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Pursuing Peace: Amy Eilberg '16 on Peace Work and Holy Listening

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Rabbi Dr. Amy Eilberg (D.Min. ’16) has been a trailblazer in ministry throughout her life.

amy eilberg.jpgIn 1985, she was the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the main rabbinical seminary of the Conservative Jewish movement (though she points out that Conservative Judaism is a moderate position within Judaism, connected to tradition and the traditional text but attentive to changes in social circumstances and moral sensibilities).

She served for several years in pastoral care and hospice work before becoming a spiritual director—at a time when spiritual direction was new to the Jewish community.

Then, 12 years ago, she experienced a powerful call to peace work when she participated in a three-day program with 16-year-old Israeli Jewish and Israeli Palestinian youth at a dialogue center. She threw herself into training and began mediating difficult conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict both within the Jewish community and in multifaith settings.

It is work that is frequently done by men, so once again, Amy finds herself blazing trails.

But despite the fact that her work has been groundbreaking in many ways, she insists that it’s ultimately rooted in a core, ancient practice: holy listening.

“All of the work I’ve done is connected,” Amy says. “Pastoral care and counseling involve holy listening in the context of illness. Spiritual direction involves holy listening in the context of daily life. In peace work, it’s the same practice, but listening to macro-dynamics instead of just one soul or person at a time.”

Amy came to United when she realized that she needed to write a book about peace work—and she enrolled in the D.Min. program largely to help facilitate that process. Her book, From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace, was published by Orbis Books 2014.

Amy graduated from United in 2016, and now she trains Rabbis and communities to explore what it might mean to become a “pursuer of peace” community. “In the church world, there’s such a thing as open and affirming churches—a designation that becomes central to the identity of the congregation,” Amy says. “My dream is to have a whole circle of North American synagogues that place ‘pursuer of peace’ at the center of community life.”

We sat down with Amy and asked her to share some of the key concepts at the heart of her peace work.

Dispute for the Sake of Heaven

Amy points to a concept from the Mishnah, a collection of Rabbinic writings from the 2nd Century CE, called “dispute for the sake of heaven.”

“’Dispute for the sake of heaven’ is distinguished from ‘dispute not for the sake of heaven’ in a short text that defines that distinction and a body of texts that expounds upon it,” Amy says. “We talk about what Jewish tradition teaches about how to argue for the common good, with sacred principles in mind, and how that shows up in our personal and structural relationships.”

Amy says that an important aspect of this is letting go of ego. “The key is to have disagreements for the sake of heaven as opposed to for the sake of ego, power, domination, demeaning the other, or even victory.”

Do Justice from a Place of Love and Holiness

Ever since the US presidential election, Amy notes that there has been increased intensity in conversations around how best to advocate for Israel. “There is fierce disagreement,” she says. “For those of us called to the work of justice, we have to wrestle with how to do it in consonance with the Jewish conception of justice and from a place of love and holiness.”

It is not easy work—but for Amy, that’s where holy listening becomes crucial again. “We must teach people to touch the sacred and the heart of love at times when it’s the most difficult to do so,” she says. “When we’re hurt, angry, worked up, agitated, that’s when it’s hardest to reconnect with God and the greater good, but that is precisely what we must do if we’re to be pursuers of peace.”

See the Image of God in the Other

Amy cautions that the temptation to dehumanize adversaries in the heat of argument is ever present—which is why she returns often to the idea of seeing the image of God in the other.

“Seeing the image of God in the other is very important in Jewish practice and life,” Amy says. While she acknowledges that this can be a difficult thing to do, she emphasizes the importance of doing peace work in community. “We can remind one another to see God in the other as often as we can. We can strengthen one another’s commitment to this concept, even in difficult relationships.”

Amy will be the featured lecturer at this year's Susan Draper White lecture on Thursday, March 30 at 7:00 PM in the Bigelow Chapel on United's campus. Her topic is "Women as Seekers and Pursuers of Peace." Registration is FREE. Please RSVP here.

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