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Why I Flew One Million Miles
for Jewish Education
Responsa in a Moment: Vol. 11, Issue No. 1, September 2016

The High Holidays are a time of transition from one Jewish year to the next. During the week of September 12, 2016, the Schechter Institutes celebrated a number of milestones and transitions. The TALI school system celebrated its 40th anniversary at the Caesarea amphitheater with almost 4,000 TALI teachers and supporters, including Daniel Shapiro, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, and Naftali Bennett, Israel’s Minister of Education; the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary ordained five dynamic rabbis who will serve throughout the State of Israel; and I was honored at a dinner sponsored by the Board of the Schechter Institute in honor of my transition from President of the Schechter Institute graduate school to President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc., where I continue to raise funds for all the Schechter non-profits. The following is an edited version of my remarks on September 13th. May all of our readers and supporters have a wonderful year, a Shanah Tovah! David Golinkin

* * * * *

I want to begin with Hakarat Hatov, by offering words of thanks to all of the many people who organized and spoke at this evening; to my wife Dory and to our wonderful children who have blessed us with thirteen beautiful grandchildren; and to each and every one of you who have helped me personally and/or Schechter over the course of many years.

I want to thank my parents Rabbi Noah and Devorah Golinkin z”l who gave me a very good Jewish education and served as excellent role models; they inspired me by their example to devote my life to teaching as many Jews as possible about our wonderful history, culture and religion.

I want to thank my teachers at the Hebrew Academy of Washington, Akiba Hebrew Academy, Bet Midrash Letorah, Hebrew University, and JTS who gave me a tremendous amount of knowledge, as well as the tools to learn more and to examine our texts and sources in a critical fashion.

And finally I want to thank God who has enabled me to do so many things during the course of my life. When Jacob was preparing to meet Esau, he said to God (Genesis 32:11):

קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי בְמַקְלִי עָבַרְתִּי אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת:

“I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have… done for Your servant; for with my staff [alone] I crossed this [river] Jordan, and now I have become two camps.”

When I made aliyah at age 17 in 1972, I did not even own a staff. I had some clothes and some books and some cassette tapes. Now, Dory and I have been blessed with seven children and their spouses and thirteen grandchildren with one more on the way; and I have been blessed with a wonderful institution called Schechter which enables me to teach Torah and publish Torah and help others teach Torah throughout Israel and South America and Ukraine. And for all this I say to God:

קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת עַבְדֶּךָ

“I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have… done for Your servant.”

* * * * *

A few months ago, on May 19th at about 6:30pm, I was sitting in a United Airlines airplane at O’hare Airport in Chicago before take-off, perhaps in row 15. I was exhausted because I had woken up that morning in Toronto at 4:30am, flown to Chicago, met with two donors, and now I was flying to New York to meet with some more donors. I had just sat down and I pulled out a book, when a woman in a United uniform comes down the aisle, bends down and hands me this card. It says: “Prof. David Golinkin, Welcome to the next Premier Level!… Thank you for flying United.” She said: “Congratulations! You have now joined the United Million Mile club!” Without a pause, I said to her: “and what does that entitle me to?” She replied: “we are going to announce it on the intercom during the course of the flight! And you are going to get some special gifts!” Indeed, they did announce it! And they gave me a cookie which wasn’t kosher which I could not eat; and they offered me a glass of champagne which wasn’t kosher which I could not drink! And about a month later I got a notice that a package was waiting for me at the post office in Talpiot and I went to pick it up. It was a LARGE cardboard box and inside was this SMALL gift – a plastic paperweight – which says: “Mileage Plus United, 1 Million Miler 2016, DavidReuben (sic!) Golinkin”. Wow!

But all joking aside, that episode got me thinking:

One million miles is the equivalent of flying to the moon and back twice. That, in and of itself, is amazing. It is true that Sanhedrin 106b talks about a migdal haporeah ba’avir [a tower hovering in the air] and Midrash Kohelet Rabbah (parashah 9, ed. Vilna, fol. 25a) says that “Moshe etmol tass barakia v’oleh ka’of [Moses yesterday flew in the air and went up like a bird], but let’s face it, until just a few years ago, no human being could fly one million miles.

