Have you ever fallen down a ‘Wiki hole’? One of those spontaneous Wikipedia searches that builds momentum as you click on another random hyperlink and then another – until an hour has elapsed and you’ve become the newest untrained expert on African dwarf frogs? I will neither confirm nor deny that I might have on occasion, but leave it to you to draw your own conclusions (and check out this link).
I think that rabbinic Judaism might be, at its core, just that kind of search – in which you pursue question after question until the questions don’t matter nearly as much as the process of the search itself. The search betters you as a person, helps you see beauty in the world, guides your interpersonal relations, and supports you as you clarify your sense of self.
I mean, what kind of a religion suggests in its holiest of texts that God self-defines as “I will be that which I will be?” One that wants you to go and explore until you know the God you believe in – or perhaps the one in which you don’t.
What kind of a religion has as its highest prophet a leader from its archenemy who has difficulty speaking? The one that wants you to find a voice and look anywhere, even in the camp of the supposed ‘enemy,’ because there is truth to be found everywhere and the search is sacred even when it takes us to uncertain places.
What kind of a religion supplants – or at least supplements – its holiest text with an oral tradition, then writes down the oral tradition, then codifies that too, and then retrojects all of the above, saying that it is all Torah and from Mount Sinai? One that believes that Torah is not finite and that humans can sublimate from the ether of our lives brilliant kernels, worthy of being seen as part of a growing body of universal Truths accessible to all of humanity.
What kind of a religion has undergone at least two theological revolutions and found in the embers from the destruction of its holiest sites – the two consecutive Temples in Jerusalem – the basis for revival? One that believes that even in the darkest moments there can be hope, if only we keep searching.
The extraordinary prospect of the human search has only been multiplied by the presence of human technology, which enables us to search online, in-person, or a combination of the two. At its best, technology can speed up our searches – or convince us that we need to slow way down and with intention put aside our technology for a day of rest. They can even provide us with new analogies and frames of reference (such as the ‘hyperlink,’ which I first heard Dr. Alyssa Gray apply to rabbinic thought and the logical forms that weave it together).
These searches might bear fruit once more at the communal level. But the transitions will not be entirely easy. Organizational leaders still too often cry out ‘slow down!’ rather than ensuring that the organs of communal life can keep up with the people they are intended to serve. Whether prioritizing buildings over the people who use them or failing to listen to the next generation, which wants to search more intensely and collaboratively than ever before, too many of our communal institutions have fallen behind. I foresee a time of transformation propelled by search.
I consider myself incredibly fortunate to serve a synagogue community that is in many ways at the leading edge and truly supportive of its members’ searches. On Yom Kippur our senior rabbi, Matthew Gewirtz, ventured to ask our congregation, “Are you happy?” He then explored whether that was even the right question for us at all, joining alongside congregants in search of truth. In doing so, he illustrated that the goal of being a rabbi (or cantor or educator or executive director) is not to produce others who agree with us. The goal is to inspire others to search for more Torah in the world.
Having inspiring clergy or professional leaders is necessary. But it is insufficient. We also need more lay leaders. We don’t just need more feedback; we need more partnership. We don’t just need more partnership; we need new ideas. We don’t just need new ideas; we need new vision.
Historically, our communities often have been shaped by visionary lay leaders who model what it means to seek meaning as Jews and show how communities can further that search for one and all. Lay leaders are the key to institutional renewal – much as institutions are key to inspiring lay leaders. Both must rise together.
Through relationship, careful listening, and genuine celebration alongside those on searches of their own, we can revitalize our communities – even if they look quite different in the future. For at this moment, the entire Jewish community is on a search for institutional change to an extent that we have not seen in generations.
Jewish institutions could become the Crossfit gyms of spiritual seekers, with great coaches and intense, new ideas for introspective search. Our spiritual tradition would supply the running shoes that strengthen our steps, the sports drink that keeps our ethical electrolytes in balance, the machines to sculpt our inner selves, the sweat-wicking gear that helps us stay cool, and the shades that make us look cool. The rabbis wouldn’t be ‘sages on stages’ but spiritual athletes who do personal and group training sessions. We would find spiritual workout buddies to push and inspire us. We would not be the only gym in town. Some people don’t like working out. But those who do should always come away from our gyms renewed.
In moments of worry, I just think of the rising Millennials in the Tribe program that they have inspired in New York City. They are not falling by the wayside, but guiding a communal and programmatic search. We are all seekers now communally, and ideally individually as well. But we need not fear the answers that the searches might bring. Searching is not new, but in the very fiber of our religion. Judaism inspires us to pursue answers and then to look for still better ones.
Now let’s go and search anew.
This article was inspired by the #FutureofFaith series, in which I was asked to participate, and which inspired me to reflect on core aspects of our tradition.