Monday, December 26, 2016

The Purposeful Journey through the "Eternal Abyss" - Gemara Study as an Exercise in עבודת השם

By: Rabbi Akiva Block, Judaic Studies Faculty

"במחשכים הושיבני כמתי עולם (איכה ג:ו)" - אמר רבי ירמיה, זו תלמודה של בבל. (סנהדרין כד.)

"God has made me dwell in darkness like the eternally dead (Eicha 3:6)" - R. Yirmiyah said, this refers to the Babylonian Talmud. (Sanhedrin 24a)

I remember vividly the first time in my life I was able to understand a passage of Gemara on my own. Not because of how smart it made me feel or how hard I worked to master it - though both were true - but because of how palpably I felt God's presence during the experience. No Artscroll, no dictionary, no teacher there to hold my hand through it; just me and my chavruta (study partner) alone in a beit midrash. Words became phrases. Phrases became sentences. Sentences became arguments and questions and answers -- and then, voila! We had ourselves a sugya, an entire passage. Admittedly, what took me literally hours then would probably take a matter of minutes today. But for as long as I live, I'll never forget the euphoric feeling I had when I finally "got it." I'd swear that, at that very moment, I could almost feel God's hand on my shoulder.

As a teacher of Torah Sheba'al Peh, I constantly struggle to make the case to my students that God is to be found in Talmud study. To be sure, there is much that stands in the way of an enjoyable high school Gemara experience, let alone a spiritually meaningful one. Whether it's the constant back and forth without ever arriving at a conclusion, the seeming irrelevance of the subject matter, the language barrier that Talmudic Aramaic presents, or the simple and inescapable fact that the words of the Gemara themselves are multiple steps removed from the revealed word of God, in contradistinction to Chumash - finding God in the convoluted and unwieldy texts of Gemara is an elusive goal indeed. 

This challenge is compounded in the mission-driven environment of SAR. In our community's unending pursuit of the Grand Conversation, one of our most sacred tasks is indeed making the case that all our learning contributes to a fuller spiritual life; that my English class can be a place for spiritual growth just like any Judaic studies class can. In many respects, we've been successful. Even if not always in practice, students at SAR understand at least in theory the concept of the Grand Conversation, and the term is bandied about in classroom discussions all throughout the building. Faculty, parents and students are attuned to the concept, which leads inexorably to our question in an even more pronounced form: what contribution can Gemara make to my religious and spiritual make up? Where is God in the study of Gemara? How is learning Gemara עבודת השם?

This question is different from the equally important question of why study Gemara. Many good answers can conceivably be given to that question that do not involve God. We can talk about how Gemara study cultivates and sharpens our critical thinking skills; we can show how Gemara trains us to look at virtually every issue from multiple perspectives, even ones that we would intuitively think are clear-cut; we can mention how understanding the inner workings of the halakha, instead of just the perfunctory dos and don'ts, immeasurably enhances our performance; we can even speak of the Talmud as informing our mission as Modern Orthodox Jews today, what Yaakov Elman incisively calls "a microcosm of Torah society in formation." But do any of these help me find God in its study?

Now that we've sufficiently developed the question, you may be surprised to discover that I have no good answer. Moments of transcendence are, by their very nature, personal. But as I think back to my experience in the beit midrash all those years ago, I am moved to ask what it was about that experience that caused me to feel God's presence.

On the one hand, perhaps, our ability to sense God in our study, any study, can be directly commensurate with our desire and willingness to do so. As Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk famously once asked his students: where is God? When they responded, "Why rebbe, God is everywhere," the rabbi said, "That is incorrect. Where is God? Wherever you let God in." If we truly wish for learning to be what Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein calls, "a dialogic encounter with Ribbono shel Olam," then the nature and extent of that encounter will be a function of our attitude. I'm not sure it had ever occurred to me before that I could feel God's presence in my learning, and therefore I had never attempted to let God in and make that a reality.

