Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why do we bless our bread? (Part II)

Continuing to mine my master's thesis on Birkat Ha-Mazon, the grace after meals, as we build up to the shmita year, this week I share with you the section on using the prayer as an opportunity to focus on proper nutrition. I won't overstate the analogy, but I believe that just as saying this prayer can be a time for personal and communal reflection on issues relating to food, diet and nutrition, so too can we look at the coming year as a chance to rethink and renew our approaches to these topics. The thesis in its entirety can be found online at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education. The full text of this section is after the jump.
The World Health Organization defines "Health" as balance between physical, mental and social being. Birkat Ha-Mazon reminds us of the need to pay attention to, and strike a balance between, each one of these aspects of our health. Birkat Ha-Mazon is a social activity, as it is often said as the conclusion of a communal meal. Focusing on the text can lead to heightened cognitive awareness of, and encounter with, challenging issues affecting Jews and people in general. Here, I wish to look at the role that Birkat Ha-Mazon can play as a focal point in thinking about the physical impact of food on our bodies, or in other words, for nutrition education.

According to Genesis 1:26, humans are created “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of God. Although the interpretations of this are manifold, one generally accepted implication is that any form of self-harm violates Jewish law as it is a desecration of the Divine image. The extent to which this principle is applied varies: Some communities forbid body-piercing based on this idea, while others will not smoke cigarettes. Arguably, a concern for proper diet and exercise should be considered a Jewish obligation.

Birkat Ha-Mazon is a mandatory pause at the conclusion of a meal. We can use this time to make a connection between the food we have eaten and the nourishment it has provided us. This is also an opportunity for us to reflect upon the choices we have made with the foods we have eaten. One might ask oneself questions along the lines of: Did I waste food?  Did I overeat? Was the food grown (or raised) in a manner that fits with my ethics? How did this food get from its point of origin to me? How did the choices I made affect other people’s lives?

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Why do we bless our bread?

As some of you will recall, my master's thesis as a student at Davidson School of Education (15 years ago!) was on Birkat Ha-Mazon, the grace after meals. As we round the corner into a shmita year, I thought I'd take this opportunity to share with you a section of that work. The thesis in its entirety can be found online at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education. The full text of this section be found after the jump.
A concern for food appears at the very beginning of the Bible. Sustenance for human beings, and for all creatures, is viewed as an intrinsic component of the Divine plan of creation. In God’s first address to humanity, in the first chapter of Genesis, God instructs the humans that they may eat from every plant on the ground and every fruit of the tree (Gen. 1:29). Shortly thereafter, this is qualified with the prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17). Just as babies receive nourishment while in the womb, in the “perfect” paradise of the Garden of Eden, food is provided for humans without any effort on their part.
When the humans are expelled from Eden, a new stage in their relationship with food begins. Now, God admonishes Adam, only “by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat” (Gen. 3:19). This is the first mention of bread in the Bible, which, in contrast to the fruit of the Garden of Eden, requires human labor. In the next chapter, perhaps in response to the anxiety provoked by the responsibility of providing food for oneself, Cain and Abel bring the first sacrificial offerings to God (Gen. 4:3-4). This offering can be seen as a petition, or as a thanksgiving, for successful harvests and healthy livestock.

Arthur Waskow writes of two ways by which the ancient Israelites sanctified the food they ate, which can be traced back to these first four chapters of Genesis. “One major approach they took to hallowing food was to set some aside as sacred, others as forbidden” (23).  The prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge can be seen as paradigmatic of this approach, later reflected in laws of Kashrut, tithing, fasts, Sabbatical years, and so on. The “other process for hallowing food was to take the products of the land to a single place, the Temple in Jerusalem, there to bring God near to them” (24). The offerings of Cain and Abel are the prototype for sacrificial worship, evinced in stories of Noah (Gen. 8:20), Abraham (Gen. 12:7) and so on, and which ultimately reaches its peak in the unified system of regulated sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem.
These two dimensions for the sanctification of food -- that of making distinctions between food which may and may not be eaten and that of consecrating food as an offering to God -- will be discussed in great detail in the upcoming sections.  Here, I wish to emphasize that there is a third conception of the sanctification of food. The very act of eating, the turning of physical matter into energy, of the life-force in a plant or animal into one’s own life-force, is in itself a sacred activity.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

How to ask a question (?) (!) (?)

