Monthly Archives: March 2013

Why Neither the Pope nor Moses Will be at My Seder

One should not be surprised the Pope is not coming to my seder. Truth is, we do not know each other and I seriously doubt he would come. But what is more striking is that I will not be inviting Moses to join me either and it is not simply because he is dead. After all, each year I invite Elijah to join and even open the door for him to enter.

Why is Moses not present at the seder?  How do we account for the fact he is virtually erased from the traditional Haggadah? If we are to be recounting the story of the Exodus from Egypt, how can we ignore a crucial character of the story? Would we tell the story of the founding of the United States and leave out George Washington?  Do we really transmit the Exodus properly to our children by hiding Moses?

I would like to suggest that Moses is not present Passover night because despite of his greatness, or perhaps because of his greatness, he cannot have a seat at the table. Moses represents the opposite of what the seder is intended to convey.

In  Exodus Chapter 18 we read of the encounter of Moses and his father in law Jethro after the Exodus but (according to most) before Sinai.

1. When Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel his people, and that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt;

2. Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her back,

3. And her two sons; and the name of one was Gershom; for he said, I have been an alien in a strange land;

Notice that he brings Moses’s wife Tzipporah with him and her two children. Tzipporah was not in Egypt during the Exodus. Moses had sent her away before that fateful night. According to some he even had divorced her. One passage in the Zohar says that the reason the children are called her’s is that while Moses fathered them, she had brought them up.

In an earlier blog post I discussed a Midrash that says Moses after the Revelation at Sinai never returned to his tent, which is understood to mean he never resumed a conjugal relationship with his wife. He remained celibate, always on call to God.

Moses, the great leader and teacher he was, is the absent father and absent spouse. His family is sacrificed for his leadership. He is our hero, but not our model to be remembered at the seder. Indeed at the very first seder in Egypt, Moses was alone and had no children present who could ask him ma nishtanah, the Four Questions. Moses is the opposite of the very experience we strive to have at the seder. He represents the negation of family.  His leadership might require the sacrifice of family, but the seder is still not his place. He has no seat of honor there.

I am aware that many people this Passover may be at a seder where there may be no children or where everyone is single.  I am not being critical of this. It should be pointed out that tradition dictates it still be in a style of questions and answers. While people who gather may not be related, a family of sorts is created at the seder.

But then why do we invite Elijah to the seder? You can discuss it then.

Posted on March 14, 2013

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The Power of Community

Earlier this week, Rabbi Shira Stutman wrote a short essay in Slate about her realization that when she was in middle school, she had been a “mean girl.” After seeing it posted several times in my Facebook feed, I went and read it.  I don’t know Rabbi Stutman personally (although we move in the same circles, and people I know and respect like and respect her, and I’m pretty sure we’ve met once or twice), and frankly, my initial reaction to the post was …subdued, compared to – well, certainly compared to a great many of the comments posted.220px-Mean_Girls_movie

It was the level of vituperation in the comments that led me to spend some time thinking about whether I had missed something. Certainly, her point that we all struggle to be our best selves and don’t always succeed is not novel. Her opportunity to reflect on whether or not there are still parts of her which bully others, is reasonably laudable. So, what was it that so incensed so many of  her readers?

Then this paragraph caught my eye:

The Lavender Ladies, by the way, remain my lifelong friends. They are the ones who I would trust with anyone or anything, the ones who danced at my wedding, who flew cross-country when my father died, who hold my deepest secrets. They now are mothers of daughters, too, deeply involved in the work of justice and of building community. They are Good People. We want our bullies to be Bad People, but, like Whitman says, we contain multitudes.

Certainly all the Lavender Ladies were children, and they grew up. But it is enough to say that they are good people because she trusts them, because she has remained friends with them, because they are deeply involved in work she respects?

