The following is a transcript of Episode 110 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi everyone, welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on Tuesday, September 20th, 2022.
It’s an introspective time of the year, especially as you’ll hearing this when right before Rosh Hashana begins. So I’m gonna start today with something personal.
This past Sunday, my family gathered for a unique and tragic occasion, the ultra-rare and unusual triple unveiling for my uncle, my aunt, and a cousin, all of whom had passed away sometime in the past few years. My uncle Ira, my mom’s younger brother, passed away during the first week of the lockdown. And my cousin Michael died tragically that same weekend.
At the time we held that an anxious and frenzy double funeral. This was back in March of 2020 with fewer than 10 people allowed at the cemetery. And as we were all still sorting out the meaning of social distancing, even as we were seeking intimacy with our loved ones in that really difficult time.
And then my aunt Joyce passed away this, this past January. So that was 20 months later. But you know, the combination of delays in getting anything done, which have plagued the last couple of years together with our desire to maximize the number of relatives we could all get in one place at one time helped make the case to mark the unveiling of their graves together in one tragic fell swoop at our family plot off of the Jackie Robinson Parkway in Queens on a sunny Sunday early autumn afternoon.
I’m not sharing this with all of you in order to perform my grief or to seek sympathy. I’m sharing it because at the cemetery, I got overwhelmed by the symbolism of this composite loss as something that I imagine I share with so many people. So many of us, so many of you in looking back at the last couple of years.
You know, last week, the World Health Organization said that the end of the pandemic is in sight. And then this week, president Biden declared it to be over. Even as 400 Americans still die every day from COVID-19. I was more struck by another one of Biden’s lines in the same interview, when he said, quote, everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. Uh, not everybody I know.
The last two years left behind for all of us, very visibly, abundance sickness and an accompanying death toll. And maybe less visibly widespread sadness, loneliness, and fear. Even the emergence from pandemic is accompanied by a culture of suspicion about who’s not being careful enough or who insisted on precautions for longer than is necessary. The dangers we’ve all faced have been biological, psychological, and social.
And I think there’s a reason to believe that their after-effects will linger longer than we’ll want them to. So not all of us had to attend a literal triple unveiling, but I suspect each of us had had our moments of overwhelming loss. Or even just the feeling of loss in duplicate or triplicate or more.
And I’m thinking a lot about how we get out of this and try to emerge whole as individuals and as societies in need of deep healing. It feels to me that there are two discourses, ways of thinking and talking that could be helpful to us that maybe could or should rise in importance right now. They’re the oldest we have: philosophy and spirituality.
Who among us hasn’t asked ourselves some really big questions these last few years about our priorities, our life choices, our core commitments? That’s what philosophy after all tries to do, to ask a lot of different versions of the same question, what is a good life, and who among us hasn’t tried to appeal for some spiritual assurances or comfort during these trying times. That’s the fundamental question of spirituality in a nutshell, how do we find meaning and purpose in our lives?
Anyway, like I said, it’s the right time of year for an introspective conversation about introspection. And I’ve enjoyed these periodic holiday episodes we’ve done here about Purim and Pesach. I’m hoping today’s conversation will help some of you fuel the 25 hours we have ahead of us next week in Yom Kippur with nothing but time to think.
I’m joined today by Rabbi Dr. Josh Fason. Josh is the president and CEO of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, an organization that quote, “develops and teaches Jewish spiritual practices that are grounded in mindfulness that draw upon the deepest Wells of Jewish wisdom. And that enable people to live and lead with clarity, resilience, and a sense of sacred purpose.”
Josh also previously founded a program that turned into an organization called Ask Big Questions, and he comes on to this show, having just published his first book, which integrates these two worlds of philosophy and spirituality, we’ll talk a little bit more about that, entitled Eternal Questions. The book is organized as a kind of biblical Torah commentary based on weekly Torah portions. Each Torah portion comes with a big question, some Hasidic, and usually also some contemporary texts that further develop the big question. and then some questions and spiritual exercises for the reader to internalize the question.
