4 January 2013
22 Tevet 5773
Introducing Tikkun Olam: A Humbling Pedagogical Experience
Thanks to the leadership and initiative of a group of passionate students, Gann is dedicating the month of January to honoring the memory of Martin Luther King and fulfilling our school’s mission by learning about and recommitting ourselves to social justice. Month-long events will include ethics labs and guest speakers, classes, lunchtime sessions hosted by different clubs, an all-school “fun-raiser”, and other service opportunities.
This week’s Limud Clali featured an overview of the month, an exploration of how we relate to people we try to help, and an introduction of next week’s eagerly anticipated guest speaker, Freedom Rider Paul Breines.
My experience of facilitating the 10th grade program was both inspiring and humbling. As lead educator on the program, I needed to frame the month of learning about social justice in five minutes and introduced the concept of social justice by teaching the mystical, theological underpinnings of the Jewish notion of tikkun olam (repairing the world). With energy and passion, I told the Kabbalistic story of the creation of the world, in which God’s divine light shattered vessels, producing a world that is simultaneously infused with the Divine and, yet, still broken, unredeemed. Therefore, I charged them, our holy, spiritual, and ethical work is to act as repairers, redeemers, of God’s and our broken world. Even before I finished my “framing,” students began raising their hands. The goal of my brief introduction was not to generate questions or discussion but rather to create a framework for understanding the learning that would follow. Instead, just when I was ready to move onto our core exercise, several students felt they could not proceed without inquiring more about the mystical, theological origins of the world!
As I reflect now on my students’ questions and on my attempt to tell the mystical creation story, one of the more complex concepts in Jewish theology, in a mere five-minute framing, I have to chuckle at my naïve enthusiasm and my imperfect pedagogical choice. What can I learn from this about my teaching and my students’ learning?
First, I learned that if I truly had wanted to keep the framing to five minutes (are rabbis ever able to do this?), I should not have lost myself in a story and a full-blown theological discourse, no matter how inspiring I might have been (at least to myself!). My five minutes easily became 12.
Second, I rediscovered the risk of introducing one or two concepts (in this case, social justice month and the “relationship continuum”) with other more complex concepts (in this case, tikkun olam). The questions and levels of complexity that my framing stimulated were perfect for a Jewish thought class. However, in the context of a five-minute introduction, the questions were so big and unanswerable that I found the entire moment almost humorous.
Third, my students’ profound questions, however tangential to my pedagogical goals, also reminded me that anyone who thinks high school students are not ready for high level theological and philosophical thinking has never spent time with them. The two questions that I did allow were not questions of confusion or clarification but rather of extraordinary and inspiring theological sophistication with which theologians, philosophers of religion, and spiritual seekers struggle:
If God created the world broken, imperfect, in the first place, why are we, human beings, responsible for repairing it?
According to the Kabbalistic creation story, if the world is broken because it could not handle the power or brightness of God’s light, what will happen if, indeed, we are successful in repairing or redeeming the world by elevating all of the Divine sparks? Won’t we, paradoxically, destroy our world?
Let us honor our budding theologians by letting their questions challenge and inspire us as we begin reading this Shabbat the Book of Shemot (Exodus), which Ramban (Nachmanides) describes as the “Book of Exile and Redemption.” May our students’ questions also help frame our broader exploration of social justice and what it means for us as Jews and human beings to become repairers and redeemers of our imperfect world.
Rabbi Marc Baker