Consider and Converse: A Sh'ma Guide for the High Holidays

Sh’ma curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of Sh’ma is the theme of possibility. The perspectives shared in these pages are meant to be expansive — to inspire reflections on Judaism and possibility in ways you may not have considered before. They aim to hold discord. We hope that the richness and diversity of these essays will show you new perspectives that are personally meaningful and edifying. Sh’ma has never viewed learning or “meaningmaking” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you consider the idea of possibility independently or with others, formally and informally, during these High Holidays.

How to Begin

This guide offers a variety of opportunities, including activities and conversation prompts for individual contemplation and informal or more structured conversations. If yours is a holiday table where you share words of Torah or discuss resolutions for the New Year, you may find it helpful to incorporate some of the prompts from this guide, bringing articles from this issue to your table. Or, you may decide to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop prior to the holidays. Perhaps you would like to host a program at your synagogue, where you bring this conversation to a small group or an adult education class. To support your conversation, you can print out a PDF of this issue from shma.com. We offer conversation outlines below

Suggestions for Exploration On Your Own

  • Pick an article (or two). List questions you may want to ask of the author(s), as many questions as you can without editing yourself.
  • Complete these sentences: “Possibly…” and “Possibly, I…” and “Possibly, we…”
  • If you spend time in synagogue during the holidays, look at the theme of possibility in the liturgy. How does Jewish prayer talk about possibility? How is God related to possibility?

Suggestions for Exploration with Others

Read through the rest of this guide and think about whether you prefer a formal or informal venue for your discussion. Select questions you find most engaging. For example, you may select one “interpretive” question and one “reflective” question, or two from one list and none from the other. Engage in some of the activities from the section “exploration on your own” or watch the suggested video. If the questions you selected refer to a specific article or essay, go to shma.com, download the pieces referenced, and distribute them at the beginning of your conversation. Remind participants of the basic “guidelines for discussion” (see next section). As you begin your conversation, ask participants to “free-write” on the topic for five minutes if that appeals to you, then invite guests to share their written thoughts, and then move into the articles and questions or other activities. You might close the discussion by asking participants to share “possibilities” that they can imagine for the coming year.

Some discussions might flow naturally as participants respond to each other. Sometimes, participants share their own thoughts irrespective of other participants’ comments. Your task is to create a generative space for participants, help them reflect in a comfortable and welcome space, and engage uniquely with friends and family during the holidays.

Guidelines for Discussion

If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing: - Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation. - Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.

Interpretive Questions can focus the reader on the ideas in the articles

  • David Kasher asserts that humanity’s sameness comes from the imprint of God in us. Where does our potential for possibility come from? What possibilities might you imagine in the upcoming year? Do you feel your power to create this change — why or why not?
  • Melanie Weiner describes a place from which human beings can be optimistic. How would you characterize that place?
  • When Denise Wiesner-Berks receives notice that there are no more treatments for her husband, she gives up on possibility. At the same time, she finds something new in his last moments. When can the loss of possibility actually make something possible?
  • Arik Ascherman (page 12) works for change in spite of the tremendous challenges he faces including pessimism in his field. What particular strand of possibility sustains him? Is there a strand that sustains you?

Reflective Questions help readers integrate the ideas in these articles with their own sense of self

  • Does Judaism offer you possibility? Or impossibility? When does it offer you each?
  • What possibilities do you want to open for yourself this year? How can you open these possibilities?
  • The Rambam (Maimonides) suggests that we each must view ourselves as though we are “half meritorious and half culpable.” Are there moments when you feel this in your life? When? What does it add to our lives to practice this idea?
  • Emily Dickinson famously wrote, “I dwell in possibility.” What can this mean in the context of writing or other creative expressions? If we all truly did dwell in possibility, what would that look like?
  • Rachel Brodie defines something called “wide-angle Judaism,” suggesting that Judaism is “infinitely bigger than any institution, denomination, or historical moment” — that, in fact, there is no Judaism, but rather, “Judaisms.” What could she mean by this? When does Judaism seem full of possibility and when does it seem to be closed?
  • Susan Goldberg outlines a paradigm for reflection, for the strengthening of relationships, and for change during these holidays. She spends the month before the High Holidays (Elul) considering her character and her relationships, thinking about each person important to her and about her relationship with God. She chooses to focus her attention for the coming year on one of the characteristics and relationships, which she then records in a journal. Based on these reflections, she identifies particular actions to take in the coming year. Does this paradigm resonate with you? How? What would it mean to take on any of these steps in your life? (In which of these steps do you already engage?)
  • Look again at Lawrence Bush’s short commentary in NiSh’ma. What are the ways in which you may want to “vary your route” in the coming year?

Watch Short Video:

This short video (2:28) of a scene from the television series “The West Wing” captures the nuance of possibility: It explores the support we need in order to allow ourselves to be vulnerable when we attempt to change, the need for optimism even in the face of fear, and the notion that we can be simultaneously compelled toward and afraid of possibility. Watch the clip, read the letter exchange between Julie Saxe-Taller and Jon Elkin, and then discuss these questions: What are the greatest impediments to change? What does it take to jump into possibility?

Embed this video

Take Action

If you usually perform the ritual of tashlich (symbolically cleansing yourself of sin by throwing bread crumbs into a moving body of water), see your act through the prism of possibility. As you rid yourself of your sins, what possibilities do you open? How have your sins limited you? If you don’t normally perform the ritual of tashlich, give it a try!

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Consider and Converse: A Sh'ma Guide for the High Holidays

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