As a card carrying member of our school’s “Grand Conversation” club, I embrace the idea that my English classes-- and not just my Jewish Philosophy classes-- must become spaces for spiritual as well as academic growth. I foreground this value in the work I assign, the conversations we have, and the language I use. I am not uncomfortable with this emphasis, and I do not ask myself whether to present my classroom as a space for spiritual growth; in fact, this emphasis is part of why I am so proud to teach at SAR. I do wonder, however, about the language with which I introduce this emphasis.
An example: I have a student who excels at giving feedback to his peers. When his classmates share their work, he is often the first to offer praise, which he does with an open heart, out of a genuine desire to express his admiration. Watching him respond to his classmates, I am aware of how he helps transform our class into a sacred space, a space of listening and connection. Moved by his comments, and picking up on our school’s religious guidance theme this year, I finally said: “I am so impressed by the anava you show when you support your classmates.” And while true and good and relevant, this response did little to direct our sensibilities toward greater religious wakefulness; rather, it was more of a feel-good moment, a pat-yourself-on-the-back moment. As a response, I worry that it left us feeling far too comfortable to be meaningful in a lasting way.
I imagine what it might have felt like to respond more directly, to say, “when you speak to your classmates soul-to-soul, like you just did, you bring God into our classroom and make it a more holy space.” I am less comfortable speaking this way, and I think my students would be less comfortable if I spoke to them this way. This language feels paradoxically familiar and distant. On the one hand, I am an English speaker through and through; English is the language that most directly expresses my inner world. On the other hand, both because of this directness, as well as because of its associations with the Christian world, this language makes me uncomfortable. It is both too intimate and too foreign.
In my classes, however, discomfort is a powerful tool; in its absence, there is no growth. If I want my students to really hear the message of the Grand Conversation, then I need to frame it in terms that make them uncomfortable-- and, certainly, my own discomfort is a good litmus test for theirs.
In this spirit, I recently decided to start using the word “God” in lieu of “Hashem”; I just don’t think “Hashem” is as potent. “Hashem” is so axiomatic that it is almost idiomatic. As a word, it folds into our Jewish discourse so naturally, it tends to slip by without challenging me. Worse still, I worry that it is too easy for me to hide behind “Hashem”; the rhetoric of frumkeit sometimes obfuscates spirituality. “God,” by contrast, is comparatively startling. I can’t help but look at it. On some level, I associate “God,” as a word, with the Tim Tebows of the world, neither Jewish enough nor sophisticated enough. But it is precisely because of these associations that I want to start using the word “God” in my classes.
In Baba Bathra, Rav Shesheth is described as believing that although the Shechinah is in all places, when he davened he used to say to his attendant: “ ‘Set me facing any way except the east.’ And this was not because the Shechinah is not there, but because the Minim prescribe turning to the east.” Rav Shesheth’s view symbolically prioritizes the promotion of religious truth over the representation, in our tefillah stance, of God’s omnipresence. This perspective, however, simultaneously creates a symbolic space empty of God’s presence; in the east, we do not see God, because we are reluctant to look for God there.
I am not interested in becoming what my father would have called a “holy roller,” so invested in the rhetoric of God’s presence that it becomes comical. But I am invested in the productive discomfort that might arise in my classes when I direct my students gaze toward God, as well as my own, in a more self-conscious manner. I worry that the academic routines and demands that are the necessary backdrop of my classes willy nilly transform them into a space in which we fail to look for God, analogous to Rav Shesheth’s “east.” I do not want to abdicate the potentially sacred spaces of my classrooms.
The question, then, is not theological but strategic; what words can best direct our attention to God’s presence in our classrooms? Perhaps more broadly stated, how can we speak in a way that brings God more fully into our world?