Consider and Converse: A Guide to Paradox

Artwork by David Wander
Artwork by David Wander

Consider and Converse: A Guide to ‘Elu v’elu’ — ‘Paradox’

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 Jewish sensibility of elu v’elu — These and those are the words of God.”Elu v’elu are the words declared by a heavenly voice on hearing the heated halakhic arguments between the houses of Hillel and Shammai. As the followers of Rabbi Hillel argued with the followers of Rabbi Shammai, a voice from heaven called out, “These and also those are the words of the living God…” Usually, this verse is pulled up to argue for and support Judaism’s openness to an array of opinions. We are focusing a bit more broadly, on the important role that paradox plays in our lives: How we hold paradoxical positions and how that stance deepens Jewish life.

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 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 can 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 Danya Ruttenberg writes about how antisemitism and privilege operate. She writes, “Hatred toward Jews has been deeply intertwined with the notion that Jews have had unique sorts of advantages for around a thousand years.” She offers a very brief history and an insightful lens into understanding the nature of this paradox. While “many American Jewish families have assimilated into the broader culture and ‘become white,’ … antisemitism functions as it has for centuries.” She concludes that it is essential to use our advantages “including the social capital to fight bigotry with full force. We have an obligation to stand up for those who are more vulnerable to both institutional and random attack.” How do you understand this paradox of antisemitism and privilege? Is it possible to reap privilege and also be vulnerable? The Jewish community is large and diverse — what about members who are not privileged? How do you understand and respond to the more vocalized antisemitic comments and incidents over the past year?
  • Amy Tobin, as CEO of a Jewish Community Center in the Bay Area, works to create healthy and vibrant Jewish communities based on Jewish values. She writes about the importance of civic inclusiveness—creating a place that bridges divides. But it’s complicated. “To be inclusive also means to recognize historic and current forces that stand in the way of equal rights for all and to be vocal about standing up for them. The American experiment is one of mixing and melting, slavery and land grab, liberty and opportunity. The union is imperfect.” Can Jewish community centers have points of view? And if so, how can they hold a space for those with different opinions? How do we create a healthy, civic-minded communal space where differences of opinion are welcome? How do we nurture what professor emeritus Steven Windmueller calls, “communities of conversation”? Is it possible to listen and be in community with people you don’t agree with?

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

  • A phenomenal educator, Erica Brown introduces readers to the concept of paradox through the book of Ecclesiastes, or Kohelet in Hebrew. She writes that a chief paradox found in Ecclesiastes is “in its attitude to wisdom. Everyone has a worthy idea to be shared, and yet there is rarely a novel idea to be uncovered.” And she continues with some sage advice, about how we all live with contradictions, and should learn to lean into them and live with the “discomfort of paradox.” What is the impact of accepting paradox and a life of contradictions? How might that change the nature of human and civic interaction? What must we do to accept that everything cannot be made whole and contradiction-free? Is it possible to live with the inner noise of a self that is inherently inconsistent?
  • Rabbi, author, and artist Ariel Burger writes about the Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. While most of us tend to think that hope and despair are opposite emotions, when it comes to the sensibility of elu v’elu, “a new understanding emerges. Perhaps the despair that Rebbe Nachman refers to is not a feeling at all. Perhaps it’s an action, a choice. The word he uses for despair, yeush, is a talmudic term that refers to giving up hope of finding a lost object. When an owner gives up hope, he gives up ownership of the object: his despair actually changes the status of the object.” Ariel explains that Rebbe Nachman is offering a teaching about the relationship of choice to hope. We need both hope and despair, both hope and heartbreak: “Allow your heart to break, yes. But then allow it to fuel your resistance.” How do you understand the relationship between hope and despair? When have you experienced these two emotions respond to one another and inform each other?
  • In NiSh’ma, our simulated Talmud page, three commentators explicate a teaching on the blessing “Chacham Razim,” by Reb Haim of Volozhin (Bamidbar Rabbah Pinchas 21:2). The teaching suggests an appropriate response to seeing a large crowd of people. Rabbi Daniel Brenner writes: “One of the functions of liturgy is to keep us humans humble. This blessing, Chacham Razim, which blesses the God of Secrets, keeps us humble by teaching: If we see a large group of people and if for some reason we hold the conceit that we can read the minds of those around us, and we actually think we know their secrets, stop! Though God is wise to secrets, we are not.” Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum explains that we are humbled because we cannot know God’s secrets. The poet Hank Lazar writes that “God is a God of Secrets; otherwise, it would be easy to know God directly and with certainty. God is the keeper of secrets, and the best-kept secret is the very nature of God.” What do you learn from Reb Haim of Volozhin’s teaching? Does this blessing — uttered upon seeing a large crowd — speak to you personally? How so? How would you craft a blessing to be recited upon seeing a crowd of people? What would your blessing reference?

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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Consider and Converse: A Guide to Paradox

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