Thursday, December 01, 2016

The Purpose of Jewish Education: Transformation Through Meaning

Recently, Dr. David Bryfman proposed that the purpose of Jewish education ought to be to empower people to "thrive in today's world." He followed that sentence with "For Jewish education to be successful, it must hold at its core the mission to make people happy." He then qualifies:
"Not ‘happy’ in the smiley or laughing sense of the word, although the world surely needs a whole lot more of both these days. But ‘happy’ as in fulfilled; enabling young people to flourish by helping students feel like they are putting forth the best version of themselves."
 I fundamentally disagree with Dr. Bryfman's view and would like to propose an alternative approach.
The purpose of Jewish education should be to transform individuals through making them aware of the meaning in and of their lives.
This may be what Bryfman intended when he talked about happiness as fulfillment or as enabling young people to present the best version of themselves. Additionally, he indicated that Jewish education should enable individuals to answer existential questions such as:

  • Who am I?
  • Where do I fit in this world? 
  • How can I live a more fulfilling life?
  • How can I make the world a better place? 

I would agree that personal fulfillment and identity creation are important. But I do not agree with the idea that these are the ultimate goals and that in order to achieve them, Judaism should be marketed to people based on what appeals to them. I do not agree with a learner-centered focus in the way that Bryfman suggests it. Bryfman believes that a learner-centered focus involves appealing to individuals with the Jewish traditions that will be most meaningful and valuable to them as opposed to trying to transmit an entire canon of Jewish practice. (Examples from his article: "For some, it could be that the concept of Shabbat signals a welcome break from the frenetic pace of everyday life. For others, it will be when a connection to Israel offers a deeper relationship to one’s heritage or people. Or perhaps it could be when Jewish teachings offer confidence to respond to the demands, stresses, frustrations and even tragedies that one encounters in life.") I would agree that sharing what is immediately valuable to a Jewish individual is a starting point but it is by no means an end point or an end goal.

I am reminded of a scene in the Harry Potter series. Sirius Black is able to keep sane while at Azkaban, a feat few others can achieve. He is surrounded by Dementors who suck every happy thought out of a person. So what is it that sets him apart? Why can he stay sane? He explains:
"I think the only reason I never lost my mind is that I knew I was innocent. That wasn't a happy thought, so the dementors couldn't suck it out of me...but it kept me sane and knowing who I am...helped me keep my powers." 
Knowing the truth is what keeps Sirius grounded. It isn't happiness or personal fulfillment that saves him- it's meaning. Judaism is not about helping people thrive solely in today's world. Today's world is very self-centered. We perform our lives for social media. Happiness tends to be about hedonism and personal pleasure. Granted, there are certain individuals who will find their deepest happiness in helping others, but ask your typical teenager and they will talk to you about how materialism (having the newest iPhone etc) is what makes them happy. Even in Bryfman's piece, he talks about the goal being ensuring that individuals are personally "fulfilled." It is, once more, about the self. I disagree with that approach. No, happiness is not the solution. Judaism is about helping people find meaning in their lives, being inspired by the heroes and heroines of Jewish text and determining how to transform the self in order to be more like them. It is not about the self, fulfilled. It is about the self even when that self is unfulfilled. It is about that self when that self is struggling. There will be many occasions in life where one will not be happy, but a true grasp of one's Judaism will assist that person in surviving the seemingly insurmountable challenge. Judaism offers a connection with God, a connection with incredible characters, and blueprints of how to deal with tremendous challenge and pain. This is what will assist an individual in the invariable ups and downs of life.

Judaism is larger than self. It is, as Rabbi Soloveitchik once explained, not a panacea but more of a Pandora's box. Being Jewish means asking questions and struggling with man and God (the meaning of the word Israel). It is not about ourselves on a journey to fulfillment. Moses was not fulfilled when he died within sight of the Land, forbidden to enter. Saul was not fulfilled when he was told David would take his throne. Jeremiah was not fulfilled when he was appointed a prophet, chosen by God for a difficult mission. Judaism is about meaning and the kind of meaning that is so important that personal fulfillment becomes secondary. It is about ourselves on a journey to find meaning, meaning that will influence who we should strive to become, not who we are today.

