Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D.
Remarks on Resilience to Oseh Shalom at their Congregational Retreat
January 16, 2021
As the president of Reconstructing Judaism, the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement, when I talk about what we do, I have always said we do three things.
In December 2016, shortly after the last election, I added a fourth: we draw on Jewish resources to cultivate resilience. I sensed that this was necessary and important after the last election. I and others have found it helpful after such traumatic events as the shooting in Pittsburgh. I find it useful in now in the midst of a period of intense challenge and great uncertainty. Earlier this week, I heard a trainer talk about this period leading up to inauguration reflecting on the prospect of violence. She urged adopting a framework of resilience to help zoom out to big picture and not get too staggered by individual episodes that are distressing.
I think intertwining Judaism and resilience helps to answer the question of how has the Jewish people survived for millennia. One answer is resilience. The capacity for resilience has been woven into the fabric of Judaism over thousands of years. As a general rule, I resist questions about the “essence” of Judaism. The Reconstructionist definition of “Judaism as the evolving civilization of the Jewish people” pushes us toward a dynamic understanding of Judaism rather than any fixed definition. We can state with certainty that there are two things that are continuous throughout Jewish history: the Jewish people and change. It is resilience—as process, orientation, attitude—that has helped with this continuity.
What do I mean by resilience? The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats and even significant sources of stress.” Psychiatrist George Vaillant suggests we can understand resilience as a “twig with a fresh, green living core,” something that, after encountering pressure, springs back and continues to grow.
Judaism, writ large, is about resilience. Across the span of Jewish history, Jews have experienced extensive trauma, even catastrophe, and we have survived – as a people and as a civilization. After each catastrophe, the prevailing paradigm was inoperable: we no longer knew how to understand ourselves in relation to God, to other Jews, and to other peoples. And, throughout our history, Jews have ultimately transcended catastrophe after catastrophe. We have repeatedly breathed new life into the Jewish people and the Jewish civilization and we have found pathways toward repair. From trauma, we have had to heal. We have had to recover and re-vision, re-seed and regenerate vital Jewish life. We have found ways to cultivate resilience, both individually and collectively.
For sake of time, I’ll give one example from the collective and the individual areas.
The Second Temple in Jerusalem, the center of religious life in biblical times, was destroyed in 70 CE. This hurban, this destruction, could have meant the end of the Judean people and the Israelite religion. Instead, our ancient sages created rabbinic Judaism, organized around synagogues and home observance and promoted through the prism of halakhah (Jewish law) was created. I could keep going throughout Jewish history to offer up example after example.
Let me turn to the individual. In Judaism, separating the collective from the individual is always difficult, since the two are so often interdependent. This much is clear: Judaism has sustained the Jewish people because Judaism sustains individuals. How many parents have buried children yet continued to work to build a better world? How many have seen their lives destroyed and found the will to start all over again?
Our cultural capacity for renewal is built on a foundation of individual practices that encourage and even command renewal. In Menachot 43b, the Talmud teaches that we should say 100 blessings a day. We could see this mandate as legalistic and oppressive, or we could see it as an invitation to engage in ongoing gratitude practice, to raise up the interconnectivity and abundance that undergird our daily lives on the best of days, and even when those days are filled with challenge and loss.
“Resilience” situates this conversation about a Jewish raison d’etre, about Jewish wisdom and practice, in psychological literature. Even as I have been giving Jewish examples, I began with social scientific definition. This is illuminating, educational, hopefully useful. In doing this, I am also introducing another source of authority. A hallmark of modernity, which began in the 15th century, and postmodernity, our period now, is, as we see all too well these days, contested authority. Our ancestors lived in a world shaped by revealed religion, with supernatural explanations for why things were the way they were. For us, religion competes w/rationalism. We look to science or other explanations for why the world is the way it is and what we should do while we are on this earth. We are faced again and again with the question of how do we decide urgent, ultimate questions. For our ancestors, the answer was “because God said so” or “because the rabbi said so.” Since the beginning of the modern era, increasingly the answers are, “because science said so,” or “because I said so.” Reform Judaism was expressly established on principle of individual autonomy.
So when I speak to you today, one premise on which I am basing my remarks is that the Jewish civilization offers up rich resources to cultivate resilience. Another premise is that a secular authority, in this instance psychology, validates longstanding religious practices that cultivate resilience and well-being. Here I am offering a harmonization, with religion and science working in concert rather than competition.
The pandemic has cracked everything open. People are turning to religious institutions to help find meaning, and out of the recognition that we don’t have to do things on our own. And there is great uncertainty, and concern that the Jewish community—along with so much else—is going to look different on the far side of the pandemic. The election this past fall and last week’s attack on the Capitol are evidence of deep fractures in American life.
Adopting an orientation toward resilience can be useful in facing challenges and opportunities, which can be disruptive, sometimes painfully so, and can help us to answer pressing questions:
What structures are we going to build?
What ideas are we going to advance?
How are we going to thrive?
Can we make the case that non-fundamentalist religion matters?
How do we bolster ourselves, how can religion aid us in working toward redemption for all people?
How might we unleash the deep wisdom embedded in Judaism to provide sustenance and support to sustain us in these challenging times?
We see all too clearly that there are people who are willing to kill and die for what they believe. What are we willing to live for?
This is our work—individually, as a congregation, as a movement. May we all find ways to cultivate resilience, may we all find ways to act in the ways we need to act, may we find meaning and connection and community, may we all find pathways to thrive.