Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Falling in the fall -- making it zman simchateinu

The best time for me this Sukkot was a moment when I was comfortably lounging on some cushions one Sukkot afternoon -- we were blessed with so much good, warm weather this holiday that it was truly luscious to be outside with nothing to do -- and remembered a time when I could have died.

It was a time maybe a year a go when I was riding my bicycle in small circles in the little alley behind where we were living then while Minna watched from our tiny porch. Suddenly and unexpectedly -- I can't even tell you how it could have happened -- I lost my balance. This kind of thing hardly ever happens, but it was not totally unfamiliar. I assessed my situation. I realized that I was going to fall, and there was nothing I could do to prevent it. Time slowed down, somehow. A kind of acceptance came over me. This, even though I could hear a car in the alley, and as I turned my head towards it, it became quite clear to me it was heading in my direction. Still, there was no panic. Again, I assessed my situation. I figured the one thing I could do was bend my neck to move my head a little bit away from the car's path, which would make it less likely I was about to be hit. I felt no fear. If anything, I felt joy. I felt happy with the way I was conducting my life. I liked the little alley, and savoring it by riding my bike around it.

In some senses, the whole of our lives are a fall. We know that, eventually, death awaits us all. Joy -- the kind of joy I think our Sages must have been thinking about when they dubbed the holiday of Sukkot as זמן שחתנו/zman simchateinu, the Time of Our Joy -- comes amid finding some kind of true acceptance of our (fragile!) human condition and embracing it.

Sitting in this intentionally temporary shelter -- this hut -- with its very temporary roof made of organic materials and full of holes (enough coverage to make more shade than sun, but such that you can still see the stars) reminds us of the fragility of all things, and that true shelter comes not from any material, but from something higher. The tradition commands us to dwell in this place that reminds us of our fragility. And it instructs us on some things to do there in this "time of joy" -- eat, have guests. Fellowship.

It is no accident that this holiday comes in the season that we also happen to call the fall. One of the holiday's roots is in the harvest time of the land of Israel -- the autumn harvest that is naturally both a time of joy and also of a consciousness of fragility. It is a time -- amid the harvest -- of plenty, when there is more than enough food for everyone to eat. But it is also a time when every person dependent on agriculture for life would be wondering, are the rains coming after this long dry season of no rain at all? Will there be enough to sustain our crops for the full year? Will there be enough?

This Sukkot there was sustenance aplenty for Minna and I. And, of course, I mean not only food. But there were guests, and some wonderful times with them under the corn stalks that made up our roof. Sometimes we were driven out of the Sukkah by rain, but even that was joyful as we laughingly moved the food, table and chair together into more permanent shelter. I am grateful for this experience of being reminded of how fragility and joy can, perhaps paradoxically, be so intertwined with each other. It was truly a time of our joy.


PS The car missed me, thank God!

PSS Hag Sameach!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sukkah City USA!

The weird structures to be glimpsed on the right (and the left in the distance) are part of a collection of futuristic, whimsical sukkot that have descended on Union Square in New York City (as part of the Sukkah City project).

Here are a few more pics of my favorites:

The woman in the above shot was explaining to the cop what a Sukkah is.

It was a beautiful day to be able to take a short lunch break and see something extraordinary!

More shots of Sukkah City here.

Click on the below image for a full-size image of the flyer:

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Welcome to our (first!) sukkah

That's what Minna seems to be saying (electric screwdriver in hand). With around $35 in lumber and a kit from the Sukkah project, Minna (with only minimal help from me, I have to admit) got the frame of our sukkah just about all up, today. This is the first time since I was a kid that I've lived somewhere that had enough (unshaded) outdoor space for a sukkah, so I'm pretty excited. And with the Jewish holidays so early this year, the weather really might be nice enough not only to eat in the sukkah, but maybe to sleep out there, too!

Thanks, Minna!
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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How and why do we use rabbinic texts to form rabbis?

It's a new semester at NYU (the first of my second year in the Education and Jewish Studies PhD program here), and I'm starting to get excited again about my classes -- and my work here!

Last semester was my introduction to social science  research methods, especially the kind favored by researchers interested in social change -- ethnography and in-depth interviewing -- and I started to get excited about the idea of doing that kind of work studying a rabbinical school or chaplaincy training program.

This semester, it looks like I'm going back for a bit to my philosophical, theological and textual (as in Jewish text study) roots. I'm really excited about a Philosophy of Education class I'm taking with Rene Arcilla. In this class, it seems to me the prof wants to do something that is profoundly counter-cultural in today's results! results! results! focused culture (educational and otherwise) -- he wants us to consider not how philosophy might help us raise kids' text scores, but rather how education might be a part of how we approach life in general. That is, how education might help us make our lives (individually and collectively) more 'good' and more human.  . . .  For a guy committed to a faith tradition that sets up Torah study as a central spiritual value and practice, that's a pretty exciting approach. Arcilla wants us to read some classical philosophical texts touching on education -- Plato, Rousseau, Dewey -- and to do with them what I want students to be able to do with classical Jewish texts: make them our own.

Arcilla thinks of this, in part, as a task of translation -- the task of translating our world/lives into the language of these texts (to become "slightly bilingual," as he put it). The main task, he says, is to use these "historically distant" texts to help us examine our own perspective and assumptions. We should treat them as "messages in a bottle found on a beach" and not try and subject them to historical analysis, or try to read them in light of their historical contexts (something that might indeed be appropriate in a different class).

I'm looking forward to seeing how Arcilla does this, especially because it sounds so much like what I think the best Torah teaching is like. It has me thinking again about different directions or approaches for my own future dissertation work. It reminds me that much of my interest is rooted in the frustration I heard so often from other students in my rabbinical school career -- "why are we studying Talmud? What does this have to do with my future rabbinate?"

So often, the only answer teachers seemed to have was "trust me, it's important." A better answer, I think, is to say that Talmud study is about rabbinic/spiritual formation (and maybe, also, to be able to say something about how text study has formed you, the teacher). That is, it's about learning to think like its authors -- to think (and feel and teach) like a rabbi. But that, alone, is not a good enough answer. And maybe my research will be about putting some "flesh" on the mere bones of that answer -- of working on formulating a better theory (backed by evidence!) of how Talmud (and other Jewish text) study forms rabbis. What works and what doesn't -- and what kind of study forms the kind of rabbis we want to form (ones, I hope, who have some pastoral and emotional sensitivity and depth, in addition to being smart and well versed in the Jewish tradition). [My first Talmud teacher, Devora Steinmetz, has written a great article about some of these issues -- where she claims that Talmud study helps create people prepared to routinely deal with the most difficult questions, the ones where there is no clear wrong or right answer -- but I don't think it's electronically available.]

I was just thinking of all this while I was reading an article for a class I'm taking on Talmud Narratives with the world's premier scholar on Talmud stories, Jeffrey Rubenstein. In the article, Jacob Neusner discusses two famous rabbinic stories -- that of Honi the Circle maker (who audaciously demanded that God bring rain) and that of the escape of Yohanan ben Zakkai from the besieged Jerusalem to found the great rabbinic academy at Yavnah (where tradition tells us the first great document of rabbinic Judaism, the Mishna, was composed). Neusner's claim (once radical but now pretty much the conventional wisdom) is that these stories do not in any way depict actual historical events. They are written as didactic tales -- stories to make a point, to teach a lesson.

That alone didn't really get my attention. But what did was Neusner's further claim that the stories' intended audience is rabbis -- they "project a picture of what a rabbi should be, which is a master of Scripture and Torah." [213] That is, they are stories by rabbis, for rabbis.

I am excited about the days ahead!

Saturday, September 11, 2010