On Creating Holy Communities

Choosing to become a rabbi was a decision I made with an incredible amount of consideration and care. I wish to bring my particular passions, skillsets and knowledge to bear on some of the most important justice issues within the Jewish community and beyond it. Further, I believe strongly that the rabbinate and by extension cantorate must reflect the makeup of the Jewish community. In other words, centering marginalized voices and making space for marginalized perspectives enriches the rabbinate for us all. We are able to bring our Torah to the table of Jewish spiritual and halakhic discourse. Those rich and varied insights allow us to think about important issues with increased sensitivity and awareness. For example, I hope that my desire to do disability justice as a core part of my rabbinate won’t only mean that more Jewish communities are truly and deeply accessible in a holistic sense, but that we have Torah commentaries that center the multivocality of the disability experience, and perhaps we will one day have comprehensive halakhic works that address the real and frankly often isolating halakhic issues that arise for Jews with disabilities.

When we make room at our sacred table for rabbis from a variety of marginalized identities, we open ourselves up to learning with and from all in a way that we had not before. Though that work, that learning and unlearning is uncomfortable and might feel alienating to those for whom religious institutions represent the old ways, unchanged from prior decades, a place where the pace of social change remains outside, I am strengthened and inspired by Heschel when he says that the job of religious leaders is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I see my role is fundamentally about doing both simultaneously. I imagine that as profound as activism will be for my rabbinic identity, so, too, will be providing pastoral and spiritual care to Jews who have felt alienated by Jewish spaces and have felt excluded. The work is long and messy and the road to justice a long and winding one. When I am in times in which I fear that justice will never come, I am reminded of the famous phrase in Perkei Avot that though we as individuals are not obligated to complete the holy work, we are not free to desist from it. We never can stop agitating for justice.

Theologically, my work is grounded in several teachings from our tradition. At the very core is the teaching in Genesis 1:27 that each human being is created in the image of God. I interpret this to mean both that each and every one of us is inherently valuable and inherently valued, and secondly that being created in the image of God means that we are blessed to be partners with God in the daily renewal of creation. God has given us a tremendously sacred gift—we are able to use our knowledge, which we thank God for three times every day to work to make the world as it should be. Since God has endowed each of us with free will, human beings are wont to err repeatedly, and though that reality often hurts, it is also a hugely sacred opportunity for deep and lasting growth and change. Further, it is my hope and prayer that I be like Hillel, learning from the views of others as I form my own and not like Shammai, rigidly holding to my understanding of how our world works. May I always be open to challenge, growth and expansiveness. I believe that God urges us to use our powers of knowledge and understanding for good. Kavod hatzibur I reinterpret radically out of its original context to mean that we honor our communities when we honor the sacredness of each individual and allow them to bring the fullness of their being to our table. And that work is deeply hard and makes many of us uncomfortable. We must get out of a sense of complacency, which we too often do as human beings in this work for sacred justice. I feel that that is the biggest task before me. I am too complacent. And I often don’t know how to surmount that.

I am also deeply committed to the notion that we are each responsible for one another as Jews. That requires me to form meaningful, mutual, respectful relationships within my communities. Sacred communities are such when they can do the hard work of building genuine human bonds. The work of inclusion and integration becomes that much more concrete when it is done from a place of real rootedness in relational work. I see that work as strengthening me spiritually, but also allowing me to gain insight into the issues with which others are grappling. In this moment of deep grief and incredible political, spiritual and social turmoil, I see myself as a vehicle for bridge-building and a healer in a metaphorical, non-oppressive sense. If I can take my knowledge and skills that I have gotten from spending significant time in left-leaning spaces and apply them to healing the spiritual, psychic and traumatic wounds that the folks I imagine I will be working with throughout my career are experiencing in an authentically Jewish way, I feel I will be able to do some good work in this world.

The pasuk in Parashat Terumah in which God asks us to make for God a sanctuary in which God can dwell is indeed the very ikkar of this holy work. Are our communities truly communities if the Shechinah is not in our midst? And we achieve that union with God in a communal sense when we treat each of God’s creations with the kavod they are due. And because we are flawed human beings limited by our own knowledge and understanding, we are going to err frequently. And thus, Judaism does not call for us to be perfect, but rather to be in the work from a place of deep love and care. I find Jewish theology far healthier a frame to think about justice work than the call out culture that is too prevalent. This is not about earning mitzvah points as the justice-seeking rabbi. This is fundamentally about being a mentschlich, decent, loving human being who wants to create communities in which the divine can find a dwelling place.

I believe that teaching Torah rooted in our sacred values is a radical act of justice-seeking as well. I am as interested in including Jews of all identities into our communities as I am in throwing open the gates of Torah to them. I am becoming a vessel for teaching the kind of Torah I deeply believe in and it is my prayer that I may enable access to our sacred texts in new ways to those who felt they had nothing to contribute. I delight in being part of a tradition in which the act of commenting and interpreting the Torah is a sacred act, and I believe that I am in that chain of tradition. Speedily and in our days will some of our greatest and most treasured Torah commentaries be written by Jews who did not have access to the all-male circles of rabbinic authority until recently. May the sacred work of the colleagues upon whose incredible shoulders I exist and from who I have learned so much enable me to continue forward doing this work.

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