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The Missing Sweet Spot

January 26, 2017

By Josh Feigelson, Founder & Executive Director, Ask Big Questions

Imagine a street. There are two synagogues on the street, directly across from each other. It’s 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and in both synagogues, the rabbi is beginning a class on the Book of Job.

In the first synagogue, 15 people are gathered with their Bibles open. They read the first verse, and they start a discussion. After an hour, that’s as far as they’ve gotten, because everyone has taken a turn sharing their story of their aunt or uncle or cousin who, God forbid, is suffering from an illness or life circumstance.

Across the street, the rabbi begins his class for 15 people. He has prepared 10 pages of source material using the Bar-Ilan Responsa Project, taking one verse in Job and showing how it gives rise to discussion about the laws of visiting the sick in the Mishnah, the Talmud, the law codes, and modern responsa. After an hour, the participants head home feeling that the rabbi is smart, but never having examined what all those sources mean for their own lives.

These are extreme examples, of course, but I bring them to answer the question, What’s not yet growing in Jewish education? My answer: What isn’t growing is the fertile soil where objective meets subjective.

In the case of the first synagogue, the learning is overly subjective: Everyone talks about their own life story, and the text serves merely (and literally) as a pretext for personal reflection. In the second case, the learning is overly subjective: The discussion (to the extent there is one beyond the rabbi talking) is limited to the text, without engaging the stories and lives of the people in the room.

The best learning, of course, happens when objective and subjective come together, as in Parker Palmer’s definition of truth: “Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline.” Sometimes we err by not focusing on things that matter; and sometimes we err by not practicing discipline.

My vision for Jewish education is that we can start to grow that sweet spot, that intersection, at the heart of Parker’s definition of truth. It’s the spot where we are humble enough to submit ourselves to the texts and practices of our tradition, and simultaneously proud enough to bring ourselves into the conversation and ask, What does this mean for me and for us?

As Hillel put it in Pirkei Avot: “The embarrassed cannot learn, and the haughty cannot teach.” Either extreme makes it hard for Jewish selves, and Jewish communities, to grow. So we need to help educators and learners find those fertile spots, where object and subject meet, where Torah and we can take root together.