Biblical Paradigms of Conversion: Avot, Sinai and Rut. A Shiur for Shavuot

Shavuot is the festival of the Jewish people’s conversion. The gemara in Masechet Keritut (9a) derives from the Torah’s description of Mount Sinai the necessary steps that a potential candidate for conversion needs to take. Shavuot is also the festival on which we read Megillat Rut – Rut, also represents an ideal model of geirut – yet seemingly a very different one from the model of Sinai.

This shiur (the introductory class to the course on conversion I gave earlier this semester, which I plan to upload the rest of soon) examines these various Biblical paradigms of conversion, examining how each of them contributed to Chazal’s understanding (and our own) of what the core nature of being Jewish is, and what the potential candidate for conversion needs to do in order to become a member of the Jewish people.

Audio is here and source sheet is here.

And in the spirit of Shavuot and Rut, here is the first piece I ever published on this website, entitled ‘Why Rut‘ – a close reading of the megilla and an attempt to understand its power and relevance.



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On The Second Yahrzeit Of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l

Today is the second yahrzeit of my great teacher Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. One of the experiences I am most grateful for is to have spent some of my most formative years sitting in the same Bet Midrash as him listening to his shiurim and sichot, absorbing his teachings.  Talmud Torah was what he lived for. Intimate and vast was his knowledge. Fiery and passionate about many issues, gentle and kind relating to individuals. Balancing and harmonising diverse commitments of Torah and public service, religious and secular knowledge, community and family. Linked here is a piece I wrote a few years ago when he received the Israel Prize and here is an excerpt about one of the aspects of his personality that made the strongest impression on me – on the tension and necessesity of being both passionate people and complex people.


A number of years ago I sat in on a question and answer with Rav Lichtenstein with some visiting high school students from Manchester. One asked the obvious question for an eighteen year old formulating his gap-year plans, ‘what is it that makes your yeshiva unique?’ After a few moments of insisting that there were many wonderful yeshivot to choose from, Rav Lichtenstein came up with the following formulation about what he hoped characterised Yeshivat Har Etzion. There is a tension, Rav Lichtenstein explained, between two values: complexity and passion. Complexity entails being able to see multiple sides to an issue – the understanding that no single perspective captures the whole truth, that our own deeply held convictions will not necessarily be shared by others, for perfectly valid reasons. Passion entails a sense of absolute commitment to a cause, a love and determination to see a task through, to be bound up totally in one’s belief.

Passion does not naturally lead to complexity for passion is far easier to engender when one views the critical issues as black and white – when you are right, and the other is wrong. Complexity does not naturally lead to passion, for an appreciation of multiple angles and perspectives can leave one disinclined to commit to any single perspective. Said Rav Lichtenstein, his hope for the unique character of the yeshiva is that a synthesis is attained between passion and complexity – not a lukewarm halfway house, which pays lip-service to one without truly fulfilling the other, but a true and deep combination; to be as passionate as possible on the one hand, and as sensitive to nuance and complexity as possible on the other.

On hearing or reading these words an understandable response is that such a fusion is admirably idealistic, yet in practise unattainable. We all know in ourselves that we often achieve one of these values at the cost of the other. Yet all who have come into contact with Rav Lichtenstein recognise in him an exquisite balance of the two. I have never met someone as passionate as Rav Lichtenstein, nor anyone as complex as him, with such an ability to appreciate multiple sides of an issue, not only in the study of a sugya, but when engaged in public debate or helping a student address a delicate and personal issue. In my mind this should be a central aspiration not only of Yeshivat Har Etzion, but of modern orthodoxy as a whole, and Rav Lichtenstein’s example provides a model for us all.

May his memory be a blessing

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Six Shiurim on Shemot To Illuminate Pesach

I have loved Shemot (Exodus) for many years and so this year we chose to study it over the Spring Semester so that in the run up to Pesach we would have spent time in-depth time with the critical stories that make up the background to the Jews’ slavery, their liberation, Mosheh’s leadership, and the journey to Sinai, enriching our understanding of our most important national story.

