“I Will Create a New Conversation:” A Discussion with Rabbi Sharon Brous
Written by Zachary Brenner
Rabbi Brous created IKAR in 2004 with the purpose of revitalizing Jewish spaces in the United States and abroad. In 2016, 1.2 million people viewed her TED talk, “Reclaiming Religion.” She spoke at the 2017 Women’s March in D.C. and has been noticed by publications such as Newsweek, The Forward, and the Jerusalem Post as a top influential Jew. She also blessed President Obama and Vice President Biden at their most recent inauguration prayer service.
Recently, I have felt the need to divide myself into two – my religious and political selves would exist as their own, separate entities. The organized Jewish community around me would tell me that my progressive beliefs on Israeli and United States politics were too controversial to discuss. I craved a reality where I didn’t have to hide my political beliefs because my community around me might disapprove. I fought and voiced my beliefs and little changed. The anger I felt had me questioning whether this community was one that I should remain a part of – and it hurt to have to consider a new path.
Seeking a new perspective, I attended a prayer service back home in Los Angeles at Temple IKAR. I was not convinced that this organized Jewish space would provide a welcoming environment, until I witnessed the service. For the first time in my Jewish life, I felt allowed and validated to embrace my own Jewishness and politics simultaneously. For the first time, I felt deeply connected to the sermons and felt as though I was meant to be Jewish.
I felt it appropriate to turn to the rabbi herself to talk through why politics are so divisive in the prayer space, and how Jews can better bridge the gap. In these politically tumultuous and divided times, I find it imperative to engage with different perspectives and not shut them down, even if controversial.
Zachary Brenner: You grew up Reform and you’ve said that you become a rabbi because of the orthodoxy in Jerusalem. When you came back to the United States, you went to a Conservative seminary. Why the Conservative movement in the United States? Did you think that would be the most accessible avenue to accomplish what you wanted to accomplish?
Rabbi Sharon Brous: When I was in college and went to study in Jerusalem, it ignited something in me. I felt this feverish desire to learn as much text as I could and immerse myself as much in Jewish tradition as I could. Partially to make up for what I hadn’t learned growing up, partially because as I began to study Talmud and other traditional Jewish texts I was well aware that women’s voices were completely absent from these texts and I felt this urgency to bring a woman’s voice in and a woman’s perspective into a space that previously didn’t make room. I wanted to be in the most traditional environment that would take me. So, for me, that was the choice of the Conservative movement. It wasn’t because of an allegiance to Conservative theology or a desire to build Conservative institutions, but I wanted to study text in a serious way and I felt the need to become as literate as I could in our traditions. And so the seminary was the best fit for me at the time and I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to be a rabbi, per se. I certainly did not think I would become a pulpit rabbi. What I wanted was to study text in the most intentional and intense possible way that I could.
ZB: Were there any theological concepts that you really struggled with at the seminary? Maybe moments of disconnect between the Torah and how you viewed the world?
Brous: Yes… The seminary was more interested in critical analysis, meaning trying to understand the editorial layers of the text, to sort of look at it from a critical historical perspective. And what I was interested in was why have these texts survived for thousands of years? And how can they help us understand what it means to be a human being and a Jew in a world that is burning with hatred and with human suffering? And so I was kind of asking a different set of questions. I didn’t want to be liberated from the text. I wanted to be held by the text. I was really looking to Torah as a way to give guidance to a time of incredible moral crisis, which I feel is the case now even more than it was when I went into seminary 20 years ago. The way I landed on the idea of becoming a rabbi was through this epiphany… this realization that all of the great forces of social change, the people who I admired most in the world were really activists and able to drive the raw change of systems in society for all people of faith. I wondered if my faith was also kind of a quiet driver of my own activism. I understood innately that the world didn’t need to be the way it was, and that wasn’t in itself an act of faith. And so, that’s what set me on this path in the first place. What I wanted was to learn text so that I could get fuel for this vision of a different kind of world. So there was a bit of misalignment for me in that way that we are traditionally taught in seminaries to engage traditional text. But I found a way to make it work and I was very inspired and moved by the learning.