They were children who -together- were on the cusp of adulthood, and they acted as a group. She asks herself about whether she is still, somewhere within, a mean girl (an appellation I hate, by the way, for its genderedness – my experience is that boys engage in just the same kind of behavior)? But what now bothers me is that there was no examination of the group dynamic – are they good people, if they act well towards one another? Is that enough? I would say no, it’s not. We know that people act differently in groups, that we are susceptible the actions and attitudes of those around us. The rabbis recognized this – it is why we have Jewish law – halacha is intended to build a community where the group dynamic is influenced from the start. That’s why there is such picayune attentiveness to the minutia of daily life as well as broad sweeping principles in halacha. It’s not sufficient of course, but it may well be necessary.

We know from studies that people are inclined to act well towards people who are in their group. We know that groups can be easily led to be not just competitive, but downright ugly towards those “outside.” We also know how those “in” and “out” groups get formed – often by picking an out group and defining ourselves in relation to it. Groups made this way form easily, and are difficult to break down.

It’s actually pretty likely that all the Lavender Ladies did grow up to be decent people. In fact,  they were probably all decent people even in middle school – except when they were together, and happened to come upon the wrong person.

What I would like to see is us questioning ourselves not about whether any of them – by which I mean “us” – are good or bad people, but whether we are good or bad groups. Americans have very little sense of ourselves as being defined by group identities – especially those of us who are or can pass as white. And yet in many ways it is our groups which define us most deeply. There is even a social theory that posits that our personalities are actually only a collection of social ties. It is how we act in our social networks that most shows who we are – and perhaps is most truly who we are. It is easy to be a lion when you’re the only cat in the room.

As adults, we engage in this same kind of behavior more subtly – and more powerfully. How does this kind of group think inform the way we talk about what’s going on in Israel? Between different aspects of the Jewish community? The way we talk about poverty? As children, we can hurt one another badly enough, but as adults, the very same dynamic can play into politics on even a global scale. Rabbi Stutman opened a very important conversation, but if we leave it at one individual  examining her actions as an individual, it is simply not enough. Because even if we are not each guilty, we are certainly all, together, responsible.

Posted on March 13, 2013

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Porn in the City

Porn in the City: Are the kids really alright?

imgresWhat does it mean to grow up in the age of sexting, of Instagram and Snapchat (which lets you show a picture on someone else’s smart-phone, and then have it ‘disappear’)? I think about this because I work with teens, and their natural curiosity mixed with super-charged digital lives kinda freak me out.  I wonder: Are we equipping them with what they need to live in an easy access, easy self-satisfaction world?

“Pornography should interest us, because it’s intensely and relentlessly about us. It involves the roots of our culture and the deepest corners of the self…” – The Eloquence of Pornography, Laura Kipnis. ( As part of a special report on PBS Frontline on Pornography way back in 2002).

For Eugene Jerome, Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical main character of Brighton Beach Memoirs, sex was an adolescent obsession. At the end of the play his brother gives young Eugene a foldout picture of a topless woman. In reaction to this, Eugene write down in his journal: “A momentous moment in the life of I, Eugene Morris Jerome. I have seen the Golden Palace of the Himalayas…. Puberty is over. Onwards and upwards!”

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The line gets an appropriate laugh, as it should. The play is set in 1937 when a picture of a topless woman might be a rarity, but this is 2013, an age when there are approximately 200,000 commercial porn sites. This means that an introduction into sexuality no longer begins with a picture of a toplesswoman, but of a video of a couple having actual sex. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a young man or woman with the expectation that porn-star sex is the norm.

Martin Buber taught that there were two natures of the self. The “I” which is we might sum up as shallow, and surface oriented. This is the “me” that is involved in world of doing things. This surface “I” in relation to the everyday, he calls “I-It”. There is, Buber taught, also the “I” that is experienced as “whole-being,” fuller, more complete, perhaps we could say “more alive.” This whole-being “I,” Buber calls I-Thou. A fair simplification is to say, sometimes we relate with our soul, and other times we do not.

A mistake of modernity, a poison, is to ignore the depth experiences that humans need (I-Thou) and focus completely on the surface experience of the mundane (I-It). We see this everyday – and with technology, we see this “shallowing” in potential escalation.

Our popular culture seems to be polarized on the topic of pornography. On the one hand it is scandalous and predatory (which it certainly is) and on the other its seen as the new normal (and what does it say about us if it is?).