Beyond this however, what characterized that experience was that more than at any time in my life I felt as though I was a part of something larger, deeper, and richer. Although in that beit midrash on that day I didn't (yet) love learning Gemara, I realized then you don't need to love something for it to be spiritual. You do, however, have to invest in it. You have to immerse yourself in it. You have to care about it. 

And on that day, I cared. I cared enough to work hard at it, and to reflect upon the experience. There I was, having mastered a small portion of a text that has been the birthright of my people for the better part of two thousand years. I was taking my place, and have since continued to firmly entrench that place, among centuries of learners who immersed themselves in this text and made the pages of the Gemara their spiritual and intellectual home. I was learning what Jews who learn learn, what they've always learned. Even if I didn't then understand why, the sense of perspective and context that moment provided, that my world was part of a larger world that extended forth both vertically and horizontally in either direction, was more empowering and inspiring than anything I had ever felt.

And I continue to feel that way. Not all the time, perhaps not even most of the time, but on occasion, I am able to recapture the euphoria of that experience, and see yet glimpses of it in others. Aside from in my own learning, I feel it when I see students' faces light up as they finally understand a challenging passage in the Gemara, a line in Rashi, or a difficult conceptual question, all through hard work and toil. I feel it when I see and hear of parents studying Torah with their children. This, in my view, is the essence of עבודת השם.

In accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George Bush in January 1993, Ronald Reagan said of America that, "this is the land that has never become, but is always in the act of becoming." As a Gemara teacher, I have the same wish for my students; that they never become anything, but continue to engage in the act of becoming. Care about the endeavor. If learning Gemara is frustrating, keep at it. It may be hard, but, to quote Tom Hanks, it's supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it great. 

Are God and spirituality to be found in Gemara? Definitely. How? That I can't definitively say. Like many of my life's most basic and fundamental truths it is rooted more in intuition, and can't really be proven. But it's there. Would that our students care enough to keep looking...

במחשכים הושיבני. The prospect of a life of Gemara study is daunting indeed, like, R. Yirmiyah teaches us, being placed in a dark abyss. But the thing about a dark place is, when you care enough to find your way out, when you work hard and get to a point where you've let in just a bit of light, the reward and sense of accomplishment are immeasurable.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Modeling Civil Discourse in an Uncivil World

By: Dr. Rivka Schwartz, Associate Principal, General Studies

I keep telling my students not to make the mistake of thinking that this year’s campaign is typical of past presidential election cycles, which they just failed to notice because they were too young to pay attention. No, I tell them again and again, this campaign is, in many ways, unprecedented in our lifetimes. And one way, certainly, is in the ugliness and rancor it has engendered.

Polling data tells us that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the two most unpopular presidential candidates, ever. A substantial number of voters are voting against the opposing candidate more than they are voting for the one they putatively support. The rhetoric, political and otherwise, surrounding this campaign has been coarse and angry, amplified by the profusion of media outlets and the ability of social media to give voice to people with fringe views.

As educators, we have two goals in this election cycle. One is to inform students about the issues and the mechanics of how a presidential election works. (We don’t assume that our students, particularly those who have not yet studied American history, understand the arcane workings of the Electoral College.) But a second, even more important, is to model and teach engaging in civil and reasoned discourse with those with whom we disagree.

There are unfortunately few examples of this in the broader public discourse. In the quest for viewers, clicks, and retweets, confrontation and bombast are the currency. Candidates’ surrogates make their names by being provocative and combative. Calm, reasoned discussion that seeks to understand the other’s view and empathize, even as you disagree, doesn’t make for the most riveting television.

