How personally do you take God? Does God matter to you on a daily, tangible basis? If you work in an elementary school, like I do, chances are your middle to older students take God very personally. What they feel about God is different from their kindergarten wonder or first grade awe, and it might surprise you.
HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
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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I am a rabbinical student, deeply passionate about creating truly inclusive and accessible Jewish communities in which all Jews can find a spiritual home, and in which we can all bring our full selves to bear on the life of our community. I want to create communities in which the perspectives and lived experiences of all of us, particularly those of us who find ourselves on the margins, bring added depth and richness to all of our lives. I also happen to be the first blind woman, as far as I know, to attend a rabbinical school.
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.
In focusing on God, HAYIDION does not presume to answer the Big Question, the one even God couldn’t answer.
“If you want to save the Jewish future, you have to build Jewish day schools—there is no other way.” - Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Shalom School is a small community school serving students early childhood through 6th grade. For the past several years, grade-level classroom tefillah has been complemented by twice-weekly all school prayer experiences: a Shacharit service on Monday mornings and a Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday afternoons. In preparation for this school year, we identified a goal of enriching and reinvigorating the prayer and spiritual experiences for our older students, those in grades 4-6. We began with a new, weekly Minchah service for those students.
My favorite part of my job is reading my 8th graders’ theology papers, and especially their God Talk Responses. God Talk is a speaker series that I run as part of theology. It was not my idea, but I have worked hard to make it a powerful part of my course. Eighteen or so times during the year I welcome a speaker into the class to share their spiritual journey with my students. The speaker might be Jewish, about half the speakers are, or perhaps Wiccan or Bahai.
Students analyzed Yaakov’s and Moshe’s first individual encounters with God. They were then asked to imagine what their encounter with the divine would look like, and could do so using any medium. They would need to explain the meaning behind the symbolic language, actions and objects that might be present in their encounter. –Tamar Rabinowitz, Jewish Studies Teacher
Like many other Jewish early childhood educators, Hadas feels a deep sense of satisfaction upon hearing her students sing with gusto and excitement the words from Birkat Hamazon. One rainy Monday morning Hadas shared with the youngsters the meaning of this blessing and told them how grateful we are for the food that God has provided for us, and for other people around the world. As soon as Hadas completed her explanation, she noticed that Liora, a most curious and articulate youngster, was anxiously awaiting the opportunity to speak. In a halting and cautious voice, Liora queried: “Morah Hadas, didn’t you say that we thank God for giving food to everyone in the world?” Hadas immediately responded, “Of course, that’s what we say with the words ‘Hazan et hakol.’” Liora’s voice rose with excitement: “Well, last night I saw a program that showed people who don’t have food to feed their children. What about them?”
“Why should I study Tanakh if I don’t believe in God?”
“I study the Bible for its ethical teachings but I don’t believe in God.”
“I figure God is just a character in the story. The whole thing is fiction…a great story.”
As educators, we believe that there is no subject that should not be discussed. God’s existence and character—or his absence—are issues that occupy children whether they are religious or secular. In Israeli education, both religious and secular, talk about God is unacceptable. Religious education takes God for granted, while secular education, based on a consciously secular humanistic worldview, has lacked any traditional perception of God’s existence in the world. As far as we know, there is almost no facilitated discussion about God in staff rooms in Israel, either in the regular school systems or in joint education schools (with a mix of secular and religious students). Discussion of God is thus potentially a new experience for Israeli teachers.
I would like to begin with a chasidic story I shared with my students.
Rebbe Barukh’s grandson, Yechiel, came running into his study, in tears. “Yechiel, Yechiel, why are you crying,” asked his grandfather. His sobbing grandson explained,“I was playing hide and seek with my friend, but he stopped looking for me and left me alone.” Rebbe Barukh caressed Yechiel’s face, and with tears welling up in his eyes, he whispered softly, “God too Yechiel, God too is weeping. For, He too has been hidden with no one looking for Him.” (Adapted from Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim I)
How do we talk about G-d in a pluralistic Jewish day school? I teach at a day school in Central North Carolina that caters to the communities of Durham, Chapel Hill, and Raleigh. We are the only Jewish day school in the area, and as such have a diverse population of students who reflect multiple denominations of Judaism. In addition, we are located near several important research universities and have many parents who are vocal and open with their children about their own personal beliefs or lack of beliefs about G-d.
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