Debate - The Key to Nurturing Lifelong Engagement with God

Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi

How, then, should one teach God in a Jewish day school? How might a school foster a sense of engagement with these different sensibilities in a way that might nurture a student’s personal spiritual quest?

We know that a Jewish education is the education of a soul—an education for a full engagement with all the aspects of Judaism that will provide a meaningful foundation throughout the lives of the students and their families. In addition to teaching the prayers of the various prayer books and the weekly Torah portions and the holidays—no small thing—perhaps a recurring focus on a few foundational texts that inspire debate and model the core elements of what scholars call our “interpretive culture” can lead to very different kinds of discussions over time. And perhaps these kinds of discussions and debates, when nestled in an environment where Jewish learning and praying are modeled and encouraged will, over time, allow for a deeper and more personal engagement with the larger lifelong questions of ultimate relevance: How do I understand my role in the world? What does God/the Jewish people want from me?

For even if our students pray, celebrate Shabbat and holidays or relate to Israel in very different ways, there is one thing that we can and have always found a way to do together: engage with and interpret the sacred texts of our tradition. At the heart of what makes us who we are, regardless of our halakhic or Zionist commitments, is that we are all engaged with text as the heart of who we have been and who we are. A culture of interpretation and debate makes us who we are. Without a full soulful and personal engagement with Judaism and Jewish texts in this way, a commitment to Jewish identity and peoplehood will be likely and less compelling in the postmodern reality in which we now live.

We have developed a culture of interpretation and debate that seeks to inspire its young students to engage with the text not because they have to but because it is simply so interesting and so compelling to be part of it. Inviting out students, from the youngest ages, to interpret and think about some core texts repeatedly will help initiate them into a culture of interpretation. But it could be even more interesting if we could also instill in our students, their families, and the wider community a healthy spirit of the culture of pluralistic debate in a way that engages minds and souls as they develop and grow. This is the unique role that a school can play in a community.

Might each of our students, at each and every stage of their development, not be able to grasp that there is more than one way of understanding God? That we that we know that there is more than one way of understanding what God wants of us? That God is always beckoning us to engage with sacred texts and with what a real presence of God in our lives, whoever we are and however old we are, might mean?

Three essential and foundational texts might form the basis for a more complex engagement with God and Jewish identity if their multiple interpretations and the questions that emerge from them might serve as a chorus throughout the life of a school. Of course there are many different texts that we might consider, but let us consider three possibilities: Genesis 1-2, Genesis 12 and Exodus 19. Each one captures the imagination, asks profound questions about identity and God, and about the nature of our role in the world.

In fact, even a preliminary study of the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis reveals two contrasting and conflicting stories about the creation of humanity, the role of each gender, and our respective roles in the world. Genesis 1:27 speaks of creation as a simultaneous creation of male and female: “And God created the human being in God’s own image, in the image of God created the human being, him; male and female God created them (zakhar unekeivah bara otam).” Here, both male and female are created in the image of God, while Genesis 2:21-23 tells of a lonely Adam created as a single human being unable to find true community among the animal kingdom. In this better-known narrative God causes a “deep sleep to fall upon the man … and took one of his ribs… and made a woman.” The first story is one of male and female being created simultaneously in the image of God with a shared purpose, while the second story tells of the secondary creation of woman to be man’s “help-mate” (ezer kenegdo).

These two narratives at the outset of Genesis, the beginning of it all, teach very different ideas about creation, gender and God’s expectations of us. They also demonstrate that our complex relationship with God begins at the very moment of the creation of humanity. Each story reveals God’s incredible confidence in humanity, how God sought to give us stewardship and power and responsibility for the world. It is a fundamental aspect of God and at the core of Jewish theology. But what does it mean today to take responsibility?

If our role in the world and with God is sometimes unclear and changing, isn’t it important to show how our most sacred texts in the very first chapters model those dilemmas? Indeed, if we are a reflection of God, created in God’s image, there must be both masculine and feminine elements in God, and perhaps in each of us. This nuanced interpretation might open conversations that both support and yet can also soften the absolute binary nature of how identity and gender play out in an educational setting.

If gender and identity are at the forefront of how we think about the development of our young people, isn’t it powerfully engaging to study the different models portrayed in these first chapters? Why are both narratives maintained and what might they continue to teach us today about what it means to be a human being and what kinds of relationships we might have with God and with others? In God and in us there are multiple possibilities. Perhaps such conversations might allow a young person to find themselves included rather than excluded from the tradition and our interpretive culture.

While the traditional commentators resolve the conflicts of Genesis 1-2 in different ways, we can embrace and model the best of an interpretive culture: a culture that embraces and doesn’t shut down debate. The mishnaic idea of a debate, a machloket “for the sake of heaven” (le-shem shamayim; Avot 5:17), is balanced with the caution that there are some debates that are destructive. The challenge of a community school-based encouragement of a healthy pluralistic culture of debate is significant. But to fail to encourage a culture of discussing competing interpretations only offers a Judaism that will be deficient and certainly less compelling as students grow and encounter new questions about identity and commitment.

But the engaging and compelling and conflicting narratives of creation are only one example of texts that when revisited, reinterpreted and debated can help nurture an emerging Jewish identity. Consider next the complex notion of God’s covenant established and re-established with the Jewish people. In Genesis 12:1-2, God calls to Abraham, “Go forth,” Lech lecha… to a new land, to be the father of a new people, and to “be a blessing” ve-heyeh brachah. This seminal moment in our emergence is at once incredibly dramatic, powerful and unclear. What does it mean to “be a blessing”? What should that mean at every stage of development? And yet a much more all-encompassing covenant is later established and re-established with the Jewish people at Sinai in the book of Exodus 19. These foundational texts have had very different interpretations in different ages and for different communities. Indeed, the foundations of Jewish thought and identity throughout the ages have revolved around these three texts and their interpretations and applications.

In a pluralistic setting there may be multiple morning minyanim /prayer groups in addition to all the measurable educational goals that a Jewish day school seeks to achieve. Yet teaching, modeling and nurturing the development of a child’s spirituality is not easy. Teaching a pluralistic theology and nurturing spirituality in a Jewish community day school context demands that the combination of text study, Hebrew, prayer and celebration each allow for different ways of understanding ourselves spiritually as part of a people.

Day schools have to be the environment where the machloket about God and about Jewish peoplehood are alive. We have the chance to constantly model how engaged adults continue to be in these primal narratives and how many different legitimate interpretations can be embraced simultaneously. While we work hard to ensure that all the teaching of Hebrew, Torah, Rashi is excellent, it should all be seen as preparation to be part of the Jewish people. Knowledge is one tool that students develop which can later allow for the capacity to take part in our ongoing machloket, that great eternal Jewish engagement with the text and with the world. It’s a kind of depth of engagement that ensures that Judaism isn’t just a pediatric endeavor but constantly demonstrates how profoundly important it is at all stages of life.

Integrating these aspects into the education of the development of young people might make some uncomfortable. Discussion and debate may not always lead to easy consensus. But they will cause us all to think and feel more deeply what it means to be Jewish. Knowing how much room there is for the questions and struggles of the individual in an ancient and modern and wildly complex Jewish culture of interpretation and debate is probably one of the most important goals we might have for an education that will penetrate and remain deep within a student from kindergarten into adulthood.

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi PhD is the national director of recruitment and admissions, president’s scholar, and director of the office of community engagement at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati; she is the scholar-in-residence this year for RAVSAK’s Project Sulam Alumni. [email protected]

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HaYidion The God Issue Spring 2015
The God Issue
Spring 2015