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Of Black Swans and Sabbatical Years

If you haven’t seen it yet, take a minute to watch the finish from this year’s Kentucky Derby. It’s a sight to behold.

The two leading horses are racing neck-and-neck (literally), jockeying for position (again, literally), as they make the final turn of the one-and-a-quarter-mile track at Churchill Downs. Slowly and then suddenly, Rich Strike, a horse no one even expected to be in the race, comes out of nowhere to win. It’s shocking on every level: Rich Strike had 80-1 odds of winning, the second-highest odds in the history of the 148-year old race. He only became eligible for the Derby a day earlier due to another horse being scratched from the race with 30 seconds to spare before the registration deadline. And then, to top it off, he comes out of nowhere to win the biggest event in horse racing. Someone in Hollywood is surely working on a script already.

The day after the Derby, the writer and climate activist Rebecca Solnit posted a link to the race video on Facebook, calling attention to Rich Strike’s win as a “black swan event.” The term, popularized two decades ago by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, refers to an event that most people assumed simply couldn’t happen—and that, therefore, whole ways of thinking became devoted to assuming it couldn’t happen either. That is, it wasn’t simply an objective question of whether or not something was possible; it was also a psychological question: If my/our worldview depends on the impossibility of this idea, how could I entertain the notion that it might occur? My/our whole world would unravel! So we tend to treat black swan events as not just logical impossibilities; rather, we become emotionally invested in verifying the narrative of their impossibility.

As a climate activist, Solnit encounters this phenomenon a lot. If we read the news, we have good reason to feel like solving the problem of climate change is a black swan. The odds seem increasingly remote that we will keep global temperatures from rising past 2 degrees Celsius. The polar ice sheets are already melting. The invasion of Ukraine isn’t helping. It is totally understandable that a lot of us feel pretty grim about the future. And when we start telling ourselves that narrative, our human tendency toward confirmation bias leads us to reject news that might counter it and embrace news that reinforces it.

But, as Solnit has been doggedly pointing out on her Facebook page for months, there’s a lot of good climate news! Most significantly, advances in battery storage, solar, and wind technology are causing the price of renewables to drop quickly and, correspondingly, their use to increase rapidly. And, while the odds remain quite long, Solnit seems committed to helping the rest of us see the possibility of a black swan. Epicenter and Zandon, the two favorite horses at the Derby this year, had odds of 7-2 and 3-1, respectively. They were the horses racing neck-and-neck to win. The race was playing out precisely the way the math told us it would. Until it didn’t. The lesson for climate? While it’s still a major league longshot, we might, just might, be able to get it together for greener forms of energy to come out of the back of the pack and win the climate derby. (Likewise, Donald Trump was projected as having a 7 percent chance of being elected president in 2016. Black swans don’t take sides; they just describe longshots.)

On the Jewish calendar, we are deep into a Sabbatical year, a year of shemitah. The Torah’s expectations for this year, and for the larger Jubilee cycle in which it occurs, might strike us as fanciful, preposterous even. We are commanded not to farm the land, but only to live off whatever naturally grows. We are expected to forgive debts and release indentured servants. Every 49 years, we are expected to return the land to its ancestral owners. In short, we are, it seems, expected to overthrow the economic table and start anew. It is nothing short of a radical resetting, a recalibration of society.

If this might have seemed difficult to imagine two or three thousand years ago, it feels even more so now. Yet the Torah is not alone in deploying sacred ritual to reconfigure the social order. As David Graeber and David Wengrow demonstrate in their book The Dawn of Everything, societies the world over have done similar things throughout human history. From Native American communities to Neolithic Europe and Mesopotamia and beyond, human beings have shown a remarkable propensity to order our societies in many different ways—and to consciously reorder them when necessary and desirable.

Contra Rousseau, there is no “state of nature,” according to Graeber and Wengrow. Rather, there are innumerable different ways humans have configured social and political life. “If something did go terribly wrong in human history—and given the current state of the world, it’s hard to deny something did,” they write, “then perhaps it began to go wrong precisely when people started losing that freedom to imagine and enact other forms of social existence, to such a degree that some now feel this particular type of freedom hardly even existed, or was barely exercised, for the greater part of human history.”

That, perhaps, is the greatest challenge we face: that we accept that this is the way things are and will be—whatever that way is. We are so invested in the current scheme of things that we discount the possibility that anything could be otherwise. We lose imagination, we lose freedom, we become fatalists.

The Torah, like other wisdom traditions, invites us to practice a different way of being, the touchstone of which is yetziat mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt. What was is not what must be. What seems inevitable is not destiny. Just because life seems good right now doesn’t mean it’s going to remain that way; just because life looks horrible right now doesn’t mean it will always be so. When we cut ourselves off from the unfolding nature of the world, when we become so invested in a particular way of encountering it, we practice a kind of idolatry, we drive the Divine presence from the world.

Our calling and mission is to do the opposite: to live with mindful presence, aware of the contingency and ongoing becoming of a world which is constantly recreated anew, aware of our interconnection with all other beings, with the earth, with life itself. That is the practice of Shemitah, the practice of Shabbat. It is the practice that enables us to resist our confirmation bias, our fatalism about climate, and to remain open to the possibility—however long a shot it is—that the unexpected might just come about.

 

This piece was published in the Times of Israel on May 12, 2022.

A Conversation with Joy Ladin, PhD and Rabbi Dr. Erin Leib Smokler

We are grateful to Joy Ladin, PhD and Rabbi Dr. Erin Leib Smokler for sharing their insights with us! Please enjoy the conversation recording below.

Joy Ladin, PhD is a teacher, widely published essayist and poet, literary scholar, and nationally known speaker on transgender issues. She is the author of twelve books, including 2021 National Jewish Book Award winner, The Book of Anna, newly published Shekhinah Speaks, and 2018’s The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective. She has a PhD in English Literature from Princeton and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Massachusetts. Since 2003, Joy has held the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English at Stern College of Yeshiva University.

Rabbi Dr. Erin Leib Smokler is the Dean of Students and Director of Spiritual Development at Yeshivat Maharat, where she teaches Hasidism and Pastoral Torah. She is also a faculty fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Rabbi Dr. Leib Smokler is the editor of the recently published volume, Torah in a Time of Plague: Historical and Contemporary Jewish Reflections (Ben Yehudah Press 2021), which received a 2021 National Jewish Book Award. She earned her PhD and MA from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought and her AB from Harvard University. She received ordination from Yeshivat Maharat.

Purim and the Pursuit of Wisdom

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

Writing at Purim time, during the continued unfolding of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, the carnage only mounts. When we mark the holiday we think of the rivers of Jewish blood Haman would have spilled had he not been thwarted by Mordechai and Esther. Today we think of the rivers of Ukrainian blood being spilled by Vladimir Putin. Both of these tyrants are united across the ages in their wish to visit endless cruelty upon the inhabitants of a tiny corner of a fraction of a dot. Both are united in their utter delusion. When viewed through Sagan’s reflections on our one and only pale blue dot, all this violence and cruelty seems so utterly senseless, meaningless, and foolish.

Though it may not be readily apparent on the face of things, behind all this folly lies that most basic human impulse–the desire for happiness. Haman thought he would be happy if he annihilated the people who threatened his honor. Instead he brought about his own ruin and the destruction of his entire family. Putin believes he’ll be happy if he takes Ukraine and replaces its government with a puppet regime. But he won’t. His cruelty and greed will eat him alive as he becomes a pariah to the world and brings ruin upon his own people. As we are witnessing in real time on a grand scale, the impulse to pursue happiness can lead to horrible, disastrous consequences if it isn’t coupled with wisdom.

Mindfulness is our tool for cultivating wisdom. It works by peeling away misleading external appearances and obstructing masks to reveal the deeper nature or true face of things. With mindfulness, we recognize that happiness that depends on ephemeral external conditions can’t be sustained in the long run; to be truly lasting, our contentment and well-being need to be generated from within. When our desire for happiness is married to wisdom, we know how interconnected we all are, and operate with an awareness that to inflict harm upon another being or part of this planet for our own gain is an act of self-harm. And with mindfulness, tyrants might come to recognize that pinning their glory on their claim to a tiny part of an infinitesimally small blue dot is an exercise in folly.

At this moment in the evolution of Western culture, the pursuit of happiness as an end in itself has run its course as we careen toward growing conflict, division, mistrust, the collapse of democracy, and the destruction of our planet. What we need now as a species is a collective turning toward the pursuit of wisdom, which might then reveal the true conditions that lead to mutual happiness and well-being for all. That’s why we practice.

We at IJS are proud to be part of the burgeoning movement toward that turning as we broadly teach Jewish spiritual practices grounded in mindfulness. Such practices foster our ability to discern a wise path to human flourishing, one grounded in a deep recognition of our evanescence and frailty and the immense preciousness and interconnection of life and our planet. One that leads us beyond the folly, caprice, and lustfulness of the ego toward a deep sense of mutuality, interdependence, abundance, and shared responsibility. One where we triumph “not by might nor by power but by spirit alone” (Zechariah 4:6).

A Conversation with Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg

We are grateful to Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg for sharing his wisdom with us. Please enjoy the conversation recording below.

Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg is one of the most influential Jewish thinkers and institution-builders of our time. Currently president of the J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life (JJGI) and Senior Scholar in Residence at Hadar, Rabbi Greenberg’s distinguished career includes service as the founding director of CLAL: the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, founding president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and City University of New York, and director of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, and Chair of the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum.

Over his long career, Rabbi Greenberg has taught tens of thousands of Jewish leaders in hundreds of communities across North America and around the world. He has written extensively on post-Holocaust Jewish religious thought, Jewish-Christian relations, pluralism, and the ethics of Jewish power. He was a member of the delegation of Jewish leaders who traveled to Dharamshala, India for an historic encounter with the Dalai Lama, which was later discussed in Rodger Kamenetz’s book The Jew in the Lotus.

In addition to his role as Executive Director at IJS, Rabbi Josh Feigelson is a leading scholar of Rabbi Greenberg’s thought. In this conversation, Rabbi Feigelson and Rabbi Greenberg will reflect on Rabbi Greenberg’s own training in and practice of Musar and experiencing Jewish life as a form of spiritual practice. Rabbi Greenberg will also discuss themes from his forthcoming book, The Triumph of Life.

A Reflection on Jewish Mindfulness and Habits of the Heart

It often feels these days that we’re living through a Great Unraveling. Institutions, those deposits of trust that enable things to be—or at least seem to be—settled, are coming apart. News media, public health, elections, representative government, the weather, the forests, the shoreline, truth, language itself: In so many places, things I took to be more or less stable are revealing themselves to be far shakier than I could have imagined.

I find my mind racing with questions I could scarcely have contemplated asking even a couple of years ago: Is the person standing next to me in the grocery store vaccinated? Is the man at the post office carrying a concealed weapon? Writing in the shadow of the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection, those questions include ones like, Will a mob storm the Capitol? Will a state legislature overturn an election?

Like all shadows, this Great Unraveling has its brighter side too. Much of it is driven by the democratization of media. Where Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat and TikTok seem to lead us to collectively ever-shorter attention spans, they also give opportunities for far more people to have a voice, for more of us to expand our awareness of people and issues than would have been in our view otherwise.

Whether we view it as an invitation or an externally-imposed compulsion, it seems to me that this moment calls each of us to deeper personal responsibility and agency: the responsibility to be vaccinated, to engage in democracy non-violently, to practice speech that is mindful, wise, and courageous. And when I reflect on that, I realize that, though it may feel more intense today, that is really our calling all the time: to be vessels for the Divine presence; to reflect and enhance the image of God in the world; to free and help every image of God to be present.

In his bestselling classic The Jew in the Lotus, Rodger Kamenetz describes how one of IJS’s founders, Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, summed up his personal spiritual path, which he referred to as keter malchut, or the crown of sovereignty, to the Dalai Lama: “To be a sovereign human being, to be a king, to be not reactive, but active, to know one’s place in the world, to be conscious. And it is extremely hard work. The ego always gets in the way, all the needs get in the way; it is a long, long path. But the path is very specific” (196).

In a democracy, as opposed to a monarchy, each and every citizen is a part of the sovereign; each of us wears a part of the crown. Thus Jonathan’s description of this spiritual work—to become a sovereign human being, a sovereign image of God—is, to my mind, the core of the “habits of the heart” about which Alexis de Tocqueville wrote nearly 200 years ago as being essential to the democratic project. At root, this heart work is about the most basic questions: How do we become aware of yet not beholden to the thoughts and emotions that arise in us—the results of our conditioning—when we encounter beings other than ourselves? How do we hold space for difference? How do we live together? How do we trust each other?

