The Intersection of My Spiritual and Professional Lives

In January 2016, I attended several events commemorating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Ithaca College (IC). At one of them, the presenter, RaKim Lash, IC’s Assistant Director for Multicultural Affairs, ran an activity in which workshop attendees considered their own different, intersecting identities. He asked us to choose the one identity that seemed most important or most powerful in our lives; the identity frame that informs most of our interactions with others.

I quickly considered some aspects of my identity. I’m a son, brother, husband, father, and uncle. But those family relationships don’t define my friendships and working relationships. I’m a professor—a leader in higher education—but that doesn’t define my relationships off-campus. I have a Ph.D. in Russian literature and conduct research in applied linguistics and foreign language education, but that doesn’t define my personal relationships. I struggled with finding a unifying answer.

And then I realized the one aspect of my identity that defines all my relationships. I am a Jew.

I’ve given some additional thought since then as to why this aspect of my identity means so much to me, especially given that I neither attend synagogue services very frequently nor speak either Hebrew or Yiddish. I remember a conversation with one of my grandfathers, a Talmud scholar who was an Orthodox Jew. He asked me once, when I was a teenager, if I believed in G-d.[1] I was afraid to tell him the truth, but I was more afraid not to tell him the truth. So I told him, “I’m not sure.” He gave a little jump in the air and said, “That’s exactly what it means to be a Jew!” That moment was one of several that propelled me into deeper reflection of what it means for me to be a Jew.

Ultimately, I concluded that there are two fundamentally important concepts in Judaism that inform my identity as a Jew in every aspect of my life.

First, there is what most Jews would consider the single most important prayer of Judaism:

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יהוה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יהוה אֶחָד

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonay Eloheynu Adonay Echad

It’s usually translated into something like:

Hear O Israel! The Lord is our G-d. G-d is one.

The translation is challenging in part because the Hebrew has no punctuation and every English translation I see has punctuation in it. I have no academic training in Judaica, but, I interpret the prayer differently than its most common translation.

The word “hear” is a strange imperative in English. We usually “hear” as a passive condition of being present in a context when sound is being generated while our hearing ability is intact or sufficiently supported by assistive technology.

I believe, however, that the word “Sh’ma” is best translated as Listen, which requires more energy and attention. Listening transcends hearing; it encompasses caring.

The word “Yisrael” is usually translated as “Israel”, which means “the entirety of the Jewish people. However, the word “Yisrael” was the new name given to one of the Jewish patriarchs in Genesis, Jacob, after he wrestled with an angel (Genesis 32:22-32). The literal translation of “Yisrael” is “the one who wrestles or struggles with G-d.” Therefore, I see the word “Yisrael” in this prayer as something much more global than merely the Jewish people. I believe that the word means “all those who wrestle with the idea of a Divine Presence in their lives.”

The next part of the prayer is particularly confusing. The word “Adonay” translates to “G-d”, but the word “Eloheynu” also means G-d, with a plural possessive suffix (meaning, “our”). Adonay Eloheynu really means “G-d is our G-d,” a tautology. That is directly followed by the next phrase, which emphasizes the unitary nature of the Divine Presence (“Echad” means “one” in both Biblical and Modern Hebrew).

In Genesis we learn that G-d made human beings in His/Her own image, I interpret this next phrase of the prayer to mean that G-d or, a Divine Presence, sparkles in each of us. For me, the usage of the plural possessive form proclaims that all of humanity is united as a manifestation of that same Divine Presence, a Presence evidenced also in the majesty of the stars, the splendor of the mountains, the rush of the tide, and the miracle of life,

Thus, my own interpretation of this prayer is:

Listen to and care for one another,
because the Divine Presence is manifest in everyone.

I am guided in my life as a son, brother, husband, father, professor, friend, neighbor, citizen, and human being, by the core values of respect and compassion for people of all backgrounds, theists of all faiths, agnostics, and atheists.

