Diversity Not for Its Own Sake: Lessons from One Book

Dec 9, 2019 by

Diversity Not for Its Own Sake: Lessons from One Book

Rabbi Barry H. Block just published his new book, The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life with CCAR Press. His mussar-based anthology offers commentary and analysis of each of the 54 weekly parashot, juxtaposed with one of the mussar middot, and is available for purchase now. An excerpt from The Mussar Torah Commentary is available on Ravblog.

Below, Rabbi Block shares his personal reflections on diversity and the impact that a chorus of unique voices and perspectives has had on this compelling new collection of Jewish perspectives on Torah and mussar.

Distinguished rabbinic colleagues who wrote cover blurbs for my new book, The Mussar Torah Commentary, reference the diversity of the book’s contributors in their kind words about the volume. When I saw one mention of diversity, I was pleased. After all, I had referenced the importance of the contributors’ diversity in the book’s introduction. When I saw that so many of these “cover blurb” writers mentioned diversity that they had to be edited to limit repetition, I decided they might be on to something deeper than I had previously considered.

When I first proposed The Mussar Torah Commentary, submitting my own offering on Parashat Vayeishev, I asked Rabbi Hara Person, Publisher of CCAR Press and now our CCAR Chief Executive, whether I should write the entire book or invite a different author to write on each parashah. She explained CCAR Press’s preference for the latter: As the publishing arm of our Reform rabbinical association, CCAR Press often seeks to include multiple authors in any given volume, amplifying the voices of many CCAR members—and often, contributors from beyond the Reform rabbinate.

From previous conversations with Hara, I knew that the goal of achieving gender diversity among contributors was often a challenging task, not from lack of invitations but because in her experience men are more likely to accept an invitation to contribute than women (I will leave the analysis of this to others to elaborate on elsewhere). I was mindful of this reality when inviting contributors for The Mussar Torah Commentary. If my desired end result would be a book written by as many women as men, and it was, I knew I would need to invite more women than men to contribute. Fully 60% of my initial invitations were to women.

Still, I wasn’t as aware then as I am now of why that diversity, as well as other aspects of the diversity of the book’s contributors, would be important.

Shortly after the first meeting of the book’s Editorial Advisory Committee, Rabbi Pam Wax reached out to me to discuss the way that women have been marginalized in the world of Mussar. I was already aware that our book could be the first in the Mussar world to be written by more women than men. I also knew that women who are far more knowledgeable Mussar students than I, notably including Pam, have not consistently gained deserved recognition as skilled Mussar teachers.

Each member of the diverse Editorial Advisory Committee suggested colleagues who might write for the book. Several of Pam’s suggestions were affiliated with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS). When I wrote to Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, then Executive Director of IJS, to invite her contribution, she informed me that her approach to tikkun middot (soul repair) tends to be based in Chasidic texts, rather than those that emanate from the traditional world of Mussar. She asked if that approach would be welcome in The Mussar Torah Commentary. I assured Lisa that I was eager for the volume to include diverse approaches. Ultimately, I asked her to write an introductory essay, explaining her approach, which is reflected in several commentaries in the book.

On Erev Shabbat Chayei Sarah, I held the actual book in my hands for the first time. Yes, I had the full manuscript in electronic form for a while already, and I had read each commentary multiple times during the editing process. Still, only with the book in hand am I able to see the “forest” that those cover blurb writers saw, rather than the “trees” on which I was focused earlier.

I suspect that only a woman, and probably only one a generation younger than I, could have written the modern midrash that makes Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz’s contribution on Parashat Chayei Sarah so compelling. Only a longtime military chaplain could’ve written about moral injury in the way that Rabbi Bonnie Koppel does in her offering for Parashat Ki Tavo. Pieces by HUC-JIR faculty and administrators—Rabbi David Adelson, DMin; Rabbi Lisa Grant, PhD; and Rabbi Jan Katzew, PhD—reflect their roles as teachers of future rabbis and other Jewish professionals, whether implicitly or explicitly. I purposefully invited cantors, Rabbi Cantor Alison Wissot and Cantor Chanin Becker, to write about Parashat B’shalach and Parashat Haazinu, each of which has a shir, i.e., a poem or a song, at its center. I was not disappointed: Their cantorial voices sing in their commentaries. The fact that Rabbi Brett Isserow has recently retired is resonant in his commentary on Parashat Va-y’chi.

Younger and older, male and female, straight contributors and members of the LGBTQ community; Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox; working in congregations and in a variety of other settings; actively employed, retired, and on disability: The diverse authors of The Mussar Torah Commentary have proven that Hara was right, as usual. A book whose voices are many and varied will hold within its covers a wide range of compelling perspectives, offering readers a more complete view of Torah and the world.

The lessons of diversity offered by The Mussar Torah Commentary are not merely about one book, or even all anthologies. As we construct our world—our organizations, our circles of friends, our government, and more—our lives will be richer when we encourage people with a variety of life circumstances and experiences to lead and teach us.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. A Houston native and graduate of Amherst College, Rabbi Block was ordained by Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in 1991after studying at its Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York campuses, and he received his DD, honoris causa, in 2016. Block currently serves as faculty dean at URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp, a role he held for twenty-one years at URJ Greene Family Camp. Block is the editor of the newly released book The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.

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