I spend a lot of my time talking to old dead guys about my uterus.
It’s not a popular thing for a young person to do – especially when it comes to controversial, timely social issues like immigration, LGBTQ rights, and reproductive justice. The people most natural for me to consult should be my peers – leaders in these fields, champions of progress, and fighters for justice in the here and now.
So why am I interested in reaching back thousands of years, and bringing the voices of the Talmud and the Torah into these present-day conversations?
We live in a moment of political uncertainty and, for many of us, intensified moral urgency.
For those of us who are natural activists, this moment may fill us with both energy and exhaustion; for those of us who are newer to engaged citizenship, we may feel moved to act but unsure where to begin.
For both veteran and new activists, returning to Torah as a grounding center can provide inspiration, spiritual rejuvenation, and fruitful reflection. Many of the most pressing issues we face today begin with values questions, and having that conversation with our ancestors through Jewish texts across the centuries can help us clarify and articulate our own values; surprise us with new, valuable insights; and teach us the crucial skill of facing and engaging with challenging perspectives.
This is the task laid out before participants in Open Circle Social Action, a new program sponsored by Hebrew College and CJP that launches this month. Open Circle Social Action will bring together young adults under 35 to learn about the importance of the practice of tikkun olam (repair the world), tzedek (justice), and tzedakah (charity) in Jewish tradition; to work with community organizers in local advocacy organizations to address pressing issues and injustices; and to make a difference in the world and in our local communities through meaningful social action activities.
Open Circle Social Action, a track of Open Circle Jewish Learning, will feature two fall classes: “Welcome the Immigrant,” and “Dignity for All: LGBTQ+ Justice.” My course on “The Torah of Reproductive Justice” will be offered in the winter.
My course will examine ancient Jewish texts alongside modern scholarship and our own intuitions and experiences. We’ll explore questions at the heart of debates around reproductive justice. How do we make individual and communal choices around having and raising children? How do we build societies that reflect our values of human life, the sanctity of bodies, and bodily integrity and autonomy? Along the way, we’ll pair study with action in partnership with a local organization working toward reproductive justice.
The Mishna in Avot tells us of Torah, “Turn it over and turn it over, because everything is in it.” Even when we think we’re having a totally new conversation, if we scratch the surface of our tradition, we can almost always discover that our ancestors had a conversation that touched on some of the same values and questions that we are grappling with today. They don’t always land where we might, but I believe that listening deeply and compassionately to their conversations can illuminate and transform our own.
Shani Rosenbaum is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College. She grew up in Worcester, Mass., and Seattle, Wash., and spent the last few years living, working, and learning in Jerusalem. She served as a program coordinator for Encounter and as a program manager for OLAM, where she produced and hosted the Global Torah podcast. Shani has studied at Midreshet Lindenbaum, Matan, Beit Midrash Har’el, and in the Pardes Kollel. She holds a BA in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University.