Leslie and I experimented with the readings for a short opening unit on how to study America. I advocated the first year for excerpts from the political philosopher Michael Walzer's Interpretation and Social Criticism. Walzer articulated the idea of the "connected critic", someone who was inside a society enough to be committed to its people and its narrative and its articulated values, and able to criticize in the name of those values and out of shared commitment. It's when Rev. King said that his dream was "deeply rooted in the American dream", even as he called out America. For Walzer, the alternative is the disconnected critic who might not care enough about fellow citizens and/or who speaks a language entirely foreign to the society the critic hopes to change or improve. Another alternative of course is someone so identified with things as is that they cannot criticize at all.
I wanted our students to see themselves as connected critics of America. It was a bit easier to articulate for American Jewish students, for whom inside-outside is already set up.
"Connected critic" is always a position of built-in tension. It's a challenge to nurture your own connection and your critical outlook. Particularly when you are just learning about your own history, and the history of your own society.
In the past few years, the "connected critic" view of founding American ideals has been called into question, and I am hoping for a way to vindicate it nonetheless. Does Thomas Jefferson's slaveholding mean that "created equal.... life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are bankrupt? I accept the challenge of those who answer yes. I have to consider the alternative, and/or come up with an account of the citizen as connected critic that does not whitewash anything.
Assignment: Choose an artifact that to you represents America, American society, or American culture. Feel free to share an image and/or explanation in the comments here or in your own post.
When I began co-teaching the course, the artifact I chose was the book and album “Free to Be You and Me.” It’s a 1972 project created by Marlo Thomas. For the younger people here, that’s Rachel’s mother from “Friends”, and this project is one reason why that casting is so amazing in a counter-to-type way (read on).
“Free to Be You and Me” was a series of songs and stories for kids aimed at breaking down gender stereotypes. What a boy and a girl has to be like, want to be when they grow up, etc.
I chose this as my artifact for three reasons.
This last point in particular is what I want to interrogate through the course of this year. That assumption, and whatever knowledge I need to gain and reflect on in order to assess how far it is.
A Facebook post by a congregant highlighted a controversy around an initiative called #DisruptTexts, and my response to it was going to be much longer than a typical FB comment. #DisruptTexts as a specific project isn't something I had heard of, but as I skimmed the website the other day it certainly doesn't seem brand new. This is an initiative for literature education in schools that aims to "challenge the traditional canon" both by bringing in more representative texts and by putting new texts and perspectives into dialogue with "traditional" ones. I'm posting partly because the congregant said she wanted all her child's teachers to be involved in this kind of pedagogy, and I am/hope to be one of those teachers.
I don't know why this approach would be controversial at all. I mean I do, of course. But I would think even people with suspicion ought to be cheered by the idea of critical thinking about texts and literature, and by the idea of pairings and conversations centered around both traditional and new literary texts.
Anyway my mind went immediately to an experience I had as a first-year rabbinical student in just this kind of pedagogy at an adult level. As a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I had access to the Protestant institution across the street, Union Theological Seminary. I enrolled there in a course about the book of Hosea taught by Professor Phyllis Trible, one of the pioneering feminist critics of the Hebrew Bible. I had read from a couple of Professor Trible's books. One of them was called Texts of Terror, to give you a sense of her work. Her scholarship there was about women such as Hagar, Tamar, and the brutalized concubine of Gibeah in the book of Judges. Professor Trible was looking both to document the treatment of women by the (male) authors and editors of the Bible and to listen for women's voices somehow in the same texts.
I had studied the opening chapters of Hosea in religious school during high school with my terrific teacher Earl Schwartz. Hosea takes to heart the prophetic metaphor that images Israel's straying from God as an unfaithful wife. So he marries a prostitute and his book opens with a graphic revenge fantasy put in God's mouth/mind, leading to reconciliation. It's pretty horrifying.
That's where Professor Trible opened the course. I figured, based on what I knew of her, that the course would critique Hosea and unearth all the factors behind taking an already-problematic metaphor too far back in his time. Instead, she opened by saying even so, she wanted to see whether there was a way to reclaim Hosea and to have his book in the canon. It was a generous and tentative opening -- Professor Trible presented this as an open question. We would work through the text of the book and see.
The students were paired off and each group had to prepare a particular section in depth to present to the class -- to translate, analyze, and suggest issues and interpretations. I asked for or ended up with a passage that is read traditionally in the synagogue as a haftarah, a section of the prophets paired with the week's Torah reading. My partner was a Southern female Protestant seminarian who was also lesbian and married (this was the first half of 1991).
I am sure we compared Hosea to other places in the Torah and prophets that talk about Israel's unfaithfulness or betrayals, straight up or in metaphor. Hosea was also an innovator in the idea of teshuvah or "repentance"/personal change in Jewish thought. How do we hold both sets of his words?
