Last week, in my role as a teacher of Judaism, I had four magnificent teaching experiences. The kind that leave you inspired by the beauty of the human race, and send you home proclaiming that people are deep, amazing, varied, and wise.
With a group of toddlers (age 2-3) at the synagogue, I sang and danced “shalom.” And read Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks and danced Sandra Boynton’s Barnyard Dance.
The bnei mitzvah class (age 13) and I celebrated how much they had learned this year, with a synagogue scavenger hunt quiz. Then we went to Starbucks, where we discussed the evils of manipulative advertising and the death penalty.
With middle-aged adults (age 40-70) at a church, I studied the Song of Songs. We read excerpts from the Biblical text, laughed at its bawdiness, and explored its implications for human and divine love.
With elders (age 80-100) at a nursing home, I explored the Biblical story of Ruth. People shared personal stories about the “Ruth” and “Naomi” archetypes within their minds and their families.
For me, it was a week filled with magic.
How does this magic happen?
Great content helps.
Good teaching strategies help, too. Toddlers learn through music, movement, rhymes and pictures. Young teens bond by doing active tasks together. Middle-aged adults have keen intellects and life experience that should be woven into a teacher’s presentation. Elders respond to sophisticated ideas presented simply and briefly.
But neither content nor strategy brings the special magic of being inspired by your students. That happens when you:
Focus on the people, not the content. When you:
Talk with them, listen with them, laugh with them, learn with them.
Retaining this focus is very important in teaching about Judaism.
Too often we, that is, teachers of Judaism, focus on the content alone. We may be determined to show the beauty of Judaism in a particular light – a particularly progressive light, or a particularly traditional one. We may be desperate for people to see this beauty. We may feel we need them to come to synagogue. Perhaps we have invested money and time in our synagogue and we need it to be sustainable. Perhaps we need the Jewish people to continue, and we want to play our part.
Guess what, fellow teachers! These are our needs. They may not be the students’ needs.
Do the toddlers need to know the word “shalom”? Do bnei mitzvah need to recognize a Ner Tamid? Do adults need to know sexy poetry from Song of Songs? Do elders need to know the plot of the Book of Ruth? No. No. No. And no. But it would be wonderful for them to know that they are welcome in a fun, friendly, intellectually open and personally affirming community.
And in that sort of community, Judaism happens.
Because Judaism is something people do. It is not a chunk of content that can be separated from practice. It is a set of evolving traditions that people share in community.
We don’t memorize lists of fundamental Jewish beliefs. We do study together a Bible made up of 24 books offering diverse viewpoints.
We don’t have essential doctrines. We do have rituals we like to do together.
We have no Pope who sets the standards of belief and practice. We do have a rather amorphous world community that votes with its feet.
The practices we do and the books we study are the ones people voted for. Traditions that remain over the years are the ones many people love. Like any kind of love, of course, it’s fraught with conflicts, dead-ends, winding paths, and spectacular compromises.
Jewish teachers should model this kind of love.
Sometimes teachers are afraid to put people over content, because they worry the result will compromise Judaism.
It won’t. It will create love for Jewish community.
And people will come back to what they love, seeking deeper and deeper understanding.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat found meaning in the Boston bombing when she wrote a blog post celebrating the helpers – people who rush in to support the injured and confused.
Here in Vancouver, Canada, I am more concerned with local events. Particularly those on Sophia Street.
Despite all our security systems and protective protocols, Koi the cat attacked Buddy the bird.
Technically, Koi tried to play with Buddy. Perhaps you can’t blame him. Each species has its own inherited rituals and routines. Buddy plays by taking short flights, daring you to follow him, and laughing as you chase him. Koi plays by leaping and batting with his unsheathed claws at things that fly.
From Buddy’s perspective, Koi’s game sure looked like an attack. So that’s how I responded.
Leaping forward, I slipped on a rug, fell up two stairs, and landed splayed out in an awkward position.
Buddy and Koi, startled, looked at me and separated. Buddy retreated to his cage, and sat inside sulking. An embarrassed Koi ran for the back door. Within twenty minutes, Koi was back home. Within two hours, Buddy was eating and chirping merrily.
