Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Here’s a radical idea that I wish weren’t radical: if you consistently feel nothing in the Jewish community, it’s time to take notice and ask why. And a corollary: if you serve the Jewish community, a keystone goal should be to encourage authenticity, depth, and safety of emotional experience.
True, Jewish civilization survived and thrived by harnessing the power of the written word – after all, we’re a “People of the Book.” Still, I’ve come to believe that text, tradition, and ritual are effective tools of Jewish surviving and thriving only to the extent that they encourage us to feel.
Neurobiology and political psychology both confirm that what we feel – not what we think or say or believe – most directly inspires what we do or don’t do. It’s emotion that most drives us to dare, learn, teach, attend, commit, volunteer, give, forgive, donate, grow and change – or not. Whether in voting, consumer behavior or Jewish life, it’s emotion that most shapes our choices.
So even if just from the cynical perspective of marketing, Jewish life should more highly value the potency of emotion and strive to place emotional experience in an honored and central position.
But emotion is far too important for mere marketing. This is about identity: who we really are, who we are called to be and who we yearn to become.
The Shema proclaims the Oneness of what we feebly call “God,” then immediately leads into V’ahavta: “[We] will love … with all [our] heart” – not remember, like, obey or fear, but love. Judaism’s core credo isn’t to believe at all but rather emotional connection.
The Psalms – the Jewish canon’s most emotion-rich text, describing every feeling from joy to grief and elation to despair – put it just that way. Together we walk in God’s house, sharing the sweet secret that is the journey of ragesh – literally, feeling (Psalms 55:14-15). The journey of Jewish life is the landscape of the heart.
The heart’s landscape is a world of its own. Heart and mind learn and change in different ways and at different rates. Sometimes a heart whispers; other times a heart bellows. Sometimes a heart leaps and dares; other times a heart can only be gently wooed. When a heart develops a thick skin (often defense against intensity), Torah calls to remove this “foreskin of the heart” (Deuteronomy 10:16).
For all who serve the Jewish community, these dynamics call us to become fluent in the heart’s ways. They ask us to hone our emotional intelligence and evolve experiences and contexts intentionally so hearts can unfold within the vulnerability and receptivity in their own time. Pacing and spacing become key.
Imagine: what would classes, prayer spaces, rituals, and meetings be like if we designed them with the keen focus on emotional dynamics – not as a substitute for cerebral content but as a full partner? And what in our own lives might derail or deflect the fullest partnership of head and heart?
Conversely, what if Jewish life doesn’t feel like much? Maybe our hearts feel inured to what’s there, or maybe we yearn for something that seems missing. Maybe it’s time to talk with community leaders or trusted others, or step up to offer what seems missing, or step away to seek it elsewhere.
No easy answer fits every situation, but the question is clear. What do you feel in Jewish life? You, your heart and the heart of Jewish life all are too important to just sit there and take “nothing” for an answer.