My engagement with Hosea continued. A number of years ago, I was in the synagogue and listening to the chanting of the first couple chapters of Hosea by a thirteen-year-old girl on the occasion of her Bat Mitzvah. I was horrified. How had I let that happen? Somewhere in between that moment and Professor Trible, I had sat in horror while the students in the Jewish day high school I worked at presented "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" as the school play. So much leering at women in the play, being staged by young girls being watched by young guys, and we the faculty had somehow let that happen. Here it was again, and just as bad even though I'm sure relatively few people were paying close attention to the English translation of Hosea in front of us in the synagogue.
I resolved that one way or another, no girl would chant this passage in the synagogue again. I thought about this for a few months and learned that the haftarah readings were not as fixed as our Bibles in the pews would lead us to think. Then I remembered too a section of the Mishnah, the early code of Jewish law that is the foundation of the Talmud, that lays out a series of texts that are not to be publicly read and/or not to be publicly translated in the synagogue, even though they can be encountered in a process of Torah study. (Before print, during services biblical readings were in some places translated out loud into the vernacular.)
I proposed not just that young girls would not read this for Bat Mitzvah, but that no one should hear this passage read out loud in the synagogue. We would substitute another reading for the opening of Hosea. The first year, I took time the week before to explain what I was doing and why. I taught a bit about Hosea, and both Earl Schwartz and Professor Trible. The next week I gave out xeroxes of an alternative text. In succeeding years, I make note of what we are doing and why. This is how I keep Hosea in the canon. He's there, not as loud as he once was, and always now framed by and along with other voices including new ones, including my own.
This is hardly the only example of its kind in my own life of texts and canons and teaching literatures. A whole section of my very first education course at the Seminary was about "difficult texts." But I describe all of this about Hosea to say that there are many dimensions to encountering texts, and all kinds of ways of staging or framing those encounters. We read privately or with others; we listen or we debate; we study intimately or we share ritually. There is more than canon-or-cancel. #DisruptTexts is about the classroom, the place where students and teachers read together and learn how to read. It's part of what we should be doing as teachers and parents, sharing stories and literature with our students and children.
Posted at 12:09 PM in Abuse, Books, Current Affairs, Education, Ethics, Feminism, Foregiveness, Jewish Education, Justice, Leadership, Numbers, Parashat Hashavua, Prophets, Ritual, Study, Teacher-Student Relationship, Teens, Tikkun Olam, Torah, Tzedek, USA, Young Jewish Adult, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
It is not easy to take a day off of school or work for the High Holy Days. As school pressures have become more demanding, even at younger ages, the decision about bringing children to services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on a school day might be more difficult for a parent than ever before. In places like New Hampshire -- any place where there are few Jewish families in any school -- there can be a lot to navigate in terms of homework, tests, and after-school activities.
So here are five reasons to take your child out of school and bring them to services anyway!
1. It's amazing to see so many people taking time all at once to make ourselves and the world better.
This is the essence of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
It's one thing to say that each of us should always be trying to be a better person. It's another to see hundreds of people focused on that all at once.
We can show our children: Look how many people are working on bringing out the good in themselves and each other. It matters so much to them that a lot of them are taking off from work, and from school.
This is what being Jewish is all about.
2. So many Jews!
Especially outside of, say, Israel and New York, when do you see the Jewish community so big?
If you are a child in a place where your family is the only Jewish family around, or one of the only ones, you may not feel like you are part of something big and important. Being a minority can feel special. But seeing you're part of something bigger when you're Jewish is also special, and can make it easier all the times when being a minority is hard.
3. Shofar is really cool.
During Rosh Hashanah daytime services, and at the very end of Yom Kippur, the shofar (ram's horn) is sounded. On Rosh Hashanah, there is a specific order of blasts, long and short and very short and very long. It's really like nothing else we ever do in a service.
It's ancient and primal. The shofar itself is pretty exotic. In our synagogue, there are different looking shofars that our blowers use.
Plus, in a lot of synagogues, the kids are invited to come up really close even in a service where there are hundreds of people. You get the best seat.
Also, not to be sneezed at -- the Torah scroll. Not everyone gets to see it up close when it's open. But we have been copying it word for word for more than two thousand years, onto parchment scrolls.
4. Learning to be different
Coming out on a weekday to a religious service, and especially a Jewish one -- that's pretty countercultural. It's good to fly in the face of the culture of conformity and achievement, at least here and there.
It's good for our kids to learn that standing proud in your identity is important and not easy, but worthwhile if the cause matters. It can even feel good. Especially when you can tell your friends later about the shofar, or a Hebrew word.