“And yes, pornography is a business — as is all our popular entertainment — which attains popularity because it finds ways of articulating things its audiences care about. When it doesn’t, we turn it off. Pornography may indeed be the sexuality of a consumer society. It may have a certain emptiness, a lack of interior, a disconnectedness — as does so much of our popular culture. And our high culture. (As does much of what passes for political discourse these days, too.) But that doesn’t mean that pornography isn’t thoroughly astute about its audience and who we are underneath the social veneer, astute about the costs of cultural conformity, and the discontent at the core of routinized and civilized lives.” – The Eloquence of Pornography, Laura Kipnis. ( As part of a special report on PBS Frontline on Pornography way back in 2002).

What does porn tell us about ourselves, our culture?

Among other things, I think modernity’s great porn addiction speaks to the fact that we, in the age of speedy technology, and infinite private access, have grown selfish.

In an age that worships business, sexuality has continued to grow as a commodity; sex, from one perspective of our popular culture has become a transaction. There is little training of the self these days about being relational. Satisfaction of the self rather than another is the value these days. Sex, and satisfaction becomes transactional, self-absorbed, and to that extent non-relational, Buber might say, decidedly I-It, and I would add “less human.”

“If love is only self-interest, than love is a fake, a pretense… And can you imagine a life without love?” – A J Heschel

No wonder than, that porn is on the rise and marriage is on the decline. We haven’t given any value to the idea of generosity to another, or to love, and without that, what are we?

Sex is a natural human drive. Freud was right about that. Cheap, fast, and easy, are all hallmarks of the 21st century, so I doubt that porn is going away any time soon. Modernity gives us instant access to I-It. But our souls crave something deeper.

The solution has to be to teach our kids about love, about romance, about desire, about the ecstasy of your soul that can be.  They need to learn that this can happen when you give of yourself, when you are a self in relationship to another self, when you think, and feel, and act for not only “me” in a particular moment, but about what is right and beautiful in “us.”

I and Thou.

Posted on March 12, 2013

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The Power of a Smile

I grew up in Texas, like in most of the South, people in Texas greet each other warmly and a smile is always in place. During a typical run through a grocery store, I would get smiled at by strangers, smiled at and chatted up by the check-out clerk, and smiled at by the bag boy or girl who carried my purchases to the car. In Texas, no one lacks for a smile. They may hate your guts, but they will still smile at you.

Now I live in New York. Smiling at strangers is verboten. If a check out clerk tries to engage me in conversation, I get suspicious. If a stranger on the street smiles at me, I have learned to look the other way. The Northeast does not believe in a culture of smiling.

This leaves me stuck between two cultures, and it sometimes gets me in trouble, especially in professional situations. My natural Texan inclination is to smile. This works to my advantage when people experience me as warm and friendly. However, it works to my disadvantage when the person I am interacting with interprets my smile to mean that I am simply a sweet person whom they do not have to take too seriously. I smile in tough negotiations, and I smile when disagreeing with someone. Circumstances in which others, particularly New Yorkers, will most definitely NOT be smiling. smiley_faces-wide

I have given serious consideration to trying to unlearn my smiling habit. But then I came across this saying in The Ethics of Our Fathers, a Jewish book of wisdom, “Receive every person with a cheerful countenance,” (Pirkei Avot 1:15) and it struck me that there is deep wisdom in smiling. To really smile at someone you must look them in the face. Doing so helps you see them as a fellow human being, someone who is like yourself, with their own thoughts, feelings and reactions. By smiling at someone you create a connection at a very human level which can span deep divides. One smile can heal a lot of hurt.

I decided that this is a person I want to be, a person who smiles and connects to others. My smile is no longer just an ingrained habit, but a conscious choice. I like reaching out to others with a cheerful countenance. I like the kinds of relationships this leads me into. I can disagree with someone and smile at them at the same time, communicating that we can be in relationship while standing on different sides of an issue. In our highly fractured all or nothing culture, there is great power in smiling and communicating that message. Consciously smile at someone and see what follows. Your smile holds great power.

