True confession: I love The Blues Brothers. The first movie, not the second one. Does anyone actually like that one?
In the original movie, there’s a scene where Jake and Elwood go to recruit Matt “Guitar” Murphy for the band and his wife musically and …gently?…discourages him. (Aretha Franklin is, as always, fabulous.)
So, why bring this all up?
The song is called, “Think.” And the movie takes place in Chicago.
And I was just in Chicago. At a talk that has everything to do with thinking: I attended the “CRASH” lecture that Rabbi Benay Lappe of Svara delivers just before the beginning of each new go-round of the Svara Beit Midrash.
Svara, by the way, means (in part) thinking. (See what I did there? Chiastic parallelism–one of the patterns of construction in Biblical Hebrew poetry.)
So, what did I learn at Svara?
Interestingly, my mental processes and engagement with Judaism have largely already churned to somewhere quite compatible with where Rabbi Lappe takes the crowd (and a crowd it was!). And I won’t steal her thunder by trying to present the material. It’s good stuff, but my head was already pretty much there.
There are people out there–lots of people–who want to learn in order to remake Judaism. I mean, I knew that. There are ways to do it while speaking the traditional language of the rabbinic world while constructing new outcomes. I knew that, too.
What I learned is this: it is very, very possible to get people what they need to sit at the table and engage in that process. But we’re not doing it in sufficient numbers, and we’re not doing enough of it where it needs to happen: among parents, and among the up-and-coming age groups and categories of Jews who will be looked to as the future leadership of the various pieces of the American Jewish community.
I also learned that we can do it inclusively. Theism was not a precondition to being present in the room. Social position, age, group membership (of any type of group at all), and all manner of orientation–none of these mattered. To be clear, I have no problem approaching the Talmud as a humanistic Jew. But others might have concerns, and it was clear that Rabbi Lappe tries to “check her theology.” (Think: checking privilege. Not, you know, referencing all things against your theology.)
The downside of all this? First, it’s in Chicago, and if you’re not there, your opportunities for doing this kind of learning in a non-traditional environment (by traditional, I mean Lithuanian yeshiva-type traditional) are very limited. And the traditional environments are not welcoming to non-traditional people (except for, say, Aish or Chabad–but they want to make you traditional).
Second, it’s scary in some ways. What I mean by that is, Rabbi Lappe makes it quite clear that this kind of engagement means you’re not going to be in the happy land of denial or the other happy land of complete rejection. You’ll always be fighting, and tweaking, and fixing, and adjusting, and compromising, and inquiring.
On second thought, that doesn’t sound so bad to me.