But the more important question is: WHY? Why do I spend nine weeks every year living out of a suitcase? Why do I visit 7-9 cities in fourteen days at least four times a year? Wouldn’t it be easier to stay home in Jerusalem and teach and study and write books and responsa? Yes it would. But the Jewish world is in trouble. Most Jews in the world cannot read and understand Hebrew; most Jews in Israel have not received a Jewish education. I cannot retreat to my study when the Jewish world is in desperate need of Jewish education. One of my role models in this regard is Rabbi Hiyya in a story I have quoted on a number of occasions from Bava Metzia (85b):

Whenever R. Hanina and R. Hiyya were in dispute, R. Hanina would say to R. Hiyya: ‘Would you dispute with me? If, Heaven forbid, the Torah were forgotten in Israel, I would restore it by my pilpul [in-depth study, casuistry].’ To which R. Hiyya rejoined: ‘Would you dispute with me, who achieved that the Torah should not be forgotten in Israel? What did I do? I went and sowed flax, made nets [from the flax], trapped deer… and prepared megillot [scrolls from their skins], upon which I wrote the five books [of Moses]. Then I went to a town [which contained no teachers] and taught the five books to five children, and the six orders [of the Mishnah] to six children. And I bade them: “Until I return, teach each other the Torah and the Mishnah;” and thus I preserved the Torah from being forgotten in Israel.”

In this Talmudic tale, Rabbi Hanina represents an elitist approach; he can restore the Torah by pilpul, by his intellectual prowess. Rabbi Hiyya, on the other hand, believes that the Torah can only be preserved by Jewish education for the masses, by going out and teaching the Torah and the Mishnah to as many Jews as possible; they in turn will teach others lest the Torah be forgotten in Israel. The story continues:

This is what Rabbi [Judah the Prince meant when he] said, “How great are the works of Hiyya!” Said R. Ishmael son of R. Jose to him, “[Are they] even [greater] than yours?” “Yes”…

If we want to save the Jewish world, we cannot sit in an ivory tower and teach a few other scholars. We need to get out in the trenches and ordain almost 100 rabbis who will spread Torah throughout the State of Israel; and teach 2,100 teachers and leaders who will spread that knowledge throughout the State of Israel; and teach 47,000 TALI children at 325 schools and pre-schools throughout the State of Israel; and hold events for 15,000 Tel Avivans at Neve Schechter every year; and run 26 Batei Midrash in the Galilee and the Jerusalem area; and run schools and kehillot and camps throughout Ukraine; and YES – travel one million miles to make sure that we can pay for all of this.

Fundraising is not a dirty word. Throughout Jewish history, there were famous rabbis who engaged in fundraising on a regular basis:

Rabbi Akiva used to travel around the country to raise money for migbat hakhamim, which Jastrow translates as the collection of “contributions for the maintenance of students” (Yerushalmi Pesahim, 4:9, fol. 31b-c = Esther Rabbah 2:3, ed. Vilna, fols. 5a-b and ed. Tabori-Atzmon, pp. 51 ff.; cf. Louis Finkelstein, Akiba: Scholar, Saint and Martyr, Philadelphia, 1936, pp. 130-134).

The Geonim of Babylon wrote thousands of responsa to Jewish communities in Babylon, North Africa and Spain. Yet, it is less well-known that each question arrived with a donation for the Yeshivah in Bavel. As Rabbi Shmuel ben Hofni wrote in a letter:

וכשתשלחו נדבותיכם יהיו עמה[ן] שאלותיכם. “And when you send your donations, may they come with your questions” (Simcha Asaf, Tekufat Hageonim V’sifrutah, Jerusalem, 1955, p. 213). Note that the donations are mentioned before the questions!

The Rambam was actively engaged in Pidyon Shevuyim, the Redemption of Captives, and the Cairo Genizah contains a receipt for such a contribution in his own hand! (David Golinkin, Insight Israel, second series, Jerusalem, 2006, p. 275, note 10 and the literature cited there).

