June 2010

This morning’s e-Jewish Philanthropy features a post by Bob Goldfarb, president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. Goldfarb argues that culture–art, theater, music–needs to play a more central role in the Jewish Agency’s new agenda of identity-building, and that culture can, for instance, reinforce the emotional transformations that occur on Birthright trips.

The Jewish Agency’s new strategy “rests on three pillars,” he writes: “connections through Israel experiences, positioning educators and leaders as change agents, and promoting social action. The last two appeal to the rational mind, using knowledge and concrete results to awaken a sense of Jewishness. Israel experiences may also involve education and social action, but they offer something more: an intangible, emotional, and sometimes inexpressible response by the participants to the people and the land. That can be literally life-changing, and it can’t be routinized through curricula and training programs.”

I agree with all of this, except for a key piece: Goldfarb seems to assume that education is a purely rational exercise, and that curriculum is its centerpiece. I have to imagine that he, like many others, thinks of good education much more broadly than this. Good Jewish education happens when learners are open to learning, and when good educators enable them to interpret their lives in the language of the Jewish people. It cannot be reduced to curriculum or programs, and it is certainly not a solely rational activity. Good educators know that good education integrates rational and emotional, cognitive and affective.

Last week I co-chaired a conference entitled Toward a Third Space: A New Dimension in Jewish Education for Emerging Adults. Convened by Hillel and funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, the conference brought together 130 leading educators, professionals and funders to reflect on and build a field around teaching Torah to emerging adults (defined by social psychologist Jeffrey Arnett as adults ages 18-30). The term ‘Third Space’ is borrowed from sociology, where it refers to physical places that are neither work nor  home, but common spaces or ‘great good places.’ For our purposes, as elaborated by my conference co-chair Rabbi Dan Smokler, it refers to a conceptual space of learning Torah, one that is not wholly defined by either the supposed objectivity of the academy, nor the perceived dogmas of the yeshiva, but is rather animated by a different set of assumptions that are both intellectually honest and meaningful in individual, subjective terms.

To take a very traditional example, here is a story: Years ago I was visiting relatives for Shabbat. We went to services at the local Young Israel synagogue. The rabbi had broken his leg, and this was his first week back on his feet after his rehabilitation. I vividly remember his remark: “My whole life I never fully appreciated the blessing we say every morning, praising God as the one who ‘makes firm the steps of man.’ But now that I have experienced the inability to walk, I have a new understanding of this blessing.”

The lesson is simple: We often only gain a full appreciation of a text when we experience its meaning outside of our minds. And by the same token, text is a well of meaning to understand our lives.

While the rabbi and the context were not necessarily an example of Third Space (which we assume is working with college-educated Jews who are shaped by the values of the university), it is a reminder that teaching Torah and making meaning are not purely cognitive exercises. Good education is transformational, a series of encounters between individual, community, text and context. Good educators–exemplified by many of the people at Third Space–make that transformation possible. In our teaching, text is dynamic: it lives in dialogue with art, music, theater; as my gifted colleague Rabbi Miriam Margles demonstrated so ably at the conference, and as illustrated in the rabbi’s story above, it is embodied.

In the kind of teaching we do, the encounter of learner and Torah is not limited to the rational, but encompasses a fuller, richer range of human experience. That is one of the things that makes this kind of teaching–which is of course not limited to, but is particularly effective with, emerging adults–so important and so powerful.

So I agree with Bob Goldfarb that the Jewish Agency, and the Jewish People, need to embrace all the modalities of human flourishing if we are to be successful in connecting younger Jews with the Jewish People. At the center of those modalities, however, is Torah–broadly defined, expertly taught. Our people is blessed with both its greatest treasure–Torah–and with a generation of educators who are finding new and fuller ways to help us individually and collectively engage with it. As we all work towards a future of greater engagement with Israel and the Jewish people, this kind of transformational education needs to be front and center.

