R' Irwin Kula on the Rabbi in the Public Square
March 01, 2013
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?
What wisdom do we have to bring to bear on any issues which are concerns of people today, beyond Jewish identity issues? Can the Torah add value, or does it turn out to be two types of things, either our political positions dressed up in religious garb or, on personal meaning issues, our psychological predispositions dressed up in Torah?
Do we really need Torah for more than prooftexting, cheerleading, apologetics, argument from authority? Though fewer and fewer American Jews experience Torah as having authority, so garbing our political opinions and our psychological presidpositions in Torah in a sense undermines Torah [for a lot of people].
We [Jews/rabbis] have voice [in America today]. What's the content we're offering, now that we have voice? If it turns out that all we do is use the Torah to legitimize, to affirm, to anchor, to root our existing takes, I think we're going to have increasing difficulty in this next round of Jewish life.
Rabbi Kula asked us to ponder the question of: how many times has Torah changed our positions on a political issue? (In other words: to what extent does Torah shape our politics, and to what extent do our existing political stances inform how we read Torah?)
We moved then to studying Talmud (Eruvin13b). Our text for the morning centered around Rabbi Meir, whose name comes from the root which means light. He was so brilliant that no one else could follow his wisdom and insights. He illuminated things, discerned truths and new dimensions, expanded the horizon. He also destabilized and confused things. He was able to see beyond binaries. Meir (the Talmud tells us) could see the unclean in the clean, and vice versa. (Just so, one of my colleagues noted, he could see the holiness / purity even in his teacher Elisha ben Abuya, who had been ruled outside the pale by virtue of his apostasy. That's a story with which we were all intimately familiar, though I at least had never considered how Meir's ability to see through binaries is precisely what allows him to remain connected to his teacher after his teacher was placed in cherem.)
And what about us, Rabbi Kula asked. Can we locate the small truth even in the opinion with which we strongly disagree? Can we follow Rabbi Meir's example and strive to live in the logical impossibility of knowing that each thing contains its opposite, and that there is truth even in the positions with which we disagree? (For instance: that we live in the postmodern era of "God is dead," and that God continues to animate everything that is; we live in exile from God's presence, and we live in constant communion with that presence. These contradictory things are always both true.) "Enlightenment means being able to acknowledge the rightness of the other side," Rabbi Kula said. "That's how we reach understanding. The best shot you have of accessing the deepest truth in this moment is accessing the other person's argument."
How many of us who favor gun control can truly put ourselves in the shoes of someone who believes the government wants to take away our right to bear arms? How many of us who support gay marriage can truly see the nitzotz elohut, the spark of godliness, in the argument against what we passionately believe and in the people who make that argument? (And vice versa, and ditto for other major social issues of our moment -- if these don't speak to you, think of one which does.) I don't want to make the facile claim that this is easy. On the contrary, this is incredibly difficult spiritual work. But if we, as today's rabbis, aren't up to taking on this work, then who will? As Hillel had it, if not us, then who, and if not now, then when?
The psychospiritual drama of this passage from Talmud, suggested Rabbi Kula, is the tool we need to bring to bear on the polarized issues in our culture. We need to simultaneously be masters of stability, and masters of instability. To live in the stability which is real even though the world around us is destablized; to live in instability even though the world around us may appear to be solid. One of the alternate names the Talmud gives to Rabbi Meir is Nechemia, which comes from the same root as nichum, comfort. Emulating R' Meir, living in the stability/instability and embracing our own deepest truths even as we acknowledge that there's truth in the positions with which we disagree, is how we become able to offer real pastoral comfort.
"When you really can understand this, you can have a teacher like Elisha ben Abuya and stay connected," Rabbi Kula told us. When we're really rooted in this ability to embrace opposites, to see the truth in the other side, to live in the impossibility of knowing that the world is stable and unstable all at once, of recognizing that "I am dust and ashes" and "for my sake the world was created" always coexist (see Balancing the scales), then we'll be able to engage really broadly, even with those whom others might find dangerous or heretical, even with people who are different from us, without losing our own integrity or integration.
It was a fabulous session. I know I'll be reflecting on it for a long time to come.