CollaboraSTORY: Gathering the Many Parts of Ourselves

Collaboratory, 2019
Rabbi Adina Allen


There’s a story in the Talmud about a famous rabbi who declares that no student may enter the study hall whose inside does not match their outside - in Hebrew, who are not “tocho k’varo.”

What does this mean that their inside must match their outside? To me this sounds like this rabbi is asking for there to be no discrepancy between who these students know themselves to be and who they show themselves to be. This also sounds like it requires a Jewish space in which students feel safe enough to be bold enough to be fully who they are.

Well, in our Talmudic story, this particular study hall was not such a place and this bar for entry was too high. Too many students who wanted to come and learn were denied. Because of this, the rabbi was ousted from his position and a new rabbi was established in his place.

It is said that under this new leadership, the doors to the study hall were "flung open." There were so many new and eager students waiting to enter that hundreds of benches were added to accommodate all who wanted to come learn. Some say 400 benches were added, others say 700 benches! All who had previously been kept on the margins were now able to engage in study and community. It is said that on that day every Jewish legal question that had previously gone unanswered was resolved. The new and diverse voices in the room added the vital perspectives that had been missing.

To me, this story is inspiring as a teaching on the power of radical inclusivity in Jewish spaces: the more voices, the more diverse perspectives, the deeper our collective understanding.

But there’s another angle of this story that relates to our theme of “Gathering” that I want to touch on tonight - it brings back to that enigmatic phrase that we began with, “tocho k’varo” - our outside matching our inside. In our story, this is used as a near-impossible standard that is designed to keep students out of the study hall. “Tocho k’varo” is weaponized towards maintaining exclusivity. Yet I wonder, if used in a different way, might this ideal of tocho lo k’varo have something important to offer us today regarding how - and why - we gather?

We are all complex beings. Multifaceted. Always in process. All that we’ve ever been is inside of us - our successes and failings; our joys and losses; our ancestors; our family; our history. At any one moment we hold conflicting feelings, huge questions, unspoken vulnerabilities, fears.

What if we didn’t have to be anything other than this -  the messy, beautiful, in process humans that we actually are? What if our gatherings were designed to hold and support this truth?

I grew up in an art Studio. The daughter of a well-known art therapist, from an early age, paintbrush and pen were given to me as tools to understand myself and the world around me. As a child when facing a deep feeling or a big question that I couldn’t figure out - my mom would ask: "Have you made art about it, yet?" This response, frustrating to me as a 9-year-old, I have come to realize contained profound insight.

What she was teaching me was that art making is a way of making space for the multitudes that we contain. Entering the unknown of the empty canvas is way of exploring the unknown parts of ourselves - that which is uncertain, unresolved, unclear. The process of creating is one of coming into deeper, more full-bodied knowing of who we are and our place in the world.

In American culture we imagine that this process of getting to know the many parts of self is our own individual work to be done privately - or perhaps with a professional - behind closed doors. The studio, I have learned, is the place where we gather so that we don’t have to do this work alone.

When you come to Jewish gatherings, as you are right now - which aspects of who you are get to have a place, and which don’t? Are there parts of yourself you wish you could share, transform or better know?

These questions are what led us to create Jewish Studio Project.

Part beit midrash- study hall, part art studio, for us, exploring these questions looks like people gathered in a vibrant, colorful room - one side filled with sacred books, the other side filled with sacred art supplies. We meet in the middle, drawing on both sets of tools to plumb the depths of our tradition and ourselves. In this liminal space we allow ourselves to be in process. We are both the self we present to the outside world - parent, professional, leader, achiever - and who we are becoming. As we explore our questions, our dreams, our stuck places - parts of ourselves rise, as other other parts recede. We stand at the wall, each putting brushstrokes on our own page, yet, drawing on the power of parallel play, we are buoyed and fueled by one another’s presence and process.

Tonight we gather as a field of bold dreamers and leaders. We have begun to push open the doors and add more benches so that more of us can be in the room - and there is still a long journey ahead on this path. As we continue this vital work of welcoming all, my question tonight is: can we deepen and complexify what happens once we’re inside?

In whatever sphere we are in - be it board room or classroom, shul or Shabbat table, camp or campus - how might we create gatherings that welcome all of us - all of those in the community - and also, all of us - all of who we are? My blessing for us is that as we transform our gatherings  they, in turn, transform us, and, in so doing, we become better equipped to transform the world.