“When the Holy Blessed One gave the Torah to Israel, He gave it to them like grain from which to make finely sifted flour; and as flax from which to make fine linen” (Seder Eliyahu Zuta, p171).
Blogging one grain of Torah and unraveling the many garments made of it, "in those days and in our times". With a cultural eye and the assumption that "The Torah is a commentary on our lives, and our lives are a commentary on the Torah."
Thursday, December 26, 2013
Edgar M. Bronfman z"l – A Modern Talmudic Jew
Mishael Zion and Rebecca Voorwinde
Edgar M Bronfman, 1929-2013
oft-told Jewish joke tells of two scholars, arguing over their contradictory
understanding of the great Moses Maimonides. Finally one of them declares: “It’s
simple – you are talking about your-monides, but I have My-monides!” Such is the fate of giants. A legend in so
many realms, Edgar M. Bronfman lived a rich and varied life, embodying many
facets in his work and personality.
while Jews the world over marked the loss of a leader to whom they owe much, for
our community, the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, it is a personal loss. We “Bronfmanim”—as
we call ourselves-- have lost our Founder and our inspiration, but truly, we
have lost the person who invited us to live Talmudically in the modern world.
devout non-believer, Edgar’s favorite book was the Babylonian Talmud, whose
hero is not God but the argumentative and cunning human scholar. The paradigm
of the Talmudic scholar requires a
rigorous knowledge of foundational texts and a sharp wit, mixed with a healthy
dose of competitiveness, a thirst for justice, an appreciation of one’s own fallibility…
and a great sense of humor. All those characteristics could be found in Edgar Bronfman
as much as in the best Talmud folios.
be fair, when Edgar turned his formidable business mind to the service of the
Jewish people – becoming President of the World Jewish Congress in 1981 – he did
not know the value of learning. Like so many Jews, he found Jewish practice to
be an empty vessel, full of double standards and weak nostalgic traditionalism.
He assumed the same of Jewish texts. Edgar served the Jewish people because of
his loyalty towards family, and the desire to see Jews truly respected in a
world that too often flaunted their rights.
on the airplane back from a meeting behind the Iron Curtain, Edgar noticed his
companion studying the daily page of Talmud, and became curious. He quickly
engaged in a discussion about the tort law of a violent cow and fell in love with
the intellectual joy of Talmudic study. Edgar found the Talmud to be seeking
justice through messy dilemmas and imperfect decisions, a reality this global business
leader knew well.
in the boardrooms of the Jewish organizations he led, he encountered dysfunctional discourse. The leaders he met lacked
the Talmudic ability to harbor a range of contrasting perspectives. The battles
he witnessed placed an emphasis on denominational answers and ideology, lacking
the Talmud’s appreciation of doubt and compromise. Meanwhile, the intellectual
bar of existing Jewish programs kept getter lower and lower, even as the
American Jewish community was growing more and more educated. Jews were abandoning the Talmudic tradition
of erudition and excellence.
Edgar with the 2011 Israeli Bronfman Fellows
decided to invest in young people and in Jewish learning, in service of a
“Jewish Renaissance”. Among the endeavors he was proudest of was the founding
of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, an identity incubator beginning with outstanding
seventeen year olds from North America and Israel. On “Bronfman” they experienced
Jewish learning of the highest quality, challenged by friends and teachers who
did not share their point of view but gave them the benefit of the doubt. It
was an experiment in pluralism: Edgar knew that if we dictate shared practice – be it expectations
around Halakhic ritual, Israel politics or whom one marries – there will be
little to keep us together. But if we share a commitment to Jewish learning, we
become an interpretive community, allowing for an inclusivity sorely needed in
the Jewish world. The Fellowships are effectively a new kind of Yeshiva, a
modern house of study, an intentional community which continues to inspire the
over 1000 “Bronfmanim” who are having a
deep impact on Israeli and North American life. Edgar continued to give the
gift of rigorous Torah learning by founding and supporting some of the best
Jewish learning happening in the liberal Jewish world, often led or inspired by
week, Edgar’s loss is felt throughout our community: who will invite us to his
weekly Talmud study? who will challenge us with his sharp questions and
opinions? But his passing allows us to redouble our commitment to his values,
and we plan on continuing to make Jewish learning an ongoing part of our lives.
Needless to say, we’re already arguing about which book to study in his honor…
Mishael Zion and Rebecca Voorwinde are the co-directors of the Bronfman
Fellowships, a community of over 1000 young Jews from Israel and North America
that includes some of today’s most inspiring Jewish writers, thinkers and