So Josh, thanks for being here. And, and let’s start with the book itself. The theory of this book is that questions are a form of mindfulness practice. Maybe you can share the theory of what it is that you’re trying to do here and help us understand what’s the, the kind of case for questions in that format.
Josh: Fantastic. All right. Well, thank you, Yehuda, for inviting me to be here, uh, long-time listener, first-time guest. Um, and you’re right, I’ve been in the question asking business or question design business, I feel like, for a long time and I think that part of what we’re doing here, what I’m doing with this book, um, and this larger project of questions is, I don’t think a lot of us pay attention to the kinds of questions we ask necessarily.
If we’re lawyers or if we’re journalists, we’re kind of trained in question design, but a lot of us aren’t always very reflective about what kinds of questions we’re asking. And I think that different questions actually serve different types of purposes. And there are types of questions that can open up spiritual, personal, meaning fields.
And I’ll get to that in a second, but I also wanna make a friendly amendment or my own version of what I think what I’ve sort of landed on as a definition of spirituality, a working definition for me, which is, I think in my line of work, I get asked this all the time, you know, what do you mean by spirituality? And I think at the end of the day, to me, it’s the capacity or the ability to feel at home in the universe.
And what’s important about that is that it’s not only an intellectual project. It’s not only sort of asserting there is a meaning or a purpose, but it’s feeling it, like the feeling piece there, interacting with the emotions in the body, the whole human experience, I think is really significant. And so I think that in certain kinds of questions, what I’ve dubbed big questions here, over the last 10 years or more of working on that, the basic definition is that there are questions that matter to everyone and that everyone can answer.
And they’re distinguished from what I would call hard questions, which a lot of philosophical questions tend to be. A lot of philosophical questions tend to be, you know, what does it mean to live a good life? Sure. Or what is responsibility? So you’re looking at a definition of responsibility or definition of a good life, and that can live up in your head and that’s great. But then you get to your personal experience, and is, who am I responsible for or for whom are we responsible? When have I lived a good life?
That’s a slightly different question, right? There’s a different sort of valance to that question that engages experience, engages emotion, engages, um, feeling, and engages then the totality of what is the experience of feeling at home in the universe?
And to me that makes it spiritual. It’s not just positing a meaning, but it’s actually a felt, lived engagement of head and heart.
Yehuda: It sounds a little bit like what you’re describing is the difference between a de-personalized question or a personalized question. Right? What is a good is a kind of an abstract question that of course implicates all of us about our choices. But when I say, what does it mean for me to live a good life, I’m centering the experience on the self, but that can’t be the sum total of the shift from the philosophical to the spiritual, right?
Josh: Right. No, it’s, it’s not only that, because then that just devolves into solipsism, right? It’s like great, you know, whatever works for me and everybody does what is right in their own eyes, which we know from our biblical tradition is, uh, not necessarily recipes for success, right.
So I think the key pronoun here, actually to me, is we. There is a shared conversation about how is my vision and my experience of that and yours and ours collectively. Right. And I think we is such a important and deeply problematized pronoun today. When do we get to speak of we? Right.
And all the time it feels like there are cuts against that we. You mentioned Joe Biden. I mean, he can hardly talk about we Americans anymore because of the deep divisions in our society. And that’s coming from all over the place. The one thing we do is we reject, you know, somebody else projecting their we onto us.
And yet, you know, as a good clergy friend of mine, uh, years ago, pointed, clergy are some of the last people, I think actually in society who can speak of we, who can, who can try to make that claim. And we get in trouble for it sometimes, but I think that’s part, I think the reason for that is that it’s part of the spiritual project. I need to feel at home in the universe, which includes all these other people and these beings. It’s not just about me. If it was just me then, you know, yeah. That’s not a very interesting, it doesn’t have long-term prospects as a project.
Yehuda: So I wanna poke on this a little bit more. Um, the way you’re talking reminds me of a moment that I had as an educator about 20 years ago as a counselor in the Broman youth fellowships. And one of my fellow faculty members, with 16 year olds sitting around in a circle, asked everybody to fill in the sentence, we Jews blank.
