Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Maker and the Finder

         I recently "found" a book that's been on my bookshelf for years but that I've never "made" time to read.  Forty pages into Richard Rorty's, Contingency, irony, and solidarity, my only regret is that I didn't read it years ago when I purchased it. I'm consoled by the profound joy of reading it now. As I read I carry with me the wonderful memory of studying with Rorty as an undergraduate. I can vividly picture his always purple button down shirt (worn to each class) and can hear the sound of change jingling in his pocket-- an unconscious habit that contrasted humorously with his intensely brilliant lecturing. This book is one of those books that, by the time I'm done with it, will be mostly highlighted. This means one of two things: 1) I don't know how to highlight or, 2) it's absolutely brilliant. Among the many highlighted passages there's one that stands out to me at this exact moment as I think about the nature of liberal Judaism in the world today.
         In describing Nietzche's contribution to a postmodern understanding of the contingency of selfhood, Rorty writes, "They [certain philosophers that Rorty praises] accept Nietzche's identification of the strong poet, the maker, as humanity's hero-- rather than the scientist, who is traditionally pictured as a finder" (Rorty, 1989, p. 24).
         The maker categorically rejects the temptation to inherit. She resists the temptation to define herself using someone else's language. She refuses to copy, to adopt, and to conform. She'd rather be a misunderstood or failed metaphor than an already dead metaphor. Novelty is her aspiration, redefinition and redescription are her aims. She strives, she smashes idols, and is relentless in her pursuit of new language to describe her selfhood and her place in the world. Unavailable to her are all previous attempts at articulating meaning-- religion, philosophy, theology, metaphysics, science. If it's been done then it cannot be made, only remade, remixed, reiterated. The maker's task is to do something new.
        The finder seeks patterns, looks for evidence that will help evolve theory into law. She isn't necessarily a  metaphysician, priest, or positivist, but she isn't emphatically opposed to the idea of inherited wisdom. She remains open to the possibility that meaning is "out there" and that wisdom can be sought, heard, and integrated into the tapestry of her life.

         If liberal Judaism and Judaism generally is to survive then we need both makers and finders. 

        Judaism is fairly comfortable with finders. Our tradition teaches, hafoch bah d'chuleh bah ("turn the Torah over and over for everything is within it). Clearly the finder's orientation sits comfortably within the paramaters of the Jewish hermeneutical tradition. When it comes to makers Judaism is decidedly more ambivalent, even antagonistic.  Hadash asur min ha-Torah ("innovation is prohibited by the Torah")-- a famous teaching of the Chatam Sofer (18th-19th century rabbi) the 18th-19th conveys this antagonism. Given Judaism's enduring commitment to Torah and the rich traditions associated with Jewish history and practice, the question of how to embrace "makers" is both sincere and significant.
         The most obvious way of incorporating makers into the Jewish story is to point out that they've always been there. The three Moses'-- Moshe Rabbenu, Moses Maimonides (Rambam), and Moses Mendelssohn (the great Enlightenment philosopher) come to mind. More recently, the work of Jewish feminists such as Rachel Adler also come to mind, as does the work of GLBT oriented rabbis like Rabbi Josh Lesser of Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta, GA (where I live and work). I'd like to think that the album of original Jewish music I'm currently recording and producing is an example of "making." In other words, there's no shortage of "makers" in the context of Jewish history.
          Another way of thinking about the role of "making" in Judaism stems from the traditional idea of Midrash. Midrash comes from the Hebrew root doresh which means "to seek." Finding and making are two different and complimentary ways of seeking, of doing midrash. The finders task is analytical-- she scrutinizes, reviews, deciphers, and unpacks. The makers task is constructive-- building, innovating, and creating. The finder uses a microscope and the maker uses a telescope. The finder understands that interpretation is a never ending process. The maker understands that vision and novelty are the guarantors that the Jewish future is even more vibrant than the past.
          There's much more that could be said about makers and finders. We'll leave it here for now with the intent of returning to explore the dialectical relationship with fresh eyes sometime in the future.

Science Fiction Torah

"'Is it possible for me to understand?'

'Oh, yes. Many could understand it. What people do with understanding is a different matter.'

'Will you teach me what to do?'

'You already know.'"

-Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune

          As a side note I must recommend the first four books of the Dune series to anyone who is even remotely what one might call a "sci-fi" buff. Of course if you read any science fiction then you already know what I'm talking about. For the uninitiated, there's nothing quite like reading Dune. The fourth book, which is quoted above, has as its protagonist (possibly villian, I'm not quite done reading it) none other than (a/the) God. I'm sitting here trying to think of any books besides Dune and the Bible for which this is the case. Forget science fiction, if you're interested in religion, theology, or philosophy it's a must read. 

