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

  • Review
By – December 22, 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.

Judd Kruger Lev­ingston, Ph.D. and rab­bi, serves as Direc­tor of Jew­ish Stud­ies at Jack M. Bar­rack Hebrew Acad­e­my in the Philadel­phia area. Lev­ingston is the author of Sow­ing the Seeds of Char­ac­ter: The Moral Edu­ca­tion of Ado­les­cents in Pub­lic and Pri­vate Schools (Praeger, 2009).

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