– What is TorahRedux? 

Hi! I’m Neli, and welcome to TorahRedux, the Parsha newsletter for thoughtful people trying to be better.

Every Wednesday, I share the questions that matter drawn from the stories we love, with empowering and relevant lessons that will help you cultivate a little more growth and meaning.

Learning is an exchange of the student’s time for the teacher’s information. Unlike our forebears, we’re no longer struggling with scarcity; we have to cope with abundance – assuming people are looking! In a world of too much noise, curated signal is priceless – לֹא רָעָב לַלֶּחֶם וְלֹא צָמָא לַמַּיִם, כִּי אִם לִשְׁמֹעַ אֵת דִּבְרֵי ה. TorahRedux ruthlessly slashes the transaction cost of ideas that will help you see things in deeper and richer color.

If you’d like to live a little better, TorahRedux is for you, so subscribe now, or contact me to sign you up!

– Who is behind TorahRedux? 

TorahRedux’s founding editor is me, Neli Gertner. I research, write, edit, and rewrite everything from start to finish on my own – with a helping hand from Above, and the assistance of my trusty cloud-based assistant, Grammarly Premium.

I was born and raised in London, where I attended Hasmonean High School. I have been privileged to learn a great deal from my father, Moshe Gertner, a brilliant, kind, and learned businessman; and from his father’s influence, my late grandfather Rabbi Yehuda Gertner, a razor-sharp scholar who lived and breathed Torah.

I studied in Israel for three and a half great years between Beis Yisrael and the Mir Yeshiva, particularly under R’ Ezra Hartman, from whom I learned a lot. I consider it one of my life’s greatest privileges to be a student of R’ Shlomo Farhi, from whom I have learned everything. Along the way, I picked up a BA from Excelsior College, an LLB and an MA from BPP University Law School and Business School, respectively, and an LLM from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University; after which I passed the bar exam in Washington, DC.

My career got off to a turbulent start, and I was blessed to learn many uncomfortable lessons, which in all likelihood is the source of many things I write about.

I am fortunate to be the owner of a healthcare business focused on helping New York home health agencies comply with their Wage Parity obligations. I live in Lawrence, NY, with my fabulous wife, Tamara, and our wonderful children, Harry and Sophia. 

My indefatigable co-founder Brocha Zweig seamlessly coordinates all the invisible parts of TorahRedux.

– TorahRedux’s House style 

I wasn’t always a good writer; my writing has slowly improved since I began writing badly, a microcosm of the task of consistently working on myself, showcasing how incremental growth drives exponential gains. 

I started writing what I thought were clever “vorts” aged 17 in 2009 at GeshmackTorah.blogspot.com. My style has evolved considerably, hopefully as I have as well. In its current format, TorahRedux is a contemporary anthology of some of the Torah’s most powerful ideas, presented in a clear and straightforward format to leave you with a portable takeaway that will resonate with the way you choose to live.

The bulk of my source material should be familiar to anyone who learned in half-decent yeshivas for a little while, but you will find where I take those ideas and themes highly original. If my style is avant-garde, my sources are as classical and conventional as they come. I take solace in the fact that being truly original is hard because, as Carl Sagan quipped, to bake an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.

Writing is curation; my process begins by identifying a good question, and then getting to a tasteful answer that rings true in a satisfying way, and then combining relevant linked ideas and themes in a way that matters for having learned them. 

I am a firm believer in applied spirituality, specifically the psychology of spirituality and the journey of our spirits. The yardstick to measure our learning is that when we get it right, God’s word sharpens the dull and restores the spirit – ‘תּוֹרַת ה תְּמִימָה מְשִׁיבַת נָפֶשׁ עֵדוּת ה’ נֶאֱמָנָה מַחְכִּימַת פֶּתִי.

Accordingly, my goal is to seek and present building blocks of expansive thought, a lens for life, a perspective on greater and inner humanity, lucid insights, and an understanding of ourselves and each other as we are and wish to be; with a blend of אמת and יסודות, Chassidus, Hashkafa, and Machshava, coupled with Mussar’s call to action, or in other words, real wisdom – experience, knowledge, good judgment and understanding.

I find that a lot of what passes as “learning” today is empty calories – it’s a quick fix for a little while, but it doesn’t nourish your soul, and it certainly doesn’t stick; it doesn’t matter. 

We need to scrutinize our learning through an impact filter: does it change us? To me, an encounter with Torah that leaves no mark is a wasted opportunity – עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ, וְתמְכֶיהָ מְאֻשָּׁר. דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי נעַם וְכָל נְתִיבותֶיהָ שָׁלום. If your learning doesn’t matter, it will never change you. 

