In a wide-ranging conversation with Jewish Action writer Sholom Licht, Dr. Henry Abramson discusses everything from skiing to Piaseczno Chassidut to his involvement with the OU’s groundbreaking Daf Yomi platform, All Daf.
Born in Iroquois Falls, Ontario, Canada, Dr. Henry Abramson serves Touro College in Brooklyn, New York, as both the academic dean of the Lander College of Arts and Sciences and as dean of the Machon L’Parnasa/Institute of Professional Studies. A specialist in Jewish history and thought, Dr. Abramson received a PhD in history from the University of Toronto. He writes and produces the Jewish History in Daf Yomi video series, which is a project of the OU’s Daf Yomi Initiative.
Sholom Licht: You grew up in Iroquois Falls, Ontario, which isn’t a very thriving place, Jewishly speaking. Yet you chose to major in Jewish studies and Jewish history. How did that come about?
Dr. Henry Abramson: You’re right about Jewish life in Iroquois Falls. There were exactly three Jews there—my mother, my father and me. (I’m an only child.)
My parents are traditional and never had the benefit of a strong Jewish education, but they were incredibly devoted to the cause of Jewish education—and they made tremendous sacrifices in order for me to get one. Until I was ten years old, we commuted every Sunday to Timmins, which is about sixty miles south of where I lived. All of the scattered Jewish kids in the north would get together, and there was a traveling melammed who would meet us and we would learn aleph bet and holiday-related material and so on. When I turned ten, my parents felt I needed more [in the way of Jewish education], as I was soon to become a bar mitzvah. At great sacrifice, my father, a”h, rented an apartment in Toronto, where my mother stayed with me, and my father would commute for the weekends every other week. In Toronto, I attended a talmud Torah afternoon school.
SL: What was the talmud Torah experience like for you?
DHA: My father’s siblings lived in Toronto, and he asked them about Jewish schools in the area. They said, “Whatever you do, don’t send him to Eitz Chaim because they are fanatics there.” Sure enough, he sent me to Eitz Chaim, because that was my father’s way. And I was really inspired. I remember being transported by the stories in Midrash and Gemara that we learned during those few hours after public school. Then I had my bar mitzvah, and we moved back up north.
SL: How did your Jewish education continue after that?
DHA: Well, my Jewish education stopped then, but the rabbis at Eitz Chaim really planted seeds.
SL: How did your interest in Jewish history and text-based Jewish studies come about?
DHA: Believe it or not, after getting a bachelor’s in philosophy, I was a ski instructor for several years. I was working on obtaining a visa to teach skiing during the summer in New Zealand, and my dream was to circle the globe, following the snow. But Hakadosh Baruch Hu intervened. I met my future wife Ilana, who was also a ski instructor. She almost derailed my plans to go to New Zealand, but I was determined. So Hashem sent me another messenger—I burst my femoral artery in a training accident, and I was laid up for six months. New Zealand was totally out of the picture. But I went to plan B, which turned out to be Hashem’s plan A—marrying Ilana.
Things could’ve gone very differently in my life. But Baruch Hashem, when I look back, even the really hard things turned out to be gam zu letovah, for the best.
Ilana really propelled me in my Jewish education. I realized that if we were going to have a family (and pay day school tuition), I couldn’t be a ski instructor. I figured, well, what can I do? I was good at philosophy, so I went back to college. One thing led to another, and I ended up getting involved with Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem (my wife’s influence), and then I went on a whirlwind tour of jumping from yeshivah to graduate school to post-doc. I calculated recently that my wife and I moved ten times within five countries, during the first seven years of our marriage. But it was an amazing ride.
SL: That is a fascinating story. Jewish historians, especially scholars of Jewish intellectual history, often have this struggle of dual loyalties to Chazal and the mesorah and then to secular academic views. How do you feel about this tension? How do you deal with it when teaching your classes?
DHA: It’s a very, very difficult question. The academic versus the traditional study of the Talmud is fraught with intellectual challenges and pitfalls. There are so many areas where there are big blank spots in my personal knowledge, and there are big blank spots in historical literature. I’m just doing my best to talk about what I know within the context of what’s available to know. But a Jew understands that the commitment to Torah and mesorah must be paramount even when there are aspects of the mesorah that seem to pose intellectual difficulties.
SL: What about the conflicts vis-à-vis your own internal hashkafah? It’s more of a personal question.
