Art + Torah = Powerful Learning Experiences
By Alicia Jo Rabins
Sometimes I feel like the opposite of a comedian: when I do my job well, people cry. This sounds odd, but it’s true. And though I joke about it, I don’t take it lightly.
Let me explain. I am an artist and Jewish educator. My work explores ancient Jewish texts – especially texts about women – through music, writing and performance. Through combining art and Torah, I explore how our personal stories and contemporary lives intersect with ancient Jewish stories.
And the crying? Aristotle calls this phenomenon catharsis: “The process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions, through art.”
In other words: sometimes, when art works, people cry.
Crying, I think, is the opposite of boredom. And this is the power of art in Jewish education: to create profound engagement.
How does a girl from suburban (non-Jewish) Baltimore end up making art about Torah?
Growing up in a secular family, I longed for community and a sense of my place in the universe. In college, I began to study Judaism, vaguely hoping that the Torah might help me escape my problems. Instead, I began to see my problems reflected in the Torah – especially in the stories of women.
These stories dealt with family, intimacy, friendship, power, disappointment, beauty, alienation. They were, in a way, my everyday struggles writ large.
I suddenly felt a lot less lonely.
Rachel and Leah love each other as sisters, yet they struggle. In their story I recognized the passionate, complicated female friendships of high school and college.
Miriam, after speaking out against Moses, is stricken with leprosy and exiled for a week. Reading her story, I thought of times I’d found myself frozen out of a group after speaking an unpopular position.
Judith uses her beauty and charm to conquer an enemy general. In her (apocryphal) story I recognized my struggle to find my own power, and to act for social justice.
All along, my problems had felt like modern, personal problems. But these stories of Biblical women, and others like them, taught me that my problems and challenges were, rather, human problems. These problems were not a detour on my life path; they were an important part of the human journey. They were elemental. I was not alone.
After college, I studied at Pardes for two years, completed a Master’s at JTS, and began to teach. The texts I taught also began to find their way into my art. My teaching and my art began to intertwine. I found myself writing music and poems about women in Torah, and how their complicated lives intersected with my own, and then I found myself using these songs to teach the stories of women in Torah. The results were powerful and transformative.
As Jewish educators, a big part of our job is to spark authentic connection. Art is our ally in this challenge.
How does this work?
Allow me a 90’s pop culture example. Think about your relationship to the sinking of the Titanic before, and after, watching the movie Titanic. The shipwreck goes from historical event, to personally felt tragedy. (Again: tears.)
L’havdil between Titanic and the Torah – and yet it is the same principle. Creative exploration has the almost magical power to build instant connective tissue between a person and a text.
And I think the rabbis delighted in this exact property while creating midrash – which is, after all, art about Torah.
I have seen firsthand the power of art and Torah. For fifteen years, I’ve been touring around the world, bringing music into the classroom and Torah onto the stage. I’ve been watching people of all ages, all denominations, interact with the Torah through art. And here is what I have seen:
Art about Torah opens up a secret passageway, allowing Jewish texts to slip past our usual intellectual conversation and interact directly with our emotional selves.
Art about Torah invites our Judaism into that deep place where we are aware of the currents of vulnerability and strength beneath our daily lives.
It entertains us. It moves us. It makes us more ourselves.
And sometimes, on a very good day, art about Torah can make us cry.
Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician, performer and Torah teacher based in Portland, Oregon. The New York Times calls her voice “gorgeous”; the San Francisco Chronicle calls her writing “an astonishing find.” Her poetry book, “Divinity School,” won the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize. She has released three albums of songs about women in Torah with her project, Girls in Trouble, as well as the Girls in Trouble Curriculum, a series of study guides and lesson plans about women in Torah through art, for teens and adults (free through April 2017 thanks to the generosity of the Covenant Foundation).