I did have a few moments of collapse over the course of the six years of rabbinical school, of theological crisis… The most transformative of them was a moment when I was reading the New York Times before school started one morning in my fifth of six years, and I read a story about Mozambique and these horrible floods that had ravaged the countryside, and there’s a picture attached to the article of a woman on top of a tree, holding her baby in a little bundle in her arms. And the story was about how women all over the countryside had climbed up these trees with their babies and they were waiting for rescue helicopters to come and save them. One woman gave birth in one of these trees. And the article said that there were no rescue helicopters because the country had been devastated by civil war, they were profoundly impoverished, nobody was coming to save them. And so, I remember staring… I had just bought a new, beautiful, gorgeous Vilna Shas Talmud set, and I was so proud of it and I had lined it up, set it up on my bookshelf perfectly and I was looking at it, thinking… what are we doing about it? These women are dying and their babies are going to die and if these texts don’t have anything to say to me about what it means to live in a world where mothers and babies are going to die because nobody gives a damn about them, then what’s the point of their preservation in the world? And so that was a huge moment for me and I remember I was paralyzed for several hours. And then I walked up to school and got there late and walked in the middle of class and I just felt the disconnect between what we were learning in seminary and what was happening in the world. I felt my whole body aching from this. I felt like I was being stretched across continents and I stormed out. At some point I couldn’t sit in the room anymore. I felt like I was suffocating and I walked out and went to Columbia, where I studied as an undergrad, and there was a center for the study of human rights there and I just walked in and I said “I need to see your director, this is an international emergency. There are these women, we need to get helicopters…” and the director of that program ended up becoming a mentor to me and insisted that I stay in rabbinical school. I told him “I’m dropping out of school, I have no interest in doing this anymore” and it was a total theological crisis.
And [the director’s] job – he was a former priest – was to advise me in bringing these worlds together. “So what do your rabbis have to say about what it means to live in a world that’s shattered to pieces?” What might it mean to come home from war and try to reintegrate into your home? Is there some way that our tradition’s wisdom on teshuvah, on forgiveness, could help make sense of what the experience of a child soldier might be in Sierra Leone when he returns home after committing horrific crimes?” What are the ways that I could apply the Torah that I so loved and sat in for so many years studying in seminary to what was going on in the world?
ZB: In your services, you do not shy away from preaching about social justice. There have been conversations between you and other rabbis about leaving politics out of the Jewish space — that politics are ubiquitous and need to be left out of the sacred space. Yet, you view your religious leadership as moral leadership, and that what others may call politics, you call Torah. To you, politics and Torah are inherently intertwined. Why is it that you think there’s such a resistance to politics in the prayer space?
Brous: I understand why people are wary of faith communities and faith leaders entering the public square because, for the last several decades in the United States, faith has been used and abused and corrupted in the political space. I think we have seen religious leaders use their bully pulpits to advance an agenda that is regressive and cruel and I think there’s a lot of resistance around that – rightfully so – and a desire to create separate spheres. Like, let the political sphere be the political sphere and the religious sphere be the religious sphere.
However, I don’t believe there is any way to engage in our religion, in what our faith demands of us, without actually engaging in what’s happening in our country and our world today. My colleague was told last year, since the inauguration lined up with Parshat Shemot (the beginning of the book of Exodus) that “you are not to mention the word ‘Pharaoh’ this year, because that would be seen as too political.” Because somebody might then perceive that he was then calling this current administration Pharaoh. So, what is happening there is a rabbi is being told that you’re not allowed to engage Torah. These stories have not persisted for 4,000 years for nothing. We have not carried Sefrei Torah for a thousand years for nothing. We take these stories so seriously because we believe that every generation will be called to engage with incredibly morally challenging situations and the wisdom of our tradition is here to guide us for precisely such a moment when, for example, a Pharaoh rises to power who takes pride in attacking and oppressing vulnerable minority populations and makes a mockery of our commitment to dignity and equality. So, we haven’t carried that story around for nothing, and it’s not because we like telling good stories. It’s because we know that in every generation there’s a possibility of a Pharaoh rising, and will we be ready to resist.
I don’t consider that politics, I consider that religion and I think there’s a false binary that’s been established precisely because of our fear of the abuse of, frankly, white evangelical Christianity in the public space that has made us very wary of faith in the public space. And what we’re seeing right now that I think is so critical and what make me so optimistic is there is a rising up of faith leaders who are serious, rooted progressive faith leaders who are interested in manifesting our deepest commitments to justice, to human dignity, to love, to compassion on the public stage. That is exactly what resonates to me.
