Judaism as a Wikipedia Search

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.

About the Author
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and a Senior Fellow at CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies. Josh was is in the 2015 - 2016 cohort of Germanacos Fellows and part of the inaugural group of Sinai and Synapses Fellows from 2013 - 2015. Previously, Josh served as Associate Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey and before that as Associate Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College and Director of Communications for the Coexist Foundation. He is a Founding Editor Emeritus of the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a publication that has enabled inter-religious studies to grow into an academic field of its own. He writes for the Huffington Post and Times of Israel. Josh was one of just six finalists worldwide for the $100,000 Coexist Prize and was additionally highlighted by the Coexist Forum as "one of the foremost Jewish and interreligious bloggers in the world." In 2011, the Huffington Post named him one of the "best Jewish voices on Twitter." The Huffington Post also selected two organizations he helped found as exemplary of those which effectively "have taken their positive interfaith message online." He authored one of "15 Blogs from 2015 that Show How Faith Can Be a Force For Good." Josh has been the recipient of numerous leadership awards, including the Bridge-Builders Leadership Award from the Interfaith Youth Core, the Associates of Jewish Homes and Services for the Aging’s Annette W. and Herbert H. Lichterman Outstanding Programming Award, the Volunteer Hero Award of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the W. MacLean Johnson Fellowship for Action, the Wiener Education Fellowship, and the Hyman P. Moldover Scholarship for Jewish Communal Service. Josh's work was highlighted in chapter of the official report and proceedings of the UNESCO Chairs for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. A sought-after speaker, Josh has given presentations, speeches, and convocations at seminaries, non-profit organizations, and religious groups across the United States and beyond. Last winter, Josh presented about the next generation of religious leadership at the Holy See's 50th Anniversary celebration of Nostra Aetate at the United Nations. The prior spring, Josh spoke about social media and interfaith dialogue at an international conference on faith and reconciliation in Kosovo (his one third there). He has also spoken at the Pentagon about religious diversity in March 2013; given a presentation about the prevalence of hate crimes against houses of worship during a White House conference in July 2011 and a follow-up presentation at the White House on the potential for Dharmic communities to enhance religious pluralism nationally in April 2012; an address at the 2010 Eighth Annual Doha Conference, sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of Qatar and the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue; and a Closing Address at the Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation at the United Nations in November 2009. Josh has had articles and interviews featured in newspapers, radio and television broadcasts, academic journals, publications, and blogs in ten languages. These include the Associated Press, National Geographic, Washington Post, German National Radio, Swedish National Radio, The Permanent Observer Mission from the Holy See to the United Nations, public radio's Interfaith Voices, the BBC, Vox, the The Daily Beast, The Sydney Herald, JTA, and the blog of the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. Josh has contributed to edited volumes, including Flourishing in the Later Years: Jewish Pastoral Insights on Senior Pastoral Care, Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Questions, Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, and Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation. Likewise, he has been co-author of a number of academic articles for publications as diverse as Religious Education, Long-Term Living, The Gerontologist, and the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies (a publication he co-founded). Prior to entering rabbinical school, Josh served as an Assistant to the Director of the European Youth Campaign at the Council of Europe and co-Founded Lessons of a Lifetime, a program that improves inter-generational relations through the recording of ethical wills. An alumnus of Amherst College, Josh graduated magna cum laude with majors in history, economics, and Spanish, as well as a certificate in Practical French Language from Université Marc Bloch in Strasbourg, France.
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