Posted on March 11, 2013

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International Women’s Day: Torah from the Margins

zetkin_luxemburg1910

Clara Zetkin (l), Rosa Luxemburg (r)

Torah teaches that ancient Israelite women refused to donate their jewelry to build the Golden Calf. Instead they donated their mirrors to build the mishkan (tabernacle). Through this story, Torah celebrates values of conscience over money, and community over self. Torah teaches that these “women’s values” ought to be human values.

Friday was the 102nd International Women’s Day. This special day was first proposed in 1910 by Clara Zetkin, leader of the ‘Women’s Office’ for the Social Democratic Party in Germany. Zetkin believed that women’s issues were relevant to all human beings, and should be part of socialist discourse.

Karl Marx believed that work is fundamental to human nature. The way a group manages work and money can determine the entire structure of their society. Society is complex, and every economic form will have tensions. A capitalist society generates tensions between bourgeois capitalists, who own the means of production, and workers, who don’t own the results of their labor. Eventually, Marx wrote, these tensions would become so extreme that the workers would rise up in revolution against the capitalists. After the revolution, all real property would be communally owned.

With property abolished, institutions that support the transmission of property would vanish. Marriage, a legal structure for binding families, currently exists only for the sake of inheritance. Come the revolution, heterosexual love relationships would not be tainted by economics. Both women and men would freely choose their partners, staying together only as long as is convenient. Real emotions would replace legal fictions.

Serial monogamy without any strings attached may have sounded great to Mr. Marx and Mr. Engels, but to early socialist women it sounded like the Deadbeat Dad social theory. In their revolutionary fervor, male thinkers had forgotten that heterosexual relationships produce children who should not be abandoned. Their heady theory of freedom for adults left children of all genders unprotected.

Clara Zetkin’s analysis of gender inequality in marriage focused on equal wages for working women. Zetkin saw the family as a mini-society, shaped by the same dynamics as the larger capitalist society. Husbands make more money, so they are the bosses of the family. Women become the family’s private servants. Capitalists benefit from this wage inequality, because it keeps all wages down. If a man asks for fair wages, he can be told, “Look, I could hire a woman for half your pay. Be glad for what you have.” But after the revolution, women would earn equal pay for equal work, and “both spouses would face each other as equals.”

Rosa Luxemburg, a Polish Jew who became a German citizen, was Clara Zetkin’s close friend and fellow activist. Luxemburg also challenged mainstream Marxist leaders. Lenin, for example, thought all workers should focus on one unified movement for armed revolution. Luxemburg thought this misrepresented the interests of workers. Workers are not a unified class. Workers include women, men, professionals, laborers, urbanites, farmers, Jews, Catholics, Russians, Germans and more. No single theory of revolution could fit everyone.

Luxemburg and Zetkin held nonviolent theories of socialist revolution. Zetkin advocated for mass workers’ strikes, accepting armed struggle only as a last resort. Luxemburg understood revolution culturally, as simultaneous grassroots movements by workers all over Europe. Both women broke from the Socialist Democratic Party to oppose World War I. Zetkin said that only arms manufacturers would benefit from the war and that the expanded army would eventually be used against workers. Luxemburg said that colonial expansionism would lead to torture and oppression. Both these predictions for Germany’s future came true in their lifetimes. Luxemburg died in 1919 when government troops were deployed against political demonstrators. Zetkin, one year before her death in 1933, opened the Reichstag’s parliamentary session with a speech denouncing Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.

One of my facebook friends wrote: “In my opinion, celebrating days like International Women’s Day serve to perpetuate our ‘otherness’ as women and continue to relegate us to the margins.”

Some of our mutual friends responded, “That may be easy to say in North America, where women have equal legal rights. But in many countries around the world, women are regarded as a marginal kind of human being in terrible, hurtful ways.”

I imagine that Zetkin might also say, “We must speak from the margins. How else will those blinded by habitual mainstream thinking learn to see themselves?” And that Luxemburg might say, “The world is a kaleidoscope of overlapping lives and perceptions. Everyone is at the margin of something. Bring forward your unique wisdom and co-create the world.”

And if I may speak on behalf of Torah, I imagine she might say, “It’s no accident that women brought mirrors to the mishkan, so the community could see how it looked from its margins.”

