How to Be a “Player” in Jewish Life

What does it take to be a “player” in Jewish life? No, not that kind of “player.” I mean, what does it take to be a responsible and influential participant in the Jewish communal life you want? It’s a provocative question – and it’s supposed to be. The answer puts you (yes, you) – not just rabbis and other spiritual leaders – in the power seat of what the Jewish future will be.

Some believe that only rabbis (or just the most mainstream rabbis) should decide what Jews should do, be and become. The problem with this view is that, for many, it’s not working. For all the knowledge and wisdom that rabbis are imagined to have (and many do), odds are that if you’re reading this article, you don’t depend on your rabbi in quite that way. And you’re in good company: today a majority of U.S. Jews are disaffiliated and/or unobservant from the perspective of those very same rabbis. Something’s not working.

Two years after my own rabbinic ordination, I still have five aspirations for the rabbinate. Rabbis are important for Jewish spiritual life, and for watering the roots of a living tradition both millennia old and vitally alive today. And, for those same reasons, I believe that everyone – regardless of role or title – is empowered to become a “player” in this cause. I also believe that this cause is hard-wired into the Jewish soul – and into the rabbinic enterprise that is Jewish law.

I learned this from Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l, the teacher of my teachers and zeide (grandfather) of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, which I’m blessed to serve. Visioning an ever spiritually-renewing Judaism, Reb Zalman wrote that the call to transform and re-energize Jewish spiritual life isn’t for the few but ultimately for all who form a “consensus of the committed.” For Reb Zalman, being a “player” starts with being “committed” – caring deeply enough and learn enough to know deeply and wisely, then work with others to bring the future into being.

Then I learned much the same idea from Rabbi Benay Lappe. Lappe’s “traditionally radical” learning community Svara, which won a 2016 Covenant Award, is predicated on the ancient idea that Jewish authority comes not from title but rather from being both gavirna (learned and expert) and savirna (possessed of wisdom and sound judgment) (B.T. Sanhedrin 5a). Critically, anyone can be gavirna and savirna: put Benay’s way, anyone can become a “player.” What’s more, svara (wisdom and sound judgment) is rabbinically equivalent to Torah itself, having the same power and legitimacy as the divine Voice speaking in us today.

Yes, you read that right. You are the living conduit for the spiritual. The divine Voice speaks in you today, with power and validity equal to every text and source of authority ever imagined. And the less mainstream you are, the more important your voice is, because you represent another voice inherently valid and valuable. What could be more radical and empowering than that?

Some traditional friends may ask, “Isn’t this approach too democratic? Isn’t it dangerous to invite public influence potentially fraught with misunderstanding, disinformation or worse?”

Maybe, but Rabbi Ethan Tucker, chair of Jewish Law at Mechon Hadar, still agrees that this power reside in the people together – whatever the concerns might be. Even in ancient days, rabbinic decision often was based on what people actually did in the marketplace (i.e. in actual life), not what rabbis might have them do (B.T. Eruvin 14b). Tucker also teaches, citing the ancient sage Reish Lakish, that the people are as full of mitzvot (tradition-fulfilling good deeds) as a pomegranate is full of seeds – even if some rabbis may think them unknowing or unobservant.

Spiritual power and merit reside with the people, not the few having title or professing role. The rabbinic role is to spiritualize where people are, not to pretend them different. Such is the spiritual and political foundation of Jewish life on which all else rests.

It means that you can be a “player.” It means that you are a conduit for the continuing flow of holiness in the world. It means that on you rests the tremendous power of possibility, and a duty to use this power wisely in the circles in which you live, work, play and pray.

And if you happen to hold a spiritual role by any name – and especially if you’re called “rabbi” – your job is to help everyone become a “player” in just that way.

Dedicated to Rabbi Benay Lappe, keynote speaker at the 2017 OHALAH Conference of Clergy for Jewish Renewal.

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