Happiness is a low bar to set. Judaism should be about transforming individuals, meeting them at first by offering what is of immediate interest, but making a long term goal of allowing people to access the teachings that speak to what must be accomplished. This should refer to growth both in oneself and in the world at large. No, Judaism should not be made to cater to one's personal beliefs about what will make one happy or fulfilled. Rather, the individual should shift in accordance to the questions posed to them by the Jewish tradition.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Books

I'm happy to say I've been reading a lot lately. Most of my reading takes the form of audiobooks. I love that I now enjoy washing dishes, folding laundry and mopping floors-because that's my time to read! In the past week, I've read Nutshell by Ian McEwan, Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, Loner by Teddy Wayne and One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid. All of them were fascinating in very different ways.

Nutshell was a take on Hamlet, with Claude and Trudy (as stand-ins for Claudius and Gertrude) plotting to commit murder in order to be together. But the perspective from which it was told was unlike any other.

Big Little Lies helped me understand why an affluent woman would stay with a physically abusive man. The story was seriocomic and so much of it rang true (the in-fighting between kindergarten mums could have been set in the Five Towns) but the deeper message was excellent. I watched the trailer for the HBO series and it bears little resemblance to the fleshed-out, entertaining but fully human characters in the book.

Loner was terrifying and dragged me down into the world of T.J. Lane and Elliot Rodger. I realized that young people who are remorseless are the most disturbing type of villain. As an astute friend noted (Lightman), I expect the young to be good, impressionable, desirous of changing the world for the better. When killers are young, it seems worse.

I finished One True Loves most recently so that's the one that's still on my mind. The premise of the book is far-fetched. (A woman marries a man who is lost at sea and presumed dead. In time, she moves on, dates another man and becomes engaged. Then the first man- her husband- returns. She's now faced with an impossible choice.) Despite this, and the extremely quick resolution- unlikely to occur in real life-it had some wonderful ideas and quotes that I would like to write down here so that I can return to them.

1. "You're supposed to be Penelope. You're supposed to knit the shroud day in and day out and stay up every night unraveling it to keep the suitors at bay. You're not supposed to have a life of your own, needs of your own. You're not supposed to love again. But I did. That's exactly what I did."

2. "There is other love out there for me. But it's different. It isn't this. It isn't this exact love. It's better and it's worse. But I guess that's sort of the point of love between two people- you can't re-create it. Every time you love, everyone you love, the love is different. You're different in it."

I liked those concepts. I think many people assume that they're only supposed to love once, and I think it's insightful to note that the people we are tend to change and shift in accordance with the people we love (likely for better and for worse). Or perhaps- who we are at the time dictates who we love.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

On Identity & Integrity: Jean Valjean & Moses

The books that call to me like siren songs are those that wrestle with the question of identity. Is Hamlet mad or a consummate actor? Can Proctor live if he must sign his name to lies? Who would the Phantom have been if his genius had been respected, his skeletal face ignored? Why does the intelligent Anna Karenina fall for the foolish cad Vronsky? Does McMurphy care more for himself or for the plight of others? I seek to discover what it is in each character that makes them deeply human, as this is how I learn to love them.

Perhaps one of the most powerful moments in biblical literature occurs when Moses, adoptive son of Pharoah's daughter, chooses to ally himself with his Hebrew brethren. In that climactic moment, Moses must choose: is he a Hebrew or an Egyptian? Does he care solely for himself or also for others? Is he willing to risk his wealth, status, inheritance and very life for the sake of a man he does not know?

I realized tonight that Moses' choice is echoed in the famous work Les Miserables. In this work convict Jean Valjean escapes and reforms himself, becoming mayor of a city and enabling its inhabitants to live well and justly. Unfortunately, legalistic inspector Javert will not give up his search for the escaped convict. Through an accident of fate, a different man is assumed to be Valjean, and will be tried and sentenced in his place. Knowing this, the real Valjean must determine whether he has a moral obligation to expose himself and suffer the consequences of telling the truth. Originally, in the book, Victor Hugo portrays Jean Valjean's dilemma as follows:
There was a moment when he reflected on the future. Denounce himself, great God! Deliver himself up! With immense despair he faced all that he should be obliged to leave, all that he should be obliged to take up once more. He should have to bid farewell to that existence which was so good, so pure, so radiant, to the respect of all, to honor, to liberty. He should never more stroll in the fields; he should never more hear the birds sing in the month of May; he should never more bestow alms on the little children; he should never more experience the sweetness of having glances of gratitude and love fixed upon him; he should quit that house which he had built, that little chamber! Everything seemed charming to him at that moment. Never again should he read those books; never more should he write on that little table of white wood; his old portress, the only servant whom he kept, would never more bring him his coffee in the morning. Great God! instead of that, the convict gang, the iron necklet, the red waistcoat, the chain on his ankle, fatigue, the cell, the camp bed all those horrors which he knew so well! At his age, after having been what he was! If he were only young again! but to be addressed in his old age as “thou” by any one who pleased; to be searched by the convict-guard; to receive the galley-sergeant’s cudgellings; to wear iron-bound shoes on his bare feet; to have to stretch out his leg night and morning to the hammer of the roundsman who visits the gang; to submit to the curiosity of strangers, who would be told: “That man yonder is the famous Jean Valjean, who was mayor of M. sur M.”; and at night, dripping with perspiration, overwhelmed with lassitude, their green caps drawn over their eyes, to remount, two by two, the ladder staircase of the galleys beneath the sergeant’s whip. Oh, what misery! Can destiny, then, be as malicious as an intelligent being, and become as monstrous as the human heart? 
And do what he would, he always fell back upon the heartrending dilemma which lay at the foundation of his reverie: “Should he remain in paradise and become a demon? Should he return to hell and become an angel?” 
What was to be done? Great God! what was to be done?
In the musical adaptation, Valjean's conflict is portrayed within the moving song "Who Am I?"




