22 January 2010
7 Shevat 2010
We don’t talk about God enough. We read about God in our sacred texts, and we invoke God’s name in our blessings and prayers; yet, we rarely stop to explore or to question: what do we even mean by “God?” On Wednesday, our students and faculty had the opportunity to learn with guest scholar Rabbi Neil Gilman, a professor and theologian from the Jewish Theological Seminary, who shared with us his Jewish journey and the development of his personal theology. Watching our students engage with him, both during and after his presentations, and hearing them continue their conversations throughout the school about God, Torah, and their own personal beliefs reminded me how hungry they are for explicit discussions about theology, about what we believe (or don’t believe), and about God.
One of the beauties of the rabbinic tradition is that the rabbis were not explicit or systematic philosophers or theologians. They did not transmit Jewish “faith” by answering a set of central questions about God, humanity, or the world. Instead, they wove their theology into their interpretations of Torah, Talmudic stories, and halachah (Jewish Law). One of my teachers, a brilliant and holy man, once told me, “I look for God on every page of the Talmud.” Unfortunately, for many of us, despite the frequency with which we read about and invoke God’s name, God is simply too hard to find, whether in Torah, the Talmud, or even our prayers. We need to learn and to teach our students how to look.
In this week’s Parshat Bo, after the culmination of the ten plagues and the dramatic exodus from Egypt, we find the instructions for the Passover Seder, the ritual that will help us remember and reenact the exodus annually. Two words in the parsha form the basis for the essential mitzvah of the Seder: “V’higadta l’bincha . . . – And you shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt.’” (Exodus 13:8) The word “v’higadta – you shall tell” shares a root with the word “maggid”, the name of the part of the Seder when we actually read or tell the Passover story, and with the word hagaddah, which actually means “telling,” and which is the name of the guidebook for the Passover Seder. This is a mitzvah and illustrates the centrality of storytelling in the Jewish tradition and the vital role that ritual and storytelling play in inducting the next generation into the Jewish tradition, giving them a deep sense of their own history and their belonging to the Jewish People.
So much of traditional teaching is telling, yet telling also fraught with educational and spiritual pitfalls. Telling can turn people into passive recipients of information rather than actively engaged participants in the learning process. On an educational level, this might temporarily inspire students (depending on the charisma of the teller) but does not necessarily nurture independent thinking and intellectual curiosity. On a spiritual level, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel in God in Search of Man, “Religion is an answer to man’s ultimate questions . . . an answer without a question is devoid of life.” This is why we are able to read about and even pray to God so regularly without actually talking or thinking about, let alone, experiencing or encountering God. And this is why so much of Judaism and Jewish education leave so many people spiritually unfulfilled. I think our rabbis were profoundly aware of this when they built the entire Passover Seder around the “Four Questions” and mandated that the tellers find ways to stimulate the genuine curiosity of everyone at the table. But we all know that the same natural inclinations that turn classroom teaching into telling also turn so many potentially spiritual Jewish experiences that do not, as Heschel says, “penetrate the soul.”
At Gann, one of the ways we try to keep Judaism alive for our students is by asking them to reflect explicitly on their beliefs and on the ways of how what they learn connects to who they are and how they want to live. This happens throughout our formal and informal curriculum, culminating, for example, in the senior year final Tanach (Bible) project where students are asked to write their own personal theology. It happens through engagement with inspiring guest speakers, such as Rabbi Gilman. But, more importantly, Gann teachers strive to cultivate our students’ genuine intellectual and spiritual curiosity, critical and independent thinking, and their capacity to ask deep and authentic questions. We want our students to think for themselves, which starts with their ability and their desire to ask for themselves.
Only when students formulate their own questions will they actively participate in the learning process, take responsibility for the evolving “telling” of our Jewish story, and become agents of their own Jewish identities. “V’higadta l’bincha” – May we tell our children, but, more importantly, may our children tell us and inspire us, breathing new life and meaning into our tradition and our community.
Rabbi Marc Baker