The following is a excerpt from the article "Active Learning in the Halakha class" by Mark Smilowitz, which first appeared in the Lookstein Center's journal Jewish Educational Leadership:
Classically, teachers and students alike tend to view questions as stemming from problems; if nothing bothers you, you don't ask. Even progressive methods devised to make students active learners through questioning seem to view questions as stemming from problems. For example, the "inquiry training" model relies on presenting students with puzzling events that will naturally arouse their curiosity and stimulate their questions. This approach "deliberately selects episodes that have sufficiently surprising outcomes to make it difficult for students to remain indifferent to the encounter.

Perhaps you've seen a science exhibition where they put a blown up balloon into liquid nitrogen, and it comes out shrunk. The kids are naturally stimulated to ask why it does that, because the outcome is surprising. This is precisely the kind of curiosity-generating activity that would kick off a unit in the inquiry training approach.

But let's consider another way to stimulate curiosity. Take a regular balloon, a normal object that doesn't automatically generate questions, and hold it up in front of a classroom as is, and tell students they have two minutes to write down as many questions as they can think of that will help them understand the balloon better. Tell them not to hold back, but to let their imaginations go.

When I do this experiment on myself, I find that I suddenly become interested in things I wasn't interested in before – science questions such as why balloons lose their air after a while, manufacturing questions like how balloons are made, or maybe economic questions like how do they decide how much balloons cost. When one is prompted in this manner, instead of curiosity generating questions, it is the discipline of questioning that generates the curiosity. We might refer to this latter kind of question as a research-oriented question, as opposed to a problem-based question, because asking this kind of question is often the key to researching a topic

My guess is that most students only know about problem-based questions and are never taught to ask research-oriented questions. Neil Postman expressed his “astonishment at the neglect shown in school toward” the art of formulating questions. “All our knowledge results from questions, which is another way of saying that question asking is our most important intellectual tool. I would go so far as to say that the answers we carry about in our heads are largely meaningless unless we know the questions which produced them.”

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tefilah: Empowering Prayer Communities through School Worship

As Reform Jews, our beliefs pull us in two directions. On the one hand, we cherish our autonomy: Our freedom to express ourselves as individuals and to make choices that are entirely our own. At the same time, we know the value of community: Our sense of obligation to others with whom we share a history and a destiny. This dynamic tension can be creative and inspirational – or it can be exhausting and alienating. Perhaps nowhere in Jewish life is the challenge of finding equilibrium between these two forces felt as strongly as in synagogue worship. Prayer is an intensely personal experience, yet when we come together for worship as part of a congregation, we often use words written by someone we have never met and in a language we don’t understand.

In our religious school at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, students learn to respond to this challenge by becoming sophisticated and empowered participants in prayer services. Tefilah (worship) is an integral part of our curriculum, comprising as much as 25 percent of the time that students are in school. Students not only learn the skills to pray as part of a Jewish community but also engage in a rich dialogue about the liturgy that helps them to find personal meaning in the words they say. The experience is transforming how our students see themselves, as they become equipped to grapple with their personal relationships with the Divine amidst a congregation of diverse individuals.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Tzedakah: Building a Culture of Equity

Last week, I posted a personal vision statement for Jewish education. Over the coming weeks, I will offer suggestions as to how this vision can be implemented based on examples from my work at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.

In so doing, I want to emphasize that collaboration is the cornerstone of our methodology, and I am reporting on the intersection between my philosophy and the work we do, not taking credit for our achievements.

I begin with a look at how we teach about tzedakah. I think this is something most of us working in supplementary school education get right. This is, to my mind, a clear way to demonstrate the critical role of Jewish education not only to guide value-driven practice and participation in Jewish community (as if those weren’t enough!), but also to offer unique ways of engaging the world.

