My former professor, Larry Hoffman, used to joke that watching people in Jewish communities interact could be as rote as a classical piece of liturgy. He would relate something along the lines of: “Please turn to page 22 to kvetch about the rabbi,” or, “Kindly turn to page 164 to extol the virtues of the immediate past president.”
One wonders why people who are often smart, insightful, and kind can revert to such tired tropes when brought together in community. Perhaps it is due to a lack of purpose for coming together – or clarity about that purpose. Even more likely, it may be due to a plurality of purposes and the need to leave space for all of them. What if Jewish community could be a place to pursue all kinds of higher purposes rather than a “one size fits all” goal for everyone?
The idea of common purpose through a plurality of purposes rises to the surface in many parts of rabbinic literature. Our sages build in an underlying assumption that people are unique and cannot find fulfillment in one single way. My favorite discussion thereof stems from the Mechilta, a Midrash of unique beauty and philosophical insight. A line that I studied repeatedly, with the help of another one of my professors, Norman Cohen, has remained a guidepost for my approach to pluralism: “That to which you dedicate your whole life will bear your name.”
The emphasis is not on getting your name on a building or ensuring a public legacy. The discussion readily focuses on the question of what it means to dedicate one’s life to a worthy purpose. For example, can one person can dedicate their entire life (or, depending on your reading, soul) to multiple goals? Was Moses able to give his full self to Torah, justice, and Israel? The commentators seem to affirm this possibility. Perhaps in more humble, more limited ways, we, too, could find more than one purpose.
Next, the midrash asks whether multiple people can have their name ascribed to a single project. Could the Temple in Jerusalem both bear David’s name and Solomon’s? Once more, our sages respond in the affirmative.
The Mechilta seems to indicate that most, if not all, people have at least one higher purpose – a calling, a source of inspiration, a way to contribute. We are all to find something to which we can ascribe our names: family, art, scientific research, philosophy, justice, learning, teaching, healing, or something else entirely.
The unique value added of a synagogue or center of Jewish life, therefore, is not to define or delimit a particular purpose but rather to provide space for people to discern it and reflect upon our progress in pursuing it. Our rote conversations after (or during) Shabbat services could be about the different paths to purpose – leading to more spontaneous reflections on our respective efforts. In creating space for each other, we create communities with space for us.
As we complete the book of Genesis and move to the book of Exodus, Mechilta bears revisiting as a font of wisdom. Notably, it can help us understand what it means to discover a higher purpose and then pursue it with fullness of heart.
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and the Director of Leadership Formation at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies.