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June 26th, 2014 by jtaubes

Amiya Tor was a participant in the Straus Center and Tikvah High School Program in 2012- 2013

The Stave that Binds the Well

Parshat Chukat includes one of Torah’s odder passages: Shirat Habe’er, the Song of the Well. Brief and rather cryptic, the song consists of four verses awkwardly placed in the midst of a recounting of Israel’s travels in the desert; the verses list Israel’s camps, and mention that they traveled to “Be’er, that is the well that God said to Moses ‘Gather the people and I shall give them water.’”[i] The story of the well continues as we are told:

“Then sang Israel this song: spring up, o well- sing ye unto it! The well, which the princes digged, which the nobles of the people delved, with the sceptre, and with their staves. And from the wilderness to Mattanah; and from Mattanah to Nahaliel; and from Nahaliel to Bamoth; and from Bamoth to the valley that is in the field of Moab, by the top of Pisgah, which looketh down upon the desert.”[ii] Read the rest of this entry »


June 20th, 2014 by jtaubes

Josh Fitterman was a Straus Center Student in 2013-2014

The Politics of a Religious Rebellion

            The rebellion of Korach is probably the most infamous of all religious rebellions Tanach, having taken place within two years of the Exodus from Egypt. However, what else distinguishes this incident from others, and what can we learn from this case of religious rebellion in Chumash?

R. Soloveitchik[1] argues that Korach argues for theological egalitarianism, which seems to be the correct reading of the objections of the assembly (e.g. “are not the whole people holy”). However, we may be able to compare this to another story, that of the daughters of Tzelafchad.  In this story, the daughters complain about the injustice that they are suffering through the patriarchal distribution of land. Are not the daughters of Tzelafchad asking for a degree of egalitarianism? What is the difference between the two claims? Read the rest of this entry »


June 10th, 2014 by jtaubes
Rabbi Dov Lerner was a participant in the Straus Semikha Seminar in 2011-2012 and a counselor on the Straus Center – Tikvah Summer Institute for High School Students in 2013.

On Giants’ Shoulders

Imagine the scene—a bright blue sky and a band of six hundred thousand slaves, newly freed by God’s degree, fed by manna and sustained by miracles. In this almost celestial oasis stands a very real people, the Children of Israel, and they are on the cusp of a new life; a world of political and religious autonomy, a world with a place to call home.

With God’s approval they have sent an envoi of scouts to inspect their prospects. The camp is abuzz with expectancy and eager to embark on the final stage of emancipation. We can imagine the anticipation, the electricity pulsing through the camp—the hopeful confidence that bristles in every soul.

Then the scouts return with the following report:


“בָּאנוּ אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר שְׁלַחְתָּנוּ וְגַם זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ…אֶפֶס כִּי־עַז הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּאָרֶץ וְהֶעָרִים בְּצֻרוֹת גְּדֹלֹת מְאֹד…וְכָל־הָעָם אֲשֶׁר־רָאִינוּ בְתוֹכָהּ אַנְשֵׁי מִדּוֹת”[1]

“We came to the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey… However, the people that dwell in the land are fierce, and the cities are heavily fortified… and all the people that we saw are people of great stature.”

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June 6th, 2014 by jtaubes

Yael Lilienthal was a participant in the Straus Center and Tikvah High School Program in 2013

Modern Menorah

Parashat Behaalotcha begins with the commandment of lighting the Menorah. The simple understanding of the term Behaalotcha—when you go up—refers to the Kohen’s physical ascent to light the Menorah, however later commentaries indicate that lighting the Menorah was a spiritually uplifting process.

In his Midbar Shur1, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook writes of the symbolism behind the Menorah in reference to wisdom and intellectual elevation. Rav Kook explains that the seven branches represent different intellectual paths unique to each individual. As support, he quotes Bava Batra2 which illustrates the Menorah as a symbol of intellectual advancement. R’ Yitzchak says, “he who desires to become wise should turn to the south…The symbol is that the Menorah was in the south”. It is thus no surprise that many universities have in their logos an image or words relating to light or fire.3 Read the rest of this entry »


May 26th, 2014 by jtaubes

Temima Kanarfogel was a Straus Center and Tikvah High School Program Participant in 2013.+

The Torah’s acceptance of Aestheticism

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the Heavens.”[1] A doctrinal belief in Judaism is that all actions and objects, spanning from the mundane to the sacred, can play integral roles in a person’s life at the appropriate times.