All the shiurim focus closely on the Biblical text and have accompanying source sheets – although listening ‘on the go’ is definitely feasible.

1. Introducing Shemot – What’s In A Name

2. Introducing Mosheh – The First 80 Years

3. The Time God Tried To Kill Mosheh

4. Religion, Politics & Understanding The Lineage Interruption

5. Unmasking The Plagues

6. The Midrashim Of The Splitting Of The Sea

Chag Pesach Kasher v’Sameach!

Shemot image.jpg

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Pahad Yitzhak on Hanukah – Listening To God’s Silence

Yishayahu  (54:1) said: ‘Greater are sons of the desolate one…’ upon which the Sages expanded: more righteous ones arose for me in a time of destruction than in a time when the Temple stood.

Rav Hutner in his classic work Pahad Yitzhak develops these sources to explain the role of the Anshei Knesset HaGedola, the men of the great assembly, and the place of Hanukah in Jewish history. In doing so he touches upon key questions at the heart of Jewish thought: what marks the line between the Biblical and post-Biblical periods, what is the relationship between wisdom and prophecy, and what it means to listen not only to God’s words but also to his silence.

A piece for Hanukah and for ‘light in the darkness’ in the deepest and darkest sense of the phrase.

Recording and sources here




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Kibbud Av V’Em – On The Mitzvah and Difficulties of Honouring Parents

For the second half of the Fall Semester at NYU in our gemara class, we decided to study the sugyot of Kibbud Av V’Eim (honouring parents).

Kibbud Av V’Em is one of the most taken for granted of all halachic topics – be a good boy and do what your parents say, right? On reflection however nothing could be further from the truth. Kibbud Av V’Eim is unique in many respects – accompanying a person throughout their life yet changing from one stage to the next, almost impossible to fulfill, with no simple distinction between machmir and meikel. No two families are alike and every individual is frequently their own posek.

In our classes we study both the halachic and the aggadic sections of the topic that appear towards the end of the first chapter of Kiddushin.

  1.  Introduction and Fundamentals -The Uniqueness of Kibbud Av V’Em, in general and in this generation, and the meaning of the comparison of honouring parents as akin to honouring God.
  2.  Repaying The Debt?
  3. The Orphan’s Question: When Kibbud Av Conflicts With Kibbud Eim
  4. Romeo and Juliet B’Halacha: When Parents Disagree With Your Choice of Partner and Other Delicate Situations
  5. What (Not) To Do With An Annoying Parent: The Story of Rav Assi’s Mother and the Maharam of Rothenburg’s Father


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Abrabanel’s Anti-Politics

In our fourth class on Jewish Political Thought we study the thought of Don Yitzchak Abrabanel (1437-1508). Abrabanel was one of the most distinguished politicians and statesmen in Jewish history and also one of the tradition’s finest political thinkers.
Fascinatingly, despite holding senior positions in Spain, Portugal, Venice, and Naples, he created a political philosophy which rejects not only monarchy (the mainstream Jewish position) in favour of republican democracy, but even appears to reject political association altogether. Relating to this week’s parshat hashavua: what was the sin of those who built the tower of Babel? That they built a city and engaged in political life. That was it!

To listen to the shiur and see the source sheet, click here:

If you missed them, here are the first three classes:

  1. Monarchy in The Bible: The Mitzvah To Appoint A King (or is it?)
  2. The Rambam’s Political Philosophy: Religion Serves The State, The State Serves Religion
  3. Rabbeinu Nissim’s (Ran): Separation and Coexistence of Religion and Politics


Venice in the middle ages

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Two Shiurim for Sukkot

The Rambam on Simcha – In Our Lives, On Festivals, On Sukkot

Rav Hutner’s Pahad Yitzhak on Sukkot – the clouds of glory after the golden calf, the second tablets, Yaakov, Emet, temporary and permanence and on developing personalities which incorporate within them multiple middot (attributes), in order to ‘l’galot partzuph haTzelem. All in a single page. Mindblowing.



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Yamim Nora’im Torah

The start of the academic year at NYU has corresponded with Ellul, Rosh HaShanna and Yom Kippur, and thank God our community has been able to learn a lot of Torah.

