I want to offer one more post about the Rabbis Without Borders fellows meeting. On the second day of our gathering, Rabbi Irwin Kula offered a session called Rabbi in the Public Square. We'd been talking a lot about how we do our work within this visible networked world of social media, and what it's like to feel so visible (on Facebook or Twitter or YouTube), and he noted that "Religious people have long known that we're always seen. The Kadosh Baruch Hu [Holy Blessed One] is always able to see us." I liked that. (And it reminded me of the Sufi story about the sheikh who gave birds to his disciples, which Reb Zalman told at Shavuot a few years ago.)
He continued, "If you're going to have more transparency than ever, you need a God who is more forgiving than you ever imagined." I liked that point a lot too. And I resonate with his argument that at this moment in time, "we don't have alternative narratives, or languages, which are powerful enough to even have the conversation [about God or faith or what we really believe] in public culture."
He noted wryly that he thinks one teaches best to modulate one's own anxieties, and that whatever is driving one's anxieties will be the source of some of one's deepest Torah. The question which arises for him is, "do we have wisdom and practice that can add significant value to the concerns and cares and anxieties and desires and yearnings and dreams and nightmares that people have in their lives?"
As a New Yorker who was in the city when 9/11 happened, he's still dealing with the reverberations of that trauma. (I've linked several times over the years to his setting of the 9/11 voicemails in Eikha trope, which continues to move me both as a way of engaging with 9/11 and as an alternative pathway into Tisha b'Av.) He noticed that in the aftermath of the attack, only one rabbi appeared on national television; for the most part, rabbinic response to that national tragedy was invisible in the public square. And, he noted, the dominant narrative coming out of the mainstream Jewish community after 9/11 was, "now every American knows what it feels like to be" -- and every one of us in the room was able to chime in, because we had heard it too -- "an Israeli."
To be sure, that narrative about 9/11 does contain partial truth. Yes, there are ways in which that attack on our soil replicated for Americans some of the kind of uncertainty which for Israelis has become tragically commonplace. But, Rabbi Kula asked us, how does that narrative help? And what message is implied when a 3,000-year-old people which has been through churban (destruction), a people which "has in its repertoire insights about vulnerability and powerlessness," chooses to articulate that particular narrative in the public eye? The real question for him, he said, is how do we use Torah in our work in the world. Do we have the skills, the capacity, the methods, the pedagogies to bring Torah to bear on today's problems?