(If you want to go straight to info on The Shmita Prizes – click here.)
But first, I want to put these prizes in context, beginning with a word about shabbat, shmita’s temporal Jewish sibling. The world needs shabbat right now. We need boundaries. We need rest. We need time when we switch off electronics. We need at least one day that we don’t buy stuff. We need at least one day that we spend with family and friends. After a boundary-less year of covid, our need for some kind of structured shabbat has never been greater.
And so, then, to shmita. The word means something like “letting go.” It’s part of the Torah. You could argue that it’s a somewhat obscure part of the Torah. In Israel, every seven years, there’s an ongoing public argument about the price of vegetables – because of shmita. And roughly every seven years, most orthodox shuls, and in recent years a growing number of non-orthodox shuls, have had someone speak or teach about shmita. It’s a fine topic for a sermon one day.
To anyone on this list who is a rabbi; or an educator; or on the board of any Jewish institution. To any CEO of a Jewish organization. To any senior staffer. Trust me on this:
If you do one, good, coherent session, about shmita, in which you just introduce a few key texts and ask people what they make of them – and what questions do they have? – and what might those texts teach about what it means to be Jewish? – and how might we express these values today? — If you do that, I promise you, the room will be buzzing, long before the end of the session.
And there are at least three different reasons for this:
(1) The primary texts about shmita are somewhat unclear and somewhat contradictory. This is good. Politics right now is over-simplistic. Public discourse is too raw. People are on tiptoes, and don’t know how to disagree; and yet they also don’t want to be told what to do or what to think. Some combination of the complexity of the shmita texts, allied with their salience, is incredibly exciting. It is generative. It opens up conversation. It raises questions. It gets people thinking. Pedagogically, shmita is a way-more-fabulous topic to engage with than most people – even rabbis and Jewish educators – realize.
(2) And that’s the least of it. Because the second thing is: the actual content of shmita is extraordinary. Variously – rest. Let the land lie fallow. Release debts. Provide for those in need. (And ignore, for now, what these things actually mean – and their contradictions and complexities etc.) People get very quickly that there is, within shmita, both a radical critique of how we live today, and some quite different ideas about how we might fix things. That’s why the conversation is so generative. We’re not farmers living in the middle east twenty centuries ago. We’re postmoderns, in the cities and suburbs that we live in (plus a growing number of rural Jews and farming Jews). Mapping the values of shmita into our current lives is really interesting. I had a call the other week from one of the great rabbis in this generation, who wanted to ask me, did I think that shmita could or should be a useful frame for a public conversation about reparations in relation to the history of slavery in this country? And my answer was yes. Of course it is. Is shmita a frame for a conversation about work and rest and overwork? Yes. Is it a frame for a conversation about inequality in the USA and in the West, today? The whole of shmita is a critique of inequality, and a series of prescriptions for how to reduce it.
Anyway. You get my point. The second thing about shmita is that the content of it teaches us freshly about what it means to be Jewish, and helps us think through some of the real crises of our era.
(3) Finally, shmita is a really useful frame in time.We have a year coming up, right now – the year that starts at Rosh Hashanah, this year on September 6th – which is or should be different from the six years that preceded it. Which is to say – as we come out of covid [whatever in due course that is going to mean] Jewish tradition comes to say to us: use this coming year, to reflect on the last seven years. To go back to September 2015, when this current 7-year cycle in Jewish life began. What have we learned? What have we lost? What has changed? And then: And let’s now look forward seven years. What’s our vision for my institution – my country – my family – myself – in 2029? Where would we like to be? What would we like to accomplish….
In all of the above I’ve barely scratched the surface. But in short, shmita is pedagogically rich; it’s content is extraordinarily salient; and its frame in time has never been more relevant.
That’s why Hazon, and a bunch of our friends, launched the shmita project in 2007. That link is the relaunch of the website, with – you can see – a remarkable and growing list of partner organizations, all of them already committing to and starting to plan teachings on the topic of shmita in the lead-up to, and during, the shmita year. More on that in a future email – or bookmark the website.
But then, finally, to The Shmita Prizes. The idea was Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin’s. She said to me: everything else in Jewish life has a ritual. We light shabbat candles. We have a pesach seder. Apple and honey and tashlich on Rosh Hashanah. A sukkah, and lulav and etrog on Sukkot. Hamentaschen. Reading the megillah. Eating matzah. Fasting. Eating cheesecake. Everything in Jewish life has a ritual – except shmita!!
So we’re launching The Shmita Prizes today – in five categories.
