One quick note before I dive into weightier comments…
…I was equal parts delighted and mortified when my last blog post became fodder for a Seventh Grade Language Arts lesson in my own school. On the one hand, I am glad that my topic was interesting enough that it was worth our seventh graders’ time (that’s a tough audience!). On the other hand, I was not expecting them to come back with notes!
Not only did I have have spelling errors (since corrected and re-posted) but I may (or may not) have mistakenly used an image I did not have permission to use (research continues). It is now part of a fascinating ongoing conversation in the Middle School, integrated between many topics, about fair use of copyrighted images on blogs and web pages. [Hopefully it will not lead to any legal action!] It serves as yet another powerful reminder of what happens when you marry technology, collaboration, and student interest. All of this serves as preamble to this blog post…not that I hope this blog post is full of spelling errors to be corrected, I’ll surely do a better spell-check this time, but I hope that my own students (CAN YOU HEAR ME EIGHTH GRADERS?) might take a peek at this one as well.
I have three very different opportunities to teach in our school on a weekly basis. One that I have described before, but have not done due justice yet on the blog, is my weekly “Parent University” course for parents in the Day School. A lot of what happens in that class informs my blog and vice versa, and I will (promise!) soon dedicate some blog space to articulating more clearly, with more detail, and with lots of links what happens during the class so that parents, supporters and any interested party who is unable to be with us physically can be part of the experience. Additionally, I also have the pleasure of teaching tefillah (prayer) once a week to our First Grade. Finally, each Wednesday I have an opportunity to teach our Middle School (as part of a rotation of teachers) about tefillah.
I love teenagers. Really. I love their honesty, their searching, their shyness, their cynicism, their brashness, their posturing, their rebelliousness, their humor – the whole package. I really do. So you can imagine how much fun it must be talking to teenagers about prayer first thing in the morning! What topic do teenagers enjoy more than prayer? Exactly.
In my sessions with them this year we have been exploring the idea of God. We have been debunking childish theologies and trying out more adult vocabulary. They share what they believe and what they don’t believe. We talk about how what we believe about God does or does not impact how we live and practice as Jews. And I work really hard to keep them awake…not always with great success, but I do my best.
I realized this week that in my attempts to give them space for communication, privacy for reflection, and safety for exploration, I never force myself to take a position. I know a lot more about what my students believe about God than they do of me. That doesn’t seem fair. If my teachers have to blog, I should have to blog. If my 8th Graders have to talk about God…well so should I.
So without further ado, I offer my own modest statement about God…this is one blog post I would be thrilled to receive notes from my students about (hint, hint):
Jon’s Personal Theology
When I think of Heschel’s term “radical amazement”, the first image that pops into my head is that of a havdalah circle under the stars. A cliché to be sure, but for many (I would even venture to say most) Jewish professionals and leaders of my generation, our first feelings of radical amazement were nurtured in the enclosed bubble of the Jewish summer camp. There we were free to experience the transcendence of Jewish irrational behavior – kashrut & Shabbat – safe from the cynicism and doubt of our day-to-day, secular lives. I also believe that the farther away one dwells from the world of ritual observance, the more radical one’s amazement by it can be. I know that for me, as a young Reform Jew growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, as dedicated to tikkun olam (social action) Judaism as we were, nothing could have been more radical than having been moved by the experience of Jewish ritual. But there I was, me and a hundred of my equally nonobservant friends, arms around each other under the stars in the redwoods, singing the havdalah blessings with as much profound joy as any mystic in Safed ever did. My experiences of the divine through the vehicle of mitzvot (although not exclusively so), shapes the direction of my personal theology.
I start with revelation, rather than with a personal image of God, because my understanding of revelation drives my image and not the reverse. I start with Heschel’s view of revelation because it speaks to me as a (now observant) Jew living and working in Conservative Judaism. He expresses my contradictions more eloquently than I can. As a mystic, Heschel wants to hold onto transcendent experience. He appeals to my desire to believe in a personal, supernatural God who participates in human history. He appeals to my intellect when he posits that any God worth believing in can hardly be described in human language. As a Jewish educator I share Heschel’s encouragement of Jews to engage in Jewish ritual behavior. I too feel the need to actualize my beliefs through a halakha (literally “the way”, Jewish Law) that is divine in nature, if not content. Finally, if as great a thinker as Heschel is ultimately unable to put it all together in a coherent package, then I feel no compunction in making my own messy attempt. However, enough said about Heschel. Time to pony up.
I believe in a personal, supernatural God. God cannot be adequately described, but can be experienced. I believe this despite all the evidence to the contrary – herein lays my existentialism. I understand literal, anthropomorphic descriptions of God to be elaborate metaphors. God revealed at Sinai, but it is our experience of that revelation which forms the Bible. Revelation included content – specifically God’s “will for Israel”. The Torah, therefore, describes what it is that God wants from us. Even if we cannot state what it was that God commanded of us in the original revelation, something was revealed. That “something” over thousands of years now resides in Rabbinic Judaism, specifically in its halakha. Halakha is enacted in behaviors and deeds – mitzvot. The existentialist in me wants people to perform mitzvot as a response of their “radical amazement” to God’s world, not out of a sense of legal obligation, but how does one legislate transcendence?
As an observant Conservative Jew and as a Conservative Jewish educator I believe in the power of mitzvot. One of my leaps of faith is my belief that the mitzvot, however filtered they may be, not only reflect what God wants us to do, but that they can be vehicles of transcendence. The problem is that existentialism by nature cannot be universal. Havdalah may provoke “radical amazement” in me, but boredom in another. This is not a problem for my theology, but presents a great challenge to my profession. The simple truth is that divine authority no longer speaks to most people in a way it might have in earlier times. They will likely only adopt mitzvot if they have a positive experience in their performance.
It has been my experiences in Jewish education, which provided me with a path from non-observance to observance. I was encouraged to experience Shabbat in order to know its power. I experimented with kashrut to learn its significance. These, and other experiences, led to my belief that the path to God is experience as mediated through mitzvot. In working with others, you can only enable people to embrace religious ritual and feel its transcendent power. My challenge, professionally, is to create an environment where others may experience mitzvot as I do. The religious part of my job, in essence, is to persuade children and families to buy into the idea that the performance of mitzvot can be transcendent. That they will, given the right circumstances, I take on faith.
So there you go…have it Eighth Graders!
I’m off to Philadelphia this Sunday to participate and present at the Jewish Educators Assembly Conference! Philly in January…and who says there’s an “East Coast Bias”?! As with most conferences, you (the select few following me at Twitter) can look forward to a spike in tweets. I’ll be presenting about “21st Century Schools” and I am sure I’ll share that experience as part of my next post.