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Quarterly Update:
Winter 2020 / 5780
Helping people apply particular Jewish wisdom to universal human questions in the here and now and cultivate Judaism’s evolving wisdom tradition as an enduring source of value for human civilization over the long term.

 

I. Letter From The President

II. Meet Our Grantee Partners
III. What Our Partners Are Up To
IV. What We're Up To

Letter From The President

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I’ve always loved New York City’s iconic Citibank Building. The combination of its starkly flat sides, rakish slanted roof, and elevated-pillar base make it a striking addition to the city’s streetscape and skyline. But my favorite part isn’t even visible. Hidden in the top of the building, there’s a huge (400 tons!) block of concrete called a “tuned mass damper,” the first one ever used in an American skyscraper. The damper counteracts oscillations caused by the wind blowing against the building’s sides. The wind blows the building in one direction, and the damper moves in the other, off-setting the out-of-control swaying that might otherwise result. Without the tuned mass damper, these oscillations could lead to motion sickness, structural damage, or—in extreme cases—outright collapse.

The engineering elegance of such a thing just blows my mind, but as a metaphor for navigating change, it’s even better. How do you simultaneously build in flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances (i.e., the wind) while hedging to keep you from changing so rapidly you tear yourself apart?
 

In Yochi Brandes’s acclaimed novelization of the early Mishnaic period, The Orchard, she describes a precarious moment in which Beit Shammai’s strict textual literalism is ascendant and Beit Hillel’s more expansive and inclusive approach is at risk of extinction. The paragon du jour is Rabbi Eliezer—whom Yochanan ben Zakkai described as “a cemented cistern that loses not a drop.” His authority stems from his commitment to finding the right answer grounded in a rigid reading of the p’shat (or strict, literal interpretation) of the text. With the loss of the Temple and the direct communion with the Divine it enabled, scrupulous fidelity to Biblical originalism seems the only way to ensure the preservation of an integral and authoritative Judaism. The edifice of Judaism is ramrod straight, but perhaps relentlessly rigid.

Into this narrow place bursts Rabbi Akiva, the central figure of Brandes’s account, whose metaphorical readings of text represent a dramatic resurgence of Beit Hillel’s openness and creativity. Under Akiva’s influence, the doors of the great yeshiva at Yavne are thrown open, and, inspired by his radical readings, Rabbi Tarfon renames that yeshiva a beit midrash. No longer will the process of Jewish learning be defined by passive sitting (y-sh-v); instead, it will be driven by a commitment to inquiry (d-r-sh), the active, dynamic wrestling with Jewish text that animates the nature of Jewish learning to this day. Brandes describes this revolution through Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah’s declaration, in the name of Rabbi Joshua, “’In the past, the nation of Israel encountered God in the beit mikdash,’ the House of Holiness, that is, the Temple, ‘but now we encounter [God] in the beit midrash,’ the House of Inquiry.”

While Akiva’s approach is recognized as a source of powerful renewal, some of his colleagues are clearly discomfited, describing his interpretations as “wild” and “tortuous.” One can easily imagine him being accused of cherry-picking and twisting the text to suit some predetermined end. In fact, in one of the Talmud’s most famous vignettes, Moshe is transported into the future to visit Akiva’s beit midrash and finds himself utterly bewildered—Akiva’s lesson goes right over his head. Again, one can easily imagine a contemporary conservative polemical critique of Akiva’s methods ending there, accusing him of straying so far from the text that not even Israel’s greatest prophet could follow him. But then Akiva attributes his teaching to the Torah given to Moshe at Sinai, and Moshe is reassured. What marks Akiva’s unique genius, and what makes him the paradigmatic rabbinic figure, is his capacity to bring enormous intellectual creativity to bear on emergent questions, anchored always in tradition. His building might sway wildly, but his tuned mass damper—the Torah—is always there to prevent collapse.

