Multifaith Musings and Introduction to Dr. Kessler

Posted on May 5th, 2019 by

Interior of the Small Sanctuary at the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam

Judaism is the oldest of the monotheistic Abrahamic religions, with roots that go back more than 3,000 years. Core concepts include a covenant between God and the Jewish people, and God’s word as embodied in the Torah and its commentary, including texts like the Hebrew Bible as well as the Talmud and law codes. Religious practice and an ethical way of life are heavily emphasized in Judaism. There are currently three large movements in Judaism in the United States – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform – and the two main centers of Judaism worldwide – the United States and Israel.


Dr. Samuel J. Kessler, newly installed Bonnier Chair in Jewish Studies and Assistant Professor of Religion at Gustavus, inherited Judaism from his ancestors.  In Dr. Kessler’s words, Judaism is a religion that centers around a contract with God and upholding the duties involved with that.

Judaism is not a religion that necessarily seeks to convert people, but rather typically passes knowledge from parent to child. This meant that Dr. Kessler did not consider Judaism a choice in the same way religion may be a choice for those from other traditions. He says, “This is what I was given and I am not at liberty to end it.”  Trusting in the ways and insights of previous generations gives Dr. Kessler a sense of ease and belonging. He notes, “as Abraham Joshua Heschel says, it’s not a question of ‘do I believe in God’ but rather ‘what is God asking of me?’”

In their tradition, Jews are never truly alone; belonging is cultivated through a Jewish way of life.  Dr. Kessler has found that, since many Jewish practices are fairly uniform, “if you are doing these things, you will always find other Jews doing these things.”  These shared practices establish a rather immediate acceptance among Jewish communities across the world.

Dr. Kessler hopes to make available resources and a holiday community for Jewish and Jewishly-interested students on campus.  He doesn’t want people to focus on him as an individual but instead to see him as a way for students interested in their Jewish heritage or in the religion and culture of the Jews to better connect with Judaism.  “Who I am matters only as much as people feel comfortable thinking about and practicing Judaism around me,” he says. In addition to being available for Jewish students on campus, Dr. Kessler aims to help non-Jews learn about Jewish life and tradition in a nuanced and meaningful way.  The opportunity to build connections and understanding is part of why Dr. Kessler likes working at Gustavus. He values the exploration and immersion in learning which our students can experience.

Dr. Kessler has already started to help share a Jewish voice and insight at Gustavus.  He has organized multiple interfaith panel discussions and led events for the Jewish holidays of Sukkot and Hanukkah.

Dr. Kessler says his denomination, Modern Orthodoxy, “seeks to speak about and interact with modernity in a Jewishly-inflected voice.”  It is a way of blending old wisdom with new insights and a changing society. He values this balance because it keeps him grounded in two complementary worlds, Jewish texts and wisdom and the diverse and changing culture of contemporary America.  His denomination keeps the old ways and finds new ways to apply them as the world changes.

Obligations for Modern Orthodox Jews include strict dietary restrictions (kashrut), daily prayer (tefillah), and, most importantly, keeping the weekly Sabbath (shabbat).  While some Jewish denominations follow these practices more closely than others, all acknowledge the centrality and sanctity of prayer and the Sabbath.  

Dr. Kessler recalls that, growing up, Friday night Sabbath dinners with his family were some of the most wonderful and enduring experiences of Jewish life and practice.  They were—and still are—a time for everyone in the family to be home and together, engaged in conversation and learning without the distractions of texting, appointments, or television.  Such weekly observance takes one out of an ever-changing, busy life and reminds one of what matters. Friday nights involve prayer, lighting candles, eating a festive meal, thanking God for the food, and singing traditional songs.  Having traveled and lived in Central Europe, Dr. Kessler particularly enjoys old German-Jewish melodies and the friends they remind him of.

Another holy day that Dr. Kessler especially values is Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, which generally falls in late September or early October. His family spends almost the entire day in the synagogue.  This allows him to be fully in the moment with the liturgy, entering into an almost trance-like religious experience.

Dr. Kessler views Judaism as an orientation or lens towards life. There is often a stereotype that Judaism focuses predominantly on laws, but the word for Jewish law (halakha) is derived from the same root as the verb ‘to walk.’ Law is about right action, and about experience. Adherence to such “attention to right action” is vital across generations and denominations of Judaism, helping to keep the world-wide community of Jews together.

The God served in Judaism can sometimes look quite different from the Christian God.  As in many religions, the Jewish God is a God of love. However, the Jewish God is also a God who, “in the face of cruelty and oppression, recognizes that righteousness and justice are necessary.” Dr. Kessler sees the Jewish God as one who, in his words, will always intercede on behalf of the oppressed. In the end, the Hebrew Bible offers a vision of a God who promises to punish those who do wrong for three or four generations, but to reward the righteous for a thousand generations (Exodus 20:5).

Jewish conceptions of God and human-divine relations are among the many aspects of Jewish thought not well understood by non-Jews.  “Judaism is a great deal more foreign and interesting than you may know or understand,” he says. The profound difference between religions is something that Dr. Kessler wants people to understand when entering into interfaith conversations. He doesn’t think we need religions to conform to one another or blur into a pluralist singularity.

For Dr. Kessler, learning about religion is important because, “it’s a language we speak and a history we come from which needs to be understood.  Even if you don’t express yourself with it, you should be able to listen to it and understand it.” For Dr. Kessler, a religiously-affiliated school offers many unique opportunities for students, and creates a space where religious expression and interest are something valued and which can be deepened.

Dr. Kessler likens religion to music, as a deep and beautiful way people communicate their experience of the complexity and transcendent holiness of the world around us.  Religious texts and practices, he says, should stem from a place which connects people together and creates a mode of conversation and wisdom through which we can understand our place and obligations in the world.

 

 

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