These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Meaning for Sale

Posted on September 14, 2016 by Jamie Bornstein

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In his writings, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes God as the ineffable – that which can be experienced and perceived, but which cannot be adequately described.

Rabbi Heschel calls our attention to something stunning and unique to the human condition. While we can only see a definable fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum, and can only hear within a definable range of frequencies, we are remarkably able to experience undefinable moments of divinity; moments we profoundly perceive but which cannot be captured easily, if at all, with language or math, our central tools for description and measurement.

Just as Rabbi Heschel’s God is ineffable, in many ways, so too are moments of meaning. They are perceptible and profound even while not measurable or concrete.

While intensely beautiful (or perhaps Rabbi Heschel would say radically beautiful), for those of us in the meaning business, this human attribute also presents a colossal challenge. How do we sell meaning, a product that largely defies words, and in a world that peddles products in hashtags no less? For many of us, the answer is to largely abandon words and stories, and to rely instead upon gimmicks.

As Assistant Director of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, North America, I spend a large percentage of my time fundraising and recruiting for our programs, and this question looms in my mind daily as I think about the best way to excite those who have not experienced Pardes first-hand as I have. How can I viscerally impress upon them what our thousands of alumni know intuitively to be true; that Jewish texts matter, are deeply relevant to our modern lives, and that coming to study Jewish texts in the Pardes beit midrash is a deeply meaningful and life changing experience.

Reluctant to resort to gimmicks, and in an attempt to find new ways to talk about Pardes, to give me the words I cannot always find, I turned recently to social media and asked the 926 members on the Pardes Alumni Network Facebook group to complete the question, “When I think of Pardes I think of…”

Here are some of their responses:

“Learning without borders. Learning with people I would have never wanted to meet before, and discovering that we are more similar than apart.”

“Becoming my true self.”

“Mind-and soul-quenching learning.”

“A safe space to develop my Jewish identity.”

“Tools to learn Torah on its own terms.”

“The best two years of my life!”

“The most calmly, truly, seriously pluralistic Jewish environment I’ve ever seen.”

“My first real one-on-one encounter with Jewish classical texts, and gaining the tools to have a conversation with them.”

“The love that emanates from our teachers.”

”Klal Yisrael coming together.”

I love these responses, especially this last one, and reading them brings me back to Rabbi Heschel.

Rather than defeating, for Rabbi Heschel the existence of the ineffable is awe inspiring and motivating. It is not a reason to abandon words, but a challenge to use them more poetically. Rabbi Heschel does not concede that God cannot be reached simply because God cannot be described. He does not argue against prayer or piyutim, human attempts to describe God’s indescribable grandeur. On the contrary, Rabbi Heschel poured himself into the task of writing, spilling much ink attempting to say things he himself argued could not be said!

So too it must be with us. Our job, our challenge, as peddlers of meaning, is to bridge that gap between concrete words and transcendent meaning. Like a siddur, our daily guidebook that helps us bridge the immense gap between the corporeal and the divine, a book that weaves together many voices — biblical, rabbinic, earlier and later sages — we too must weave together the voices of our constituents, recent and past, and not rely simply on our own.

Put differently, it is when klal Yisrael comes together, when we collect the voices of many, that our story is told in its richest form. This, too, is the secret sauce of Pardes so succinctly and elegantly captured by our alumnus in responsive to my Facebook query. Pardes is “Klal Yisrael coming together.” In our case, it is by bringing together Jews of all genders, backgrounds, and religious perspectives that meaning blooms in ways that it does not when each group operates in isolation.

And so, I accept the challenge to convey in words, both my own and those of my fellow alumni, the power of the deeply meaningful, ineffable experiences that take place within our one-of-a-kind beit midrash, no matter how imperfect those words may be — because collectively our words are greater than the sum of their parts.

Jamie Bornstein, Assistant Director of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, North America