Monday, July 09, 2018

A Theory of Self-Integration

One of the statements Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik makes that I find most profound is found in Halakhic Man, pages 93-94:
The Halakhah, however, rejects such a personality split, such a spiritual schizophrenia. It does not differentiate between the man who stands in his house of worship, engaged in ritual activities, and the mortal who must wage the arduous battle of life. The Halakhah declares that man stands before God not only in the synagogue but also in the public domain, in his house, while on a journey, while lying down and rising up. [Emph mine] "And thou shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down and when thou risest up" (Deut 6:7).  
 The primary difference between halakhic man and homo religiosus is that while the latter prefers the spirit to the body, the soul to its mortal frame, as the main actor in the religious drama, the former, as has been stated above, wishes to sanctify the physical-biological concrete man as the hero and protagonist of religious life. Therefore, the whole notion of ritual assumes a special form in Judaism. The standard notion of ritual prevalent among religious men-i.e., ritual as a nonrational religious act whose whole purpose is to lift man up from concrete reality to celestial realms- is totally foreign to Judaism. 
 According to the outlook of Halakhah, the service of God (with the exception of the study of the Torah) can be carried out only through the implementation, the actualization of its principles in the real world. The ideal of righteousness is the guiding light of this world-view. Halakhic man's most fervent desire is the perfection of the world under the dominion of righteousness and loving-kindness- the realization of the a priori, ideal creation, whose name is Torah (or Halakhah), in the realm of concrete life. The Halakhah is not hermetically enclosed within the confines of cult sanctuaries but penetrates into every nook and cranny of life. The marketplace, the street, the factory, the house, the meeting place, the banquet hall, all constitute the backdrop for the religious life. The synagogue does not occupy a central place in Judaism. [emph mine]" 
 In Worship of the Heart, pages 167-168, he also writes:
 The prophets protested against the view that man's world is divided into two domains, the secular and the sacred, and that, within the former, man is free to behave as he desires, without subjecting himself to the yoke of commandment and duty. They protested against the view that it is only in the second domain (the sacred) that man must serve God, and that as long as one discharges one's cultic obligations, all is well. The prophets did not tolerate the outlook which says that God requires only one region to be consecrated to His Name, only one region in which man is to unburden himself of the yoke of his many calculations and consecrate himself to the single purpose of worshipping God in holiness. They protested against discontinuity between the secular and sacred domains. [emph mine] They opposed the strange leap from the secular to the sacred, from the defiled to the pure. Against all these phenomena the prophets remonstrated, as well as against the occluded heart that howls sublime utterances and the personality that is insolent outside the Temple, but genuflects and abases itself within its precincts. Any disjunction of the self, any hypocrisy connected with such two-faced conduct, aroused the prophets' abhorrence and revulsion. Worship in the Temple and worship of the heart are both rooted in man's existence as a singular being endowed with identity and continuity. Both prayer and sacrifice are retrospective. The praying person pauses for a moment in his hurried life and looks back at what has been done; if what was done is dishonest and impure, the prayer is an abomination.
Both statements speak to the need for a person to be self-integrated. A person should feel complete. There should not be a divide between the part of themselves they view as secular and the part of them they view as sacred. They are one person, and as one person, they should connect with God. It does not matter where they are - at home or at synagogue. No matter where they are, God is there, too.

However, what I often find is that our students in Jewish day schools feel fractured. They open their sefarim in our Chumash classes but also listen to secular pop music and watch movies. They don't know how to resolve these disparate parts of their identity, so they keep them separate.

My goal as a teacher is to help students become more self-integrated. I do not believe a person can learn Torah, or indeed, truly connect with God, if they do not know who they are or what they stand for. I think students should own their identities- even the parts of them that religious figures might judge. Ideally, what I strive to help students do is to actually use the secular parts of their identity to enhance the religious parts. We are raising sparks, if you will. One of my favorite assignments in class is a playlist project where students have to use the lyrics from music they listen to to depict the relationship between God and Bnei Yisrael in Jeremiah 2. A student said something that struck me: "I liked that I could use the music I actually listen to in this assignment. I feel like with other teachers I would have had to change the music."

This is not an uncommon perception. Many times the Judaic Studies teachers at a given day school are more to the right than their student body. On the one hand, this can be a good thing- it may cause the students to have an encounter with people who are different from them, and this may lead to inspiration or a desire to become more like that individual. On the other hand, it seems to suggest to the students that they are not enough as they are- that there is no way for them to forge an authentic relationship with God if they listen to pop music that includes explicit lyrics, for example. They would need to hide that part of themselves (or indeed, get rid of it) to find God.

It's this message that I reject. We should accept each child as they are. As my friend Jewish Atheist stated long ago, to accept is not to condone. I may not think it is proper to eat dairy at a non-kosher or non-hechshered restaurant, but I can accept and love the child who does so. She doesn't need to hide it from me. It will not get in the way of my ability to teach her. In fact, I think she ought to think about it further. Why does she eat there? Does she truly not think it is wrong- and if so, why is that? How is she interpreting the halachot? Or is it that her friends are going there, and she doesn't want to be the one person who refuses to go along with them? Knowing why she does the things she does will help her to know herself better. Knowing herself better will enable her to form a more honest, real connection to God. It is okay to stand before God and say, "I am not yet doing everything I should be. But here is where I am right now, and please take me as I am." It's also okay to stand before God and say, "I believe I am serving you correctly, and here's why." The point is to make the person think about it- to consider what they do.

It's even better if we can take things that are part of our students' reality which may not actually contravene halakha- music, movies and so on- and show how they can enhance and even reveal biblical and religious themes. Suddenly these aspects of their life which the teenagers assumed were wholly secular reveal hidden dimensions that can resonate in the religious realm.

Teaching students not to be fractured, and instead to be integrated, is important. I hope more people will join me in doing it.

1 comment:

David Staum said...

Very important post. Thank you! This message should be part of pedagogical training in the Jewish community.

BTW, I notice that the non-judgmental attitude of tolerance and acceptance you describe is much more pervasive in so-called "out of town" smaller Jewish communities, where the day schools by their nature serve a much wider variety of students, religious practice-wise.