Nurturing and sustaining trust is the name of the game. It is essential to the infant who must trust adults to feed, clothe, shelter, and bathe them; it is essential to coworkers who must trust one another to work together; it is essential to neighbors and fellow citizens and residents who must trust that the people they encounter do not seek their harm; it is essential to voters who must trust that elected officials will act with honor and not for personal power or enrichment. Trust, Emunah, is essential for a life lived in relationship with the Divine. And, “In God We Trust”—our trusting both reflects and generates the possibility for the Divine presence to be visible. It is, on the most fundamental level, essential for democratic life.

That mutually supportive web of trust begins and is sustained by our continual work on our hearts—avodah shebalev, what the Talmud refers to as prayer and what we might expand to include the spiritual practices of democracy. I don’t know whether those practices by themselves are enough to calm the baser forces of fear, anger, and resentment that seem to be fueling this Great Unraveling. But I know they are essential for me—perhaps for you, too—to live through it. And I have a strong sense that they offer us a way through. May we support one another in cultivating them.

How Spiritual Practices Impacted my Bearing Witness Outside the Glynn County, GA Courthouse

On Thursday November 18, 2021 I traveled to Brunswick, GA along with eleven other Jewish clergy to bear witness and offer support to the Black pastors, the community and family members gathering at the Glynn County courthouse during the trial for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Local rabbi and IJS Hevraya (alumni) member Rachael Bregman invited Jewish clergy to join her in Brunswick to bring spiritual comfort, solidarity, and to support the local community.

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Resilient Writers Fellowship Feature Articles

I will pour out My spirit on all flesh Your children shall prophesy Your old shall dream dreams And your youth shall see visions. These words from the prophet Joel (made even more famous by Debbie Friedman) are a perfect introduction to the essays in the...

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To Prevent a Crisis of Clergy Burnout, Help Them Cultivate Their Inner Lives

In a recent piece, Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), warned of the real possibility of an exodus of rabbis from congregational life, due to the extreme additional emotional and professional burdens imposed upon them by the pandemic. To address the root causes of burnout, Jewish clergy themselves need spiritual practices and resources to help them navigate periods of “full catastrophe living” with grace, resilience, and wisdom.

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A Conversation with Dr. Lisa Miller

We are grateful to Dr. Lisa Miller for joining us on Tuesday, October 5, 2021 for a special evening.In conversation with Rabbi Josh Feigelson, Dr. Miller shared her insights and research on the new science of spirituality. Lisa Miller, PhD, is a professor...

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An Evening of Music with Joey Weisenberg

We are grateful to Joey Weisenberg for joining us on Tuesday, July 20, 2021 for a special evening. In conversation with Rabbi Josh Feigelson, Joey shared his music and insights. Joey Weisenberg is a virtuosic multi-instrumental musician, composer and...

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Omer 5781: Seven Weeks of Exploration

From Passover through Shavuot, IJS invited its community to count the Omer with us. Each week, we shared an email with an exploration of that week’s particular middah, prepared by IJS faculty. Throughout the Omer, IJS’s free daily offerings helped us focus...

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A Theological Discussion with Dr. Michael Fishbane

We are delighted to share a recording of a special evening with Dr. Michael Fishbane in conversation with Rabbi Nancy Flam. This live public event sponsored by IJS, took place on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Dr. Michael Fishbane discusses his recently...

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A Conversation about Purim with Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie

In case you missed it, watch Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie in conversation with Rabbi Josh Feigelson, IJS Executive Director. This live public event sponsored by IJS, took place on Thursday evening, February 12, 2021 with an audience of more than 600 people....

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IJS and JCCA: A New Partnership

In June 2020, IJS launched a pilot program in a professional development partnership with Jewish Community Centers of North America (JCCA) to bring our programming to hundreds of JCC professionals nationwide and ultimately to thousands of end-users. We're...

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An Evening of Conversation with Rabbi Art Green

On Tuesday evening November 10, 2020, Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD, IJS Executive Director, interviewed Rabbi Dr. Art Green at a live public event sponsored by IJS, to an audience of more than 500 people. This is a full recording of their conversation. Art...

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A Major New Partnership Between IJS and Or HaLev

The Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS) and Or HaLev Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation (OHL) announced today a major new partnership to develop the next generation of advanced Jewish mindfulness meditation teachers in North America, Israel,...

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