Consider and Converse: A Guide to ‘Havdil’ — ‘Distinctions’
Jews and Distinctiveness
IntroductionSh’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 “havdil” — “Distinctions” — rethinking questions about Jews and distinctiveness.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 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 https://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 Vanessa Ochs introduces readers to some of the ritual source material on “havdil” — “distinction” — and why making distinctions matters to Jews. Distinctions may be temporal — such as Havdalah, which marks the end of Shabbat and the beginning of everyday time — or they may mark changes in our life stages. Ochs shares a couple of her favorite texts on how our Jewish identity defines or contributes to the way we understand distinctions. In permaculture, boundaries are very fertile places where change happens. How do you understand the relation between the center and the boundary/margin? Why does Judaism have such firm laws about boundaries — for example, kashrut (not mixing dairy and meat) or laws associated with Shabbat? Why are distinctions central to God’s Creation of the world? What makes distinctions different for Jews?
Rabbi Michelle Dardashti revisits the debate about particularism vs. universalism on today’s college campuses. She writes, “Distinctiveness is viewed positively on campuses with strong cultures — even dogmatisms — of liberalism and individualism. It is the manifestation of particularism as something privileged, chauvinist, or oppressive that results in a bad rap for religion.” How do Jewish distinctions — tribal associations — play both positive and negative roles on campuses today—and, more generally, in our lives? The particularism-universalism debate is ancient. What is new about it today? What becomes problematic about Jews being distinct — and how does it relate to chosenness?
Reflective Questionscan help to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.
Rabbi Elliot Kukla writes about chronic illness — that rather than thinking of it as temporary, we should imagine it as a home. It is neither a place of health nor a place of impending death, but an in-between place that has not yet found its footing in society. Most people assume that serious illness ought to be a way station in between living and dying. But Kukla, who is chronically ill, finds illness a place to build a full life. Such in-between places are honored in Jewish texts, and they can help us to lift up the twilight spaces that a life of chronic illness inhabits in our culture. Like the wilderness in the Torah, illness may at first appear to be a place to be “gotten through,” but, at closer inspection, it is filled with its own wonders and challenges.” Why is chronic illness placed in such an isolated category — separate from the rest f life? Since most of us will be ill at some point in our lives, why are we not taught the skills of how to be sick, how to navigate hospitals, how to control pain, and how to live mindfully with pain that cannot be controlled? If we were to acknowledge the ill among us who make a permanent home in this socially liminal space, how would it change us or change our relationships with the chronically ill, and, more broadly, with societal norms about wellness?
The poet Marcia Falk reflects on her decades-long thinking and writing about Havdalah. As a feminist, she writes that the “fundamental insight of feminism is that, in the patriarchal world we inhabit, there is an ever-present, underlying dualistic hierarchy that privileges male above female, and this primary distinction generates much of the world’s oppression and injustice.” How does this message about distinctions resonate in today’s particular spiritual moment? What impact does a ritual such as Havdalah, which marks the distinction between self and other, have on building relationships — especially in our contemporary, polarized world of us/them? Does a ritual of hierarchy that privileges Israel over the nations or light over darkness set a dangerous tone today?
In NiSh’ma, our simulated Talmud page, three writers explore ne of the first verses in the Torah: “God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness.” (Genesis 1:4) Our commentators reflect on the tension between God’s desire to categorize and make distinctions (light and dark, Shabbat and the days of the week) and the blurriness of our contemporary lives. Rabbi Becky Silverstein urges us to see that blurriness “as a source of inspiration and blessing, to be embraced rather than disentangled.” And Ariel Burger suggests that “the Jewish obsession with distinction exists for the sake of connection”— that only by being authentically ourselves can we be in relation with others. In the most intimate of relationships, what role does individuation play? Why must we be distinct individuals before we can connect with others? What are the dangers in a world that is becoming exceedingly less culturally distinct because of globalization?