It was a great exercise and people answered a bunch of things. And one student, David Plunkett, maybe a listener now, I haven’t been in touch with him in a long time. Just kind of looked around and said, I, I have no idea what you guys are talking about. Like, what is, the, there’s some notion that we hold in common, like came from a secular background, was neither familiar with nor interested in some notion of collectivity that was confined or defined to Jews.
And it was an incredible uncomfortable moment. It like illustrated the point, uh, of the exercise. I can’t help though, Josh, and maybe you’ll tell me that I’m just wrong about this, that a lot of the culture of what is talked about as mindfulness or spiritual practice is rooted in some notion of self-actualization. And it’s hard not to notice that it kind of plays into the liberal conceit of the individual.
It’s like the central locus and it’s about you. But you’re suggesting it’s something else that, or maybe that’s Jewish mindfulness? I don’t know. How does that, how does that land? That I we question?
Josh: Um, totally. I think that you, you know, you’re putting your finger on something really important. There’s a fine line between beholding the image of God in one’s self and narcissism, right. And we’re sort of minding that line all the time. I think about the most famous questions in Judaism, you have it right there. I mean, Hillel’s first two questions, right?
“Im ein ani mi li? U’sheano l’atzmi mah ani?” If I’m not for myself who will be for me and if I’m only for myself, when I am only for myself, what am I?
So, it’s minding that gap all the time. And I think it’s meant to be paradoxical. It’s meant to be a conundrum. I can only take care of, you know, myself. And then there’s a limit, you know, to what I can do for others. I can’t make others change. As our, one of our founding teachers, Nancy, Rabbi Nancy Flam, used to teach, you know, you can’t judge other people for being failed versions of you. That’s part of mindfulness practice is not to do that.
And at the same time, we care. We want people to be everything they can be. And I think there’s actually a basic mindfulness practice that a student of mine, more recent, who’s now a member of our board, Keith Kakaur. He once told me sort of in passing, you know, anytime I feel the thought arising, why don’t they just, whatever that sentence, that begins. And then he sort of interrupts it and he is like, you know, if they could be doing it better, they probably would be.
And so I think that it is very much about this um, working on myself, you know, serenity, prayering it, you know, let me be mindful and in control of, uh, those things, which I can control and also be mindful and aware of those things which I can’t.
So I, I agree with you that there are contemporary flavors of mindfulness that have been commodified, and there are really just about, you know, they’re another version of self-help, and not thinking necessarily about community. I think, um, certainly the Jewish mindfulness practice that we teach at IJS, that many others subscribe to, implicitly and explicitly involves uh, living in community and minding this gap around responsibility, personal responsibility and collective.
Yehuda: It does feel as though there’s a mindfulness moment. I feel in the Jewish community, obviously IJS is leading that and driving it. You’ve helped grow this organization in your relatively short time there to be just a much larger major player in Jewish life. But it’s not happening in a vacuum.
So what are the market forces that are, that are making possible the growth of this besides, you know, quality leadership and a good product, but like what’s happening elsewhere in the world that’s motivating people to seek what it is that you’re offering?
Josh: I think that there’s a lot of pieces. You know, IJS was founded in 1999, and in large measure was a response, to the phenomenon of Bu-Jews. Like you had a whole generation or more of Jews who had grown up in Jewish environments or Jewish homes and they were looking for something else and they found it in insight meditation or Zen or whatever, pick your Eastern practice.
And then of course, you know, many of the leading American Buddhist teachers wind up being people who grew up as Jews, right, Jewish backgrounds. And when we were started in 1999, by like, you know, Rabbi Rachel Cohen, Nancy Flam, then the practices we were offering were somewhat sort of out there, like kind of woo woo. Right. It was like reading the Jew and the Lotus, which came out in 1994. It was like, oh, this is exotic. This is like traveling to Dharamshala. This is going to meet the Dai Lama. And these people who do yoga and, and sit and meditate.