In this regard—unsurprisingly, given his time and place—Akiva’s methodology echoes that of the Greek philosophers who established evidence-based argumentation as the currency of meaning-making. While the philosophers looked to the natural world as the ultimate source of their “evidence,” the rabbis treated the Torah as such. But both elevated logic and reasoned argument as the preeminent tools with which to make meaning of that evidence. Even if nothing in the Torah is literally true, the rabbis’ genius was to dedicate hundreds of years to showing us how to formulate an argument, look for evidence to back it up, and then make the case with an appeal to reasoned judgment. It’s the opposite of Aesop’s Fables, which offer simple, definitive, technical answers and which create no capacity in learners to develop their own answers to new and changing circumstances.

This is hard work, and the Talmud itself recognizes the challenge it’s asking us to embrace. In Masechet Chagigah (3b), a text I learned from my friend and colleague Daniel Septimus, we read, “Lest a person say: Now, how can I study Torah [when it contains so many different opinions?]” It goes on to reassure us that even the contradictions are words of God, because “they are all ‘given from one shepherd.’” It then charges us with the responsibility to develop a lev mayvin, a discerning (or understanding) heart, one that is sufficiently robust to approach life’s complex questions with the sophistication they deserve:

So too you, the student, make your ears like a funnel and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to hear both the statements of those who render objects ritually impure and the statements of those who render them pure; the statements of those who prohibit actions and the statements of those who permit them; the statements of those who deem items invalid and the statements of those who deem them valid.

Even as I aspire to the cultivation of a discerning heart, I still find myself torn, wrestling with questions of Jewish authenticity, relativism, and choice, questions with which I have struggled for decades. As I find myself returning to them again and again, with more knowledge but a still-unsettled heart, I take some solace in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, whose Letters to a Young Poet my father loved and shared with me:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Best, 
Aaron 

Meet Our Grantee Partners
Grants for Applied Jewish Wisdom
The following, recently funded projects apply particular Jewish wisdom to universal human questions.

Universal Human Question

How might we deal with challenge and change in ways that allow us to be with discomfort, be open to new understanding, honor and release that which no longer serves us, and imagine new possibilities for ourselves and the world?

Jewish Wisdom Applied

Participants hone a creative facilitation model built upon practices from both art therapy and the beit midrash, including chevruta learning. 

Project

Jewish Studio Project’s Creative Facilitator Training provides alumni of JSP’s Studio Immersive with the tools and confidence to bring the Jewish Studio Process to their home communities. It equips them with the learning objectives, pedagogical approaches, foundational texts, and facilitation modalities needed to activate participants’ creative potential, empowering both instructors and participants to explore our rich tradition and inspiring them to envision the world they want to build. This grant will allow JSP to support its first cohort of facilitators as they bring what they learned in their initial training to their home communities.

Universal Human Question

How might we support women to combat the epidemic of disconnection and loneliness in their communities?

Jewish Wisdom Applied

At The Well is built on rich Jewish wisdom around counting time; mindfulness; women’s health and women’s bodies; and the voices of women in Torah, Midrash, Talmud, and Kabbalah.

Project

At The Well has built the foundation for hundreds of Well Circles around the country, whose members gather monthly around Rosh Hodesh to support each other and build community. The organization is now tapping into its diverse team of Jewish educators and rabbis to develop a leadership curriculum, which it will deploy to train its volunteer leaders to be highly effective and capable Well Circle facilitators.

Universal Human Question

How might we prepare young people to meet the growing challenges of an increasingly unstable world with resilience, empathy, stability, and a sense of sacred purpose?

Jewish Wisdom Applied

The Institute for Jewish Spirituality draws upon Jewish practices for spiritual cultivation, development, and transformation, including Hasidic spirituality, Mussar, Jewish prayer, and the traditional Jewish canon. It also adapts a corpus of evidence-based secular mindfulness techniques to a Jewish spiritual context, grounding them in Jewish texts and terms.

Project

Educating for a Jewish Spiritual Life is a new professional development program from IJS that provides Jewish educators with concrete ways to model and teach evidence-based Jewish mindfulness skills that foster students’ spiritual development; promote social-emotional learning, resilience, and wellness; and help both participants and their students discover a deeper connection to and joy in Judaism. Teachers first develop their own mindfulness-based Jewish practices and then learn concrete, developmentally appropriate strategies for bringing the work into their classrooms.