And I’ll tell you that a couple of weeks ago we had a Friday night service and there was a rabbinical student there from out of town who came over to me afterwards and he said “I have a challenge for you, which is everything you just said…” because I’d given this fierce denunciation of something that had happened in the country that week, and he said “everything you just said, someone could take another line of Torah and justify the exact opposite. Or even the same line of Torah that you resonate to and read it differently and justify the opposite. So how do you know you’re right?” And I said “I don’t know that I’m right, but I know that the world will not be worse off if we are more decent, more compassionate, and more loving and fair to each other. And the world might actually be worse off if that other person’s interpretation is wrong and instead we are more indecent, more cruel, less forgiving, and less concerned with each other’s dignity.” And so, I don’t know that I’m right, and yet this is the only way that I know how to read our tradition and to be human in the world right now.
ZB: It’s almost as if saying that because of the problematic relationship between religion and the public sphere, we can’t act on that relationship. As opposed to countering it in another way, with respect or this commitment to human decency, which… this country and the world has really been craving for so long.
ZB: Like many other left-leaning Jews in the United States, I have felt a disconnect with the greater organized Jewish community for a while. What was preached and taught to me throughout my childhood seemed to be inconsistent with what I saw the community acting upon in regards to Israeli and United States politics. There was an occupation that I had never even heard uttered until I went to college – and even then I was often told it was an opinion or too controversial to discuss properly with other Jews. Jews would vote for problematic leaders because these leaders seemed to have a positive relationship to Israel. I think it’s incredibly important for Jews like us to have a new space to be able to explore and act upon our spirituality and political moral fiber in a way that doesn’t segregate us from the community, but embraces us. Do you think the tide is shifting? Will the greater Jewish community embrace the marrying of politics and Torah as a new norm?
Brous: I’m thinking about this podcast that I did with Rabbi Ari Siegel. It might be worth checking out because he’s an Orthodox rabbi, brave enough to be in this conversation with a non-Orthodox rabbi, which I so appreciate. But we have really different world views and different ideas of what it means to be a Jew in the world. My strong feeling is that we were not put on this planet to self-sustain. That’s not the goal. I think we have story that’s built into our DNA. The story of Yetziat Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt, and the purpose of our survival is to share that story. And to show that it’s possible for people to move from slavery to freedom, from dark to light. So it’s not just about survival… and I think a lot of young Jews really resonate to that idea. We don’t just want to do it because it’s what our parents did and it’s what our grandparents did. They want it to be meaningful and want it to help us figure out how to live in very evil and tumultuous times. Will that become normative? I think there are many people for whom that is already normative. There are some people who will never… who will never find an affinity to that kind of active, spiritual engagement in the world. So I don’t think that it will ever be everyone but I think it’s increasingly clear that so many people are running away from Judaism because they resent the hypocrisy, particularly when it comes to Israel. When we’re taught to have certain Jewish values but then when we see those values not manifest in the Jewish state and we raise that question, we are not given good answers. And we’re also sometimes called traitors for even asking the question. And that’s something that a lot of young people can’t live with and won’t live with. They are sick of a Judaism that feels perfunctory and boring and tired and uninteresting like we’re not even trying. And I think as a result, they’re either going to walk away or they’re going to build a new way of being Jewish in the world. That’s part of our job at IKAR. That’s what we set out to do. We said, “I’m not giving up on this thing. We love this.” A lot of people will just walk away and a lot of people will say “I don’t need to make these sides of my heart align, I’ll just stick with the tradition.” But I also see a growing number of people say “I’m not walking away, and I’m not giving up my values in order to be a Jew in the world.” So I will find a way to make these worlds live in one body.
ZB: You’ve said that you’re not looking to build the biggest and widest tent so that any person with any political perspective would feel comfortable in IKAR. You’ve said that any Trump supporters you may have had left a while ago, and the amount of political conservatives is numbered in IKAR. Why is it important for you, particularly in a time of political divisiveness when people are so hesitant and defensive, to push the boundaries in the prayer space?
