By Jacob J Staub
What can we in the American Jewish community do to infuse our conversations with a tone of mutual respect and open-hearted listening, even when we disagree? The Jewish world needs a number of models to approach these conversations. Here is one way that digital technology can be utilized to advance sacred dialogue.
Reconstructing Judaism has just rolled out Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations with the intention of hosting difficult, groundbreaking conversations that are nevertheless mutually respectful and supportive. We began almost two years ago by asking members of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA): What are the urgent questions the people you serve are asking you? There were many suggestions, but these are the seven topics that emerged from that survey:
- How might Jewish teachings inform, enrich and sustain justice work?
- How do we harness technology for the benefit of the Jewish community, and how might Jewish values guide us in our use of technology?
- Why be Jewish?
- How do we decide who is a Jew?
- How can we include Jews of color fully in our communities?
- How do we cultivate meaningful conversations about Israel/Palestine?
- How can Jewish communities adapt to the 21st century?
These were not the seven questions at the top of my list or the lists of rabbinic colleagues. Rather, they were the questions that ordinary Jews are asking Reconstructionist rabbis.
We commissioned one or more essays addressing each of these questions and conducted two web conversations for rabbis about each question. New questions and different perspectives emerged in those conversations, and they are reflected in additional materials posted on the Evolve site. There are additional essays, study guides, curricula, sermon sparks and divrei Torah, and we intend to continue to post new contributions as they are submitted. Beginning this fall, conversations about these topics will continue through the online Reconstructionist Learning Networks, which anyone can register for.
The range of viewpoints on each of these questions among Reconstructionists is by no means as wide as the range in the Jewish community as a whole, but there are nevertheless passionate disagreements – about Jewish identity, Jewish white privilege, Israel/Palestine and how synagogues should interact with emergent communities, among others. As the facilitator of each of these 14 web conversations, I was repeatedly moved to tears as I witnessed the careful listening and genuine respect that participants demonstrated towards their colleagues, even as they refuted their arguments.
Evolve serves as a location where different points of view can be expressed without being attacked. Evolve does not endorse particular positions. As we express in Evolve’s vision statement:
We seek to promote the ongoing evolution of the Jewish community by launching collective, communal conversation about the urgent issues of our day. To that end, Evolve brings multiple voices together to listen to one another’s point of view and to interact respectfully. In an era when it has become ever more difficult to remain open to viewpoints that differ from our own, Evolve cultivates covenantal conversations even when we disagree. In this way, we hope to enhance the ongoing evolution of Jewish civilization.
At this moment, there are spirited conversations among rabbis on the Evolve website. Going forward, we hope that this will be a model for an ever-widening circle of lay persons and other rabbis, for Reconstructionists and the larger Jewish community. If we can assist rabbis and laypeople alike to engage with the variety of voices they encounter with openness and respect, they will be better equipped to do so in their own communities.
Central to the vision of Evolve is that unity does not require uniformity. We will, God willing, continue to disagree about central issues of policy, practice and belief. The magnitude of our differences should be viewed, we believe, as signs of our community’s vitality. Instead, we seek to cultivate ever-expanding pockets of trust in which conversations can occur among people who recognize that everyone in the room is deeply committed to the flourishing of Jewish civilization, even when we think their viewpoints are destructive. With that recognition comes respect and deep listening: “What you say and do upset me deeply, and I want to listen closely to your viewpoints. I am open to being affected by your words, if only to emerge less threatened by you, less judgmental of you, less likely to view you through a stereotype. There are 70 faces of Torah. As certain as I am of my positions, I know that my perspective is inevitably limited. May our discussions, however passionate, be for the sake of heaven.”
The world changes more rapidly than we can track, and to survive and flourish, Jewish civilization must continue to adapt and, yes, evolve. Adaptation involves innovation, and innovation challenges accepted ways of thinking and acting. No wonder there are controversies! But groundbreaking Jewish conversations for the sake of heaven sow the seeds of constructive evolution.
We invite you to visit evolve.reconstructingjudaism.org and to join the conversations!
Rabbi Jacob Staub, Ph.D., directs Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations, a project of Reconstructing Judaism. He serves as professor of Jewish philosophy and spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa.