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I speak 3 languages. Sort of. Perhaps it’s not the most linguistically correct way to take inventory, but that number is an aggregate: English (my mother tongue), Spanish (functional, learned in childhood), French (enough to “get around,” as they say, and acquired through immersion), Italian (if you sing as much opera and eat as much pasta as I have, you’ll pick some up, too, and a class helped), German (enough to get into trouble and not back out again), and Hebrew (the work in progress– currently somewhere between impossible and exhilarating).

The power of language never fails to astonish me. I recall with crystal clarity the times words were my jailers, my torturers, my only weapon. Momentarily lost on a Beijing thoroughfare, the riptide of illiteracy threatened to pull me under. With five words, I lost lover. An insult was carelessly hurled at a child, and twenty years on, my eyes fill with tears at the summoning of the phrase’s ghost. Pages and hours of excuses have averted personal disaster. Comfort given, frustrations aired, needs made known– all with a word.

My languages change me. You’ll laugh, but in Spanish, I am wittier, more jocular. In French, my voice is lower, darker, and softer, and I tend toward the philosophical. Italian heightens my awareness of my body, and I speak slowly, tasting each syllable as it leaves my lips. I am easily frustrated in my clipped but clumsy German, and Hebrew…Hebrew is an essay all its own. The lashon kodesh (“holy tongue”) of my spiritual ancestors, a language unspoken for centuries, the key to countless books I’m dying to devour– I am desperate for Hebrew to sink into my skin, to read it as language and not code. Someday.

The flavor of each language reflects its development, recalling the families and strangers who have shouted its obscenities and murmured its tenderest fumblings at the illustration of love. The personalities, localities, cultures, situations that use a language are absorbed into its essence, become that essence, part of the larger whole.

It is sometimes the smallest word that betrays the greatest difference in meaning. My favorite example of this is (of course) Jewish. As a child, I learned from my teachers. At home, I learned from my parents. On television, I learned from Big Bird and Mr. Rogers. At university, I learned from my professors, my fellow students, my mentors, and my books.

In Jewish settings, we learn with.

There are teachers in Judaism, of course, and there are students. But just as we all can lay claim to our tradition, so do we all teach each other. As the Talmud says, “I learned much from my teachers, even more from my colleagues, but I learned the most from my students” (BT Makkot 6a).

It doesn’t always happen, of course– any seminar can devolve into lecture, and a text study can quickly devolve into discourse. But when it does happen?

I have just returned from the most incredible learning experience and, as is so often the case, it is one into which I stumbled, blundering through my spiritual wilderness and grasping for a handhold. Six weeks ago, I was gasping for air, seeking escape anywhere I could find it, and a dear friend recommended I apply to the Clal Rabbis Without Borders student retreat. Though nearly a month had passed since the application deadline, I was allowed to register, and from Thursday to Sunday, I learned with men and women from across the spectrum of Jewish practice, belief, and identification. I have yet another reason to believe in…something. God? Fate? The insight and intuition of friends? Whatever I need to thank: thank you.

I could relate the content of the sessions; I will do so in future posts. Four days in a bucolic postcard of rolling hills and frolicking goats, sunshine streaming in the wall of windows while we delved into text and tradition. There was tachlis [practical consideration]– how and why to value advocacy as much as service, dealing with difficult board presidents, using text to support social justice causes, finding and leveraging hidden sources of power. There were broader lessons: learning to rebuke with love, to advocate with respect, to manage without manipulating, to give in without giving up. Learning with.

We came from everywhere. Boston, California, New York, Toronto, Israel. From places of love and hurt and loss, of confusion and devotion and joy. From the prime of life, from naïveté, from the marriage bed and the state of “radically single.” From schools deemed Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform, Secular Humanist, Pluralistic, Renewal, Conservative. We arrived strangers, and on Sunday, we mourned the loss of a strong kehillah (community). In our final moments together, we shared which lessons we would take back with us. How had this “retreat” really been an advancement?

For me, the question has ten thousand answers. The most important (right this second) is this: it can be done. We can build community in an instant, from any material. We can love the stranger. Why?

We speak one language: Judaism. It isn’t Hebrew or prayer or text or creed or peoplehood or statehood or history or blood. It is all of these things. It is none of them. It is (at least!) ten thousand others. Our Jewish language. Our dialects differ, our accents grate, we speak too loudly and for too long…but we hear each other. As we all speak our Judaism, we shape it, and it shapes us. And when we converse, we are shaped to fit each other, molded and bonded. It can never be unison, but it is a symphony: counterpoint and harmony.

Is this only possible in a room of rabbis and rabbis-to-be? No. The range of knowledge in that room each day was staggering, even disheartening: how could we learn with each other when our skills were so disparate? Chasms yawned between our mindsets: how does a believer use Talmud to learn about God from an atheist? One school led a traditional mechitzah (a divider between men’s and women’s seating) service, another asked us to meditate and chant, a third taught Calvin and Hobbes: how do we pray together?

The answer: by letting it happen. Every story told, every opinion shared, every question asked was a new lesson, and we had much to teach. Any group of people can build these bridges of respect, understanding, and love. We succeeded by being ready to learn.

We came there open, and we left overflowing.