But it is vital that we teach and model this all the same, for reasons that range from the individual to the national. First, at the most fundamental level, we are trying to instill values in our students. We want them to engage the world, as the SAR mission exhorts, with humility and openness. Listening to someone else’s point of view respectfully must be part of that. Second as educators, we teach students to formulate arguments and to contend with the evidence for and against those arguments (rather than simply asserting that they are right at ever-higher volume.) One’s own position may be changed by that encounter, and, even if it is not, it is strengthened by having been tested against others’. And third, as citizens in the American body politic, we are witnessing an increasing sorting of people into like-minded communities, in the real world and online, in which they never encounter Americans of differing views. This siloing, and the divisions it reinforces, is already being felt for the worse in many ways in our national discourse and politics. For all of these reasons, it is important to encourage our students to hear each other out respectfully, and to work on expressing disagreement without delegitimation.

This ability to disagree without denying the other’s basic humanity is a value that emerges from the Talmud’s story about the canonical halakhic disputants, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. The Talmud attests that whatever their differences, they continued to marry into each others’ families. When we know each other as people--when we care about each other--even as we continue to hold our own strong points of view, we talk and think differently about those who think otherwise.

We know, too, that in most cases, Beit Hillel’s point of view is preferred to that of Beit Shammai. The Talmud, in explaining why this is so, says that Beit Hillel would study the viewpoint of Beit Shammai before studying their own. We can read this simply as courtesy on Beit Hillel’s part, but there is more here than that. In thoroughly seeking to understand the position of Beit Shammai before articulating their own, Beit Hillel ensured that their positions were tested against the strongest opposition, and their own positions were stronger and more compelling for it.

We want our students to care deeply about politics, policy issues, and election outcomes. But as we encourage them to be knowledgeable about this election and what it means for the future direction of the United States, we must work to teach and model how to disagree so fundamentally and about such important things without losing the ability to talk and listen to one another.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Avodah She-balev: Shaping the Tefillah Experience at SAR

By: Ms. Lisa Schlaff, Director of Judaic Studies

At any conference of yeshiva day school educators there is bound to be a session on the challenge of tefillah in the Modern Orthodox day school environment. And indeed, there are challenges; be it that the circadian rhythms of teenagers aren’t attuned to sof zman keriyat shema, the words are not always easily accessible, and the first period biology test is looming. But far outweighing these challenges is the import of helping our students cultivate a personal relationship with God, and acclimating them into a tefillah community. This year, our theme is Avodat Hashem, and as chazal tell us איזוהי עבודה שבלב? הוי אומר זו תפילה (Taanit 2a).

With our theme in mind, I’d like to highlight some questions we have considered in years of shaping, and reshaping, our tefillah program in school. How can we best balance communal tefillah with individual paths of connecting to God? How much voice should we give teenagers in shaping their tefillah experience? What is the best way to deepen student understanding of the words of the siddur? Below are some lessons we have learned in our attempt to answer these questions. 

I. Finding the Right Balance

A primary goal of our tefillah program is that students feel part of a tefillah community and are working together to enhance the tefillah atmosphere. As students enter high school, it is important to build upon their years of shul-going and deepen their understanding of the choreography and structure of a shul space so they can be real contributors to this environment.
Taken alone, this goal would lead us to a rather standardized tefillah structure, without room for innovation, and without taking into account individual dispositions. Perhaps the paramount question we have faced in shaping our tefillah program is how to balance this goal with the similarly crucial goal of deepening student connection to tefillah. For a large number of our students, these goals are not in conflict with each other; many students are able to find connection in the daily rhythm of a standardized tefillah. But an equally large number of our students will find connection through music, through intense focus, through slowing down the pace. How to balance?

