Every three months we welcome a new Rabbi-in-residence, for a blogger stint that is part personal commentary, part a weekly dollop of Jewish learning. Meet Rabbi Benji Stanley!
Who are you?
Benji: Partner of Rabbi Leah Jordan. Middle son of Carol and Jack Stanley.
I love reading, but too often get distracted by my phone and the whole wide world of the internet.
Rabbi for Young Adults for Reform Judaism in the UK, fostering transformative learning and relationships for people in their 20s and 30s. Passionate about open-ended, committed conversations with voices from the past and people in the present. This is at the heart of my Judaism.
Where are you from, and which place do you call home right now?
Benji: I was born in London and now still only live 40 minute walk from the house I grew up in. I'm in Kentish Town with Leah. I love it, and am especially fond of a craft beer place on our road, but Kentish does not have very local egalitarian synagogues, which is it's main drawback. I consider London home but had a wonderful year studying at Yeshivat Hadar, an egalitarian intensive yeshiva (study institute) on the upper west side in New York.
The experience of being at Hadar and living in New York enabled me to experience what a Jewish home can feel like, full of choice, and within that choice there were ways to be simultaneously intensively committed to Torah, egalitarianism and to trying to bring kindness and justice to the contemporary world with other people and phenomenal teachers.
How did you find yourself on the Rabbinical path?
Benji: My mother brought us up to appreciate the food, warmth and occasional tension of a Friday night dinner, even if our friends were out partying. As for my Dad, it doesn't sound like a particularly Jewish experience, but when I was 13, and had just started a new, scary, school, I used to alleviate my school nerves by getting into my English literature assignments. I began to connect to that world of stories and voices, of careful expression and listening in a chaotic world, and whenever I had to write a piece, whether it was creative or analytical, I would tend to bring my first draft into my father in the living room and read it to him. He was not shy of correcting details, and soon enough, even though I always initiated the process, I would begin to feel criticised and to get irate- before going away (or possibly storming off) and making the suggested changes. When I would bring the essay back to him and read the changed version he was often very proud. That process gave me some of the seeds of my love of Judaism. I appreciated the guidance into a world of ideas, and also, I just really appreciated the time with my Dad.
At the heart of Judaism for me are conversations with people who you are willing to treat as family
with wonderful texts that can both reassure you and help you grow, right there in the middle.
I went into the Rabbinate to skill myself up in having and sharing these conversations. I grew up in RSY-Netzer, the youth movement for Reform Judaism in the UK, and I loved leading camps with them, and spending my Gap year in Israel. RSY showed me how Judaism can bring together people, texts, and a focus on personal and societal change.
When I studied English at Oxford I loved it, and deepened my reading skills, and yet my reading, social group, and ethical commitments felt strangely separate and I could feel lonely. I found myself on the Rabbinical path to better integrate my relationships with text, people and ethical commitments and to help others do the same.
How do you see your role within your community and the wider society?
Benji: I want to continue to be a keen student of Judaism. I want to be a teacher who can open up the possibility to change through a close-reading of a text.
I believe that Judaism can bring to the world a model of kind commitment to wisdom and people, an antidote to loneliness, on one hand, and complacency, on the other. I want to do whatever I can to contribute to this.
I am more of a cross-denominationalist, or even post, than many, and I love cross-communal spaces like Limmud. I help to organise Open Talmud Project in which teachers and people from all parts of Judaism and none come together, and really talk and learn intensively together, in London.
What do you make of the European Jewish present?
Benji: What really bothers me is a lack of intensive, egalitarian Judaism, in which people participate in their own Jewish lives by encountering the texts themselves and making decisions accordingly.
Even in London I am not overwhelmed by a choice of places to learn or pray which are both egalitarian and textually intensive. In a way this could seem a niche concern, and yet what drew me to Judaism is a desire to address questions of meaning, purpose and change in my life and in the world.
I worry that we focus on Jewish continuity more than transformative content.
Of course, given the relatively small numbers of Jews scattered across Europe, in comparison to the States or Israel, let alone the small number committed to full-participation of women and intensive Judaism, I am worried that in Europe we will remain happy with what we have a fail to build world-changing communities that address profound questions and needs. I am sometimes frustrated by institutional and denominational self-regard that can make working across lines to build critical mass for moving Jewish engagement.
What about the future?
Benji: Limmud is a wonderful guiding light, illustrating what can happen when people from all parts of Judaism, and none, come together around passionate, life-changing learning. In my ideal European future there would be more communities, all year round, that have such learning at their heart. I have never been to, but perhaps Paideia, which I understand is connected to this very magazine, is already one of these communities.
Favourite Jewish read?
Benji: Tanakh/the Hebrew Bible may seem like a cop-out, too easy an answer, but I do think it is at the heart of Jewish thinking and action. It also has been hugely nourishing and challenging to me personally. Really what I have loved most in Judaism is not exactly "reading", or at least not reading alone, but rather conversations with our inviting open-ended canon, be that Tanakh or Talmud, with other people. Part of the genius of the Jewish canon is that it often invites us to add our voices to the text - it is no coincidence that we often learn in pairs (chavrutot) or groups rather than reading alone.
As for contemporary Jewish books, I figured out the other day that I have read more than twenty Philip Roth books.
If I had to choose one favourite, I might go for Plot Against America, a historical fiction in which we see through the eyes of a child the gradual emergence of fascist leader in America in the 40s. I think it was my first Roth, more than 10 years ago, and I've been thinking about it again recently.