Meanwhile, I gained three bruises, a bloody scrape, and a pulled muscle. Left more off-balance than I realized, the next day I fell doing yoga and got an additional scrape. And fell again reaching for a book and got an additional bruise.
Celebrate the helpers. Sigh.
Perhaps all the security systems and protocols in the world cannot fully protect us. Perhaps we will always be vulnerable to a freak attack. Let’s keep in mind the fragility of life and hold it precious.
Perhaps what can seem like a daring game to one person is actually a deadly strike at others. We should heed this principle even in our own less violent spheres of action. Sometimes a sarcastic verbal strike or a poorly thought out prank can be deeply hurtful.
Perhaps helpers take more of a battering than we realize. We take them for granted, when we should attend to their healing as well.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. From this real-life animal parable, I can draw metaphorical threads to many spiritual lessons.
And that in itself is a fascinating spiritual lesson.
Because if I’m a spiritual seeker, the entire universe becomes my spiritual teacher. My cat, my bird, my fall, my bruise: each one “points beyond itself,” as philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel says, towards a deeper reality. Each one catches my attention. Each invites me to ask who I am and what I am doing with my “one wild and precious life,” as poet Mary Oliver says.
Sometimes religious people compartmentalize the world into two separate spheres: holy and ordinary, or sacred and profane. For them, the narrow holy sphere can only be entered by following specific steps in thought or behaviour. Yet even they admit that the holy can burst through in ordinary life. In times of crisis, they pray, hold vigils, and offer spiritual comfort. Sometimes they say that God has appeared in a terrifying, unfathomable way, beyond anything their theology can explain.
It certainly seems so to me at times! And if I can admit that God sometimes shows up outside the bounds of official religious practice, surely I can admit that God often shows up out of bounds. In my cat. In my bird. In my bruises and scrapes. And in my unending search for meaning.
Sometimes spiritual seekers reject formal religion. To them, religion may seem dry, remote, outdated or even silly.
True confession: it certainly seems so to me at times! But because I know I can find meaning in a bird and a cat, I try harder in the formal religious sphere. I let rituals, prayers and dogmas point beyond themselves. And I find the most meaningful spiritual lessons when I step just a bit out of bounds.
Image: Koi and Buddy in a calmer moment. Photo by LDK. Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.
Many Jews say that Passover is our favourite holiday. And why not? On Seder nights, we gather for food, friendship, discussion, and intergenerational activities. Food – both ritual food and just plain tasty food – sits at the centre of the table.
Passover can also be an exciting project, involving creativity and problem-solving. Some people couple it with spring cleaning. Some host a Seder and creatively adapt tradition in new ways each year. Some try out unusual gluten-free recipes.
Passover falls just six months before everyone’s other favourite holiday: Yom Kippur.
Yes, Yom Kippur, the holiday on which more North American Jews attend synagogue and stay home from work than any other. On which people gather in order not to eat. And to engage in 25 hours of self-reflection, stimulated by the poetry of the prayerbook, set to haunting music.
Who would have thought self-reflection could be so popular?
Nowadays it seems people will do almost anything to avoid being alone with their thoughts and feelings.
Years ago, my fellow commuters and I would sit on the bus, watching the passing scenery and musing about human nature. Now we sit staring down at our smartphone screens, playing, reading or texting.
Years ago, a person would take a walk “to clear my head.” Now, when we walk, we stick earbuds in our ears, and listen to tunes or a podcast as we stroll.
These are popular habits. But they don’t represent a shift in the needs of the human psyche. In fact, our love of self-reflection is alive and well.
Recently, the idea of “Happiness” has been dominating the “self-help” psychology book market. Most books echo a single general theme: Happiness begins with self-reflection.
Gretchen Rubin is the author of the best-selling, down-to-earth book The Happiness Project. Rubin’s website tells you how to begin your happiness project: Ask yourself some questions. “What makes you feel good?” “What gives you joy, energy and fun?” In other words, reflect and begin to know yourself.
