December 20, 2012
A Rabbi Without Borders: Doesn't worry, at least not very much, about dilution, or work from a narrative of erosion.
That's item six on the Rabbis Without Borders FAQ. Of all the things we talked about during the two days of our first fellows gathering, this is the one I find myself continuing to mull over and contemplate as the week continues to unfold.
Messages about the dilution and erosion of Judaism are surprisingly pervasive. I think of the anti-intermarriage rhetoric which is rooted in the fear that the Jewish community is disappearing (see A New Demographic, JewishPost.com), and the ways in which Birthright trips seem designed to encourage inmarriage (see Breeding Zionism, Tablet, 2010.) I think of the generalized sense that there were "good old days" and that our generation is sadly far from them: our Jewish educations aren't what they once were, our Jewish commitment isn't what it once was, that sort of thing.
Sometimes I'm susceptible to this narrative too. Not on the intermarriage anxiety front, but the Jewish education one. I imagine an earlier moment in time when -- at least in my fantasy -- every Jew was well-grounded in Jewish texts and practices, when basic liturgical and Torah literacy were a given. It's an easy thing to feel nostalgic about, in a moment when a lot of people don't necessarily have that grounding (and don't necessarily wish for it, either.)
But while it may be true that once upon a time we all knew our own tradition's canon, two other things were also true at that moment: the canon was a lot smaller, and the "we" was smaller too. (That insight comes from R' Brad Hirschfield.) I like being part of a diverse "we" -- diverse across all kinds of spectra: gender and sexuality, ethnicity, knowledge, practice. And I don't actually want to return to that more insular moment or to that time when our own canon was the only learning available to us.
I don't see today's intermarriage rates (or the rise in "nones" -- see Pew Forum: 'No Religion' on the rise, 2012) as dangers to Judaism or to Jewish community. Yes, our communities are more permeable than they used to be, and an increasing number of people are choosing and changing and crossing boundaries -- or, in R' Irwin Kula's terms, "mixing, blending, bending, and switching." (See his essay From the Cathedral to the Bazaar, HuffPo, 2010.) But I'd rather see those realities as opportunities to collaborate in writing a new chapter of our story than as occasion for sounding the alarm.
And I love the breadth and range of knowledge and passion which are open to, and cherished by, the communities I serve -- even if that knowledge isn't necessarily Jewish. I want to celebrate living in a moment when both our sense of our canon, and our sense of our "we," is expansive. A moment we can cultivate a cosmopolitan sense of ourselves as connected with other communities and cultures, not merely concerned with our own story or our own texts or our own ways of thinking. This potential for intellectual and spiritual expansiveness is one of our era's greatest gifts.
My teacher Reb Zalman speaks sometimes in terms of needing both the rearview mirror (so we can see where we've been) and the front windshield (so we can see where we're going.) I don't want to lose the rear view, but I'm also excited to be heading into new territory. And I don't believe that this new territory is one of disaster. The long and the short of it is, I don't want to buy into the negativity encoded in the narratives of dilution and erosion. They're not "the" story -- simply "a" story. I'd rather tell a different one.
Here's a different story: there are things I love, and I want to share them with you. I've inherited a deep toolbox of texts and practices passed down through generations, a box chock-full of wisdom and ideas and insights: old ones and new ones, useful ones and odd ones. I'd like to teach the use of these weird and wonderful tools. Not because they're endangered or because you "have to" learn them or rescuscitate them or save them, but because they're valuable ways of interacting with the history and the present, with the world around us, with emotional and spiritual life, with something beyond ourselves.
I love Jewish texts and teachings, Jewish modes of prayer, Jewish ways of experiencing the world and encountering God. I love them so much that I want to share them with everyone I meet. And one of the wonders of living in this moment of time is that I can do that, here on this blog. What an incredible gift it is to be able to share some of the riches of my tradition with people who are thirsty for -- or at least curious about! -- those riches. I don't know how to measure the impact of this work, and I don't ever expect to be finished with it, but I love that I get to do it in the first place.
And I love living at a time when there's so much capacity for bridge-building and interconnection. Between different cultures, between different communities, between different experiences, between different understandings of God. This is an amazing moment to be Jewish; it's an amazing moment to be a spiritual seeker; it's an amazing moment to be in the world. So the ground is shifting beneath our feet. Dare I hope that maybe we're on the verge of figuring out how to fly?