DHA: There’s a dynamic struggle between my youthful sensibilities and the society with which I’ve chosen to affiliate—that’s part of the ba’al teshuvah condition. But at a certain point in my spiritual development I understood that there are some questions that I may never be able to answer. I kind of imagine them as a massive storm cloud that has receded significantly and you can see the sun coming out and enjoy the rays of the sun and feel its warmth—but at the same time you, can see the storm cloud in the distance. The Holocaust, for example, is a very big, dark storm cloud. But my hope is that as I grow in my Yiddishkeit, I can shrink that storm cloud significantly.
Ultimately, however, the “the future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades” (lyrics from a hit song of the 1980s). You would have to be blind not to see hashgachah pratit in your own life. If you think objectively about the things that happen in your life—even the bad things—they all culminate in something good. I would not have the temerity to say this to someone who has experienced incredibly traumatic loss, but I still hashkafically believe it. I can see it just by looking at my own life, at the things that have led me to deep personal satisfaction, including marriage and children. Many of the most wonderful aspects of my life grew out of crisis—for example, that femoral artery accident. If I hadn’t had that terrible accident, you and I would not be sitting here having this conversation. I would probably be a skiing instructor somewhere, drinking and smoking in the back of a trailer and watching reruns from the 1990s. Instead, thank God, I have a fantastic wife, children and grandchildren and all kinds of really satisfying things in my life.
At so many points in my life I was at crossroads. I can think of two examples right now that were very significant. One was when I was in graduate school and I was wavering between becoming a historian or embracing an Orthodox lifestyle. At the time, I didn’t see how I could synthesize these two paths. I was living a dual life: I used to act like an ordinary graduate student, but I would take the TTC (the transit system in Toronto) and when I would get to Steeles Avenue, which is located in the Orthodox neighborhood, I would get out and put on my kippa. One year, over winter break, I said to myself, “What am I doing? What am I afraid of?” And so I went back for spring classes wearing my kippa, and my PhD supervisor, who was a brilliant guy, pulled me aside and asked me, “You feeling okay? Maybe you should see the school’s counseling services?” He thought my wearing a kippa was indicative of some kind of psychological illness!
I was doing really well as a graduate student and I was nominated to a very prestigious three-year scholarship at an Ivy League school that will remain nameless (but the university ended up publishing my first book, hint). It was an amazing honor, and I had to put together a project. I wrote a proposal and made it to the second round of interviews, but I didn’t make it into the final round because the idea I was working on had already been done decades earlier. Again, it was a wonderful proposal—too bad I didn’t realize someone else had already completed it! I was pretty crushed.
In the end, I got a scholarship to study in Yerushalayim for a year at Ohr Somayach. I wound up being exposed to the world of yeshivot, which was overwhelming and transformative! Had I gone to an Ivy League school, I would have probably been some snooty, idly professor wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches, looking down my nose at all my undergraduates. Things could’ve gone very differently in my life. But Baruch Hashem, when I look back, even the really hard things—it was hard not getting that scholarship—turned out to be gam zu letovah, for the best.
When you have those kinds of experiences on a personal level (and everybody does, especially when you expand that scope historically and look at everything that happened to the Jewish people, you can very often see the refuah is created before the makkah), how can you not buy into the system? And even though there’s a storm cloud there—even a few big ones—but there’s also a tremendous amount of sunshine.
SL: Let’s talk about Ohr Somayach. Were there specific individuals who had a strong impact on you?
DHA: Definitely. Rabbi Nachman Bulman, zt”l, the mashgiach there, taught us Piaseczno Chassidut—way before it was popular—and it transformed my life. I wrote a book on the Piaseczno Rebbe, and I have another one forthcoming, God willing, this year. I was just overwhelmed with the brilliance of Rabbi Mendel Weinbach, zt”l, who often showed me how I was learning a text the wrong way week after week. And that was a very humbling and empowering experience, because it showed me how much bigger the Torah is than I had originally thought. Rabbi Nota Schiller, an incredibly erudite and literate individual, gave me a path to express the fullness of my personal encounter with the world and Yiddishkeit. Those three rabbis in particular had a huge impact on me.
But my religious journey was an emotional one as well. Before we became Orthodox, my wife and I were members of a Conservative shul where I was one of the more knowledgeable members, and I felt like a real macher. One day, a member of the sisterhood got an aliyah, which in and of itself did not bother my wife or me. What bothered my wife was that the woman wore sunglasses during her aliyah. My wife couldn’t let it go: “You’re wearing sunglasses when you’re getting an aliyah?! Where’s your kavod haTorah?” And she said, “Okay, let’s go check out those Orthodox people.” But it was the sunglasses that did it. Often it’s not an intellectual matter that turns people on to Yiddishkeit. It’s the smell of the cholent.
