J.Porath's report "TWENTY YEARS OF SEFER AS ‘PARDES’" at XXI Internation Conference
We are happy to share the report by Rabbi Jonathan Porath given at the recent XXI Annual International Conference on Jewish studies. One of the Sefer Center father-founders participated in the conference and gave reports at the plenary session dedicated to the Joint Distribution Committe 100 Anniversary and at the round-table "Sefer - 20 years of activity". Here is his report at the round table:
It is one of the great legends of the Jewish people: Tanu Rabanan: Arba’ah Nichn’su Bapardes: Ben Azai, U’ven Zoma, Acher, V’Rabbi Akiva. [Talmud Chagiga 14b]
Four entered ‘Pardes”—the deepest world of mystical Paradise: Ben Azzai dies, Ben Zoma was harmed, Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic, and only Rabbi Akiva survived, to become one of the greatest teachers and leaders in Jewish history.
It is a story of great risk and courage;
Of a journey into the unknown, into one’s innermost self;
It is not for everyone;
With visceral power and passion;
Only a few survived.
So too for many of us here today at this Sefer conference. To choose to study Jewish studies marked a real choice, certainly in Soviet times [whatever we used to call it back then: Polish Ethnic History or Ukrainian Folk Traditions or Ancient Semitic Language], and even today as well. I am certain that there are parents of our Sefer students who say to them: you are majoring in what? Who needs that? Go into business or science or anything else—why Jewish studies?
Yet, in spite of it all, some 20 years ago, on February 6-8, 1994, over 100 scholars and academics gathered together at Krekshino and declared with their feet that this is what they wanted to do, and so Sefer was born.
The moment was electric. Here is what I wrote then in my report to the JDC:
“THE SIZE AND SCOPE OF THE GATHERING—MORE THAN 110 REGISTERED PARTICIPANTS FROM 22 CITIES ACROSS THE FSU WAS UNEXPECTED. EVERYONE THERE SENSED THE UNIQUENESS OF THE MOMENT. AS I NOTED IN MY WELCOME: HINEI MAH TOV UMAH NAIM…WHO WOULD HAVE BELIEVED ONLY A FEW YEARS AGO, IN SOVIET TIMES, THAT WE COULD CONVENE SUCH AN OPEN AND PUBLIC GATHERING DEDICATED TO THE TEACHING OF JUDAICA IN UNIVERSITIES ACROSS THE FSU? THE TREMOR WAS SHARED BY THE ENTIRE GROUP AS WELL. WE WERE NOT ONLY ENGAGED IN A SHARE ACADEMIC MISSION, BUT IN A SPIRITUAL QUEST AS WELL. IT WAS CLEAR PEOPLE HAD BEEN WAITING FOR A GATHERING SUCH AS THIS FOR A LONG TIME—EVEN FOR GENERATIONS.”
How are we to examine, to conceptualize, to analyze Sefer after 20 years?
Clearly it is not like other organizations. It evokes deep commitment and personal investment.
We have a Sacred History, with a list of Visionaries [Ralph Goldman, Nechemya Levtzion], Founders and Workers sung and unsung [too many to mention]; we even have our own Martyrology, many of whom passed away before their time: Rashid Kaplanov, Leonid Matzich, John Klehr, and many others.
To begin to understand Sefer I would like to use another variation of the word “Pardes”—not as a mystical question, but in its more popular meaning---as an acrostic: Peh, Reish, Daled, Samech, which, as many of us know stands for four levels of interpretation of a text. It is the code for deconstructing something and for putting it back together again [hopefully].
Peh=Pshat/the literal, simple, plain meaning of the text: Sefer the organization
Reish=Remez/the hinted, the implied meaning; maybe even the poetic understanding: the associations of Sefer
Daled=Drash/the search for applications of the text—as allegory, or homily, even in life itself: the resonances of Sefer
Sod=the highest and deepest level—the hidden and maybe even mystical meaning of Sefer!
PSHAT—THE PLAIN MEANING
That you can learn from the Sefer website:
“Sefer’s goals are to support academic research in Jewish studies and to improve the academic quality of teaching Jewish disciplines across the former Soviet Union; to provide academic assistance and study opportunities for students and young researchers; and finally, to publish and distribute publications on academic Jewish study.”
All noble goals, and all true—but that is not Sefer really. What’s missing?--there is no neshama, no soul!
Let’s proceed to
REMEZ—THE HINTED, IMPLIED MEANINGS OF SEFER
Let’s jump back before the Revolution: Sefer recalls the richness of earlier Russian Jewish scholarship, both academic [Dubnov, The Jewish Encyclopedia, the library collections, studies on the Karaites and the Khazars] and traditional learning [how much Torah was produced by Jews of the Tsarist Empire—works of Chassidim and Misnagdim, the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Hatanya; great halachic works—the Aruch Hashulchan and the Mishna B’rura]; Eliezer Ben Yehuda and modern Hebrew you name it!
We even relive those experiences—our Sefer students walk in the footsteps of An-sky’s great expeditions: the School of Hasidism in Medzibozh, summer schools in Belarus and Moldova, the Sambatyon Camp in search of the Khazars.
And no less, we are reminded of the suppression of Jewish communal life and learning under the Soviets, especially after the Great Terror, culminating in the Black Years, the August, 1952 murder of Jewish writers and poets, the Doctor’s Plot, and the freeze on Jewish culture which followed.
And speaking of “implied” or “extended” meanings: It is clear that the mission of Sefer impacts not only on the Jews of the Former Soviet Union, but on many, many non-Jewish friends and colleagues as well—sitting in this room today, and in classrooms all over the FSU. Sefer is the realization that restoring and reuniting the Jewish Place in Russian history and culture has important implications for broader Russian society as well.
