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Josh Feigelson
Josh Feigelson
Executive Director, Institute for Jewish Spirituality

The Jewish Heart of Democracy

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Unraveling_yarn.jpg

It often feels these days that we’re living through a Great Unraveling. Institutions, those deposits of trust that enable things to be — or at least seem to be — settled, are coming apart. News media, public health, elections, representative government, the weather, the forests, the shoreline, truth, language itself: In so many places, things I took to be more or less stable are revealing themselves to be far shakier than I could have imagined.

I find my mind racing with questions I could scarcely have contemplated asking even a couple of years ago: Is the person standing next to me in the grocery store vaccinated? Is the man at the post office carrying a concealed weapon? Writing in the shadow of the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection, those questions include ones like, Will a mob storm the Capitol? Will a state legislature overturn an election?

Like all shadows, this Great Unraveling has its brighter side too. Much of it is driven by the democratization of media. Where Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat and TikTok seem to lead  us to collectively ever-shorter attention spans, they also give opportunities for far more people to have a voice, for more of us to expand our awareness of people and issues than would have been in our view otherwise.

Whether we view it as an invitation or an externally-imposed compulsion, it seems to me that this moment calls each of us to deeper personal responsibility and agency: the responsibility to be vaccinated, to engage in democracy non-violently, to practice speech that is mindful, wise, and courageous. And when I reflect on that, I realize that, though it may feel more intense today, that is really our calling all the time: to be vessels for the Divine presence; to reflect and enhance the image of God in the world; to free and help every image of God to be present.

In his bestselling classic The Jew in the Lotus, Rodger Kamenetz describes how one of IJS’s founders, Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, summed up his personal spiritual path, which he referred to as keter malchut, or the crown of sovereignty, to the Dalai Lama: “To be a sovereign human being, to be a king, to be not reactive, but active, to know one’s place in the world, to be conscious. And it is extremely hard work. The ego always gets in the way, all the needs get in the way; it is a long, long path. But the path is very specific” (196).

In a democracy, as opposed to a monarchy, each and every citizen is a part of the sovereign; each of us wears a part of the crown. Thus Jonathan’s description of this spiritual work—to become a sovereign human being, a sovereign image of God—is, to my mind, the core of the “habits of the heart” about which Alexis de Tocqueville wrote nearly 200 years ago as being essential to the democratic project. At root, this heart work is about the most basic questions: How do we become aware of yet not beholden to the thoughts and emotions that arise in us—the results of our conditioning—when we encounter beings other than ourselves? How do we hold space for difference? How do we live together? How do we trust each other?

Nurturing and sustaining trust is the name of the game. It is essential to the infant who must trust adults to feed, clothe, shelter, and bathe them; it is essential to coworkers who must trust one another to work together; it is essential to neighbors and fellow citizens and residents who must trust that the people they encounter do not seek their harm; it is essential to voters who must trust that elected officials will act with honor and not for personal power or enrichment. Trust, Emunah, is essential for a life lived in relationship with the Divine. And, “In God We Trust”—our trusting both reflects and generates the possibility for the Divine presence to be visible. It is, on the most fundamental level, essential for democratic life.

That mutually supportive web of trust begins and is sustained by our continual work on our hearts—avodah shebalev, what the Talmud refers to as prayer and what we might expand to include the spiritual practices of democracy. I don’t know whether those practices by themselves are enough to calm the baser forces of fear, anger, and resentment that seem to be fueling this Great Unraveling. But I know they are essential for me—perhaps for you, too—to live through it. And I have a strong sense that they offer us a way through. May we support one another in cultivating them.

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD is Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.
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