By the time I entered his classroom, Rabbi Jacob Rader Marcus was already in his late 90s and had been teaching American Jewish History at Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College for 70 years. On that day, nearly 20 years ago, I was an overconfident student eager to demonstrate how much I knew.
But with an economy of words, my teacher taught me a lesson I have reason to recall every day: We learn nothing while talking.
This same wisdom was offered recently in a New York Times Magazine profile of Jump Associates, a firm that specializes in helping organizations think creatively. Jump CEO Dev Patnaik offered, “A lot of breakthroughs are born in meditative states, [such as] the mindset you’re in when alone and driving, for instance. In fact, neuroscience has found a link between the slower rhythms associated with zoning out and creativity.”
We live in an age of seismic change and unrelenting chatter. Assumptions upon which Jewish and wider circles of life have been founded for so long are now challenged. As new sociological realities, patterns of affiliation, and allotment of resources cause the sacred ground upon which we build our home to, quite literally, shift beneath our feet, our confidence in demographic and economic projections is necessarily undermined; and with our concern for all the future holds and how we shall best hold on, everyone seems to be talking. But this doesn’t assure any of us know what to say.
Indeed, more than six years ago, in my first High Holy Day message at Rodef Shalom, I shared words that are more urgent than ever. “What has served us so well for so long has only taken us so far.” Or as HUC-JIR professor of Jewish communal service and Rodef Shalom’s 2010 Kaplan Ethics Institute Scholar in Residence Steven Windmueller has recently written, “Many institutional givens are no longer viable, [therein] creating multiple dilemmas. The infrastructure of the Jewish communal system is forever altered. In these difficult and unsettling times, many new realities [will be experienced] both on the personal and institutional level.”
How best to think about and to approach these real challenges and new realities? From where will our novel ideas and vision come?
Abraham Maslow, expert on human behavior and motivation, has written:
“The best kind of thinking, the best kind of problem solution, clearly depends on a good viewing of the problem situation itself, of being able to see it objectively, without expectations, without presuppositions, without a priori thinking of any kind, but simply in the purest sense of the word, objectively … without being determined by prejudices or fears or hopes or wishes or personal advantage or anything of the sort. This is the best way to see any situation. This is the best way certainly to see any problem, which is calling for a solution. The problem to be solved is the problem out there in front of our noses.”
Discovering the innovative means with which we will help the Jewish community and her congregations be best prepared to meet the future will require us to look around, to listen to one another, and to be willing to learn from all we experience without rushing to prejudge the outcome.
So it is that as of the first of the year, I will spend three months meeting with rabbinic colleagues from across the country, attending Jewish conferences and worship services within and beyond Pittsburgh, and sharing time with HUC’s senior class in Cincinnati to discuss our expectations and hopes for the future.
Not one of us — neither lay leaders nor rabbis — can be sure what the future holds. For this reason, from time to time, we all need to slow down, quiet our minds, prime ourselves for introspection, and allow ourselves the opportunity to observe, reflect and think creatively. In other words, if we really want to learn, as my professor taught so many years ago, the best thing we can do for ourselves, for one another and for the community we love is to keep quiet and to listen.
Fifteen years into my rabbinate and seven years since taking the helm as senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom, I am incredibly grateful for this simple privilege: the opportunity to be quiet, to listen and to learn. And come April, I look forward to returning to the pulpit, the classroom, the public square, refreshed and renewed, with impressions to share, initiatives to try, and ideas with which our entire community must engage.
(Aaron Bisno, the senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation, has begun a three-month sabbatical. Rabbi Sharyn Henry will act as senior rabbi there in his absence.)