        I'm not going to bother trying to contextualize the passage from the book. Instead, I want to appropriate it, as it's a useful frame for thinking about education in general and Jewish education in particular. 

        1. "Is it possible for me to understand?" The last thing I want to do is strip Judaism of its nuances, complexities, paradoxes, and mystery. At the same time, more of us need to embrace the Deuteronomic concept of lo bashamayim hee (lit: "it is not in heavens..."). Judaism is a here and now faith. It's a religion of "whatcha gonna do next." It's a "what are you waiting for" way of living each day. Judaism is all about empowerment. There's no limit to how much you can learn or how masterful your command of tradition can be-- and that's empowering. At the same time, there's a lot you can do with even the slightest motivation-- this too is empowering. And while there's a lot of levels of understanding it is emphatically, undeniably, 100% possible to understand. 

        2. "What people do with understanding is a different matter." The Hebrew word for understanding is havanah. The Hebrew word for intention is cavanah.  While these words sound the same, and are transliterated into English using many of the same letters beware-- they are in fact different concepts. Havanah and canavah are not always mutually reinforcing concepts. There are many things that many people understand. However our actions are more less likely to be driven by our havanah than our cavanah. Understanding is critically important, especially given our unique nature as rational beings. But cavanah will always play a more fundamental role in determining how we live each moment. As Jews we are committed to havanah and cavanah. Let us pray for the wisdom to unite these two ways of knowing so that we may live lives of purposeful conduct. 

        3. "Will you teach me what to do?" There's a lot of wisdom floating around out there about the nature of education and how learning occurs. One area of profound consensus is that the openness to learning and the hunger to learn are preconditions for meaningful and transformative development to occur. As educators our role is twofold in this regard: 1) to kindle, or at least keep alive, the innate flame within every person that yearns to know, understand, learn and grow, and 2) to honor the student who comes to us with this question. If we can rise to the occasion of this question guiding our students beyond what they currently can do to that which they are capable of doing with our care, guidance, and teaching, then we're doing sacred work. 

        4. "You already know." While learning is about journeying into foreign lands, both literally and metaphorically, it's also about coming home. The wisdom we encounter in the world around us often resides within us as well. Creation is our mirror, showing us something that we can grasp because we are a part of it, and it is already within us, or least the capacity to grasp is already within us. While our students will surely grow weary if the response to every earnest question is "You already know" they will more quickly learn to draw on the vast resources that constitute their innate humanity if we lovingly throw the ball back into their court every now and again.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Cultivating a Spiritual Life

Lately I've been thinking and reading about spiritual growth. I've been thinking about it primarily in the context of my work as a Jewish educator with a focus on early adolescent spiritual growth. Thus far my thinking has been all about questions. What do people mean (what do I mean) by spiritual growth? What exactly is it that does the growing or developing? How does the spirit develop? Does the spirit develop in ways that can be assessed, studied, and replicated? What sociocultural "tools" (in the Marxist/Vygotskian/ Geertzian sense of the term) promote spiritual growth? What role do educators play in promoting spiritual growth for early adolescents? How can educators be most efficacious in terms of promoting spiritual growth for early adolescents? What kinds of educative experiences impact the spiritual lives of early adolescents? What milieus in the Jewish world today are most well-suited to support adolescent spiritual development? What specifically Jewish cultural tools can be resources for promoting spiritual growth in adolescents (i.e. tefilah, Hebrew language, Torah study, Israel experiences, summer camp, Jewish day school education, synagogues, youth groups, tikkun olam projects)?

Obviously I'm starting from the assumption that spiritual development is important-- for children, adolescents, and adults. I'm also assuming that spirituality is something that can be learned, transmitted, and acquired and that adults (educators in particular) have a responsibility to support and challenge young people to grow spiritually and not only cognitively, emotionally, and physically. In terms of Judaism I'm assuming that spiritual growth is part of living a vibrant Jewish life-- that is to say that Judaism condones and values spirituality and that spirituality can be achieved within the cultural framework of Judaism (as opposed to arguing that spirituality and religiosity are somehow at odds with one another).

I know that there are lots of great people out there who are working on the question of adolescent spirituality both within and beyond the Jewish community. I also know that a better understanding of this issue would help educators (would help me ) feel like I could assess whether my efforts and those of my colleagues are on the right track in terms of promoting spiritual growth for the young people that I have the honor and joy of educating in my capacity as a teacher and rabbi. If you've read this far and can think of people I should reach out to, please share their contact information or encourage them to reach out to mlapidus@davisacademy.org.