Consider and Converse: Creative Interpretation

Artwork by David Wander
Artwork by David Wander

Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the theme of ‘Chidush’creative interpretation. 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 Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth independently or with others, formally and informally.

How to Begin

This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and conversation prompts for individual contemplation and informal or more structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal might be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at SBerrin@shma.com. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at http://forward.com/shma-now/.

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.
  • For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
  • Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.

Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.

  • Rabbi Adina Allen introduces readers to the idea that chidush is a “tool for mediating between past and present.” She suggests that acts of “creative reinterpretation” are so important, that to “be a student of Torah, then, is to find and add one’s own unique voice to tradition.” In your experience (great or limited), is Judaism open to interpretation — and in what areas? In what ways have you found Jewish thought permeable and in what ways is it brittle? What about Jewish life — and your experiences with Jewish communal policy? How would you envision a more elastic experience with Jewish living?
  • Rabbi Benay Lappe examines two counter-distinctive ideas in Judaism: “Svara,” a talmudic concept urging empathic moral intuition to make change, and “Yeridat hadorot,” the ‘diminution of the generations’ — the notion that as we get farther from receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, our ability to know what is true and right, what God wants of us, and how to use those insights to live our lives and improve the world around us, diminishes.” In a Judaism founded on law and tradition, how are concepts that radically alter that tradition understood and nurtured? What are the obstacles to change based on “moral intuition”? And how does the weight of “moral intuition” demand that laws which shackle a basic decency for humanity — such as the laws of agunot, referring to the “chained” women who cannot obtain a divorce — be changed?
  • Aaron Dorfman brings the question of chidush to the innovation sector. Grounding his thoughts in Jewish wisdom, he cites, on the one hand, the Talmud’s notion that “Ein beit midrash bli chidush”/”There is no house of study without innovation.” (Chagigah 3a) On the other hand, he cites the Chatam Sofer, a 19th-century giant in European Orthodoxy who opposed innovation based on the talmudic line, “Chadash asur min haTorah”/“‘New’ is forbidden by the Torah.” Dorfman places himself squarely in the innovation camp: “We need to continue to harness the engine of innovation to bring the best of our creative Jewish wisdom to bear on the new and emerging challenges of modernity.” And yet, he also warns against being drawn to some of the “disruptive” power and drama in the innovation sector. “Disruption” can lead to positive or negative change: Where has it played a negative role in preventing the needle from moving forward on bettering society? And where has it played a positive role? Dorfman also warns about attraction to the “new and shiny.” Sometimes, philanthropists are eager to support new initiatives rather than to encourage the adaptation of legacy projects. How do start-ups, legacy projects, and institutions use innovation and innovative thinking? How should resources be allocated in terms of innovation, sustainability, and capacity building? And how might we balance verve and hubris, initiative and single-mindedness, newness and history?

Reflective Questionscan help to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.

  • Shaul Magid writes about Hasidic tradition and how it has addressed the tension between “new” and what’s “renewing” — how and how far to push halakhic (Jewish legal) boundaries. He explores chidush in Hasidism. Specifically, Magid examines the works of two towering figures: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the 20th-century architect of Modern Orthodoxy, and Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav, a major figure in early Hasidism. Soloveitchik “offers us chidush to fight against tradition and the darkness that plagues the human condition, even though chidush threatens the stability of the status quo.” Nahman understand that chidush “does not reveal tradition, but overcomes it, does not interpret Torah, but [creates] it.” How is chidush like “rupture”? How are you more comfortable with/more inclined toward change as evolution or revolution — change as disruption and rupture, or incremental and nuanced?

  • In NiSh’ma, our simulated Talmud page, three writers explore a line from Rabbi Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook: “The old shall be renewed and the new shall be sanctified; together, they will become torches that illuminate Zion.” (Iggerot ha-Re’ayah) Leah Sarna writes that chidush builds on the work of our older sages, “without abandoning even a word of their wisdom, and only occasionally reinterpreting those words.” How do you integrate the wisdom of our sages and texts — the legacy of tradition — into your life? And when do you choose to reinterpret that wisdom? What guides your reinterpretation?

Additional Sources onChidush

  1. Joshua Avedon and Shawn Landres at Jumpstart Labs have studied and written widely on the innovation sector. Here is one excellent early report: The Innovation Ecosystem: Emergence of a New Jewish Landscape.
  2. UpStart, the Joshua Venture Group, Bikkurim, and the U.S.-based programs of PresenTense recently announced a future merger into one entity — UpStart — creating a one-stop shop for Jewish communities pursuing innovation. The future Upstart plans to host a more robust platform to empower anyone tackling today’s Jewish challenges with new ways of thinking, and to create meaningful access points into Jewish life.
  3. HaEmek Davar Exodus 34:1: “The reason God ordered Moshe to carve the second tablets was not because they were not worthy of a divine act, but to teach that the ever-renewing power of halakhah given in the second tablets involves the active participation of the labor of human beings … the second tablets were carved by Moshe and the writing was by God.”
  4. Rambam, Introduction to the Mishna, Seder Zeraim: “Know that every mitzvah given by God to Moshe Rabbenu was given with its interpretation.”
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Consider and Converse: Creative Interpretation

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