Last year in Israel, I was part of the Encounter Leadership Seminar, where we as future Jewish leaders worked on becoming productive agents of change around the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I spent time in the West Bank, including Hebron, Ramallah, and Bethlehem, and also in East Jerusalem, and I listened to stories. I heard Palestinian narratives of living under occupation, of how growing up in a refugee camp hardened their hope for a peaceful solution to the conflict, and how members of their family had resorted to violence out of desperation. I heard stories that confirmed some of my already-held beliefs, and I heard stories that challenged me to confront my own fixed narratives. I began to “complexify” my own understanding of the conflict.
It wasn’t always comfortable, but my experience with Encounter – and in general my experience in difficult conversations – is that I feel more alive during the conversation. There’s this sense of “Okay, if I can just live with this discomfort that I’m experiencing right now, and not let it hold me back from engaging in the conversation, then I can really learn something here.” I’ve found that I crave those experiences when I’m not having them, because there is a deep desire within me to transcend my own boundaries.
Unfortunately, those encounters didn’t happen naturally during my first few years of rabbinical school. I felt like the scope of the conversations that I was a part of kept shrinking and shrinking. While my classmates and I spent most of our time holed up in the beit midrash, trying to master the Talmud and gain a working knowledge of a really broad range of Jewish text, I found myself growing less and less capable of carrying on meaningful conversations with people who weren’t rabbinical students. I forgot that most people outside of this sphere don’t really understand why learning Talmud might be important, and I had actually lost sight of why it might be important myself. Each section of Talmud became a brainteaser activity, an argument to be decoded and understood, rather than a window into deeper values and ideas. I wanted to have a deep emotional connection with the material that I was learning, but more often than not, I emerged from the experience feeling empty.
Experiences like Encounter and pastoral education brought me out of that bubble, and reminded me that as a future rabbi, the primary Torah that I’m bringing into the world is the Torah of empathy, and a desire to listen through discomfort. How do we hear what’s being said, and how do we even hear what’s not being said? How do we, as rabbis, respond to individuals in crisis or moments of deep spiritual struggle? How do we resist the temptation to say that our way is the only authentic expression of the Jewish tradition, and instead allow for a range of truth? How do we meet people wherever they are at in a process of spiritual growth?
I think that part of our training as rabbis has to include opportunities to listen to those whom we identify as the “other,” and not just as dilettantes. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to be involved in this interfaith community. Our world is multivocal, and so our training should enable us to meet that multivocality with both openness and a strong sense of self. This includes listening to diverse voices within Judaism and outside of it, and building ongoing relationships that help us break out of the rigidity of our comfort zones.
Bringing it back to the here and now – we had the opportunity in the Womb to really dig deep and engage on a personal level with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last week. There were a lot of tears, and definitely feelings of push, pull, and tension, but I told the group that I think it was a watershed moment for us in building community. We’ve created a space where we can really share our full selves, and one in which we can hold each other in our idiosyncrasies and processes of becoming. It’s an amazing gift, and one that I’m hoping to be able to share with my rabbinical school community as much as possible.