I moved back and forth twice today between Manhattan and Brooklyn--once to see a mentor in the city and the second time to be on a panel before "young Jews" who are at least 10-15 years younger than me and in both trips, under the water and through the tunnels, I was acutely aware of how important and irrelevant was the role of history.
With the mentor, history was a strong, loud voice, laying down principles that could guide us, shed light, and prove a way forward. With the young ones, I'm sad to report, there seemed a greater interest in the invention of language for a new era, the coinage of phrase for a paradigm as yet unseen. Classic. Each generation craves (at its own peril) it's own originality. Yawn.
I shared a panel tonight with a philanthropy professional who was exceptionally smart and self-critical, along with a young modern Orthodox rabbi who is trying to define "kosher" in the context of living wage and health care. Sitting across the room was Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, who has built a liberal yeshiva where Torah is being learned each day. Charity, justice and learning were all represented, fully, with integrity, and I was filled with hope.
At the same time, the audience was predominantly observant, we were preaching to the choir, and one had to ask: "Of those among the masses, who's listening?"
Having said that, maybe it doesn't matter.
What impact, after all, can we really expect to have?
On the aforementioned two journeys to and from Manhattan, I read from the historian Linda Gordon's new book on the documentary photographer Dorothea Lange. Dorothea Lange had polio and in one of her seminars, in the 1950s, she asked her students to compose self-portraits with narrative which she participated in as well--a rare expression of her own interior world which caught Gordon's attention. Lange shot her own foot, contorted by her disease but nonetheless an evocative photo of the record, if you will, of its power to both create impediment and draw inspiration and therefore narrative to overcome its crippling challenge.
When Lange was teaching photography to students in 1959 and chose to describe her own self-portrait in the context of all her other students' portraits she wrote, "By the time we have looked at them all, we ought to feel that our own homes and hearts, by the view we have been given of the homes and hearts of others, are not just what they were when they began."
Being able to see into the "homes and hearts" of others is an experience that creates empathy and compassion--two essential elements for the redeeming of our world.
As in, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Or, "You shall honor the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt."
In other words, while rumbling through the tunnels on the way home tonight, I thought not of outreach but of history; not of innovation but renovation; not paradigm shifts but simply paradigms.
Love. Compassion. Justice.