Change is hard – and not because we’re lazy. Inertia is a potent force that permeates the universe and all things. In reference to this status quo bias, R’ Yisrael Salanter observed that it is easier to finish Shas than to change just one single middah. But middos aren’t a characteristic of yours; they are you. So we have to do the work and keep chopping. It’s the Korban Tamid of our lives, a daily and perpetual Avoda, a candidate for the Torah’s Golden Rule of existence – אֶת־הַכֶּבֶשׂ הָאֶחָד תַּעֲשֶׂה בַבֹּקֶר וְאֵת הַכֶּבֶשׂ הַשֵּׁנִי תַּעֲשֶׂה בֵּין הָעַרְבָּיִם. 

I am a magic minimalist; demystifying is a consistent theme in my thinking and writing. It’s time to move past the magical maximalism that we can excuse in our childhood immaturity yet continues to pervade our communities today. Judaism is an adult religion, and there are non-magical ways to see the world as it is, and you can decide for yourself which rings true. The stories of saints with perfect belief and faith and everything working out for them are obnoxious and patronizing; I seek the grown-up and mature version of the stories I loved as a child.

I am fascinated by the moral victories of our heroes because achieving moral victory requires a choice. If people are born great, then there is no choice or dilemma, and we strip our heroes of the choices that made them great, and more importantly, relevant. Freedom is what makes heroism, moral victory, or greatness possible. With hagiography glossing over their humanity, we perversely strip them of their realism, and therefore their greatness. 

If Torah helps us understand people and the world, then there are three elements there that require understanding, not just Torah. You also need to understand how humans work and how the world works. If we shut our eyes to how people and the world actually are, the Torah you apply to it doesn’t work correctly. People and the world work a certain way, and I think it’s imperative to understand their workings intricately so you can speak to them intimately. My edge is understanding how humans experience the world work and what it feels like. 

Every story is a hero’s journey of sorts, and our life story is no different. As a bright-eyed child, there was a great person, a hero you once thought you could be, and I want to help you get in touch with that once again. We all long to be heroes, and the stories of our heroes should form a part of our collective subconscious. Our stories aren’t simple allegory or history – they are sacred history with cosmic significance rooted in lived experience that tells the story of who, what, and where we are, and what it all means; who and where we are with applied practical relevance; yesterday’s story is today’s identity and tomorrow’s destiny.

As Alfred Korzybski once said, “the map is not the territory.” Korzybski used this phrase to mean that people, in general, do not have access to absolute knowledge of reality but merely possess a subset of that knowledge that is then tinted through the lenses of their own experience. He further added that it is important for people to know that their understanding of things, “the map,” is not a true representation of reality itself or everything represented by reality, or “the territory.” It’s not the job of philosophy to provide reassurance that, despite appearances, the world does make sense in the way that we hope. Rather, it’s the job of philosophy to make sense of the world on the basis of the way it appears to us. 

The qualities of the most powerful ideas in history align with reality and the truth of how the world actually works; they have broad applicability and can be used in a wide range of circumstances, and they are predictive and not just explanatory. Judaism is an adult religion; it has mature things to teach us. My goal is to write timeless ideas with pragmatic realism and profound simplicity that elevates Torah consciousness and uplift your spirit by tuning you into the world as it is and your place within it.

The stories we tell of our ancestors were that they dealt properly with people – ישר. The problem with the common treatment of turning our heroes into miracle workers is that it morphs them into Mary Sue’s, special for who they are, rather than what they do, eradicating any meaningful lessons we can learn from them. I think it’s essential to know that our great heroes were like us in some way because if you see it, you can be it. R’ Yitzchok Berkovits highlights how the stories of our greats are so mundane, with almost no magic or miracles to speak of – because the class of challenges and solutions of their lives is similar to the things we grapple with within our lives. R’ Jonathan Sacks and R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch emphasized that our heroes were great humans – but still humans – and their lives matter and carry lasting relevance because we can learn from their examples – for better and for worse – מעשה אבות סימן לבנים.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi sharply taught me, we can’t really know the true character of our greats, who they really were; but when the Torah characterizes people and things a certain way, we should take notice. If you believe that God exists and that God gave the Torah to humans, then what it contains is the most important information we can ever have. It’s not a simple blend of law and lore – it is the hallowed stories of our past, the blueprint of our lives in the present, and it charts the way to our future – הסתכל באורייתא וברא עלמא.

– Influences 

As I mentioned, my two greatest teachers are R’ Shlomo Farhi and R’ Ezra Hartman.

I learned everything I know from R’ Shlomo Farhi – from my lens on life and perspective on how Judaism fits with it to understanding myself and others. He is someone who has elevated, provoked, and transformed everything I learn and has consistently helped me level up at multiple junctures in my life from my teens through my thirties. It is a privilege to be his תלמיד, and anything good here has his influences all over it.

I fondly recall sitting in R’ Ezra Hartman’s first-year shiur in Beis Yisrael, and one of my few regrets is that I didn’t just stay in that one shiur for my full 3+ years in Israel. He would sometimes joke that his job was to teach high school graduates how to read, but how right he was. There are two enduring lessons on how to read that I carry with me every day and are present in almost all my work and certainly in all my thinking.

