Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Thoughts on the New Year

David Brooks writes in the NY Times today about a perceived change in culture in the United States in the years since the end of World War II. His article, High Five Nation describes a cultural shift from a default position of humility to one of self-congratulation and pride. He even quotes Bing Crosby at the end of the war,

  • “All anybody can do is thank God it’s over,” Bing Crosby ... said. “Today our deep down feeling is one of humility,” he added.
Brooks goes on to quote an article written by correspondent Ernie Pyle:
  • “We won this war because our men are brave and because of many things — because of Russia, England and China and the passage of time and the gift of nature’s material. We did not win it because destiny created us better than all other peoples. I hope that in victory we are more grateful than we are proud.”
(by the way, I'm not sure his evaluation is totally fair - a friend today commented that the celebrations in Times Square of the Allied victory were hardly understated - and yet..) There is an element of his argument that rings true to me as a Jewish educator.

At this time of year, as we approach Rosh HaShanah, much of the liturgy we participate in and that we are preparing our students to participate in revolves around our belief that ultimately it is God who is responsible and to whom we are responsible, not only ourselves.

When we survive a life-threatening incident we thank God for sparing us.
When we hear of a death the traditional response is "Baruch Dayan Emet", 'Blessed is the Righteous Judge', which again confirms our belief that life and death are in God's hands.

It is God who decides who lives and who dies.

There is, I think, an essential humility in this belief that David Brooks would admire.

In the year coming, I wish you all a productive and fulfilling partnership with God in achieving all you wish for.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Rosh HaShanah Torah Reading: Akedat Yitzhak

This coming Shabbat is the first day of Rosh HaShanah, and the Torah reading is the section of B'reisheet concerning the binding of Isaac.

Here are a few suggestions for reading and viewing that can inform our conversation on Tuesday morning:

First read chapters 21 and 22 of B'reisheet here or in your Humash. [note: in traditional synagogues both chapters are read - 21 on the first day and 22 on the second day. In Reform synagogues that celebrate only one day chapter 22 is read. In Reform synagogues that celebrate two days the story of creation is usually read on the second day]
  • What is the content of chapter 21?
  • What is the content of chapter 22?
For a detailed article about the Akedah - the Binding of Isaac, you may want to read Jewish Virtual Library's long and well-researched description of the story from early Biblical origins, through successive Jewish thinkers, and including the meaning of the Akedah in modern Israeli society.

A shorter version which includes much of the above appears at My Jewish Learning, in an article by Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs. You may find it easier reading, and you will still get most of the ideas that are in the JVL version, though not in as much detail.

One of the issues often discussed by Jewish educators is the issue of the suitability of this story for children. An excerpt from an article about this appears here. Although just an excerpt, it can easily serve as a jumping-off point for our conversation.

Tablet Magazine, a wonderful online resource for interesting and often controversial articles and Jewish news, has posted a podcast (you can listen here) of an interview with a Christian author who has written about the akedah from the perspective of its influence on Judaism, Christianity and Islam, particularly in the attitudes of each of these religions toward martyrdom. The podcast is long, nearly 20 minutes, but if you have the patience to listen to the whole thing I think you will find it adds to our understanding of the impact of this story.

This article in Jewcy Magazine - Son Sacrifice: Humility and the Significance of the Akedah is a good presentation of the difference between the way Americans look at this story and the way Israelis see it.

Finally, as a sort of comic relief, watch this video. I'm really curious as to your reaction.

I'd like you to think about the following questions for our conversation tomorrow. As always, I welcome your comments directly on the blog as well as in person.

  • In your opinion, why do you think the rabbis chose these two chapters to be read on Rosh HaShanah?
  • In those synagogues in which Rosh HaShanah is celebrated for one day, why do you think chapter 22 was selected?
  • What do you think about teaching this story to children? Does the age of the children affect how you will tell the story? Or if you will tell it at all?
  • Telling this story in Israel is very different from telling it in our context. Why? Do you think the way it is understood in Israel should be shared with our students here? What can our students learn about Israel and Israeli culture from this conversation? What can Israelis learn about American Jews from this conversation?
  • If you think about teaching these two chapters year after year, before every Rosh HaShanah, how do you think the teaching and learning might change from year to year?
  • Remembering that our guiding principle is that the Big Ideas in what we learn are those elements we want our students to remember after they have forgotten everything else, what do you believe is (or are) the Big Idea(s) of this Torah reading?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

If My Idea of Jewish Education Was Working, Really Working

Over the past few days I read two articles about the same subject - an effort being made to encourage the use of the Korean alphabet to write languages other than Korean. The case in point is an island in Indonesia whose inhabitants have an oral language but no written one. There is a teacher there who is writing the sounds of the language using the Korean phonetic system.

One article appeared in the Wall Street Journal and the other in the New York Times.

You may be wondering what this has to do with Jewish education, so let me clarify what I meant by the title of this post.

If my idea of Jewish education was working, really working, then the Jewishly well-educated reader of either of these articles would immediately think of Eliezer Ben Yehudah, the person who practically single-handedly led the revival of the Hebrew language in modern times.

Or perhaps the reader might think of Yiddish, the language of the Eastern European Jewish community which borrowed vocabulary from the countries in which it was spoken but was always written using Hebrew letters.

Or of Ladino, the lingua franca of the Sephardic Jews, which again borrowed much of its vocabulary from the language of the non-Jewish majority, in this case Spanish, and was also customarily written in Hebrew letters.

And in reading the version in the NY Times, the reader would also notice the information that during Japanese occupation of Korea the use of Korean was forbidden, and think - naturally - about the Romans and how they forbid study of Torah and of Hebrew, and how the language was so important as a carrier of culture that we continued to study in secret.

So what's the big idea behind this post?

We fail if the knowledge our students acquire remains sequestered behind the walls of the religious school or synagogue building.

Our success is manifest when our students use the lens of their Jewish learning to better understand the wider world in which they live, and apply the wisdom of our tradition to all their vision.