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Attack on Har Nof Synagogue

Sermon by Rabbi Aron

Friday, November 21, 2014

Traditionally when you are sitting shivah, you get up on Friday afternoon and do not resume your formal mourning until after Havdalah on Saturday night.  On Shabbat you are exempt from many of the restrictions of formal mourning just as you are meant to be taken out of your regular concerns and preoccupations.

And so one could argue, that Friday night is not the time to eulogize the victims of this week’s terror attack on an Orthodox synagogue in West Jerusalem. But Friday night is the time when we are together, and this particular attack, for reasons both personal and because of the nature of what happened, calls out to me for some acknowledgement.

Non-Jews I have spoken to seem to be most outraged by the fact that the attack took place in a sanctuary during worship. Others have noted the exceptional nature of this community and the way they reacted to the attack. There have been no calls in the neighborhood for revenge. An exceptional outreach has been made to the family of the Druze police officer. A large group from the congregation, including the rabbi, travelled from Jerusalem to the other end of the country in order to attend his Muslim funeral and join with the  President of Israel, in acknowledging him as an Israeli hero.

Har Nof is an interesting community. It is mostly very Orthodox, and has a large population of immigrants from the United States and Europe. But it also has a large Mizrachi community and was the home of former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. It is within the green line, that is within the 1967 borders of Israel, right near the Jerusalem forest. In addition to its many synagogues and yeshivahs, is the home of JP Morgan Chase and other financial institutions.  The philosophy here is Torah Im Derech Eretz, the study of Torah combined with a worldly occupation. It is also the base of an Orthodox Environmental Protection Association and a very successful support group for Orthodox divorcees.

This week though we heard less about Har Nof for its successful economy and progressive organizations, than for its scholars. As it happens one of the rabbis killed in the attack was the descendant of two of the most prominent Orthodox families in the United States, families that have provided significant leadership to both the Hasidic and Modern Orthodox community.

Rabbi Moshe Twersky, was the grandson of Rabbi Joseph B Soleveichik, called The Rav. University educated, he was perhaps the most outstanding 20th century Jewish Theologian in America.  He advocated combining Talmudic learning with modern academia and adapted an Orthodox, mitzvah-observant lifestyle to America, without seeing the necessity of rebuilding a spiritual ghetto as the Haredi communities did. He also was a staunch proponent of encouraging serious study of both Torah and secular disciplines by women, a controversial belief among his ultra-Orthodox contemporaries.

The Rav’s daughter, Rabbi Moshe Twersky’s mother, who was also university educated, married the Talner Rebbe of Boston, bringing together the descendants of the Baal Shem Tov’s first students, with the most Mitnagdic of the Lithuanian Misnagdim, that is the Hasidim’s much more scholarly opponents.  This Talner Rebbe, was a most extraordinary combination in himself, being also Dr. Isadore Twersky, a Harvard Professor whose major academic work focused on Maimonides. It is hard to imagine a topic within Judaism more distant from the mystic Hasidic traditions. During his career at Harvard Dr. Twersky held many prominent positions (including chair of the department of Near Eastern languages and literatures, and chair of the standing faculty committee on medieval studies) and was also a forceful advocate for making Harvard more welcoming to Jewish students who were observant.

 The Dr’s Twersky had three children, two sons and a daughter. Their older son was Rabbi Mosheh Twersky of Jerusalem, who fell victim to this week’s  terror attack, their daughter Tzipporah married my husband Michael’s cousin, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of Riverdale New York himself a great grandson of Cantor Yosselle Rosenblatt, who was so well loved that his recordings are still available.

As Reform Jews we can sometimes feel very distant from this world of Orthodoxy, even of Modern Orthodoxy. I think it is important to remember that for all the stories of ill treatment of Reform Jews, there are also family connections and individuals like Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt who treat their liberal colleagues and women with respect. Rabbi Rosenblatt has also been an important supporter of the Oslo Peace Process within the Orthodox community and has been quoted extensively over the past few days, speaking movingly about his brother in law.

I worry that sometimes we look at our bearded co-religionists and feel only that we are worlds apart. But we are also members of the same people, sharing a common destiny.

It seemed to me that the best way to pay tribute to a scholar is to study his work. Rabbi Moshe Twersky was a teacher of Talmud and many of his shiurim exist on line on the website of his yeshivah. They are mostly for very advanced students and are rather technical.

I have pulled out just one argument and thought we might look at that for a moment or two.  ( Then we continued with STUDY of an argument from the commentaries on Baba Batra 130b)

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