By Rabbi Ariana Silverman and Rabbi Aaron Starr
Rabbinic Leadership Initiative provides learning opportunity in Israel for diverse group of rabbis
What happens when two rabbis from two different congregations in the Detroit area gather in Jerusalem with a diverse group of 23 other Orthodox, Conservative and Reform North American rabbis and three Israeli rabbis to study Jewish sacred scripture in one of the most prestigious leadership programs for rabbis in the field? “Ki mitzion teitzei Torah u’dvar HaShem meYerushalayim” — For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah and the word of God from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:3).
With profound gratitude to the William Davidson Foundation and with deep appreciation to our respective synagogue families, we are honored to be part of the seventh cohort of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative (RLI) of the Shalom Hartman Institute. “Hartman,” as it is warmly called, is a leading center of Jewish thought and education, serving Israel and North America. Its mission, founded on rigorous text study and collaborative peer learning, “is to strengthen Jewish peoplehood, identity and pluralism, enhance the Jewish and democratic character of Israel, and ensure that Judaism is a compelling force for good in the 21st century.”
Over the next three years, we will spend 17 weeks at the Hartman Campus in Israel as well as countless hours of online distance learning stateside, exploring issues of peoplehood, faith and spirituality, ethics and morality in order to provide visionary leadership to our synagogues, our Detroit Jewish community and the Jewish people.
We write this from Jerusalem, preparing to return to Detroit after completing our nearly four-week summer unit of learning with scholars such as Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, Dr. Elana Stein Hain and Rabbi Lauren Berkun.
Expanding and Setting Boundaries
We wrestled with that which will guide our studies for the next year: issues of peoplehood, including a special emphasis on the relationship between Israel and world Jewry. We are immersed in traditional and contemporary texts that explore ancient, medieval and modern definitions of the boundaries of Judaism and the Jewish people — who was and who is “in” and “out.” Perhaps more importantly, we are discussing in our diverse group the implications of inclusion and exclusion with an eye toward the 21st-century American Jewish community and the implications for our relationship with Israeli Jews.
Our own synagogue families are case studies of the expanding boundaries of modern Judaism. The Downtown Synagogue and Congregation Shaarey Zedek warmly welcome many who previously may have experienced rejection by the mainstream Jewish community, including Jews of color, Jews who are LGBTQ+, non-Jews interested in Judaism and the non-Jewish partners of Jews, among others. In addition, we firmly believe in partnering with and building bridges among Jews of all streams and with our Israeli brothers and sisters, as well as our non-Jewish friends with whom we share the goals of pursuing peace in the world and in offering compassion and support to those in need.
At the same time, the boundaries of the Jewish people cannot be completely open. Lines must be drawn. In some communities, they continue to exclude in one way or another those whom we now welcome. In other communities, they may draw their lines, for example, to exclude those identifying as Jews but who have not (yet) begun conversion, those who want to sit among the congregation but are practicing Christians or those who reject the right of Israel to exist in peace and security as a democratic Jewish state. There is an endpoint to a community’s level of tolerance, and communities are challenged in how they draw that line.
Is Exclusion Necessary?
Moreover, while questions of boundaries about those with whom we would associate religiously and those with whom we would not associate religiously naturally occupy our conversations, the learning expands to address the current state of discourse in the United States. That is to say, might someone’s political beliefs or how they express those beliefs justify their exclusion from our lives? For many in our area and around the country, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
In addition, at what point is one justified or unjustified in calling another “traitorous,” “unwelcome” or “apostate” — whether with regard to that person’s religious beliefs or political beliefs? We believe there are moments when exclusion is justified, but that the lines are being drawn way too often and way too narrowly so that our society is quite literally breaking down before our eyes.
There is no question that our Tanach (Hebrew Bible) and our rabbis’ perceived boundaries decide who is a Jew and who is not a Jew; who is behaving “properly” and who is not; and who is a danger to our people and who isn’t, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. Nevertheless, our rabbis made clear that, while they were willing and proud to judge the behavior of other Jews, they were for the most part profoundly reluctant to cut them out of the community. There is a lesson there.
The founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute, Rabbi Dr. David Hartman, often quoted a text (Tosefta Sotah) in which the schools of Hillel and Shammai were debating matters of Jewish law. The text then asks, “If the Torah is given by a single God, provided by a single Shepherd, how is it the case that there exist such differing interpretations (of Jewish Law)?”
The Tosefta answers the question by teaching, “Make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the house of Shammai and the words of the house of Hillel.”
In other words, Hartman explained, a Jew must strive to be a “person in whom different opinions can reside together … who can feel religious conviction and passion without the need for simplicity and absolute certainty” (A Heart of Many Rooms, p. 21).
We live in difficult and complicated times, where the answers to our local, national and international problems — strategically and religiously — require deep conversations and intricate nuanced approaches, as well as a tremendous amount of humility and generous listening. We look forward to continuing this dialogue and this learning with each other and with our fellow rabbis; we also look forward to continuing this learning and to beginning this dialogue with you.
May we strive to make for ourselves a heart of many rooms so that we can better learn and work together, celebrate and mourn together and, when appropriate, tear down and build up again … together. Amen.
Rabbi Ariana Silverman serves the Downtown Synagogue in Detroit. Rabbi Aaron Starr serves Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.