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The Importance of Holy Conversation

by Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., and Seth Rosen. 

We write to you shortly before the opening of the first Reconstructionist convention in eight years, and shortly after the tragic and terrible events at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh. This event hit especially close to home since Dor Hadash, our affiliated congregation, was one of the three communities that shared space at Tree of Life. With the other congregations, Dor Hadash suffered grievous injury and loss, with the grave wounding of Dan Leger and the death of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz (z”l).

The point of this article is the importance of holy conversation. We deeply believe in it. It is essential and urgent. We know Reconstructionists are good at it. We want to maintain this strength and deepen it, and to model it for the wider community. We hope that you agree and will join us.

Across the Reconstructionist movement, we are seeking to cultivate sacred listening and holy conversation as the essential foundations for intentional, caring relationships and communities. Sadly, we understand that this is a profoundly countercultural undertaking, as we see respectful discourse become increasingly rare across North American and beyond, even in the Jewish community.

This commitment is born out of the Jewish understanding that we live out most fully what it means to be human in community, and that the foundation of our communities must be our recognition of the tzelem Elohim, “the image of God,” in each person. Joining ourselves in community is sometimes joyful, often mundane and at times quite uncomfortable. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan wrote: “It is only a true and close community that develops associations, traditions and memories that go to make up its soul. To mingle one’s personality with that soul becomes a natural longing. In such a community one experiences the mystic divine grace which, like sunshine, illuminates our lives when joyous and, like balm, heals them when wounded or stricken.” In the contemporary world, Kaplan’s “true and close community” must include not only members of our home congregations, but an ever-broadening network of those with whom we are brought together through social media, on the web and even at a convention.

Our sacred communities must overcome the factionalism that has come to dominate contemporary life. We can’t build community only with those who watch the same cable-TV news that we watch, or with whom we agree on every issue of consequence. We must develop — drawing on age-old teachings and developing new ones appropriate to the digital era — the practices and commitments that will enable us to enter into discussions on even the most challenging subjects with a willingness to honor the image of God embodied in our conversation partners, no matter how much we may disagree. We do this by speaking from a place of humility rather than certainty, by asking questions out of genuine curiosity rather than to cross-examine, by listening with an openness to the possibility that we might be transformed by what we hear and not simply to reinforce what we already know.

This commitment emerges out of core Reconstructionist teachings. An understanding of Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people points to the expansive diversity across the Jewish people and the civilization that Jews have continuously created and recreated across time and distance. This requires us to adopt attitudes and practices that honor the breadth of such diversity, and that also empower those who might otherwise be marginalized — be they women, LGBT Jews, intermarried Jews, Jews of color, people with disabilities — to participate fully in the creation and recreation of our holy community.

This commitment is embedded in Jewish thought and religious teachings. The central creedal statement of the Jewish people begins with “Shema” — listen, heed, hearken, hear. Covenantal conversation, born out of Jewish speech ethics, recognizes that, like the God of Genesis, we create whole worlds with words, and we have the power, with intentional language, to join ourselves into webs of mutual connection and obligation.

In the Reconstructionist movement, we are dedicating ourselves to holy conversations across difference in multiple locations, with what we hope will be exponential effect.

In our rabbinical program, we train our students in the evolutionary development of Judaism, with an emphasis on change and diversity, and help them gain and refine the competencies necessary for leadership in the contemporary world. Most recently, we have begun to explore what it means to train rabbis deeply informed about the impact of trauma — individual, collective, historical — so as to mitigate the potentially divisive effects of trauma within our communities and foster communal resilience.

In our multifaith program, campus chaplains from across faiths come together to share teachings and practices from their own religious traditions that cultivate character. From Judaism, this means sharing the insights of mussar (ethics) teachings. Jewish participants discover powerful parallels, as well as wonderful new approaches from other faith traditions. This sharing bolsters the chaplains as they serve on increasingly tumultuous campuses and deepens their capacity to serve diverse student bodies.

Our Israel Commission, jointly sponsored by Reconstructing Judaism and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, is populated by lay people and rabbis from across the political spectrum and across North America. It is exploring ways to foster engagement with and respectful discussion across differences around Israel and Palestine. Where Israel was once a place of consensus among American Jews, it can now be a polarizing topic within our communities. Many people argue, and others avoid discussing or engaging about Israel at all. We seek both subjects and processes that can enable holy conversation.

The initiative that concentrates most intensively on holy conversation is our newest project:  Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations. Evolve serves as a virtual public square, where different points of view can be expressed and debated without vitriol. Evolve does not endorse particular positions. Rather, it seeks to enhance the ongoing evolution of the Jewish community by launching collective, communal conversation about the urgent issues of our day. To that end, Evolve brings people with diverse perspectives about essential questions together to listen to one another 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. As Rabbi Jacob Staub writes, 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, Evolve seeks 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.

We are carrying these principles through into our upcoming Convention, “Deeply Rooted and Boldly Relevant,” in Philadelphia from Nov. 15-18. Nearly 700 Reconstructionists from more than 80 congregations will gather in a pop-up community to learn, sing, pray, dance, teach, mourn, celebrate—and maybe, from time to time, disagree—together. We want this convening to be intentional and nurturing, to model powerfully the necessity and vibrancy of non-Orthodox, co-created Judaism. To make this more likely, we are asking all participants to adopt guiding virtues to determine their conduct and conversation over the course of convention. We are pleased to share these guiding virtues with you here and welcome your feedback on them.

  • Hesed/Lovingkindness —We remember that we are all connected to one Source, and that Source is loving. We prioritize relationship over judgment or “being right.” We extend the same compassion to ourselves.
  • Anavah/Humility—We strive to take up the right amount of space—not too much or too little. We listen as passionately as we want to be listened to. We note our visceral responses and think before we respond. We stay curious. When in doubt, we ask a question.
  • Vetolikhenu m’arba kanfot ha’aretz/Gathering the corners to the center — We honor difference and make space for it in our communities, building on our aspirations to enact inclusion. We allow people to introduce themselves on their own terms and ask for pronouns, rather than assume them. We recognize the inherent belonging of people of color in the Jewish community. We work to foster participation across abilities.
  • Tikkun/Repair — We believe repair is possible when we err, when a relationship falters, when a dynamic is difficult. Through teshuvah/repentance and relationship-building, we take steps to enact repair when necessary. When we (or the world) are not ready for tikkun, we hold the brokenness with hesed.

May we all join together to create a kehillah kedoshah, a collective community infused with holiness.



Reconstructing Judaism

The Reconstructionist Network

Serving as central organization of the Reconstructionist movement

Training the next generation of groundbreaking rabbis

Modeling respectful conversations on pressing Jewish issues

Curating original, Jewish rituals, and convening Jewish creatives

The Reconstructionist Network