Below are the recordings of three courses with classes ranging in length from five to forty-five minutes. Just enough time before Yom Kippur to fit a couple of them in!

Pre-Selichot Thoughts and Ideas – (5 Minutes on Average)

Hashem As Shliach Tzibbur

Who Is A Ba’al Teshuva?

Why Does Elazar Ben Durdaya Cry?

Hashem – The First Attribute

Every Mitzvah As Teshuva

Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuva (15-20 minutes each)

Ch.1 – Did The Rambam Think Teshuva Was A Mitzvah?

Ch.2 – Internal and External

Ch.3 – Everyone As Perfectly Balanced Between Faults and Merits

Ch.4 – What Prevents Teshuva

Ch.5 – The Centrality of Free Will

Chs.6+7 – The Mindset of Teshuva 

Shabbat Shuva DerashaThe Hypocrisy of Teshuva (source sheet)

Tanakh Characters of the Yamim Noraim (approx. 45 minutes)

Noach As Everyman

Yechezkel, Mosheh, and the 13 Attributes

Avraham (guest lecture by Rabbi Dr Sam Lebens)



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Two New Courses: Jewish Political Thought & Tanakh Characters of the Yamim Noraim

I’ve been teaching two exciting new courses at The Bronfman Center since the start of semester – both designed to be relevant to this point in the Jewish and secular calendar as well as stimulating and rigorous Torah.

The first is Jewish Political Though focusing on the range of views about the relationship between religion and state developed by the rabbis of Middle Ages. An important topic at any time,but also one which gives us ways to think about the relationship between Judaism and the State of Israel, as well as the nature of politics from the perspective of the great sages of our tradition during this election cycle.

The second is a series called Tanakh Characters of the Yamim Noraim . My claim is that although not focused around a single historical event, an appreciation for the richness of these festivals is greatly enhanced by paying close attention to the Biblical stories that make up the Torah readings and tefillot of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur,  allowing us to uncover the humanity, range and depth of the critical ideas at the heart of these festivals.

Here are the recordings and source sheets for the first two classes in each course. More to follow as the courses unfold.

Jewish Political Thought

  1. Monarchy in The Bible: The Mitzvah To Appoint A King (or is it?)
  2. The Rambam’s Political Philosophy: Religion Serves The State, The State Serves Religion

Tanakh Characters of the Yamim Nora’im

  1. Rosh HaShanah Mussaf and Noah as Everyman 
  2. The 13 Attributes of Hashem’s Mercy: Mosheh vs. Yechezkel
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Torah In South Africa

I have just finished a wonderful ten days in South Africa where I was brought out by Limmud SA and The Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning. I saw three cities, the bush, learned about SA politics and the Jewish community, bonded with a fantastic team of international presenters, was hosted by the most gracious of hosts and met hundreds of people. It was an honour to learn with so many and I present here all of the classes for which I have recordings. The vast majority of the links lead to audio and source sheets and a few lead to articles. Thank you to everyone who made our time so special.

Cape Town  – August 19th – 21st

The Talmud & The Holocaust

Theological Politics: Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Abraham Joshua Heschel

Suicide: A Halachic History

An Alternative Religious Zionism – The Path Not Travelled: A Student’s Tribute to Rav Yehuda Amital

Durban August 23rd

‘Good Morning My New World’ – The Book of Jonah through Contemporary Israeli Music

In Search of The World To Come

Jo’burg – August 26th – 28th

Yishma’el ben Avraham (given at The Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning)

What I Learned About Israel In India (King David Victory Park)

Theological Politics: Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Abraham Joshua Heschel

How Torah Binds Jews Together (article based on Shabbat Lunch Dvar Torah)

Yonah, Nineveh, and the Positive Hypocrisy of Teshuva

The Two Goats of Yom Kippur as Two Models of Teshuva (recording by Dr Yael Ziegler)

The First King’s Last Night – Saul and the Witch of Ein Dor


Learning Torah and appreciating God’s creation in Nambiti Game Reserve.


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