The entire song is powerful, but the part which echoes Moses' choice is this:


Who am I?
Can I condemn this man to slavery
Pretend I do not see his agony
This innocent who bears my face
Who goes to judgement in my place

Who am I?

It is precisely this question with which Moses struggles. At his core, who is he? What does he stand for? What are his values? Can he choose passivity even if not apathy? Can he choose the life he has known since he was weaned or must he throw it all away due to an ideal? Those of us who grow up with the story as children fail to see the tremendous moral struggle with which Moses engages. He looks "this way and that way" - determining who he is. At his core, is he Egyptian or Hebrew? Is he Jean Valjean or Monsieur Madeleine?

And in the end, as we know, Moses determines that he is a Hebrew. He kills the Egyptian. 

When Valjean speaks to Marius towards the end of the novel, he tells him: "You ask why I speak? I am neither denounced, nor pursued, nor tracked, you say. Yes! I am denounced! yes! I am tracked! By whom? By myself. It is I who bar the passage to myself, and I drag myself, and I push myself, and I arrest myself, and I execute myself, and when one holds oneself, one is firmly held."

Valjean and Moses are both men of integrity. Their identity is constructed based on their integrity. They cannot lie. They are not men of words, able to dissemble and perform in a politically staged manner for the sake of their own benefit- or even the benefit of others. In the same manner that Valjean considers the welfare of the city that depends on him, Moses could have waited, biding his time until (perhaps) he would become monarch, resolving to change the working conditions of the Hebrews at that point. But both of them realize this would be wrong. There is a moment of very real crisis and the response must be now- one cannot wait.

To live a meaningful life is to embrace the message of Moses & Valjean. Live with integrity. Be willing to do what is right, no matter the cost. Construct an identity based on core values. And recognize that one must aspire to live a life where one drags oneself, pushes oneself, arrests oneself and executes oneself. One who lives thusly does not fear death.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

On Trump, Scare Rhetoric & Civil Discourse

It's lucky I'm a liberal, because otherwise I would be having a pretty hard time at Northwestern.

It's de rigueur for students to be distraught over the outcome of the election. On the one hand, I appreciate that Donald Trump is a morally repugnant, unpleasant man. On the other hand, it's become increasingly clear that people create their own narrative of events and stick to it, ignoring evidence in favor of their personal flavor of frustration.

Donald Trump is already walking back many of his statements. Where before, he declared that he would deport all illegal immigrants, he is now limiting his plan to deporting those with criminal records. Where before, he said that one of his first acts in office would be to overturn Obamacare, he now wants to keep the clauses that allow children to stay on their parents' health insurance into their 20s and which forbid insurance companies from denying coverage due to preexisting conditions. Where before, he maligned Obama and referred to him in insulting ways, he is now willing to be tutored by Obama because he has been humbled by the realization that he does not actually understand the scope of the presidency.

During the third presidential debate, Hillary Clinton decried Trump's "scare rhetoric" and alarmist tactics when it came to his factually incorrect description of partial birth abortion. I think the same point can be made about current responses to Trump. Too many news outlets have been engaging in alarmist scare rhetoric, such that I even have liberal friends who are comparing the man to Hitler. I do not like Trump as a human being; he has chosen to be or don a persona that is misogynist, sexist and (intentionally or unintentionally) racist. Despite this, he is not Hitler. He has no plans of perpetrating mass genocide. To suggest otherwise is to enter the theater of the absurd.

