Triangular Torah

Rabbi Joshua Gerstein’s new book interweaves a people, a country and a heritage.

Rabbi Joshua Gerstein (photo credit: BECKY KESTENBAUM)
Rabbi Joshua Gerstein
(photo credit: BECKY KESTENBAUM)
Rabbi Joshua Gerstein never intended to live in Israel or write a book. Like so many 18-year-old American boys before him, he came to study in yeshiva.
Growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with a scant Jewish community, Gerstein’s family was not always observant. That changed when he was in the third grade and his parents became Orthodox. Gerstein was sent to a haredi Jewish day school in Baltimore.
“After high school, I did what all my friends were doing and went to study in Israel,” he recalls. “The plan was never to stay; it was to go back to the States after a year, go to college, get a job, and move on with my life. That was in 2007, and I’m still here. I think the most defining factor in that regard was Zionism, which was prevalent in our home even when my parents weren’t religious.”
The Zionism that Gerstein learned at home was a subject that was completely ignored in his school environment.
He found that this dichotomy continued in his yeshiva for Americans in Israel. After a terrorist attack on the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva went unmentioned, he began to feel disconnected from the land and yearn for something more.
“I felt like I was living in this weird bubble, living and studying in Israel but not being connected to what was going on. I think that was the first time I felt a cognitive dissonance between where I was and what I was doing.”
Gerstein decided to switch to an Israeli yeshiva, where he would be able to study and immerse himself in the land. He cites getting out of his comfort zone as the first step in his journey toward building his own life in the Jewish state. Living in the Old City of Jerusalem and becoming a part of the Israeli yeshiva environment cemented in his mind that he could in fact make a life for himself in Israel.
“When you’re living as a tourist, it’s very hard to see yourself in Israel, because it’s like a dream; there are no worries. You’re here until the money runs out. But I was studying with Israelis who made their lives here, which gave more concreteness to what I was doing.”
Gerstein wanted to join the IDF, a dream he had harbored since he was a little boy. But finding the right time to do so would prove difficult. He took a job teaching at Orayta, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva in the Old City, where the majority of staff members and rabbis had served in the IDF.
“I was talking the talk, meaning trying to inspire American yeshiva students to want to stay in Israel and give back to the land, but I wasn’t walking the walk. It was always something that I wanted to do and something that I felt self-conscious about not doing. But it was a balance for me of trying to follow my dreams and aspirations, while still being practical. At that point, I was teaching, I was married and finishing my bachelor’s degree, so I couldn’t just drop all of that to join the army.”
After he officially made aliya in 2014, it was finally time to join. He decided to go through the haredi draft, hoping it would allow him to spend more time with his family, as his son was born one month before basic training.
He served as assistant rabbi in the Intelligence Corps for two years, and was responsible for six units of soldiers.
According to army regulations, noncombat units need to engage in some sort of educational or religious activity provided by the IDF Rabbinate every two months. It was in this capacity that Gerstein was responsible for approximately 800 soldiers. He helped organize educational activities, such as lectures and historical tours.
“A lot of the lectures were motivational because these soldiers were not on the front lines, and it was sometimes hard for them to see how they were contributing to the security of the country by sitting in front of their computers all day.”
If religious soldiers had halachic questions or needed anything from tefillin to personalized Passover Seder boxes, Gerstein ensured that they got it.
It was during this time that the seeds for publishing a book were sown. Seeing the interactions between religious and secular soldiers – men who most likely would never have otherwise encountered one another – infused Gerstein with inspiration.
“Many of my soldiers had never talked to someone wearing a kippa and tzitzit before. At the end of two years, some became close friends. The army education department has a slogan, ‘The army builds the nation, the nation builds the army.’ It’s circular and it’s really true. It’s the first time for a lot of soldiers that they’re meeting people outside of their particular sector. I think the army is one of the only places in Israel where you have such an intermingling across divides.”
Gerstein never decided to write a book. The book – A People, A Country, A Heritage – happened organically. As he tells it, the book’s genesis occurred over three stages in his life, which correspond to the title, although he didn’t realize it until after it was published.
A People, A Country, A Heritage is a collection of teachings on the first two books of the Torah, Genesis and Exodus. In it, Gerstein aims to highlight a threefold relationship that is a living, breathing entity.
“I finished the writing of the manuscript and sent it off for publication while I was in the army. The writings in the book talk about the peoplehood aspect, which comes down to loving each Jew, no matter their opinions, and realizing that there is always more to a person than I can see. Those were definitely things I took away from my army experience.”
The country aspect was inspired by the time Gerstein spent as assistant rabbi of Chazon Yechezkel Synagogue – Young Israel of the Old City. The building is located in the Muslim Quarter in a synagogue that dates back to the 1890s. It functioned as a synagogue until 1929, at which time the British expelled Jews from the Muslim Quarter in the wake of the riots. In the 1980s, Rabbi Nachman Kahana helped reclaim the building and it functioned as a synagogue again until recently.
“Going there every Shabbat and giving classes amid all that history definitely cemented in my mind the idea of the country and the deep bond that the Jewish people have to the land,” Gerstein says. “The book takes a spiritual and religious perspective – how the Jewish people belong to the land, and the uniqueness of that connection. There is an almost human-like relationship between the two of them.”
The heritage piece sprung up from Gerstein’s time as a teacher. He noticed how many students seemed uninspired, with no feeling that their Judaism had anything to offer them in the 21st century. Through compiling his essays and notes from lectures into a book, he hoped to instill personal meaning and develop within the reader an understanding of the value of Jewish tradition in the modern world. The first eight pages of the book are letters of affirmation from a wide and impressive array of rabbis, including Nathan Lopes Cardozo and David Lau.
“I sent a manuscript to Rabbi Lau,” Gerstein explains, “because I thought it would be amazing to have a letter from the chief rabbi of Israel. As much as there are issues with the way the rabbinate functions – and there is no question about that – the idea of having a rabbinate after 2,000 years and how they represent Jewish sovereignty – it was important for me to try to get a letter that showcased that, because the book is about recognizing the gift that we have to live in Israel in the 21st century and being able to practice our heritage freely within the country. It’s something that a lot of us take for granted now.”
Gerstein emphasizes that he tried to write the book in a way that would make it accessible to people across the spectrum. He hopes that everyone from the yeshiva student to the person with very little Jewish background will be able to relate to and benefit from it.
“The book has these three themes intertwined throughout,” Gerstein concludes. “A lot of books focus on only one of the themes, to the exclusion of all else. Even though each of the three is worthwhile, if someone focuses on only one, it’s like saying that it is more important than the others. To me, it’s like having a three-legged table; without one, the whole thing falls down. From my perspective, if you build an ivory tower of Torah observance without a connection to the Land of Israel and the Jewish people, it’s problematic.
“On the other hand,” he continues, “having a peoplehood approach, where Judaism is only cultural or ethnic-based, is missing a huge part of our heritage; and focusing only on nationalism can lead to racism and hatred of the other. Balancing all three of those together brings a holistic picture of what Judaism is all about.”
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