Robert Holden is an inspirational speaker and veteran of the Oprah show. His latest book on happiness, Shift Happens, hits you with its message right in the first chapter. To find your “Unconditioned Self,” observe yourself, identify the layers of hurt and grievance that obscure this self, and learn to lift them. In other words, reflect, get to know yourself, and understand how you can grow.
Martin Seligman, a research psychologist, directs the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania. His website invites you to participate in his research on happiness. You can fill out a questionnaire assessing your emotional makeup, character strength, or work-life balance. The questions start you thinking, “How do I approach life, and how does that contribute to my happiness?” You reflect, you get to know yourself, you understand, you begin to make a plan.
Aristotle’s ideas are back on the best-seller list. In the 4th century BCE, he wrote, “Happiness is contemplation.”
The ideas of Kohelet, author of the Biblical book Ecclesiastes, are making a comeback. Kohelet found that, among life’s ups and downs, “wisdom is a stronghold.”
Often we talk about “finding” meaning, as if we can look outside of ourselves and stumble upon it. Perhaps we should talk more about “making” meaning. Because happiness seems to come through the activity of knowing and growing ourselves.
Ancient and modern teachers agree: Happiness is not a product, it’s a process. A process of reflection, forgiveness, self-assessment, and growth. One that we do over and over again.
In spite of all our habits of avoidance, we can’t help but reach for happiness.
Image: robservations.ca; cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet
All the Seder-goers I know love reading about the “four children” in the Passover Haggadah. But they all dislike the section about the “wicked child.” The traditional text of the Haggadah, they say, treats this child with harsh prejudice. And they are right!
Four times the Torah instructs the Israelites to teach their children about the Exodus from Egypt. But our Talmudic sages believed Torah was immaculately edited, and nothing was repeated without a good reason. Each repetition, they said, gives instructions for teaching a different type of child: wise, wicked, simple, and not ready to ask.
About the wicked child, the Haggadah says:
The wicked child asks, “What does this service mean to you?”
To me, this seems a straightforward enough question. Maybe everyone else seems to know what is going on. Maybe everyone else knows the symbolic meanings of things. Maybe everyone else has a deep emotional connection. Maybe the child is a social-science researcher.
But the narrator of the Haggadah is terribly triggered by the wording of the question.
To you?!? And not to the questioner? Just as he has taken himself out of the community, and committed essential heresy, so you should set his teeth on edge, and say to him, “Because of this service God acted for ME when I left Egypt.” For ME and not for him. If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.
Contemporary commentaries flare up in the child’s defence. “The wicked child is insulted.” “This is why so many people remember ritual as unpleasant.” “This illustrates the pitfalls of labelling people.” “Can you imagine God being so judgmental as to leave someone behind?”
This year, I am the wicked child. I am not in the mood for Passover, and don’t particularly feel like part of the community.
It’s not that I failed to try. I started cleaning, reviewed the Haggadah, planned a fun second Seder at the synagogue, studied new ideas and even gave a sermon about one of them. But I can’t conjure any connection between these activities and a holiday spirit.
It’s my first Passover without my wise Mom and my sensible Aunt Sylvia. During their last four years, I managed to travel 6,000 miles each Pesach just to spend part of the holiday with them. But this year, they are gone. My brother will spend the Seders with others who miss them, but I won’t be connected. No one can take their place. Perhaps friends have sensed this. For first Seder, I invited no one and no one invited me.
In Jewish symbolism, the Exodus is everything. We were slaves in mitzrayim, the narrow place, and God took us out. “Leaving the narrow place” is an archetypal pattern. Passover is zecher l’yitziat mitzrayim, commemoration of the Exodus. So, says Torah, is Shabbat. Sukkot. Financial responsibility. Kind speech. Jews also invoke the Exodus as a spiritual metaphor for just about any inner journey. National rejuvenation after acts of antisemitism. Community healing from illness and sorrow. Individual clarity after a time of confusion.
The metaphor even finds me in my lonely corner. Here I am, in the narrow place, not ready for Passover. This year, I look at others and wonder, “What does all this mean to you?” Because I don’t know what it means to me. Like the fictional wicked child, I will be at the Seder; I will even lead it. But in a personal way, I may not be redeemed.
