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What happens in the room

Zahavit ShalevFilmed at Limmud Conference 2016

Although we can listen to a piece of music or watch a recorded talk whenever we feel like it, our most inspiring and moving occasions are still those that happen when we find ourselves in a room with other people, sharing a communal experience.

Zahavit Shalev is a member of the rabbinic team at New North London Synagogue. She is particularly involved in running the conversion programme, and organizing events for young families. She is rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College, due to receive semichah (ordination) in 2019. She gets her kicks from seeing her students successfully join the Jewish people (60+ and counting), going to shul, her family, reading feminist Biblical and Talmudic criticism, 90% dark chocolate, running late at night, and undignified dancing.

Well here we are, in the room, and it’s lovely actually!

We’re all here with the single purpose – to be together, and to listen, and to learn. And what could be lovelier than that?

But I’m actually a little bit ambivalent about this talk. And I’ll tell you why.

And first up, it’s not because I don’t like public speaking. I think you can tell I actually love this. This is my idea of fun – it’s a real pleasure. And I do it fairly often and I derive great enjoyment from it. So it’s not that.

And while we’re at it, it’s not a girl thing. It’s not a sense of imposter syndrome, which you sometimes see more with women than with men, where somebody says, you know I’m not sure if I’m worthy, or I’m not sure if I really have something to bring to the table, don’t ask me, find somebody more suitable. It’s not that I think I’m tremendous, but I feel as well equipped as anybody else to be up here and to say something, and I’m going to have my moment, so thank you, it’s great!

No – there’s a different thing I’m very ambivalent about and that’s kind of this medium: the one-to-many medium, that’s part of it. So problem number one is that I’m kind of not really here in the room.

And that’s because this is quite a big room and there are lights and it’s a one-to-many situation, where I can’t see everybody, and I don’t know all of you. And frequently when I speak in public, I have a real relationship with the people I’m speaking to. And what’s happening is part of a much longer and bigger conversation and I enjoy that, that feels like a real conversation to me.

And this feels like a broadcast event, which is kind of interesting, but not fulfilling in quite the same way. So I kind of rather wish that I could be with you. It will be hard to all be together and to be in one big conversation.

But actually that’s what I endeavour to do in the sessions that I’ll be teaching and the way I operate generally.

And that brings me to another related problem. Problem number two is not only am I not really here in this room, but you guys are not here in this room.

Now I’m going to look at the right camera and say: you people who are here now, you are most definitely in the room. But you people, or you people, who might be watching this at some future time, you are not in the room. And you might be watching this in some impersonal way, you’re sitting alone with your phone, or your tablet or at your computer, and I’m honoured that you’ve chosen to watch my talk but I’m just not quite sure why you’re doing that, really. Because it’s all here, it’s all happening here! And I’m not sure what you’ll get when you watch this at one remove – a simulacrum or a second hand investment or event.

So, if you could maybe just go and talk to people who happen to be around, rather than watching this talk, that might be more fulfilling, I feel, to watching something second hand.

Having said that, of course, this technology is a real gift. And I could be inspired by talks and many of you will be inspired by talks that you’ve seen from people you can’t encounter in real life. And of course I have to also give a shout out to the people who couldn’t be here because they weren’t physically able to come or they were sick and, hello Mum! So, you know, watching a recording is the next best thing.

But it’s got to be said that the next best thing is really really really light years away from really being present in the room, and being with the people in the room. You can’t really capture the magic. You can’t really enjoy it second-hand. And if you miss it well, there’s other stuff going on. Things happen in rooms all the time! There are other rooms you can be in, be in the room you’re in, enjoy being in the room you’re in!

So I’m going to tell you about rooms I’ve enjoyed being in and explain why I think those experiences are so transformative and so moving and so magical. So I have 3 rooms to present to you.

The first room is our sukkah. And I love the sukkah. And it’s a temporary room, of course. Really my husband deserves credit for the sukkah because he builds and decorates it. But we both fill it with guests. And he decorates it and the walls are covered with batiks and we light the inside with candles, we don’t believe in electricity, because it would take the romance away. And we always serve stew, or soup and wine and on the menu is conversation and conviviality and company. And this is somehow a beautiful space to be in.

And room number two: I’m very lucky that my husband is a big music nerd so I get to see a lot of live music performances. I need to tell you about the Green Note. I was at a concert at the Green Note in Camden Town, just last week. Have you ever been there? If you have not been there, then you should go there, or somewhere similar. It’s a really small, intimate venue that can hold about 50 people. It’s just a room. It’s just a room, it’s like somebody’s living room. And it’s so magic being there, because there is no way that there can’t be a human scale to the event, to the performance.

And after the gig you have to walk past the performers, and kind of meet them in the eye and go, hello, thank you, that was fabulous. And somehow feel that the presence of performer and audience is really mutually validating. We were really there. We were really, really there. And we really saw each other and we really interacted.

