“‘Is it possible for me to understand?’
‘Oh, yes. Many could understand it. What people do with understanding is a different matter.’
‘Will you teach me what to do?’
‘You already know.'”
–Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune
As a side note I must recommend the first four books of the Dune series to anyone who is even remotely what one might call a “sci-fi” buff. Of course if you read any science fiction then you already know what I’m talking about. For the uninitiated, there’s nothing quite like reading Dune. The fourth book, which is quoted above, has as its protagonist (possibly villian, I’m not quite done reading it) none other than (a/the) God. I’m sitting here trying to think of any books besides Dune and the Bible for which this is the case. Forget science fiction, if you’re interested in religion, theology, or philosophy it’s a must read.
I’m not going to bother trying to contextualize the passage from the book. Instead, I want to appropriate it, as it’s a useful frame for thinking about education in general and Jewish education in particular.
1. “Is it possible for me to understand?” The last thing I want to do is strip Judaism of its nuances, complexities, paradoxes, and mystery. At the same time, more of us need to embrace the Deuteronomic concept of lo bashamayim hee (lit: “it is not in heavens…”). Judaism is a here and now faith. It’s a religion of “whatcha gonna do next.” It’s a “what are you waiting for” way of living each day. Judaism is all about empowerment. There’s no limit to how much you can learn or how masterful your command of tradition can be– and that’s empowering. At the same time, there’s a lot you can do with even the slightest motivation– this too is empowering. And while there’s a lot of levels of understanding it is emphatically, undeniably, 100% possible to understand.
2. “What people do with understanding is a different matter.” The Hebrew word for understanding is havanah. The Hebrew word for intention is cavanah. While these words sound the same, and are transliterated into English using many of the same letters beware– they are in fact different concepts. Havanah and canavah are not always mutually reinforcing concepts. There are many things that many people understand. However our actions are more less likely to be driven by our havanah than our cavanah. Understanding is critically important, especially given our unique nature as rational beings. But cavanah will always play a more fundamental role in determining how we live each moment. As Jews we are committed to havanah and cavanah. Let us pray for the wisdom to unite these two ways of knowing so that we may live lives of purposeful conduct.
3. “Will you teach me what to do?” There’s a lot of wisdom floating around out there about the nature of education and how learning occurs. One area of profound consensus is that the openness to learning and the hunger to learn are preconditions for meaningful and transformative development to occur. As educators our role is twofold in this regard: 1) to kindle, or at least keep alive, the innate flame within every person that yearns to know, understand, learn and grow, and 2) to honor the student who comes to us with this question. If we can rise to the occasion of this question guiding our students beyond what they currently can do to that which they are capable of doing with our care, guidance, and teaching, then we’re doing sacred work.
4. “You already know.” While learning is about journeying into foreign lands, both literally and metaphorically, it’s also about coming home. The wisdom we encounter in the world around us often resides within us as well. Creation is our mirror, showing us something that we can grasp because we are a part of it, and it is already within us, or least the capacity to grasp is already within us. While our students will surely grow weary if the response to every earnest question is “You already know” they will more quickly learn to draw on the vast resources that constitute their innate humanity if we lovingly throw the ball back into their court every now and again.