At Emanu-El, we teach that the Hebrew word tzedakah literally means, not “charity” (from the Latin “caritas,” “altruistic love”), but “justice.” On our website, in our classrooms, and through family programming, we emphasize that sharing our good fortune equitably with others is not only an act of compassion, but a responsibility. We show how our tradition teaches that our achievements are always dependent upon Divine providence, and that with our wealth, we must seek equity. Further, we emphasize how this sense of responsibility has always, and continues to play, a central role in our communal identity.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

My Statement of Jewish Educational Philosophy

I am committed to developing learning experiences that are relevant, inspirational and transformative. I aim to provide students and their families with the tools to participate meaningfully in the community, with pride in their heritage and with the awareness that their actions will shape the future in ways beyond their imagination.

Education is an intrinsically optimistic endeavor. Our work as educators is predicated on the faith that we can inspire our students to personal growth and empower them to achieve greatness. Further, we believe that by studying the past we can successfully prepare our students for an unknown future. Therefore, we act as translators, of a sort: we strive to make the lessons of the past relevant to contemporary sensibilities.

I believe the most compelling questions of value and meaning have remained largely the same since the days of the Bible. As Jews, we look to our people’s history for direction as we ask ourselves the same questions that confronted our ancestors, like “What kind of person do I want to become?” and “What kind of world do I hope for myself and for future generations to inhabit?”  The role of the educator is not to pass along definitive answers to these questions, but rather to engage our learners in striving together to formulate sophisticated and nuanced responses that inspire them to action.

The Jewish school can be a center for Jewish life, where our students encounter one another’s ways of being Jewish.  In accepting one another for who we are and what we believe, we empower one another to say “I can be myself here and I can figure out who I might want to be.” I believe our classrooms must be the “laboratory” for the Jewish future, providing vital and distinctive experiences our students cannot find elsewhere in their lives and in which cultural experimentation – the production, rather than consumption of culture – is the norm.

Parents, students and other members of the school community must be stakeholders in the success of this endeavor, playing a critical role in shaping the school’s vision and culture. It is essential that we validate the diversity of experiences of those individuals, offering access and authority to those whose voices have been absent from communal Jewish life. Simultaneously, a school’s faculty and leadership must strive constantly to model the thoughtfulness and mutual respect that we seek to promote in our students and their families. The care and concern our teachers have for each child enables our students to support one another and to challenge themselves to grow as individuals, as family members and as part of an ethical community.

As Jews, we are b’nai Yisrael, the “children of those who have wrestled with God and prevailed.” We are fortunate to be the inheritors of an ancient wisdom that guides us in living principled lives in complicated times. At the same time, we assert our right to be a part of a community that struggles to make meaning of the profound and the sacred.

It is our task to strive to become the best people we can be, proud of our heritage while accepting no dogma blindly, guided by the decisions of previous generations while empowered to take responsibility for arriving at our own conclusions. As part of vital networks of friends and families who are reflective about their actions, passionate about their beliefs and kindhearted toward one another, we can be confident in our children’s ability to shape their own destinies, and join together with those of all faiths and backgrounds to build a just and virtuous society.

Monday, February 17, 2014

My favorite quotes: Mamie Gamoran

When did people start talking about post-denominationalism and identify themselves as "just Jews?" Could it perhaps have been as long ago as the 1930s? Let's see what Mamie Gamoran, author of "Hillel's Happy Holidays" and the wife of Emanuel Gamoran (the first director of education for the UAHC, now the Union for Reform Judaism) has to say on the subject:

“We were liberals in our thinking, in our children's education, in our religious practices. Nevertheless, we erected a Sukka on our wide, open porch each Sukkot holiday, and served wine tea and cake to as many as two hundred visitors. Some guests shook the lulav and said the blessings for the first time. I used to say jokingly, 'the Reform say we are Orthodox and the Orthodox say we are Reform.' But we wanted to be Jews without a label, and I think we had a real Jewish home.” 