THIS LEADS US TO DRASH—THE SEARCH FOR APPLICATIONS AND RESONANCES OF SEFER, EVEN IN LIFE ITSELF
[we only have time for a few examples, but there are many more…]
Many years ago, one of our favorite speakers at Sefer conferences was Professor Aliza Shinhar who also happened to be the Israeli Ambassador to the Russian Federation [she also came to the 20th conference in 2013]. Aliza’s field was Jewish Folklore and we loved her! At the 4th Sefer conference back in 1997 she retold and analyzed the famous tale of poor Hillel who nearly froze to death which studying Torah on a rooftop, since he could not afford the tuition to enter the Beit Midrash, the academy. One of our colleagues, Moshe Lemster from Kishinev rose and asked her: How could Hillel have abandoned his family and endangered himself to study words of Torah? And I responded from the audience that not so long ago, every person in this room, all of those engaged in Jewish scholarship under the former regime, made exactly the same choice: they placed their careers and at times even their freedom at risk for the sake of those same principles. All of a sudden the ancient story of Hillel’s desperation to study no matter what the odds, took on renewed relevance and meaning.
Or, back in 2000, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I was addressing members of the People’s Universities, led by our friend Semyon Avgusteivich. I wanted to communicate to them the profound seriousness of these Holy Days, and so, as I began my presentation, put on my Tallit [as I had seen my rabbi do in Jerusalem], and I said: two things deeply concern me at this time of the year—Erev Yom Kippur; one: we are on trial in heaven for our very lives; and even more importantly, two, you have no idea what I am talking about!
I showed them the text of a central prayer of the Days of Awe: UnetaneTokef—about the seriousness of the day. One of most powerful lines asks: Mi yichye umi yamut/who will live and who will die—Mi bamayim umi baesh/who in water and who in fire…and I immediately recalled the Submarine Kursk, which had just gone down that August with all 118 sailors on board. The Machzor, this classic book of Jewish prayer, suddenly came alive and took on new meaning.
AND FINALLY, SOD—THE HIDDEN, MYSTICAL AND DEEPEST LEVEL OF SEFER
What’s the real secret of Sefer?
First of all, Sefer is really unique. No institution like it exists anywhere else in the Jewish world—not in America, not in Israel, nowhere [the American and European Associations of Jewish Studies are basically annual academic conferences].
Sefer functions as the Ministry/the Department of Higher Jewish Education in the FSU—why has it succeeded?
WHAT IS THE SOD OF SEFER ORGANIZATIONALLY--
--It responds to the unique character of Russian and Post-Soviet Jewry with its deep intellectual commitment;
--It was originally conceived, initiated and funded by the Joint and the Jerusalem Center for University Teaching of Jewish Civilization in a unique local partnership without any political agenda, and with total local autonomy;
--And most critically: it is led by Vica, Rashid and now Mica Chlenov, and all of you: Sefer respects our elders, welcomes our young people, and has room for all. There is a particularly poignant picture of a summer field expedition in Ukraine: Rashid is being led ever so gently down some steps, each arm being supported by a student. I am proud to be associated with an organization that fosters reverence for our teachers and love and respect for each other.
WHAT IS THE SOD OF SEFER SPIRITUALLY—
--Sefer is one of the keys to the personal identity of its members, of whatever nationality. Arkady Koveleman used to keep a kipa in his briefcase—just in case. To me, we are dealing with symbols. I once told some foreign visitors: “You may think they are reading an academic lecture, but they are really davening….expressing their closeness and ties to their people and beliefs in their own language and style. For many participants, this is their Jewish expression and identity, and a very powerful one, indeed.”
Arkady also taught us [Sefer conference #6, 1999] that Sefer matches the classical meaning of the word “sinagoga”, which was a Beit Kneset, a Place of Gathering. In many ways, Sefer is our collective home.
WHAT IS THE SOD OF SEFER EVEN POLITICIALLY—
By teaching and researching Jewish studies, here, in this place, Sefer affirms faith in the future of the Jewish community in Russia; it assumes that we have allies in the general community who will support this effort. After an hiatus of generations, it is permitted once again, and accepted, to publically declare one’s interest and allegiance to Jewish life and learning. That is a revolutionary statement.
We opened with the courageous journey of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues and their search for truth, nearly 2,000 years ago.
Some have suggested that the four figures in the story were not four individual people, but rather expressed the inner struggles which may be experienced by one person over the course of a lifetime. How many of us may have been raised as scoffers and even heretics under the previous regime, but are now firm believers? Are there grandchildren of members of the Yevsektzia who are now teaching Jewish studies?—it could be!
And finally, we can only understand our personal “presents” and “futures” based on our learning about the past. Sefer enables us to reclaim our collective Jewish past, whatever that may mean to each one of us, and move on into the future.
I just saw that for myself. A few weeks ago I published my father’s life story: Loving Memories of Tzvi: The Life of Rabbi Tzvi H. Porath, where I sat down with my mother, who is now 98 ½ and lives around the corner from us in Jerusalem, and went through all of our family photographs and stories, to record the story of my past, which I know is the key to my future.
As one of the Co-Founders of Sefer, together with many of you here, let me express to you and to all of us my hope for the future, as we say during the High Holidays: Katveinu B’Sefer Ha’chayim/Continue to inscribe us in a Sefer Chayim—a living, vibrant Sefer, full of life, friendship, learning.
Each and every Sefer participant carries a precious gift: Jewish knowledge. Share it with the Jewish community; teach it to the broader community as well.
I trust that we will look back on these past 20 years of Sefer with accomplishment, satisfaction and pride. It has been my privilege to be you partner, co-worker and friend.
By Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Porath, February 4, 2014 [at the 21st annual Sefer Conference in Moscow]