The first is how far you can take the simple reading before any mental gymnastics, which is very far indeed. As such, my writing has a strong tendency towards the simple reading – פשוט פשט. It is the point of departure for everything else, and he would often highlight the “cheder pshat” to ground our learning in reality, always making sure our clever ruminations really fit the words. He would show us how the most sophisticated explanations had been in the simple reading all along, hiding in plain sight. As he had joked, we just had to learn how to read!

The second thing I learned from him was not to jump to the answer quickly. He taught us to really try to feel the question deep in our bones. If you don’t have an itch, then the most sophisticated scratching techniques won’t give you the same satisfaction as simply reaching the sweet spot of a deep and bothersome itch. As such, before we can get somewhere wonderful, we must start with a background that sets the scene for our question, and with the right context, the question will bother and itch you. Only then can we go down the rabbit hole and emerge enlightened.

I also consider myself a student of thoughts and works of R’ Jonathan Sacks, R’ Noach Weinberg, R’ Yitzchok Berkovits, R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

– TorahRedux’s Agenda

If knowledge is power, then ideas are weapons. For the vast majority of human history, monarchies and religious orders protected their power structures by systematically suppressing the distribution of literacy and knowledge, which the ignorant masses accepted with blind faith and obedience. This paradigm only changed in the last few centuries. It is no coincidence that a newly educated public empowered by freshly democratized knowledge sparked the political and intellectual revolutions that gave rise to the modern world.

In stark contrast, Judaism has always been about equal access to God, enabled by universal education and literacy, reiterated countless ways across the ages – וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ / וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ / מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ / כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים / הַעֲמִידוּ תַלְמִידִים הַרְבֵּה.

Yet R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch quipped that if you perform symbolic acts without understanding the symbolism, you end up doing strange things for literally no reason.

Hillel taught that the Torah’s Golden Rule is don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you; R’ Akiva said it is to love your neighbor; Ben Azzai suggested it was that humans are created in God’s image. R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that whichever it is, it’s not the Golden Rule of personal relations; it’s the Golden Rule of all Torah.

The way we treat each other matters deeply. R’ Jonathan Sacks believes that Judaism’s gift to the human species is humanity itself – a life of graceful dignity that, when encountered, is recognized as the way all people ought to behave. 

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch noted that our righteous people are not scholars in ivory towers; they actively drive positive change in their communities by publicly living out the Torah’s teachings – צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר / בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה בָּעִיר.

Judaism bridges the gap between the world as it is and as it ought to be. Whether we live in the most perfect or flawed world, the Torah expects greatness from each of us. It requires us to participate in realizing its vision and takes no excuses – לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.

To be a Jew is to be a human in training.

My writing is deeply personal. I write about ideas that speak to me, usually ideas I’ve recognized the cadence or flavor of over the full course of my life experiences, bitter and sweet, that I hope others can apply useful insights from.

Every article on TorahRedux is a marker that has honed my moral compass on my quest to become a better human. If there are any good ideas here, it’s only because I have stumbled and tripped many times along my way, and I’ve tried to recognize the lessons where possible – אין אדם עומד על דברי תורה אלא אם כן נכשל בהן.

But at best, I am a seeker, not a guide claim no authority; an informal eductor perhaps, but not an academic or a rabbi.  I’ve no doubt made erroneous citations. While I research, write, rewrite, and edit everything on here from start to finish, I copy/paste snippets to and from notes that I have accumulated over the 11 years that have elapsed since I began writing about what I love at the age of 17. I don’t know if I’d pass the automatic plagiarism checker, and I beg forgiveness from everyone I’ve learned from without proper attribution.

I don’t presume to get everything right, and I know that different explanations and lessons are contradictory at times. That’s fine! We aren’t robots, and the rules of life aren’t black and white – it has to be lived. Life is mostly a big spectrum of grey, and most especially when it comes to dealing with other humans. It’s better to think of the lessons we learn together as heuristic axioms – rules of thumb that are more often right than wrong.

TorahRedux is not a platform for preaching or propaganda – I am a private person and would never presume to tell others what to do. I don’t even want this page to get too popular – I’d have nothing new to say at my Shabbos table!

My baseline audience is, first and foremost, myself. TorahRedux is primarily about the Parsha, the thing I love most about the Torah, and the thing I have always loved, ever since I was a little boy. Writing has structured my learning and thinking around an organizing goal and forced my personal development with the lessons and tools I have picked up along the way. 

My second goal is to share the lessons and tools I have found along my journey in a way that will be helpful to you – and hopefully, convey my love along with them. Dear reader, I am writing for you. I don’t know you, so I can’t presume to know how you might live right. But I deeply hope this site helps you find your own way and live it better, in the way it has for me. 

I believe in you.