Rabbi Janice Mehring is the spiritual leader of Reform synagogue, Congregation Ohr Tzafon (meaning Northern Light) and a founding member of the Peace Academy of Science and Arts. She is the Interfaith Liaison for the Jewish Community Center of San Luis Obispo and a member of the Ministerial Association of SLO County and the North County Clergy Group, both local ecumenical organizations. Rabbi Janice holds a Master's Degree in Physical Therapy, along with a Master’s Degree in Rabbinic Studies and ordination as a rabbi. She eloquently refers to her lifestyle transformation from physical therapist to rabbi as a shift from physical to spiritual healing. She is also known as the ‘singing rabbi’ and her life is devoted to prayer, music, and service. (Introduction edited by Rabbi Janice).
Rabbi Janice, in your work as an interfaith activist, what advice can you give us when it comes to bridging theological or even ideological divides?
The best piece of advice I can give is to approach this work with patience and an open heart. I find myself in spaces where there is often great misunderstanding, misconception, and even promotion of stereotypes about faith traditions which can lead to defensiveness and retreat. If we can come together with curiosity and deep respect for each other as human beings, we can come to know and honor our uniqueness. It is easy in interfaith work to find common ground but the deeper work of honoring our differences is what takes real intention and presence.
As a founding member of the Peace Academy of Science and Arts, you integrate spiritual precepts of peace and universality into the field of mathematics, arts and humanities, and science creating a balanced and holistic approach to learning. How did this come about?
I would love to connect you with Noha Kolkailah, the founder of this amazing undertaking. Briefly, this really came about following President Trump’s Muslim travel ban in January 2017. A community event was held in San Luis Obispo, California called “Get to Know Your Muslim Neighbor.” It was attended by hundreds of people and a chance meeting occurred between Noha Kolkailah, a Muslim and Michael Mazella, a Buddhist. They began to brainstorm the idea of a school where children of all different religions, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds could come together safely and learn about how to be global citizens.
The Academy also emphasizes that no discrimination is made based on one's race, ethnicity, skin color, religion, or nationality. Do you envision a world where all educational facilities will follow suit? And why do you think we have not, as yet, collectively caught up with such a notion?
What a wonderful vision that is to have all children immersed in this kind of education. These programs are taking place all around the globe but it isn’t a universal notion for education systems yet. Even we needed to change our language around faith to navigate the barriers and perceptions of what interfaith means. Our founding members, particularly the curriculum committee, spent many months together crafting our shared values that would be the foundation of the program. We hope our students, and other children in programs like this one, will be the change makers for the next generation. “While building bridges of respect among each other and the environment, students will experience the richness of coexisting among people of diverse faiths, cultures, and backgrounds.”
This really encompasses our aspirations.
You are known as the singing rabbi. How does singing tie into your service to the community?
I began my journey as a spiritual leader through music. I experienced something unique when I would stand before a congregation and sing. I was a vocal performer but this was different. I really felt I was a conduit of some sort, a channel for blessings to flow. Sacred music transformed me and people shared their experience of hearing me sing in that way. My community is very musical now which presents interesting challenges during a global pandemic when it is not safe to sing indoors in a congregational setting. Yes, there is virtual worship services but technology doesn’t allow for group singing in any spontaneous way. So, we remain hopeful and anticipate the day when we can share music again.
As a response to the Black Lives Matter protests across the United States, you penned an article entitled Zeh baZeh -These [and] these are the holy words of God in which you referred to Claudia Rankine who stated that while police brutality may not have changed, the response has. What is the significance of Zeh baZeh in our world today?
This source for this concept comes from the great Talmudic sparring partners of Hillel and Shammai. They were the heads of two competing schools of thought around the first century CE. They and their followers (referred to as “Beit Hillel” and “Beit Shammai”) often disagreed vehemently and came to opposite conclusions about essential matters of Jewish law. However, our tradition teaches the following:
Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed, Beit Shammai did not, nevertheless abstain from marrying women of the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying those of Beit Shammai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another. . . For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. One group said: “The law is in accordance with our opinion,” and the other said: “The law is in accordance with our opinion.” Ultimately a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: “Both these and those (zeh bazeh) are the words of the living God.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 13b)
Imagine if we used this strategy in our world today! Imagine if we approached people with whom we disagreed and could listen without judgment; hear opposing viewpoints without defensiveness; and then conclude by saying, “I don’t agree with you but I honor that your opinion is holy.” Judaism elevates discussion, debate and differences of opinion as long as the discourse is for the sake of heaven. We can disagree and debate if the exchange between two people leaves both parties more elevated for having participated and learned from another even if consensus is not achieved. Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai said it this way.
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
(“From the Place Where We are Right,” The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, ed. and trans. Chana Block & Stephen Mitchell (Berkeley: University of CaliforniaPress,1996).
Also in the above-mentioned article, your insight was encapsulated when you wrote: "We must sit with our feelings of lament, confusion, grief, and rage as painful as they are." Why do you think we find it so hard to address difficult feelings when they are the key to liberation from the prison of our egos?
I am not an expert in psychology but from lived experience and the pastoral counseling I do, I see it is the harder path for people to self-reflect and go inward. It is so much easier to project outward with blame or shame.
People are afraid of religious texts these days. But when they are read from an enlightened perspective, they open portals of compassion, harmony, and unity. How can representatives of each faith bring communities of other faiths together even amid reticence and fear?
The first step is to take the risk to reach out to others. Even if it feels scary or foreign to step outside your house of worship’s walls, you must engage with the process. Find partners of other faith traditions that are willing to be vulnerable and open hearted. I recommend inviting a neighbor or a clergy person out for coffee and you will know very quickly if you have a fellow seeker sitting across from you. Find social justice projects your communities can do together. My synagogue has partnered with churches in our town to fundraise for relief projects. We have also come together for a joint book study. Each congregation read the book and discussed with their own clergy but then we all came together for shared worship, discussion with the author and sharing refreshments.
Finally, how does spiritual work assist us in awakening from separation? And in what way can we bring the inner dimensions of the heart to the forefront of our respective spiritual paths in order to manifest a utopian world?
The lens through which we see the world is expanded when we are open hearted and connected to each other and the common energy of humanity. We will all use different words to describe the work of being spiritual leaders. But ultimately, it is about seeing the Divine in every creature. In Jewish tradition, we believe that everyone is created B’Tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. To me, this doesn’t describe a physical manifestation but that the God spark is within each of us, and if we embrace this, we are all one. There is no separation. As Rabbi Arthur Green wrote:
“We are created in the image of God, if you will, and we are obliged to return the favor. The inner drive to imitate the ever-giving source of life calls forth in us an unceasing flow of love, generosity of spirit, and full acceptance, both of ourselves and of all God’s creatures.”
Rabbi Arthur Green
(Seek My Face: A Jewish Mystical Theology, Jewish Lights; 1st Edition (April 1, 2003)