And now over the last 20 years, that has really shifted, where it’s gone from being marginal and fringe in society at large, to being much more mainstream. Some of that is just sort of natural growth. Some of that is the internet, which makes possible, you know, there are any number of apps that you can use and there’s 20 million people on Insight Timer. And there’s just a huge industry that has developed that the internet has made possible.
And so I think that’s been a factor of growth. Well, the, the pandemic of course then just tipped everything where, anyone who’s been in the mindfulness meditation business through the pandemic, it’s, you know, been horrible for the world and been like amazing for business because, all of a sudden people are confronting something very existential.
And it turns out that, you know, mindfulness meditation, in particular, is sort of like the soccer of spiritual practices. It’s like, all you need is a pair of lungs and the ability to sit quietly and close your eyes for a few minutes and you can do this. And the most amazing phenomenon to me is that people are looking for this kind of experience in community with others online, right?
Like a synchronous experience, not just the asynchronous one, you can get through your phone, but you know, we’ve been running a daily sit at IJS since March 12th, 2020. We started with 41 people by a week later, we were at 350 and that’s, you know, basically the number we get every day now is like 300, 350, who come online at 12:30 Eastern, turn on their Zoom, in order to close their eyes together.
And it’s like wild. It continues to be this amazing thing to me of, that people wanna do that. They want that experience because there’s some sort of connection through going internal, knowing that other people are doing it at the same time. It’s sort of like, you know, the shulchan aruch teaching, that if you can’t daven with a minyan, you should, you know, daven at the time that the minyan is davening, that there’s some awareness that we have that this is happening, there’s sort of a spiritual field. So I think all of those things have just contributed to the growth, the mainstreaming.
The one other thing I would just mention Yehuda is also, you know, Shaul Magid, uh, several years ago wrote this book, American Post-Judaism, where he was really charting the rise of uh, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and arguing that Zalman was ahead of his time. And I think in many ways, Zalman was ahead of his time. And some of his time is now catching up, where a lot of the things that he was doing have filtered into a lot more of the mainstream. So I think there’s a lot of different factors that are, that are working at it.
Yehuda: Josh, what does mastery mean in this line of work? You know, if when you described spiritual practice at the outset, you said it’s about feeling at home in the universe, it’s about channeling something deep inside, it’s about presence. How, how does mastery and expertise work in this space? And it relates to like, what does a teacher do in the context of this kind of work, which is fundamentally different than teachers who are there to either cultivate knowledge or even to use Socratic methodology for the purpose of helping people think. You’re, you’re helping people do something different. So how does mastery and expertise work here?
Josh: Great question. So I think one of the important things that you pointed to is distinguishing, what is a teacher doing in a Jewish mindfulness or any kind of mindfulness or meditation teacher, what are they doing? And they’re teaching skills often rather than knowledge though, sometimes, you know, definitely sometimes knowledge. Especially in the work that we do, there’s still the work of teaching people what are basic dimensions of terminology or ideas, or holidays, themes, etcetera.
Um, so you need to have, you know, some of that. But there’s also then the being able to hold space and create space. For people to enter into a spiritual field together. So I was just on a retreat this past weekend at Camp Ramah in Canada and wonderful faculty, and what we were doing was really just creating space for people.
We had to teach certain skills, right, for a lot of people, they had never meditated before. And so there is initiating people into, well, what does that practice look like for a lot of people when you sit down and you close your eyes, okay, so what do I do now, right? So there are some skills and there are, you know, many, many graded paths that have been developed, especially, you know, by the Buddhists, they’re the best at this.
But so you, you know, giving people, we would say like an invitation to try the following and see how that works for you. Right. And try something else and see how that works for you. So in that sense, it’s not so different, some people might kill me for this, it’s not so different than a fitness instructor. Right. It’s like, you know, you might think of that as a cognate.
But then when you add on that you’re putting that in dialogue with when we say Shama, like, what is that about? When we say the Amida, what is that about? When we’re reading the Torah, what might that be about? And being able to do that with Hebrew, with translation that can open people up instead of close them off, translation can be such a problem, but can also be such a wonderful interpretive possibility.
There’s a lot of those pieces that I think go into mastery, but mastery at the end of the day to me is also just about somebody who is just committed to practicing and practicing, you know, I was a musician growing up. So I think about this also in terms of, you know, music, it’s like, you know, what does a master look like?
Pearlman still practices every day, right? Uh, or in baseball terminology, Miguel Cabrera still takes batting practice every day, right? Uh, so, I think, everybody practices, but you get to a level where it’s more than just your 10,000 hours. It’s like, you know, you’ve reached a certain level of integration, uh, that you’re able then to teach it and be able to hold that space for others.
Yehuda: Right. You gave us the fitness instructor and you gave us the baseball player. Baseball player is actually maybe a better example because if Pearlman screws up on stage seven out of every 10 times, he, he ain’t Pearlman. Whereas if Cabrera only screws up seven out of every 10 times at the plate, he’s a hall of Famer.
Um, but there’s another analogy which I think is omnipresent at this time of year, which goes to probably my, and probably your bias about what a synagogue experience is supposed to look and feel like. The vast majority of American Jews will show up at its synagogues for the high holidays, for the maybe two times a year, where they go to synagogue.
And they will largely, and I don’t, I blame the system, not individuals. They will largely experience a performance. And because of that, their likelihood of engaging in actual prayers is gonna be fundamentally limited. It’s partly an absence of a skill set, and it’s partly the way the system is designed.
Whereas the kinds of services that I go to are kind of like a rave and the prayer leaders are meant to be, as you’ve described them, people who are there to hold a space and create a space for others to make their own meaning. So, it’s really interesting to me to imagine the rise of this form of teaching and mastery and expertise in one sphere of Jewish spirituality, but to notice that it really has not overtaken the synagogue world and the prayer world. And I, I, I wonder what, what it would take to kind of close that gap?
Josh: Well, I mean, we haven’t done a survey and I’d be curious to find out. I think that there’s been a lot more penetration than one might expect. Righ, certainly if you go onto Central Synagogue online or in person, most or all of the clergy there have been through our clergy program.
We have 530 or so alumni of that program over the last 20 years. It’s 18 months. It’s four retreats, it’s building a meditation practice and, uh, studying a lot of Hassidut. And, you know, if you go to Central and Angela Buchdahl and Nicole Auerbach and you know, a number of other rabbis and clergy, there are alumni of that program, you’ll see that they’re integrating a lot of these kinds of practices into the main service.
Or if you go to Temple Emmanuel in Dallas, you know, where Rabbi David Stern, his entire staff, he makes sure to send our way to IJS. And so there are a lot of those congregations, as I said there’s over 500 alumni of that program.
So I think you’re seeing where you might see clergy offering, let’s be quiet, let’s meditate together for five minutes as part of the service. Or you might see an alternative service in a synagogue, uh, a brick-and-mortar synagogue. This is to say nothing of places like, you know, in the Jewish emergent network, you know, at Romemu or Mishkan or where ever.
So I think there has been development of that. I will say for me personally, I’m leading davening at my modern Orthodox shul down the street. I’ve been leading high holiday services for over 25 years. It is my main musical outlet as a musician, you know, in my life anymore. And it’s really a craft for me. Right. It’s like, I love coming back to this every year and just honing it a little bit more and I want to do it a little bit differently or a little bit better each year. And I can feel that. That’s my own practice. Not for everybody. And so, and I’ve, I’ve really grown to appreciate the variety of ways that people might engage with this.
But I agree with you. There’s always this challenge, I think for many Jews of, we have so much prescribed stuff. We have a form that we expect things to look like. And then when we play with that, it can be dangerous. It can be threatening to people. It can feel like, oh, I didn’t get, Yom Kippur didn’t happen. You have to be, if, if you’re gonna have a very different experience, you have to be open to that experience and a willing participant. And that’s part of the issue.
Yehuda: Hmm, I’ll come back to that in a moment. One of the things that’s hard for me, being very candid about Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, uh, these high holidays, and it’s been hard for, for quite a while, is that the language of personal introspection, uh, it’s not that I can’t be introspective. It’s not that I don’t know my own flaws and wanna atone for them, but I guess there’s two things that I see, uh, as dangers.
One is people who already lack sufficient self-worth. I’ve seen Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana are torture. And the obsession with the language of repentance and atonement and failure actually is deeply damaging. Um, and I just, maybe cause of my role leading services, I think these are collective celebrations.
Yehuda: It’s like happy birthday to the world. And this day, once, Yom Kippur really the central ritual of the holiday is like, we are gonna all do one sacrifice together. It will purify the temple, it will atone for all of us and then we’re gonna party.
So I really do struggle against the turning of collective cosmic dramas into the whole stuff of personal atonement. So I guess, how do you, how do you navigate those two? Because you can’t get rid of it. Maybe you’re still beating your chest once in a while.
Josh: Well, so interesting. Um, I, I, you should have come in this retreat last week. Cause we were doing a lot of this.
So first of all, you know, one of the reasons that we work a lot with Hasidut is because the Hasidic masters, like really, yeah, this was part of their project is like, how do you, um, bring a different joyous, uh, way of looking at this? A much more sort of humanly, many of them, not all of them, but much more humanly fulfilling and uplifting sort of Torah.
And so, you know, if you read through the Sfat Emet, or you read through, you know, the Maggid or, or, you know, whoever, these are, the language of sin becomes not so much these things, these awful things that I did bad that I have to regret, right. But they are things that, you know, we have covered over and come to separate our essential divine nature from the panemiyut, from the inner divine life that exists with us, within us.
And so the opportunity then, and this is the key, is if you think of teshuva, not as repentance for all these things that I did wrong, but as return to who I know myself to be, who, my intention for who I want to be and how I want to be in the world.
And then you do that nonjudgmentally. This is where the mindfulness piece is so helpful, is if you can do that with compassion and you can say in the same way that during a meditation, I might say my intention is to sit with my breath, just to be present with my breath, and then thoughts will arise and my attention will wander. And this happens for everybody.
It happens for the Dalai Lama. It happens for everybody. And the key moment then is when you become aware of that, what do you do? Do you beat yourself up that, like, man, you know, I wanted to pay attention to the, right? Or you say, oh my attention wandered. Okay. I want to come back to, you know, focusing on my breath now.
And so when I do that, if I can do that gently and with love and compassion for myself, then that’s a totally different kind of teshuva. And then like, beating your breast becomes not you know, striking yourself, you know, for being such a bad person, but it can actually be sort of knock, knock knocking on heaven’s door.
It’s like, you know, I’m tapping, I’m inviting, it’s kol dodi dofek, right? It’s like I’m knocking on that gently and trying to open it up. So that could just be a totally different valence, I think for these days. And I think that people have started to intuit that, but you know, so much of the liturgy, and so much of the translation of the liturgy needs to catch up with it.
Yehuda: I think the shofar is the obvious other place in the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur moments. And I, again, I’ve toggled back and forth between like, did I waste the shofar minutes by not leaning into how extraordinary it is to have this one piercing, literally piercing instrument. And then once in a while it just arrives right?
Once in a while, it actually, for me, I guess it was fall 2020 when we were in somebody’s backyard and just in a makeshift place. And actually, cause the way that we had set up our service was, it was a tent, but our shofar blower went up on her balcony. So you couldn’t see her from the tent, it was like a shofar coming from the mountaintop. It was just, it actually was kind of heartbreaking.
Josh: Yeah. And I, and I remember u’netana tokef that year and like, when I actually got to the words, you know, mi bamagefah, who by plague. Right. And everybody broke down. Like, you know, because it got so real, we had a reconnection with what these words are.
Um, you know, God forbid we don’t need a plague to encounter that. We just need to prepare ourselves. Right. We need to just actually give ourselves the time and wherewithal to be ready for that to happen.