One of the glaring questions of Parshat Balak is this: Why do we read it at all? The story of Balak and Bilaam is unique in the Torah, in that the main characters–the Israelites–are completely passive, they are off-stage. Up until now, and from here on out, the story of the Torah is one in which the Israelites have destiny in their hands. Indeed, this has been the major thrust of the Book of Numbers, which reached its high point during the story of the spies: “We can take the land,” exhorts Caleb. A lack of faith leads the people to doubt their own abilities. But in this, as in all the other tests in the wilderness, the Israelites are free to make their choices. They are the center of attention.

Not so in parshat Balak. “And Balak the son of Tzipor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.” From this opening moment of the parasha, the Israelites are somewhere in the background. Yet they are the main subjects of the story. It provokes an awkward sense of dislocation.

So why does the Torah include it?

I spent the earlier part of this week chairing a conference in New York on teaching Torah to emerging adults. We spent a lot of time talking about the transition to adulthood, and what happens during what the columnist David Brooks has called “the Odyssey years,” the years of exploration and testing commitments and identities. One of the markers of that transition is a remarkable double-move of recognition. As children, we gradually come to recognize that there are other people in the world, and we learn to pick up on their social cues, their needs and desires, in order to live together in harmony. We also come to realize that we have our own identities, separate from others. But what happens in adulthood–successful adulthood, anyway–is that a person comes to recognize how he or she is perceived by others. That is, we come to see ourselves as others see us. That doesn’t mean that we are what others see us as, but it means we can enter into their imagination and look back upon ourselves.

It has always struck me that this is the purpose of the story of Balak and Bilaam. For Bilaam sees in the Israelites what they themselves seem incapable of seeing: “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel!” (Num. 24:5) Bilaam sees–in the deepest prophetic meaning of the term–the goodness of the Israelites. He sees their potential. He sees what they could become. And yet, the Israelites themselves seem incapable of seeing themselves that way. Immediately upon the conclusion of the story of Bilaam, “the people began to lust after the daughters of Moab.” (Num. 25:1) The term here is liznot, the same word used during the sin of the spies, the same action that our wearing of tzitzit are supposed to guard against. The tzitzit serve the same purpose as Bilaam’s words that we read this week: to remind us of a vision of ourselves, of what we could be and what we are called to be.

The story of Bilaam is therefore a reminder of the necessity of hearing voices outside ourselves who can stand beyond our own myopia and remind us of who we can be, if only we will remember.

Shabbat shalom.

These are the remarks I delivered to our graduating students and their families at this morning’s Jewish Baccalaureate Ceremony.

I have found myself coming back to the writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch of late. Rabbi Hirsch lived 150 years ago in Frankfurt, Germany, and his cultural landscape bore some striking similarities to our own. In the previous century, Jews had left the ghettos of western Europe and become citizens of France, England, and Germany, as the liberalizing forces of the Enlightenment ran their course. They entered into society, becoming businessmen, lawyers, doctors, and even a prime minister of Britain.

Educational institutions opened to Jews during this time. And thus the question of how Jews should educate themselves was opened as well. Should Jews be part of Christian schools, or the emerging secular state schools? Should they maintain their own school systems? If so, what should the content of their education be?

At the root of these questions was a deeper, bigger question, about what it meant to be a Jew in the modern world. Our vision of our ideal citizen is always at the core of our educational endeavors, and so the question of Jewish education was really the question of Jewish identity itself, as it always is.

So much has changed, and yet so little has changed, in these last 150 years. Already in the 1860s Rabbi Hirsch could note that people’s lives had become divided: between public and private, work and home, secular and religious. Already in the 1860s Hirsch and others could sense that knowledge itself was becoming fragmented, as more and more became known about the world, as disciplines and sub-disciplines and specialties arose. As the world became dis-integrated, our selves became dis-integrated too.

So much has changed, and yet so little has changed. Ein chadash tachat hashemesh, There is nothing new under the sun, says Kohelet. If anything, the pace and dimesions of the disintegration of our world and our selves has increased by orders of magnitude. Today it is not only possible to be on two continents in the same day; it is possible to be on the other continent and have a video chat with another person across yet another ocean. We talk of inhabiting multiple selves, multiple identities, multiple truths.

