Rev. Paul Raushenbush shares an extended conversation with Rabbi Joshua Stanton, Senior Fellow at Clal in New York City and Senior Rabbi at East End Temple.
There’s so much to get out of this encounter! From Joshua’s passionate, active practice of gratitude, based in Jewish teaching and tradition; respectfully learning lessons on gender from his young son (and accepting the label of Rabbi Cisgender Dude Bro for himself); musing on the benefits of freeing many religious practices from dependence on formal faith leaders; to the essential right to seek mental health support for anyone who feels a need in this post-pandemic, trauma-laden time.
You’ll also hear the blessings Rabbi Stanton finds in the allyship Jews are experiencing today across a vast and diverse range of communities despite the surge in antisemitism staining other parts of our society.
Hear the full November 26, 2022 State of Belief Radio program here.
REV. PAUL BRANDEIS RAUSHENBUSH, HOST:
Rabbi Joshua Stanton is the Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and Senior Fellow at Clal. He serves on the board of governors at the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation, and has been named by the Coexist Forum as one the foremost Jewish and interreligious bloggers in the world. Rabbi! Happy Thanksgiving… In the world!
RABBI JOSHUA STANTON, GUEST:
It’s great to have you here with us!
It’s great to be in conversation – and thank you for teaching me everything I know about blogging. My goodness…
Oh my God, I feel responsible!
You are so much more than a blogger, but your international fame is well deserved. Anyway, thank you for being here. You’re really one of the religious leaders I love and respect so much, and just appreciating everything you’re doing in this world. So let’s dive right in – and I’m already talking about gratitude: I’m grateful for you. I’m grateful for the way that you show up, I’m grateful for the way that your faith just oozes out of you and at the same time, it brings you into spaces that aren’t necessarily comfortable and familiar, but it invites you into adventure. And I just think that what you have offered me and American religion in these times is just so, so wonderful. So maybe you can start us off with a little bit of talk about the role of gratitude in Judaism, and maybe give us some perspectives on the way we could be thinking about Thanksgiving this year.
Absolutely. One of the things that I love the most is that, in Jewish tradition, Thanksgiving is something that is seen to require preparation. You don’t just walk in to your Thanksgiving table and say, “I’m so thankful!”
And I think that many of us remember some of the more awkward conversations going around the table and being thankful. And those conversations tend to be filled with platitudes, because it’s not easy to come in, sit down, and overflow with gratitude.
And in Jewish prayer, in the amidah – which is one of the central prayers of our tradition – there are actually three different steps, the last of which is thanksgiving.
The first is praise: recognizing the good, recognizing God, recognizing relationship, recognizing connection.
The second is an acknowledgement of all that you still want and need in this world. They are a series of petitionary prayers, in which you express that which isn’t yet okay in your life.
And finally having expressed praise for that which is awe-inspiring, having given word to all that isn’t yet awe-inspiring; finally, finally you conclude with thanksgiving, acknowledging that which is good, that which is important. And your final words in this prayer, are a prayer for peace – the ultimate source of inspiration for feelings of thanksgiving.
And so I just love that our tradition acknowledges thanksgiving is not easy, it’s not automatic. And what I would hope is that we take some time to do the inner work that gets us to a place of thanksgiving; that it’s not just an automatic Pavlovian response to the smell of Turkey and gravy, but we do the inner work to get to a place that we can feel it more deeply inside.
I think that’s amazing… That gratitude and Thanksgiving is a process, and not just a destination. And I think one of the things that we’re kind of slapped on the hand when we think about, oh, you know, there’s some areas of my life that are not great, and that I have so much sorrow or need or want or broken relationships; feeling of scarcity of basic food and housing – all of that kind of stuff.
I mean, if you just say, “Oh, well, just be grateful!” That’s not fair. I mean, it’s really not fair and it’s not real. And so I think what the Jewish, kind of, almost a pilgrimage of gratitude, really allows for the recognition that this is an incredible world, things are not perfect for me, and yet, still. And I think that that is beautiful.
I wonder if you, in your life – you have you have so many different relationships, both personal as well as other faith traditions, faith communities, other things going on in the nation… I wonder where you look and see what’s awesome; where you feel like things are still lacking, or broken; and then, what are you grateful for. So let’s let’s use that blueprint to really talk, for you personally, as a rabbi in America right now.
