To Be Jewish Is To Be Human

8 November 2013 
5 Kislev 5774 

Shalom Chaverim,  

I once heard my friend and mentor, veteran Head of School Dr. Bruce Powell, speak to a group of prospective parents. “Parents who are considering Jewish high school for their child sometimes tell me they are worried that their children will become ‘too Jewish’. I respond to them with a question: ‘Are you also worried that they will become too human?’”   

Dr. Powell was making the point that we need to break down our learned dichotomy between the Jewish and the human. To be Jewish is to be human, and Jewish education at its best, especially during the formative adolescent years, is a profoundly humanizing enterprise.  

Twice this past week I was reminded of Dr. Powell’s words when my students inspired me with their natural integration of their Jewish and human identities.  

The first occurred last Shabbat evening when I had the pleasure of joining members of our junior class for their Shabbaton in Newton Centre. After dinner and almost an hour of spirited singing, I led them in a text study and spiritual reflection exercise. We studied Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s interpretation of the Gan Eden (Garden of Eden) story, in which Rabbi Kook suggests, based on a mystical Jewish reading of the text, that Adam’s sin was that he became “estranged from his essential self.” God’s question to Adam “Ayeka – where are you?” was not, therefore, a literal one, but rather an existential-spiritual one. For Rabbi Kook, to be in relationship with God is to be deeply in touch with one’s own self.  

When we began reading the text aloud, I heard some students chuckling and asked what was so funny. “Some of us just wrote papers on this same text for our English class, in which we are studying transcendentalism,” they told me. As we proceeded to explore Rabbi Kook’s interpretation, the students shared literary and spiritual insights, and then one student raised her hand. “I’m sorry, I just have to bring in Emerson here,” she said, and proceeded to weave together Emersonian concepts of the self with Jewish mystical ideas.  

These students got it: Rabbi Kook and Emerson are in conversation with each other about what it means to be human.  

Yesterday morning I began the day with one of our alternative minyanim (morning prayer groups). We watched and discussed an animation from the Jewish Food For Thought project about gratitude and the psychology of happiness. In the cartoon, a father and son discuss the idea of living in the moment and appreciating what you have instead of obsessing over the past or fearing the future. After a few minutes of quiet journal writing, some of the students shared reflections. Just like what happened last Friday night, one student made a connection to something she learned in her “Children’s Literature” senior English elective. “We are studying fairy tales,” she told us, “and our teacher introduced us to some Yungian ideas. For Yung, the goal of life is not success but rather self-discovery. The perspective of the son and his Jewish ideas about gratitude in this animation reminded me of this.” For her, Yung was now in a dialogue with Jewish ideas about the meaning and purpose of life.  

During these high school years, when students are exploring themselves and their world and beginning to come of age intellectually, socially, morally, and spiritually, Judaism does not have to be something they do on the side. The power of a deep and meaningful Jewish education is that Judaism can and should be a lens through which our children see the world, and that shapes who they are as human beings. At a time when students are so open to the ideas of people like Emerson and Yung, our students need to see and feel that, in the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Judaism has an important voice to contribute to the conversation of humankind.  

Shabbat Shalom,  

Rabbi Marc Baker  





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