There does appear to have been a rise in hate crimes due to people who think they know what Trump stands for and who believe themselves to be empowered by Trump. I question whether one can really hold Trump directly responsible for this; that seems similar to holding Eminem or other recording artists responsible for individuals who perpetrate crimes based on their music. (Of course, one could argue that someone running for such a public office as President bears more responsibility for his language than a recording artist.) I agree that it would behoove Trump to distance himself from these groups and condemn the hate crimes in very strong language, and thus far, he has not done that. This is certainly problematic.

I am disturbed by language in our media (especially media that skews liberal) that attacks individuals, not based on the merits, but based on who they are. For example, Ben Carson has been tipped to become the Secretary of Education. An explanation based on the merits would argue that Ben Carson has absolutely no qualifications for this position. Just because one has been educated in this country, created a foundation to hand out scholarships and has served as a prominent surgeon does not an educator make. An educator would be someone who has really thought about how public, private and charter schools are being run today, who understands policy issues, funding issues, cultural and racial issues and who has a plan to better our schools overall. An educator would be someone willing to listen to individuals across all viewpoints in an effort to lead with humility.

But the articles I am reading about Carson do not make these simple, sensible arguments. Instead, they talk about him as a creationist, deriding him for his religious views. People assume that because he is religious, he must also be ignorant. Because he believes in creation, it must mean that he wants all children in all public schools to be taught mythology rather than scientific reality. Now, it's possible that Carson has indeed stated this publicly and that I have just missed it. In that case, I would be troubled, as public schools must respect the separation between church and state. But until I see this stated publicly, Carson ought to be critiqued on the merits, and not because liberals cannot stand that he believes in God.

Our society as a whole would benefit from more civil discourse. Civil discourse would mean that liberals would not assume condescendingly that people who are religious only are that way due to a lack of exposure to other beliefs and ways of being. They would not assume that their values are the only correct values. It would also mean conservatives would not paint all liberals as out to corrupt their children. Our society is becoming increasingly black and white, and our news outlets are losing the ability to construct nuanced pieces. It's much easier for two sides to stand up and shout at one another than it is for the two to come together and truly hear one another. Hearing means reserving judgment and looking at the other person as a fellow human being.

It is important for us to stand up for fellow humans if they are being attacked or harmed. Thus, I applaud various initiatives that seek to make humans feel safe- such as wearing a safety pin or trying to create more camaraderie in the world. I disagree with continuing the divisive rhetoric by promoting protests, riots or ridiculous hashtags such as #NotMyPresident. You do not have to agree with Trump's values, nor do you have to respect him, to be governed by him. It is imperative that you recognize that this is not Syria. We are not directly at risk from ISIS or Boko Haram. We do not (for the most part) experience famine or water crises. There are people out there in the world who are experiencing actual disasters and Donald Trump as president is not one of these. He is foolish and possibly incompetent, maybe even dangerously so, but luckily we have a system of checks and balances in place that will prevent him from doing too much harm. If he does something unconstitutional, we have the ability to impeach him. Trump is hemmed in by laws and statutes. Thus, rather than grieving that people in the world do not share your values, the time has come to let those values shine- in a positive way. Give blood. Perform random acts of kindness. Volunteer your time with a worthy organization. Bring more good into the world. If you act like the kind of person others would want to become, they will come to you and ask to learn from you. This is the way to influence others and win respect.

If Trump begins to act in a way that directly threatens others, that will be the time to defend those individuals' human rights. But right now, it's time to be constructive, not destructive. As Mad-Eye Moody would say, "Constant vigilance!" Be watchful. Be ready. But in the meantime- actively work to be kind. Try to find what you have in common with someone who supports the candidate you did not vote for. Look for what is similar between you, not for what is different. If dialogue begins with love, it is far more powerful. Try to begin dialogues with love.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Love

I've read Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet many, many times. He writes a letter about love in which he warns that young people do not yet know how to love. They smash themselves against one another, and in the collision, break themselves to pieces.

I find myself thinking about this as I approach my sixth anniversary.

I have gone through so many transitions when it comes to things I believe. Though I am still young, I remember that when I was even younger I was troubled by these transitions. I felt like I was not being true to myself if I was constantly changing my mind. I believe it was my father who pointed out to me that I was changing my mind because I had acquired new evidence. Thus, I was not being fickle. I was being reflective. And it is good to be reflective, because it is through reflection that one determines whether one's practices are useful, meaningful or good.

