Weekly Message 5-3-13

3 May 2013  
23 Iyar 5773  

Teaching Compassion 

Shalom Chaverim,  

Our Gann campus was buzzing this week with energy and activity, from sports to arts to faculty and parent meetings. During this beautiful spring weather, several of our sports teams enjoyed big wins against rivals. Last night a Student Leadership Summit, created and led by students for students, helped students to develop a mission and vision for clubs and other student groups.  Then, just as the summit ended, other student ambassadors welcomed the 8th graders from the incoming Gann Class of 2017 for their Step-Up Day, Part 1, while the parents of our new students joined me and other administrators in the Beit Midrash for their first orientation. And, in the Black Box Theater, ShenaniGanns, Gann’s a cappella group, hosted ShenaniPalooza at its annual concert featuring other high school, college, and professional a cappella groups. All the groups performed beautifully, and our students shone bright among them.  

One of the highlights of the week for me was our faculty meeting on Wednesday, where we discussed an upcoming “diversity training” program, a workshop on how to help students listen to and appreciate each other’s voices. I explained that, while we often focus on teaching our students to think critically and to refine their moral judgment, this pedagogical workshop will focus on other habits of mind and heart: listening and empathy.  

At this meeting one of our faculty members shared an illustrative story that happened during one of his English classes.  As the students began discussing one of the rich and complex literary characters in the novel they were reading, one of the students opened with a sharp indictment of the character. The teacher suggested that this was not the stance he hoped his students would take toward this literary character or any human being for that matter. After further exploration and closer reading, the class started to understand that this initial judgment was an oversimplification of a complex human being with a complex journey. “The students came to appreciate the character and grew more compassionate toward her and her life. In fact,” the teacher added, “this is one of the main reasons we teach great literature—to develop compassion in our students.”  

This story reminded me of something one of my ninth grade students had written days earlier at the end of our Rabbinic Literature class. We had learned a midrash (rabbinic commentary) in which the rabbis made claims about the meaning of words and Biblical narratives that did not seem to be the plain meaning of the text. Several students in my class rejected the rabbis’ interpretation outright, claiming that it was “illogical,” “made up,” “not compelling.” I tried to encourage the students to be humble enough to suspend their initial judgment and to try to understand the logic and lens with which the rabbis read the text. At the end of class, when I asked the students to write about one thing they learned, some of these same students commented: “I learned that the rabbis’ seemingly illogical way of connecting words together isn’t as illogical as I had previously thought.” And, “It’s important to see the logic behind someone’s proof, even when it doesn’t fit your rationale.”  

I was amazed that my ninth graders were open enough to see the rabbinic text through new eyes. They read the midrash with the same capacity that our English teacher strives to develop in his readers: compassion. This compassion toward the rabbis as interpreters helped my students understand their own biases and gain a clearer, deeper, and more accurate understanding of the rabbis, their worldview, and their approach to reading and interpreting text.  

In the words of Ben Zoma, “Eizehu chacham? Halomed mikol adam – Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” (Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers 4:1) Like critical thinking and ethical judgment, compassion and empathy and a stance of curiosity and inquiry toward others are core habits of heart and mind that our students need to make meaning of and help repair our diverse and complex world.  

Shabbat Shalom,  

Rabbi Marc Baker  


Note: I blogged this week about the paradoxes of being a diverse “community of truth.” If you want to join a conversation about this, I invite you to read and comment! 




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