Rabbi Shawn Zevit
Chochmah (Wisdom), Tzedek (Justice), Kehillah (Community) and Kedushah (Sacredness), the four propositions Rabbi Sid Schwarz outlines in his opening essay for Jewish Megatrends, are core Jewish values that are a winding thread throughout the millennia of the Jewish People’s journey. I have found all these areas resonant in my decades of avodah– work in sacred service- whether in socially conscious theater, spiritual music, gender and Jewish men’s work, movement-building, social justice efforts, consulting, spiritual leadership training, spiritual direction and especially now in congregational leadership.
At the same time, I see within my own life and the lives of those I serve, support and learn from, an inclination to one or more of these areas and some problems arising when approached from a compartmentalized consciousness or self-definition. In fact, the proposition areas are embedded in the mission of Mishkan Shalom, where I serve as lead rabbi. In our community we have moved from a series of years of decline to stabilization and now modest growth, with an approach that combines the four proposition areas described above, through combining tzedek and tikkun olam within gemilut hasadim- acts of caring for each other and faith-based activism in the larger community. In addition we are a destination congregation and not a community located in the center of a Jewish area per se.
Like the four worlds in Jewish mystical tradition, shared with many other faith traditions (physical/doing; emotional/feeling; mindfulness/thinking; being/spirituality), the living paradigm works only insofar as they are seen as co-arising and interdependent with one another. This is the blueprint of all living forms and the larger eco-system of our planet. It is true in how the human form functions and equally in communal systems of whatever nature (inside or outside the “box”).
We can also glean insight from the creation story in Kabbalah. We are invited into the vision of a primary creation where Divine energies come into manifestation without connectivity to each other and collapse under their own non-relationality. The second emanation of creation arises with an interconnected, relational (“partzufic” or face-to-face) world-wide-web that is able to withstand the polarization and vicissitudes of reality without shattering in its wake.
In much of the work that I have tried to live and lead as a congregational rabbi, training spiritual directors, prayer or communal leaders, I have focused my energy on where there are strengths in certain areas and simultaneously how these silos connect with a larger purpose, mission or goal. I have witnessed first-hand the transformation and engagement of individual Jews, and non-Jewish partners and allies committed to areas of strength and interest with the awareness and inspiration of a synergistic broader vision.
There is a tendency in any member-centered organization to equate growth only with quantitative increases in membership, fund-raising, programs and events. A proactive and consciously framed community-building approach recognizes that building sacred community must touch and invigorate every aspect of a congregation, organization, institution or network however formal or informal.
Ultimately, it is not about the specific programming or chasing the latest success formula of programming, dues structure, or generational attractor, or the pizzazz of the public relations. As vital as all of these areas are I believe that they are secondary and instrumental to the primary purpose of fostering caring relationships that address people in their whole-ness and support them in their growth as Jews and fellow travelers, and human beings. Ultimately for the Jewish people and our companion “soul-journers” to flourish long-term, we must not only invite people to participate in a particular program area, committee or subgroup, but to a whole and holy larger vision and connected community.
I have been evolving a framework for this approach to living an individual and communal socially activist, life of meaning and sacred purpose under the umbrella of “VAV consciousness”. This grows out of the biblical use of “VAV” as a transformative, connecting and infinitely absolute directive, the later evolution of the Talmudic rabbi’s approach of “elu v’elu”- holding seeming polarities in relationship through which something new or a greater truth arises- and a contemporary more inclusive and dynamic Judaism that sees our interdependence with all peoples, religions and cultures, and the olam, the needs of the earth we are part of.
An approach to Jewish life and peoplehood that helps us feel good and thriving as a Jewish community in North America, Israel or anywhere is limited and limiting if it does not also nurture wisdom, justice, community and sacredness with concern and connection to the issues facing all peoples, and the social, economic, political, ecological and spiritual sustainability of the planet as a whole. This is a Judaism that does not live in a dualistic debate over whether study/ideas or acts/doing are the better approaches to living out the potential of Godliness and Divine direction. We also must affirm that the Jewish path is not the only sacred song in the symphony of holy living.
Far from being a remote concept or idealistic kavannah, I have found this approach attracts more people to Jewish community and Jewish spiritual living, not only younger generations, but aging baby boomers, empty nesters and increasingly older Jews living longer and still searching for a meaningful Jewish life.
The ultimate proof is in the cholent (aka “pudding”) to quote my grandfather. Pragmatically I have seen the highlighting of the proposition areas described as well as what I would offer in addition, the values of “kishuriyut” (connectivity) and “kashrut” (in its meta-meaning of appropriate and ethical conduct), producing more effective, sensitive and aware leaders and more vibrant, diverse, inclusive communities and organizations of impact and alignment with mission and vision.
Communal and civilizational growth is, at the end of the day, about deepening relationships – with one’s self, with others (past, present and future), with the people and needs of our larger communities, and the world, all aspects of the Divine fabric that is Life itself. Hazak hazak v’nithazek. Let us be strengthened by each other!
Rabbi Shawn Zevit serves as rabbi at Mishkan Shalom, in Philadelphia. He is co-director with Rabbi Marcia Prager of the Davennen Leader’s Training Institute. A liturgical recording and performing artist, Shawn has been an organizer for over twenty years of www.jewishmensretreat.org. With Harry Brod he co-edited Brother Keepers: New Perspectives in Jewish Masculinity and he is the author of Offerings of the Heart: Money and Values in Faith Community.