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The Jewish guide to plate-spinning

Jonny ArielFilmed at Limmud Conference 2015

I am a plate-spinner, finding within myself both the wish to be an individual and at the same time to lose myself in a collective cause. To be a plate-spinner is to learn the art of balance, and so craft a life comprised of both "me" and "we". To be a plate-spinner is to be mobile and mobilized. And to be in this place requires that you spin three plates: the covenantal, the communitarian, and the cosmopolitan. In this talk, I explore what is implied by these 3 plates, and how Jewish life that leaves out even one of them is morally bankrupt.

Jonny Ariel is Executive Director of Makom: The Israel Education Lab of the Jewish Agency. Makom incubates ideas, creates materials and trains leaders to hug and wrestle with Israel and the Jewish People. He has designed and delivered experiential adult education for 30 years, seeking to explore how Jewish ideas and culture can lead to ethical action. He is an Associate Fellow of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and an Adjunct Lecturer at the Hebrew University. He volunteers on the boards of Hazon and the Weitz Center for Development Studies.

From the dawn of my historical and political consciousness, I have been a plate-spinner. When I marched in my first demonstrations, and wrote my first letters to the newspapers, they were for a cause. My involvement unleashed a variety of passions. With the spirited zing of the activity, and the swirl of the ideas, I became profoundly involved. My sense was that we were at the fulcrum of history.

I did not know it then, but I was a plate-spinner apprentice. Looking back, I can detect in the x-ray, the structure of plate-spinning, marked by: the fragility, the close attention to detail and the unadulterated joy of being totally engrossed by something outside of yourself in a way in which you lose yourself, in order to find yourself.

I had to sort out a balance between me and we. I wanted and want to be still today me.
Philip Roth recognized the robust nature of being an individual when he asked:

“Why couldn’t the Jews be one People? …Because the divisiveness is not just between Jew and Jew – it’s within the individual Jew… … inside every Jew there is a mob of Jews. The good Jew, the bad Jew. The new Jew, the old Jew. The lover of Jews, the hater of Jews. The friend of the goy, the enemy of the goy. The arrogant Jew, the wounded Jew. The pious Jew, the rascal Jew. The coarse Jew, the gentle Jew. The defiant Jew, the appeasing Jew. The Jewish Jew and the de-Jewed Jew. … the Jew as a three-thousand-year amassment of mirrored fragments….Is it any wonder that the Jew is always disputing? He is dispute, incarnate.”

I identify with Roth. I sometimes worry that I have an auto-immune disease, that militates against a vibrant sense of we – against a sense that the Jewish People as a People merits my energies.

Yet Monty Python challenged the sentiment. In the Life of Brian, our saviour Brian, tries to divest himself of followers, by telling the hordes: “don’t follow me, you are all individuals”. And the crowd solemnly intones together: “yes, we are all individuals”. Until one lone voice mournfully cries out: “I’m not”….and reveals the unshakeable truth that we are not only individuals – we are also members of families, groups, tribes, nations and blessedly so. We are not only me, we are also we.

So I began to navigate the spectrum between total mobility on the one hand and total mobilization on the other. At one end, the totally mobile, I am free to believe, behave and belong however I choose, wherever I choose, free of any ties that bind, restrict, or limit.
At the other end, I am totally mobilized – enveloped by a blanket of care, of shared passions, of values, of ideals, of ethos. I have to submit to the group’s authority, sublimating individual tastes, and passions, and autonomy, all in the cause of sanctity, of tradition, of loyalty.

I have come to believe that human flourishing depends on rejecting both ends of the spectrum. Unchecked mobility leads to loneliness and alienation and unchecked mobilization leads to stifling group-think and rampant fear of the other. Instead, we need to be partially mobile and partially mobilized. As the poet says: we need both roots and wings.

To be a plate-spinner is to learn the art of balance and so craft a life comprised of both the me and the we. To be a plate-spinner is to be mobile and mobilized. And to be in this place requires that you spin three plates: the covenantal, the communitarian, and the cosmopolitan.

The cause that first compelled me was to free Soviet Jews. The campaign was artfully constructed with the three plates spinning simultaneously.

The Covenantal plate, in naming the campaign “Let My People Go” the direct association with the ancient Exodus from Egypt was forged, which was amplified by the creation of updated haggadot for freedom seders. And the blowing of the shofar at public rallies – meant that the evocative sounds from Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur in the synagogue moved out of solely Jewish space into the street and became publicly on display, and in this way the campaign became embedded in this continuing stream of Jewish consciousness.

This Covenantal plate is our spiritual metronome. You know how the Chagim – the festivals – are always either so early, or they’re so very late? They are never on time. Well the metronome beats time, and ensures the yearly cycle, the lifecycle, and the myriad of set texts, festivals and occasions are marked in their season, with a beat, with a rhythm, with a pulse. We are heirs to a spiritual and cultural heritage which gives us compelling ideas, values and sensitivities that are continually broadcast from the covenantal metronome.

Which means that within each of us we are created from a rich tapestry and that tapestry is not the work of one individual but an entire people, and that each of us is commanded to join in the interpretive chain and to keep our tradition in good order, so that the timely meets the timeless with a steady beat.

The second plate, the Soviet Jewry campaign shared a profound understanding, experienced and expressed by the motto: Kol Yisrael Areivin Ze LeZeh – each Jew is responsible or guarantor for one another.

I know, literally, literally I know, that there but for some wise decision-making on behalf of my grandparents and the grace of God, go I – those Soviet Jews would have been me. With an appreciation of Jewish history, we need to look out for Jews, if they are in need. The campaign was determined to learn the lessons of the past and that our generation would not be powerless in the face of adversaries. We would amass power – both the hard power of weapons and trained soldiers, and also the soft power of advocacy, lobbying and influence in decision-making. And we would offer the smile of Jewish family through postcards, visits and gifts. Human agency, Jewish agency, was key – through self-effort we could better the situation of all Jews, no matter where they lived. We were limited only by our imagination and our determination.

In spinning the Communitarian plate, think of community as being what we have in common as a result of communication. It functions like a gyroscope – whichever way the world turns, whatever is thrown at this People, we will find the mutual guarantee, the physical dynamics to keep us standing upright.

The duty of care for all Jews is often undermined by ideological diversity. But if we search less for identical twins, and more for extended family, including the wayward cousin and the drunk uncle – then those degrees of separation become tangibly close. The axis of the gyroscope twists and turns and threatens to topple over. But it’s very flexibility, it’s ability to adjust to new surfaces gives it its strength. So too the Jewish Communitarian.

And thirdly, the Soviet Jewry campaign heightened my awareness of the Cosmopolitan plate that we must too keep spinning. I marched for Andrei Sakharov, the remarkable Nobel-prize winning leader of the human rights movement, as well as for Jewish refuseniks, Nudel, Begun, Sharansky and others. We read the novels of Solzhenitsyn and George Orwell about the abuses of the totalitarian system, alongside those of Arthur Koestler. The first time I spoke at a public rally for Soviet Jewry, I read the poem Babi Yar by the non-Jew Yevgeny Yevtushenko, as a signal that we Jews were not alone in the struggle and that justice is indivisible. The poem concludes with, quote:

“In my blood there is no Jewish blood. In their callous rage, all antisemites must hate me now as a Jew. For that reason I am a true Russian!”

Non-Jews joined the campaign because it was right and just. We needed then, and now, allies to realise our hopes.

The tantalising exhortation to repair the world under the sovereignty of God, l’taken Olam b’malchoot shadai, can be interpreted as a call for worldly responsibility.

And so my image is one of a humanitarian radar – that we should be on the watch, constantly searching for injustice, and acting to repair that which is broken for all humans.

“To be is to stand for,” said Heschel.

Jewish life that leaves out even one of these three plates is morally bankrupt in my view. If you exclude the Covenantal – you are locked in a time warp of now, ignoring ethical sensitivities and human insights that have amassed over generations. If you ignore the Communitarian, you throw away a natural group of kindred spirits with whom to celebrate and commemorate and to call to action, thus limiting your potential to impact the world. And if you live devoid of the Cosmopolitan you are ethically constricted, turning your back on billions of people created in God’s image.

So every citizen in the world needs their spiritual metronome, their tribal gyroscope and their humanitarian radar.

Our era will be shaped by numerous Jews choosing to live with these three plates as their intentional work. To keep all three balanced and spinning is the need of our hour. Because “Hineh ma tov umah Naim, Shevet achim gam yachad”.

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