Howdy Neighbor!

Two brief interconnected anecdotes that will ultimately relate to Jewish Ed:

1) Last night I, and 30 other people in my neighborhood, attended our annual Home Owner’s Association meeting. “Annual” though it was the first such meeting held since I moved into our small subdivision in 2009. Looking around I was struck by how many faces I’d never seen. While I know most of the people who live immediately next door to me, there are folks just across the cul-de-sac that I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen. In essence, I was sitting with a group of strangers who share a small piece of planet earth and are collectively responsible for caring for and watching over it. While last night was hopeful, it was also sad. Clearly people care. But caring isn’t enough. There needs to be trust, communication, mutual respect, and motivation in order to tend to the few minor details that our HOA needs to address. This morning I woke up with the words of Rabbi Joachim Prinz in my mind, “Neighbor isn’t a geographic term, it’s a moral term.” If one of my neighbors breaks their leg, I should care. If there’s a new baby on the block, I should care. If there’s an ice storm and an elderly lady living alone, someone should check in on her to make sure she’s okay. The fact that we live on the same street doesn’t make us neighbors. Our neighborliness is linked to our having an ethic of care and to our feeling morally obligated to the people who we want to call us if a tree falls on our house.

2) Over the weekend I was part of a conversation about Thomas Friedman’s book “That Used to Be Us.” The presenter expressed Friedman’s point that we live in an interconnected world where, ‘Boston, Bangalore, and Sirsi’ are all neighbors. Again, Joachim Prinz’s suggestion that ‘neighbor’ is a moral term came to mind. But in this context I found myself asking, ‘How can Boston, Bangalore, and Sirsi’ be neighbors when my subdivision can’t?

In terms of Jewish Ed I’d simply suggest something that most of us already know, believe, and aspire toward: integration. The challenge with integration is that it’s an abstract noun. Others have suggested that we activate the noun by focusing not on an integrated curriculum but on cultivating integrating students– critical thinkers who draw connections between different aspects of their learning, both in school and in life. I agree with this idea of cultivating integrating students.

I believe that Jewish Ed requires our schools to be neighborhoods where an ethic of care pervades. The rabbi should care about the athletic program and want to know how students bodies are being nourished. The gym coach should care about the guidance curriculum. 7th grade should care about 6th grade and so on. Practicing an ethic of care, being good neighbors, is something that all Jewish educators should hold as a value, aspiration, and expectation. We should expect this of ourselves and our students. Being a caring and ethical neighbor should be part of our profile of the ideal Jewish Ed grad. While care is important, it’s not sufficient– we need to get better at communicating, trusting, sharing, and inspiring one another!

The good news is that, in spite of the many factors that can detract from the neighborliness of our neighborhoods, schools, and ultimately, our world, every person longs to be cared for and to care for others. This basic human need, fulfilled on the basis of meaningful relationships with ‘neighbors’ near and far, can animate us to create more integrated Jewish ed communities within our schools, among our schools, and in all of our choods. 

Proust and Talmud

“How different they were! And neither told a lie. This was a marvel, that two souls, two such separated tonalities, so to speak, could between them describe the true map of life.”
– Cynthia Ozick, The Cannibal Galaxy

