Thursday, July 21, 2011

Jewish pastoral care -- guided by sources, not theology

Being a Jew in the field of chaplaincy education is always a bit of an adventure -- the very term 'chaplain' can bring up Christian connotations in people's minds, as does the term 'pastoral care.' So, as a Jewish person, I am always trying to navigate between what I feel I can comfortably borrow from my Christian colleagues -- whose hard work and devotion to caring for the suffering have brought us the gift of an established way of thinking about how to train spiritual caregivers -- and what I must reject as being inconsistent with my Judaism. And, more importantly, what gifts do I have to bring out of my tradition to the broader field of pastoral care?

I had opportunity to think about this yesterday when I made a presentation on Midrash and Jewish pastoral care to some chaplaincy students at a hospital in Baltimore. I opened with one of my favorite quotes from Abraham Joshua Heschel: "A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought."

Heschel is often described as one of the greatest Jewish theologians of the 20th century. But can a man who -- as this quote indicates -- so clearly rejected with centrality of the cognitive (of thought) really even properly be called a theologian? I remember what one of my rabbinical school teachers told us about how to properly read Heschel. Don't look for organized thoughts, he said. Heschel organized his writing around sources (Holy texts from the Bible, Talmud and elsewhere) and so to understand him, you have to read his works the same way -- by revolving around the sources.

I think you might be able to say the same thing of the whole of Judaism. Our tradition -- our way -- is not so much organized rationally around structured thoughts, as it is around sources, the holy texts that guide and instruct us. At the beginning of our summer chaplaincy program at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the head of JTS' Center for Pastoral Education, Mychal Springer, gave a lecture about the nature of Jewish pastoral care (a talk that will become a book chapter soon). I noticed as she spoke that she was organizing her statements in the kind of Jewish way I described above -- she was going from holy text to holy text and talking about how that text instructs us, how it helps us to know who we are as spiritual caregivers when we stand before a suffering person.

In the field of Clinical Pastoral Education, we often ask the people training to be its educator/supervisors, "what does your theory tell you to do in this situation." I have always bristled at this question. "What theory?" I have thought. "I have no theory, I only have sources."

One thing that may be coming out of this wonderful summer of teaching pastoral care in a Jewish institution that once nurtured me so much as student is a greater confidence of embracing my "theorylessness" and my "sourcefullness." It's a genuine part of what makes me a Jewish supervisor, and not just a supervisor who happens to be Jewish.


By the way, this way of thinking about about sources as _instructing_ us is related to some thinking I have been doing about how to define spirituality in an inclusive way that accounts for a Jewish approach. Here is an _insruction-centered_ definition of spirituality I came up with for a paper last semester (thanks to Even Senreich for helping inspire this definition):

Spirituality refers to a person’s sense that there is something larger and universal that exists beyond his or her person, and is, most importantly, a source of ultimate instruction about what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad, what is meaningful and what is not. This source might be other humans (as in a member of a nation deriving ultimate instruction about when it is right to kill from a sense of his or her membership in that nation), or it might be something beyond the human (eg, God). The person might be part of that source, or completely separate from it. The magnitude of a person’s spirituality – both in general and in a particular moment – is measured by the extent he or she feels instructed by his or her source when faced with the most difficult and existential questions in life.

1 comment:

Minna said...

Very well put! One thing this reminds me of is the sense of analysis as breaking things down into smallest pieces. This breaking things down can also be a key part of organizing by theory. A source-full approach offers a good counterbalance to the dangers of breaking things down this way: dehumanization, missing the forest for the trees, etc.