Where is their brokenness, and where am I feeling gratitude. And I think that this year, in particular, the two fit together very closely. There has been such an upswing in antisemitism in ways that would have been unfathomable six years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago; and the tropes being used, be it the Replacement Theory – which is straight out of a neonazi handbook; to the very campaign slogan “America First” which was a neonazi campaign slogan; to Dave Chappelle skits which have long since stopped being funny; to Kanye West, who has long since stopped being talented; to Kyrie Irving, who speaks, perhaps, beyond his area of expertise in ways that are deeply hurtful; to the number of people who casually drop George Soros and conspiracy theories about Jews on a day-to-day basis.
So what we’re hearing and seeing and feeling is heartbreaking.
And what gives me hope when I’m able to acknowledge all of the pain that a lot of Jews are feeling in the public square and in their day to day lives and feeling gratitude, a lot of gratitude, for the allies.
And, to name a few – in addition to the one with whom I am speaking today – Paul, you have done so much to stand alongside the Jewish community – you feel a sense of kinship with the Jewish community for many reasons, but you walk the walk of your faith in making sure that your Jewish brothers and sisters and friends and neighbors are not targeted.
The Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis has been standing up and speaking out brilliantly about the importance of solidarity with the Jewish community. It happens that Middle Collegiate Church actually meets at East End Temple right now for really tragic reasons – that their building burned down during the pandemic – but the beauty has been the set of relationships that have emerged between our community members, and the sense of real solidarity and kindness and care.
I’ll just interject there that that is one of the most beautiful stories of interreligious affiliation and sense of love that you welcome that congregation that is so important to the American – especially the New York – religious landscape, welcome them into your sanctuary. And it’s just extraordinary.
So I don’t want to gloss over what East End did and is doing with the heartbreak of Middle Church burning down. This historic church that was just a wonderful place led by the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, and so I just want to underline what a great example that is of collaboration and cooperation going forward.
Well, and it owes to the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis – the fact that she has been a friend of mine for years, meant that this felt natural. This was not forced, this was not a PR stunt. This was a natural outgrowth of relationship, and a natural outgrowth of her allyship. And what I particularly appreciate about her: she is a world-class theologian; she is, on many occasions, on the world stage. And yet, when we speak, she listens as well as anybody I know, and I feel really heard and really seen, as a Jewish person. I hope that I’m similarly able to hold space for her as a Christian leader, as a leader of the Black community, as a leader in so many different spheres.
But what a beautiful example of listening deeply, and then speaking. And Middle Collegiate Church just put out a set of tweets that have gone viral about what Christians can and should do to combat antisemitism.
The Rev. Dr. Jacqui Louis and I actually have an op-ed coming out in the New York Daily News about allyship against antisemitism. And it’s because she has been standing and doing this for years.
So one of the things I’m grateful for is that the upswing feels recent, but the relationships are deep and enduring and will not bend in the face of this kind of hatred. And so yes, there is a storm, and it feels like we’ve got oak trees that are standing tall and doing just fine.
I mean, how blessed. When in world history have Jewish diasporas had allyship like this. Yes, there’s antisemitism, and unfortunately that’s an old story, and it has resurged in ways that are heartbreaking. But I cannot think of a time in world history when we have had allies like this. And so I am filled with gratitude….
That’s an extraordinary perspective that I had not thought about, and I’m glad you feel that. I know that you can count me among that – not only because of my own Jewish background, but also just as a fellow human, as Christian clergy, you know it’s there. And the truth is that many of us will stand with you right there – not with a distance, but right there. And I think that’s what you and Jacqui are showing, who – Jackie, by the way, is also showing up for LGBTQ people this week, and joined us in Washington to show up for the Respect for Marriage Act. So she is an ally in many ways and someone who feels deeply. A lot of it is about empathy and compassion, I think that that’s a really valuable principle. But go on. Go on with gratitude.
I am grateful to live in a democracy that is still alive. And with all of its challenges; with all of the suffering that we have experienced; with the rise of genuine totalitarians; with the rise of genuinely anti-democratic forces, Americans have made clear that they are grateful for democracy. And I am grateful, not just for democracy, but for my fellow Americans. And I’m blessed to have relationships across a surprisingly large swath of the American political spectrum, and I am always heartened by the people who are in a very different political space than me with whom I can still share some values. And so, I am grateful for values-based conversations that are moving away from the tired tropes of politics and that will enable us to figure out what we do share and how we can build together going forward.
