“We must never see an end to our own Jewish education and never close our ears to voices new and old that challenge our own Jewish choices and practices.”
–Edgar Bronfman z’’l
I had always been rather decisive for my age. Throughout high school, amidst the cliques, open minds and unmarked college applications, I took pride in having my entire future mapped out before my undecided friends. The order of events, while alternative compared to the interests of my sixteen year old peers, could not have sounded any more narrow and secured in my mind. I had already planned every step: graduate from a liberal arts college, attend a Conservative rabbinical school, marry a Jewish lawyer, assume a pulpit in an upscale suburb, raise three children to follow my direct footsteps, and write a book somewhere in between. If I encountered another experience that could potentially apply to my passions, I simply added to the “life list,” leaving no room for any surprises.
My sense of direction also defined my Judaism. At age sixteen, I was already a self-proclaimed theologian with all my opinions and answers in place. I fervently deciphered my beliefs of God, prayer, and the future of Judaism and proudly shared and trademarked them as my own. I pre-determined the Jewish life I aspired to live, settling and resettling myself in order to avoid the unknown. It was as if the person I needed to become in the world was a race that I somehow was at risk of losing. The cure to the sporadic moments of unsettledness was simply to find answers, even if that meant boldly creating them myself. Uncertainty was the foundation for my radical decision-making; the pressure to find certainty paved the way for me to fashion my Jewish identity.
During the summer before my senior year of high school, I experienced a revelation of some sort, one that challenged every decision I had made in my lifetime. That summer, I joined twenty-five unique thinkers from across the geographic and Jewish spectrum in Israel. We spent five weeks learning, traveling, and building a community together as a new diverse cohort of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. Again, I entered that summer geared with and sheltered by my own determination, a trait in my Jewish identity that had narrowed my seemingly open mind in more damaging ways than I realized. Throughout the month, I contributed to every conversation with responses I pulled from my “word bank” of faith, initially unfazed by the fairly large issues with which we were grappling as naïve Jewish teens. I watched in awe as some of my new friends engaged with varying ideas of Torah, intermarriage and Israel, the new voices and opinions piercing through their original perceptions of Judaism and expanding their minds. Some were moved to tears, others laughed in disbelief; while their responses differed, they were each sharing the same experience of moving from places of certainty and settledness to challenge and unsettled discomfort. But not me. My feet were firmly planted in my bold beliefs, buried beneath the soil of doubt and questioning.
It was not until halfway through the summer when I was introduced to my cookie-cut-predetermined Jewish identity. One of my teachers, Rabbi Mishael Zion, bluntly asked who I was. I began my default introduction and ten year plan, filled with Conservative pulpit, books and all but was quickly cut off: “No, who are you? Who are you now? I’m not asking about the Emily in ten years from now. Who is this Emily?” Caught off guard, I began slowly repeating my doctrine, theology, and religious opinions, all compartmentalized in my narrow mind, only to realize that I had not one clue what I believed in. That day, I came face to face with the identity I carved for myself for reassurance and challenged the seemingly settled core, leaving me unsettled in ways that I could not hide under bold decisions or beliefs. That day, I traded my answers for questions: I learned to accept that I do not know. There are parts of myself as well as my faith that I do not know, nor need to decide today.
Fortunately, the art of not knowing is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov emphasized the importance of settling in the questions rather than rushing for answers. He would argue that it is the very hesitation and silence—the space that is formed by what we do not know—that created the world. The power that sparked creation is held in the space of the unknown. To avoid finding answers—or to master the art of not knowing—is holding the space that birthed the world rather than filling its gaps. Moreover, Rebbe Nachman urged his students to embrace the deep questions and bask in the realization that there are things in life beyond our understanding and reach. And instead of trying to cover this space of questions and paradoxes with whatever answer we claim at the time, we should—in the spirit of Reb Nachman and the mystics of his time—sing. Celebrate the void that holds both our unanswered questions and the world at large in a wordless melody, or a niggun, allowing the light to seep through. “…niggunim seem to reach similar areas of our minds, areas beyond the reach of normal discursive thinking.”¹ While a niggun cannot answer life’s deepest questions, it reminds us that we need not rush to find answers. This powerful singing compels us to close our eyes and live in the present, rather than narrowing our eyes for whatever knowledge exists in the future.
We owe it to Judaism to celebrate not knowing. Amidst the tension between Jewish denominations, the rise of intermarriage, and the values that diverge communities rather than unite them, everyone is searching to find some radical answer or “cure” that will miraculously save the global Jewish community. Perhaps we need something even more radical for the next generation: to settle in the unsettling—to admit that we don’t know. No groundbreaking sermon, Pew study, or facebook status will cover the fact that there are questions and issues beyond our understanding. Rather than further widening the gaps between communities, why not all start on the same foundation of not knowing and be open to learning from one another from there? Embracing the fact that we may not have all the answers will enable us to listen to new voices rather than silence them.
Today, I have no idea how my future will look. I have yet to determine my theology and I certainly have no published book, let alone the groundbreaking content with which to write one. I have learned to settle myself in what I once found unsettling. All I have is the recognition that there are some things I need not yet know, and the ability to act upon that in any way that I choose. My summer with the Bronfman Youth Fellowship inspired me to embrace my present, Edgar Bronfman’s words (z’’l) teach me how to open myself to new ideas for the future, and Rebbe Nachman and his Chassids remind me to close my eyes and sing in between. It has become a holy “life-list,” one that aligns my now indecisive head and heart.
1. Schachter-Shalomi, Zalman, Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer (Jewish Lights, 2012) 35email print