And yet we still hunger for wholeness. We still yearn for integrity. Our souls, it seems, cannot go on without trying to make sense of it all.

Samson Raphael Hirsch’s educational motto was taken from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of Our Sages. It was simple: Talmud Torah im Derekh Eretz, the worldview of Torah with the way of the world. What did he mean? As elaborated in his educational writings, Rabbi Hirsch envisioned Jews participating fully in the many sectors of society—law, politics, economics, education, medicine, science, and so on. That was the derekh eretz half of the motto, the way of the world.

Bound up with that, inseparable from it, is Talmud Torah, which literally means the study of Torah, but more broadly means the worldview of Torah and the language of Jewish tradition. That language—of symbols, practices, texts and ideas—becomes the way we think about the world, the way we make sense of it, the way we integrate it and weave it into a whole. And of course that action, of weaving and making whole, makes us whole at the same time. Torah—Jewish tradition and ideas in their most expansive sense—is the basis of our integration, and the basis of our integrity.

As you prepare to leave this place, as you reflect back on your education and look forward to a life of fulfillment and promise, this is my blessing for you: integrity, what we might call temimut in Hebrew. It’s not about balance—you’ll never really be able to balance, to keep things separate and to compartmentalize. It’s about integrity, the ability to be whole, the ability to integrate, the ability to be at home in the world.

And so I bless you with a sense of integrity, with the courage to walk with integrity, with the energy and commitment to work on the habits of integrity, and with mentors and communities who will help you develop them.

Thank you for these last four years and for the privilege of teaching you. We will be here for you long into the future, and we can’t wait to see the integrity you bring to your lives and ours.

Mazal tov.

We have probably all had a similar experience: You’re trying to be serious, or you’re trying to maintain a positive attitude. It may be during a conversation, or in prayer, or simply when you’re on a reflective walk down the street. You’re seeing the world in positive terms, you’re feeling good about yourself: a sense of openness, a sense of connectedness, a sense of possibility, a sense of sacredness.

But then something, or someone, interrupts you and causes you to lose your balance, to lose the moment. It may be a genuine act of cynicism and fear. Or it may be totally unintentional. They may even be motivated by a desire for holiness themselves. But they fail to recognize their own behavior and the impact it will have on you.

A friend of mine talks about such an episode. It was at a Jewish summer camp, and hundreds of kids were sitting around a campfire, singing camp songs and having a great time. A colleague of my friend came over to him and said, “I can’t believe the song leader is singing these lousy songs. He should be singing better stuff.” My friend responded, “You know, right now I’m trying to see this as hundreds of Jewish kids having a great time with each other at a Jewish summer camp. So let’s not focus on what’s not here, and focus instead on what is.”

The theme of sight, and more specifically on how we come to see what we see, pervades Parshat Shelach. Moses instructs the spies to “see what the land is like,” and what the people are like. (Num. 13:18) His questions are objective ones: are the inhabitants strong or weak, are their cities walled or unwalled, is the soil good or bad. These things can be measured. But the report back, which precipitates the rebellion that leads to the people’s exclusion from the land for 40 years, while beginning with what seems an objective report, quickly becomes subjective:

“We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size… We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (Num. 13:31-33)

The report builds to this final line: “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” While we can argue about whether truly objective reporting is ever really possible, there is no question that this remark represents not objective analysis, but subjective seeing. At this moment the spies take a stance in their act of seeing, they create a lens that filters and colors their perceptions and creates a picture of the world for the people they lead. It is at this precise moment that the people lose faith, and that God realizes they cannot be the ones to enter the land of Canaan.

This is a powerful reminder for us, that the way we see the world is never as simple as the physical act of light hitting our eyes. To see the world involves interpretation and evaluation, acts which are bound up in the language—the words, values, and ideas—by which we make meaning of our experience. And language is a social activity, created by and creating the people who speak and read and write it. The way we see the world is tied up with the people with whom we see the world. We all influence one another’s seeing. We are co-creators of each other’s imaginations. The spies’ failure was to create a cynical reality for the rest of the people.

