Changing Ourselves To Change The World

Changing Ourselves To Change The World

This essay first appeared in Chaver Up! 49 Rabbis Explore What It Means To Be an Ally Through a Modern Jewish Lens, edited by Rabbi
Sharon Kleinbaum and Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.


One of the central motifs in the Pesach seder is our journey from degradation to praise, from narrowness to expansiveness, from slavery to freedom. We are now b’midbar, in the wilderness, making our way to Sinai, to covenant and to radical collectivity. We were all at Sinai, every Jewish soul past, present and future, beyond the limitations of time and space to receive Torah. We heard the aleph in anochi—I—all together and separately in a way we could understand. This is why, as we learn repeatedly in rabbinic tradition, the Torah has seventy faces, infinite interpretive possibilities. G-d desires all of us to receive Torah, to be met by Torah and to be in relationship with these sacred instructions, all the while knowing that our relationships with that instruction—Torah in its broadest definition—are as varied as we are.

This sounds quite lofty and abstract—being met by The Devine? Radical relationship? How are we, how am I, supposed to live that out if I am someone who has been cast aside, wounded by that Torah that I am told is a Torat Chayyim—a life-giving Torah? In a world in which the examples of religious leaders misusing, abusing, and weaponizing Torah against those who are marginalized is legion and unfortunately always growing or so it seems, thinking about allyship as a spiritual practice rings hollow. Knowing just how profound alienation from religious community is for folks who have been and are now marginalized and knowing my own human limitations, how do I live out this aspirational practice authentically?


My teacher, Rabbi David Jaffe in his book Changing the World from the Inside Out challenges us to encounter the self through deeply-rooted Jewish spiritual and ethical practice as a means of building a resilient inner core, which anchors us in a profoundly uncertain and destabilizing world. We cannot change the world, Rabbi Jaffe claims, if we aren’t working on internal change.

Too often, allyship becomes performative—a title we ascribe to ourselves and not a posture of profound humility we earn over time through authentic partnership, radical listening and embracing the notion, which is anathema in a Western cultural context utterly obsessed with knowledge gathering and action that we in fact don’t know everything. We have so much to learn from others we too often ignore because, though we may not admit this to ourselves, we fall into the trap of assuming that our educational attainments, or class, or our race, or our ability status allows us to have an objective view on what others need, those who are “less fortunate”. They don’t have all of the information they need to make impactful decisions for their lives and communities. Radical listening and accepting just how little we know allows us to turn this notion on its head. We are aware that we hold a piece of the tapestry of the human experience. We also know that ours is not the finishing piece of the puzzle. So much Torah has yet to be revealed to us. Or, perhaps, G-d is desperately trying to make known to us through encounters and events in our lives that Torah which we refuse to uncover because it shakes us, challenges us, asks us to let go of biases we may desperately wish we didn’t hold because we are good people after all. I believe that we have unfortunately ascribed a moral judgement to the inevitability of holding unconscious negative bias. We have all grown up in cultural contexts that had imbedded within them ideas about people of all sorts. Messaging that we receive is so subconscious that it takes years of conscious unlearning and relearning to rewire our neural pathways. Spiritual practice is not about the destination. Though we are heading towards a mountaintop moment, ours is a spirituality rooted in the sanctification of the everyday. As we unlearn, we re-learn. None of us is free of unconscious negative bias. Our task as spiritual practitioners are to deepen our inner awareness so that we show up with the most authenticity we can in our external reality.

I fear that we have become so focused on wokeness, on knowing the right language, reading the right books, hearing the right speakers that we are neglecting the reality that we are constantly a work in progress. G-d is infinite, we are finite. If we don’t allow ourselves to learn not merely to learn but also to put our learning into action, we will forever be caught in the self-defeating trap of fearing doing the wrong thing so much that we become frozen, unable to act at all.

With gentleness and compassion, Rabbi Jaffe invites us to explore our growing edges through Mussar and the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. A particularly impactful piece of his work for me is his teachings about bitachon—trust. There is no doubt that bitachon is a tough bridge to cross. Social change and good allyship is about action, about using my voice, my resources to stand alongside communities who are too often silenced. Isn’t bitachon a passive act? In fact, bitachon is precisely the opposite. Trusting that I hold what is mine to hold and that I am able to be in radical collaborative relationship with others allows me to remember, always, that I am part of that which is greater than myself. Allyship is not about the ego or escapism. Rather, it is about doing my own work through daily cheshbon hanefesh—soul accounting or another spiritual discipline so that I can show up most humbly in my external work. If my internal reality is consumed by a ceaseless need for self-gratification, I am stuck in an avdut consciousness. I have not made that journey as we are invited to during the seder from narrowness to expansiveness. I know both from personal experience and from the experiences of others that those who are not working on themselves but are seeking some external validation through allyship are some of the greatest impediments to meaningful social transformation. Human beings are not revolution objects, not canvases on which we thrust our baggage. If I am to be an ally in the deepest sense, I must never forget that I, being created in the Image of G-d am radically meeting another being created in G-d’s image, as inherently beloved as I am. Giving myself space to grow, to try something and not succeed, to learn from my mistakes allows the spiritual practice of allyship to be made that much more manifest. As the Psalmist teaches in Psalms 16:8, I keep the Divine before me, always. It is not upon me, as we learn in Perkei Avot to complete the work, but I am neither free to desist from it. Just as Shabbat is a container for the world as it should be, allowing us to taste a moment of redemption each week, so, too, is allyship a sacred container, allowing us to radically encounter the other and the self, remembering, always, that we are all interconnected one with another.