HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Beit Knesset as Theology Laboratory

by Tsafi Lev Issue: The God Issue
TOPICS : Pedagogy Tefillah

The model for Jewish learning was articulated for us in the wilderness of Sinai: Na’aseh ve-nishma. The usual understanding of this famous line is that we will “do” and then come to “understand,” even if in other situations we try to understand something before with do it. But why insist on the sequencing of doing and understanding or understanding then doing at all? I now read the verse prescriptively: We can and should practice and learn simultaneously.

Specific classroom teachings about theology can be shown to directly connect to specific parts of the liturgy, forging a connection between intellectual learning and active awareness of God. This can be done when tefillah leaders highlight and reinforce theoretical paradigms about God first introduced in the classroom into the service at calculated moments. Specificity is key, requiring careful pairing of teachings with particular parts of the liturgy, forging a connection between intellectual learning and active awareness of God.

It is helpful to have a multiplicity of teachings about God to draw upon. For example, in my theology classes, we’ve explored the notions of omniscience and omnipotence. We have talked about and written personal responses to the nature of the “Mysterium Tremendum.” Students have related parts of their personal lives in the language of Buber’s I and Thou, Heschel’s Radical Amazement, and the Lure of Process Theology. Each of these paradigms is likely first experienced by the student as purely intellectual, i.e., as material to jot down, understand, memorize, and be tested upon. Exposing the students to this material in the classroom is like providing them with the bricks that will eventually build a road leading to an encounter with the Divine.

Here are some examples of bringing the classroom into the service, drawing upon my dual experiences as theology instructor and tefillah facilitator.

When I teach a unit on Baruch Spinoza and the Zohar’s concept of God as Ein Sof (Infinity) in the classroom, in that week’s tefillah I like to describe God in that same way prior to the Shema. “The Shema is more than a declaration of faith, it is an insight into the nature of the universe. For God to truly be ‘One,’ God is indivisible. As we say these six words of oneness, contemplate the possibility of a powerful interconnectivity between yourself and all people and things. This was Spinoza’s God, it might be yours. Try it on.”

It may be that only the students in my senior theology class know about a particular theory, but the rapt and specific attention of the few at key moments in tefillah is enough to focus the others. Meaning, purpose, and the idea are being considered. In this brief moment, a classroom discussion where students personally invested time, energy and opinion enters into a community prayer setting. As you might expect, we circle back to that moment in the next class meeting. The benefit of the classroom over the synagogue setting is that big ideas, even ideas as big as “God,” can be explored in conversation, and not just mentioned in passing through page 65 of the siddur.

When some of our students return from an extended visit to Israel, we welcome them back with the blessing of Shehechiyanu. Buber’s language of I-Thou fits nicely here: we have God between us. At Chanukkah, I like to use Heschel’s language of Radical Amazement. “The mitzvah of Hanukkah is pirsumei nissa, sharing the miraculous nature of God. Can we notice a touchpoint of God, the Mysterium Tremendum, in everything and at every moment?” Jacob had to actually run into God (Va-yifga ba-makom) before he noticed that God had been with him the whole time. In tefillah, I can teach that the miraculous is all around us if we allow ourselves to notice.

God of Process Theology, God as the Lure, fits nicely in the silent section of the Amidah. “Which of the blessings recited spoke to you the most? It did so because there is something going on in your life that has something to do with that blessing. Focus on just that one blessing. A reasonable personal prayer can be for clarity to hear the Lure of God call you to your best possible choice in the issue you have been thinking about.”

Beit Knesset becomes the experiential aspect of our learning; it moves us past theory into practice. As it turns out, theology is like biology: both are better taught with a lab.


Tsafi Lev is a Rabbis Without Borders fellow and the rabbinic director at New Community Jewish High School (soon to be de Toledo High School) in West Hills, California. tlev@faculty.ncjhs.org

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The God Issue

In Jewish tradition, God alone is the Creator of all and the ultimate embodiment of unity, Oneness. In the 21st century Jewish community, however, God can often be a source of contention and divisiveness. Our community is far from united around questions of God's existence, nature and way of acting, the ways that we can understand God and relate to God. The authors in this issue approach the Big Questions from a wide variety of perspectives and thinkers, but they are united in their concern to bring the God Issue within the classrooms and halls of Jewish day schools.

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