(1). A prize for a ritual object. Let’s have a ritual object to mark the shmita year. Is it a shmita seder plate? What’s on it? What does it look like? When do we use it – is it just on the first day of the shmita year? Or every shabbat through the whole year? Or maybe on every rosh hashanah, marking off each successive year out of seven? So that’s the first prize.
(2) A prize for fine art. A picture. A sculpture. A photograph. An image. A something. Something that somehow teaches about shmita, marks it, imagines it, frames it, inspires us.
(3) A prize for film or video. Seven years ago – in the lead up to the last shmita year – the extraordinary Einat Kramer, together with Rav Michael Melchior, created this great video. It’s just two minutes long – and a great way to get a sense of the relationship between shmita as a concept and the world we’re living in right now. What new videos are you, or someone you know, going to create?
(4) A prize for ritual itself – for liturgy, song, poetry, process. Something new to help us express shmita or mark time. [I realize, in retrospect, that when, seven years ago, I decided not to buy a single book during the shmita year – but to wrap up more than a hundred books I already owned, in newspaper, so that if I desperately wanted one I could rip it open and go, gosh, I always wanted to read (or re-read) this book! That all of that was, actually, a shmita ritual.]
(5) Finally – for those who don’t think of yourselves as artists or liturgists – a prize for essays and ideas. 1200 words on shmita, what it means to you, what it could or should mean to us.
And when I say: “a prize” – in fact there are multiple prizes. In each category there’s an $1,800 prize for the winning entry and at least three runner’s up prizes of $250 each.
The competition is open to anyone, anywhere. Of any age. Any religious background – you do not have to be Jewish, and the focus of your entry doesn’t, in fact, have to be on the Jewish community. (Shmita is about sharing, and we think the idea is too great not to want to share it with the whole world.) You can submit something by yourself, or with a friend, or a whole group of people, or a class. You can be a professional artist or an amateur or someone who is simply inspired by the topic. There’ll be independent judges.
And – to be clear – despite the prizes and so forth; this isn’t, really, a competition. There will indeed be winners, but we hope to share many, or maybe all, of the entries. Our goal isn’t prizes, per se. Our goal is to inspire and support and ignite creativity. Jewish artistry and creativity is (in my view) insufficiently supported by institutional Jewish life to start with, and we all of us should be doing more to be creative and to support artists in our midst. But beyond that, what we most want is to bring shmita more fully into public view, and into private conversation. And we want to do this because – the world has never needed shmita as much as it does today.
Here’s more information on The Shmita Prizes. If you have questions, be in touch with Shoshana Gugenheim, one of the great Jewish artists of this generation, and Project Director for The Shmita Prizes.
If you want to be involved – indeed, if you want to add your organization as a partner, or put up content, or promote events that you’re producing, be in touch with Bruce Spierer, who manages the Shmita Project at Hazon.
And if you have ideas – suggestions – questions be in touch with me also. In the recent period alone I’ve done five Zoom call sessions about shmita and the climate crisis – one with three rabbis and the board president of a synagogue; one with two educational leaders and members of another synagogue; two separate sessions with the CEOs of two different Jewish Federations; and one with the two senior staffers in one of the major national Jewish organizations. In every single case, people came out really buzzed – excited about shmita, and starting to get really excited about a range of different frames it offers to renew and strengthen their communities, to renew Jewish life and ultimately – genuinely – to figure out subtly different ways to live and to be in the coming year.
I end with this. This week’s parsha, ki tissa, introduces us to Bezalel. (Exodus 31:3-5). He’s imbued with all kinds of artistry. He weaves. He works with gold, and silver, and copper, and wood. The Torah goes out of its way to name him, the artist-builder of the temple. And it was after him – two millennia later – that Boris Schatz gave his name to Bezalel – Israel’s first and most illustrious art school. (Rav Kook wrote an extraordinary letter endorsing Bezalel. You can find a link to a facsimile in hebrew of it about half way down this page. If someone knows where I can find that in English – please let me know.)
And my point is: where would we be without Jewish art and creativity, from Bezalel to Bezalel, then and now? From the Torah to Rav Kook to Shenkin and Nachla’ot. From kiddush cups and illuminated manuscripts to – for instance – Andi Arnovitz and Danielle Durchslag and Ken Goldman, not to mention Atiqmakers or CANVAS or JCU.
In any case. Spring is (nearly) here. It’s time for vaccines. It’s time for longer days, and more sunshine. It’s time for arts and creativity. Check out The Shmita Prizes – and start to imagine something you’d like to create…
P.S. Please share this email far and wide with friends or institutions whom you think might like to participate in this.