Being different takes effort. You have to explain things about yourself and your culture, you have to know about your heritage. A lot of the work belongs to parents -- to be the ones to explain and advocate toward teachers and coaches. By the way, I (or whoever are the rabbi or Jewish leaders where you are) am right behind you, to equip you or to make calls on your behalf.
5. Hanging out
There's the service, and then there's not being in the service. Kids get to see other kids who are Jewish too and more or less their own age. But it's not Hebrew School, so they get to hang out and catch up and even connect with new kids.
There's always a couch or a room or some corner in the synagogue to find and claim. Kids get to make the place their own.
Behind almost any adult synagogue regular, or or almost any rabbi, there are stories and memories of what we did on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur when we weren't in the service.
All that -- and you and your child or children will hopefully find services meaningful too -- words, teachings, songs and melodies.
So even if it's hard, and even if you yourself the parent have a lot of questions about what's going on and what it all means, think about coming to services on the High Holy Days and sharing this experience with your family.
Got any thoughts or reasons of your own? Leave them in the comments!
If you are in our area and don't already have a synagogue for the High Holy Days, we would love to have you at Beth Abraham. Click here to learn more or get in touch.
On February 3, I had the honor of participating in a nationally-televised town hall with Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I was selected to ask Secretary Clinton a question.
Here is the exchange, in video and in transcript:
RABBI JONATHAN SPIRA-SAVETT: Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught that every person has to have two pockets and in each pocket they have to carry a different note. And the note in one pocket says the universe was created for me. And in the other pocket the note says I am just dust and ashes.
And I want you to take a moment and think about what you would tell us about your two pockets. How do you cultivate the ego, the ego that we all know you must have, a person must have to be the leader of the free world, and also the humility to recognize that we know that you can't be expected to be wise about all the things that the president has to be responsible for?
CLINTON: Another absolutely wonderful question.
Thank you, Rabbi.
I think about this a lot. Um, I feel very fortunate that I am a person of faith, that I was raised in my church and that I have had to deal and struggle with a lot of these issues about ambition and humility, about service and self-gratification, all of the human questions that all of us deal with, but when you put yourself out into the public arena, I think it's incumbent upon you to be as self-conscious as possible.
This is hard for me. You know, I never thought I'd be standing on a stage here asking people to vote for me for president. I always wanted to be of service. I met my husband, who was such a natural, knew exactly what he wanted to do. I was happy to support him while I worked in the Children's Defense Fund and legal services and taught law, and, you know, had our daughter.
I never thought I would do this. And so I have had to come to grips with how much more difficult it often is for me to talk about myself than to talk about what I want to do for other people, or to tell stories about, you know, the man I met in Rochester who -- whose AIDS medicine is no longer affordable. And that -- that can grip me and make me feel like there's something I can do about that.
So I'm constantly trying to balance how do I assume the mantle of a position as essentially august as president of the United States not lose track of who I am, what I believe in and what I want to do to serve?
I have that dialogue at least, you know, once a day in some setting or another. And I don't know that there is any ever absolute answer, like, OK, universe, here I am, watch me roar or oh, my gosh, I can't do it, it's just overwhelming, I have to retreat.
It's that balance that I keep to try to find in my life that I want to see back in our country. And it will be something that I continue to talk about with a -- you know, with a group of faith advisers who are close to me.
I get a scripture lesson every morning from a minister that I have a really close personal relationship with. And, you know, it just gets me grounded. He gets up really early to send it to me. So, you know, there it is in my in box at 5:00 a.m..
I have friends who are rabbis who send me notes, give me readings that are going to be discussed in services. So I really appreciate all that incoming.
And the final thing I would say, because again, it's not anything I've ever talked about this much publicly, everybody knows I -- I have lived a very public life for the last 25 or so years. And so I've had to be in public dealing with some very difficult issues and personal issues, political, public issues. And I read a, um, a treatment of the prodigal son parable by the Jesuit Henri Nouwen, who I think is a magnificent writer of spiritual and theological concerns. And I -- I read that parable and there was a line in it that became just a lifeline for me. And it basically is practice the discipline of gratitude.
So regardless of how hard the days are, how difficult the decisions are, be grateful. Be grateful for being a human being, being part of the universe. Be grateful for your limitations. Know that you have to reach out to have more people be with you, to support you, to advise you, listen to your critics, answer the questions.
But at the end, be grateful. Practice the discipline of gratitude. And that has helped me enormously. [END OF TRANSCRIPT]
* * * * *
A lot of people have been asking me for my interpretation of her answer, and whether I have decided to vote for her now. But really the whole point is that she is the candidate, she responded, and you can assess her response. So you can stop reading here if you like.
