This blog post was written by Darya Watnick. Darya is a participant on the Yahel Social Change Program.
The past six weeks, at promptly 9:30 am on Thursday mornings we met with Rabbi Levi Lauer for an hour and a half class where we discussed everything from God, Judaism and evil in the world to politics and philanthropy. I was excited to learn with Rabbi Levi because I had heard so much about him prior to our sessions from my friends at the Pardes Insitute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Rabbi Levi used to be the Director of Pardes and is still a part of its community. I knew he was a knowledgeable rabbi and incredible thinker, but I could not have comprehended the extent to which he would challenge my beliefs and force me to confront my feelings about complex and controversial subjects.
One of the main themes that I took from our classes with Rabbi Levi was about meaning.
We discussed how comfort is not a Jewish value, but meaning is. Not being comfortable is a hallmark of Judaism: we are meant to struggle because through that struggling we are learning and growing. For Rabbi Levi, this struggle can be intellectual, such as engaging in text study in order to connect to the Jewish religion. And for him, this is a conversation that cannot happen without accessing the texts. We need to learn more to thicken the relationship—studying texts builds bonds. Even if you don’t believe the story, for example – does it really matter if the Red Sea actually split in half, or does it matter more that you derive meaning from the story?
Levi taught us that “People can live without small amounts of money but not without small amounts of meaning.” This resonated deeply with me.
As a fairly recent college graduate I am in the throes of searching for meaning in all aspects of my life. I am trying to figure out my relationship with Judaism. I do not know what level of observance satisfies me or even how I want to observe my faith. Going even further, I am on a search to figure out what will satisfy me in my professional life. I am trying to figure out where to go with a career and what will bring more meaning into my life. I am privileged in that I feel like I can take the time to figure out a career that will satisfy me personally, and not just pay my bills.
Currently, Rabbi Levi is the Founding Executive Director of a social justice organization called ATZUM. He truly believes that taking a stand about an issue is important, not only as a human being but also as a Jew. He told our class, “You have to decide where you stand if you want to call yourself a Jew.” That’s a strong statement but it, too, stuck with me.
I am often afraid to have strong opinions or share my thoughts about certain issues.Often it is because I do not feel knowledgeable enough to take a side. But ignorance is no excuse for indecision. It should instead propel me to seek out the facts so that I can make an educated decision about which wedding to attend* (see title). In our conversations about many social issues during the classes with Rabbi Levi, I realized how nuanced and complex these topics are and it made me want to learn more. Studying and learning about the current world can bring me as much meaning as the study of Jewish texts and helps me to be a better Jew and citizen of the world.
Rabbi Levi helped me to understand that I have to follow my gut instincts when I have them. I cannot wallow in uncertainty. If you always wait for absolute certainty, you’d be waiting forever. You can’t wait for that kind of security, especially if you want to make a social revolution. “Make the world better by radical uncertainty but don’t allow ambiguity to lead to ambivalence,” he told us.
This is perhaps the most important statement Rabbi Levi gave us, in my opinion:
First, making the world better is something I want to achieve in my life. And if I can’t make the world better, I at least want to make someone’s world better.*
Second, radical uncertainty is inherent in life. But being comfortable with it is necessary for paradigm shifts on a huge scale. The bigger the shift, the more uncertainty you’ll have. And third, you can’t let that kind of ambiguity and uncertainty be crippling. It is easy to say, I’m not sure what will happen and I don’t want to fail so I won’t try at all. Ambivalence and apathy are not the markers of bettering the world.
I learned a few important lessons from Levi about how to find meaning in my life. I will have to struggle and be unsure. I will have to seek out meaning and it has to be more important than material goods and money. I will have to take risks and take a stand on issues that are important to me. These are hard lessons to learn, but they will challenge me to be better and make the world around me better. According to Rabbi Levi, “It’s hard, but do it anyways.” Trust me Levi, I will.
*See my past blog post here.