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What are Jewish Sensibilities?

Jewish sensibilities are particularly Jewish ways of thinking about what it means to be human, ways that guide and orient a person’s actions and choices. Knowing [the sensibilities] can help us anticipate how we’ll lead our lives and make decisions.

-Vanessa Ochs, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia Charlottesville,
in a 2003 Sh’ma article.

Most of us encounter the world through lenses that help us make sense of what we are experiencing and guide us in responding emotionally and behaviorally to particular life situations.

Many Jews see the world through a distinctive Jewish set of lenses. We call these lenses “Jewish sensibilities.” These sensibilities originate most often in Jewish texts and teachings, in the stories Jews have told from biblical times to the present day, in the experiences that have shaped these narratives, and in the lessons that have been derived about how to live a worthy and fulfilling life. Taken as a set of life-approaches, sensibilities offer one way to answer the question: What does it mean to be Jewish?

An example of a Jewish sensibility that has been central to Sh’ma Now since its inception is Elu v’elu (“These and these…”). Drawn from a mishnaic narrative (where it is applied to the opposing views of two groups of scholars), the term refers to a particularly Jewish way of approaching the world that suggests there may be two correct answers to a given question. Consider the common joke with many derivatives: “Two Jews, Three Opinions.” To those who know Jewish families, Jewish communities, this is funny because it rings so true. When set against American culture, it is an example of one distinguishing characteristic of Jewish culture. And it points toward not only a specific piece of knowledge or a specific ritual action, but a way of being in the world – one that makes room for diversity, engenders humility, and provides a powerful relationship technique, if applied correctly. “You don’t have to be wrong for me to be right,” as Rabbi Brad Hirschfield has phrased it. The sensibility helps bolster emotional resilience, genuine curiosity, and nuance of thought. And, it’s so Jewish.

For a list of Jewish sensibilities, click here.

-Rabbi Lee Moore, Director of Jewish and Organizational Learning LKFLT
-Jonathan Woocher, President LKFLT