Column Keeping The Vision: What Stories Do We Tell?

Jonathan Woocher

I wanted to get a better sense of what it’s like for Jews to come together for Jewish learning in some of these places, so I sat in on a session sponsored by Limmud International, the umbrella for the worldwide movement, and joined a conversation with conference organizers from Turkey, the Netherlands, Hungary and Argentina.

This was before the horrible events in France that took place just a few days later. But part of the conversation at that session was about security arrangements, how widely to publicize the conferences, and what help could or could not be expected from local authorities if something bad happened. When the news from Paris hit, my first thought was about the vulnerability of these Jewish communities: Would they go ahead with their conferences in the current climate? Do these communities even have a future?

I quickly realized, however, that framing the story this way ignores another story that is quite different and equally, if not more, important: the remarkable fact that these communities, and numerous others, are holding Limmud conferences. The people I was sitting with were all volunteers who had traveled hundreds and thousands of miles to a classroom in Coventry, England, because they wanted to bring a powerful Jewish learning experience to their communities. And they were coming together to discuss their challenges and to get sage advice from veteran Limmudniks because they believe that Judaism has something to contribute to their lives and the lives of their fellow Jews.

Two stories, with messages in tension with one another, yet both true, and both important to be told. I think about stories in tension when I think about Purim and Pesach. In this case, both are stories of redemption, but told from very different perspectives. Megillat Esther, where the Purim narrative is recounted, is notable for the absence of God in the text. Perhaps there is indeed some Divine power at work behind the scenes, but the story we tell is about humans taking action to save the Jewish people. Contrast this with the Haggadah, the narrative we recite on Pesach, in which humans—even Moses—play almost no role (except as props). Here it is God alone who is responsible for the great redemption. Which is true: are we responsible for taking action to save ourselves and others, or must we look beyond ourselves to a greater Power to set the world aright?

Our ability to tell complex stories, stories in tension with other stories, is vital, I believe, to what we might call a Jewish approach to the world. At our foundation, we have a term for it: we call it an “eilu v’eilu” sensibility—“these and these are the words of the living God.” As humans and as Jews, we often yearn for things to be simple, to be able to grab onto one aspect of a situation and say, “that’s the truth; that’s reality.” But life rarely works that way; there’s rarely one, obvious right answer, one interpretation of a text that’s correct, one way to be Jewish that’s meaningful and sanctifying.

One of the great strengths and great challenges of community day schools is making room for multiple stories in what and how we teach. In today’s world, the idea of multiple narratives has often been reduced to an indifferent relativism that denies the “truth” of any narrative. I (and many others) see an “eilu v’eilu” pluralism quite differently. It is the assertion that there are elements of truth in many narratives, and that our role is to be open to those elements of truth, whatever their source, and to do our best to hold onto them, even knowing that sometimes they don’t add up to one grand Truth that makes everything whole and coherent.

This is not an easy approach to teach, whether we’re applying it to analysis of current events, to how we read texts, or to matters of theology. But it is both an intellectual and a moral virtue, and one worth affirming proudly. Telling complicated stories and more than one story, challenging our students to engage in sense- and meaning-making in ways that are open, respectful and tentative, but also affirmative and confident, may be one of the most important things we can do to equip them for a complex and changing world.

As I head off in a few weeks for Limmud New York, held in the relative comfort and security of a Stamford, Connecticut, hotel, I’ll be thinking about those men and women organizing Limmud conferences this year in places like Bulgaria, India, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and (yes) France. Their stories are very different than ours and from each other. The stories are chastening and exhilarating, inspiring and confusing. More than anything else, though, they—and so many others—are stories that need to be told and heard. Perhaps in the end, that’s what we want our day schools to be: places where all of our stories, past and present, can come together to help create a dynamic future.

Dr. Jonathan Woocher works in a senior capacity with the Lippman Kanfer family on its philanthropic and educational initiatives. [email protected]

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HaYidion The God Issue Spring 2015
The God Issue
Spring 2015