“That isn’t a Jewish name!” “You look so skinny.” “What do you do?” “Where’s your husband?” “Did you convert?” “You’re supposed to wear a kippah.”
Sometimes, seemingly innocuous questions can make us feel intruded upon, hurt, or angry. I don’t always want to share the emotionally risky story of why my last name is what it is. Often, questions that might seem neutral and biographical can sting us, creating a feeling of distance and judgment. We have all experienced feelings of shame and anger, of intrusion and vulnerability.
Synagogues are places where we are particularly likely to experience these painful feelings. The question about your name seems good fodder for kiddush-line small-talk. To address this, we seek to build welcoming and open communities that decrease the chance of these painful interactions. That’s an important goal. But what if we could take it a step further, and create something from the pain we have all felt, at various times in our life, from synagogues or Judaism? What if we could turn that hurt into something like prayer or connection?
Our feelings of pain or hurt are often generative of spirituality (provided that they are also communally addressed). Sharing stories of pain and hurt, or exclusion, can build community in profound ways. In fact, a pareve sense of communal fellow-feeling can end up reifying latent feelings of exclusion. But when such feelings are named, in a small group or in silent prayer, they can be turned into an engine for greater attachment to God and Torah. I’ve found in my rabbinic work that this pastoral approach to outreach is much more effective than a flashy program that glosses over the real fears and challenges in our lives.
Kierkegaard wrote that “death is a good dancing partner.” Sometimes we forget that. Sometimes we get so focused on telling a story of success in our Jewish institutions, that we turn off to the spiritual possibilities of reflection on brokenness. We wind up avoiding the possibility that Judaism might have really important things to say about the hardest moments in our lives and the existential fears that pull at us and that we necessarily experience when we walk into a room full of people praying.
Next week, I’m teaching a workshop at the USCJ “Shape the Center” conference on using our own experiences of exclusion or pain as ways to inspire broader and deeper interactions with community and Torah. We’ll study some text, we’ll look at our own lives, and we’ll think about some concrete practices for community-building. But this isn’t a message for Conservative Jews, or Jews of any particular political stripe. It’s a message for all of us who want to build community from what the Talmud (Berakhot 10a) tells us is the appropriate place for such building – a low place, as we say, “From out of the depths, I call to you, O Lord.”
Those painful questions we sometimes encounter – those aren’t foreign to religious experience. They’re partially constitutive of it. From out of the depths, we grow. From out of the depths, we pray. From out of the depths, we build.