The parasha ends with the commandment to make tzitzit, fringes on our garments. The language of the commandment is clearly a response to the incident of the spies. “You will have these tassels to see, so you will remember all the commands of the LORD, that you may obey them and not wantonly follow the lusts of your own hearts and eyes.” (Num. 15:39) As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes, the tzitzit are an organic metaphor, as their name suggests: they are growths, fruits, extensions, and roots all at once. They extend our garments, and remind us that our selves are extended in the same way.

The way we see ourselves, the way we see the world, is tied up in that ineffable nexus of language where self, other, and world intersect and take shape. The reminder of parshat Shelach therefore is that we are, in the classical Hebrew phrase, arevim ze lazeh: we are all responsible for one another. Our conduct, our language, our words and actions both make us who we are and shape the world of those around us.

Shabbat shalom.

Dear Zachary,

You have asked me for some guidance on how to approach the events of recent days off the coast of Israel and Gaza. I’m going to do my best.

First of all, I am proud of the fact that you are torn. I am proud that you are troubled by the use of force, that you respect non-violence, that you long for peace. I am proud that your Jewishness leads you to feel that the IDF is acting in your name—even if that may make you feel ashamed. I am proud that you want Israel to be an or lagoyim, a light unto nations, and that your heart is broken when it fails to be that. I am proud that you wrestle, that you carry on the mantle of Yaakov Avinu, our ancestor Jacob: “For you have wrestled with God and with men and proved able.” (Genesis 32:28)

I say all of this because it is a unique inheritance of being Jewish. What other people has this kind of self-critical tradition? Nevi’ei Yisrael, the prophets of Israel, who are invoked in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, gave us this model: holding ourselves to the highest standard, criticizing ourselves when we fail to reach it.

Their tradition has animated Israeli society and the Jewish world for the last 62 years. In what other country besides Israel would the public be so animated in discussion and criticism of a military operation? In what other country would a member of parliament—representing an ethnic and religious minority in the country—be found on a flotilla trying to break the blockade its own military has opposed? I am proud of our people, I am proud of the Jewish state, for embracing the challenge of the Prophets, for testing the limits of speech in a democratic society.

Crucially those same prophets always spoke from a place of love, from a place of enduring faith and commitment to Am Yisrael, to the Jewish People and its mission. Beginning with Moses and continuing through Isaiah and Jeremiah, Amos and Zacharia, the nevi’im would not only chastise the Jewish people for their failures, but advocate for the Jewish people in their moments of crisis. When God wants to wipe out the Israelites and begin again with Moses, he responds by reminding God of their merits, and convincing God to relent. When God proclaims that the Jewish people will be punished, Isaiah immediately delivers words of consolation and a vision of a renewed Israel.

So when you tell me that you are conflicted, I tell you that it makes me proud. It tells me that you have a prophetic sensibility, that you ask questions about the use of power, that you on guard against corruption. But it also leads me to remind you that the prophets combined their critique with love, that they spoke from a deep sense of ahavat Yisrael, love of Israel—people, land, and Torah—and of longing for the Jews to live up to their calling.

That is not easy, and there are many Zionists who would argue that it is not possible and perhaps not appropriate. The state of Israel should be a state like any other, not held to a higher, perhaps impossible, prophetic standard. And there is truth in this as well. First and foremost Israel today is a modern, democratic nation-state, with all of the blessings and curses such arrangements bring. Its legitimacy comes not from the Bible, but from the United Nations, and as such it should be held to no higher or lower standard than any other country.

But for we whose souls are bound up with the Jewish people, whose stories are intertwined with the enduring story of the Jewish people, Israel has always been something more. Our hope has been that of Moses, that the peoples of the world would look at us and say, “Surely this is a wise and discerning people.” (Deutermony 4:6) I hope you don’t ever give up on that vision, and that, like Moses and the prophets of Israel, you never give up on the Jewish people either.

B’vracha, In Blessing,

Rabbi Josh