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The Promise of Judaism: A Summary

Posted by Darakshan Farber on October 29, 2009

The full, raw transcript from the evening can be found here. A video clip from toward the end of the evening, of Rabbi Kellman speaking about his son in Israel, can be found here. Photos from the event can be found below. 

On October 12th I had the pleasure of attending "The Promise of Judaism," a lively discussion between Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Rabbi David Ingber, Maggid Yitzhak Buxbaum, and Rabbi Yaakov Kellman, hosted by Pir Zia Inayat-Khan and moderated by Rabia Povich. This was the second in a series of dialogs exploring the focus area of Seven Pillars called Revelation.

Over the several hours of the panel we came to know the diverse personalities and approaches of our four guests, particularly their distinct range from the deeply mystical to the practical and pragmatic. Each guest displayed his own fresh sense of humor ("Are all rabbis comedians?" one quipped), a simple humility, and a bravely honest authenticity willing to face difficult questions.

To be fair, none of the speakers would have been present had they not been the kind of open-minded leader willing to show up in a Sufi community to share their religion. Unfortunately, of the many terrific female rabbis, none whom Seven Pillars contacted was available to attend this event. (As one of the rabbis pointed out, the women all have jobs—we're the schlumps who are out of work and free to attend gatherings like this.)

Our distinguished guests initially addressed the question, "What special wisdom does Judaism offer to the non-Jewish world?" Maggid (story teller, teacher) Yitzhak spoke of Judaism's twin gifts to the world of monotheism and humanism. Rabbi Rami spoke of the iconoclastic origin of Judaism, the smashing of idols, whatever they may be, an attitude that continues in new forms to this day. Rabbi David listed charity, ethics, the sacred space in time for Shabbat, and the ongoing learning and wrestling with ideas, meanings and ethics. Rabbi Yaakov lifted the focus by remarking that what Judaism offers includes all those things, and also transcends those things, offering an experience, a resonance, a light for humanity that may be experienced without narrowing it by words. Pir Zia pointed out that another contribution of Judaism is its introduction of "history" to world culture, replacing a more impersonal cyclic vision of time with a sense that people as a whole are part of an ongoing story that we constantly revisit and revise.

Indeed, Jews wrestle with the stories; as Rabbi David noted, they create verbal asanas with the text. The Jewish culture, starting with the Torah, encourages us to talk back to G-d, to wrestle with the angels, to question and explore the language and meaning down to each word. As one said, how could the words of G-d, who is infinite, have only one meaning? It is common practice to fill in the gaps in the traditional stories with explanations of why something may have been done or said, of what may have been the context. These stories are not seen as "true" so much as "possible." There is an enormous sense of freedom in the open-ended richness of these stories, which creates a field of ethical and aesthetic possibilities that is the antithesis of fundamentalism. Sometimes, as the collective morality of the people evolves, the leaders sense a shift in this field, leading to legal revisions in interpretation of laws similar to what happens in our Supreme Court. Virtually nothing is impossible; as it is said, "Where there's a rabbinic will, there's a rabbinic way."

This wrestling was made concrete when one member of the audience asked about how Judaism deals with suffering. The response led to discussion of the painful state of the relationship ofthe Jewish nation with Palestine. We all felt the difficulty, discomfort and struggle this critical issue stirs within the Jewish people. Rabbi Yaakov shared a heartfelt dialog that he recently had with his son serving in the Israeli Defense Forces on the West Bank, who called in distress about the degrading treatment of Palestinians that he had witnessed. Rabbi Yaakov counseled his son that he must remember where he is, but “you cannot take the image of G-d away from anyone.” All of the panelists agreed that there is great pain on both sides, everyone is wounded, and that we need to get above the politics and the hatred to begin a process of healing. We must recognize that every human is sacred, and strive to treat all beings ethically.

Judaism has grown and matured through its many thousands of years, and has been continually revising its view of our place in the world and of the ideal we know as G-d—once stern parent, later sensual lover, and ultimately the ineffable ground of being from which all life springs and through which we are all connected.

The Promise of Islam, the third in Seven Pillars series of dialogues on the Abrahamic traditions, will be held spring 2010. A dialogue on Christian Revelation was held spring 2008.

Ron Povich contributed to this blog post.

Comments (3)
  • A simply magical piece of web journalism. Thank you.

    I’m curious. Did anybody provide a similar record of the dialog on Christian revelation held in the spring of last year?


    — Nick Routledge on October 29, 2009

  • Dear Nick,

    We wish we had done such a report after the Christian Revelation event. Now we try to do a report after most of our larger gatherings.

    Let me see if there is a way to fairly quickly make the Christian Revelation material available. Thank you for recommending this.

    Warm regards,
    Jennifer Alia

    — Jennifer Alia Wittman on October 30, 2009

  • Resonating with last month’s conversation, the Jewish Values Network is hosting “An International Symposium on Jewish Values” in New York City on November 17th-18th.  For details, see

    — Darakshan Farber on November 12, 2009

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29 October 2009

Tagged Under
Judaism, Israel, Palestine, Interspiritual, Peace, Revelation,
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