I really enjoyed reading this essay. I see my work aligned with chochma, kehillah, and kedusha, and I found these to be helpful frames for explaining some of the phenomena that I’ve observed while creating Jewish community on the fringes of the Jewish world. I have thought deeply about chochma, first as it once characterized the gap that I felt in the Jewish education that I was given through my Reform Jewish upbringing, and later as the definitive quality that imbued the Jewish experiences I opted into and thrived inside of as an adult. A lack of intellectual rigor and of seriousness and reverence defined my early Jewish experiences. To arrive in programs like Adamah and Yeshivat Hadar and experience deep Torah was a revelation for me – and gave me the powerful sense that Judaism has much to say about how we live our lives.
Kehillah is something that I have striven to create for much of my life in Detroit. I think something that stands out to me in your description of kehillah is that you didn’t explicitly name that a major difference between the institutional community and the minyan is the spiritual life of institutional leaders (or professional Jews). In a traditional institutional setting, something I have observed is that often the leadership is asked to sacrifice their personal spiritual development in the service of the community’s spiritual experiences. When I worked for a Jewish organization, I was told that my halachic shabbat commitments would have to be forgone so that I could instead serve the community on shabbat. I found this to be troublesome because though shabbat is obviously a prime example of a communal space that can “work for us,” as we strive to share Jewish spiritual community, shabbat seems like a space where it is vital that our spiritual and communal leaders are able to share in the experience of release and presence, even as they are serving. I was thinking as I read your thoughts about kehillah that thinking of leaders as equally a part of communities is an important reframe that the liberal Jewish world would deeply benefit from. It is obviously much easier to conceptualize this in an independent minyan than in a synagogue – but the question of how these spiritual institutions can feed their leaders is one that could shift the way we imagine our communities.
I also deeply appreciated the frame of kedusha. Just last night I was at a Muslim Jewish Forum event, where 12 twenty and thirty year-olds were connecting over our faith identities. One of the Muslim men shared how peaceful he feels when he visits a mosque, how the spirit of reverence and presence seems to pervade the space. One of the Jewish women in the group hung her head saying, “I have never felt that in a Jewish space.” This struck a chord with me because it is mostly true for me as well. The beit knesset of Isabella Freedman, the room where we sing Avodat Lev and the Fort Tryon Jewish Center’s borrowed space in Washington Heights are all spaces that have felt imbued with prayerful energy for me. Because I have shared so much heartfelt prayer in these spaces, I have felt them to be full of reverence. Though I couldn’t agree more that Jews are seeking spiritual outlets- it seems that we generally look outside of our tradition first. You stated, “what I know to be true is that if you show Jews how Judaism can offer a glimpse of a life of sacred purpose, they will come in droves.” And though I don’t know about the droves, I do know that unabashedly imbuing our spaces and our avodah with reverence is central to creating spaces where we can glimpse the sacred.
Growing up as a Reform Jew, where I was told that: “we question first and then we do.” It did a lot of damage to my sense of being “shown” glimpses of sacred purpose. I don’t think Judaism is about being shown, it’s about doing these things ourselves and feeling how they move in us. The question is how we can create environments where super rational, intellectual, high achieving western Jews feel safe to experiment with doing that isn’t rational or even “valuable.” People can relate to the health benefits of yoga and only then find themselves exploring their spirituality. In my work as a Jewish educator I try to think about how I can invite people into living and practicing Judaism while addressing their cynicism and fear head on.
One of my experiments this year is an attempt to speak to all three of these values you’ve laid out. It also touches on the fourth, tzedek, in that it is about repairing our relationships with the earth and developing a sense of personal and communal responsibility. The experiment is called Pickle Torah, and it is my attempt to create a kehillah rooted in chochma, kedusha, and tzedek. I don’t want to build an organization but rather to create sacred spaces and sacred opportunities for learning. And because I see so much Torah in food, I really wanted to try to give people the dual experience of feeling empowered through their food and empowered through Torah.
The series of three “learnshops” is an experiment but it has already proven its worth. Not unrelated to your discussion about funding – I decided to charge the actual cost of putting on the series because I wanted people to opt in understanding the value of the experience. I received rave reviews from the first class and am eagerly planning the second. Part of the hiddush of Pickle Torah is to invite affiliated and unaffiliated Jews as well as non-Jews to come together to say that life has much to say about Torah. Instead of centering values like “social justice” or “environmentalism,” I’m attempting to center Torah and to invite participants to bring the lens of their own experiences and their personal relationships with food to Torah. In this way, imbued with chochma, kedusha, and tzedek I hope to grow a kehillah in which Torah can change us even as we struggle with it.
Blair Nosan is a Jewish pickler, a self-titled Spontaneous Preservationist. She was born in Detroit’s suburbs, first learned to pickle at Adamah in the summer of 2008, and has been thinking about Jews, preservation, and transformation ever since. She lives in Detroit.