In 1913 a young Jewish student sent a most disturbing letter to his parents about his intentions to convert to Christianity. In this letter, the student, Franz Rosenzweig, expressed his belief in G-d and at the same time related that he was desperately searching for ways to feed his spiritual soul. His parents lived a typical German Jewish lifestyle that included full membership in the local kehillah and temple attendance three times a year. However, the Jewish education that his parents provided left young Franz hungry and frustrated, and this painful letter describes his genuine search for spiritual sustenance.
HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Faith is the most elusive quality to inculcate, the hardest to measure. Yet at some level, everything Jewish day schools seek to achieve depends upon it. The sense of belonging and connection that is fundamental to Jewish identity resides, at heart, in a sense of emunah, of trust and belief in something larger than ourselves. This issue considers factors that nourish Jewish faith of different kinds.
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Many years ago I had a conversation with a fellow Judaic studies teacher that touched on the topic of nurturing faith. She had asked me for some teaching advice and rabbinic sources with which to teach her Tanakh classes. As we were discussing our respective teaching styles, she declared that she felt that it was her mission as a Judaic studies teacher to instill in her students a belief in G-d and in the divinity of the Torah. I did not respond but her comment troubled me for some time afterwards as I considered her words.
High school religious educators face a population whose spiritual development is very much in flux. The high school years, for some students, are the nadir of religious behavior and spiritual receptivity. Our project “Religious Understanding in Adolescent Children” (RUACH), generously supported by the AVI CHAI Foundation, as well as years of experience as psychologists and educators in Jewish schools and communities, has helped us appreciate the nature of adolescent spirituality. A better understanding of adolescent spirituality is particularly important in light of reports that, relative to other religions, American Jewish adolescents ranked lowest in religious vitality and the importance of their religion’s spirituality to their identities.
At the open house for prospective kindergarten families at a pluralistic community day school, a young father asked, “Can you guarantee that my daughter will come out Orthodox at the end of her nine years here? This is very important to my family.” His anxiety is understandable. This young father felt that his daughter’s exposure to multiple expressions of Judaism threatened his family’s religious identity. With so many models of Judaism expressed within the school, something outside of his family’s practice may have a significant impact on his four-year old daughter’s Jewish identity. This article explores the diversity of religious beliefs and practices among community day school teachers and suggests ways that this diversity can support the growth of our students’ religious identity.
This column features books, articles and websites, recommended by our authors and people from the RAVSAK network, pertaining to the theme of the current issue of HaYidion for readers who want to investigate the topic in greater depth.
As we have all come to expect, RAVSAK does not shy away from taking on challenging and tricky topics. This issue of HaYidion on faith is yet another example of this. When you look the word up in the dictionary two meanings strike me in particular:
Like many heads of Jewish community day schools, I come to my position via a circuitous route, in my case a doctorate in Spanish literature. In my favorite book, Cervantes’ Don Quijote, the self-defined knight of the title makes himself a helmet out of pasteboard. He tests it by slashing it with his sword, destroying it in the process. He then rebuilds it, and rather than testing it, places it confidently on his head, declaring it “a work of the most perfect construction.” Such is the difference between science and faith.
How can Jewish educational leaders reach teens who are often distrustful of institutionalized religion and highly individualistic, with contradictory and fluid personal identities? A recent article described a young Jewish girl as “a hetero, eco-feminist, vegan, Jewish, history major.” Another article refers to “Grande Soy Vanilla Latte with Cinnamon, No Foam” Jews.
Stories have an unusual capacity to live within us in a way that abstract principles do not. They touch our hearts with messages our minds can only distantly grasp, and create a bridge that allows our most profound ideas to make their way into our lives. I believe this is what the Sages meant when they said that if someone wants to acquire wisdom they should learn halachah, but if they want to fear G-d, to develop the emotional and spiritual capacity to experience the divine, they need to learn aggadah (Avot deRabbi Natan, chapter 29), the parables and stories of the Oral Torah. Faith is nurtured through stories.
Scientists believe that music is one of the oldest human creations. Apart from the millennia-old flutes and harps that have been discovered among archaeological finds, some anthropologists believe that music was a precursor to speech, that humans used music to communicate moods and even specific information long before there were words to express precise ideas. For a people as connected to the text as we Jews are, that’s a powerful notion, theologically affirmed by the sentiments of Psalm 150 encouraging all manner of music-making in order to praise G-d.
As a high school Jewish studies teacher, and a subsequent Jewish studies curriculum developer, I have long been troubled by the question of how we educate students towards growth in religiosity, particularly in the area of Jewish belief and practice. Curriculum models have been designed which focus on student attainments in the domains of Jewish studies knowledge and skills. But in the affective domain, for example, educating towards belief and faith in G-d, it is far more difficult both to educate and to measure the impact of our teaching on our students’ lives.
The whole notion of faith has been a difficult one to understand and to define, let alone to teach or to nurture. Since the age of enlightenment (and in other points in the development of Jewish thought) the hitherto assumed notion of faith has been disintegrating. As more and more people question religion, G-d, halakhah, and biblical authorship, the whole concept of faith has lost much of its stronghold. Even defining what faith is becomes challenging: are we assuming that faith is belief in G-d? What if one does not accept the existence of G-d? Is faith a declaration of a belief in personal providence? Even those who accept the idea of G-d may feel uncomfortable stating unequivocally that G-d has a hand in one’s day to day existence. And yet, in looking at the enduring history of the Jewish people, most would agree that faith has been a major ingredient in ensuring the survival of Jews, their traditions and culture.
Over the past two centuries, a new kind of historical study has emerged in the Jewish world. As described elegantly by Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi in his book Zakhor, this new historical study has critically reexamined and reassessed aspects of the Jewish past, in the process often confronting and contradicting many of the traditions sacred to Jewish memory. Like so much else in Jewish life over the ages, this new development has not been self-generated from within the Jewish world; it is the result of the broad tendency in the modern West to investigate anew historical realities and—in the process—to subvert traditional thinking. The more firmly Jews have engaged and absorbed modern Western thinking, the more intense the Jewish commitment to critical historical study has become. Today, there are major centers of Jewish historical scholarship all across North America, in the State of Israel, and in many European countries. The products of this scholarship are diffused far and wide throughout all these settings and regularly involve reassessment of traditional Jewish convictions about the past.
How ironic that Jews, who brought the knowledge of G-d to the world, are willing to talk openly about anything and everything—except their relationship with G-d. I have been intensively exploring the challenges of developing a personal relationship with G-d during the last several years. The following reflects a summary of what I have learned during this endeavor. There is good news and bad news.
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