can be leveraged to speak more broadly beyond the confines of matters of normativity, be they legal or political.

 

As someone trained in the historical school of Jewish studies (at JTS), I think that the 19th century strategy of Wissenschaft is a failed one. Future students will not care about facts unless they are made to care first about why they should care. Etz Hasadeh takes up this philosophical challenge– the challenge of not just describing the Jewish past, but of making transhistorical contact with it. On the other hand, naively traditional Judaism, which renounces or simply ignores matters of historical context, is also impoverished and threatens to alienate those who are tempted by the false gods of academia. Only an approach to Torah that gives academic methodology a vote but not a veto has a chance of inspiring the next generation. It is to this future that Etz Hasadeh is responsible.

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Rabbi Dr. Zohar Atkins is the founder of Etz Hasadeh and the author of Unframing Existence (Palgrave, 2018) and Nineveh (Carcanet, 2019). A Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, he is the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award for Poetry.

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