Finding the Quest for Life’s Meaning in Jewish Thought (April 2021 KOL Article)
I will be teaching a session for the Jewish Philosophy intro course at HUC in New York this month. I have known the professor since he was a teenager, and he recalls a session I led at Princeton years ago the heart of which he wants me to share with his rabbinical students. One of the main ideas for my session will be the importance of internalizing the ideas of the seminal Jewish philosophers in order to accomplish two things: 1) be able to convey the essence of a particular Jewish philosophy either when it is sought by a congregant or in order to succinctly teach it, and 2) to internalize aspects from a multitude of Jewish philosophers to become intimately conversant with them and informed by them as a Jew and as a rabbi.
In preparing the class, I fondly remember the beginnings of TBS’s adult education in the back of the Abiding Presence social hall so many years ago, as we were striving to establish ourselves as a congregation that would not just be for pediatric religion, but for the spiritual growth of our adult members and seekers as well (even though the word “seeker” had yet to be used in this way). And then I fast forwarded to the two years where we met (sometimes 30+ people) in my little office (what is now Rabbi Widzer’s office), because with two sessions of religious school there was no room for adult education in the rest of the building, as we explored early Jewish philosophers in the first year and later Jewish philosophers in the second. And I remembered all of the Adult Education Shabbats where I shared the wisdom of a Jewish philosopher with the congregation, so that we could all become conversant with their personal journey and contribution to Jewish thinking. What I will share with my students this month is that I never would have dreamed as a rabbinical student how important learning about Jewish philosophy and theology of the past would be to my active rabbinate.
Those lessons also impacted my marriage, as Gary realized he was a Maimonidean, and I defined myself as a Jewish existentialist. I believe in a personal God with whom I am in an active relationship, and he is comfortable with God as an Idea. Over the years, so many of you have aligned with Gary in the face of my preference for Buber and Heschel. The important point being that our community became conversant with Jewish philosophy and theology in a way that you could have your preferences and articulate why you held those preferences – a rabbi’s dream!
Early Reform Jewish thinkers were very knowledgeable about those who came before them, as they wove modern concepts of Rationalism and Existentialism into modern Jewish thought. Yet, over time in the late 20th and early 21st century, another dimension was added to the academic pursuit of Jewish knowledge. In the past thirty years or so, we have seen greater emphasis and discussion on Jewish “Spirituality,” a word that didn’t really even exist and was certainly not discussed when I was in rabbinical school. This endeavor began with the focus on personal religious experience and needs, and now has become a field of study all its own. Some believe that it is more important for your rabbi to be your spiritual guide than your rabbinic teacher, a debate that will not be resolved any time soon. I am always of the inclination that binary choices yield only limitations, so I ask the question, “Why not both?” In studying and internalizing those who thought deeply about Judaism through philosophical and theological perspectives we can only enrich our spirituality and our intellectual Jewish discourse.
As Jews and religious seekers, we have the richness of thousands of years of tradition and thought that preceded us at our fingertips. As human beings seeking spiritual fulfillment and connection, I hope that our spiritual search takes us on a Jewish journey that is rich and rewarding.
In my personal quest for life’s meaning, I am Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz repeating, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” For whatever I seek to learn or find is available to me within the millennia of Jewish knowledge and teachings, all waiting for me to make it mine. I don’t need to leave Judaism to find what I am looking for. I have only to see that there are a host of Jewish thinkers, throughout the millennia, just waiting to be my teachers.
The vocabulary of what we believe and why can be informed and nurtured by the study of those who came before us. What I hope to teach my rabbinic students is the importance of being able to open the doors of that age-old Jewish wisdom for themselves and for those they will guide in the future. What I hope you see is that this is not just a lesson for future rabbis, but for us all.
Be well. Fondly, Rabbi Perlin