I appreciate transitions much more now. I recognize that if I have reached a point of transition, it is because I have learned something important I could not fully comprehend or synthesize before.

Today, I'm thinking about love.

Originally, I thought of love as urgent, desperate, wild passion that pushed back the raging dark. Love to me was a barrier, the last white, great flame that would surround me when I felt certain that I would dissolve. Love was intense and it was its intensity that I craved. What I longed for, more than anything else, was to be thrown high upon crested waters, riding waves that would buoy me up when I felt I might be falling.

And there is power to that love. I won't deny it.

But the love one needs to fight back the dark is not love in its deepest form. One might say it is the very tip of the jutting iceberg, clear and understandable even as an adolescent. This is the love that cuts, burns, grinds down, sparks, careens, swoops and buffets.

This is not the love I feel now.

My current love is a steady, nurtured emotion. It is one I have tended. I have watered it like a plant, exposed it to sunlight and made sure the soil is loamy, rich and thick. It is a deep, deep feeling, and it pulses so faintly that I am not always aware of it. It is like my breath. It comes steadily, easily, so much a part of me that I forget it. Except, of course, for those times I pause to concentrate on it. This is the love that forms when people have seen one another, broken and whole, and recognize the beauty in the person seated before them. This is a quiet love, a forever love, the rope that is forged strand by strand, carefully, slowly woven together to form Gleipnir.

There is still passion. I can leap and twirl and dance and know his hand is outstretched, ready to clasp mine. I can feel sunbursts of joy exploding in my chest. The dark is still held back, but this time, it's not because of him. It's because of me.

The world is a very large place and we are but two people in it.
The world is a very large place but we are two people in it.

We are the children in a storybook, his hand pressed in mine. A sun sinks beneath the earth in a conflagration of orange, indigo and red. We watch, transfixed.
I turn. I lean against his side.
"Let's walk," I say.
He nods. "That way," he points.

We find each other in the journey.


Saturday, October 29, 2016

Kayin, Hevel, קדושה & Sacrifices

A typical reading of the story of Cain & Abel leaves one puzzled. Why does God prefer sheep? What's wrong with a vegetable offering?
ב  וַתֹּסֶף לָלֶדֶת, אֶת-אָחִיו אֶת-הָבֶל; וַיְהִי-הֶבֶל, רֹעֵה צֹאן, וְקַיִן, הָיָה עֹבֵד אֲדָמָה.2 And again she bore his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.
ג  וַיְהִי, מִקֵּץ יָמִים; וַיָּבֵא קַיִן מִפְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, מִנְחָה--לַיהוָה.3 And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.
ד  וְהֶבֶל הֵבִיא גַם-הוּא מִבְּכֹרוֹת צֹאנוֹ, וּמֵחֶלְבֵהֶן; וַיִּשַׁע יְהוָה, אֶל-הֶבֶל וְאֶל-מִנְחָתוֹ.4 And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering;

I'd like to suggest something else might be going on here.

The name קין comes from the root קנה which means to acquire. The term is usually used when it comes to possessions. Thus, the name קין seems inherently linked to materialism.

הבל, in contrast, can be translated futility. But another meaning of that word would be a fleeting breath, and fellow blogger Steg suggested the word "ephemeral." Things that are ephemeral are short-lived, but more than that, they also seem to connote something intangible. Our lives, to God's view, are ephemeral. We live and in the blink of an eye, we die. Thus, I think a case can be made that הבל, whose name connotes that which is fleeting, is likely to be someone who focuses on spirituality. He would be interested in something beyond the transient and transitory, having reflected on that (and on the meaning of his name).

Now we need to recall an important fact. Prior to the Flood, mankind was forbidden to eat meat. Their diet was comprised of fruits and vegetables. Meat was separate, sacred, something God was permitted and man was not.

So when קין offers his vegetable sacrifice, he is offering God something that he is permitted to eat as well. Here God, he's saying, enjoy the same vegetables I am permitted to enjoy.

In contrast, when הבל offers his sheep, he is offering God something of which he is not permitted to partake. This shows a deep understanding of what it means for something to be קדוש, special or sacred. Something is קדוש when it is separate, a thing apart. To be קדוש is to observe laws of separation. This separation occurs in what Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik refers to as the dignity in defeat, where one holds back one's own power and strength because one recognizes the authority of God over him. One does not sleep with one's wife when she is a niddah. One does not perform work on the Sabbath. One does not eat non-kosher foods. One does not marry outside the faith.