SL: All Daf, the OU’s new app, brings supplemental material about Jewish history, Nach, halachah and more into Daf Yomi learning. Since April 2019, you’ve been producing Jewish History in Daf Yomi as part of this initiative. Tell us about the series, its genesis and what you hope to get from it.
DHA: I got involved with the project when my rav, Rabbi Ya’akov Trump, connected me to Rabbi Moshe Schwed, director of the OU Daf Yomi Initiative, who really turned me on to this idea. Basically, All Daf aims at enhancing daf learning by providing supplemental material, such as Jewish history, Nach, lomdut and a host of other topics related to the Daf. Rabbi Schwed somewhat audaciously asked me, “Can you do a series of lectures focusing on some element of Jewish history found on every daf in Shas?” The idea was to create a brief Jewish history video for each daf. At first I thought it would be impossible, because so much of Shas does not deal directly with historical topics. There’s torts and ritual law, et cetera. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there is, in fact, a huge amount of history on every daf. Now when I prepare for the series, I find there’s so much history in every single daf, and I have to decide what I’m going to talk about—sometimes I have as many as eight or ten ideas to choose from. Rabbi Schwed’s audacious idea is now fascinating to me; I’m totally wrapped up in it.
SL: Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz was probably the first to systematically integrate philological, biographical, social and historical context into an otherwise traditional commentary on the Gemara, wasn’t he?
We’re at the cusp of leveraging a new technology that has incredible implications for the Jewish people . . . we are living at a moment of great opportunity in Jewish history . . . a “Gutenberg moment.”
DHL: Yes. But he did not take it to its fullest extent, and nor am I, by the way. But I’m following in the path that he furrowed. The historical context really makes Gemara come alive and often helps render Gemara more understandable. For example, the Gemara might discuss a threshing floor. What exactly is a threshing floor and what is threshing? Who threshes nowadays? How big is a threshing floor? It’s such a foreign concept to those of us living in urban environments. Just trying to understand the peshat of Gemara often requires us to understand more of the history. When the rabbis were recording Gemara, they were aware of lots of historical realia that we are not aware of today. It’s like trying to understand Gemara without the vocabulary. You need that vocabulary to understand what they’re trying to tell you.
SL: What are your hopes for this project?
DHA: The new series will hopefully delve into biographies, culture, geography, archaeology, numismatics and other realia. Each video is about two to five minutes long. Currently, more than 300 videos are available online at alldaf.org. The goal is to cover the entire seven-and-a-half year Daf Yomi cycle—2,711 videos in all.
I was born in the middle of last century, which means that I’m like one of those Jews who knew what it was like to live in Egyptian bondage. But everyone who was born after 1985 is a digital native and they don’t know what it was like even before cell phones, for example! I think I’ve got to be part of that generation that shovels over some of that wisdom into the new generation and the new technologies that digital natives consume.
We’ve been at this moment really only twice in our history as far as I can determine. The first was the very dramatic moment in the second century ce when Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi took us from a culture of oral tradition into a culture of manuscripts, all with incredible consequences. With the Mishnah and, later the Gemara, written down, Judaism became portable. Even though there was a Diaspora at the time, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s fateful and controversial decision to write down the Oral Law really made it possible for Judaism to maintain its integrity in a far-flung Diaspora that would last two millennia.
The second major challenge was at the end of the fifteenth century when printing was introduced to the Jewish world. We said, “Wow. We can take these expensive manuscripts and democratize knowledge and increase literacy, allowing every Jew to have access to the tradition on a very fundamental level.” And we loved it. We just absorbed it wholesale. So the Internet is the same kind of revolution, except way bigger. The Internet presents so much possibility for Jews to connect to Yiddishkeit in all kinds of far-flung places and times and spaces in an ironic return to orality. We can use the digital medium to give over information—not only orally but visually.
I believe that we are living at a moment of great opportunity in Jewish history. And, at the same time, a moment of phenomenal, almost existential, challenge; it is a “Gutenberg moment.” We’re at the cusp of leveraging a new technology that has incredible implications for the Jewish people—and, at the same time, other forces are threatening our survival on a very basic, elemental level. I feel directly and personally charged with the task of navigating this opportunity and this challenge simultaneously.
