Just for a Time Like This: Consulting Judaism to Find Moral Courage and Engage in Civic Discourse
By Bryan Schwartzman
“Is this a good and legitimate way to spend my time when the state of the world is what it is? Should I be at the ramparts now instead of thinking about rabbinical school?”
These questions were on the minds of many prospective rabbinical students who gathered last fall at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, according to Elsie Stern, Ph.D., the school’s Vice President for Academic Affairs. The three-day gathering got underway Nov. 9, the day after one of the most stunning elections in American history. The mood at the school on that day was somber. People went about their day in a state of shock.
At first, Stern recalled, she didn’t know what to say to those who were considering making a huge leap and spending five or six years studying to become a rabbi. But soon, she found her message in the Book of Esther.
When Mordechai calls on Esther to do her part to save the Jews, he says: Maybe it is just for a time like this that you have become the Queen.
“Maybe it is just for a time like this that you have arrived where you are,” Stern recalled telling the prospective students. “One can say that Judaism and perhaps all religion comes into being exactly for times like this. What religious traditions do best is help us make meaning when we can’t get to meaning on our own.” Faith and religious tradition also help people find courage and resiliency, she added.
Stern recounted that gathering during her remarks opening “Moving Forward in Changing Times,” a day of learning and study with Reconstructionist rabbis and thinkers that took place on Jan. 29 at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York. The scheduling of the day of learning was timely, as it coincided with widespread protests over major changes in U.S. refugee and immigration policy. Over 120 people from 11 Reconstructionist congregations gathered for serious Jewish learning.
“’Moving forward in changing times’ is a description of Judaism as it has always been: a response to changing times and a tool for us as we try to navigate them,” Stern told attendees.
The day of learning’s sessions included, “Cultivating Moral Courage in Challenging Times,” “Looking Backwards and Looking Forwards: Texts for a Jewish Resistance Movement,” and “Jewish Speech Ethics: A Response to the Politics of Derision and Division.” The gathering offered a range of Jewish approaches to finding spiritual strength as an activist, how to have difficult conversations with those with opposing viewpoints and how to stay sane and grounded in what feels like an avalanche of political change.
Of course, this being Judaism, there were more questions than answers. But the process of discussing how our tradition is relevant to today’s circumstances is a crucial step to moving forward.
Some of the discussion focused on how to repair the fissures in civic discourse. Presenters and attendees examined how individuals can engage in important conversations with those with whom they disagree, in part to better understand, but also to change minds.
Citing the American linguist George Lakoff, Rabbi Joshua Lesser, RRC ’99, of Congregation Bet Chaverim in Atlanta, said when engaging conservatives, Jewish progressives often get mired in policy details.
“It is more compelling to engage in these kinds of dialogues when we can create moral frameworks and visions,” Lesser, a veteran social justice activist, said in the keynote address. “As a movement that believes that we should approach life and our spiritual and civic and religious duties from values-based decision making, we have something to add. We can make change in the debates by thoughtfully bringing a sense of values frameworks.”
Rabbi David Teutsch, Ph.D., who directs RRC’s Center for Jewish Ethics, explained the difficult nature of engaging in conversations with others with whom you have profound disagreements. The key, he said, is trying hard to understand what is most important to them – like unemployment or education – and engaging in a conversation about those issues.
“Most of the people who voted for Trump care about issues that are discernable, and their concerns are often not wrong,” said Teutsch, a former RRC president, during a breakout session he led. “That is the basis for a conversation, which requires open listening. And what does that take if we are morally offended? It takes iron will.”
In general, he said that the proliferation of negative speech in the political and popular culture is not only having a deleterious effect on political discourse, but is hampering young people trying to find their way in the world. He suggested that Jewish guidelines for ethical speech, including the idea of offering tokheha, reproof or critique, from a place of love, offer a path toward more constructive speech and meaningful communication.
“What’s at stake here? Young people are growing up in a world where language is being debased around them,” he said. “If we don’t worry about protecting language, there will be no tools to fight political battles with.”
In addition to seeking discourse, a number of participants came for spiritual strength and inspiration in order, on some level, to resist policies like those that have temporarily closed America’s doors to vulnerable people around the world hoping for refuge from persecution and violence.
Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herman, RRC ’06, led a session that looked at Judaism’s complicated view toward the idea of resistance. The ancient rabbis, she said, believed that the two Jewish revolts against Rome – particularly the revolt led by Bar Kochba in the Second Century in which it is said 100,000 Jews were killed – were disastrous for the Jewish people. She also noted that rabbis consciously chose to highlight the miracle of the oil in the Hanukah story, rather than glorify the Maccabees’ bravery and sacrifices.
“There is no playbook, no Talmudic tractate on how to deal with oppressive rules,” she said.
Still, she noted, if you mine the texts, examples of different types of resistance are there, including the first chapter of Exodus, where we learn that the more the Israelites were oppressed, the more they procreated, and their numbers grew. Her understanding of resistance in the Jewish tradition revolves around maintaining a strong community, directly confronting wrongdoing and trying to change hearts through dialogue.
“What is coming at us and the speed at which it is coming at us, has to have a response. And we have to have relationships and understand people. To me, they are not in conflict with each other.”
Bryan Schwartzman, an award-winning journalist, is communications associate for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College & Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.