Parshat Naso introduces the framework of laws that pertain to a Nazir, a person who earns a holy status by abstaining from cutting hair and consuming any grape products for an avowed period of time. Nezirut poses as the Jewish asceticism, an undertaking that requires somewhat abstemious measures. The mitzvah of the Nazir demonstrates the Torah’s obvious approval for those who lead such an ascetic lifestyle. However, the Torah seems to portray the Nazir in two contradictory lights. In its original description of nezirut, the Torah comments that a Nazir attains a kedushah that marks his designation to HaShem[2], imparting the positivity of the Nazir’s status. Contrarily, at the completion of the Nazir’s avowed duration of nezirut, he offers an obligatory Karban Chatat[3], implying a committing of sin and need for atonement. The end of Nazir’s set time of his nezirut, coupled with a Karban that implies an act of sin seems to illustrate

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Straus Center to host half-day conference on Menachem Begin’s Zionism

May 16th, 2014 by jtaubes

Begin Event


May 7th, 2014 by jtaubes
Rabbi Dov Lerner was a participant in the Straus Semikha Seminar in 2011-2012 and a counselor on the Straus Center – Tikvah Summer Institute for High School Students in 2013.

Sacred Relief

 The locative intention behind this week’s fifth word can be usefully refined when appropriated for symbolic purpose, something our sage’s clearly intend to infer in titling this Parsha simply בהר. Segregating the word from its contextual and conjunctive form—בהר סיני, the name neatly translates as “On a mountain.” Not the Mountain, or Mount Sinai, but merely any summit appears significant in the eyes of the artistic titling of this Torah portion. If we turn to the end of Mishpatim the word הר appears six times in four verses, including the report that “the appearance of God’s glory was like a consuming fire on top of a mountain.” Why?

England is a land of limited relief and boasts too few peaks to be mountainous, yet over time it produced thinkers that touched on this very subject. Thomas Burnet, born in 1635, attended the University of Cambridge and later became the Clerk of the Closet to William III of England; he was a theologian. Among his written achievements lies an exemplary work called “The Sacred Theory of the Earth,” in which he offers a partial cosmogony. Writing in an age when theory far superseded technology, he tackled one of science’s burning questions: the question of origins.

He argued that the Earth’s original form was far smoother than it seems today. God fashioned it as a perfect orb, a flawless sphere. But with time, the human capacity for failure sullied creation and provoked a celestial response—Noah began to build an ark, he received instructions to preserve life amid a dark drowning of all that deserved death. But according to Burnet, the physical structure of rainfall could never produce enough water to cover the planet, so some water must have come from elsewhere. Perhaps unknowingly echoing a Midrash, Burnet suggest that God punctured the Earth’s then perfect surface, allowing its internal waters to ooze over humanity, to burst out and submerge those who had made themselves subhuman. The lasting perforations left scars in the Earth, and these scars are what we see as topographic variance; Burnet calls the mountain tops the “ruins of a broken world.” Read the rest of this entry »


April 25th, 2014 by jtaubes

Dovid Schwartz was a Straus Center and Tikvah High School Program Participant in 2013

Are there Ethics Outside of Halacha?

            The issue of the relationship between ethics and Halacha is a large one, and there are many issues to be addressed. The questions of whether Halacha is inherently ethical or can ever be unethical spring to mind. I, however, would like to briefly address whether there are ethics valued by the Torah that exist outside of the Halachik framework. It is my opinion that there are such values, and I will group them into four different categories: (1) Ethics derived from logic; (2) Ethics derived from objective morality; (3) Ethics derived from God’s role in history and His creations; (4) Ethics derived from the Torah which govern Halachik[1] and non-Halachik behavior.

While the fourth category is undoubtedly toeing the line regarding the “outside of Halacha” aspect of this topic, it is only by including it that I can use this week’s parsha, Parshat Kedoshim, as a platform for discussing this topic. Read the rest of this entry »

Straus Center to host event at Begin Center

April 8th, 2014 by jtaubes

Begin Event

The Battle for Israel’s Soul

April 7th, 2014 by jtaubes

20140401_Gordis_Begin_Straus_Center_122At Straus Center Event, Author Daniel Gordis Discusses The Life and Legacy of Menachem Begin

A fiery revolutionary and a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, a beloved founder of the State of Israel reviled by its first prime minister, a proud Jew but not a conventionally religious one: Menachem Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister, was all of this and more. On April 1, Yeshiva University’s Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought hosted an intimate evening of conversation at the Yeshiva University Museum with Straus Center Director Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik and Dr. Daniel Gordis, author of the recent book Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul (Nextbook, April 2014), to discuss the complexities and contradictions of Begin’s life and legacy. Read the rest of this entry »