     I’m reading two books right now. One’s a mystery/thriller called Christine Falls by Benjamin Black. The other is The Cannibal Galaxy by Cynthia Ozick. Sometimes I’m in the mood for Black, sometimes Ozick. Sometimes I’m in no mood for reading at all! 
     Every so often, when reading multiple books at the same time, an amazing thing happens. The two authors enter into a kind of dialogue with one another. Black meets Ozick for a cup of coffee. Of course this imagined cup of coffee doesn’t take place in a local coffee shop, but rather in my mind: the mind of the reader. I’m fairly certain that Black doesn’t actually know Ozick. More than likely I’m the first person in human history to be reading these two books simultaneously. The juxtaposition is even more unlikely because it’s totally random and unplanned. It’s no great feat, but it is interesting: different authors, different genres, different decades…  And yet, somehow, Black and Ozick are in dialogue with one another because of me. 
     Lately I’ve been pondering the concept of “integration.” In reading The Cannibal Galaxy, I stumbled upon an insight that resonates with me: if you put two thoughtful individuals in a room, each will have something to say to the other. Meaningful and transformative dialogue can occur without anyone compromising their own unique point of view or surrendering their subjective “truth.” That’s the realization that Joseph Brill, the protagonist of Ozick’s book, uncovers. 
     Brill is a young man hiding from the Nazis in the basement of a Parisian convent. Surrounded by Christian and secular books, he passes his time by reading. For Brill, reading fills the void left by the deportation of his entire family. Clearly traumatized and alone, Brill eventually musters up the courage to turn to the one Jewish book that, by happenstance, he has brought with him: the Talmud, tractate Ta’anit. He opens to a random page, reads a random rabbinic tale, and then sets the Talmud down. For no apparent reason he then picks up a random book, written by Marcel Proust, opens to a random page, and reads a random section. As he reflects on his reading he remarks to himself: “How different they were! And neither told a lie. This was a marvel, that two souls, two such separated tonalities, so to speak, could between them describe the true map of life.” 
     Integration is a process. It’s the process of creating a meaningful dialogue between two different forms of knowledge. The process of integration can take place internally or in a social context. Integration can be the result of careful planning and deliberate curricular decisions, or it can emerge from the normal juxtapositions and tensions that exist from living in a complex and interconnected world as symbolized by Black and Ozick/ Talmud and Proust.
     In the case of Joseph Brill, the integration of Talmud and Proust, was an integration that resulted in synthesis. For Brill, Talmud and Proust, though speaking in different “tonalities” played complimentary roles in helping Brill to further define the “true map of life.” During a period of profound personal trauma, the awareness of an integrative possibility transforms Brill’s mental and emotional reality. 
   But integration needn’t always be smooth. The dialogue between different ideas can affirm difference and incompatibility as well as commonality and reconciliation. Black and Ozick might be a marriage made in heaven or oil and water. The process of integration doesn’t dictate a certain outcome. Instead, habituation to the process of integration creates a cognitive and spiritual space that allows for the possibility of meaningful connections and juxtapositions. 
    As I’ve indicated elsewhere, integration is a paradigmatic human experience. It’s a process that promotes spiritual and emotional health as well as intellectual creativity. The more accustomed we are to integrating different ideas, experiences, and other forms of “input,” the more likely we are to figure out how the pieces of our or world fit together to form a “true map of life.” 
    As educators we can model the process of integration by habituating ourselves to creating coffee dates where “separated tonalities” can engage with one another through the process of integration. Whether the outcome is compatibility or difference we can be transparent about our integrating by sharing with our students and colleagues. If students see us, not as transmitters of content (sage on the stage) but as more mature learners (guide on the side), then they will be inclined to emulate and eventually internalize the processes of integration. If we want our students to be critical thinkers, imagineers, creators, and connection makers, then we need to show them how. 

8.2 Unsubstantiated Claims (and three questions) about the Meaning and Scope of "Integration" in Jewish and Non-denominational Educational Settings

Welcome! If you’ve made it past the unfortunate title of this post, then there’s something wrong with you: you care. Caring is SO 1990!! Caring means responding, it means engaging in dialogue. It means lovingly denying the premise of the argument. It means sharing your thoughts with me or someone you like more.

Which brings me to the premise (AKA unsubstantiated claim #1):

(1) “Integration” is NOT about making cross curricular references between otherwise discrete and alienated academic disciplines. If that’s the essence/ big idea of integration then “lame” on us!

(2) Integration is a noun and not a verb. It’s not content specific. It’s actually a “process” (really a series of processes).

(3) Integration is a series of processes that reflects a deep and natural human yearning: to be whole. The precondition for integration– the thing that makes integration a necessary process– is the fact that our world is fragmented and broken. The fact that teachers who share walls don’t share goals is but one dim reflection of the shattered world which we are blessed to inhabit. Sadly it’s not our biggest problem.

(4) God has many names: Truth, Good, Beauty, Love, Endlessness, Dwelling… Another name for God is “One.” God is Indivisible Unity. God is Perfect and Seamless Integration. God is Process.

(5) The Divine image that resides within every human being remembers the experience of Oneness that we once self-consciously enjoyed (and still CAN enjoy) but more often than not fail to affirm. Healthy individuals integrate all the time and even have moments of joyful affirmation. Spiritually unhealthy individuals need to be guided back to an understanding of how to integrate. Healthy and unhealthy aren’t meant to be judgments. I’m sorry that they sound like judgments and would love better vocab.

(6) Children know how to integrate IN SPITE of adults. Maybe it’s because they’re closer to the initial experience of Oneness. Maybe it’s because they’re children (but that would be a “tot”-ology). If we think that children are unable to integrate then we need to evaluate the conditions that we’ve imposed upon them that undermine this natural human process. I’m arguing that these conditions are generally unconscious, deeply embedded, and invariably lamentable and arbitrary.

