By Rabbi Sara Luria
In a recent article, Barbara Dobkin coined the phrase “crisis-oriented calculation” when referring to our collective fretting about making more Jewish babies. This kind of fear-based quantitative analysis includes, and extends far beyond, baby-making into the marrow of our Jewish synagogue and organizational culture. I often find myself falling into, and then trying to extricate myself from, the trap of using numbers and data as a clear measure of value. I believe the way we count people and programs is, in part, an expression of trauma and anxiety, as is the way we measure ourselves up against ultra-Orthodox families and/or a by-gone era of “normative” Jewish life. Yet, we do not have consensus in our communities that such measuring is counter-productive to the whole project (see Jane Eisner article). We invest millions in growing and scaling; are we sure bigger and more is better?
Perhaps we can employ some wisdom from quantum physics to help us reframe this challenge. Physicist Carlo Rovelli writes in his most recent book, The Order of Time, about the difference between events and things.
The difference between things and events is that things persist over time; events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical ‘thing’: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. Conversely, a kiss is an ‘event.’ It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not stones. (The Order of Time, p98)
Faith, connection, hope, inspiration, awe – religious experiences, by their very nature, do not persist over time, you cannot ask where they will be tomorrow. A Shabbat dinner at a Moishe House, a funeral of a friend’s parent, a conversation in the lobby of the JCC, a service project with Repair the World, a documentary on Jewish music, a meeting with a rabbi about a baby’s bris – these are not stop-gap measures until a person joins a synagogue or starts lighting candles every Friday night or has Jewish babies. 21st century Jewish life is made up of networks of kisses, not stones. Therefore, the question for clergy and Jewish leaders is how might we, as Rabbi Larry Hoffman so eloquently writes, “attempt to speak in a register of conversation that does justice to the human condition”? In our field, we need not focus on more but on higher, deeper. We are not simply nonprofits; we are in the business of the profound.
I am not advocating a model of Jewish life without belonging or commitment, nor an end to institution-building. Rather, can we design new forms of community infrastructure that place value on kisses, not stones? And, how might our evaluation methods continue to evolve? Casper ter Kuile, Executive Director and Director of Possibility at the Impact Lab of the On Being Project, is beginning to respond to these questions, writing, “How do we pay attention to the kisses? Because there are all sorts of ways in which I pay attention to how a room responds to a conversation, or how much laughter and tears happen in a weekend, or whether I can see strangers connecting, or whether X has started to be a better listener or Y more generous.”
Recently, at Beloved Brooklyn, the home-based experiment in Jewish community that I co-founded with my husband, we hosted Death over Dinner, a gathering to share memories of those who have died and to reflect on our own mortality. As our beloveds gathered, a sense of nervousness seemed to fill the room, which quickly gave way to a sense of relief. A 30-something came to grieve her father who died when she was young, a 60-something came to share about her mother who died a few months before, a 20-something who came to support his partner surprised himself by opening up about his brother’s tragic death that no one in his family speaks about. We didn’t compare experiences. We didn’t try to fix each other. We shared, listened, cried, laughed. It was just very human of us – sitting in a circle, breaking bread together, telling stories, grieving, hoping.
One of my colleagues called to ask about our Death over Dinner since she is considering hosting one in her shul. She wondered, how might her community measure the success of the gathering? I am honestly not sure yet. Might we begin by noticing the ways in which the participants seemed lighter, more connected, less isolated by the evening’s end? Might we notice the sacred silences between each person’s reflections? Might we ask a few of the participants if the gathering stuck with them a few weeks later, and if so, how and why?
When Moses asks for God’s name at the burning bush, God responds, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh,” often translated as “I will be what I will be.” Or, one might translate this impossible phrase as: you will not successfully be able to measure this moment, this experience. You and your communities will be impacted in infinite ways, big and small. I am transformation, I am change, I am a kiss, not a stone.
Rabbi Sara Luria recently co-founded Beloved, a home-based experiment in Jewish life, and serves as the rabbi of the Brooklyn home. Prior to Beloved, Sara’s experiences as a community organizer, birth doula, and hospital chaplain inspired her to found ImmerseNYC, a pluralistic, feminist, grassroots-energized community mikveh project, now housed at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan. Sara lives back in her hometown with her husband, Isaac, and their three kiddos.