General Rabbinic

Teaching is Fun

After two weeks of teaching at Willamette University, I’m ready to declare teaching fun. I’m sure I won’t always feel as positive about it as I do right now, but I just finished going over my students first set of  ”response papers,” an every-other-week writing assignment in which I ask them to react to the readings, the lectures, or their own reactions to the course. Designed to be more blog-post than academic assignment (my instruction was that it should take 10 – 20 minutes), the responses have been as diverse as my students, which is exactly what I was hoping for.

It’s my first chance to see what students are connecting to in the course, or being challenged by in it.  One reason I love teaching is that I love forcing people to think beyond preconceptions, to explore ideas at a deeper level, and many of these students are doing exactly that. Whether reflecting on how what they are learning affects their own faith (non-Jewish), or thinking about the contrast between studying history and studying the mytho-historic account of a culture (in this case Judaism), to reflecting on teaching style, or a very detailed reaction to a specific page in the reading, it’s all been great.

I’m having so much fun with these response papers, I’d love to make them weekly (relax, students, I’m not going to do it). Even though I suspect it takes me as long to write notes on these as it took many of the students to write them in the first place, the thoughtfulness shown in the writing, and the connections made between material we’re covering and the rest of the world makes it a fabulous exercise. Judaism teaches that we learn as much from our students as we do from our teachers. I’m honored to be learning from my students.


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.

General Jewish Spirituality Rabbinic spirituality

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.