Rabbi David, Now as a Professor

Tomorrow, I embark on a new adventure. I will be teaching a college course on Judaism at Willamette University.

Now, I’ve taught about Judaism in a variety of settings for years. I’ve taught pre-schoolers. I’ve taught kids in elementary school. I’ve taught middle-schoolers (the pre-schoolers were way easier). I’ve taught high-school students. I’ve taught adults. I’ve even taught classes at retirement homes. But, until now, never have I taught at a college.

The good news is that I have a fair amount of experience as both an undergraduate and a graduate student. The even better news is that, in some ways, this will be the educational setting that is the best match for my style, which is challenging people to think about ideas, and to question easy answers.

So I’ve selected textbooks, put together a syllabus and begun to outline lectures and class sessions. I’ve been to the university HR office, and been officially hired as a part-time Visiting Assistant Professor. I know where my classroom is, and have enjoyed fabulous support from the departmental secretary. Admittedly, I’m still somewhat confounded by the internal websites for the university, but that might be because I don’t have everything setup right yet.

And tomorrow, I drive down to Salem, and I enter a new classroom, with a new group of students, and together, we’ll learn something about Judaism.

Jewish Spirituality Rabbinic spirituality

Life's Not Fair

As part of my rabbinic work, I collaborate (using the term somewhat loosely) with students who are about to become bar or bat mitzvah. They are approaching the age of 13, which means one of the phrases I hear relatively frequently is, “that’s not fair.” This group of kids (of whom I am very fond) is particularly sharp, but also very strong willed. Thus, I am occasionally informed that something is unfair at times that a more timid individual might refrain.

Case in point: I have the students up on the bima with me during services, to help them learn how to lead. This week, I asked them to individually begin to read sections on their own, or to lead the congregation in reading. And I was informed, in the middle of services, nay, in the middle of a specific prayer, that I was unfairly distributing the parts, and that the student who felt this discrimination had already read more than some of her compatriots. My response at the time was, “life’s not fair.”

In thinking about it later, I realized just how true my statement was.

Life’s not fair. My students, and I, are, by virtue of having been born in the United States at the end of the 20th century, afforded a standard of living higher than almost anyone born in any other time or place. We do not need to fear famine. Most disease is treatable. We live in outrageous luxury. Which gives us time to complain about the fairness of life–or the lack thereof.

I fully recognize that this is not the answer to my students’ complaint. Nonetheless, the realization that life isn’t fair, and that I am the beneficiary of the unfairness is uncomfortable for me. It is something to struggle with. It is somehow much more comfortable to say, “life’s not fair” when one is being disadvantaged by that unfairness than when one is benefiting from it. While I am benefiting from the unfairness, I somehow feel obliged to make the world more fair. . .though I am no more to “blame” for my advantage than I would be for my disadvantage. But being advantaged does give me some responsibility.

Because I am unfairly born with a larger proportion of resources than are my due, I do have the ability to effect more change than one born without those resources. I have the education to make my voice heard. I have the opportunity to teach my students that they are in fact, correct, that life isn’t fair, and we all need to work to change that.

Jewish Spirituality Rabbinic spirituality

Is this Shabbat?

I’m getting ready for my weekend, which includes shabbat. In this case, that includes a double bar mitzvah at services tonight and Saturday morning. You might think this would mean less work for the rabbi, since the bar mitzvah boys will be leading much of the service. Somehow, however, the anxiety of being the cheerleader for those leading the service outweighs the reduction in workload from actually leading the service.  I know they’ll do fine, but it always is a little bit stressy for everyone involved.

The preparation is largely done, though I am still polishing the two sections of Torah I’ll be reading tomorrow morning. I have my “sermons” (really more like speeches to the young men) ready for tonight.

For Sunday, I’m beginning an adult Hebrew class.  I’m putting together my own curriculum and materials for the class.  This will either work really well or really poorly (or something in between). The basic idea is that I’m going to be teaching vocabulary in a less systematic way than formal language instruction normally would, with the emphasis on words that come up frequently in prayers. This week will largely be about separating out the prefixes and suffixes from words, and a few very basic words.

Even on a shabbat when I’m working, I prefer to head into it with a feeling of mindfulness, that I feel like is missing this week. Somehow, this feels more like, “once more into the breach…” than focusing on each moment and aspect as it arrives. However, shabbat is still a good 6 hours off or so, and perhaps I’ll have transformed by then.

In the meantime, a photo from yesterday:  driving-dog.jpg

Jewish Spirituality knitting

Ripping Back the Knitting

Last week, I stood on the bima (the raised stage at the front of the synagogue) on a Sunday morning, in front of the Sunday school, during our weekly religious school prayer service, ripping back a shawl I was about a third of the way through with. I was ripping back dozens of hours of work. And I asked the kids how they thought I was feeling.

Fortunately I got the expected responsese: “I bet you feel lousy.” “You must be really sad.”

I proceeded to explain that, in fact, I felt quite okay about it. I knit not because I am so invested in the finished garment, but because I like knitting. I was bored with this project, and didn’t think I would find it interesting as a piece of work once it was done. So I was ripping it out. The key aspect, however, is that I knit for the sake of knitting, so by tearing back and using the yarn  for something else, it provided me with even more opportunity to knit.

The reason I was explaining this during a prayer service is that prayer  is just like this. I pray not to get to some desired goal. I do not expect God to directly answer or “grant” my prayers. I do not do it so that I am suffused with a sense of peace and spirituality (though often I am). I pray because I enjoy praying, which is the best reason to pray. When you pray with some other goal in mind, there is always a significant chance of being disappointed. But when you pray because it is something you want to do, even if you don’t get a sense of peace from praying, it has not been wasted time. And even if I don’t enjoy every moment of prayer, like knitting, I continue because I know that, overall, I enjoy it, and sometimes you just have to push through the boring to get to the satisfaction. When you’re knitting a sock, there will be some 2 x 2 ribbing. When you pray, there will be times when it’s going through the motions. But you have to go through the motions to get to the times that you enjoy.