A Future Rabbi A voids Solemnity

Joshua Z. Heller '94 is being serious for once.

Dressed in a dark suit, Heller is sitting in the library at Hillel and talking about the Mishnah. The future rabbi is discussing how this 1,800-year-old code of Jewish law bears upon modern issues such as liturgical change and homosexuality.

His friend Shai A. Held '94 walks in. Heller suddenly takes off his necktie and wraps it around his head claiming that "he has a love/hate relationship with formal wear." The two playfully trade insults and then Held leaves, jokingly comparing Heller to the Lubavitcher rebbe, the head of an Orthodox Jewish sect, as he backs out the door.

Heller smiles sheepishly and says, "I'm capable of being very serious, but not capable of being very solemn."


Heller has a disconcerting habit of saying something deeply profound and then instantly undercutting it with a wry smile and a self-effacing joke. People tend to smile when asked about him, and everyone has a favorite "the time that Josh..." story. But behind the exuberant antics is a brilliant scientist recommended for a summa degree by the Computer Science Department and a Torah scholar who recently finished reading the Mishnah in just over a year, an almost unheard-of project. And then there's the Hasty Pudding script he's working on.

Heller will be ninth in a line of rabbis that stretches back to the famous early 17th century Mishnah commentator Yom-Tov Lippman Heller. After first setting hands on a computer in second grade, however, Heller always assumed he'd be a mathematician or do something with computers. By fifth grade, he was proficient enough that an older student paid him to hack into a strip poker software program.

In high school, Heller worked at a neuroscience lab that researched circadian rhythms. Heller developed a software program that enabled researchers to screen out "noise" from their data, isolating particular signals and thus giving them better results. While there are now commercial programs that do this, Heller's work was then so extraordinary that he was asked to present it at a meeting of the International Society for Neuroscience during his senior year.

Heller came to Harvard from Bayonne, N.J., on a full scholarship from the Newark Star-Ledger. It didn't take long for Heller to develop a reputation for being a bit, well, flaky. Reading period of his first semester at Harvard, Heller and his roommates decided things were a bit boring in their Canaday C suite.

"We went out to Porter Square and bought this six-foot inflatable kiddy swimming pool," recounts Heller with enthusiasm. They took apart the communal Canaday shower and ran a hose to their common room. while their proctor ordered them to dismantle it, Heller has since filled up the pool at least once every year since.

Like most observant Jewish men, Heller wears a kipoh, the traditional head covering also known as a yarmulke. His are a little different.

Heller describes the one he is wearing as a "sort of a blue psychedelic swirl....Thrown into the air it has a sort of hypnotizing effect," he says, demonstrating by tossing it high above his head a few times. Heller says he also owns a pink kipoh with yellow ducks and a "leather one with white trim that I wear for formals."

"His kipot are like him," says Held. "Zany."

Although he expected to be active in Hillel, Heller was surprised by how all-consuming an activity it became. "It kind of ate my life," he says.

"I did a lot of behind-the-scenes sort of things which were very visible within Hillel but invisible in the outside world," says Heller. He cites as an example the protest over the campus speech by City University of New

York professor Leonard Jeffries in spring of1992. White Heller was one of two people whoorganized all the logistics, "other people were upthere on TV, shaking hands and making speeches."

Heller was elected the following year asassociate chair of the Coordinating Council, thestudent governing body o Hillel. Jeremy A. Dauber'95, who was chair the same year, describesHeller's work as "absolutely phenomenal."

"It's very easy to overlook the day to dayaffairs of the Hiliel [amidst] the big splashyevents," says Dauber, "but Josh made sure thatnever happened."

Held also a former chair of the CoordinatingCouncil, echoes this sense of Heller as someonewho gets things done. "Sometimes you sort of stopand wonder how things man aged to fall into place"at Hillel, Held says. "If you search hard enough,you find [Josh], lurking in the background with anidiot grin."

H eller ascribes much of his decision tobecome a rabbi to his experience with theEgalitarian minyan at Hillel. As one of the"gabbais" of this group of Conservative Jewishstudents, Heller helped organize and conductreligious services. Heller points to his work asgabbai as being the most enjoyable and rewardingof all his jobs at Hillel.

Describing his involvement with the minyan,Heller twice mentions the story of a woman whocame up to him after Yom Kippur services this yearand, thinking him for his work in helping runthem, told him that his presence had meant a lotto her.

Another influential factor was his year-longstudy of the Mishnah, which worked both for andagainst deciding to become a rabbi.

"On the one hand[ I saw that] no matter what Idid, I was capable of setting aside an hour aday," says Heller, noting that Jewish text studyis one of he things he enjoys most in the world.

"On the other hand," Heller says, "in doing it,I read texts that seemed to me could have verystrong bearing on issues that Jews today havetrouble with."

"I think the people who wrote this stuff downwere dealing with a lot of the same stuff we'redealing with now," says Heller earnestly. "If readin appropriate ways some of these texts can beread in a way that is sensitive and humanistic butwhich is also true to the tradition andintellectually honest."

