– What is gTorah?
gTorah is a Dvar Torah service curated to inspire audiences of all levels to become better humans, drawing compelling and portable ethical guidance from the Parsha.
The Torah is a living memory we lovingly look to for comfort, wisdom, and guidance, with stories that are cryptic yet laden with meaning. We study the Torah in private daily, and as a community in the public weekly readings, devotedly mining it to enhance our understanding of how to live our best lives – תורת חיים.
I started writing gTorah in 2009 as a contemporary anthology of some of the Torah’s most powerful ideas, presented in a clear and simple format, to leave you with a portable takeaway that will resonate with the way you choose to live.
Learning is a transaction – an exchange of the student’s time for the teacher’s information. But people are busy, and there is an unprecedented proliferation of blogs, books, and lectures available; so, assuming people are even looking, it’s hard to find the signal in the noise – לֹא רָעָב לַלֶּחֶם וְלֹא צָמָא לַמַּיִם, כִּי אִם לִשְׁמֹעַ אֵת דִּבְרֵי ה.
Accordingly, I curate, draft, edit, and proofread gTorah with painstaking ruthlessness out of respect for the reader, with the singular goal of slashing the transaction cost of a meaningful idea. I have bothered to learn about typography so that the font legibility, readability, justification, and size, are reader-friendly. I try to avoid purple prose – writing that is overly elaborate or ornate. Except for this page, my writing is intentionally lean, to a fault.
– Who is behind gTorah?
gTorah’s founding editor is me, Neli Gertner. I research, write, edit, and rewrite everything here from start to finish.
I was born and raised in London, where I graduated from Hasmonean. I studied in Israel for three and half great years, evenly split 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. (Collecting the alphabet has been underwhelming.)
I work in the financial services sector, and I am admitted to practice law in Washington, DC. 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 gTorah.
– gTorah’s House style
People often ask about how and what I choose to write, which cuts to the core of the two skills that make this what it is – curating and writing.
I started out writing “vorts” at GeshmackTorah.blogspot.com, and I have thankfully evolved past that. I don’t have too many groundbreaking original “chiddushim,” but where I take the ideas and themes is original and ubiquitous in my work. I take solace in the fact that being original is hard because, as Carl Sagan correctly quipped, to bake an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.
Curation is the process of identifying a good question, identifying and selecting a satisfactory answer, and then identifying and combining linked ideas and themes in my personal style. My style might be avant-garde, but my sources are as classical and conventional as they come.
My writing has slowly improved since I started writing badly, a microcosm of the task of consistently working on myself, illustrating that incremental growth drives exponential gains.
I am a purist at the things that matter to me, and this matters a whole lot. I seek the building blocks of thought, the lens for life, the perspective on humanity, the insight into ourselves, and the understanding of each other. Expansive thinking; Chassidus, Hashkafa, and Machshava, coupled with Mussar’s call to action. אמת and יסודות.
I find that far too much for 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. I think the threshold question for learning is the “so what?” challenge. All too often, and very sadly, the answer is not much at all, and that’s the worst thing that could happen after engaging with what we consider the thing that matters most. If your learning doesn’t matter, it will never change you. I take myself and my readers seriously enough that my learning matters. We don’t need any more clever thumb wavey Torah!
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.
Change is really hard – and it’s not because we’re lazy. Inertia is an incredibly powerful force that pervades the universe and all things. Aware of 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. It’s the Korban Tamid of our lives, a daily and perpetual Avoda, another candidate for the Torah’s Golden Rule of existence – אֶת־הַכֶּבֶשׂ הָאֶחָד תַּעֲשֶׂה בַבֹּקֶר וְאֵת הַכֶּבֶשׂ הַשֵּׁנִי תַּעֲשֶׂה בֵּין הָעַרְבָּיִם. We have to keep chopping.
I am a magic minimalist; demystifying is a consistent theme in my thinking and writing. Quite arguably, the majority of our tradition essentially requires the belief in demons and magic. I’m not taking the position that it’s wrong, and it’s not for me to say. But I think we all need to move past the magical maximalist thinking that we can excuse in our childhood’s immaturity yet continues to pervade our communities today. There are non-magical ways to see the world, and you can decide for yourself what speaks to you more. I seek the grown-up and mature version of the stories I loved as a child – and you should know that they grow as we do. The stories of saints with perfect belief and faith and everything working out for them are obnoxious and patronizing – you won’t find that here.
I wouldn’t say I try to capture or write for the zeitgeist because I write for no one in particular beyond myself. It might be fairer to say I’m an expression of the zeitgeist manifesting itself.
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 in 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’s the stories of our past, the blueprint of our lives in the present, and the charts the way to our future – הסתכל באורייתא וברא עלמא.
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.
– gTorah’s Agenda
Knowledge is power. 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.
Every article on gTorah is a marker that has honed my moral compass on my quest to become a better human. But at best, I’m an informal educator, not an academic or a rabbi. I claim no authority. 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.
gTorah 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. gTorah 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 those lessons and tools – and hopefully convey the love with them – in a way that will help my audience. That audience, dear reader, is you. I don’t know you, so I can’t presume to tell you how to live right. But I deeply hope this site helps you live a little better, in the way it has for me. gTorah is my journey, shared with you.
I believe in you.