World Creating

My incidental reading of the daily page of Talmud continues and I continue to be inspired by what I find there. The reading for 9/20/14 is Hagigah 12. On page 12a there’s the following teaching:

אמר רב זוטרא בר טוביא אמר רב בעשרה דברים נברא העולם בחכמה ובתבונה ובדעת ובכח ובגערה ובגבורה בצדק ובמשפט בחסד וברחמים

Which translates as: Rabbi Zutra bar Tuvyah said that Rav said: By ten things was the world created: by wisdom and understanding, and by reason, and by strength, and by rebuke, and by might, by righteousness and by judgment, by loving kindness, and by compassion.

These are loaded terms and there’s quite a bit here including some ambiguity about the exact meaning of each of these terms. But what intrigues me is the question— how is a world created? Judaism teaches that each human being is a world unto themselves, so that whoever saves a human life has actually saved an entire world. How is the world that is a human being created?

The list recorded in the talmudic passage is as good a list as any for thinking about what it means to be a human being. Wisdom, understanding, reason, strength,rebuke, might, righteousness, judgment, loving kindness, compassion– this is the stuff of our day to day existence. Our aspirations, our failures, our best and our worst can be assessed based on these categories. A failure in judgment might coincide with an act of great compassion. Our wisdom might temper our might and our loving kindness might override our reason. The interplay between these different attributes might in some way help explain the mysterious and fabulous thing we call the human being!

 

 

More Jewish than Shalom

Today I decided, on a whim, to open up the Talmud and see what’s on tap for daf yomi (“the daily Talmud reading”). I came upon an interesting passage (Hagigah 10a). It reads:

אמר רב כיון שיוצא אדם מדבר הלכה לדבר מקרא שוב אין לו שלום

Which translates into something like:

“Rav said: When a person moves from the study of halachah to the study of Torah he finds no shalom (peace).”

Which got me thinking:

Halachah represents certainty. It represents the moment when debate gives way to law. It represents the fullness of rabbinic understanding on a given topic and is the distillation of this fullness of understanding into a legal code.

Shalom means peace, but it also means fullness, completion, and perfection. A person who studies halachah and lives his life in perfect accord with it can truly be said to live a life of “shalom.” Such a person, if he or she actually existed, would be living perfectly and completely within the Jewish tradition. Rather than striving for shalom his task would be to ensure that the shalom that he had achieved remain perfectly intact for all time.

Halachah offers the promise of shalom and with it the possibility of wholeness, certainty, and fulfillment.

But what about Torah study? Shouldn’t the study of Torah also offer the promise of (or potential for) shalom? After all, Jewish tradition says of the Torah, “All its ways are pleasant and all its paths are peace.” At first Rav’s statement, that Torah study and shalom don’t go hand in hand, seems absurd. But I think he’s right.

Torah study represents the never ending quest for insight and understanding. Struggle, incomplete understanding, doubt, and unrest– this is the stuff of Torah study. It’s what makes Torah study fun!

 The Torah doesn’t spell out exactly how a person should act, or even what the 613 mitzvot actually are. Instead, the Torah and Tanach present us with a world riddled with flaws, imperfections, ruptures, lack of closure, and more messiness than most of us know what to do with. Those who study Torah are perpetually confronted with the complexity of human beings living alongside one another and in relation to God.

Halachah is Judaism’s most comprehensive attempt to answer the question of what to do with our Torah and with our lived experience. When we prioritize Torah study over the study and observance of halachah we are prioritizing struggle over tranquility, brokenness over wholeness, and embracing a world where there is no absolute and unbreakable shalom.

I’ve remarked on more than one occasion that there’s nothing “more Jewish” than our pursuit of shalom. I’ve often called attention to the fact that our siddur has multiple prayers for shalom and that no prayer service is complete unless we’ve offered at least two different prayers for shalom.

However Rav’s teaching is making me question whether there isn’t something more Jewish than shalom?

I think the answer is yes. To be a Jew is to take seriously both halachah and Torah in the way that I’m describing them here. To be a Jew is to entertain the idea that there is a perfect, holistic, whole, wholesome, way to live in the world– a shalom of halachah. To be a Jew is also to know that our most sacred text, our Torah, perpetually reminds us that alongside shalom, and perhaps on the path to shalom, is a life of grappling, questioning, probing, yearning, and struggling.

The Value of Interfaith Dialogue

A remarkable week ended on a remarkable note at The Davis Academy Middle School. We hosted 150 students from The Marist School for a day of interfaith dialogue and relationship building.

It has been a remarkable week. The Jewish community commemorated Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and celebrated Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day). As Americans we watched in horror as the Boston Marathon bombing took place. As human beings we grieved for the loss of life in West, Texas. It has been a remarkable week.

Since coming to The Davis Academy I have dreamed of creating a context wherein our students could meaningfully explore matters of faith with peers of different faith backgrounds. Several years ago I was invited to be a guest lecturer at The Marist School, a local Catholic middle and high school. Eventually I found a counterpart at Marist, and we assembled a team of educators who were motivated to bring our 7th grade students together. Today we had the privilege of hosting these students and many of their outstanding faculty.

The goals of our interfaith dialogue program at this point are threefold: 1) to build relationships based on mutual respect between adolescents of different faith backgrounds, 2) to teach students how to engage in intentional dialogue on matters of faith, and 3) to partner in faith-based community service. Today we made great strides in actualizing goals 1 and 2.