Rabbi Yitzhak Abarbanel (1437-1508) — a famous statesman, philosopher, Bible commentator and Treasurer of King Alfonso V of Portugal — wrote a letter from Lisbon to Rabbi Yehiel of Pisa in 1472 in which he describes how he and eleven other Jewish leaders collected 10,000 gold doubloons and ransomed 220 Jews from captivity. He writes that he still needs to provide them with food and clothing and ransom 30 more captives. (Franz Kobler, A Treasury of Jewish Letters, Vol. 1, Philadelphia, 1953, No. 47; cf. the Hebrew original in the TALI textbook, Haverim Mei’ever Layam, third edition, Jerusalem, 2014, p. 62)

Even so, when I began teaching children in 1970, and teaching rabbinical and graduate students in 1980, I had no intention of becoming an administrator or a Dean or a President or a fundraiser. I simply wanted to teach and write Torah. I became an administrator due to force majeure. In 1990, I was on Sabbatical at the University of Toronto – the only sabbatical I ever had – and I was still working for Neve Schechter, the JTS campus in Israel, which is now our administration building. Prof. Lee Levine, who was the Dean of the Seminary of Judaic Studies (later renamed the Schechter Institute) at that time, arrived in Toronto and met me at a coffee shop. He told me that JTS was closing down its branch in Israel and that the Bet Midrash (which is now called the Schechter Institute), was moving into the Neve Schechter campus and he offered me the position of Assistant Dean. I said to him in the words of Moshe Rabbeinu “shelah nah beyad tishlah” — which can be paraphrased as: Please choose someone else! (Exodus 4:13). I proceeded to give him a list of people who had administrative experience and were eminently more qualified than me. He insisted that I was best for the job; and the only reason that I agreed in the end was because I no longer had a job!

But my challenge since September 1, 1990 has been: how can one be a full-time administrator — and since the year 2,000 a fundraiser too — and still find time to teach and to write and publish? Or, to use the Talmudic phrase: “likboa itim latorah” — to set aside fixed times to study Torah, or as the Vilna Gaon and many others translate the phrase: to steal time to study Torah (Shabbat 31a and Tuvia Preschel in Sinai 120 [5757], pp. 105-107).

The first answer is technical – I inherited from my parents z”l the ability to get by with very little sleep. This aspect of leadership is brought home in a story about Rebbe, Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi, found in Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 5:11:

Rebbe was busy working for the community. His servant poured him a cup of wine. Since Rebbe was busy, he did not have time to take the cup and his servant fell asleep holding the cup. Rebbe turned around, looked at him and said: King Solomon got it right when he said in Kohelet: “metukah shenat ha’oved” — “A worker’s sleep is sweet… but the rich man’s abundance doesn’t let him sleep” – like me, for I am busy with the needs of the community, they don’t even let me sleep…

The second answer is more difficult – how can you concentrate on studying and teaching and writing when you have to worry 24 hours a day about courses and recruitment and administration and budgets and fundraising? The answer is that you need the ability to compartmentalize – to close off your mind to outside distractions and concentrate totally on studying and teaching and writing. Luckily, I have this ability. For example, I prepared the Index to my book The Responsa of Prof. Louis Ginzberg at the TWA terminal at JFK. I corrected the galley proofs of one of my books while on a long flight from New York to Denver. And I wrote my responsum about reciting the Imahot in the Amidah in February 2007 at the Holiday Inn in Auburn Hills, Michigan, while waiting to meet with Bill Davidson of blessed memory.

Indeed, I frequently felt like the Hida, Rabbi Hayyim Yosef David Azulay (1724-1806) who was born in Jerusalem but spent the years 1752-1758 and 1772-1778 raising money throughout Europe for the Jewish community of Hevron. He would travel from place to place shlepping a chest of books as described in his travel dairy Ma’agal Tov (Jerusalem and Berlin, 1921-1934) and, despite his travels, managed to write at least 122 books.

