Prior to being admitted to rabbinic school, I was required to take a series of psychological tests that included a Rorschach Test. One by one the psychologist administering the test placed an inkblot in front of me and asked what I saw. It is an interesting test to take. Initially I saw nothing more than paper covered with ink stains. It didn’t take long before I started seeing images in each new inkblot that he placed before me. But here’s the thing: what I saw in those ink blots said a lot about me and absolutely nothing about the inkblot itself. I “read into” the inkblot my experiences and my needs. So while each applicant was presented with the exact same inkblots, we each saw something different in them.
In recent days I’ve been thinking about the parallels between those inkblots and synagogues. Just as each applicant saw something different in each inkblot, each of us sees and needs our synagogue in our own unique way. It is part of the richness of the Jewish community. But it is also one of the challenges, since each community member is going to want and need something different, even as our community tries to meet the needs and expectations of each person.
Let me give you an example.
For some community members, social action is a central aspect of what it means to be Jewish.
For other community members, study is at the center of what it means to be Jewish.
And for others still, prayer and song are the activities that give them the most meaning.
In each case, we try to meet those needs and expectations in the best way possible. But we will never put 100% of our time, focus and resources into only one of those areas because to do so would ignore our community’s diverse interests and needs.
Speaking to everyone in the community is particularly challenging when it comes to sharing the message of the prophets of old. The prophets had a specific vision for what an equitable, responsible, and fair society could and should look like. But too often, in the current social climate, their messages can be polarizing. Those who agree with the messages may wonder why we don’t place even more emphasis on their vision and work harder to make that vision a reality. But not everyone, in any community, is going to agree with that perspective. And that is as it should be. After all, the rabbis of old taught us “eilu v’eilu divrei elohim chayyim- these and these are both the word of the living God.” In other words, the rabbis taught us that respectful disagreement is essential for individual and communal growth.
But that is exactly where I have seen a troubling trend.
In the earlier years of my rabbinate, I would often deliver a sermon, and after the service, at least one or two people would approach me, tell me they disagreed with me and why. It allowed for rich, thoughtful discussions that often allowed me, and I hope the person with whom I was speaking, to gain a new perspective.
In recent years, however the discussion part is often missing. Too often, rather than disagreeing and then engaging in a discussion that can lead to growth, colleagues who delve into the moral and ethical teachings of Judaism are the recipients of the ire of those who disagree.
A recent Op Ed in the Times of Israel by my colleague Rabbi Michael Rothbaum captures the question many of us are struggling to navigate. He writes:
“If rabbis are qualified to attend to those suffering pain, loss, or grief, are we not also qualified to address the brokenness in our land that results in pain, in loss, in grief?
For some Jews, the answer is an unequivocal no. Even Jews who call upon rabbis in times of crisis sometimes share open contempt for those of us who teach the Torah of public policy, social justice and – that dirtiest of words – “politics.”
What business, they ask, does a rabbi have talking about such things?”
As rabbis often do, Rabbi Rothbaum goes on to answer his own question in ways I found quite compelling. The full piece can be found here: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/if-rabbis-cant-talk-about-public-policy-whats-the-point-of-torah/
An Invitation to a Conversation:
I want to invite you to take a few minutes to read the piece and, if you are so inclined, share your thoughts with me. Do you agree with the rabbi’s perspective? Do you disagree? Let me know what you think… and let’s talk.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen