Sunday, February 28, 2010

A path to Jewish identity and a more healed world -- hearing the call of ethnography

One of the most painful questions for me to hear from fellow rabbinic students when I was working as a teaching assistant in the Ziegler School's Beit Midrash (study hall) was the one about, "why are we doing this anyway?!?! Why do we have to study Talmud? I'm never going to use this as a congregational rabbi, anyway!"

It was a painful question because, while I was passionately convinced it was important for future rabbis to immerse themselves in Talmud study, I had trouble articulating (to myself and others) why I thought it was so important.

In time, through my journeys after ordination of teaching rabbinics at a Jewish high school and then becoming a chaplain and a chaplaincy educator, I've come to understand it as being about something I call pastoral, or spiritual, formation -- it's about developing a particular, a rabbinic, way of thinking, or of understanding the world.

This kind of purpose for a way of education -- even of a text-centered way of education -- is not unique to rabbinic or clergy education. Lawyers, too, engage in a kind of study that very often does not have direct practical application to what they will do when they get out in the field (and, many law students complain, is of little help to them in passing the bar exam they must take in order to enter legal practice). But the educational method of being forced to answer the professor's difficult questions about a case they are studying helps the students develop a particular way of seeing the world, a lawyer's way. Similarly, other professional training methods -- like that of engineering school -- do more than teach content or technique; they shape (form!) a particular kind of person with a particular kind of values and a particular kind of way of understanding the world.

As I am learning from my studies at NYU (I am in the first year of a doctoral programin Education and Jewish Studies), the language of "a way of understanding the world" is one well-known in the social sciences. There is one research method -- ethnography -- that is particularly well-suited to getting at how people understand their world. Ethnography is very different from what people generally think research looks like. We, for example, all the time hear news reports about what people think, usually in the form of polls based on questionnaires administered through random phone calls.

The problem with polling is that it doesn't really get at what is happening in an in-depth way and, therefore, is especially weak in discovering something new that is developing or that has not been identified before by researchers. The strength of ethnography, on the other hand, is in its ability to get at depth. It involves a researcher, often for a year or more, immersing his or herself full-time in an institution like a school or a hospital and trying to watch what happens both with an open mind -- a mind open to discovering new things -- and a skilled mind -- one trained to look for how the people in the setting are making meaning of what is happening to them. Although sometimes this means just observing, it often means becoming a "participant-observer."

This became very clear to me the other night when I did some observation as part of a assignment for my qualitative methods class. I tried to sit quietly with my notepad in the corner of an ICU waiting room. Mere seconds passed before a distressed family member approached me and asked me to pray for her child. I spent 20 minutes talking with this person, and in the course of that learned a great deal about how she was understanding what was happening for her, what her relationship to God and her faith was, and what the most important tasks were for her and her family while their loved one struggled for life. I realized that while -- I could not claim to be some objective observer while I was talking to her -- that I could never have learned so much about how she was understanding her world if I had not been participating while observing.

One ethnography I am reading right now is helping me think about how this works. In My freshman year, the author -- a 50-something college professor -- spent a year "undercover" as an older student doing her first year of undergraduate work, including living in the dorms amid the 18 and 19-year olds. She admits that her experience could not be the same thing as a "real" student's. But "[a]t the same time, it is the experience of living [college] life that offers the insight and vantage point need to ask relevant questions and understand the context of the answers given. It is this that I hoped to accomplish by becoming a freshman." (15; emphasis, mine)

Indeed it is the art of knowing the right questions and understanding the context that affects people's answers that makes the difference between insightful research and unhelpful research, and it is here where the Gallup poll kind of method -- for all its "objective" science and methods -- falls short.

I am interested in adding to our understanding of things that are new -- things in flux, but terribly important. The Jewish world is changing. Our young people have more choices than ever; there is nothing making them be, or identify as, Jewish. How, amid this, can we ensure not just the future existence of the Jewish people, but that Judaism and Jewishness will be something that will deeply enrich the lives of those who choose to be Jewish and that those "choosers" will be able to add their own stamp to the millennium-long story of a faith and peoplehood that has been vibrant and ever changing in each generation? We certainly can't do it if we don't deeply understand how people are making meaning of their world and their choices, especially the choices about identity.

On my own path to finding the meaning of Judaism and Jewishness in my life, a most important stop was the illness and death of my Father, of Blessed Memory, as well as my own experience of illness and hospitalization. Amid my pain -- and the rupture in my way of making meaning of my world that illness and death constituted -- certain people of faith, as well as the wisdom of my faith tradition, touched me in special ways and helped transform how I understood my world. I was cemented on my path to seeking Torah and God's ways.

I am hardly unique in this. Many people, for example, have found the experience of "saying Kaddish" for loved one to be transformative in a way that pushed them to greater Jewish identification, observance and commitment. Recently, Yossi Prager, the North American executive director of a foundation that as been part of some of the most creative projects in the Jewish world in recent years, came to talk to one of my classes. He told us how a "saying Kaddish" experience had transformed the foundation's founder from a non-involved Jew to one who became observant and dedicated his fortune to the future of the Jewish people.

At these "saying Kaddish" times -- these border spaces, or liminal moments, in a person's life -- the rabbi, or other person of deep faith, can play a particularly important role. But it is hardly guaranteed that this role will be a positive one. Harm -- painful words and actions -- can also be done at this time. And there are important -- but subtle -- ethical issues involved in working with vulnerable people, with people who are at liminal spaces in their spiritual lives.

What kind of person is the one more likely to be the "good rabbi" at these moments? How does a rabbinic education -- including Talmud study -- function to make it more likely that this person will be the good rabbi, the one who can be "interrupted" from his or her agenda enough to recognize real pastoral or spiritual needs? The one who will be able -- in the words of the first Psalm -- to encourage the hurting person to seek to become one who seeks to occupy his or herself with God's Torah day and night?

Our rabbinic schools are in flux in a way that reflects the flux happening in the Jewish world in general -- there is a greater emphasis on spirituality and mysticism (even the great center of a "scientific" approach to rabbinic education now labels itself as being about "spirituality and scholarship"), as well as on charismatic models of leadership. Alongside this trend to spirituality is a related trend to put more of an emphasis on pastoral care. The new Orthodox rabbinical school (Yeshivat Chochevei Torah), for example, considers its emphasis on pastoral care training to be one of its greatest distinguishing factors from other programs and one of its greatest reasons for being.

There is a great connection between these two new emphases -- spirituality and pastoral care. I know from my own learning journey that pastoral care training (clinical pastoral education) has brought greater and deeper spirituality into my life -- especially in terms of an ability and comfort around talking about the role of God and faith in my life -- than I ever would have expected. But I can only say so much from my own journey. How do others make the link between these two trends? Are they mostly manifestations of the same thing or are they two separate, but parallel, trends? How are these trends affecting the formation of the rabbis being trained amid them? Are they more likely to become the "good rabbi" I talked about above than the students of a previous generation? And what about questions of admissions? How do administrators understand how they are assessing whether a candidate will be a successful rabbi or a successful rabbinical student (not necessarily the same thing)? [Wendy Rosov's dissertation on pastoral formation at an American rabbinical school suggests that rabbinical schools had traditionally expected candidates to be fully formed before rabbinical school, but that this may be changing.] And what are the ethical issues around teaching students who are themselves at such a liminal moment in their lives?

Ethnography is one way I could get at these questions, and I am starting to dream about spending a year at a rabbinical school studying this kind of formation. Another thing from the My freshman year book is helping me with these "dreams." The author talks about how she focused her work. She could have gone out in search of the kind of "sexy dirt" of college life -- the "sex, drugs and rock'n'roll," if you will. But that's not what interested her. Rather, she writes:

I highlight topics that engage the classic notions we have of "the university" as a world of ideas, as a residential place where diversity and community and integrity are nurtured. I wanted to see how student culture articulates with the institution of the American university, including the vision we have of it, its mission and its future. (5; bolding, mine)

This contrasts with the way of thinking I learned in my first career (as a journalist). There, we were taught to identify what was "sexy" (although, I have to admit I never was able to completely adopt this way of thinking, which probably partially explains why I didn't go farther in that field). But the way of thinking of a social science approach, in terms of approaching a study of rabbinic education, would free me to ignore the "sexy" and instead focus on the rabbinical school as a world of ideas where community and learning are harnessed in service of nurturing or forming rabbis. I could focus on understanding the processes of how this happens and how both students and faculty understand these processes. That's exciting!


I'm nowhere near the place yet where I will be able to do an ethnography. The next step for me, I think, will be to engage in an analysis of some of the publicly available materials from some schools -- like what they post on their web sites -- to get some idea of how they are thinking of themselves and the work they do with students. What messages are these promotional/informational materials meant to send to students? What do these materials say about what their creators think will be attractive to qualified candidates? What do they say about what they think the role of the rabbi is in the Jewish world and how that is changing?

I am dedicating this blog post to בבתא (Babatah), an אשת מלחמה (women of war) of the time before and during the last great revolt against the Romans in ancient times, the end of substantial Jewish settlement in the Holy Land until modern times. I have been studying her as part of a class I am taking with the great Dead Seas Scrolls scholar Lawrence Schiffman.

All we know of her is from the fragments of the 30-some-odd legal documents we found of hers in the cave near the Dead Sea where she likely died as the Romans starved out the last of the Jewish rebels. At first these documents meant little to me, but I have grown to feel something of her spirit as I imagine her standing up to the non-Jewish authorities who appointed a non-Jew as one of the guardians of her son after she was widowed. The documents tells us she even traveled to stand before the provincial governor to protest this injustice. In the end, she lost this small battle, just as all the Jews of the Holy Land would lose the larger battle against the Roman oppressors. Maybe it was a hopeless effort on her part from the beginning -- our knowledge of ancient law suggest that perhaps it was. But she stood up for her rights, anyway. She was determined.

Babatah, as I stand before the huge mass of forces that stand against the future of the Jewish people and seek my own place in the battle for that future, I take courage from your example and dedication. You were truly one of the עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף -- one of the stiff-necked people!

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