Proposition 1: In an age of globalization, Jewish institutions need to offer multiple avenues to explore chochmah, the wisdom of our sacred texts put into the context of the world’s religions and in the language of contemporary culture.
Much of my work is aligned with this first proposition. As Jews we have inherited (and continuously design and re-design) a splendid toolbox of texts, commentaries, practices, and spiritual technologies. It’s our responsibility (and our privilege) to translate those texts, practices, etc — whether literally (rendering Hasidic texts in readable English, e.g., and sharing them online for an expanded readership) or metaphorically (paradigm-shifting old ideas and practices into something which can speak to today’s needs).
While this is incumbent on us, we’re far from the first generation to face this obligation. My teachers and the teachers of my teachers (I’m thinking most specifically of Reb Zalman z”l) took this on as their task as well. But in this globalized era of the internet, it’s possible for our work to travel further than theirs could… if we are willing and able to step outside the echo chambers of homophily (the tendency to read, respond to, and interact only with those who are “like us”) and connect with a wider world.
Proposition 2: At a time when our political culture seems so dysfunctional and the social and environmental threats to the planet grow exponentially every year, the Jewish community needs to provide ever more ways to advance tzedek in the world.
Tzedek is incredibly important… and I’m aware that my own work these days is rarely tzedek-focused. This is a place where I have to trust the ecosystem of Jewish life — there are others for whom the “niche” of social justice and tzedek is home. I occupy a different place in the ecosystem, at least for now.
Proposition 3: At a time when technology has made meaningful social intercourse much harder to come by, the Jewish community must offer places where people can find support in times of need, communal celebration in times of joy, and friendships to make life fulfilling.
I agree that we need to offer places where people can find support, can celebrate and grieve together, and can create sustaining and meaningful connections… though I disagree with the proposition that technology has made meaningful social intercourse hard to come by. Yes, today we struggle to get others (or ourselves) to put down the smartphones — but the smartphones can themselves be tools for connection if we use them in the right ways. I’ve offered pastoral care via Facebook messenger, counseled the bereaved via e-mail, and joined others in tele-davenen via webcam.
Through Velveteen Rabbi I’ve connected with people at times of need and celebration, and I’ve entered into multiyear friendships — in some cases, with people I still haven’t met “in person,” though we may correspond with regularity. It’s not a substitute for in-person connection, but it can make a big difference, especially in the life of someone who may be lonely or isolated (or may be feeling lonely and isolated in a given moment even if their general life circumstances don’t fit that bill.) I serve a small rural community in person; I serve a global community via VR.
Technology can also facilitate connection across borders and boundaries. I’ve experienced this not only with Velveteen Rabbi, but through a variety of low-residency learning and teaching experiences. Technology made it possible for me to engage in my rabbinic learning with ALEPH, and continues to make it possible for me to enrich my own spiritual life with regular hevruta study. I’m about to begin teaching an online class, which will connect creative writing with the study of psalms, to a geographically-dispersed group of students. My congregational service embeds me in this place, but technology allows me to connect beyond place.
I think that our task as Jewish spiritual leaders at this time is to turn the “negative” (our culture’s collective love affair with technology) into a positive. We can use technology (whether blogging, Twitter, Facebook, or whatever comes next) to meet people where they are. If we expect people to come to us, we’re inevitably only going to reach and serve those who are ready to take the step of seeking out Jewish community. We need to bring the riches of our tradition to people where they are.
Proposition 4: In an age when we better understand the short-comings of capitalism and the culture of consumerism, the Jewish community must offer a glimpse of kedushah, experiences that provide holiness, transcendent meaning, and a sense of purpose.
Experiences of kedushah are central — though merely offering them isn’t enough. We need to create fertile ground within which those experiences can take root and transform lives. As I try to create that fertile ground within the community I serve, I draw on a variety of tools, including poetry (not instead of but in addition to classical prayer), chant (distilling liturgy into short pearls and then going deep into those excerpted lines), and hashpa’ah / spiritual direction. These are core Jewish Renewal spiritual technologies, and sharing them more broadly with colleagues (via CLAL, among other networks of collegiality) is part of my rabbinate.
Retreat experiences can provide “peak” moments of transcendence and kedushah. So can lifecycle events. The challenge is domesticating that peak experience: giving those whom I serve the tools not only to access kedushah on retreat or at lifecycle milestones, but also to seek and find kedushah in and through the unfolding of their daily lives. (This is the work of hashpa’ah, though it also often happens outside of that formal container.) It’s my job to help those whom I serve cultivate their own openness to the presence of God in their lives, and their own willingness to allow transformation to happen.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat was ordained as a rabbi and mashpi’ah (spiritual director) by ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Author of several collections of poetry (among them 70 faces: Torah poems), she has blogged since 2003 as the Velveteen Rabbi. She serves as co-chair of ALEPH.