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Over the last week, I have spoken about what makes Israel inspiring and amazing. I am now back in Jerusalem for five days of continuing professional education, as well as further site visits, and you will see more of this to come. When I started this last Sunday, I also promised I would not avoid the hard questions, and there are some really hard conversations coming in the days ahead.

But for now, being back in Jerusalem, it is just time to celebrate!

I am here participating in a five-day educational program at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. Begun in 1972, Pardes is a non-denominational religious institution. Most of its teachers are what we would call “Orthodox,” though there is a fair amount of diversity of Orthodox practice here. Pardes is a great example of how Israel has, more than anywhere else, fostered the flourishing of the Jewish culture.

We have some great continuing education options in St. Louis through many of our synagogues, such as the St. Louis Kollel, Chabad or the Jewish Federation of St. Louis’ Center for Jewish Learning. Part of the reason I am here is to see how we might find a path to strengthen our entire community’s education through stronger relationships with institutions like Pardes and others in Israel.

Now, of course you might wonder, what is a non-Orthodox Jew doing studying in a place that is religious in this way?

The truth is, I find a good deal of value in studying Jewish texts with those who take the texts seriously without being distracted by questions about their history, context or the motivations of those who wrote and codified them. Those questions of origin or ontology are interesting and important questions on their own. They are just different questions, and ones that too often distract us from the text itself and taking it seriously.

I think most people approach secular literature and culture in exactly this way. Great works of literature, art and music can cause us to reflect upon the most important things – ourselves, our lives and what it means to be fully human. Reading, watching a film or listening to music can bring us to contemplate the eternal, the infinite and the limits of human knowledge. This is the power of thinking and the power of imagination. I am speaking here about a range of great and even merely “really good” non-religious works through history: Plato, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Freud, Arendt or Angelou. Choose your own favorites.

If you are moved or elevated by a text, if it causes you to reflect upon that which you don’t know, if you are brought to reflect on what makes murder bad without stopping to ask who created the book, film or score you are experiencing, you are letting the power of the ideas move you. When you cry at the death of a heroine in a fictional story, you are taking the story seriously without stopping to ask “who wrote that and what was her motivation.”

To take these texts seriously, we have to approach them on their own terms, just as we do a novel, just as we confront philosophy in the first instance, as if it were true, in order to confront the idea before accepting or rejecting them. Pardes does it beautifully, whatever you happen to believe or not believe.

I’ll say more as the week goes on about the curriculum – a study of the books of Ezra and Nehemia. For now, click here to view more scenes from the first day at Pardes.