Cross-posted to onsophiastreet.com, with an additional paragraph about Luxemburg’s cat.

Posted on March 10, 2013

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Let Your Kids Forget Their Lunch

The other day my son called just as I was getting ready to lock the front door. He had forgotten the camera he needed for photography class, would I be willing to bring it to his school on my way to work?

I am usually the last one to leave the house in the morning. This means that if a pair of cleats or a lunch is left behind, I see it. Usually I sigh. Sometimes after having reminded and reminded, I seethe. Rarely do I do anything about it.

Call me mean. Call me crazy.

Just know this, my kids don’t think of me that way.

Here is what they know. They know they have to be responsible partners in their own lives. They know I trust them to figure it out –even if I don’t know what the “it” is. They know how to solve problems of all sorts.

Sure, sometimes they go a little hungry or have to sit out or wear something entirely inappropriate for the activity –it is true shorts are much better than jeans when playing basketball, but so it goes. None of these things is life threatening. Unfortunate or uncomfortable sure, but dangerous –not at all.

My children know that small problems are really not a reason to give up, stop trying, or sit out and are by no means the end of the earth.

When the people of Israel were wandering in the desert, they complained often about how terrible things were. Each time God threatened a not so natural consequence. Moses was there to defend them, to put things right. Not surprisingly, when Moses, disappeared for 40 days, and they got anxious. They were used to having someone resolve their problems for them. They did not have faith that they could endure the discomfort. So they made a stupid choice –yes there are times when there is no way around acknowledging stupidity. God threatened annihilation. And Moses, like a typical helicopter parent, swooped in defending and excusing their behavior.

It is not surprising that it took forty years for the Israelites to grow up and move on.

I don’t have 40 years. My children will leave my home at 18 and while I will always be there to help when a serious crisis occurs, I won’t be there to bring them their lunch or forgotten homework, or take away discomfort. When the day comes, I need them to walk out my front door knowing that they can go wandering in the desert on their own and find their own path to their destination, even though there will be bumps or moments of disappointment along the way.

Most of us learn this eventually, it is what makes us successful and empowered as adults. But by letting my children cope with lack of cleats or lunch bags, I am giving them opportunities to grow and experience incrementally and appropriately, making this process less shocking.

When my son called that morning, I had just that week come back from two weeks travelling. During my absence his father had been away for a few days as well. Our teen had been in the house on his own for 5 nights. There had been no panicked phone calls, no angry emails, even though as he had reported there were moments of loneliness and doubt. I was confident in his capacity to navigate on his own. So I hesitated not a moment and told him I would glad to bring him his camera.

Posted on March 7, 2013

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Mysticism: the Experiential path to finding God

I’ve just started teaching a new course at my congregation on Jewish mysticism.  There are many ways to engage with this sizable topic: we could focus on the intellectual history of mysticism from Ezekiel’s vision of a holy chariot through Merkavah mysticism, the Zohar and Kabbalah, Lurianic Kabbalah and Chassidism, to name just a few eras and genres of literature.  But I have found that the theory can get in the way of what really draws people to want to learn more about mysticism.

tree of life

Mysticism, in its essence, is about the experiential. It points to direct experiences of that which others have then sought to do the impossible with – to put those deeply felt and powerful experiences into the limiting vessel of words. We need words to try and convey something to someone else. But words will never enable another to truly get inside the experience.

Take the biblical account of the Burning Bush.  I don’t know if I can believe in that account in a literal manner. A bush that burned with fire yet was not consumed.  And a voice spoke from out of the bush. But here’s what I absolutely do know from the story that is recounted. And I don’t mean ‘know’ in the sense of historical accuracy, but rather in terms of what the essential message of that moment in the story conveys to me.  Moses, who had left his people and could have spent the rest of his life tending sheep and living among the Midianites, has a life-course altering experience. He is ‘called’ to do something else with his life.  So powerful is the tug that he is willing to go back into the lion’s den, so to speak, to confront Pharaoh and lead his people with whom he has had so little contact. Perhaps it was the earlier interaction that he had had with a slave driver that weighed on his conscience for all those years until he could bear it no more, realizing that he had a responsibility to change the situation for the enslaved. Perhaps it was a dissatisfaction with his simple life and the question that had gnawed at him as he wondered what his purpose on earth truly was. But out in the wilderness with his sheep he had a mystical experience that caused him to entirely change the direction of his life and, with it, the history of our people.