Yehuda: One of the many beautiful pieces of commentary in your book is when you cite in Parshat Ki Tisa, which is when, I believe it’s when the destruction of the tablets takes place You cite from the Hasidic master the Kedushat Levi, analogizing between the 13 attributes of forgiveness, which is kind of like this magic formula that Moses teaches the Israelites to say, and that we chant somewhat desperately at the end of Yom Kippur.
And that’s my favorite moment of the whole year. You have nothing left. You have no physical strength left. You have no original prayer left. All you do is keep yelling the 13 principles of faith, hoping that God will adhere to God’s promise of forgiveness. Yes, once you say that you remind God that God is forgiving, eventually God will be forgiving you.
Kedushat Levi analogizes those 13 attributes of forgiveness to a different rabbinic text, which is 13 hermeneutics of interpretation. So first of all, play that out for us, but I also, I really wanna push on, we’re in such an unforgiving age, such a litigious age, such a fixation with other people’s failings. What’s a, the Torah of forgiveness, that you’re putting forward here that could really help us out of this, what feels like a deep.
Josh: Hmm. Great question.
Well, I, I love that teaching of the Kedushat Levi. Or I I’d like to invite us to actually call these guys what they probably would’ve called themselves, the Kidushas Levi. Um, but, so
Yehuda: Well, or, or just Levi
Josh: or just Levi or just Levi Yitzchak, right, what his wife called him. Um, and I need to go back and look at, at that essay to give a fuller answer, I think, but I think that, um, the analogy of the interpretation and, um, and forgiveness here is that, you know, of course we’re never gonna get the strict meaning.
There is, there is no, I mean, well, we, we can bracket the question of whether there is some ontological fixed meaning of anything. Okay. Um, I don’t think it’s actually that important for living in the world. Right. But the question, in the world that we live in, we know we’re not gonna get there. Whoever you are.
And so there’s an extraordinary amount of forgiveness that is built into reading, to the act of interpretation, because any offering we make right is going to be imperfect. I’m never going to fully grasp the meaning of whatever you’re saying to me, and, and it’s miraculous that we’re able to communicate at all, that we have even this provisional level of communication.
So to go back to the shofar, I think one of the things that the shofar does for us is to symbolize and call us back to both a preverbal and a post-verbal, um, we might say, level of communication or existence, is that not everything exists in the realm of worlds, right? L’eilah, in Kaddish. It’s all about, we can’t say it all. We can’t capture it all with words.
And so we acknowledge that with more words but, you know, um, we, so I think that there’s a great deal of forgiveness that is necessary towards ourselves, right, when we’re studying something, when we’re trying to understand someone else. And on behalf of the other person, you know, who is either authoring that or listening. So the act of communication of, of speaking of listening, of interpreting a text, there is built-in forgiveness and charity that is involved in that.
Think of the, you know, the words, charitable interpretation, like to offer a charitable interpretation of something. And there are limits, right? We don’t wanna like rip something completely out of its meaning, out of its context. But I think, yeah, there’s a softness that’s necessary, for that work to happen at all, and in a good Beit Midrash, in good learning, that softness is present. Um, and it’s uh, generative and it’s loving.
Yehuda: I love that Torah for the charity of relationships, because it is, there are so many contexts in which we interpret or we assume that what someone has said or done is a closed offering to the world. They picked exactly the words that they picked. They made with full intentionality, all the choices that were made.
And then it’s our job to evaluate judge, and rebuke, as opposed to, everything that somebody does or says, is a text that may, and sometimes, you know, there are errant pencil marks and sometimes there’s mistakes. Like how do we become different as a result? And Josh, I, I really, I felt, and this is, I’ll, probably speak on this in Yom Kippur, so spoiler alert for the 12 of you who are gonna be at the service that I’m leading in Riverdale.
Um, I can’t help but shake the sense that our tradition’s obsession with God’s willingness to forgive is basically an implicit rebuke about how urgent it is that we become people who forgive. I can’t shake that. That’s what we’re supposed to be. The ultimate form of emulating God is to be the kinds of people who are capable of forgiving even those tresses that feel overwhelming. And that feels like a very political statement today, to say today.
