Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change

Shambhala  2016


David Jaffe has written the book of choice for established and aspiring activists who are ready to do the hard work of introspection to understand their own motivations before setting out to change the world. This book doesn’t merely exhort readers to engage in psychological self-examination: it calls upon readers to understand develop a clear understanding of how several midot, or moral qualities, can make us more insightful people and better activists.

Trained as a rabbi, social worker and educator, the author invites readers to set out on a path. Chapters are grouped under headings that suggest an expedition. “Handling a Compass” (Section 1) means understanding one’s motivations and the negative and positive inclinations that drive us forward. “Looking for Signposts” (Section 2) invites us to look for good points and joy in the tradition of Rabbi Nahman of Braslav and to recognize that we have free choice to shape our own destiny. Once we have chosen our path in Section 3, we must maintain integrity and develop an authentic voice through developing and affirming qualities of humility, patience, dignity and honor and trust. Finally, in contrast to the rest of the book, which invites our energy and commitment, we are reminded of the importance of Shabbat, in Section 4, as a time to set aside those commitments and to find rest. Paradoxically, Jaffe points out, ceasing from work might set us back in reaching noble goals we have set for ourselves, but it also can propel us forward with a sense of renewal and also with a greater appreciation for humanity and for God’s creation.

Personal anecdotes pepper the book, giving readers opportunities to consider how Jaffe thinks aloud about his experiences and mistakes on his own trail towards activism. He describes when he was overzealous, impatient, and too busy following his yetzer, his inclinations to put himself first. Through this book, Jaffe offers himself as an everyman, as a role model, encouraging readers to think deeply as he has done about putting others first, focusing on the cause, and on not losing sight of both the people one is trying to serve and on a set of timeless and useful Jewish values.

This book is not an activist's toolkit for running a demonstration, building coalitions, or putting out messages; instead, it offers personal experiences and language drawn from Mussar tradition to ground Jewish activism in Jewish ideals. This book could be useful both for individuals and for groups because each chapter includes questions for reflection, passages from Jewish literature that convey timeless wisdom, and prompts for meditation, visualization exercises and for contemplation. The spiritual check-ins that conclude each chapter encourage readers to keep a journal and to reaffirm their commitments each week. It would be easy to become mired in self-examination and in feeling shackled by the limitations we discover through the guided reflections in this book, but instead Changing the World from the Inside Out has the unique capacity to inspire readers to use the tools in this book to savor all of the world’s diversity, to connect with the divine and to contribute meaningfully toward the welfare of their neighbors, their communities and the world at large.

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