15 May 2009
21 Iyar 5769
The last month of school brings with it the concept of siyum (completion), a term that in traditional Jewish learning contexts represents the ritualistic completion of a tractate of Talmud, an Order of Mishnah, or another significant body of Jewish law or literature. Ritualizing the completion of a learning cycle gives us the opportunity to celebrate what we have accomplished, to review what we have learned, to share our learning with others, and to commit ourselves to continuing the learning process. In schools, the end of the school year can be an emotional transition, a powerful ending that generates a deep sense of nostalgia and sometimes loss. Our rituals, from graduation to final exams to closing assemblies and banquets, help us to mark time and to navigate this transition.
This week, at our Spring Arts Festival, many of us were entertained and enlightened by the siyum of our students’ learning and experiences in their arts classes. In our second floor art gallery, our students displayed their works in painting, ceramics and photography. And, once again, our students lit up the Beit Midrash with dance, theater, choral and instrumental performances, including original compositions of Jewish music by one Gann student.
I am always inspired and uplifted by our students’ talent and creativity. But I was struck this week by how essential the arts and art education are to the fulfillment of our school’s mission and to the education, empowerment and actualization of our students. Art reinforces overarching thinking and life skills that are at the heart of all of our academic disciplines. In the words of one of our arts teachers, “I’m trying to get them to move from literature to improvisation . . . they are sifting through ideas and distilling down to essence. Our students are creating narratives through still life . . . trying to see and to capture reality in some new way . . .” Learning to produce and interpret art is a form of spiritual education, developing our students’ abilities to see through new eyes, to listen deeply, and to open their minds and hearts to hidden, unrealized aspects of reality and their world. Art also reinforces one of the core habits of mind and heart of pluralism: the ability to recognize, appreciate, respect and understand multiple perspectives on reality.
Art is also what I would call interpersonal dynamics education. As I watched two sisters play an Irish Jig on their violins, I was captivated by their interactions, their harmonies, their rhythm and their smiles, and amazed by their capacity to work interdependently, and to read, react, and respond to each other. And, of course, art taps into student creativity and self expression, which was illustrated beautifully by the percussionist for these two sisters, who wowed the audience with the sounds and rhythms of a makeshift spoon instrument that literally had students on their feet trying to catch a glimpse.
Many of these inspiring dimensions of art education are transferrable to other academic disciplines, to other areas of our human experience, and to our relationship with Judaism and Torah. As we prepare for Shavuot, perhaps we can ponder the notion of Torah and Torah study as the art form of the Jewish people – and we, its consumers and producers. Imagine a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot (a night of Torah study) that embodies the principles of art education, the passion, creativity and joy of the Spring Arts Festival.
Rabbi Marc Baker