Discussion Guide

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Sh’ma Topic Discussion Guides

Bringing together myriad voices and experiences in a sacred conversation provides Sh?ma readers with an opportunity in a few very full pages to explore a topic of Jewish interest from a variety of perspectives. To facilitate a fuller discussion of the ideas, we offer the following questions:

Teens: Boys and Girls and Education

  1. How might Jewish communities and educational opportunities reach out to boys without putting aside the needs of girls?
  2. Do boys step back and away as girls step up into leadership roles?
  3. As educators, what might be the impact on students of our unexplored gender biases and attitudes toward sexuality?

Jewish Money

  1. Has greed played a role in the recent financial failure?
  2. How is the free market limited by moral sensibilities?
  3. What core Jewish values guide us in making economic decisions?

Writing the Jewish Conversation

  1. How might Judaism be different had the Bible ended with Joshua, with Moshe and the Israelites entering the Land?
  2. What do we gain, as Jews, from the “profound humility” of talmudic discourse and argumentation?
  3. How might it enrich Judaism to think not as a “people of the book” but as a people engaged with a multilayered and multidimensional text?

Families & Conversion

  1. How does our understanding of Judaism — as a people, an ethnicity, a religion — impact the process of conversion?
  2. Can Judaism be more solicitous of the hyphenated identity of Jews-by- Choice?
  3. Is the “doorway into Judaism” a welcoming experience? How so, or if not, why not?

A Jewish Lens on Trafficking

  1. What is the relationship between gender-based oppression and the trafficking of women?
  2. Why is trafficking a Jewish issue?
  3. How might Jewish communities draw on human rights and Jewish textual sources to address the issue?

Jewish Environmentalism

  1. Is energy conservation a matter of “personal virtue”? How is what we think, linked to what we do?
  2. How does our notion of stewardship inform our environmental practice?
  3. Should Israel renounce its nuclear energy program?


  1. Is there a connection between Judaism and neoconservatism? Between Judaism and liberalism?
  2. Does the detail & extensiveness of Jewish law suggest that Judaism is inherently conservative?
  3. How do our religious and political thinking help us address evil?

Teaching Israel

  1. How is your identity as an American Jew tied to the State of Israel?
  2. Can a reimagining of the teaching of Israel recreate a new Zionism for the 21st century?
  3. Why have many millions of dollars been spent to send young Jews to Israel? Does a trip to Israel definitively instill something in a young Jew’s soul?

A Changing Landscape

  1. How might Jewish community life change if we stop thinking about a “center” and peripheries, and think instead of multiple centers, or “nodes”?
  2. How does a stronger diasporic culture impact the relationship of American Jews to Israel?
  3. What is the impact of individuality and new trends in social networking on synagogues as central addresses of American Jewish life?

A Different Sexual Revolution

  1. How might the goals of the feminist and transgender movements work to further a more inclusive Jewish communal life?
  2. What do Jewish texts, such as the Song of Songs, teach about sexual ethics?
  3. How might Judaism be more welcoming to gender diversity?

Reforming Reform Judaism

  1. What is the next “frontier” for Refoem Judaism?
  2. Should Reform Judaism return to its earlier emphasis on social justice, or place greater emphasis on ritual?
  3. What is the relationship between autonomy and authority for Reform Jews?

Capturing holiness on the page and canvas

  1. Why have Jewish communities been so forthcoming in the anti-genocide in Darfur movement?
  2. Given Jewish history, and Israel as an ingathering of exiles, should the Israeli government open its doors to Sudanese refugees?
  3. Is divestment a strategy that works in pressuring governments to change policy? Might it be deployed against Israel? Should that impact Jews involved in the anti-genocide in Sudan movement?

Place, Space, and the Shaping of American Judaism

  1. Kedusha, holiness, speaks primarily to the concept of separation. What role does separation play in making our daily lives holy?
  2. How does the sound of the shofar inspire you at the High Holidays?
  3. For those that believe that God permeates the entire universe, is anything mundane?
  4. What stands in the way of teshuva, atonement, and forgiveness at the High Holidays?

Place, Space, and the Shaping of American Judaism

  1. What impact does the size of a Jewish community have on the nature of Jewish community and does it influence Jewish identity?
  2. How is Jewish culture determined by the urban or suburban setting?
  3. What are some of the enduring influences of the move of Jews into suburbs?

Evangelicals, Jews, and Israel

  1. Should Jews embrace “Evangelical friends” and their support of Israel?
  2. What are the dimensions and limitations of that “friendship”?
  3. How is the Evangelical-Jewish relationship similar to and different from the relationship between Jews and Catholics?

