By Andrew Adler
Sara Labaton knows how to listen to small voices.
As Director of Teaching and Learning at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, Labaton travels widely addressing issues relevant to myriad Jewish constituencies. But wherever she goes and whomever she talks to, she strives to push aside noise in favor of getting at what may be hidden underneath.
That mandate may well emerge on Thursday, March 9, when Labaton closes out the Three Pillars Series at the Trager Family JCC. She’ll be speaking about the relationship between American Jews and Israelis, anticipating the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding in May of 1948.
“What I’m going to suggest is that there were certain models that worked in the past,” Labaton, 43, said during a recent Zoom interview, “but that each one of those models of relationship are encountering challenges in the 21st century. And we need to think — creatively, synergistically, dynamically — about what kind of model would work for North American Jews and Israel, given the social, political and communal realities today.”
Having said all that, Labaton acknowledges that it’s a mistake to regard “North American Jews” as some kind of monolithic, unchangeable entity. “Even within Canada there’s diversity,” she emphasized. “And I think the conversations that are happening in New York are very different than the conversations that are happening in Detroit. So yes, there’s a lot of nuance.”
Indeed, those dialogues are functions not merely of geography, but of time. “The North American Jewish conversation has changed over the decades,” Labaton says.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the spasms that define Israeli politics, which are of great concern to many Jews in the U.S. With Israel’s governments rising and falling with conspicuous velocity – manifest now in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s harder-than-hard-right coalition– there’s a constant risk of being overtaken by current events.
“We have to be nimble,” Labaton says. “Because if the message and ideas are going to be relevant, then they have to adapt themselves to current realities.” She recalls being in Israel this past summer with her husband and three
young children, “when within a week it became apparent that the previous government was going to fall apart. And all of a sudden the topic – even the title of a lecture – would have to change. That’s one of the big challenges, but it’s also what makes the work inspiring and exciting.”
Labaton comes by her intellectual curiosity naturally. Her late father, Ezra Labaton, was a rabbi who studied under the renowned rabbinic scholar Joseph Ber Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University in New York. The elder Labaton was steeped in modern Orthodox Judaism, a belief system his daughter continues to embrace.
She did her undergraduate work at Columbia University, earning a B.A. in Religious Studies before going on to New York University, winding up with a PhD in Medieval Jewish Thought. For a time she taught at various Jewish day schools before landing at the Israel-based Hartman Institute’s North American headquarters on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, occupying offices in a multi-faith office building popularly known as “The God Box.”
Labaton has spent much of her Hartman tenure as a kind of facilitator, often collaborating with senior executives at Jewish organizations nationwide. Like most of her colleagues, she was Covid-bound to Zoom for more than two years. Now she’s back on the road (in March, she’ll speak to groups in St. Louis and here in Louisville).
“The main audience that Hartman addresses are Jewish leaders, but it could be anybody,” y ranging from rabbis to Jewish educators to lay” professionals, Labaton says. “And now we’re starting to teach what we call emerging Jewish thought-leaders, so we have a high school program for teenagers. We try to be responsive to challenges that specific demographics are encountering…the unique and idiosyncratic sets of concerns leaders are facing.”
It’s here that the small voice asserts itself: inquisitive, restrained, never rigid. “Hartman is really a lane of ideas – so when I teach, I’m not proscribing anything,” Labaton says. “I’m offering a conceptual framework rooted in Jewish traditional classical theory,” an antidote to the distracting noise of modern life.
“I think people appreciate intellectual, conceptual exercises,” she believes. “Typically our world is one where we’re not thinking, we’re not ruminating, we’re not trying to analyze. So I think people appreciate the opportunity to do that, the focus emphasis on ideas rather than on prescription.”
To put it in a biblical/rabbinic perspective, “we shouldn’t be so prophetic — we should rather be Talmudic,” Labaton says. “The prophets kind of get up on their soapboxes and they’re trying to corral people, and they’re message is a good one. But they’re sort of single minded and passionate and zealous, whereas the rabbis of the Talmud are a bit more realistic and more sensitive to the morality of legitimate ideas. There’s a certain degree of consensus, and within that consensus they allow for a pretty remarkable degree of pluralism and diversity.”
Indeed, “whenever somebody says, you know, the Jewish idea is X, it gives me some anxiety because I don’t think there is any one single Jewish idea of anything.”
Labaton doesn’t shy away from potentially uncomfortable topics. “There’s a fear of creating discord,” she says, “that the ties that bind the Jewish community are tenuous, and we don’t want to do anything that that threatens those ties. And because of that, we don’t talk about certain things. And if we talk about Israel, if we talk about American politics, that will create a rupture and then the whole thing will come apart.”
It’s ripe territory for frustration,” Labaton says. “The challenge is how to talk about these issues without the risk of rupture – to have a frank, honest, open conversation, a conversation that has moral integrity without avoiding those topics, doing so in a way that’s civil and respectful and that acknowledges. We can have differing opinions and differing approaches, while still remaining part of the same people.”
Tickets to Sara Labaton’s Three Pillars talk on March 9 are $20, available at JewishLouisville.org/3-pillars. More information: firstname.lastname@example.org. The event is funded in part by the Goldstein Leibson Cultural Arts Fund, and Life & Legacy.