A Horizontal Table

March 1, 2012
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Rachel Nussbaum

A search for the phrase “rebbe’s tisch” on YouTube generates hundreds of hits. To the untrained eye, these videos have a similar look: men dressed in the black-and-white Hasidic “uniform”; a crowd hovering around one or more tables; singing with great devotion; a rebbe at the head table. That same untrained eye would also recognize that the tisch I hold at my home in Seattle looks very different.

Here in Seattle, the “rebbe” does not have a beard. On a more serious note, though, my experiments with creating tischen for a non-Orthodox community have raised broad-reaching practical and theoretical questions about leadership and community building in a liberal, egalitarian setting. At a tisch, the boundaries of the community are delineated, quite literally, by who has a seat at the table. The power of the traditional tisch emerges from a shared religious vocabulary and the authority of the rabbi. Can the intimacy and cohesive power of the traditional tisch be transposed into a more egalitarian and “horizontal” setting? And if so, how?

Although my egalitarian tisch may look different, the content and goals are largely the same. Our tisch, like a traditional one, features words of Torah as well as spirited singing, with the mood alternating from mellow and reflective to energetic and frenzied. And, yes, these events contain moments of focus and closeness, when community members share both food and an experience, and feel connected to one another and to the transcendent. However, the very different audience and cultural context of a “horizontal” tisch elicits several interesting questions to ponder.

First, who is an insider to the experience? Classically, the act of breaking bread together — and, by extension, sitting at the table — plays an important role in defining who counts within the Jewish community (think about the laws of kashrut, for example). While the contemporary liberal Jewish community’s boundaries are already more porous than the boundaries of a Hasidic community, we have many more invitations to offer before all Jews will feel welcome at the Jewish table. The guests at my table, for example, include Jews and non-Jews, men and women, old and young people, and a wide variety of backgrounds and interests enliven the table talk.

Second, what is the balance between “ringers” and “newcomers”? I’ve found that it helps to have a critical mass of “ringers” — that is, a core of more experienced people who can sing along unabashedly, setting a tone for the experience. But, much like the sheva brachot (seven blessings) that count on the presence of “panim chadashot” (new faces) in order to extend a wedding celebration for a week, my favorite tisch experiences successfully integrate a diverse group that includes, among others, newcomers and disaffected Jews whose interest is being rekindled. For this motley crew, the experience of learning and singing together at a table without any assumption of conformity of practice or belief creates a temporary bond upon which to build in the future.

Third, what is the leader’s role? What new models exist for rethinking the rabbi-community relationship? When I organize and advertise a “rebbe’s tisch,” I use rebbe language in a tongue-in-cheek way that draws attention to the contrast between an alternative and a traditional tisch. Rather than focusing on a single charismatic leader, my tisch features multiple leaders who teach, offer “l’chaims,” and initiate niggunim (wordless melodies). While having multiple leaders creates its own problems (less opportunity for an individual to shepherd and facilitate the experience), too much “rebbe-ism” scares me.

These questions, of course, extend far beyond the tisch to the building of community around any shared idea or experience. As much as I love working with a liberal, progressive, and diverse community of individuals, deep down, I often wonder whether it is possible to create the same degree of commitment, focus, and spiritual energy that (at least as an outsider) seems to exist in traditional tischen. I find so many aspects of the ultra-Orthodox world problematic — the hierarchy, sharp gender distinctions, boundaries between insiders and outsiders, and the submission to authority, just to name a few. And yet, there are moments when I envy the seeming ease with which passion and cohesion are created when a very different worldview serves as the community’s foundation.

Can the intimacy and cohesive power of the traditional tisch be transposed into a more egalitarian and “horizontal” setting? Though I believe it can work, it requires enormous effort and facilitation. And I am neither willing to sacrifice my commitment to egalitarianism, porous boundaries, and shared leadership nor able to grow a beard. So, for now, you will find me sitting around a table with a diverse crew of liberal Jews, teaching Torah, learning from others, and singing my heart out, in my own alternative take on the rebbe’s tisch.

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Rachel Nussbaum is rabbi and executive director of the Kavana Cooperative in Seattle (www.kavana.org), which is working to create a new communal model to meet the needs of 21st-century American Jews.

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