The Haggadah’s negative reaction to the wicked child, however, has been redeemed for me. My own situation suggests a psycho-spiritual interpretation. Perhaps this child is in need of liberation. Perhaps the tools are set before her. But perhaps she is not ready yet to recognize them as her own. As long as she imagines they are only available to others, she will not be redeemed. But that is not the final word. When her attitude shifts, she too will leave the narrow place and enter a community of joy.
Commentaries: Israel Eldad, Ira Steingroot, Yaariv ben Aharon, Arthur Green. Image: morethanfour.org. Cross-posted at On Sophia Street.
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.
Members of my Canadian synagogue are deeply engaged with Israel. Almost all, teens included, have visited the land at least once. They keep up with Israeli news. Some follow the liberal Ha’aretz; others the conservative Jerusalem Post. Most support local political organizations – ranging from the citizen diplomacy projects of Peace It Together to the staunch Israel advocacy of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. But when they get together, they don’t like to talk about Israeli politics.
Their Jewish learning is deep. Kids attend Jewish summer camp; adults graduate from the Melton Adult Jewish Studies Program; newcomers perfect their Hebrew; all love to discuss ideas and texts key to Jewish life. But when they get together, they don’t like to talk about Israeli politics.
The Shabbat before Purim is traditionally designated Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat of Remembering. With special Torah and Haftorah readings, we remember the evil of Amalek, who attack the weakened Israelites just after the Exodus. After the Israelites settle in the land and develop a strong army, Amalek continues to engage them. In one battle King Saul spares the life of the Amalekite king; the prophet Samuel disapproves. In Samuel’s view, a ruler’s first priority is national security. A king must guard this with absolute ruthless vigilance. In Saul’s view, a ruler can act with compassion towards those he sees as peers.
When we discuss this at our synagogue, someone invariably says, “Wow, that’s relevant to contemporary Israeli politics! These are two opposing Israeli views of how to manage relations with Palestine.” Everyone nods meaningfully, and then someone quickly changes the subject.
On Purim itself, we read Megillat Esther, story of the rise of a Jewish queen and her courtier cousin in the Persian Empire. The satirical story describes excesses of drunkenness, cosmetic use, sexual slavery, harmful legislation, long memos, ostentatious clothing, formal speech and — yes — killing. Many readers laugh their way through the excesses, until they read about the Jews killing outrageous numbers of potential enemies. Then their laughter pauses and they wonder why they find the Megillah funny.
When we discuss the Megillah at our synagogue, invariably someone says, “Wow, that’s relevant to contemporary Israeli politics! When Jews have political power within a corrupt international system, how should we wield it?” Everyone nods meaningfully, and then someone changes the subject.
A decade ago, our synagogue did discuss Israeli politics. Discussions were painful, conducted without manners, and in ways that compromised the safe, quiet space of Shabbat gatherings. Gradually, a consensus emerged: let’s acknowledge our differences, but not dwell on them.
As an American, I tried to respect this quiet Canadian solution, but found it odd. Much of our traditional liturgy expresses yearning for a homeland built on peace and justice. Thus synagogue should be the perfect venue for discussing Israel’s efforts. If we improve our skills in respectful dialogue, I thought, we will talk in a polite Canadian way. So I brought in facilitators from the Children of Abraham Compassionate Listening Project; offered training in public issues dialogue skills; hired speakers to teach about the history of Zionism. Everyone found the events meaningful, but did not use their skills to discuss Israeli politics.
Eight years of frustration finally yielded a breakthrough understanding. I’m not simply slow at adapting to Canadian politeness; I’ve been slow at understanding contemporary Jewish life. From my perspective as a rabbi, spiritual community sits at the centre of Jewish experience. Thus, if Israel is important to us, we should explore it during synagogue practice. But for many Jews, synagogue is not the centre of Jewish life. It is only one expression of their Jewish identity, and not the one they associate with Israel. As rabbi, I should listen carefully to their understanding of Jewish identity, learn from it, and celebrate its richness.
Photo by Dave Kauffman. Cross-posted to OnSophiaStreet.com