These and Those

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

Personal Reflections: Who Am I? The Complexity of Identity in the 21st Century

Posted on July 15, 2020 by Beryl Levinger

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This was written by Beryl Levinger who studied at Pardes in the summer of 2008 before joining this summer’s PLS.

I love that Judaism is a religion of doing. In practical terms, this means that Jewish learning should help us to grow both spiritually and behaviorally. Unpacking the multiple meanings of a text in beit midrash—whether real or virtual—is not only an opportunity to experience the exuberance of deep learning, discovery, and connection.  It’s also a chance to build the runway we need to elevate our lives so that we––heirs to God’s covenant with Abraham––bring justice and righteousness into the world.

My decision to enroll in the 2020 Pardes Learning Seminar was driven by many factors. First of all, the topic—Who Am I? The Complexity of Identity in the 21st Century—was very compelling. But the convenience of virtual participation clinched the deal for me. As it turned out, the program wildly exceeded all my (already very high) expectations.

So, what was this program anyway? Basically, we engaged in a five-day virtual bootcamp that began for me, a Californian, at 7:30 am with a period of community-building and reflection. From there, we headed off—via Zoom, of course—to the first of three 90-minutes classes (each separated by a 30-minute break). In almost every time block, we could choose between two offerings. This was an embarrassment of riches since each class was fascinating. Fortunately, we didn’t have to miss anything; we also had access to recordings of every session on offer. Wow!

Thanks to the faculty’s careful planning and wonderful tech staff support, source sheets were available as pdf files before class began, and Zoom breakout rooms allowed us to experience chavruta after each instructor’s introductory remarks and guiding questions. Zoom’s algorithm randomly assigned each of us to a chavruta. Surprisingly, I grew to greatly appreciate the “besheirt-ness” of these groupings because they fostered interaction with diverse participants.

It would be hard to summarize all that I learned in just a few snippets. Instead, when I recall my Day One experience, I envision a movie trailer that presents just a few scenes from an Academy Award-winning production. There’s Meesh Hammer-Kossoy helping us to develop an appreciation for the fact that Judaism promotes the cultivation of both individual and communal identities. Then, the camera focuses on David Bernstein as he shows us the evolution of Israeli identity by taking us on a guided tour of Mount Hertzl’s military cemetery. Next, we pan to Nechama Goldman Barash who asks us to consider this mind-blowing question: Can our highly gendered religious tradition accommodate the possibility of non-binary sexuality?

My mind’s eye also evokes what I think of as the “Judy Klitsner film festival.” The matinee examines personal identity through the lens of two well-known tales. In the opening scene, workers energetically build the Tower of Babel. But soon, the action shifts to three characters: the courageous Egyptian midwives, Shifrah and Puah, along with Pharoah’s daughter. We watch these convention-defying women catalyze the redemption process. The stories are cinematic in scope and rife with interpretative possibilities that we subsequently unpack in chavruta. In the second “Judy Klitsner Film Festival” showing, we confront two especially dramatic moments in Torah–– the daughters of Tzelafchad standing up to community leaders and the return of the “spies” who see themselves as nothing more than grasshoppers. The scenes inspire us to grapple with multiple levels of identity––personal, gender, communal, and national.

At the beginning of this reflection, I suggested that the ultimate purpose of Jewish learning is to help us—the learners—bring justice and righteousness into the world. During our five days, we had the chance to look at the “what” (specific texts around identity) and the “so what” (the significance of these texts). But, it is only post-seminar that I can begin to answer the ultimate question of “now what”—what will I do with what I’ve learned? Right now, inspired by the Pardes experience, I’m developing a short course that explores Jewish ethics in the context of social distancing and mask use. My objective is to help others experience the thrill of deep text study that is connected to what matters most in our lives. Thank you to everyone—faculty, staff, and fellow learners—who have accompanied me on this blissful journey.

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