Consider and Converse: A Guide to Panim el Panim

Artwork by David Wander
Artwork by David Wander

Consider and Converse: A Guide to Panim el panim / Living, Loving, and Working Face-to-face


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 “panim el panim”/how we live, love, and work in face-to-face encounters. The philosopher Martin Buber explored this notion of sacred encounter decades ago in his pioneering writing on “I-Thou” relationships. Buber set the standard for inspiring much of the way we think about personal relationships—and over the course of the past decade or two, how we organize big communal actions. So, I asked Rabbi Stephanie Kolin — an early leader in the Congregational Based Organizing-for-Justice field — to introduce this theme. She connects Buber’s writing with our theme of “panim el panim”/face-to-face encounters, seeing these relationships as sacred connections between “people and between human beings and God. While acknowledging the risks involved, Jewish texts and commentators suggest that a face gazing into a face is perhaps the most powerful and transformational posture two individuals can experience.”

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 You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at

#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.

  • Much of Rabbi Stephanie Kolin’s rabbinate is focused on community organizing. She writes “In justice work that attempts to address the root causes of suffering, individuals sit panim el panim and share their stories, their suffering, their joys, and their dreams. A face gazing into a face creates the space for vulnerability, trust, hope, and even God. There, we can decide to cast our lots together to heal suffering. Face-to-face meetings not only change the individuals in them but have also led to victories that have changed the world.” Why is facing another person and sharing one’s story intrinsic to community organizing? Have you experienced such an encounter that was successful? One that devolved? How so and why?
  • Rabbi Ian Chesir-Teran, the rabbinic educator in Israel for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, shares stories of bringing American visitors to visit Palestinians in Hebron. He writes about the difficulty of these face-to-face encounters. He hopes that “during those conversations, our participants will share with conviction, in ways they could not before.” What have been some of your more difficult face-to-face encounters and what has made them difficult? Should organizations that bring visitors to meet Palestinians provide a “balanced” experience? Is balance always possible? When and why is it not possible? What contributes to making a face-to-face encounter problematic and impossible?
  • Rabbi Daniel Landes writes about Moses’s desire to know and see God face-to-face — and why that was complicated. Not only can humans not see the face of God, God cannot survive our gaze. Daniel suggests we see God in unexpected ways: in the beit midrash study hall where students pore over texts and God’s handiwork comes to life, or in prayer or natural beauty. Do you see God’s face? Where and under what circumstances? How might we seek God’s face in today’s more perilous world?

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

  • David Chodirker writes about the use of electronic medical records. Before the implementation of these electronic records, Dr. Chodirker’s attention was almost entirely directed to the patient’s face in an effort to understand more fully the patient’s condition. Today, he writes, “my floating flat screen sits 45 degrees to my right, intervening in the physical and interactive space between us and invariably siphoning off a portion of both my cognitive and my physical attention from the patient…The distraction of concurrent EHR navigation stresses the quality of human interactions integral to the physician-patient relationship. From my personal observations as well as published studies, it is clear that physicians using EHRs (which we are compelled to do) focus significantly less on patient- centered communication.” How have your experiences with health professionals changed since the advent of electronic medical records? Have you asked that your doctor look more carefully at you when you share your reasons for the visit? How is the patient-health practitioner relationship changing in a more technologically-driven world?
  • In NiSh’ma,, our simulated Talmud page, three commentators examine two verses in Exodus that describe the building of the desert sanctuary, the mishkan. The three commentators, Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum, art therapist Pat Allen, and senior director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Seth Cohen, explore the gendered associations of these two verses:

“The cherubim … confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover.” (Exodus 25:20)

“Each plank shall have two tenons, parallel to each other; do the same with all the planks of the Tabernacle.” (Exodus 26:17)

Rachel Nussbaum writes that the “deep relational connection symbolized by the [cherubim’s] face-to-face orientation exists only within the confines of the side-by-side planks. After all, the planks themselves form the very structure of the Tabernacle, creating the vessel that delineates the boundaries of holy space.” She elevates both the importance of the cherubim’s face-to-face position AND also the planks that hold up the mishkan that are laid one upon the other. What does this teach us about how we structure society? How would you characterize most of your relationships — plank upon plank, or face-to-face? How do these different orientations play out? And how are they interconnected?

Consider and Converse: A Guide to Panim el Panim

Recommend this article

Consider and Converse: A Guide to Panim el Panim

Thank you!

This article has been sent!