I recently had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, New York, and the privilege of reading his book on SPIRITUAL ACTIVISM (A Jewish Guide to Leadership and Repairing the World, with a foreword by Alan M. Dershowitz, published by JEWISH LIGHTS, Woodstock, Vermont, 2008). Not only did I enjoy meeting him and his wife personally over Shabbat dinner at the home of my daughter and son-in-law, Rabbi Dahlia Kronish and Joshua Maudlin, in Riverdale, New York, but I benefited greatly from reading his book and being inspired by his concept of “spiritual activism”.
Rabbi Avi Weiss and I would not agree on very much politically, especially about issues in Christian-Jewish Relations and ways to resolve them or about Israeli policies in the occupation of the Territories or the West Bank or Judea and Samaria, however one chooses to refer to these places… Nevertheless, I have gained great respect for him as a person and as a genuine Jewish leader by reading his book and by spending time with him.
In his younger days, Rabbi Weiss was an extreme activist. He often went “over-the-top” to provoke American Jewish Leadership into action, especially on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
But then he suffered a few heart attacks and he has become softer and more appreciative of daily life. Moreover, in recent years, he has dedicated himself to building a truly progressive Modern Orthodox Yeshiva, Hovevei Torah, in Riverdale, which is a tremendous achievement in the world of Modern American Orthodoxy, which had moved so much to the political and religious right in recent decades.
How does Rabbi Weiss define “spiritual activism?”
“Activism is an act performed on behalf of an ‘other’. Spiritual activism characterizes all action that emerges from the spiritual divine base. In mastering the principles of spiritual activism, a person will have learned basic ideas of leadership.” (From the preface)
When I was with him for the Shabbat evening service in his synagogue in Riverdale last June, he demonstrated spiritual activism in a very simple human way. During the dancing when the song “L’chah Dodi” was being sung, he reached out to two elderly infirm men who were sitting in back of me, and gently invited them to dance lightly with him. Then he invited me to join in, which I gladly did. I was inspired and catalyzed by this small genuine act of spiritual activism.
Rabbi Weiss goes to great lengths in his book to define Spiritual Activism. His challenge for activists, he tells us, is “to ignite the divine spark present in the human spirit and thereby impel people to do good for others” (p.xviii). Moreover, he adds that “spiritual activism” encapsulates a uniting force in all of those who do go for others, regardless of religion, nationality, observance, commitment and background. In other words, Rabbi Weiss’ message is not limited to Jews–even if they are his main audience—-but to all of us who engaged in healing the world wherever we are.
My lesson and hope from this book is that more of us–in Israel and Palestine and around the world–will demonstrate spiritual activism wherever we live on a more regular basis. This is both a goal and a method that all of us involved in interreligious dialogue, education and action can emulate and practice.
Rabbi Dr. Ron Kronish