The sin of Adam and Eve was one where they wished to be "like God."
ד  וַיֹּאמֶר הַנָּחָשׁ, אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה:  לֹא-מוֹת, תְּמֻתוּן.4 And the serpent said unto the woman: 'Ye shall not surely die;
ה  כִּי, יֹדֵעַ אֱלֹהִים, כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְכֶם מִמֶּנּוּ, וְנִפְקְחוּ עֵינֵיכֶם; וִהְיִיתֶם, כֵּאלֹהִים, יֹדְעֵי, טוֹב וָרָע.5 for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.'

They did not understand that קדושה is about הבדלה, separations. They did not see why one tree had to be reserved for God and was not permitted to them. By eating of the tree that God had set aside, they declared that they did not need to observe separations and lacked an understanding of their role in the world.

הבל, in offering up a sheep, is rectifying their sin. He is saying: God, I understand that meat is sacred. It is only for you to have or enjoy. So I will slaughter this sheep and offer it up to You as a way of demonstrating my understanding that You are God and this is uniquely Yours, not mine. I understand my role and the fact that to be holy is to be separate- and to understand separations and boundaries. By offering this to you, I affirm my comprehension.

This is why God would accept הבל's offering but not קין's. It's also why God warns קין that sin is crouching at the door, waiting for him. If קין does not understand his role vs. God's- if his focus is on inviting God to partake of what he, too, can partake of- then he sees himself as equal to God. קין, like his parents before him, will strive to be "like God" in the sense that he does not accept the separateness of his role vs. God's. And indeed, that is exactly what happens. קין performs the first murder- taking life, which is a right reserved for God. קין determines that he has the right to kill, just as God has the right to end lives. God punishes קין in accordance with his logic. קין saw himself as equal to God, offering God the same vegetables of which he could partake- now the bloodied earth will not produce for him, and he will not grow any vegetables at all. He will be a wanderer and fugitive. The brother who should have been by his side is not there- will not witness Cain's marriage or the birth of his children. Because he has chosen to be a god, he will be hidden from God's face. Cain is condemned to live, and every day of his life will be a crushing reminder of the many ways in which he is not, in fact, a god. What הבל understood originally is what קין will come to understand- there is God and there is man, and the two are not the same.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Celebrating Success

I tend to be highly self-critical. My focus is on what is flawed, what can be improved, and the ways in which we can grow based on what did not go well. In my classroom, every day, I think about what I did not do well and try to come up with plans about how to do it better.

Today, however, there was a happy moment. And I think it's important to attempt to catalog the moments that are successful along with the ones I want to change.

I was teaching a group of 9th grade girls. They were responsible for learning a Seforno & a Ramban (which I provided with English translation) regarding Pharoah's plan. What kind of villain is Pharaoh? Did he plan out every step of his mass murder of Jewish males or did he simply make plans up as he went along? The foundation for this discussion was laid in previous sessions when we talked about different Disney villains and how some of them are masterminds whose evil schemes are premeditated (Scar from "The Lion King") and some are merely opportunists (Hans from "Frozen").

I divided the students up into two groups. One group was responsible for reading the Seforno. The other was responsible for reading the Ramban. I asked that the groups help each other make sense of the assigned text and the reading questions I had written. The end goal was for each group to present in front of the class and teach the text they had read to the remaining students.

At first, the students read silently. I was concerned they would all end up working individually rather than working together. But then, after I reminded and prompted them, they began to discuss the commentaries in their respective groups. The beautiful thing was that they were talking to each other, not to me. This Socratic style discussion involved critical thinking because the students had to listen to and respectfully disagree with one another when it came to answering questions that had been posed. I stepped in to remind them to look at the text they had just read to find proof or evidence to answer the questions.

I heard things like...

"But wasn't the reason that Pharoah was against them because there were just so many of them?"
"I thought it said that they weren't assimilating into the Egyptian culture."
"What you said is over here," and she pointed at the paper, "but if you read a little later on, you'll see..."
"His original goal was to enslave them, I thought."
"If you see here," and she pointed at the paper, "it says his original goal was to make them leave, but in such a way that Egypt wouldn't end up looking responsible."

That's what critical thinking is all about. Students being able to make sense of text, help each other understand text and then use evidence to back up their points. This is a constructivist approach to learning where the students take ownership of the task and collaborate together to assist one other in comprehending, considering and eventually, pushing back against or questioning the material. Today, I facilitated learning...and I felt like a rock star.