Thursday, September 3, 2009

Telling Stories, Telling the Truth

As the school year begins for most of us, we will be asked - probably over and over - "Is this story true?" Whether we are teaching Torah narrative, Jewish history, or Midrash, we will need to understand the meaning behind the question before we can give an appropriate answer.

What does "true" mean? I believe there are multiple ways to understand this word.
  • True can mean historically accurate, verifiable through scientific examination.
  • True can mean fundamentally valid, with an intrinsic importance to understanding the world.
  • True can mean 'what I believe' - the story from the perspective of the group to which I belong.
  • True can mean 'what I want the listener to believe' - part of the narrative that defines my identity and that I hope will shape the identity of others.
With all these meanings for a simple one-syllable word, what can the answer be to the question, "Is this story true?"

Before you answer, I believe it is important to think deeply about the motivation for the question. Does the student want to know what you believe? What you want him or her to believe? Whether the enduring idea of the story has validity?

Only when you have considered these possibilities do I believe you can answer honestly and appropriately.

In this essay by Daniel Shifrin you will read about one parent's struggle with this issue. You may or may not agree with his conclusions.
The truth is that you should be struggling with the issue as well.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ki Tavo

It seems pretty clear on first reading of this parasha that if we follow God's commandments we will be OK, and if we don't, well, the description of the alternative doesn't seem very appealing.

Is this as simple as it seems? Do what God commands, God will reward you. Violate God's commands, God will punish you.

So... good things will only happen to good people, and bad things to those who deserve to be punished. Right?

We all know that this is not always the case. And not only us - our Rabbis and teachers have known this for a very long time. The problem is so obvious that it has a name: theodicy. You can read an explanation of theodicy and Judaism's response in this selection from Sacred Fragments, by Neil Gillman

Are there other ways to understand this parasha? Let's look at a few:
Different translation of what happens if you follow the commandments, from, a site for college students

Is there another way to understand the curses? from It's the Joy, not the Oy, at Kolel

What is there in this parasha that relates to the current conversation about food -
  • what is a "locovore"?
  • what is "sustainable farming"?
  • and what does this have to do with the parasha?
Go to to learn more about meaningful relationships we can develop with those who produce our food. Read here about the relationship between bikurim and the Jewish communal society.

As you read through the text of the parasha - 26:1 - 29:8 of the book of Devarim,
  • what are the Big Ideas you want your students to remember after they have forgotten all the details?
  • What are the Essential Questions you want them to ask themselves? Those are the questions that, if they can answer them, will be evidence that they have understood these Big Ideas?

This parasha is always read during the month of Elul. Can you relate what you have read in the text with this time in the calendar?

Please feel free to send your comments, questions, reactions so we can have a rich conversation on-line, if not in person.

See you next week.

A Jewish Perspective on a Famous Catholic

Senator Ted Kennedy died last week, and was buried on Saturday at Arlington National Cemetery near the graves of two of his older brothers - President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy. The entire nation mourns his death.
The story of the Kennedy family is a story of power and privilege, of positive impact and of serious imperfection. Because we live in a world today in which there are few secrets for people in the public eye, we know about JFK's infidelities, about RFK's children and their problems, and some with longer memories are aware that the family's fortune began in bootlegging liquor during Prohibition and includes support for Hitler and his policies in Europe during World War II.

And in spite of this knowledge and history, Senator Edward Kennedy is widely considered one of the best and most effective senators - one who has brought immeasurable good to the country and to its people. He has sponsored and help pass numerous measures to help the less fortunate in America.

The question is - how did he get from Point A (Chappaquiddick, Palm Beach) to Point B (champion of health care, "lion of the Senate") in his lifetime?

Marc Ambinder writes for The Atlantic. His article at the link here describes Ted Kennedy's life in very Jewish terms. I think it is interesting to read about this famous Catholic political power from the point of view of what Ambinder shows are very Jewish actions.

"Mark Lilla, in The Stillborn God, describes two forms of rebirth: a "Jewish" redemption where one's works and deeds promote a redeemable soul -- one that awaits the Messiah -- and a Protestant "Christian" redemption, where the expiation of one's sins are entirely the province of God, and not necessarily intelligible or accessible in our earthly lives. ... it is sufficient to say that redemption for Jews is an active, continuing process, one where doing good will hasten the coming of the Messiah.

In America, mostly Christian, we're most fond of spiritual redemption, but successfully redeemed politicians have tended towards the Jewish model -- work, work, work, work, even if, as Kennedy certainly did, they identified as a Catholic or a Christian." Marc Ambinder, The Jewish Redemption of Ted Kennedy, The Atlantic, August 28, 2009

For the Classroom:

Big Ideas:

  • No one is perfect
  • Actions are important in teshuvah
  • Teshuvah is a process with multiple steps
Essential Questions:
  • What are the steps necessary for teshuvah?
  • What evidence is there that Kennedy understood the process of teshuvah?
  • Is it possible for someone who causes another person's death to do teshuvah ?
Activities for Learning: