Teaching and Writing

Last night I taught in the Oregon Board of Rabbis’ Introduction to Judaism course. I teach one to three sessions each semester, as do all the other rabbis in town. I’ve been doing it for the last six years or so.

In the beginning, I would go to the classes with a detailed outline of my lecture for whatever my subject was: often, I would have two typewritten pages of notes for a two hour class. Last night, I walked in with a Post-It which contained all of my notes for the two hours:

Jewish Spirituality:

  • Communal and Individual Prayer
  • Study
  • Gemilut Hasadim [translation: Good Deeds]
  • Meditation
  • Mussar

With only that as a guide, I lectured, fairly coherently, for 2 hours. And apparently, it was a good lecture (based on the comments I got from students after the class). Now, the interesting part of this, to me, is that I no longer worry about my ability to give a, more or less, off the cuff lecture of whatever length. It is subject matter I am comfortable with, and I know that I will be able to play off of the class to judge what is working, what is not working, and where I need to spend more time, and what ideas seem to be clear the first time through.

    I am told that my presentation of ideas is interesting because it is not like that of the other rabbis who teach in the course. I challenge the accepted ideas, expand people’s vision of what Judaism is, of what a rabbi is. Yet the words, these teachings are ephemeral. They pass from my mouth, to my students’ ears and into their minds, but leave no lasting trace, except for their possible effect on the future lives of the students.

    When I write, there is a permanence. Yet I often feel that my best thoughts are those that are delivered orally, with fewer notes. Some year, I will remember to begin to record my lectures, to see if they are actually worthy of being written text. Because so many of my words are spoken, while so little is written.

    Despite being a largely literate culture, I wonder to what degree our tradition remains an oral tradition. The words spoken by our teachers, remembered or misremembered by us, and repeated on to our students. I also wonder whether this is the nature of humans, of life: all is transitory, and what remains is what people remember of what we have taught.

    Finding the Time for Quiet

    In this world we live in, in this day and age, it’s difficult to find time to be quiet and just listen to the world. To take a little time while not “doing” anything, and to let our minds run free, thinking the thoughts we need to think.

    Some traditions call this process meditation. Others call it “spacing out.” I used to call it “playing Tetris.” It’s all the same, though. Giving ourselves a little time and space for our minds to process the not quite surface level thoughts. It gives us a chance to raise the not quite conscious thoughts to the level of consciousness. This process gives our brains a chance to solve problems that might stump our conscious minds, or to put together the pieces of our lives in new ways.

    I’ve been lax, recently, about carving out time and space for this process. And so, I’m going to try to go back to creating that time, reserving it for quiet reflection about whatever my brain needs to reflect on.

    The more suspicious amongst you might suggest that this relates to Eva recently chastising me for bringing up work related questions at bedtime. And there might be a connection. After all, if I don’t do this thinking earlier in the day, my brain does it when I (and Eva) are trying to fall asleep. Whatever the spur, however, it’s a good thing, and an important practice in my life.

    Thinking About Writing Versus Writing

    Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about writing. I’ve planned out many posts for this blog. I’ve plotted out various chapters of novels. I’ve even begun sketching out a new novel. I have, however, done precious little actual writing. In case anyone was wondering, this isn’t a particularly useful way to go about writing.

    I see things in the world, and I think: that would make a good blog post. And then, somehow, I never get around to writing it. I get stuck in my fiction, trying to figure out how to solve a problem, and rather than writing my way out of the conundrum, I plan, and think. Except, that I never quite seem able to solve a problem without  actually writing it. Nonetheless, I wait for the solution to emerge before sending words to page (or screen, as the case may be).

    Sure, there are good reasons why I haven’t been writing recently: Passover, then my grandmother dying and heading back East for her funeral, and then returning only to spend a week so sick a trip to the kitchen left me flat for hours. But I’m running out of excuses. Now, I’m just out of practice, out of the habit, and need to get back into writing.

    So here I am, writing about writing, hoping it’s not overly boring, and that I can make it the beginning of a new pattern: balancing the writing with the planning.