Rather than allow students to choose alternative tefillah options when they first enter high school, we feel it is important to embed students in a standardized tefillah environment. Hence, our ninth grade spends a year davening together in a daily minyan that resembles those of most of our shuls. With this foundational experience, and as students mature, we open up alternative tefillah options to our 10th-12th graders. Over the years we have tinkered with what these options are, and how often to offer them. Here’s where we have landed: Our alternative tefillah offerings all follow the model of “tefillah with…” We have a tefillah with meditation as opposed to a meditation tefillah. We have a tefillah with explanation, as opposed to an explanatory tefillah. (Click here for a list of last year’s tefillah options). The distinction is not simply linguistic; framing the experience as “tefillah with meditation,” puts the primary emphasis on the tefillah experience. And indeed, at “tefillah with meditation,” students follow the standard matbea of tefillah, with an abridged pesukei de-zimra in order to allow time for meditation prior to shema and shmoneh esreh. The goal is that standardized tefillah is enriched by, rather than supplanted by, these optional experiences.

For this reason, we offer alternative options only three days a week over the course of fifteen weeks throughout the school year. This allows students to explore an avenue of connection without it becoming tired, and emphasizes the paramount role of community in the davening experience. As an individual I may connect in a particular way, but I cannot abandon the community to pursue my individual interest. It is our hope that this carefully calculated balance communicates the message to our students that their religious lives will, and should, always involve balance - of individual and communal needs, of keva and kavvanah.

II. The Role of Student Choice

When we started our alternative tefillah program, we knew students would appreciate being able to choose from amongst a range of offerings. What surprised us though, was how much they appreciated just having a choice - the sheer significance of the autonomy itself. Most surprising is to hear from students who do not partake of the alternative options that they love being in a school in which alternatives are offered. In affording students some choice around tefillah, we are communicating that their individual voice matters. Just as adults might choose to go to the Carlebach minyan, the Hashkama minyan, or the Standard minyan, we are entrusting students with some autonomy over their religious lives. Perhaps more significantly, such autonomy sends the message that they need to actively think about the decisions they make around tefillah; what are the ways in which I best connect? What type of davener am I? These are the types of questions we want students to deeply consider as they mature.

III. The Significance of Student Leadership
It goes without saying that an important part of our job as tefillah educators is empowering students to take leadership in the tefillah space. Conventionally, this means that students lead tefillah and serve as gabaim. In some of our most successful tefillah spaces, student leadership extends beyond that to include students giving divrei tefillah, making announcements, and ensuring that the space itself is ready and organized for tefillah. All of these roles are significant in enabling students to see themselves as active members of a tefillah community, but they are also quite narrowly defined. Last year, we started a Vaad Tefilah, in which we engaged a group of student volunteers to give us feedback about, and help us continue to shape our tefillah program. At Vaad meetings, we invited students to wrestle with big questions embedded in the communal tefillah experience; How can we best engage those to whom tefillah does not come naturally? What is the appropriate balance between explanation of tefillah and tefillah itself? How can we ensure that tefillah itself is smooth and held to a high standard, while also affording a wide range of students the chance to lead, learn and grow? The Vaad provided us with an opportunity to push students to deal with core issues in communal tefillah, and in doing so, imagine themselves as future tefillah leaders in our community. We began the Vaad last year as a series of conversations, and look forward this year to its next steps as we implement ideas together with students.

IV. Tefillah Education outside of the Tefillah Space
Over the years we have become increasingly aware of the difficulty of containing goals for tefillah only within the forty minute space of daily davening. We have added a beit midrash curriculum for ninth grade which centers around biur tefillah - understanding the words. We have designated a faculty member to teach shaliach tzibbur skills to students during lunch or a free.
In our theme kickoff program on September 15th, we will be learning about how the concept of Avodat Hashem plays out in our Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur tefillot. If we are serious about creating a tefillah mindset, tefillah cannot live in an isolated space, but needs to permeate school culture.


What all of these initiatives share is a fundamental approach to tefillah as a classroom space. Just as in our classrooms we set goals, ask how we can achieve them for a heterogenous group of students, allow students to help shape their experiences, and engage students in big questions, we should aim to do the same for tefillah. There remains a tremendous amount of work to do to further our tefillah goals, and we are proud to engage with a group of people - both faculty and students - who are excited and invigorated by this work.