Cultivating Communities of Difference and Dialogue

Cultivating Communities of Difference and Dialogue

Dr. Bill Robinson

Our world continues to evolve – greater diversity of Jewish families, growing numbers of disaffected Jews, unparalleled complexity and uncertainty as we look toward the future. Our Jewish congregations and other institutions need to evolve as well. We need to embrace the diversity that is increasingly the hallmark of our time – diversity of identity, experience, perspective, ability, and aspiration. For that diversity is also the strength upon which our continued vitality will rely.

We know this and many of us are working steadfastly to cultivate communities where diversity is valued. At times, we also recognize clearly that we cannot just “reach out” and “open our doors” to bring others in. For this assumes that the main challenge to increasing diversity lies in helping others to cross the threshold into community. It ignores the historical biases embedded within our communities that marginalize, silence, and exclude the other (even after they have crossed the threshold). Confronting these biases is the hard work at which we continue to struggle.

In 1990, Judith Plaskow, penned a classic of modern Jewish thought – a manifesto for gender inclusion, equity, and justice – Standing Again at Sinai. Re-reading this book, as I have been doing this last year, has both inspired and dispirited me. While we have come far, we are still grappling with many of the same problems and solutions about which she wrote. So, I’ve asked myself: What can we still learn from Plaskow that will move our Jewish communities further along the path of gender, LGBTQ, racial, neuro, generational (and other) diversity?

For Plaskow, women are the historic Other, against which men composed our traditions. They were always there, but their voices and perspectives were either silenced or marginalized. For women to stand as full members of Jewish communities and the Jewish People would require that their voices, their experiences, their (re)interpretations, and their memories be taken seriously and fully incorporated. While we have seen much progress, this vital goal has not yet been achieved for women, and even less so for other groups of marginalized Jews.

Plaskow reminds us that continuing on this path of change requires that men (as well as white, straight, cisgender, neurotypical, and Boomer Jews) create space for other voices to be heard. We then need to listen deeply, with the assumption that we do not truly know the experience and desires of another. And, through listening we must learn the ways in which our norms and tropes (the ways we talk metaphorically about being Jewish) still work to silence and delegitimize the voices and experiences of others.

Doing this will not be easy. We often take for granted our cultural norms and tropes; they just seem natural or the way things should be. We often do not realize that when we invite others into our community, we are asking them to learn and play within a culture that (while having worked well for us) does not necessarily work for them.

I am reminded of an old joke captured in a Bob Thaves cartoon, which (as jokes do) reveals an important truth. Watching Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dance so beautifully, we are inclined to comment how well they both dance and how their similar talent is what made them such a wonderful dance couple. But upon a second glance, as the cartoon points out, we hopefully acknowledge that while Ginger had to do everything Fred did, she did it “backwards and in high heels.” Given the male-centric norms of dress and dance style, for Ginger to be seen as equal, she actually had to excel beyond Fred.

For women and others to participate in our Jewish communities as equals, we are often asking them to excel in learning practices and speaking words that work well from a male perspective, but not always so well for others. This is at the heart of Plaskow’s book and her call for women to take hold of the tradition – to voice their particular interpretations of sacred text, to develop new metaphors for the divine, to pray in words that speak to them, and to rewrite the laws that exclude them from full participation in the Jewish community.

In ways that I hope and see, we are moving away from the biased norms and tropes that expected Jews of color, LGBTQ, neuro-diverse, and simply younger generations to themselves to, even when they don’t speak to them.  For example: We may be reciting our prayers using a plethora of gendered metaphors for the divine, not just male ones.  We may be engaging in queer readings of text that reveal the sexual and gender fluidity of biblical characters.  We may have opened up our expectations of appropriate dress so they are not class, racial, and cis-gender biased.  Yet, I wonder: How might whiteness, straight, cis-gender or neuro-typical biases still be playing out in our communities, in ways that ask others to “dance backwards in high heels” just so they can be seen as equal and full participants?

Arguably the toughest challenge to fostering diverse communities that truly embrace inclusivity, equity, and justice will be around memory. Shared memories make us who we are, as individuals, families, and communities. As Jews, we value and constantly retell the stories of our past. Yet, not everyone’s memories are equally included in our institutional memory. As Plaskow wrote,

Memory is formed and reformed from the interaction of every generation with the fluid richness of Torah. The remembered past provides a basis for a particular present, but the nature of the present also fosters or inhibits particular kinds of memory.

Memories of the past circumscribe what we can become in the future. Memory can foster inclusion, and it can exclude. What gets remembered and retold defines whose story is most important and thus who is valued. So, if we want to re-member our communities, we must begin by remembering our past differently.

“…when women, with our own history and spirituality and attitudes and experiences, demand equality in a community that will allow itself to be changed by our difference, when we ask that our memories become part of Jewish memory and our presence change the present, then we make a demand that is radical and transforming.”

I find that Plaskow challenges us to think deeply about community. “We might say that the central issue in the feminist redefinition of Israel is the place of [ongoing] difference in community.” If we want community where different others feel at home, we shouldn’t seek for easy answers and trite commonalities, but rather maintain a space where we are continually confronted by our particularities (even as we all united in our desire for true community). What will unify us in diverse community is not a shared interpretation of text or the common content of our prayers, but (for example) the ways in which we engage in chavruta text study that seeks a dialogue of mutual understanding and perhaps how a multiplicity of voices singing variations on traditional prayers and blessings can rise up together in harmony.

This will be personally and institutionally challenging. Yet, a community where particularity is sustained and valued is one where each of us can grow through our encounter with difference. As a white, straight, cis-gender, Boomer man, I recognize my responsibility to create space for others to thrive. And, I am grateful, for only in that diverse space, can my unique individual self also flourish in its particularity. I grow Jewishly and become a more whole person through dialogues with others about the different ways we see and seek to interpret our shared heritage. “To develop as a person is to acquire a sense of self in relation to others and to critically appropriate a series of communal heritages.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our institutional communities were spaces where all different Jews could develop as unique and whole Jewish persons?

Many have continued to write cogently about the ways we can create welcoming, sacred Jewish communities. For me, Plaskow laid down the challenge and illuminated the path which others have since followed. For all of us, the journey of communal transformation and healing continues.

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