People are often surprised when they learn my undergraduate degree is a Bachelors of Science in Engineering Science. They puzzle over how it connects to my work as a rabbi, yet the question I think about most in my rabbinate comes directly from engineering: how are people defining their system?
How you define your system is a central step in approaching any problem. Imagine an engineer hired to address a lack of potable water in one house. They might define that house as their system, and limit their investigation and solutions to that house. Or they might define their system as their regional water system, and discover that the problem is actually city-wide lead pipes. In this moment of mutually reinforcing crises, how people are defining their system, their “we,” has big implications for how they are approaching the world.
The question of who is included in our “we” is one of relationship and obligation. If you are part of my “we” then I am responsible for your well being on some level. Dr. Cornel West has taught on many occasions that “justice is what love looks like in public.” Love is the language of relationship, and we need to expand our conceptions of what we mean when we say “we” to act justly.
There are two core texts I look at when working to understand love in the Jewish tradition: V’ahavta and Leviticus 19:18.
V’ahavta is the liturgical paragraph comprising the second paragraph of the Sh’ma. From Deuteronomy 6:4-9, the Torah instructs us to love God with all of our being. Its opening phrase frames a system that includes an individual and the divine: “you will love (singular) Adonai your God” (Deuteronomy 6:5). To love God is to direct all of your being, as Deuteronomy 6:5 states, “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might,” to fulfill God’s commandments and to be in relationship with the divine. Through relationship with the divine we can learn that love moves through us in many different pathways and at its core is action.
Leviticus 19:18 states that “you shall love your fellow as you love yourself,” instructing to love both ourselves and those with whom we are in proximity. It defines a system between two individuals who already have some relationship. In his commentary HaKtav ve’HaKabalah, Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (who lived in Germany during the 19th century) extends “his fellow” to mean every person. Mecklenburg lists examples of loving your fellow by treating them with respect, looking after their wellbeing, being with them in their pain, loaning them money, and not acting arrogantly towards them. His list is a combination of practical actions and evokes in me a feeling of open-heartedness or tenderness with which we should approach each other.
These two texts define narrow systems with big potential for expansion. Just as Mecklenburg expands “your fellow” to mean “every person,” we can expand our understanding of the divine to include the whole world. As we expand our understanding of these texts and our own relationships, we can carry what the narrow relationships teach us. West’s teaching on love and justice continues by invoking tenderness, which is “what love feels like in private.” We need the tenderness of the intimacy between an individual and the divine or a person and their neighbour to help fuel our justice work. That tenderness, open heartedness, compassion, and sense of connection can deepen our work to build a more just society. May it be so.
Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein and Orly Zebak.
Rabbi Becky Silverstein believes in the power of community, Torah, and silliness in transforming the world. He strives to build a Jewish community and world that encourages and allows everyone to live a life that reflects their inherent divinity/dignity. Becky is a Schusterman Fellow, and co-initiator of the Trans Halakha Project. He currently serves as the chair of the boards of SVARA and the Jewish Studio Project. Becky grew up in New York, holds a B.S. in Engineering from Smith College and Rabbinic Ordination from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. Becky resides in Jamaica Plain, MA, with his spouse, Naomi Sobel, and kiddo, Edie Gefen, for whom he makes pancakes or waffles almost every Sunday morning.