The last couple of days I've been at the second meeting of my cohort of Rabbis Without Borders fellows. It's been grand to see everyone again. One theme of our session was the rabbinate and expanding technology -- social media, its uses and misuses, who is our audience and how can we serve them, etc. I enjoyed the session with Allison Fine, author of The Networked Nonprofit; she had smart things to say. But as someone who's been active online for 20 years, and active in the Jewish blogosphere for almost a decade, I think I came to that conversation with a relatively high level of competency. So I was more excited about the other learning we did together.
For me one central question of the session came from Rabbi Brad Hirschfield: who is your Torah for? Over the course of his session, he said several things which resonated with me. He urged us to try to live in a way which acknowledges the need for walls, but keeps the walls lowered as much as we can bear. ("Walls keep us safe," he agreed, "but they can also become prisons.") He exhorted us to live in a mindset of abundance. To recognize that the spiritual and the material are always interconnected. To strive to live in a spirit of both/and rather than either/or -- and to bring the same compassionate both/and response to ourselves that we bring to the world.
We studied a short text from Talmud (tractate Avodah Zarah 2b-3a) about the question of for whom the Torah was meant. And R' Brad noted the fairly remarkable truth that although that text was written during a time when Jews were tremendously persecuted (and by and large had a lot of understandable anger and anxiety around that), the Talmud still presumes that the Torah is not ours alone, that access to God is not ours alone, and that anyone who studies Torah (in the language of the text, even an idolater) is as elevated as the high priest. Here are a few of the gems from that Torah study which I tweeted as it was happening:
The most iconic Jewish text we have (Talmud) was written not in Hebrew but the English of its moment: Aramaic.
Talmud (Avodah Zarah 2b-3a) teaches: there's no boundary b/w Torah and the peoples of the world. ALL of them.
In my wished-for world, the full dignity of the ultimate outsider is affirmed along with the full dignity of the full insider.
I think it's easy for people today who don't have familiarity with Aramaic to feel as though the Talmud is a kind of walled garden -- a Jewish treasure to which they don't have access. But R' Brad reminds us that Talmud was written in the vernacular of its day; it was meant to be accessible. It wasn't an ivory tower text designed only for the insiders. Beyond that, there's a thread in our texts, if we are willing to look for it and follow it, which reminds us that the wisdom we've been blessed to receive is not ours alone. This is the kind of post-triumphalism which drew me to Jewish Renewal, and which I also find in Rabbis Without Borders/Clal. R' Brad continued:
Of course you teach the Torah you most need. But it doesn't end there.
The unfolding #Torah of our lives is also a sacred text.
I "use Jewish" to serve people. That's who my #Torah is for.
The idea that we teach the Torah we most need to learn is one which was already very close to our hearts. And so is the idea that the unfolding Torah of our lives is a sacred text -- different from the written Torah we find in our libraries, but also holy. And the idea of "using Jewish" to serve people -- bringing Jewish wisdom, Jewish tools, to bear on the work of serving God and serving humanity -- is also close to my heart. We were all asked to ponder, and to answer, the question of "who is my Torah for?" As soon as I heard the question, my answer arose in me.
My Torah is for anyone who is thirsty. Anyone who's thirsty for connection, for community, for God. Anyone who wants to make their lives holy or to become more conscious of the holiness in the everyday. Anyone who wants access to the rich toolbox of Jewish wisdom and traditions and ideas which I am blessed to have as my yerusha, my inheritance.
And then I thought: that would have been my answer ten years ago when I started this blog, too. I started writing VR for anyone who was thirsty, as I was, for connection with God and with tradition. Maybe especially for those who felt marginalized, who didn't perceive that they had a place at the table but yearned to be welcomed in.
That in turn raises the question for me: has that changed? Should it have changed? In the last ten years I've gone from being an aspirant to being, thank God, an ordained rabbi. I've gone from being someone who felt that I was outside-looking-in to being someone who feels blessed to have access to these incredible riches of tradition.
But I think my answer is actually still the same as it was. Maybe this is integral to who I am. My Torah is for anyone who yearns. I have better access now to the tools my tradition gives me for helping to connect people with meaning, to connect people with God. But I still want my Torah to be for anyone who's thirsty. "Let all who are hungry, come and eat; let all who are needy, come and celebrate the Passover with us." That message from the Passover haggadah has long been one of my favorite things; and I think it shaped me more than I know. My Torah is for you who are reading this, whenever this is, whoever you are.