Years ago, I found a beautiful description by a brilliant rabbi and scholar who described this process of compartmentalization. His name was Rabbi Aryeh Leib Yellin (1820-1886), the rabbi and Av Bet Din of a small town called Bielsk in Lithuania. He is the author of Yefe Einayim, a brilliant commentary on most of the Babylonian Talmud, in which he quotes all of the parallel sources in the Talmud Yerushalmi and Midrashim. This is what he wrote in his introduction to Yefe Einayim to Massekhet Shabbat:

And all those who enter our town see me writing Hiddushim [Talmudic commentaries] and round about me many troubles of various sorts encompass me, they saw and were astonished that I listen and reply correctly [while] writing Hiddushei Torah, and thank God there is room [in the brain] for two matters of different types, and it’s as if there is a little attic in the brain to house words of Torah, where worry cannot tread.

וכאילו נעשה עליית קיר קטנה במוח למשכן דברי תורה,

אשר שם לא תבוא רגל הטרדה.

Rabbi Yellin is telling us that he used to write his Hiddushei Torah while sitting in a Bet Din and adjudicating disputes between litigants! We know that this is true because we have other informants who corroborate this story (Rivkah Ziskind, R. Aryeh Leib Yellin V’hiburo Yefei Einayim, Jerusalem, 1973, p. 28). I am on not on that level at all. I cannot write a teshuvah while running a meeting! But I love Rabbi Yellin’s imagery. When I write a responsum or an article or a book there is “a little attic in my brain to house words of Torah, where worry cannot tread.”

In addition to running Schechter and fundraising, I have been blessed with the opportunity to teach thousands of Jews every year. Aside from the 3-4 courses that I teach at Schechter to rabbinical and graduate students every year, I have had the joy of teaching Torah to Jews all over the world. For example, since August 2015, I taught or spoke 13 times in Brazil and Argentina; gave public lectures in many places in Israel; spoke or taught at five synagogues in the U.S.; and one month ago I taught or spoke seven times at Camp Ramah Ukraine.

Finally, I want to say a few words about the articles and books I have written and published since 1980.

Prof. Solomon Schechter stated in his Inaugural Address as President of JTS in 1902:

The office of a [rabbi] is to teach Judaism; he should, accordingly, receive such a training as to enable him to say: “Judaeici nihil a me alienum puto” – I regard nothing Jewish as foreign to me”. He should know everything Jewish – Bible, Talmud, Midrash, Liturgy, Jewish ethics and Jewish philosophy, Jewish history and Jewish mysticism, and even Jewish folklore. None of these subjects, with its various ramifications, should be entirely strange to him… (Solomon Schechter, Seminary Addresses and Other Papers, Cincinnati, 1915, pp. 19-20; also quoted in: David Golinkin, Insight Israel, second series, p. 233).

I have always followed this approach because I am fascinated by everything Jewish.

First and foremost, I have written and edited and published a large number of responsa. I described how I began to write responsa and the process of writing responsa in the introduction to Responsa in a Moment, Volume II (Jerusalem, 2014, p. vii):

In 1985, I volunteered to become a member of the newly formed Va’ad Halakhah of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel. After writing a few responsa, I was hooked. I quickly realized that writing and publishing responsa was an important contribution which I could make to the Jewish people in general and to the Conservative/Masorti movement in particular.

I love writing responsa for three reasons. First of all, I know that I am helping a Jew or a group of Jews grapple with modern problems through the collective wisdom of 3,000 years of Jewish Law. Second, we learn in Pirkey Avot (5:22), “hafokh bah vehapekh bah dikhola bah” – “turn [the Torah ] and turn it again for everything is in it”. It is exciting to research halakhic topics which I am not familiar with and to discover a wide range of opinions on just about every topic under the son. Finally, Rabbi Gedalia Felder z”l (1921-1991), was the author of the encyclopedic Yesodei Yeshurun which summarizes thousands of responsa according to the order of the Shulhan Arukh. He once told his son Rabbi Aaron Felder: “When I sit in my study alone, I am not alone. I am talking to thousands of rabbis. I discuss every halakhic problem with them and I listen to what they have to say. Only afterwards do I write a pesak halakhah [a halakhic decision]”. I know exactly how Rabbi Felder felt. As I write a teshuvah, my desk becomes buried by books, from Eretz Yisrael to Babylon, from Spain to Germany, from Poland to Baghdad; from the first century to the twelfth, from the fifteenth century to the twentieth. I am talking to and arguing with dozens of rabbis who grappled with the same or similar dilemmas.

