A Call for Creative Jewish Community

Photo credit: Goedele Monnens Fotografie

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 26a – “Building the Jewish People – One Community at a Time”- published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Deborah Fishman Shelby

At a minimum, community-building will reduce passivity, moving us closer toward the ideal of Our Creator.

In the beginning, God created heaven and earth. Yes, there is another book that starts in this fashion, and it is our Torah. The implications of God setting the example as Creator become apparent when God creates the human in God’s own image. In other words, humans are not meant to be passive consumers of the bounty of Earth, but creators in their own right as well.

If humans are by design Godlike and creators, one useful concept from which we can learn is tzimtzum, or contraction – a Kabbalistic process in which God contracted Godself in order to make room available for the creation of the world. What would happen if humans could similarly make space for others?

In Likutei Moharan, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov brilliantly compared tzimtzum to another concept, makhloket, or conflict/debate, the process the Talmud uses in which disagreements between the rabbis uncover the path toward the ultimate truth. Rebbe Nachman writes, “Know this: that makloket is analogous to the creation of the world, which consisted of creating an empty space, as we have shown. For were it not so, everything would be infinitely divine [ein sof], and there would be no space left for the world… So too is the case with disagreement, for if all the scholars were united, there would be no creation of the world. It is only when there is disagreement between them… a space is created between them which is analogous to the empty space and the contraction… And all the arguments they each use are only in order to allow the world to be created by them… just as [God] created the heaven and the earth with words!”

Makhloket is critically important for the Jewish future. It requires engagement in the place of passivity. It requires passion and the commitment to take a stance, provide support and hold fast to it. It requires one’s full self, most especially one’s wit. Yet even as all these are required, what is most remarkable about the Jewish process of makhloket is that it is not about winning over one’s opponent in the debate. Rather, it’s about using disagreements as a strategy for generating creativity. It’s the process of engagement with others that leads to the discovery and production of new ideas.

Perhaps this elucidation of makhloket resonates with you as it helps illuminate why argument is a quintessentially Jewish pastime! More to the point, it also makes clear the importance of living in community. Some may view the inevitable conflicts and disagreements that arise in communities as the drawbacks of this style of life. The contrary can be seen in the community in which its leaders can properly practice tzimtzum in order to make way for, develop and guide the makhloket with others. The opportunity to hear new perspectives, piece them together, and in so doing together discover new outcomes, can be the most exciting part of community life.

Far too many people see themselves as not educated or equipped to “do Judaism” on their own terms, and instead feel forced to passively consume Judaism. At the same time, passively consuming Judaism is not fully appealing or satisfying to many as it doesn’t take into account who they are as complete people with talents, questions and complex thoughts. So they may shun Jewish opportunities entirely – perhaps until there are children available for religious instruction and direction. Sometimes with the best of intentions of focusing on making Judaism appealing for children, what gets ignored is the presence of the adults in the room and the opportunity that may be present to engage on their level. This dynamic lends itself to the creation of a kind of “pediatric Judaism” that is not only passive, but also stripped of the higher order thinking of which adults are capable.

Likewise, when it comes to creativity and the arts, there is a popular assumption that it must be passively consumed. All too frequently one hears, “I’m not artistic” or, “I’m not creative.” While it seems perfectly acceptable to relegate art projects to the realm of children’s play, adults may balk at engaging in anything that even suggests a connection to “arts and crafts.” Actually, advances in technology in the modern era have led to many examples of adults exercising their creativity on their own terms (e.g., the French New Wave of arts and philosophy, the DIY movement, urban homesteading, etc.). Developments such as these have proved to be empowering; to alleviate and constructively redirect anxiety; to generate self-confidence; and to create products that are useful, meaningful, and can be exhibited with pride.

The community I am building, FED, uses hands-on creativity and the arts – including food, music, dance, talks, and theater – to live out Jewish values such as hospitality, openness, inclusivity, dialogue, and, yes, debate. Some of the feedback I receive from community members is that they value the “work-in-progress” aspect of it – literally there are artists who come to workshop their projects, but also FED itself is constantly changing and developing through the loop of experimentation, feedback and moving forward. I don’t believe this would be possible without making the space for new voices that are diverse – in FED’s case, not only from different backgrounds, but also multigenerational – and placing them in dialogue with one another.

It is my hope that the process of community-building I have outline – starting with tzimtzum to make room for makhlokhet – will produce the creativity we need to find our way toward new solutions that the world has never before seen. These may concern Jewish engagement, general societal issues, and the very issues of how we live and grow community life. At a minimum, community-building will reduce passivity, moving us closer toward the ideal of Our Creator.

Covid-19 Addendum

COVID-19 has unquestioningly altered the “what” and the “how” of community-building – the circumstances, places, methods and protocols of people gathering. However, I would like to suggest that it has not altered the “why.” We gather to feel connection with our friends and neighbors, to add value to their lives and receive value in return, and to be part of something larger than ourselves, something that I dare suggest may approach the divine. Gathering gives our lives meaning, purpose, and direction, and allows us to express and understand ourselves in a larger context. In these times, when quarantine and social distancing have led to physical isolation and potentially feelings of emotional loneliness as well, community-building is needed more than ever to achieve these critical human goals.

With the importance of our mission in mind, I believe that the observations and suggestions in my article are just as relevant, if not even more critical, today. I urge us as leaders to engage with our community members in the strategies I outlined such as practicing tzimtzum and engaging in makhloket, not only in order to build community, but also and especially so that new perspectives and ideas can thrive and provide ways forward through the challenges we currently face. The concepts of being active rather than passive and of exercising one’s own creativity may indeed lead us toward the solutions we need in how to adapt and build community successfully in these times and far beyond.

Deborah Fishman Shelby founded FED, an inclusive Jewish community based in NYC which feeds you through delicious food, inspirational talks and art, and the company and creative energy of others you find there. FED is part of the network of Hakhel: The Jewish Intentional Communities Incubator, for which Deborah also serves as an Advisor to support other communities and leads Hakhel’s Arts & Culture Subnetwork.

eJewish Philanthropy is the exclusive digital publisher of the individual Peoplehood Papers essays.

Selective essays from this issue can be found here; the complete PDF containing all the essays is available here.