I do have a few broader thoughts. Which I'll share, not least because I too have an ego!
It was amazing to me that the candidate took about five minutes to respond, in what might have been the longest answer of the evening. I chose my words carefully -- I want you to take a moment… the ego that we all know you must have -- I wanted to make it a bit harder for Secretary Clinton to take shelter behind the concept of "a president", to retreat to platitudes of "humble servant." You can judge. She said much more than I expected. I think it was amazing that she owned up to issues "about ambition and humility, about service and self-gratification." You don't hear politicians talk about their own ambition and self-gratification.
All I did was to catalyze that, and if that leads to good deliberation about Secretary Clinton or stays with her if she wins, then I did something worthwhile.
And a lot of the credit goes to Kerry Rubin, the CNN producer for Anderson Cooper who read my op-ed in the Union Leader and called me. She and her staff curated the evening. I gave Ms. Rubin a couple of ideas questions, and it was she who picked this theme – and that made all the difference. She said immediately that it was different from any other kind of question that's been asked or that had been submitted for the evening. Darren Garnick, our congregant, suggested I introduce my question with a rabbinic quote; and that's when the quote from Reb Simcha Bunim came to me!
It seemed as though I helped release something that Secretary Clinton really wanted to talk about. And I bet that a lot of the other candidates, Republican and Democratic, do too. I hope that my day as an Internet meme connected to one candidate doesn't take away from my hope that we would be engaging all the candidates this way. That's what six other Nashua clergy and I were hoping to do. The Forward has a great interview with me and I talk about that. (Good interview by JTA too.)
This afternoon, we gathered the kids of our Religious School, grades 3-7. For about twenty minutes they were in rapt attention. I started off by talking about Jews and freedom. That we are the Jewish people because we were freed from Pharaoh, and that our Jewish families were all living under oppressive rule very recently before America. I talked to them about how important it is for our Jewish community to be known through our involvement in choosing who will make decisions about our society and the world. How proud we should be, if the world got to see that that's who we are as Jews because I was on TV. I showed them the video, and the kids from every grade asked me all kinds of questions. I closed with my signature teaching, about how I say the traditional morning blessing each time I enter the voting booth – she'asani ben chorin, thanking God for making me free. They sang it with me.
If my moment in the spotlight helps inspire them to care about society and world, then that's what makes it worthwhile.
Secretary Clinton did in fact say, “I want to meet the rabbi.” She said this to State Sen. Bette Lasky and her husband Elliot, Beth Abraham members who are big Clinton supporters and friends. So after the program was done, they beckoned me over and Secretary Clinton came up to talk to me. We spoke for another few minutes.
I got to tell her how much we as voters want to hear her and other candidates talk to us in this way. I said she should look for opportunities to do that. She said to me, I think perceptively, that it's hard to do unless an occasion arises like my question. Otherwise, she said, the media or others spin it as someone trying to use their faith or their introspection in a manipulative or self-serving way.
From 1996-1999, I taught eleventh grade American Studies at the Solomon Schechter High School of Long Island with Leslie Bazer. We created our own course, about being a citizen and an individual, a “connected critic”, a Jew and an American. So gratifying are all the Facebook shout-outs from my students in that class, most of whom I haven't heard from in years. To know they learned something and bring it with them today is unbelievable.
I invite your comments. Most of all -- if you're in New Hampshire, learn everything you can still about the candidates and vote next Tuesday. And for the rest of you, the relay now is yours.
Another interesting article, from Professor Carol Ingall, professor of Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, comparing Esther and Harry Potter!
Both the Kadosh Barukh Hu and J. K. Rowling know what makes for a gripping story: take an orphan, afflict him or her with tsuris, and watch the true mettle of the hero emerge. The eternally enchanting Book of Esther and books of the Harry Potter saga depend on similar elements to cast their magic spell: questions of parentage, identity, abandonment, separation, initiation, the presence of a mentor / nurturer, and a reconnection to one's people.
If you're looking for something to help people who are not Jewish understand Chanuka, here is a 13-minute TV interview I did this month for Londonderry's public access cable TV program "Londonderry Heart, Home, and Soul" with host Mark Oswald.
Jewish dedication for the sixth candle: The Young Judaea Zionism movement's "Year Course" has been for a long time one of the very best programs in Jewish education. Young people go for the gap year between high school and college. The program combines study, volunteer work, travel, communal living, and leadership development. In recent years the Year Course has developed special tracks in everything from arts to medicine to yeshiva study. Year Course alums are leaders in Jewish life in all kinds of organizations (they turn up as U.S. Supreme Court clerks as well!). Here's to quality Jewish programming worth supporting, or investigating if you are in high school or have a child who is.