From Mamie Gamoran's manuscript, "A Family History," in the American Jewish Archives, cited in Jonathan Krasner's "The Benderly Boys and American Jewish Education" (Brandeis University Press, 2011). 

Friday, January 24, 2014

What does it mean to live a life that is "authentically Jewish?"

Identity theorist Elli P. Schachter, following Erikson, observes that one’s “historical era or social environment” constrain one’s options for identification or practice, limiting the available choices. Awareness of, and knowledge about the cultural traditions that have already shaped one’s identity and continue to influence one's behavior -- in other words, the stories of those who came before us and how they lived their loves -- allow the individual to more fully recognize the scope of available options. Perhaps it has always been this way, but it seems to me that for us today, being Jewish demands a constant re-examining of, and re-committing to, one’s beliefs and practices.   

Given the social and geographic mobility common to North American Jews in particular, and the rapid pace of change in technology and science in contemporary times, it is certain that we will consistently be exposed to new ideas and information throughout our lives.  We can expect to be faced with unfamiliar situations that allow for (and demand) new responses.  In such a context, ongoing study, skill-building and dialogue becomes an imperative, so that we, our communities and our institutions may respond appropriately to new situations as they arise -- this is one of the things I mean when I speak about "life-long learning." By imitating successful endeavors, past or contemporary, intentional or developed through trial-and-error, we take on a new positions and practices, we modify the beliefs we previously held as conclusive.  

To be authentically Jewish is to take a stance on our values and behaviors and to articulate how they relate to our inherited traditions.  I say stance, rather than commitment, because I believe our values and behaviors must be constantly reaffirmed, in the context of each particular set of circumstances, with an openness to the possibility of realigning one's beliefs and practice in light of shifting settings and newly acquired information. 

I contend that taking such a stance is a possibility - and legitimate - at any point in one’s life, at any level of knowledge. The need to better inform oneself in order to intentionally choose one’s behaviors and beliefs is necessary at all points of one’s life – as true for those who are knowledgeable as those who are at the beginning of their study. In actuality, we can never have comprehensive knowledge so that we might make a completely coherent decision. So we must be unafraid to take a stance on an idea or a practice simply because there is more to be learned. Choosing to delay making a decision to change is, after all, a decision as well.

An analogy: When we commit to another person in a relationship, both the relationship and the commitment itself grow and change over time.  They are tested by a variety of new contexts and situations. Just as some relationships will fail to survive, or to thrive, over time, so too must some values or behaviors be modified as new ones are learned that fit better with one’s increasing knowledge or changing life-experience.

However, at some point we must acknowledge that the change is so great that we can only describe it with the words "break." When we can no longer explain how our values or behavior relate to the previous tradition, at that point, we must admit that we have started something new.

In other words: I am disagreeing with the definition of "authentic" that says it means "true to oneself" or in other words, authenticity as relevance. But I'm also disagreeing with the definition of authentic as "the way we used to do it" or authenticity as consistent with the past. I'm saying that those two principles are in tension, and authenticity means taking a stance that accounts for both of them, being reflective about that choice, and being open to rethink in light of changing circumstances.

So, it isn't "keeping kosher is a more authentic way of being Jewish" and it also isn't "I eat pork and that's an authentic expression of who I am," but rather "let me explain what keeping kosher means to me."

Reference: Elli P. Schachter, “Identity Constraints: The Perceived Structural Requirements of a ‘Good’ Identity.” Human Development 45 (2002), 417.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Ahavat Olam (Lennon/McCartney/Kaiserman): Love is All You Need

So, I finally posted to YouTube a recording that Evan Schultz surreptitiously made of our version of "Ahavat Olam" to a familiar Lennon/McCartney tune at Kol Zimrah a decade ago. It has since become a standard at Shabbat Unplugged at Temple Shaaray Tefila of New York City. 

I'm on guitar and lead vocals, along with the incomparable Reut Regev ( on trombone, Michael Witman on percussion and backup vocals, Evan on guitar and backup vocals, and, if my memory serves, David Monblatt and Amy Deutsch on backup vocals. (The photo is from my wedding weekend, though). Love is all you need. Enjoy.