Rabbi Explores Loving-Kindness in Herzstein Lecture
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Rabbi Explores Loving-Kindness in Herzstein Lecture

Rabbi Shai Held

Living an authentically religious life means “showing up” when people are suffering, according to celebrated educator and scholar Rabbi Shai Held, who will deliver the University’s annual Herzstein Lecture in Judaism on Feb. 12.

Held’s lecture, titled “The World is Built on Hesed: Towards a Jewish Theology of Lovingkindness,” will take place from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. in Cullen Hall, followed by a reception and book signing in Doherty Library. 

Running Toward Vulnerability

In Jewish theology, “walking in God’s ways” is the highest spiritual level the human person can aspire to reach, Held said. His lecture will examine “what walking in God’s ways looks like from a Jewish perspective,” and consider the ethical, pastoral and psychological implications of Hesed, or “loving-kindness,” for both religious life and communities.

“I’m interested in trying to explore with people the centrality of compassion and empathy” in religious life and practice, said Held, who holds a doctorate in religion from Harvard University and serves as co-founder, dean and chair in Jewish Thought at New York City’s renowned Mechon Hadar institute.

“A big piece of what it means to be genuinely religious is a willingness to run toward the places most people run away from, the places we have the impulse to run away from,” he said.        

Finding God in Dark Places

Learning to “walk with” people who are vulnerable or in pain—Alzheimer’s patients, for example, or the homeless—can be uncomfortable, even “scary,” Held said; believers are often tempted to “fall back on religious clichés” instead, or to think that simply studying religious doctrine or attending synagogue or Mass is sufficient for a holy life. 

“It’s easy to… shy away from asking, What is this all for? Who am I asked to become in the world?” Held said.

In reality, “learning to love whom God loves” is a “fundamental project” of religious life, Held said.  The willingness to show compassion toward “those whom everyone else ignores” is not just a central commandment in Judaism—it is also a “profoundly religious act” that becomes a path to God.

“There is the hope that God’s presence can be discerned in the world’s most dark and vulnerable places,” Held said.  When people are yearning for God, acting as a compassionate presence toward those who are suffering can be a “powerful way to discover God looking over their shoulder.”

Changing the Conversation—and Our Lives

A spirituality of Hesed is thus “profoundly human and profoundly countercultural,” Held observed.  It involves “reorienting our lives” and “changing the conversation from ‘How can I use this?’ to ‘How can I serve?’”

Held said his lecture topic is therefore relevant for believers and non-believers alike.  “I think we far too rarely really ask the question of what the good life looks like, and what it means to be a good person,” he said.  “This [lecture] is about that.  I don’t know anybody for whom that question should not be urgently important.”

Held is a recipient of a 2011 Covenant Award for excellence in Jewish education. He has taught for the Jewish Theological Seminary, Drisha, Me'ah, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Rabbinic Training Institute, Harvard Hillel, and the Wexner Heritage Program. His book Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence was published by Indiana University Press in fall, 2013.

The University’s Herzstein lecture series in Judaism was founded in 2008 through a grant from the Albert and Ethel Herzstein Charitable Foundation to foster a deeper understanding of Judaism and to promote interfaith relations.      

By Marion Fernandez-Cueto         

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