Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Be like angels

The sound of scribbling pencils is, for me, the sound of potential. It's the sound of thinking, of exploring ideas, of creativity, of self-expression. The nice thing about writing is that it allows thought to precede expression. It gives kids a chance to contemplate before they share. That's why I love getting kids writing.

This year I, along with 4 other members of the Davis Jewish Studies team, have been rotating through grades 1-5 for Tefilah. Each of us has 4 sessions per grade. Our theme: God. Our goal: to create a space for kids to learn about, explore, and reflect on God and God ideas. We're each approaching the theme with a unique pedagogical perspective. Mine is creative writing.

During my most recent Tefilah session with 1st grade, I asked the kids to write about how they/we can be God's "helpers." After a few minutes of scribbling pencils they had a chance to share their thoughts out loud if they wished. The first child to be called on, Eli K. [sharing his name with his parents' permission] said, "We can help people."

Though he was sitting toward the back of the room I could tell that Eli had more written on his page than what he had read aloud. I praised him and then asked if that was all he'd written. He said, "I've written more, but I'm not sure if it makes sense." I told him, "Our ideas don't always have to make sense." And I asked him if he'd like to share the rest.

"We can be like angels and kiss the mezuzah." 

Well that took my breath away. I told him as much and added that what he'd written made sense to me. And even though a week has gone by, I'm still reflecting on the experience. 

Part of what inspired us to take a thematic approach to Tefilah and focus on God is the fact that there's a pretty remarkable dearth of compelling, thoughtful, authentic, and helpful God language in the Jewish community at large. Lots of Jewish people claim to believe in God, but aren't able to tell you about the God they believe in. Others are quick to say they don't believe in God, but can't tell you "which" God they don't believe in. It's a shame because Judaism is a "big tent" when it comes to God-- lots of different and sometimes conflicting ideas, lots of tentative notions, lots of potential. There's a disconnect between the rich and complex discussion of God in Jewish tradition across the ages and the widespread lack of ability to articulate our God ideas today. 

That brings me back to the 1st grader who first said, "We can help people," and then added, "We can be like angels and kiss the mezuzah." "We can help people" is a pretty safe idea to express in a God conversation. "We can be like angels and kiss the mezuzah," is a much more complex, spiritually vibrant, and robust idea for a 1st grader to express. Below you'll see a photograph of Eli's written response. You'll notice, as I did, that he switched the order of his answer when given a chance to share. In writing he went straight to the angels. In speaking he took a more cautious approach. If we hadn't done the writing, if we hadn't given him the space to reflect on what God means to him, then it's possible that he never would have expressed either of these ideas. 

I don't think that the lack of vibrant God language in the Jewish community and beyond is because Eli and the rest of us don't have the yearning, the imagination, or the vocabulary to think about God. I think it's because we don't provide safe or engaging spaces to do so. I think we put the God conversation on the Procrustean Bed very early on. Consequently, the vast potential of the child's spiritual and religious imagination slowly atrophies. Here at Davis we have the ability to nurture rather than neglect that beautiful aspect of humanity within our children. 

Here's Eli's actual writing, a beautiful artifact that illustrates what I'm writing about here:

1 comment:

  1. Rabbi, my comments on this piece are certainly biased as Eli is my grandson. I wanted to write you, first to send my gratitude for sharing this incredibly sensitive action from what we (of course) already think of as a special kid, and second, to provide some feedback on this posting. My wife, a retired educator with over 38 years of experience, including teaching and administration, was completely overwhelmed, but not surprised. She understands when she sees things like this that it is not only because the child has insight, but also because there must be an environment that finds a way to draw that out of kids.

    Schools need to nurture that potential and give children very liberal opportunities to express themselves. We’ve told Eli’s parents that ensuring all of their children remain in this wonderful school is a priority specifically because of that environment. What I’ve seen here merely amplifies our already high perception of the people that are a part of this incredible school. So, first, thank you for that. We were there for Grandparents Day and were overwhelmed with what we saw in the classroom environments. Both our grandchildren absolutely love it there.

    Your description regarding the lack of helpful “God Language” in the Jewish community is spot on. I’m not sure it has to do so much with a level of belief or lack of belief, but more so in the overall message we are sending to children and the abrupt opportunity to stop sending it. Schools such as Davis have that opportunity to establish a solid foundation PROVIDED it is accepted as augmentation of home based values. As you say, having the safe environment to have God conversations is critical – Davis and other places, isolated as they are – do provide that safe haven. But where does it go after that? If it’s not spoken at home, it’s lost the second they are out of that environment. The perfect example is, as you point out, Eli’s hesitation to speak the whole statement, but felt safe in writing. I know for a fact, that my daughter and son in law provide a very nurturing Jewish environment at home. There are no words to express how proud of them my wife and I are. That is reflected in Eli’s “openness” to do this.

    Rabbi, I believe Eli, even at such a young age, actually "gets it”. He has an uncanny grasp of things and frankly, we are surprised at times at the level he responds on some questions. But more so, he seems to see the world in a very compassionate way – I believe he absolutely understands what the message of Tikkun Olam is. His home environment and the great work at Davis make that possible. It is all of our jobs, however, to make sure he (and his classmates) carries this message his whole life. That is what will provide the environment for “God conversation”. Your blog here, outside of the wonderful personal aspect of it, is excellent.

    I realize now that being a grandparent IS the exact job I’ve always wanted, just didn’t know it!