It is a sweet irony – and Jewish culture is full of them – that the affirmation of monotheism in Judaism, the key theological innovation that distinguished Jewish faith in the cultural context of the ancient Near East while binding together Jews as a coherent faith community across the millennia – also serves for me as a universalist expression of human community.  When I say this prayer, I affirm my identity as a Jew, the descendent of my Jewish ancestors, and the father of my Jewish progeny, all of whom uttered and utter this very prayer.  At the same time, by saying this prayer, I also affirm my identity as a member of the human family, emphasizing my sense of connectedness with people who pray not just in Hebrew, but also in Arabic, Spanish, Russian, Thai, and 7,000 or so other world languages, as well as with people who do not pray at all.

The second core tenet of Judaism that shapes my worldview is the concept of “Tikkun Olam” or “Repair of the World.”  Jewish sages who wrote commentaries on the Torah in the third century of the common era first raised this concept; it was refined by Rabbi Isaac Luria in the 16th century and again by Dr. Shlomo Bardin in the 1950s.  I believe that “Tikkun Olam” means that when G-d created the world, S/He did not complete the act of creation; rather G-d assigns us that work so that we can be partners in creation. Moreover, the work of repairing the world and perfecting it is so vast that no one person can do it by him or herself.  This work cannot be completed in one generation’s lifetime; rather, it is the obligation of every individual to contribute to this project knowing that it has been undertaken by those who came before us and will be taken up by those who follow us. It is a project for humanity across the millennia.

From this I draw strength to make my own tiny contributions to the completion of the act of creation, to repair the world, learning from others about social justice issues, engaging in acts of social justice, helping others to more deeply understand issues of social justice, and looking to join with others toward this common goal for humanity.

As a professional in higher education, I respond to concerns and problems, both everyday and extraordinary, from the perspective of this Jewish framework. I extend respect and compassion to students, colleagues, parents, and community members of all backgrounds who raise concerns or ask for help managing a difficult situation that affects their participation in our shared academic community. I purposefully look for opportunities to create and enhance the learning experience for students – which in turn requires support from and support for faculty and staff – to help students graduate not merely with degrees certifying their academic knowledge and skills, but also to help them graduate as mensches, so to speak. Our graduates must be ready to contribute to sustain and advance their communities both locally and globally. Our graduates, individuals who come from diverse backgrounds, must be prepared to listen to and care for others who, in turn, also come from diverse backgrounds and have different perspectives and faith traditions, including, of course, atheists and agnostics.

One of my favorite films, Repentance, directed by Tengiz Abuladze, ends with a scene in which an old woman, a religious pilgrim, asks a younger woman if the street she is on leads to a church. The younger woman explains that the street in question, named after a tyrant, does not lead to a church. The old woman responds, “What good is a road if it doesn’t lead to a church?” In other words, “What good is a journey if it doesn’t lead to a spiritual destination?” (The old woman was played by Veriko Andjaparidze 1897-1987 in her last appearance; Repentance had its premiere after her death, so her question in this scene has particular resonance for viewers familiar with her work.)

My professional life is a part of my larger life journey, a journey marked by spiritual landmarks I recognize through my framework of Jewish tradition and values.  This is a road I travel with diverse friends and colleagues from a variety of theist, agnostic, and atheist backgrounds whose spiritual landmarks may look different than mine, but who nonetheless have my respect and admiration. I remember fondly a time when I worked with a department chair, also a Jew, to help a Muslim colleague in her department cover his classes so he could go on the Hajj for the first time in his life:  the experience was a blessing for all of us precisely because it was a journey to a spiritual destination. In other words, that road was a good one. It continues to be a good road for me.

[1] In Jewish tradition we do not spell out the name of the Holy One, but use euphemisms or the form “G-d” with the hyphen.  In Hebrew the pronunciation “Adonay” is used to replace the unpronounceable “YHVH” which has evolved in English into “Jehovah”.