Brous: There’s this old, famous saying which everybody attributes to somebody different. Some people think it was about faith but was actually about journalism – the whole idea that we are called to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And I think journalists have to do both and I think clergy have to do both. And my sense is that what this hour demands of us is that we think about “what is the moral imperative?” What does it mean to live in a country that is so fiercely divided, where cruelty is so close to the surface at every turn, where indecency is so visible? What does it mean to live in a time and in a place with systemic racism and inequality? On one hand, we have to have a space that’s safe enough for those messages to even be spoken. So if every time I stood up and opened by mouth someone threw an egg at me, I would never get my sermon out. If I were constantly being heckled in my own pulpit, I wouldn’t be able to share a message. At the same time, if all I’m saying is what everyone wants to hear all the time, then I’m not really saying anything and they don’t need to hear it. So what we want to do is create an environment that’s rooted in essential principles of decency and compassion and dignity and then share a Torah that can be very challenging within the space that’s created there.
There are conservatives at IKAR, there are people who don’t agree with me on Israel and domestic issues. People will come over after services and say “I have a different read on things than you do”, but we’ve worked really hard to create a space where people can respectfully engage with me and with each other when they don’t agree. I feel that half of my job right now, particularly in this political culture that we’re living in right now, is to take a population of people who feel like our breath has been stolen from us, who are completely stunned and disarmed by what’s going on in the country, and name it and say it out loud and give some kind of spiritual support to the people who need it, and also to challenge and to push my own community and the broader community that might hear something that I’m going to say, you know, on a podcast or read [in] an article. That we really have to do both.
ZB: What about the Conservative movement and greater Jewish community has been most heartwarming or motivating to you lately?
Brous: I will tell you that what I’m most inspired by this week is the teens. It’s the students, young people who are actually standing up and using their own voices to make clear what they will and won’t stand for, and I feel like that’s what’s happening in our Jewish experience. That there are young people who are finding a way to stand up and say “I want to love this thing so fiercely, that I’m able to insist that it reflect the best of what I know we’re capable of.” So I feel, in some ways what’s happening with the high school students in Florida is a reflection of the same kind of transformation that I see happening within the Jewish community over the last decade, which is it’s all around the country. Young people are stepping up and saying “I want to be a part of my own spiritual life. I don’t want to just walk in, stand up, be seated, turn pages. I want to actually sing until I cry.” Or “I want to think differently and more creatively about the way that we create space that feels really welcoming and radically welcoming. You know? Or I want to think about what Jewish family looks like, because it’s not what it looked like 30 years ago.” There are ways in which young people, teens and twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings are actually standing up and saying “I have a different idea of what this thing needs to look like and I love it enough to try to change it.”
ZB: That’s been really motivating to me as well… There are Jews across the board who want to connect deeply to religion, who find it difficult to find a place. Many friends and I have been grappling with our politics that don’t conventionally align with what we were raised with. A lot of my friends are anti-Zionists who are demoralized by the peace process. I’m attracted to the idea, like you were saying before, of taking responsibility for the fact that this is my life, this is my spirituality. Why should the politics of the greater community affect the personal?
Brous: That’s right. Let me just say one last thing about it. In this podcast, if you listen to it, you’ll hear, the rabbi asks me… his analysis is essentially you’re either Halakhik and Jewishly serious and pro-Israel, or you’re not Halakhik and Jewishly serious and you’re pro-justice. I’m a little bit simplifying but that’s essentially the equation. And I said “why are you so attached to a false binary?” Because to my mind, that’s a ridiculous false dichotomy. I mean I am both of those things. And if that camp doesn’t exist, let’s build a new camp. I’m not willing to give up on Israel and I’m not willing to give up on the Jewish tradition. And I’m not willing to give up on our people. I’m also not willing to give up on my core commitments to justice and to humanity and love. And so if those things don’t already exist in conversation, I will create a new conversation. And it’s because it’s grounded in our tradition. We are not starting from scratch, it’s just a different way of prioritizing what we see in the text. Meaning, I will lead with “all humans are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of G-d.” That is an essential starting point for me. And maybe other people will bypass that and look to other essential starting points for them, but it’s not illegitimate [to] start at the beginning of Genesis and say, “okay, if we’re working on the assumption that all people are created in the image of G-d, how do we build a religious life that’s rooted in that assumption?” So I feel that this is the moment and the project of IKAR and this is what so many young people are starting to do around the country, [which] is to say “What is the third way that I will build?” Because I will reject a false binary, I am not going to participate in that. I’m not choosing camps right now, I’m going to build a third way.