However, in addition to responsa, I have also published books and articles about Halakhah, Midrash, prayer, the Passover Haggadah, Genizah fragments, the Holocaust, Hebrew philology, and Yiddish. I have taken a special interest in “ledovev siftei yesheinim” [to help the lips of the dead speak; cf. Song of Songs 7:10 and Yevamot 97a] – redeeming, editing, translating and publishing lost works and manuscripts by deceased rabbis and scholars. Thus, I have had the privilege of publishing a Hebrew edition of Rabbi Isaac Klein’s book about the laws of mourning; an anthology of the writings of Rabbi Theodore Friedman; the unpublished memoir of Rabbi Gershon Levi about the Canadian Jewish chaplaincy during World War II; The Responsa of Prof. Louis Ginzberg as well as his Legends of the Jews in Hebrew; the Responsa of the Law Committee 1927-1970; all of the Genizah Fragments of the tractate of Rosh Hashanah; Rabbi Hayyim Kieval’s classic work The High Holy Days, along with the second unpublished volume; a new edition of the responsa of Rabbi Isaac Klein; an anthology of articles on Jewish education by Prof. Walter Ackerman; an annotated Hebrew edition of As a Driven Leaf by Rabbi Milton Steinberg; the creative prayers of Rabbi Noah Golinkin; and a series of new critical editions of various Midrashim.

* * * * *

I would like to conclude with one word: optimism.

To be Jew, one must be an optimist. Repeatedly, throughout our history, evil kings and rulers tried to destroy us, yet they are gone and we are here. Last night we held the 40th anniversary celebration of TALI at the Roman theater in Caesarea, just a few hundred meters from where Rabbi Akiba was imprisoned and murdered by the Romans for the “crime” of teaching Torah in public (Berakhot 61b). The Roman Empire now lies in the dustbin of history, while we gathered at Caesarea to celebrate teaching Torah in public throughout the State of Israel!

To be a Zionist, one must be an optimist.

On June 2, 1895, Herzl went to see Baron Maurice de Hirsch, one of the richest men of his time and the founder of the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA), which had already colonized 3,000 Jews in Argentina. Baron de Hirsch cut Herzl off in the middle of the conversation. Herzl then wrote in his diary a 65-page pamphlet entitled “Address to the Rothschilds”. He decided to read it to his friend Schiff. When Herzl finished, he asked Schiff for his reaction. Schiff replied that he considered the plan the product of an overstrained mind, and he urgently advised Herzl to take a rest and seek medical treatment (David Golinkin, Insight Israel, second series, p. 158).

Of course, from an objective point of view, Herzl was insane. He had no money and no army and few supporters, and yet here we are in Jerusalem in the 68th year of the State of Israel!

When I began to work full-time at Schechter in 1990 we had about 25-30 students; TALI had 10 schools with about 3,000 children; and we had no publications. We now have 64,000 children and adults in our programs, two beautiful campuses, and Schechter and TALI have published over 90 books. The secret to this success is one word: optimism. If you are doing something good and positive which helps the Jewish people, and if you work very hard — you will find supporters and funding and you will succeed. I wish much optimism and continued success to the heads of our Amutot and their staffs – Prof. Doron Bar, Eitan Cooper, Dr. Eitan Chikli, Rabbi Avi Novis Deutsch, Yonit Kolb Raznitzki, Gila Katz and Rabbi Dubi Hayoun. With God’s help and hard work, we shall continue to grow and succeed –  אם תרצו אין זו אגדה  — If you will it, it is no dream!

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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