And then the third room that I want to tell you about is the chuppah. And I’ve stood under a chuppah as an officiant a few times now. And it’s the most remarkable experience. Of course a chuppah is also a room. It’s replicating, it’s alluding to the room in which people build and make their lives.

So about a year ago I was at a chuppah that took place in a couple’s living room. It was really mamash in their front room. They had already got married and then they converted to Judaism, and they wanted to have a chuppah. And so they invited a bunch of their close friends. And it was a stunningly intimate, gorgeous, gorgeous event.

Everybody was close by, we were all close enough to smile and wave, and see one another and acknowledge one another. And their dog kind of wandered in and out. And then afterwards their friends kind of meandered to the kitchen and took the canapés out the oven and passed them around and, you know, they opened up some drinks that had been waiting in the fridge. And there was something beautiful and lovely and natural about the scale of this event.

So what happens in the room, happens in the room because the scale is right. And because we respond to being in a space where we really feel mutually present to one another and we can engage with one another. So that convivial space – the sukkah, and the Green Note, and the manageable proportions of that room that held the chuppah. They were magical because they felt really at a human scale.

And I think these small-scale human interactions are really really good for us. And we really crave and need them. I think we want to feel acknowledged and affirmed and be able to meet one another’s gaze. And these things feed and satisfy our souls. And I think that’s what we’re always after.

So once, really long ago, perhaps in actual human history, or perhaps in an era before real human history, we experienced, we collectively experienced, what it was like to be fully and totally present, involved, and entirely in the room as it were. And our rabbis say that at the Revelation, at Mount Sinai, every Jewish soul – past and future – was there.

And maybe twenty years ago, at possibly my first Limmud, I heard an extraordinary teaching which never really left me and it’s kind of time now to pass this one on to the next generation. It came via Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, who’s here again at Limmud this year, and he taught a Chasidic teaching from Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropczyce, who died in 1827.

This is an elaboration of a kind of mythic understanding of what happened at the Revelation, and it’s really mind-blowing. Horowitz says that really there wasn’t sounds and lightening, God’s face was revealed at Mt Sinai. And what does it mean that God’s face was revealed? He said, there’s a midrash that teaches that God’s name was inscribed on each person’s heart. And then Horowitz says that actually it wasn’t just that God’s name was imprinted on people’s heart, but rather that God’s name was visible on individual people’s face.

And it’s quite nice that I can see, I can see real faces which is really nice.

The Children of Israel stood alert and waiting, presumably for the main event. And like you do, you kind of look around and you’re sort of settling in. And then it turned out that was the main event! That was the main event. The main event was the recognition that the Revelation was all these people looking into their neighbours’ faces. And in each person’s face was visible, God – God’s name in the form of the letter Aleph.

Because the letter Aleph is made up of a long stick, and that’s your nose, and two little yods, which are your eyes. And Aleph, of course, is the first letter of “Anochi Adonai Elohecha” – “I am the Lord your God.” And that’s what was visible, that’s what was visible. When everybody looked around, they saw God’s face in one another’s faces.

So your face is God’s name.

And the Revelation at Mount Sinai was our collective spiritual primal scene. And we were all there. And every Jewish or wanabe Jewish soul that ever could or will be was there and yet it was tremendously intimate. And we all felt affirmed and recognized and acknowledged and connected and deeply deeply satisfied in way that, well, we really crave it, but we don’t often get it.

And I think that’s what we continue to seek from all our encounters. And can we enjoy that feeling of really really being present in the room? And how best to pursue it?

Well, I think we can. I think we need to train ourselves to. And I think, I think it’s kind of simple, but it’s hard to remember.

So first, you choose your room. You choose your room. And then you gotta be in that room.

We spend so much time, just wandering around in corridors, and peeping inside rooms, and then we walk away and try our luck elsewhere. And even when we do make it into the room, we are so tormented by the options. Should I forsake my spot here because there might be something better going on over there? Well you know you could, you could try, but most likely you’ll just end up stranded nowhere, right, because it’s the investment that you put in and its really trying to make the most of being in that room.

So, it’s haunting and maddening to think, what other options do I have?

So, we have this tremendous technology that allows us to visit so many other rooms, and to speculatively take a little look and have a peep and you know and spend a few moments here and there and elsewhere. It’s really mixed blessing, that’s my ambivalence, it’s really mixed blessing. It transports us to all kinds of magical places and it drives us to endless, endless distraction as well. And this is as much to me as it is to you: please don’t allow yourself to be bamboozled by options.

So this is my blessing or my wish, for me and for you – and it’s valid for the rest of Limmud, and for the rest of our lives.

We need to pick a room. And then we need to be in that room. And then we need to appreciate what happens in that room.

And what could be lovelier than that?

Thank you.


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