Universal Human Question

How might people draw on ancient resources to address their most pressing needs and those of the people around them?

Jewish Wisdom Applied

Judaism Unbound is working to develop a methodology that can be used to re-vision and remix ancient Jewish practices—and even invent new ones—that speak to the issues that are front and center in people’s lives today.

Project

Judaism Unbound’s main project, the Judaism Unbound podcast, has a large audience, including many listeners who are ready to move from listening to action and from thinking to doing, in order to bring about greater well-being for themselves and others. The organization is developing a pilot series of workshops through which it will refine its emerging methodology, creating an easily replicable model for use by constituents of a wide variety of Jewish organizational partners.

A More Perfect Union Grants
The following, recently funded project applies Jewish wisdom to strengthen American democratic norms and institutions.

Universal Human Question

How might we maximize college student voter participation in the 2020 election and beyond?

Jewish Wisdom Applied  

Hillel has grounded its campaign’s educational content in the ways in which the Bar/Bat/B Mitzvah rite-of-passage can be adapted to the coming-of-age in which young Americans gain the right to vote.

Project

Hillel piloted MitzVote in 2018 as a campaign to engage potential student voters and equip them with the resources they need to ensure their civic participation and spur them to become changemakers and leaders in their communities. In 2020, Hillel plans to expand its reach to 30% more campuses and to double its student engagement. It will incorporate the learning from its initial program year and capitalize on the strong MitzVote brand to address the “intention-action gap,” tackling the many barriers that can stand in the way of voting.

What Our Partners Are Up To

Public Day of Jewish Learning: 2020 U.S. Election Season
 

On Sunday, March 8, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America will host a public day of learning about Jewish civic and moral responsibility in an age of political polarization. The conference will be held at Central Synagogue in Manhattan from 9AM to 5PM. Register here.

Jewish Organizational Inclusion Webinar Series

We are so pleased to be among the diverse Jewish organizations joining in co-promotion of RespectAbility's upcoming groundbreaking webinar series to provide Jewish organizations the skills and expertise which will help them to ensure the welcoming, inclusion, and participation of people with disabilities in all facets of their program, from participants, to volunteers, lay leaders and beyond. The series will run on seven consecutive Tuesdays, starting April 21 (the first Tuesday after Pesach), and a sign-up link will be forthcoming shortly. If you want to find out more about the series, and especially if you believe that an organization with which you are affiliated might be interested in also become a co-promoter, visit https://www.respectability.org/sponsorjewishwebinars/.

Pilot Racial Justice Framework

On January 17, JSJR — a network of 64 Jewish organizations pursuing social justice from a Jewish perspective — hosted a webinar for U.S. Jewish leaders to explore how they can apply core principles of racial justice and equity to their organizations. If you are interested in applying the framework to your own organization, resources are available here.
What We're Up To
Recommended Reading / Listening
  • In case you missed Aaron's last Letter from the President, it is now available on The Times of Israel website.
  • The Forward announced its annual list of the 50 most influential American Jews. We congratulate them all and are especially proud to have worked closely with five of the honorees (Sheila Katz — formerly at MitzVote; Adam Berman — Urban Adamah; Yavilah McCoy — Dimensions / Jewish Women of Color Circles; Brett Lockspeiser — Sefaria; and Ilana Kaufman — Jews of Color Field Building Initiative) 
  • Slingshot announced its annual list of 10 young organizations and projects in North America that are making positive change and responding to current and timely needs. We are delighted to partner with five of these 10 — At the Well; Honeymoon Israel; Jews of Color Field Building Initiative; SVARA; and Sacred Spaces (via re-granting through the SRE Coalition) — and are excited about this well-deserved recognition.
  • This article by Chris Crawford at Democracy Fund explores the future of faith-based civic engagement and highlights the work of Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom winner Rabbi Michael Holzman.
  • Ayalon was recently interviewed on the Jewish Drinking podcast about the custom of drinking alcohol on the upcoming holiday of Purim.

Building Our Team

We are looking for an outstanding Administrative and Communications Associate to join our team. Learn more here and please spread the word.

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