Thursday, October 11, 2012

Sharpening for a Pluralistic World

“…Just as in the case of iron, when one implement sharpens another, so too do two [Torah] scholars sharpen each other when they discuss questions [of Halahkah] together..” -Talmud Bavli Ta'anit 7a

Can pluralism truly exist? This question is the topic of Jewish debate on a daily basis. Is there a way a group of people from different denominations can learn from one another without igniting another war? Can we find a way to be united somehow? These questions commonly linger in the mind of an interfaith-driven teenager like myself.

Only three months ago, I didn’t think that achieving such a goal was remotely possible. This past summer, however, my rather pessimistic expectations were exceeded. Only three months ago, I boarded an El-Al flight to Israel alongside twenty-five Jewish incoming seniors from across the country. Among the group, our beliefs and practices varied, but all of mindsets created a constant for the program: we wanted to learn from one another this summer.

Throughout the first few days after our arrival, we all attempted to be friendly, forcefully proposing casual cocktail chatter in order to “test the waters.” However, by the first weekend, controversial conversation topics began to seep out from mouths that could no longer conceal them. For the duration of the summer, we spent countless hours stargazing and debating issues that impact both the American Jewish community and the future of the state of Israel. People did not hesitate before vehemently sharing their beliefs with others, and they rocked my Jewish identity in ways that I never realized I needed.

Perhaps the most significant lesson I gained from these thought-provoking discussions was that my faith, like that of many other teens I learned, needed sharpening. Surrounded by a tolerant and pluralistic community, I felt compelled to strengthen and reexamine the beliefs that once blindly carved a path for my life. Repeatedly this summer, we were all taught that one must sharpen a knife with other knives, rather than with pillows, for a tool of any kind would never be useful otherwise. This seemingly literal concept gradually evolved into the foundation of our faith-based dialogue: while sensitivity is pivotal for communication, we were a community driven to grow. We were motivated to use the knives of our own faith to sharpen those of our peers, even if that entailed crossing the borders and boundaries we never fathomed to discover ourselves. Through the exhausting summer of spiritual growth that ignited both laughter and tears, we became friends. Today, I now have twenty-five new friends from different walks of Jewish life; we thrived in the pluralistic sanctuary we’ve created for ourselves and are prepared to expand it to our own homes.

As different as a group of Jewish teens may be, we all associated ourselves to the broad umbrella of the same faith and could easily have been united by title alone. However, in our respective communities which aren’t structured like those in Jerusalem, no one faith is the majority—making the need to create pluralism that much stronger.

Now more than ever we must face the irreligious intolerance that amplifies on a daily basis. We are living in a world where our own tribalism prevents us from seeing the faces of our neighbors. The stereotypes of other faiths that exist in our minds reflect our fear in pursuing justice. Even among parents and grandparents, thoughts of intermarriage traumatize them, immediately inhibiting any support of interfaith friendships because of the enigmatic future to which they could lead.

I, however, continue to remain hopeful, despite the many obstacles that lay before a perfect world. For little had I known, the walls of intolerance can be broken down over a circle of chairs and a breezy, star-lit Jerusalem night sky. The sense of hope that glowed among the optimists sitting in those seats, however, can travel to any zip code.

So can we achieve the same pluralism among different faiths? Absolutely. We simply need to create the dialogue that allows us to learn from one another. And perhaps, once we’ve created a safe circle of hope, we can challenge and sharpen our faiths together. 

Yonah: The Art of Running Away

When you’re sitting at the doctor’s office beside a half-friendly nurse, staring at a needle the size of your spinal chord in her hand, your mindset wouldn’t be one of complete ease. Once this terrifying injection begins inching toward your skin, perhaps the most convenient reaction is to run as far away as humanly possible. Despite all instructions to sit still from your now not-so-friendly nurse, nothing seems more relieving than the thought of sprinting away from shots of any kind. Clearly, these doctors do not know half as much as you do about Tetanus, chicken pox, or Menangitis—if disease prevention involves pain, it is not worth it!

For Yonah, a prophet and humanist, running was not only a constant in his life, but also a method for both avoidance and Cheshbon haNefesh, the accounting of the soul. The name Yonah in Hebrew literally means dove, the symbol of peace; it is rather ironic that Yonah’s habit of running created tension and unrest with God. However, unlike other rebellious leaders in Jewish history, Yonah chose to run full circle. Throughout the four chapters in the book of Yonah, we witness Yonah running from God and to God. We experience God’s work in an ungodly nation through a prophet whose natural instincts weren’t so different than ours.

Yonah ran from God. God commanded Yonah travel to Nineveh in order to proclaim its destruction. Yonah, realizing that this commitment was not worth his own fears, reacted with an action. With a one-way ticket to Tarshish, Yonah ran from not only a life threatening responsibility, but also his own self-doubt. This esteemed messenger of God was truly stuck in his own pool of self-consciousness and needed a quick leeway out. Like most Jews living in post-modernism, Yonah struggled with his own doubt. Only years after Yonah’s life did we discover the significance of embracing our lack of certainty, or as we call it today: faith. Rabbi Art Green, the author of Radical Judaism, suggests that we should shift our focus. “We people of faith have nothing we can prove; attempts to do so will only diminish what we have to offer. We can only testify, never prove.” We blindly blame Yonah for avoiding God when he was really just struggling with the same doubts we embrace as the essence of Judaism today. We, Jews in a post-modern world, endorse the Tarshish, or the haven for avoiding troubles.

Yonah ran to God.  By the second chapter, Yonah had already experimented with his running. En route to Tarshish, the city where responsibilities disappeared and self-doubt was welcomed, Yonah was swallowed by both a big unidentifiable fish and his own loneliness. Without direction or guidance, Yonah succumbed to the prayer of his own heart and ran back to God. Perhaps it was the overwhelming sense of loneliness that drew Yonah back to the responsibility that God originally gave him. By running away from the commitment, Yonah ran away from any guidance and comfort that accompanied it. Once he was in complete solitude, Yonah admitted that despite his own doubts and fears, he could not live a life of faith alone. Today, as the search for a revived Judaism rises, we continue to place the most value on community. Judaism, with all of its ups and downs, will never survive without a community to sustain it. Yonah needed to successfully run away from his fears before realizing how crucial it was to face them.

Perhaps the process of running from and to God is the core of our Judaism today. We must recognize that God is not only the haven for our doubts, but also the partner with which we embrace them and search for answers.