4 March 2011
28 Adar 1, 5771
This week I had the pleasure of visiting a class that illustrated what a Gann education is all about. In our 12th grade Tanakh (Bible) curriculum, students are exposed to the Documentary Hypothesis, the theory that the Bible is not one unified text written or dictated by God at Mount Sinai but rather a composite of several documents authored by human beings over a period of time. Widely accepted in the academic world of Bible study (which many of our students will encounter when they leave Gann), this theory certainly challenges some of the fundamental beliefs and assumptions of traditional Jewish faith. While some Jewish educators do not think high school students should be exposed to this theory for various reasons, we believe that students should learn about this while still in a supportive educational environment with teachers and role models who can help them navigate the theological and existential challenges and questions that it raises.
As part of this curriculum, students read various traditional responses to the Documentary Hypothesis that attempt to offer compelling and rational arguments for why it is plausible to believe that one author did, in fact, write or compose the Bible (and, for a traditionally believing person, that this author was God). One of the articles was actually written by a Gann teacher, an Orthodox rabbi and scholar, who, as guest speaker at the Tanakh class, discussed his theory in person.
For nearly an hour students asked probing questions based on close literary readings of the Biblical text as well as their own personal spiritual concerns (and, occasionally, their naturally adolescent skepticism!). I was inspired by the earnestness and level of engagement of these high school seniors, who are thinking critically and responding personally as they grapple with deep and significant religious questions. While I found our Orthodox teacher’s theory and his answers fascinating and compelling, I was most moved by the medium of his message. Rather than dogmatically defending traditional principles of faith or shooting down modern Biblical scholarship, he shared his intellectual and spiritual journey with our students. He talked openly and honestly about his struggles to reconcile faith with intellectual honesty and shared both his Biblical analysis and his personal beliefs with conviction and humility. Just watching his interactions with the students reminded me why Gann is such a special place.
This class honored the fact that living as a Jew or as a person of faith in the modern world can be full of contradictions. The other day a good friend shared with me her interpretation of the end of this week’s Torah portion, Pikudei, in which B’nei Yisrael completes the construction of the mishkan (tabernacle). When the mishkan was completed, the Torah describes, an anan (cloud) covered it and kavod Hashem (the Presence or Glory of God) filled it. What does the cloud represent? “Many of us assume that to experience the presence of God in our lives brings us to a sense of clarity,” my friend suggested. “But for me, the cloud represents the lack of clarity that can come with living in a complex world. To experience the presence of God is to be willing to stay with this lack of clarity and to wrestle with competing values and perspectives with the faith that we grow stronger, more whole, and even closer to God in the process.”
The class I observed this week illustrated Gann’s Jewish educational approach to helping our students develop into knowledgeable, sophisticated, and passionate Jewish adults. We honor their intellectual and religious journeys, not by giving them the answers but rather by helping them discover the questions that they might wrestle with for the rest of their lives. Through relationships with teachers and role models who are willing to model their own Jewish journeys, students can develop the intellectual tools and the spiritual fortitude to find meaning, strengthen their convictions, and, perhaps, even to experience the presence of God as they navigate their own journeys through our complex world.
Rabbi Marc Baker