How do you explain that to someone else? How do you express in words the power of such a transformative moment? There is no question that the image of the burning bush is a powerful one that conveys not only the extraordinariness of the moment, but also conveys that this is a God experience.  Whether it actually happened that way or not is almost irrelevant – the transformative power of the moment is undeniable.

When I started my Jewish mysticism course this past week, I asked attendees if they could think of personal moments when an experience was so deeply felt that it seemed to point toward the existence of something beyond the here and now. A moment, if you like, when you ‘peered behind the veil’ of material existence, if only for a moment. The examples shared were not hard to find. Personal experiences of healing, or working with the sick and the dying, were particularly prevalent, perhaps because at these moments of greatest vulnerability we are more likely to let down our own defenses and be open to something larger than ourselves. And, as people shared, there was an emotion that came with the sharing; that lump in the throat and the tearing up of eyes as, through re-telling about the moment in words, the power of the original experience was felt all over again.

That’s the experience that we need to pay attention to. So often, we get caught up on the ways that others have defined God for us. We get caught up in philosophical debates about whether God is all-powerful or all-knowing. We may find the intellectual exercise an engaging one but, ultimately, it will not bring us any closer to truly understanding the nature of God. The most we can hope for are the brief glimpses that emerge in the fabric of our everyday lives. And we can learn, through awareness and spiritual practice (meditation in particular, but not uniquely) to pay attention to these moments and let them teach us and guide the path of our lives.

Posted on March 6, 2013

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What “The Daily Show” Can Teach Us About 21st Century Judaism

800px-Dailyshow_logo.svgI am ready to nominate Jon Stewart as an honorary “Rabbi Without Borders.”

Last week, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, in a remarkable display of bad taste (to say the least), decided to put on an Afro wig and blackface in order to portray an African-American basketball player for Purim. In response, Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show, pointed out the hypocrisy of Hikind’s insensitivity given his career as an outspoken critic of both actual and alleged (at least to Hikind) anti-Semitism. Stewart followed his comments with this hysterical segment entitled “Crazy Stupid Dove–The War On Purim” (see video below).

This is not the first time The Daily Show has captured the humorous side of Jewish holidays.  As J.J. Goldberg notes in his recent Forward blog, Stewart also introduced a laughing-out-loud funny segment about Passover last year called “Faith Off” in which he called on Jews to make Passover more enjoyable than Easter.

If you have ever attended, taught, or sent your children to a synagogue religious school, you know that teaching elementary school children the essentials of Judaism in 4-6 hours a week is extremely challenging. Given how little time there is to teach and how many other facets of contemporary American life religious schools have to compete with, we often turn to games, skits, and other ways to depict Judaism as fun and attractive. But in doing so, we sometimes revert to a simplistic, easy to digest version of Judaism without complication or obligation.

What is fascinating about The Daily Show’s Purim segment, though, is not how funny it is but how substantive it is. The segment thoroughly rebukes the transformation of Purim into a Jewish Halloween and the general trend towards fitting Jewish holidays into mainstream culture. Its message is actually the antithesis of his Passover piece, in which Stewart suggests coming up with cartoon characters and making video games to update our celebration of Passover. Through intelligent humor and sophistication, the Purim segment makes a compelling argument for rejecting the commercialization and assimilation of Jewish holidays. It is this translation, this targum, that we would do well to embrace. Most young Jews today are not interested in frontal, rote transmissions of tradition. Our religious school educators are correct that we need to approach today’s students through creative, interactive ways to reach the “multiple intelligences” of the Jewish public, to borrow from educational theory jargon.  But what The Daily Show segment teaches us is that we don’t need to be reductionist to make tradition contemporary and accessible. The challenge for us, as Jewish educators and teachers of the next generation, is to pick up where The Daily Show leaves off.

Posted on March 4, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy