Feb 25, 2011

NJ Jewish Standard: "Rabbi Ethan Tucker: Torah Belongs to Jews, not Denominations"

NJ Jewish Standard: "Rabbi Ethan Tucker: Torah Belongs to Jews, not Denominations"

Mechon Hadar founder seeks to integrate halacha and ethics

Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Rabbi Ethan Tucker has created an institution, Mechon Hadar, that combines the free-form Torah study of the Orthodox yeshiva with the co-ed, egalitarian ethos of liberal Conservative Judaism. Mechon Hadar identifies with neither denomination although its faculty, students, and lay leaders overlap with both.

Tucker stumbled into his career as non-denominational institution-builder in 2001, when he invited friends to informal Shabbat services in his apartment. This was not the first minyan to bring together young participants from the Orthodox and Conservative worlds on Manhattan's Upper West Side, with a combination of traditional davening and egalitarian participation, but for whatever cultural and demographic reasons, Tucker's initiative tapped a tremendous demand. Sixty people showed up. Three weeks later, there were 100 participants and an urgent need to find a larger space. What took shape as Kehilat Hadar — from the Hebrew word meaning splendor and honor — became the vanguard of a wave of independent minyans across the country. These communities are the subject of a recent book, "Empowered Communities," by Conservative-ordained Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, Tucker's partner in founding the minyan.

The success of the minyan marked Tucker and Kaunfer as leaders. They received major grants from the Avi Chai and Harold Grinspoon foundations that enabled them to launch Mechon Hadar in 2006, initially as an intensive summer program. Mechon Hadar is now in its second year of offering full-time learning for the nine-month academic year. It has 22 fellows, mostly recent college graduates, who receive stipends to support their Torah study, and 50 slots for this summer's program.

"We want people to think about spending significant time studying Torah," said Tucker. "The vision is to create a community of adult learners. We are not a rabbinical school nor will we start one."

Hadar students are "a fairly representative sample of what American Judaism looks like in terms of denominational background and geographic diversity," Tucker said. "No single denomination comprises a majority of the background of our students."

Tucker himself eschews denominational labels. He graduated from Harvard, studied in Israel for three years at the liberal Orthodox yeshiva in Maale Gilboa, and was ordained by Israel's Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. He received a doctorate in Talmud from the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where his father, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, had served as rabbinical school dean and still teaches.

Tucker acknowledges the good and important work that denominational organizations do for the Jewish people, but says that "denominational labels threaten to make Torah sectarian. I think the Torah paints on a broader canvas. The Torah is the property of the entire Jewish people and speaks to the entire Jewish people. That means that all Jews, irrespective of their background, have the right to demand that the Torah speak to them and address who they are and give them guidance based on the lives they actually lead. It also means that the Torah commands and has expectations for all Jewish people."

In a 90-page online article — http://bit.ly/egalitarian — regarding women leading services, counting in the minyan, and reading from the Torah, Tucker examines classical sources and contemporary halachic discussions from both Orthodox and Conservative rabbis before concluding that Jewish law recognizes the possibility and perhaps even the necessity of a gender-egalitarian minyan in the context of a gender-egalitarian society.

For Tucker, a central challenge for Judaism today is to integrate the ethical and ritual realms into a single religious conversation.

"Can ethical behavior ever conflict with halacha?" asked the title of the class he gave for the community at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County last Wednesday evening.

He presented a text from Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner, an early 20th-century Hungarian Orthodox rabbi, concerning cannibalism. Is it better to eat human flesh — which the Torah does not prohibit — than the flesh of an animal explicitly prohibited by the Torah?

Tucker asked participants to study the text with a chevruta, study partner, and someone read it aloud as he mined it for meaning.

Glasner argued that it is worse to eat human flesh because the Torah assumes a baseline of acceptable human behavior.

"Anything reviled by human society in general, even if it is not explicitly forbidden by the Torah, is forbidden to us even more than explicit biblical prohibitions," wrote Glasner.

Tucker summarized: "The Torah … when practiced properly will cause all the people around to look at you and say, 'What an amazing way to live your life.'"

The Torah, he said, "demands a conversation that is completely and totally integrated, where I am not having one conversation about what the Torah and Shulchan Aruch demand of me, and another conversation about what my ethical qualms say about the issue, and there will be some kind of death match between the two. Understand that it's one conversation, with the title, 'What does God want?'"

For Tucker, "We don't have the luxury of bifurcation. This is critical to what the religious world needs in the 21st century. We have to think, holistically and in an integrated way and with a passion, that the Torah speaks to us."

It is this aspect of religiously and ethically wrestling with classical Jewish texts that animates the learning at Hadar, said Tucker.

University Jewish studies courses "completely lack the religious component," he said. Also, in most religious settings, "certain intellectual pathways are closed off as being not worthy or beyond the pale."

"There is a a deep thirst for the kind of learning we're doing here, with an insistence on learning sources in depth, in the original language, with the same vigor and seriousness as would be applied to any serious intellectual endeavor — a willingness to have all questions on the table, where the process of learning is that one can ask any question and imagine any possible answer. We have that, in a very conscious and deliberate religious context. We're not just academically exploring questions; we're trying to understand in our learning what God wants from us in this world, how are we supposed to act, how do we make decisions," he said.

For more on Ethan Tucker, including his favorite books of halacha and how Mechon Hadar differs from the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, see Larry Yudelson's blog at Jstandard.com.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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