Consider and Converse: A Guide to Humility

Artwork by David Wander
Artwork by David Wander

Consider and Converse: A Guide to‘Anavah’ — ‘Humility’

This issue of Sh’ma Now, focused on the Jewish sensibility of humility, is dedicated to the memory of Jonathan Woocher, z”l,
 who effortlessly embodied that trait.

Introduction

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 “anavah” — “humility.” As Joey Weisenberg writes in his opening essay, humility “refers to taking up just the right amount of space — not too little and not too much” — finding a balance between our own needs as individuals and as ones who engage with the world around us. For this issue of Sh’ma Now, I solicited essays that address both the Mussar of humility — that is, the character traits we hope to live by that keep us humble — and also two essays that confront humility (or the lack thereof) among Jewish professionals. We hope that these essays will help our readers to recognize humility as an essential Jewish value to practice daily.

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 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.

  • Joey Weisenberg introduces readers to several Jewish historical figures who embodied “anavah” — “humility” — and one who sought to learn to be humble. Weisenberg shares the ways in which music can be an expression of humility. He writes, “The best musicians may assert their own ideas, but they always leave just as much space for others, and, collectively, they all strike a symbiotic balance between their sounds and the world’s sacred silence.” Who have you known — personally or as a historical figure — who has embodied humility, and how has that individual shown it? What are some experiences of humility that have touched you?
  • Yoni Gordis facilitates organizational change and growth. During a decades-long career, he has noticed a problematic paradigm associated with leadership: “Those who want to lead will generally believe that they have something to give, and that their voice matters, often more than other voices. Why else would they step forward? Placing themselves somewhere on the spectrum between pure altruism and pure ego, leaders need motivation and incentive to step up. How then, can they do so without leaving everyone else behind?” Yoni goes on to describe two distinct leadership styles. He notes that the masters of great leadership whom he has known have positioned their role as relational — as building on relationships — rather than transactional. Each does something to help the other. Can humility be taught? Is humility part of our DNA, or can we learn it?What are the steppingstones to learning humility? Who are the most effective leaders in your communities? What traits do they embody?
  • Rabbi Chai Levy explores the complicated and nuanced role that rabbis play in the lives of their communities. During her rabbinic career, Levy has reconsidered the rabbi-centric “sage on the stage” platform and chosen instead to serve as a “guide on the side.” She writes, “Instead of spouting knowledge and authority … my goal was to empower others in their own Jewish learning and ritual skills.” But as she evolved as a congregational rabbi, she learned that there were times and situations that demanded a strong, visible rabbi to hold and lead the congregation. “…I learned that taking up the right amount of space is situational. I also came to know that humility depends on the particular traits and personality of the individual; some of us need to learn to take up less space and some of us, more space. We don’t want to be so big that at a shiva house, people are talking about the rabbi who delivered the eulogy instead of talking about the deceased. But we also want our presence to be big enough to inspire others and to create a sacred space.” What are useful models of leadership and followership, where just the right amount of space is taken up by the leader? When a congregational leader does model humility, what types of exchanges become possible? Which types of situations demand a more proactive presence from a leader, and which less?

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

  • Rabbi Geoffrey Claussen’s essay helps readers to think about how they may overestimate their own worth, and to comprehend the cultural forces that influence the ways in which we understand others and ourselves. He explains that “powerful cultural currents exist in contemporary America that encourage Americans to consider our country ‘exceptional’ or superior to other nations. Most of us insist that, when we claim any such exceptionalism, we do not mean to disregard others. But cultivating humility, as Americans, requires us to overcome our defensiveness and search our souls for harmful, internalized notions of American superiority.” And for Jews in America, we add the concept of “chosenness.” “When we American Jews speak of Jews as ‘chosen,’ we often vociferously deny that we mean to imply any notion of Jewish superiority. But our defensiveness may blind us and prevent us from thinking critically about how we, as Jews, internalize conceptions of Jewish preeminence.” What role does humility play in this dynamic of “exceptionalism”? When we speak about Jews as the “chosen people,” how do we understand the concept of chosenness? What is the relationship of our own sense of privilege to our sense of humility?
  • In NiSh’ma,, our simulated Talmud page, three writers explore a well-known line following the first line of the Sh’ma prayer, “And you shall love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Rabbi Stan Levy explains that Franz Rosenzweig’s teaching that “God is asking: ‘love Me.’ God is not self-sufficient.” Levy goes on to explain that God needs and seeks our love. Tali Anisfeld shares the story of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa about having two notes in one’s pockets — “’I am everything,’ and ‘I am a worthless piece of garbage’”—and challenges the notion that we are one or the other. “The world can so easily send us swinging from one pocket to the other, convinced of our own importance in one moment and of our inadequacy in the next.” She asks: How do we hold ourselves and each other in a balance of mutual need? Becky Voorwinde echoes the notion that we are multidimensional beings, sometimes winning and sometimes not. How do hubris and humility figure in this discussion about God needing our love? How did you react to the story about having two notes in your pockets? What reminders would those notes evoke in you?

Your Comments

Sh’ma Now welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, Sh’ma Now requires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not and will be deleted. Egregious commenters will be banned from commenting. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and the Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

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