And I’m grateful for wonderful teachers, many of whom are Jewish – but increasingly, many of whom are not Jewish.
Paul, you have been a teacher and mentor for years. Dr. Eboo Patel, teacher and mentor for years. Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, teacher and mentor for years. Rabbi Ben Spratt on the Upper West Side – one of the finest congregational rabbis in the country – himself, the bearer of a remarkable faith journey with a dad who grew up Mormon, and a mother who grew up Jewish, and navigating all of the aspects of identity in a beautiful way.
What I’m getting from you is like a surround sound gratitude – which is about not just, I’m glad I have this really awesome house, and things… Things matter it’s fine. But also a national perspective, an ally perspective, a sense of the teachers. I think that it helps us to think widely about what gratitude can be, and how expansive it can be. It’s almost like the longer you spend with gratitude, the more you can look around and say, “Oh right, there’s another area.” So I just really appreciate the kind 360 you’re giving, and I know it also goes very personal and close to you.
Yes, I just want to underline something that you said – which is gratitude as a practice. It’s not a state of being; it’s a practice. It’s sometimes one of the more difficult practices for human beings, for us as clergy. When I come back from a funeral, and a part of me is broken inside – it is hard to feel gratitude. And for people who are suffering in so many dimensions, it is hard. And what I love about the practice of it and the Jewish approach to it – it’s hold all of the things, including gratitude. Don’t have gratitude eclipse other emotions; have it in addition to them.
And at home on a day-to-day basis, for those of us who are blessed to be parents, there is gratitude mixed in with beautiful moments of frustration and agita and sleep deprivation and too many details to hold and a sense that you’re dropping the ball somewhere and the sense that you should have shown up differently, you could have done better, the self-doubt in all of it. And I’m blessed to have this beautiful almost-four-year-old in my life as my child, and I’m feeling a lot of gratitude for all that he’s teaching me, and we’re in an interesting moment where he is navigating questions of gender in a way that I never did as a four-year-old. And I’m grateful that it is something that he is able to imagine for himself in an open-ended way, and I’m so grateful that he is living in an age where he doesn’t have to be just socialized into a gender; he is by sex gender, I default to male; and there are moments when he really identifies as female; and it changes on a day-to-day basis.
And I am somebody who is sort of a cis straight Ashkenazi dude bro, who does his best but really does not know a lot about a lot, especially with regard to gender and LGBTQ rights. And I was talking to a colleague, and they said that the phenomenon is “gender-creative”: that he’s figuring it out, and that that’s a beautiful thing. And I’m grateful that we live in a time where I don’t have to tell him to be tough, and tell him not to feel emotions and tell him that he’s male right or wrong, and tell him in very rigid ways what maleness is. I for the life of me could not put into words what it is to be a man; so, how am I going to tell my four-year-old what it is to be a male? And so I feel really blessed at home.
This is amazing. And it’s so interesting because last week we had a wonderful woman, Rev. Garcia, who is a Trans woman, an ELCA pastor. And I think that your being able to not shut this down; instead to look at what is evolving, to be there and love your child, answer questions as best you can, and then recognize that, like any issue, we’re all going to get some things wrong. When it comes to child rearing, we’re going to get things wrong. Fact. But that you’re open to this.
I’m going to say I’m grateful for you, and I’m so thankful that you’re trying; that you’re open to it. It’s amazing. And so I just want to say how grateful I am. We’re going to have a grateful-fest here; but I just think this is amazing and it’s, first, as a Rabbi Dude Bro, which is my new name for you from here on in, is to really try to do your best and realize that there are resources out there, when the time comes, and so I just want to acknowledge how interesting it is to to transform that from a challenge and a difficulty into an opportunity and a blessing. That’s a heart game. And I just really think it’s beautiful.
You know, we were talking about teachers earlier. And for those of us blessed to have children, they are our greatest teachers. And for me, as somebody who is narrow in his understanding of so many things, to be able to sit with a four-year-old who says, “Right now, I’m a princess, because I want to play alone” – and he associates it, I think, with Frozen and Elsa and some of those characters; and saying it with a degree of confidence that like… Who am I to say, “No, you’re not a princess!” Like, he’s very confident. They are very confident. I don’t even know what gender to ascribe… At that moment, she is very confident that she is a princess. And there are so many things to be worried about when it comes to parenting. And if my kid wants to describe herself, himself, themselves in a particular way at a particular moment – that’s just not on my top thousand concerns.
Concern number one: be a good human being. Concern number two: learn a lot of really important things. Concern number three: find a meaningful path in life where you can contribute to society. Concern number four: know that you are part of this incredible people called the Jewish people. Concern number five: find your voice. Those are my really big concerns, and it’s really nice to have concerns placed in a perspective. And idiocy of it, you know when you’re with a four year old who cares about five minutes from now it’s at this moment, this is what’s going on. And it is so clarifying.
And so what was an abstract conversation about gender, I really do feel grateful that it is being taught by somebody that I owe such a duty of care for and love tremendously. And in very specific moments feels one way, and in very specific moments feels another.
And when the horizon, chronologically, is like two minutes, his entire life is within a particular realm – and male, female, princess, dancer – whatever it might be. And so, why would I break that? I mean, there are moments when he thinks he’s an airplane. Why would I be more concerned that he thinks he’s a princess than an inanimate object?
So I’m grateful for the learning. I will say there are moments of panic, of emotion, of total confusion, of second-guessing myself that emerged from the fluidity of gender expression by my kid. And so I think I’m also grateful to have a spouse who is much more sophisticated on this and much else. I think if I were navigating this as the Ashkenazi cis straight dude bro that I am, I would be really lost – but I’ve got this great kid. And I’ve got this great spouse. And so whatever is going on inside of me, I have good resources – not just in public groups and not just in other fora, but right at home. And who knows. I have no idea how my kid is going to identify in 10 years, it’s hard to know minute by minute. But right now, if he’s trying to figure out if he’s an airplane or a princess – I just don’t feel the need to preference one very much.
Well, I think that’s awesome. You know, you’re the Senior Rabbi at East End Temple. You have so many opportunities – I’m curious how you imagine yourself growing in the next 20 years as you see the Jewish community transforming. For you and for the Jewish community – where would you like to see things go in the coming decades?
I think I need to matter less and less, speaking very bluntly. We have become overly focused on clergy. We have become almost ecclesiastical in our notions of clergy as people who intercede: you can’t do a baby naming; you can’t do a Bar/Bat/B Mitzvah; you can’t do a wedding; you can’t do an anything…
From the standpoint of Jewish tradition clergy are teachers; clergy are thinkers; clergy are community organizers; clergy are public representatives of the Jewish community.
That’s it. Every single life cycle event can be done without clergy, and so we are moving into an era of empowerment. The time when it was great to be the sage on the stage has long since passed us by, and so I’m so excited to support, empower and cultivate leaders at East End Temple and beyond. And I wonder openly whether those trends are also present in other religious communities.
If that is what we are moving towards, in an era that I would describe as an awakening – and not an awakening in the sense that we’re going to see churches, synagogues mosques, temples, humanist centers built on every corner; but an awakening in the
sense of renewed interest in community that has higher purpose, is mission driven, and brings out the best in us as people. And I would love to see religious and spiritual community be a place of leadership cultivation so that we have many more leaders in all parts of society. Doing so much more good in countless realms.
I think that’s so interesting. We have not talked about that, and I find that fascinating. And I do think that – certainly in my tradition, in the Baptist tradition, the idea of priesthood of all believers, this is a Protestant idea…
No! A nation of priests… Like Moses.
Yeah, so there you are. Like everything, we just lifted it from the Jews and said, look what we invented.
But anyway, I will say, almost, to be a Baptist clergy person is an oxymoron because everybody should have the right to do the thing – and to recognize that everybody has the right, not only for their own spirituality, but also for their own practice. And so I think that that’s a really beautiful trend that I feel like in some ways you are maybe leading rather than following – so that’s really, really great.
As we wrap up, maybe you could just say a few more things that when you look around the world, one that you find awesome – because we kind of skipped over that – like, what’s awesome to you. And I guess I’m looking for what is present for you as far as awesome, broken, and grateful.
The Jewish community, and so many communities, often overlook a miracle in our time. And that is: Nostra aetate in the Second Vatican accords. What had been in effect, if not an intention, one of the largest systematically antisemitic organizations in the world has become the largest philosemitic organization in the world.
