Miriam’s Cup: Artists are the New Rabbis

As I listened to Amanda Gorman perform her powerful poem at Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration, I remembered and re-remembered this statement – “artists are the new rabbis.” These were the words of Kendell Pinkney, a theatre artist and rabbinical student who moderated the recent panel, ‘Art and Artists On Being Black and Jewish,’ assembled by Fenster curator and DJC member, Evelyn Tauben. (http://fentster.org/events/2020/12/2/artists-on-being-black-and-jewish – watch it!).

In the context of the panel, Pinkney was talking about the essential act of wrestling and making meaning. He said, “It’s that sense of wrestling with God and wrestling with self and that kind of disposition one has to have to sit in the muck of human life and experience and then really be able to craft that into something transcendent.” Rabbis and artists alike, at their best, get down in this muck, roll and wrestle and lift from it lament and praisesong, lift truths that are cold and clear, lift truths that are hot-blooded and beating, evocatively rendering them so they speak the language of our souls. At their best, rabbis and artists turn our heads to catch particles of life floating in a beam of light, a revelation right in front of us that has been there all along but that we hadn’t seen or lacked the language for, describing their astounding dance. The muck and the light. The craft of transcendence that Pinkney referred to is sometimes bitter medicine and sometimes healing balm and sometimes gestures the way to a path forward, evocative possibilities for us to live into.

This is what Torah is. This is what the siddur/prayerbook is. And Talmud and midrash and Kabbalah and Hasidut. But because most of us don’t speak those languages (and by ‘language’ I don’t only mean Hebrew; I mean the specific poetic, metaphoric ways each of these literatures speak out of their various contexts into the universal), we need to rely on artists and rabbis to bring their words and our lives into real and revelatory conversation – to wrestle and roll and lift together in the muck and the light, to render from them the insights that shock and wake and sooth our souls. I’ve just started teaching a Shabbat morning series, “Sacred Fire”, delving into the teachings of Rabbi Kalanymous Kalmish Shapira, a Hasidic rebbe in Warsaw who was killed in the Holocaust. His teachings are so alive with emotional depth and insight into the human habits that bury a person’s soul “under a great pile of garbage without even their fingers extending out.” In a time of horror and suffering, he was artist and rabbi, translating Torah, the world around him and the universe within him for his time.

I listened to Gorman’s words and I experienced her as both poet and preacher. With biblical imagery, national mythology, spoken word artistry and moral call, with stirring metaphors and strong and rolling cadence, she named national crisis and individual heartbreak, giving us bitter medicine, comforting balm and vision for the way forward. Muck and light. I’m not American but I claim her as my poet. She’s not Jewish but I claim her as my rabbi. She not only embodies what Pinkney meant when he said artists are the new rabbis, but she inspires me with questions about how we might all, you and I together, develop our artistic and rabbinic craft. The ability to be in the muck and to craft it into something meaningful is accessible to each of us. It is the capacity, the call and the awakened desire to “step into the past and repair it” as Gorman so eloquently put it.

I leave you with some of my favourite lines, as much a call to Americans as it is a call to what it means to be a Jew in our time: 

Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made it.
That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare.
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.
It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it.

We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be:
A country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.

If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change, our children’s birthright.

When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

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