Sowing Diversity in Fields of Jewish Peoplehood

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 10 – Peoplehood in the Age of Pluralism – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Jessey Gross

My Shabbas dinner table last week was the setting in which an interfaith couple and an Orthodox couple spent the majority of the evening talking about their shared love of farming and agriculture, as well as, the discovery that the two men originally knew each other from having attended the same Jewish day school as children. Thank God for Shabbas dinner tables like this!

I was recently hired to work in the Baltimore Jewish community as a community outreach rabbi. My task is to engage unaffiliated Jews in their 20/30’s who are hesitant to walk through traditional doors despite the fact that many of them have positive attitudes towards Jewish tradition. While the efforts are varied, the main foundation upon which we are building Jewish community in downtown Baltimore is imbued with a commitment to diversity as a necessary value for growing sustainable, relevant and meaningful community.

Participants come from various backgrounds and embody different opinions and ideas about how they desire to participate Jewishly. Our gatherings welcome this diversity and demand an openness to hear others and learn from differences in order to better understand our own beliefs and commitments. I understand my role as a Jewish teacher to model such values.

Diversity is good: for the crops and for the Jews.

As my Shabbat dinner guests could articulate, agricultural best practices teaches us that a field sown with only one crop is more susceptible to infestation and disease than one planted with variety of crops. While traditional Judaism has something to say about how we mix our seeds, the point about increased stress on the crops is important. To grow our Jewish selves only in fields of those like us we also stand to be threatened when confronted with questions we have not yet anticipated and fail to explore because they may not be relevant to our way of doing things. However, when we plant ourselves alongside those who are different, we stand to grow and strengthen our own roots while also enriching the ground in which we are planted. We can learn about differences and in some cases arrive at different conclusions than we might have had we never been exposed to ways and approaches different than our own.

Rav Kook writes about the pursuit of Truth in the introduction to Ein Ayah, his commentary on aggadah in the Talmud. Truth, he says, can only be revealed when we gather a multiplicity of ideas and methods and understand them in relationship to one another. It is this interconnectivity, this cross-referencing, Rav Kook teaches, that brings peace into the world.

My work as the Director of Charm City Tribe stems from a commitment to being a convener of conversations and learning opportunities that demands attention to diversity of ideas and opinions presented by the broad spectrum of Jewish identification. It is my conviction that we best understand our individual selves as Jews when we are confronted with many, not just one, ideas for how we might engage.

One example of a program that stands to be ongoing in our community is titled “4 Rabbis, 5 Opinions”. Just as the joke might begin … An Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbi walk into a bar … it’s true. The topic: to discuss how four different Jewish teachers, but more importantly, Jewish individuals, relate to mitzvoth and to share the ways in which choice, commandedness and commitment to peoplehood inform that relationship. The rabbis involved agree it is a model of collaboration not often present in our community and vital in our efforts to engage those currently skeptical of entering into formal Jewish spaces.

While we each feel strongly about our own ways of doing things, we acknowledge that these public conversations serve as a model for the types of conversations we hope to engage young adults, as well as, other members of our communities. If we can show it is possible to both hold strong convictions and an appreciation for other interpretations of Jewish tradition we invite others to follow suit. Upon reflection of the recent event, one Jewish professional remarked, “this is not happening anywhere else in our community but I wish it would!”

When I am in a community with people who use different hermeneutics to understand Torah than I do and have different guiding values and norms for how they identify Jewishly I am required to communicate and articulate my own Jewish ideas and commitments differently. It requires careful thought, intentional language and the willingness to hear the same process of learning and thought from someone who arrives at different conclusions than I. Willingness to engage leads to increased knowledge and provides us with the information to know not only what we do commit to and why but also what we do not commit to and why. By arming ourselves with knowledge of such things we build our confidence to stand firmly in our beliefs while also exercising the value of understanding and honoring other beliefs that present themselves under the umbrella of Jewish peoplehood.

I agree with Rav Kook. We do not become resilient by dismissing each other and casting out others because they think differently than we do. All the more so when we dismiss the Torah that helps to support the various ideas and opinions presented. Anyone and any community seeking to engage with and learn about different ideas and attitudes as it relates to Jewish commitments and Jewish life is surely engaged in holy pursuit of Truth. Our goal should not be sameness. A Jew unwilling to hear opinions different from his/her own stands in the way of becoming a stronger Jewish people. The strength of our people will dictate the ability to live out the blessing that we are to be a light unto other nations but also bolster the foundation upon which Judaism and our ancient tradition can continue to flourish and grow.

Rabbi Jessy Gross works as the Director of Charm City Tribe in Baltimore, MD. She is passionate about helping to strengthen Jewish identity and community in the places she lives and works.

JPeoplehood logoThis essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 10 – Peoplehood in the Age of Pluralism – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.