How blessed are we to have a pope, whose partner in transition, the administration of the papacy his transition partner was the Chief Rabbi of Argentina.
In what world are we living? This is a miracle! Why is it that Jews, even with the rise in antisemitism in Pew studies and Robert Putnam studies are the most-liked religious community in the US?
I have to say the Catholic Church probably has played a pivotal role in that.
Cardinals up and down the line in the United States; priests up and down the line have a love and respect and regard for their Jewish colleagues and friends that was unimaginable to my grandparents. We are living into a miracle. And it is such a significant transformation, such a Copernican shift, that we often don’t even pay attention to it.
And so I just have to say, as a rabbi, I feel such gratitude to the Catholic Church, and I can’t imagine 100 years ago – much less 1000 years ago – many rabbis feeling grateful to anyone in the Catholic hierarchy, much less the institution of the Catholic Church as a whole.
And it has done something extraordinary. And so, yes, there’s really ugly history. The Crusades – awful for the Jews. The Inquisition – awful for the Jews. So many moments in Catholic-Jewish history, really just a bloodbath with Jewish blood being spilled.
How amazing is it that we are living in a fundamentally different time.
I could not be more grateful. Whether a divine miracle or a miracle wrought by human beings, it is a miracle in the fullest way that I understand miracles.
What about something that you are confronted with the brokenness of?
As a rabbi, I have never seen more widespread human suffering than during pandemic. And whether we’re post-pandemic or peri-pandemic or mid-pandemic right now, a huge number of people are not okay. The rates of depression, the rates of suicidality, the rates of drug use, the rates of domestic violence, the rates of violence outside the home are like nothing I have encountered before.
And I see people’s brokenness and, correspondingly, I internalize some of the brokenness. I will be the first one to publicly say, one of the pandemic keepers in my life is an amazing psychiatrist and the blessing of antidepressants. I did so many funerals and felt suffering, myself, so much that I experienced brokenness within. And I cannot recommend more highly finding a good mental health professional for you, for everybody. All of us are due for a mental health checkup – and probably a physical checkup – and a whole bunch of us are due for more intensive interventions.
I certainly was one. I certainly am one.
And I’m guessing the majority of us are too – given what I’m seeing and hearing, not just in my community, but far more widely.
Thank you for that word. I think that is so life saving and it’s so important from a religious leader to acknowledge that, and to recognize that we all need help when we need help – and we do not need to be ashamed to ask for it. We need to find ways to get it. And I just think it’s incredibly important, especially, again, coming from a religious leader, where you’re supposed to be perfect, you’re supposed to have all the answers, you’re supposed to be one with God. So what else could you want? And instead to demonstrate self-care is a way to care for your community. So I just really appreciate those words.
And finally… Final words: What’s your top line gratitude moment?
I was going on a trip two weeks ago. And my kid almost got out one of the most beautiful thoughts… And then in typical four-year-old-speak narrowly missed it.
And he turns to me before I go, he gives me a big hug, says, “I love you, Daddy.” And he says, “Daddy, when you’re gone, I’ll be thinking.” And what he meant was, I’ll be thinking of you; but it was “Daddy, I’ll be thinking.”
And I thought, on so many levels, both what he was going for and what he actually said – it was just beautiful. And it was one of those moments where you’re like, my kid must have been thinking for a really long time about exactly what to say. And even though it was halfway to a fully formed expression of it, it was the most beautiful thing I could have imagined.
That’s wonderful. Could we close out with some kind of a gratitude blessing from the Jewish tradition, either sung or spoken?
Hakarat HaTov is the practice of recognizing the good that others bring into the world and into our midst.
It is a practice of seeing other people more fully.
It is the blessing of feeling their goodness in our lives.
It is the possibility of experiencing awe in more moments.
It is the opportunity to see the goodness within ourselves too.
May we go around our day-to-day lives not missing a moment to express gratitude and to feel gratitude within – not just for the big moments, the grand moments; but for the nesim bekhol yom – the miracles of everyday life that adorn our lives and are one of its greatest forms of blessing.
Joshua Stanton, Rabbi at East End Temple in Manhattan and a Senior Fellow at Clal. He’s co-author of the powerful book Awakenings: American Jewish Transformation, Identity, Leadership and Belonging.
Joshua, thank you for being with us on this Thanksgiving edition, and happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.
Happy Thanksgiving. Thank you so much.