Rabbi Joshua Boettiger is the kind of religious leader — and the kind of writer — who sees connections in seemingly disparate things, such as the calling of the rabbinate and the art of writing poetry.
Boettiger, RRC ’16, will share many such connections as part of “Mussar Poetry: Writing Toward the Other”, a six-session Ritualwell Immersion. The course will take place on Mondays at noon EST from Nov. 14 through Dec. 18.
Mussar is a Jewish movement emerging in Orthodox communities in 19th century Lithuania that focuses on character development. In recent decades, it has been rediscovered and reinterpreted in some non-Orthodox settings. Boettiger’s mentor, Rabbi Ira Stone, formerly taught at RRC.
Boettiger is rosh yeshiva at the Center for Contemporary Mussar, as well as chaplain and instructor at Bard College. He is also a poet whose work has appeared in The Southern Review, Image, Willow Springs and elsewhere.
In a recent Zoom interview, he chatted about the Mussar poetry class and what participants can expect. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
So, you’re a rabbi. Where does your interest in poetry stem from?
When I decided to become a rabbi, I think I really wanted to be a poet. I didn’t know how to be a poet. And I thought becoming a rabbi was the closest I could get. In a way, all Jews are poets because of our love affair with words. We wrestle with words and wrest meaning from words.
I think there’s a capacity that poetry has. It’s been said to hold conflicting, seemingly contradictory truths at the same time in a way that prose doesn’t. There’s something about poetry that has this capacity to get beyond the polemical.
Why combine poetry and Mussar?
People often get stuck in terms of learning to see things from the point of view of the other. It’s hard to be awake to the needs of another without betraying the self. How do we sit with someone and not just project, but really let them be other? How do we ask good questions and really be in a state of wondering?
Mussar gives us practices for how to really be in relationship to the other across from us, and how to have the patience and the curiosity to treat the other like a sacred text. I think learning how to read and hear poetry is very much like learning to read and hear another person.
How will the reality that Israel is at war — that Israelis and Palestinians are suffering and being killed — impact what you’d planned for the course?
The world on fire. The world is always on fire. But there are moments where it’s really brought home to us. And I think as a Jewish community, this is one of these moments. I think we’re all beside ourselves.
Now, more than ever, poetry can really help us cultivate new ways of understanding ourselves and of seeing others. Poetry can be something that interrupts the habitual self-absorption we fall into. I think poetry can make Mussar possible, and Mussar can make poetry possible. We will be reading poems that are about the complexity of human relationships and confrontation with the other. I’m afraid that we’ll still be very much embroiled by the time we gather for this class. It is my prayer and hope that it will be useful in terms of helping us approach what we’re seeing.
Who is this class for? Does someone need to know about Mussar or be a published poet?
I imagine that everyone who takes it will be a writer to some degree. But this is also for activists, for practitioners of Mussar or anyone doing different kinds of work in the world. I hope it can be an invitation for a new way in to how they see their work of service in the world.
12- 1:30 p.m. EDT
$250 for six sessions