(7) Two critical areas where the process of integration radically transforms social and educational experience (and therefore makes the world more integrated, whole, and healthy):

             Home/School– There is nothing more powerful than the integration of these two institutions. Nothing should be easier. Happens all the time right? Go figure.

             Learning/Living– The places where we learn and the places where we live (i.e. act, interact, impact) need to integrate. The school bell should never actually ring. Learning should be learning, learning should be living, living should be learning, living should be living, and this sentence should stop.

(8) Integration undermines the rigidity of roles and strips away the illusions that perpetuate the compartmentalization, departmentalization, Procrustian Bed-itization, Not In My Back Yard-itization, of the human experience. Teachers are students, students are teachers. We’re all in this together. Kumbaya.

Three Questions:

If you’ve made it this far then let’s ask:

(1) What identity markers am I so tied to that I can’t experience the transcendent/grounded fullness of being a radically integrating, processing, striving, embracing creature of God?

(2) Why aren’t more hugs initiated and received on any given day?

(3) Why do I say hello to some people I pass on the street and not others?




Introducing The Davis Academy Beit Midrash

This morning the Judaic Studies team at Davis studied the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa as it appears in Lamentations Rabbah 4:3. For those who aren’t familiar the story is about… well that’s the thing. It’s a story that is connected in the “rabbinic imagination” to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans. The story serves as a kind of proof text or explanation for why the Temple was destroyed: baseless hatred and excessive piety.
There’s enduring wisdom in the recognition that the fusion of baseless hatred ande excessive piety is a truly toxic combination. While Tisha b’Av mourns the physical destruction of the Jewish community in Ancient Palestine (and a host of other historical maladies) it also calls upon each of us to participate in the positive destruction of unchecked emotions that detract from rather than contribute to the social good.
This morning’s conversation quickly diverged from a discussion of the moral dimensions of the story into a meta-conversation (I can just see you losing interest). The story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa is, like many rabbinic texts, an elliptical story. It leaves out plenty of details, raises issues pertaining to narrative plausability, and requires a certain amount of familiarity with Jewish history. Because these are ancient/ classical texts and we are modern/ postmodern readers there are translation issues. These issues range from making sense of the Aramaic to trying to develop an appreciation of whatever genre restraints may be dictating both the content and form of any given story. In the case of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa one’s sense of the text is determined as much by what you bring to the text as what you find there. Is this making sense?
Ultimately our conversation became about the act of reading itself. By the time we wrapped things up the five of us had spent about an hour engrossed in a dialogue that was brought into being by a Jewish text. Our activity connected us to countless people throughout history who had previously studied and discussed the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa. Our conversation also connected us with all those who study it today in relation to Tisha b’Av, and to some extent to those who study it in the future as well. In other words through engaged reading we became part of a community and a conversation that transcends time, geography, and ideology.
But at the same time as our conversation connected us with a kind of virtual community, it also forged a much more intimate community– the five of us. The conversation that we had about Kamsa and Bar Kamsa was unique. While probably not unprecedented, it was our own conversation. In addition to mining a variety of messages from the text we also learned about one another– what we see in the text, what we notice, how we analyze, how we think, how we question, what gets us intellectually excited, what Tisha b’Av means to each of us. All of this emerged through the act of reading and is a reflection of the powerful impact that reading can have.
I love reading. I especially love reading Jewish texts because they demand that I be an active, creative, and engaged reader. Jewish texts teach me how to read and enrich the many other readings I am engaged in.
While meta-conversations generally tend to resist pragmatic applications there is a very practical dimension to what I’m describing. At The Davis Academy we are going to be implementing a new initiative– The Davis Academy Beit Midrash. At various times in the year the entire middle school will be coming together to study certain Jewish texts. One goal of the Beit Midrash is to expose students to classical Jewish texts that they might otherwise not encounter in the course of the regular Judaic curriculum and to teach them how to read these texts in the way I describe above. While reading Jewish texts to life we will simultaneously be fostering the kind of community that can only emerge through the kind of reading that Jewish texts invite– a community that is based on shared conversations, dialogues, and ideas. A community of listening and speaking, of debating and relating. A community where teachers are learners and students are teachers. A community dedicated to the exploration of self and tradition, and critical reflection. I’ll let you know how it goes…