Jewish Lens on Immigration Reform

  1. In discussing immigration reform, what factors should inform the communal positions of our faith communities?
  2. What can we learn from immigration models in other countries?
  3. Which key Jewish texts speak to issues of resettlement and welcoming the stranger?

Synagogue Organizing

  1. Does modernity collide with an ultra-religious life? How do we integrate tradition with freedom?
  2. How does the concept of “Divine sparks” explain the outreach efforts of Chabad?
  3. Does religious-state separation preclude the wearing of religious garb in the military?

Synagogue Organizing

  1. What is the difference between social action and social justice?
  2. Should synagogues engage with other faith groups — in public arenas — to promote social change? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such public actions?
  3. How is success in a synagogue measured?

Leadership and Charisma

  1. What are the responsibilities of belonging to the Jewish people? What
    are the mitzvot of peoplehood?
  2. What factors contribute to the making of a charismatic leader?
  3. Can rabbis and other communal leaders continue to serve in leadership positions after they have admitted previous sexual misconduct?
  4. How do we safeguard the close, and heirarchical, relationship of student   and rabbi?
  5. Can charisma be taught?

Peoplehood and Justice

  1. In such a globalized world, how do we define peoplehood today?
  2. Is there a core value system that underlies the notion of peoplehood,
    and what are those values?
  3. What makes Jews in Israel, Europe, Africa, America, and other places
    part of the same people-religion, ethnic traditions, a sense of

High Holiday: Private and Public Prayer

  1. How do you make each Rosh Hashana new? How do you infuse the holiday prayers with a newness that captivates your attention?
  2. Al cheyt is the communal recitation, the litany that begins, “We have sinned…” Why do we recite this prayer in the plural? What is today’s greatest sin?
  3. What is the tension running through the High Holiday liturgy between private, individual prayer and communal prayer?
  4. How do we, as Jews, balance our historic support of civil liberties (privacy) with our sense of caution as the world becomes more threatening?

Sustainable Innovation in Jewish Life

  1. What’s new about innovation in 2006?
  2. How is Internet and digital technology changing Jewish life?
  3. Jews have often been thought of as residing “on the margin,” a fertile place for creativity. Has that changed? How has it impacted Jewish innovative practices?

Inside Holocaust Education

  1. Should Jewish schools use the Holocaust to teach moral lessons? If so, which ones?
  2. How do we integrate the observance of Yom haShoah into Jewish educational curricula?
  3. What is the rubric for teaching about the Holocaust in Jewish schools?
  4. Does Holocaust education focus too much curricula attention on death?


  1. Are there boundaries for a Jewish pluralist stance? What are they?
  2. How can we stretch to include a wider variety of modalities within which to express one’s Judaism?
  3. Why is Judaism sectored into denominations, and what are the obstacles to collaboration among the various movements?  
  4. How does the idea, that we are all made in the image of God, influence pluralism?

“Letters” to the New JTS Chancellor

  1. How will Conservative Judaism accommodate change without losing its identity and sense of itself as a movement?
  2. How does the Conservative movement straddle the “middle” between Orthodoxy and Reform Judaism?
  3. Are Conservative Jews “commanded” by God or do they “choose” observance?

Globalization and Jewish Identity

  1. Why is globalization a Jewish issue?
  2. How is Jewish identity preserved in an era of cultural sameness?
  3. How will Zionism emerge from an age when nationalism is quickly going out of fashion? And how will that impact Israel’s Jewish identity?
  4. How are the benefits of a consumer society measured against the economic and social changes brought about by globalization?

Theology Issue

  1. Is theology relevant today?
  2. Does pluralism dilute the “truth” of Judaism?
  3. How do recent discussions about Intelligent Design fit with your understanding of the creation of the world?

New Voices

  1. How might our communities continue to acknowledge destruction and danger but refocus primary resources on celebrating Jewish endurance and vitality?
  2. What is the impact of a changing Jewish demography? Can we reimagine Jewish identity as a culturally dispersed and vibrant interconnection with multiple homes?
  3. Should Jewish communal groups focus on Jewish continuity projects or put forward programs that stress service, the arts, and other avenues that empower next-gen Jews to lead fully integrated lives?

Jewish Social Action Month

  1. What are the implications of ¡§covenantal society¡¨ for Jewish organizations and individuals engaging in justice work?
  2. What role does the Jewish value of ¡§peoplehood¡¨ play in mobilizing Jewish justice initiatives?
  3. How do you discern the differences between chesed, acts of lovingkindness, and tzedek, justice?
  4. How might our communities emphasize, and our schools educator toward, individual obligation to the community and communal obligation to the individual as fundamental Jewish values?