As an example, Heller refers back to the recentdebate within the "Egal" minyan about thepropriety of altering some of the prayers toinclude the matriarchs as well as the patriarchs."It turns out," Heller says excitedly, "thatthere's this out-of-the-way passage.... in which aconvert says a different version of a prayer,"From this, Heller concludes that alternate waysreflecting personal circumstances may bepermissible. "It's not that that text in and ofitself addresses the problem," acknowledgesHeller, "but it's certainly important to bringup."

H eller still wasn't sure that he wantedto be a rabbi, and he hesitated throughout hisSenior year. The morning before his afternooninterview at the Jewish Theological Seminary(JTS), the rabbinic seminary of the Conservativemovement of Judaism, Heller interviewed with a NewYork company anxious to hire him for his computerskills. "I kind of knew when my last interview waswith the president of the company and I spent thewhole time telling him why Jewish education wasimportant," says Heller with a grin.

It Heller wavered before making the decision topursue the rabbinate, his friends were morecertain. "Honestly, I think it was all a questionof when," says Held who, like Heller, will startat JTS in the fall. "This is kind of what he wasmeant to do," says Held. "I think he knows thatand has known that all along."

"Look, he's a very gifted scientist and...hereally loves science," says Held, noting withamazed pride his future roommate's scientificaccomplishments. "[But] I think his heart hasreally always been in teaching Jewish things toJewish people. I just don,t believe him when hesaid he would've done anything else.

"I don't believe he would've been happy doingsomething else, either.... Torah is what makes himtick," Held adds.

Deborah H. Reingold '95, Heller's Talmud studypartner and one-time girlfriend, agrees. "It'sdefinitely true that he could have doneanything, but in terms of his personality and theway he deals with people he was just perfect for arabbi and I don't think he'd be a happy" doing anything else.

M uch of the rest of Heller's "spare"time (he never sleeps, says Held) in college givento music. As a first year student he was one ofthe original members of the undergraduate singinggroup The Noteables. He also sang with theHarvard-Radcliffe chorus and Mizmor Shir, Hillel'ssinging group, before making his "singing group,before making his "stage debut" in this semester'sstudent rock opera, The Prophet and theJanitor.

Heller will say little about the Hasty Puddingscript, which he and Dauber have been working onsince last year. This is their second run at thePudding script "comp" and they are taking nochances.

"Let's just say it's what you'd expect from aPudding show written by one person who has read abit too much Kierkegaard and one person who, whenthe script was first written, had not seen aPudding play." Heller pauses and then says. "onthe other hand, I think it's funny."

H eller's friends repeatedly drawattention to the way that Josh brings togetherdifferent ways of thinking.

"He is a religious spirit who reallyunderstands science and a scientific mind whoreally appreciates religion," says Held. "Hecombines things that seem so difficult to combineand so brilliantly. It's part of what makes himsuch an interesting person--that and all the lewdjokes," adds Held.

"Josh combines a profoundly analytical andscientific mind [with] a Torah mind...which isplayful and profound," observes Bernard Steinberg,director of Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel.

"He can be very incisive and at the same timehe can be very wise about life," says Steinberg."And, of course, the bridge is his sense ofhumor...because it's ironic and it kind ofdistances himself from the subject...[this kindof] warm irony is one which one associates withJewish piety, the piety of the rabbis."

"Josh is relentless in his insistence thatreligious ideas be about human beings and berooted in lives," says Held. "After I'm finishedphilosophizing, Josh's next question is always,'yeah, but how do you make that work, how do youbuild that?''''

When Held is asked to predict his friend'sfuture, he pauses. The thing is, Held says, "Joshis already one of the most successfulliberal American Jewish spiritual leaders."

"There are an awful lot of professional Jewishrabbis out there who would do anything to have thekind of congregation which on some level he'salready had for several years," says Held.

"Obviously the Egal minyan is not just JoshHeller," Held says, "but it's hard to overestimatehis contribution to [Egal] and to Hillel ingeneral...I try to articulate visions for acommunity; he builds them, "Held acknowledgesruefully.

P erhaps the best way of thinking aboutJosh Heller is the one offered by Steinberg at thecelebration of his completion of the Mishnah lastmonth.

Saying that Heller had "a good heart,"Steinberg explained that the term came from adiscussion in the Mishnah that debates differentdesirable human traits. "A good heart" is givenhighest priority "because it leads to" all theother traits, said Steinberg.

Last month at the Hillel senior dinner, Jody D.Hoffman '94 told a story that is sure to becomepart of the permanent Josh Heller lore.

"I was hysterically crying and I couldn't thinkwho to call," Hoffman remembers. She called Hellerand asked him if he would come over. He said sure.As he was about to hang up the phone, Hoffmansays, Josh said, "Um, could you please tell me whois this?"CrimsonArmande M. Dawson