The Water We’re In

Adapted from remarks given by Aaron Dorfman, President of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, at the Pearlstone Center, June 15, 2017.

While I don’t usually dwell on it, I think this is an ideal context in which to share something about the name of our foundation. We deliberately chose a double entendre as a way of identifying and framing our mission in the world. When we say “living Torah,” we mean two distinct-but-complementary things:

First, with “living” as an adjective, we believe that the Torah – conceived very broadly as the cumulative and accumulating wisdom tradition of the Jewish people – is an etz hayyim, a tree of life and a living tree that grows and adapts through our study, reflection, and action. Hard-wired into the living Torah is a tradition of critical questioning and challenging, interrogation and search for meaning, such that our body of knowledge is never static or fixed, but always evolving in response to its encounter with the world.

Second, with “living” as a verb, we believe that Torah must be lived, that we all have the opportunity to live Torah every day when we make choices and decisions in all aspects of our lives, from the self-evident ones, like when we go to shul or make b’rachot over food or observe Shabbat, to the far less obvious ones, like when play pick-up basketball and make a foul that no one else notices, or when we decide how to address our children’s occasionally less-than-ideal behavior, or when we muck out the stables, or when we decide how to invest our 401K plans. All of these are opportunities to live Torah, to look to our wisdom tradition as a source of guidance and inspiration informing our choices and actions.

We call this dynamic relationship between the living Torah and our living of Torah “applied Jewish wisdom,” and Pearlstone’s Hadran Alach program is a pitch-perfect example of what we mean by that, which is why we were so honored to recognize the program with one of our inaugural Prizes in Applied Jewish Wisdom last year.

Now there are lots of ways that applied Jewish wisdom can happen in practice. At the relatively straightforward level, there are rules that we consider or embrace as guidelines in our own lives. For example, Jewish tradition suggests that we should give 10% of our money to tzedakah, or that we should avoid mixing milk and meat, or that we should celebrate when two people decide to marry.

But there’s a more nuanced level at which Jewish wisdom plays out, and that’s what I want to talk about today, because I think it’s emblematic of the powerful work being done at Pearlstone.

How many of you saw the Amy Adams movie, “Arrival”? I know it was a bit of a sleeper – hard to get especially excited about a sci-fi flick whose hero is a linguist. In any case, I just finished reading the short story on which the movie is based, and I can’t get it out of my head. The story describes humanity’s first encounter with an alien species and our efforts to learn their language sufficiently to communicate with them. As Amy Adams does her linguistic heavy lifting, she comes to realize that the aliens’ language reflects a fundamentally different understanding of time and causality from ours. Unlike us, the aliens perceive the dimension of time the way we perceive the three dimensions of space. For them, our perception of cause and effect, of action and reaction, appear as a static panorama in which they can see beginning, middle, and end all at once. What’s remarkable about Adams’ discovery, though, is that as she learns their language and starts to think and even dream in it, she, too, begins to perceive time differently. The conceptual framework of the aliens’ language re-writes her perception of time, and she, in effect, begins to see the future.

Now I could totally go down the rabbit hole on all the philosophical implications of this (and, believe me, I have), but what’s important for our purposes is the power of conceptual frameworks – what we sometimes call “sensibilities” – to shape how we think and the ways in which we perceive and navigate the world around us. This is pretty obvious in the political arena: If you start from a posture in which individual freedom is paramount, you end up in a radically different place around health care, the welfare system, environmental protections, etc., than you do if you start from a posture that prioritizes equity and mutual responsibility. I’m not judging either – just acknowledging that the sensibility plays a definitive role in shaping how we perceive and respond to all kinds of issues.

And most of the time, this happens subconsciously, in ways we don’t notice or recognize. The brilliant writer and commentator on the human condition, David Foster Wallace, loved to tell this joke:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

Now I’d argue that Jewish wisdom is loaded with this kind of water – Jewish sensibilities that subtly but profoundly shape how we perceive, interpret, and respond to the world. Tzedakah offers an instructive example. Tzedakah is loosely understood as the Jewish form of charity. But while both involve giving resources to those in need, there are nuanced and important distinctions between the two. Charity, from the Latin caritas, is a voluntary act of generosity and benevolence, whose performance both helps the recipient and implies the virtuousness of the giver. Tzedakah, on the other hand, is obligatory for everyone – rich and poor alike – and therefore simply serves as the baseline expectation of membership in the Jewish community. In its traditional formulation, giving tzedakah doesn’t make one special or holy or even particularly good; it’s just the table stakes for participation in respectable society, incumbent on everyone; like not littering, or closing your mouth when you chew. I’d argue that this subtle difference – whether we’re conscious of it or not – primes us, as Jews, to be particularly attuned to the responsibilities of citizenship, community, and collective responsibility in a way that the practice of charity might shape its practitioners in other subtle ways.

Similarly, I’d argue that the notion of Shabbat as a Divinely modeled and mandated period of rest from labor might have shaped Jewish consciousness in such a way that even non-Shabbat-observant Jews have a primal sensitivity toward the needs of workers and the importance of fair labor practices.

And one of the most profound places that these Jewish sensibilities show up is in the context of Yovel, one of the animating principles at the heart of Pearlstone’s Hadran Alach program. Yovel – the Jubilee – comes to us from Leviticus chapter 25, where we read:

You shall make the fiftieth year holy, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee to you; and each of you shall return to her own property, and each of you shall return to his own family.

While it was almost certainly never fully implemented, the rabbinic interpretation of this passage makes the subversive claim that, every 50 years, all property should revert to the tribe that originally possessed it. The underlying principle here, of course, is that none of us owns the land or its resources – we are but stewards of it – and that we need to carefully and deliberately mitigate against structural inequality to ensure that that no people become permanently impoverished. This is a radical proposition, and one that I’d argue nudges our Jewish souls toward a commitment to fairness and equity.

Now I want to add a few caveats:

  1. I don’t want to imply that these “Jewish sensibilities” are linear or deterministic. I think they’re contributing factors, not absolute formulas.
  2. I also don’t want to suggest that they’re all positive. There are plenty of Jewish sensibilities – around rigid gender roles, purity and impurity, and chosen-ness – that have complicated and sometimes negative implications for us.
  3. And finally, I want to be clear that our wisdom tradition represents one among many rich and valuable voices in the chorus of human experience, and we can and should draw on diverse wisdom to navigate this complex world we inhabit.

I’ll close by sharing a last piece of wisdom – not explicitly Jewish, but certainly in dialogue with how I think about the Jewish purpose in the world, and very much in line with the deep Jewish work that you’re doing here.

In her poem, “To Be Of Use,” the poet Marge Piercy wrote:

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

This essay is dedicated with gratitude to the Pearlstone Center, with thanks for the profoundly real work being done there for the people who visit that sacred place, for the Jewish community, and for the world.