Inside the High Holy Days

  1. What is the essence of Rosh Hashanah, and how is it expressed through prayer?
  2. How might nature serve as a sanctuary for prayer?
  3. Does a gendered God language encumber prayer? Is your prayer encumbered by changing language?
  4. What role does music, movement, silence, and art play in your celebration of the new year?
  5. What is the power of teshuvah, the act of self-re.ection, of turning, of forgiveness, during the High Holy days?

New Jewish Rituals

  1. What is the impact of the feminist movement on Jewish ritual? How have new rituals created by women impacted traditional rituals?
  2. What makes a ritual authentic?
  3. Will changes in ritual, and the ritual lives of Jewish men and women, transform Judaism? How so?
  4. Do rituals legitimize new behaviors, and if so, how?

Arts & Culture

  1. Many Jews assert that Judaism is primarily about holiness in time. How does art impact and create holy space?
  2. What would an artistically integrated Jewish educational program/school look like?
  3. Jewish tradition acknowledges the seductive nature of the visual.   How do Jewish artists address this?

Jewish Books

  1. What is the relationship between Jewish books and Jewish lives?
  2. Does popular culture and the tempo of contemporary living preclude serious engagement in Jewish reading?
  3. How might Israeli literature serve as a window into Israeli culture, politics, and life?

Hope and Text

  1. Are we strengthened, as Jews and as a Jewish community, by the trials of life?
  2. What Jewish texts, and which Jewish experiences, continue to sustain your hope in the Jewish people?
  3. How does the talmudic genre of conversational argumentation inform our communal politics, leadership, values, and ability to listen to and draw upon our diversity?

Israel’s Settlements

  1. What role do Israel’s settlements play vis-?-vis the future of the State?
  2. Can Israel hold onto the West Bank and Gaza and remain a demographically Jewish state? How?
  3. How are the settlers similar to and different from Israel’s early pioneers?

Lay and Professional Leaders in Relationship

  1. How do we employ “vision,” as Jewish lay and professional leaders, to create vibrant Jewish communities?
  2. What are the most salient features that draw you into community? What impinges on that involvement?
  3. What are the most compelling answers to the question: Why be Jewish? And how has this changed over the last decade?


  1. How does our observance of mitzvot relate to our relationship with God? Are we covenantal partners with God in the transmission of mitzvot?
  2. How do we approach a mitzvah that unsettles our Jewish sensibility?
  3. How does Jewish law broaden the scope of personal responsibility?
  4. What is the interplay between ethical behavior and the observance of mitzvot? Has the category of ethical ideal lost its power to obligate?

Jewish Women and Leadership

  1. What are the fault lines in the relationship between Jewish professional and lay leaders? And how can they best be addressed?
  2. What is the impact of feminism on volunteerism? Are Jewish organizations losing a needed pool of volunteers? How might they restructure to adapt to new social, technological, and communal realities?
  3. Should business practices play a role in the governance of nonprofit organizations such as synagogues and schools?

Ten Jewish Sensibilities

  1. How would you characterize and chart a list of ten sensibilities to guide 
    Jewish life today?
  2. In a society ever more connected to popular culture, how do we transmit core 
    Jewish values to our children?
  3. How have Jewish values influenced contemporary American ethics, and how much have contemporary American cultural values informed Jewish sensibilities?

Fragile Diaspora Communities

  1. Are Jewish organizations, synagogues, schools, federations, marketing Judaism or are they marketing their individual missions, programs, appeals?
  2. How will marketing effectiveness be measured?
  3. In a society so embedded in popular culture, how do we appeal to unaffiliated, especially young, Jews without subverting our message in a cultural malaise?
  4. If Jews are commanded to be “A Light to the Nations,” should we engage in proselytizing? How do we interpret this verse?

Jewish Reflections on the 2004 Election

  1. Should American Jews embrace the Christian Right as a political ally?
  2. How do Jewish values influence your political thinking and the choices you made about the 2004 election?
  3. How might the Jewish community and its myriad institutions help America heal from the divisiveness of the recent election?

Jewish Books

  1. Is knowledge of Hebrew essential to be a literate Jew?
  2. What makes a book Jewish?
  3. In what way does the reading of Jewish books influence your sense of self ? that is, your Jewish identity?

Muslim – Jewish Dialogue

  1. What is the relevance of Muslim-Jewish dialogue and what might come from that dialogue? Will dialogue impact the future of the Middle East? If not, why bother? What are the obstacles to dialogue?
  2. How can we trust that our partners in dialogue are honest and not making antisemitic comments in other forums?
  3. What are the crucial factors leading to periods of flexibility and openness to other religions, and periods of rigidity and closure?
  4. What is the nature of religiously articulated responsibility within Judaism toward others?that is, toward the community existing beyond its boundaries?
  5. What are the most important Jewish values that bear on your personal openness to engage the other?
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