We have an incredible possibility of leveraging this new tool, yet simultaenously, we are assimilating ourselves out of existence. We are disappearing faster than we did in the period before the Maccabean Revolt. The challenges of the Diaspora are greater today than during the Spanish Inquisition.
I feel that my small contribution of Jewish history to Daf Yomi will open up the world of the Talmud to a massive new audience of Jews by giving them a slow ramp up to this otherwise very arcane, very esoteric, very coded-in-difficult-Aramaic text. I’m trying to provide a threshold that everyone can step through. It’s easily digestible material. It’s short, and it’s got a storyline, and it’s fascinating. I actually met someone the other day who told me that he has a friend who studies Shas only through my history lectures! This is definitely not ideal. I’m not recommending such an attenuated connection to Talmud, but it’s better than no connection at all.
If I boil it down to one sentence, I would say my hope is to leverage the possibilities of this new technological capability to expand Yiddishkeit to a much larger audience, especially at this time of crisis.
SL: And why did you choose history?
DHA: History is what I know. History is also something that requires very little buy-in from the consumer. The viewer doesn’t have to take on Shabbat to hear a little bit about the history of his own people. He doesn’t have to stop eating cheeseburgers to appreciate aspects of Jewish history, so it’s an easy way in. It’s low-cost, low commitment and hopefully it will increase unaffiliated Jews’ connection to Yiddishkeit.
SL: Critics will perhaps suggest that, in studying the Talmud, focusing on the historical aspects is somewhat less important than the actual fundamental content of Gemara, be it the halachic or the analytic or the aggadic and so on. What would be your response to such criticism?
The academic versus the traditional study of the Talmud is fraught with intellectual challenges and pitfalls …a Jew understands that the commitment to Torah and mesorah must be paramount even when there are aspects of the mesorah that seem to pose intellectual difficulties.
DHA: I wouldn’t disagree. It’s definitely more important to study the Talmud itself than to study the history behind it. But I think that, in some cases, ignoring the historical aspect means you get Gemara wrong. There are a few examples that stand out. Take, for instance, an interesting discussion that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai has with a certain zaken, an elder, in a place called Beit Pani in Mei’lah 7. He has this discussion, and then goes back and meets with his rebbe, Rabbi Akiva, who is not happy with him, and says, “Why did you discuss it like this, why didn’t you discuss it this other way?” It’s kind of a bizarre exchange. It turns out that if you look in the Tosefta, it’s pretty clear that Beit Pani, which Tosafot simply describes as “shem makom—some place,” is actually Beit Pagi, or Bethpage, which in the time of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was a noted Christian pilgrimage site. Once you understand that it’s Beit Pagi—where presumably Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was called upon to speak about the ideological conflict between traditionalist Jews and Jews who were attracted to nascent Christianity, and Rabbi Akiva wasn’t satisfied with his student’s speech—all of a sudden, the Gemara is much clearer. The difference between a nun and a gimmel opens up a broad historical perspective—but unless you study some of the historical knowledge, you will totally miss what is going on in Gemara. I’m not trying to distract from Gemara. I’m trying to expand Gemara, enhance Gemara, provide a foundation for Gemara study. But the ikkar (most critical element) is definitely what Chazal say.
SL: Chazal did not put a large focus on teaching us history. How would you explain Chazal’s minimal focus on Jewish history? Is it because Chazal only cared about teaching us the halachah?
DHA: I believe that Chazal had a very profound historical sensibility. Chazal were definitely conscious of the weight of history driving the Jewish people forward. But they did not feel that teaching history was the way to achieve their larger objectives. Their ultimate goal was to bring people closer to Hashem, and they accomplished this through moral, halachic and hashkafic lessons. They did not feel that history was the tool to achieve their larger objective, at least not in their time. In our time, maybe it has a role.
SL: Any final thoughts with which you want to leave our readers?
DHA: In many ways, Rabbi Berel Wein is my role model. He really expanded the study of Jewish history with cassette tapes. (Translation for digital natives: Cassettes are an obsolete technology from the last century that involved downloading audio tracks onto miles of tiny brown plastic tapes and trapping the tape in plastic cases. For real.) What Rabbi Berel Wein did for cassette tapes, I want to do for the Internet.
Sholom Licht is a freelance writer living in Queens, New York. He received his BA from Bar-Ilan University and MA from the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.