Thriving, Flourishing, Covenantal Community, Intentional Spiritual Communities, and Positive Judaism: How To Lead In An Emergent Movement?

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By Dr. Bill Robinson

“How can we help Jews draw on and use their Jewishness to live more
meaningful, fulfilling, responsible lives?”
Jonathan Woocher (z”l) in Rabbi Sid Schwarz’s Jewish Megatrends

I believe that we stand at the cusp of a new era of revitalized Jewish living and learning. We see this in the emerging forms of intentional spiritual community. We hear this in the voices of children as they make sense of Jewish texts and rituals in new ways relevant to their own lives. We even feel this in our souls as we are still stirred by the continuing hope and the ancient promise of a world redeemed.

Yet, the news of the day and scientific studies of the Jewish people seem to declare otherwise. We continue most often to view our rapidly changing world through lenses of deficit and decline, seeing challenges instead of opportunities. In Jewish communal life and education, most of us continue to operate out of an over-riding concern with surviving: How do we ensure the survival of the Jewish people (against intermarriage), the survival of our institutions (against the open marketplace and consumerism), and the survival of sacred Jewish rituals (against the quotidian demands of relevance and meaningfulness).

There is an emerging alternative to this declining ideology of “surviving” that places its faith in the continuing value of Judaism, Jewish community, and Jewish learning to helping people lead thriving lives today.

In Jewish learning, more and more of us are talking about the importance of shifting from surviving to thriving (myself included in a previous issue of eJP and this prior issue of Gleanings). To refer back to the quote above from my teacher, Dr. Jonathan Woocher (z”l), the purpose of Jewish education today needs to be helping each learner to answer the question: “How can [I] draw on and use [my] Jewishness to live more meaningful, fulfilling, responsible lives?” Or, as Dr. David Bryfman (also in Gleanings) asserts:

For Jewish learning to be both meaningful and relevant it must empower Jews (and fellow travelers) to thrive – in their personal success and happiness, in being more socially connected to each other and their communities – and better equipped to make the world a better place.

In regard to Jewish community, Rabbi Sid Schwarz spoke recently in these virtual pages of this emerging alternative, which he called Covenantal Community, a term I also prefer and have used before in eJP. In these communities, Schwarz writes that people take on “mutual obligatory relationships.” And, because it’s not being institutionally required of them (such as paying membership dues), “people are both willing and eager to make a larger commitment than they ever dreamed possible.”

Others have talked about flourishing (Jewish Learning Ventures), emergent spiritual communities (Jewish Emergent Network), applied Jewish wisdom (Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah), thick institutions (David Cygielman in eJP), and Positive Judaism (Rabbi Darren Levine at Tamid NYC). Still others are doing it without calling it by any of these names. They are all part of this emerging movement in Jewish life and learning.

Some of us approach this from positive psychology and others from virtue ethics, while some begin with Jewish understandings – both traditional and (post)modern – of covenant. And, for some, it emerges out of reflecting upon their daily practices of educating for thriving or leading intentional spiritual communities. Each perspective has its own unique contribution to make to our shared understanding and each has its limitations when considered alone. Yet, all recognize that we are seeing the emergence of new possibilities.

A few words of caution to those leading in this emergent movement: First, we should view this within the larger historical and theological context of the enlightenment and democratization. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, with whom I had the honor of working with for four years, has spoken of this as an emerging third age of Judaism. In this age, Judaism will become more democratized as people determine for themselves through practical reasoning the shape of their Jewish lives. Concurrently, the sacred spaces in which Jewish life happens – which were once confined to the Temple in Jerusalem and then within the walls of temples everywhere – now will move further out into the secular world. As one recent example of this, I suggest we look to the Jewish Outdoor, Food, and Environmental Education (JOFEE) movement, in which farming takes on holiness and the ancient ritual of shmita is rekindled and reshaped in ways relevant to healing today’s world.

Second, as many before have noted, a fundamental challenge of this third age is that the traditional authority of Halacha – as being descended from the God of Sinai and down through the rabbinic system of interpretation – no longer claims the allegiance of most Jews. Yet, if we so will, this actually creates an opportunity for each of us to wrestle with the importance that obligation (in general and specifically) could have for leading a thriving life. And, by beginning with an inward focus, as Franz Rosenzweig suggested almost a century ago, we can return fresh to an experience of commandedness that turns written law from hypothetical “oughts” into realized deeds.

Unlike Rosenzweig though, we see ourselves today as free to reshape Jewish practices to better suit our vision of a thriving life. Nevertheless, in so doing, we must be careful not to make of Jewish practice only a means to live those consumerist and American values of thriving into which we have been enculturated. Our understanding of the ends that are defined by “thriving” need to be developed through encountering both modern American and ancient Jewish texts in tension and dialogue with one another. And, we need to do so within communities dedicated to creatively learning and living together Jewishly; that is, covenantal communities.

Third, the dissolution of Halachic authority “from above” may actually be a blessing in disguise. As the head of a community day school once wisely told me, every time you legislate some practice (such as kippah wearing or kashrut), you lose the opportunity to truly educate. You also lose the opportunity to explore in what ways Jewish practice and ideas will evolve and be renewed within the nimble hands and curious minds of our children left (more or less) to their own inclinations.

There are no easy answers to where we are heading. Though as we continue to nurture this emerging alternative, perhaps we need not yet agree upon a common name or even a common understanding. As the philosopher Hegel declared, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk,” which is oft taken to mean we cannot truly know or name that which is emerging till after it becomes established.

So, how do we all lead in this emergent movement? Foremost, we should not seek for nor be satisfied with easy answers from modern psychology or other social science disciplines. Instead, we should embrace the evolving messiness as an opportunity for ongoing reflection and dialogue among scholars and practitioners, to continually bring into critical conversation Jewish tradition and modern social thought, and, as the saying from Pirke Avot goes, learn “most from my students.”

With all this in mind, we have launched a Fellowship in Educating for Applied Jewish Wisdom (to live ethically), supported by Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah and the William Davidson Foundation. In March, we will publish a new issue of Gleanings, sharing diverse answers to the question that Jonathan Woocher (z”l) asked of us. Finally, during the autumn and winter of 2018, we will be asking you to join us for a series of conversations exploring this emerging movement. Details to come …

Dr. Bill Robinsion is dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.