“What does it mean to be a rabbi without borders?” people ask. “Is it like Doctors Without Borders? Do you travel the world?” Not in the sense of accruing more stamps on my passport. The travel is between perspectives and viewpoints, not between nations.
Longtime readers know that I went to a transdenominational rabbinic school where students and faculty from all of the major streams or denominations of Judaism learned together. There are three such seminaries now, though I believe that ALEPH was the first, and ALEPH is unique in its explicitly Jewish Renewal orientation. Anyway: my whole adventure of rabbinic school learning was a transdenominational one. My primary context for rabbinic community has always involved people from different Jewish backgrounds with differing Jewish practices.
For that reason, although I knew I would enjoy the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship, I wasn’t sure how groundbreaking or new it would feel to me. After all, sitting around a study table with Jews ranging from Reform to Orthodox was already a familiar part of my worldview, and so was the assumption that there is a multiplicity of valid paths toward truth. So maybe it’s not surprising that my experience of RWB/Clal has been in many ways parallel to my experience of ALEPH. It’s not so much that the passionate pluralism of RWB feels new, as that it’s a delight to discover another transdenominational rabbinic hevre (community of colleagues and friends) who share my ideals and my yearning to bring Judaism and God-connection to those who thirst.
In an ALEPH context, we come together across our differences of interpretation and practice beneath the common umbrella of Jewish Renewal. We share a yearning to revitalize Judaism (or Judaisms), respect for the groundbreaking work of our forebears (among them Reb Zalman), an investment in deep ecumenism, and a unique blend of feminism, progressive values, and neo-Hasidism. In a RWB/Clal setting, the umbrella is klal Yisrael, the Jewish community writ large. Though the qualities which are most central to Jewish Renewal aren’t necessarily focal points in RWB, it seems to me that both communities come together across our differences of interpretation and practice to jointly serve the Jewish community in all of its forms, and to bring Jewish wisdom to the wide world. We are, you might say, responding to the same divine call.
In RWB we gather with the utmost respect for each other’s perspectives and training. We don’t gloss over the places where our practices and comfort zones differ. And we act in the good faith that each of our forms of Judaism is one piece of the Jewish puzzle, one partial truth within the greater truth which belongs to the Jewish community as a whole. For me as a Renewal rabbi, of course, the same metaphor holds true with regard to the religious world — Judaism has one piece of the truth, Christianity has another piece, and so on, and so on. (I think many RWBs agree on this one, too. Day before yesterday I learned some amazing Hasidic texts with RWB Hanan Schlesinger, who taught — drawing primarily on the Sfat Emet — that our real challenge is finding Torah, which is to say finding truth, everywhere. Not only in our own tradition, but everywhere. How beautiful is that?) This is a pluralism which feeds my soul.
And I believe it’s a pluralism which the world desperately needs. So much of the news we receive speaks in stark black and white, particularly about religious differences, but reality is far more nuanced and subtle. Truth and meaning aren’t the unique purview of any community; as Reb Zalman likes to say, God broadcasts on all channels and each tradition receives revelation based on how we’re attuned. I believe that there are glimmers of truth even in worldviews with which I deeply disagree (though sometimes it stretches me mightily to try to find them). And I can seek to open the wellsprings of Jewish wisdom and tradition even for those with whom I have substantial differences. As Rabbi Brad Hirschfield hasso eloquently argued, you don’t have be wrong for me to be right. I’m more interested in what connects us than in what divides us: across the different branches of Judaism, and across our various politics, and across the varied manifestations of our human family tree.
One of the questions which I think animates this Rabbis Without Borders community is: how can we bring Jewish wisdom to the wide world? What sustenance can we draw forth from our living well which might feed people’s hearts and souls in years to come?
In Jewish Renewal we often speak in terms of paradigm shift. When the Temple fell, there was a transition to rabbinic Judaism, which wasn’t always easy or comfortable but was utterly necessary in order for Judaism to continue to thrive — that was a paradigm shift.Reb Zalman has argued that we’re experiencing another paradigm shift now, in which we must come to see Judaism, humanity, and our planet in a new way. (The last century’s massive destruction, including Hiroshima and the Shoah, is one side of the paradigm shift; seeing our planet from space, that beautiful blue-green ball suspended in blackness, is another piece of the shift. Both of these together call us to co-create new responses to the new challenges at hand.) I believe that the work my Renewal and RWB colleagues are doing, striving to bring Jewish wisdom to the wide world, is part of the tikkun (healing) which this new paradigm shift calls forth.
In RWB (and I think also in ALEPH), the borders we cross are those of perspective and practice. We don’t all have the same answers. We don’t all maintain the same practices. Some of us daven in gender-segregated spaces, and some don’t. Some of us maintain deep attachments to the classical halakhic system, and some don’t. Some of us are comfortable with substantial liturgical variation, and some aren’t. Some of us daven every word in the classical siddur at lightning speed; some of us soak ourselves in slow contemplative liturgical chant. (And some of us do both on alternate days!) We dress this way and thatway. We eat this way and that way. But we’re united in our belief that we are part of the same enterprise, and that without compromising our ideals or our practices we can work together to bring healing to Judaism and to bring Jewish wisdom to the world.
The fact that I’ve found not one but two rich spiritual communities of colleagues and teachers who are driven by these passions, who share these commitments to traditional depth and intellectual / spiritual breadth, and who are both willing and able to draw on a variety of different wisdoms (whether within our own tradition, or across many traditions) in order to serve God and to serve the needs of our communities — it’s incredible. I am so blessed.
For more: see RWB FAQ: What is a Rabbi Without Borders? and Kol ALEPH: What is Jewish Renewal?