Davis Academy 7th graders gathered in our gymnasium a few moments before the Marist students arrived. We had been preparing for their visit for several weeks. For example, we asked our students what kinds of questions they thought Marist students might have for their Davis counterparts. We also asked them what questions they had for their Marist counterparts. We also brainstormed different things we hoped to share with our guests and also reviewed what it means to be welcoming and gracious hosts. The energy in the room was palpable.

The centerpieces of today’s program were twofold: 1) we broke into small groups, facilitated by faculty members, to do, “I’ve always wondered.” Students  from both schools had the chance to ask and answer one another’s questions in a safe and respectful environment. When we reflected with our Davis students later in the day they identified this is a highlight. Topics ranged from: kashrut to Santa Claus, Lent to belief in God, Jewish ritual clothing to the Gospels and much more. Without fail, faculty members who facilitated the groups reported great conversations, active listening, and mutual respect. One teacher characterized the meeting in Buberian terms: I-Thou.

The second centerpiece was Kabbalat Shabbat. Since the program was held at The Davis Academy on a Friday morning we felt that we should share a central part of our community’s identity: Kabbalat Shabbat. Almost 1/2 of the grade volunteered to help lead Kabbalat Shabbat. Marist students were given the option of wearing kippot and most chose to do so, and also took them home as a memento of their visit. Davis students shared what Shabbat means to them, we took out our Torah scroll, and recited the Shabbat blessings.  At the end, Marist’s priest and I joined together in offering the Priestly Benediction to a group of Marist and Davis students who were celebrating their birthdays. We all shared challah and grape juice and made promises to reunite in the Fall.

Today the city of Watertown is under siege. Today is also the anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing as well as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. For The Davis Academy and the Marist School, today is the beginning of a friendship that we hope will change the world one teenager at a time.

Human Again

             The Davis Academy just staged a fabulous production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast Jr.” In addition to the beautiful music, Beauty and the Beast has some very poignant and thought provoking elements. Consider the following lyrics from the song “Human Again”:

All:
When we’re human again
Only human again
When the girl fin’lly sets us all free
Cheeks a-bloomin’ again
We’re assumin’ again
We’ll resume our long lost joie de vie
We’ll be playin’ again
Holidayin’ again
And we’re prayin’ it’s A-S-A-P
When we cast off this pall
We’ll stand straight, we’ll walk tall
When we’re all that we were
Thanks to him, thanks to her
Coming closer and closer
And closer and…
We’ll be dancing again!
We’ll be twirling again!
We’ll be whirling around with such ease
When we’re human again
Only human again
We’ll go waltzing those old one-two-threes
We’ll be floating again!
We’ll be gliding again!
Stepping, striding as fine as you please
Like a real human does
I’ll be all that I was
On that glorious morn
When we’re fin’lly reborn
And we’re all of us human again!

 

As I’m typing these words I recognize (fully) that analyzing Disney lyrics for their philosophical content is a suspect endeavor. But the message of “Human Again” really resonates with me. By showing us human beings who are slowly being transformed into household objects, Beauty and the Beast brilliantly communicates a critical message to viewers: the potential for objectification and dehumanization. It’s also asking us to consider the question, “What does it mean to be human?” Here are two quick insights regarding this question, one from Ancient Greece and another from Rabbinic Judaism.

Diogenes of Sinope lived in the 3rd-4th centuries BCE. One of the many tales told of him (he was quite a wily character)  involves him roaming the streets of his town in the middle of the day with a kindled lamp. When asked what he was doing he replied, “Looking for human beings.”

For Jewish educators, Diogenes’ lamp should bring to mind the teaching of Rabbi Hillel from Pirke Avot (2:6): B’makom sh’ein anashim, hishtadel l’hiyot eish (“In a place where there are no men strive to be a man.”). Hillel’s teaching makes more sense when translated as, “In a place where there’s a shortage of humanity, strive to be a mentsch.”

The German/Yiddish word mentsch simply mean “human being.” But what I love is that in a Jewish context is that “human being” isn’t only descriptive but also prescriptive. Core to the idea of being human is the idea of being “good.” Being a mentsch means being a good person, making the world a better place etc… As I’m fond of saying, “human being” is not a neutral concept in Judaism. We aren’t expected simply to be, but to be good. Anything short of being good (ethically, morally, spiritually) means that we’re failing our most basic responsibility.

Having taken this detour, I come back to the lyrics of “Human Again” from Beauty and the Beast. Sadly, as I write these words details are still emerging about the shooting outside of a Jewish school in Toulouse, France that has claimed 4 lives, including 3 children. This tragic incident shows all too clearly the danger when we objectify, dehumanize, and devalue human life. In my mind nothing could be more groteque then the murder of innocent children on their way to school.

If more people took the teachings of Diogenes and Hillel (and yes, Beauty and the Beast as well) to heart then school children everywhere could enjoy their school musicals without having to draw such horrific parallels between Disney Songs like “Human Again” and real world incidents such as these.

At times like these it is incumbent on all of us to kindle our lamps, shine a light on all the mentschlichkeit in our midst, and drive away the darkness at the core of such senseless deeds.

 

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.