Josh: And I also wanna, I wanna, tonight I’m interviewing Danya Ruttenberg about her book and, and I think Danya’s point is really, really important, which is also that in our culture, largely infused by Christianity, there is such an emphasis on forgiveness that we skip over the steps of teshuvah, right.
And teshuvah as repentance. And that’s been to our detriment. And so I think that there is this coming towards one another, right. A coming towards in genuine regret, in genuine desire and intention to do better. And in recognizing one’s wrongs. And a willingness and openness, towards forgiveness, or at least holding the past in a more gentle way.
And, and there might be, you know, there are degrees of forgiveness we might say. Right. And maybe it’s because Christianity did so much with forgiveness that, you know, we’ve minimized it a bit too much in our tradition. I think you’re absolutely right. There’s just, there’s really important work for us to do around there and to use our own stories and our own language, our own Torah, uh, to understand that in our own way,
Yehuda: I’m gonna put you on the spot to leave us with something, Josh, uh, and, and I, I guess it’s, uh, it’s okay to ask this because if you’ve been doing a daily sit meditation for 300 people in which they turn on their cameras, but then they close their eyes. It’s also not insane to ask you to lead a meditation for people on a podcast.
I’ll just say this. If you’re listening to this while driving do not close your eyes, do not zone out. Um, but I would like you to leave us with something, to, to walk us through something, to share something that helps us, really, as we hurdle through this season of, of memory. And as we come out of, hopefully please God, this, these two and a half years of, that have been so taxing on all of us/
Josh: Okay. Great. Well, shehecheyanu, that uh, there’s, uh, a meditation on the, on the Hartman podcast. Right.
Yehuda: I wanna tell you something. There is a weekly meditation class for Hartman staff led by Hartman staff. So.
Yehuda: Old narratives have died.
Josh: Amazing. Well, if you’d like to join me in this, the first step is just to find a comfortable position, if you’re seated, to sit with a dignified and upright posture, but as my friend and colleague and teacher, Jordan Bendat-Appell reminded me the other day, standing or sitting is, uh is a spiritual posture.
So, however you are, assume a, a posture that is dignified and upright. If you’re sitting, you might think of your back of your spine as embodying Jacob’s ladder, right? That is sulam mutzav artza. It’s rooted in the ground. V’rosho magiah hashamayaimah. It’s crown extending up towards heaven.
And you can soften your gaze or close your eyes. And just bring awareness to your breath. Notice it coming in, where it reaches, fullness, and then you start exhaling. When you reach the bottom, as it were, you’re empty and you start to breathe in again. Just do that a few times. And try to keep your awareness in the breath. That’s your intention. Inevitably what is gonna happen is your mind will wander and thoughts will come up. That will take you off the breath.
Your shopping list, the dry cleaning that has to be picked up for the holidays. Something from work. And as we spoke about this is the key moment of dot of awareness. I become aware that my attention has drifted and now I can say, huh, with love and compassion for ourselves. You can just bring our awareness, our attention back to the breath.
And then it’ll happen again. And every time it happens, you’re just rehearsing, building that muscle of self-compassion and forgiveness to gently bring back the attention. Not violently, not to say I’m so angry at myself that I couldn’t stand the breath. You already got an A in, in meditation. Don’t worry. And you just bring it back, aligning our actions with our intentions, which is teshuvah, that’s our returning.
So, this is a practice you can take with you. You can practice in shul when you have the urge, you’re feeling bored, you have the urge to pull out a book, unless it’s my book, then you can read it. But this is a practice you might think about. This is something I do, uh, now weekly, every Shabbat morning for a good 15 or 20 minutes before I start my prayer practice. And, uh, if this appeals to you also, you’re welcome to join us at, uh, jewishspirituality.org. We’ve got a lot of other ways that you can, um, build these muscles and these practices in the new year.
Yehuda: Thank you, Rabbi Josh Feigelson. And thanks to all of you for listening to our show.
Identity Crisis was produced by David Zvi Kalman and was edited by Gareth Hobbs and Corey Choy at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. The show is produced with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz with music provided by Socalled.
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