Engaging Ways to Inhabit Life Spiritually
Paths of Study for Embracing Post-Critical Jewish Religiosity
נתיבות לימוד לדתיות יהודית פוסט-ביקורתית
Our Educational Philosophy
In our courses, we connect spiritual seekers with incisive text study, and with each other, in ways that enable participants to engage the mysteries of their own Jewish living and discover new discussion partners and friends among individuals they otherwise might never have met.
Spiritual Jewish Seekers
Our Learners come from of all walks of Jewish living. Our courses are particularly suitable for Jewishly engaged, spiritually inclined, and intellectually curious adults, including:
Jewish communal professionals, including rabbis, cantors, prayer leaders, synagogue administrators, teachers, and educators
Working adults and stay-at-home parents
Our Teachers are exceptionally knowledgeable pedagogues devoted to participants' learning and to the facilitation of collective exploration. They are rooted in a mosaic of practice-oriented Jewish living.
Each of them is a unique model of a sincere, passionate, sensitive, thoughtful, and self-critical seeker of ways by which to inhabit life spiritually. Each of them is also committed to sharing aspects of her or his journey in the context of teaching for Shma Koleinu.
Studying with Open Eyes
Seeking Jewish spirituality does not necessarily entail a return to the shelter of old religious truths and assumptions. Nor need it be merely instrumental, aimed at narcissistic ego-building or finding a temporary mental refuge from the messiness of reality, the struggles of life, and ethical responsibilities.
In our pursuit of a practice-oriented Jewish spirituality, we are driven by a desire for greater prayerfulness and a yearning for traces of the Divine in a disenchanted world. In this pursuit, prayer, spiritual concerns, moral responsibility, and a commitment to social justice constantly nourish one another.
We celebrate the many blessings of secularization: the enormous achievements of rationality in the service of quality of life, the enhancement of human dignity in the political, ethical, and medical realms. At the same time, we acknowledge that secularization happens first and foremost within ourselves. It alters and narrows our ways of thinking, seeing, listening, speaking, feeling, knowing, and, not least important, acting. In our spiritual exploration, we are mindful of the new challenges posed by the cultural crises of our time.
Yet it is in this world that we must somehow seek truth, love and celebrate life, "do righteousness and justice" (Gen 18:19). We can be content with nothing less than "intelligent spirituality," combining rigorous thinking and critical reflection with inspirational learning, learning that is neither ahistorical nor abstract, neither over-intellectualized nor fundamentalistic.
Our learning encompasses texts that help us reflect critically on the human condition in its contemporary economic, cultural, and social context. Such reflection can help us uncover and re-examine the prejudices that inform our everyday lives. We also value the insights provided by serious modern critiques of religion, which often unmask new forms of idolatry, the gods created by human beings. Such critical thinking can thus help us to engage once again with authentic religious language and practice.
Finally, we seek inspiration in masterpieces of spiritual and intellectual creativity (literature, philosophy, art) that confront similar challenges and contribute to the growth of our practice-oriented Jewish spirituality.
All these serve as wellsprings of (re)engagement with the great texts of Jewish tradition: the Bible and Rabbinic literature, medieval and modern exegesis, philosophy, Kabbalah, Hasidism and liturgy.
Language is essential to the human being (cf. Onkelos on Genesis 2:7), thus the need to preserve language that awakens possibilities: Throughout our explorations, we keep the fan of our language open as completely as possible. We often read traditional Jewish sources as phenomenological insights designed to attune us to new, subtle dimensions of existence. We seek truth by probing to understand particular ways and original modes by which the infinite intertwines with the finite, as expressed by Franz Rosenzweig: "Whereas the Old thinking had set up for itself the problem of whether God is transcendent or immanent, the New thinking narrates how and when the far Divine becomes near, and the near Divine far."
To meet a real teacher of Judaism has become a matter of
luck. This luck depends greatly on the person looking. It is created out of discernment. Most of the time, we let it pass by.
Levinas, Difficult Liberty, 133
Studying with Open Hearts
Our learning seeks to embody what we believe to be the quintessence of Jewish learning.
We pursue it with patience, care, and self-awareness.
We allow thoughts from the textual past and from present study partners to reverberate in our minds and hearts, in relation to our specific contexts.
We are prepared to reinterpret ourselves even as we interpret the words and the worlds opened up by the texts.
We ask honest questions of the text, of ourselves, and of other participants.
We treat texts, ourselves, and each other not only with respect but with a sense of the mystery that dwells within each of us and surrounds us.
We learn to be capable of truly saying "Thou" to a learning partner as we take responsibility for her understanding.
We learn to engage in our interpersonal learning relationships in ways that reflect the human beings we aspire to become.
We learn in constant attention to be inspired, to understand, and to respond to what (in these responses) becomes a part of our understanding of life, of others, and of ourselves.
Incisive Text Study
We study text with the assumption that human language and the human mind are not always transparent or straightforward, thereby mirroring the opacity and dualities of the human heart.
In pre-modern times, people generally read religious texts from an innocent perspective. Moderns read from a stance of doubt, and post-moderns read with a posture of suspicion, as exemplified in socio-critical studies and in deconstructionism. When spiritual seekers read and learn, they often strive to overcome these attitudes – though not without having first paid them their due: As Paul Ricoeur writes, "Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again."
The Hebrew word for “reading” shares an identical root (קרא) with “naming,”' “calling,” and “being called.” We read texts, we name and conceptualize what they say; we call upon them and allow them to call upon – and “read” – us, thereby awakening and challenging us and expanding the horizons of our spiritual life:
"Are the true books just books? Or are they not also the embers still glowing beneath the ashes, as Rabbi Eliezer called the words of the Prophets? In this way the flame traverses history without ever going out. But the truth illuminates whoever blows on the flame and coaxes it back to life. More or less. It's a question of breath." – Emmanuel Levinas