By Dr. Bill Robinson
All the way back in the premier article of this series, I described Jewish practices as analogous to eastern disciplines, such as yoga, meditation and Tai Chi. Each is learned through intentional focus and reflection, improving one’s practice and strengthening one’s physical or spiritual “muscles” over time. One does not simply follow rules, but rather develops a feel for the “correct” stance, receptivity, or move. In this way, we acquire the virtues that are offered by those practices, such as physical and emotional balance, mindfulness, centeredness, and responsiveness.
Two weeks ago, I suggested that “Judaism already sees life itself an epic game, and the core purpose of Jewish education is to cultivate the capacity of Jews to play in the most important game there ever was and will be – the Co–Creating of the World to be a place of justice and caring, of well-being for all.” Social gaming – from chess to D&D to MMORPG’s – requires of its players to understand a set of “rules” that define the contours of play. But, true masters develop a “sense” of the game, becoming more attuned to those with whom they play and also to the flow of the game itself as it emerges. Through this, they develop the capacity to improvise in the moment in ways that advance their ability to succeed.
While the two – eastern disciplines and gaming – seem very different. Those who become proficient in either develop an intuitive sense of flow that enable them to improvise towards achieving excellence in their performance and (according to the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) towards achieving happiness. Great artists do this all the time. They become immersed and carried along in the flow of their work, without being carried beyond it – retaining the ability to be intentional while being fully present.
This week’s idea is: Acquiring the goods that are internal to Jewish practices requires that we achieve creative flow in our Jewish practice.
In contrast, consider for the moment, the novice musician who learns to perform perfunctorily a piece of music through following the notes on the sheet. It may be “note-for-note perfect” but it wouldn’t be a critically valued or enjoyable performance of the piece (unless it was your own 12 year old). It would lack the minute, soulful “imperfections” that make it personally unique and ultimately meaningful to both performer and audience participant. This even plays out in life. Consider many of our first steps at dating when we thought too much about the right question to ask or the right response to make. Compare that to when we find ourselves in conversational flow – attuned to our partner, being carried along without being carried away (and perhaps foolishly reaching for more than there is yet). There was no “right” next move that one could have calculated ahead of time. One needed to let go and be pulled long by the conversation without being overwhelmed by it. It’s a fine balance to develop; a sense of the game; the creativity of flow.
Now, consider Jewish practices from havruta text study to tzedakah, from Shabbat to tefillah. Does the above accurately capture your personal experience of these (and other) Jewish practices? Perhaps, you have had several experiences that do align with this perspective, as I certainly hope. But how often? And, as an educator, how often have your learners experienced Jewish practices in this way? Are they intentionally taught to view Jewish practices as games or artistic pursuits at which mastery involves developing one’s unique feel for playing? Do we even provide them with the understanding that Jewish practices are meant to be disciplines in which we should seek creative flow within prescribed forms?
Too much of Jewish education focuses only on the forms of Jewish practice, as if reciting the words back qualified as learning. All Jewish educators that I know would admonish the general studies teacher who only wanted their students to recite back the “correct” answer she “taught” them. Learning history, for example, is not just about regurgitating facts. Learning math is not just about following correct procedures. So, why do we accept this in Jewish education? Take tefillah for example, to acquire the virtues that are the internal goods of tefillah (i.e., gratitude, humility, awe), our learners need to attain a certain creative mastery of the forms. To do otherwise is to confuse the ability to recite the words of prayers with the capacity for spiritual development. (To note, one can swing too much to the other side, focusing only on the intention of being prayer-ful without learning to creatively employ the traditional forms.)
This reminds me of a children’s book, called “ish” by Pter H. Reynolds. In this book, a child, Ramon, happily sits drawing at a table, upon which also sits a vase of flowers. One day his older brother walks over, leans in, and devastatingly critiques his drawings, saying simply that they look nothing like the vase. Ramon then proceeds to concentrate harder, trying to capture on paper a representation of the vase that his brother would accept as good. Paper after paper he crumbles up dissatisfied and tosses to the ground, till he is ready to give up drawing. At this point, his little sister wanders over and asks him what’s wrong, to which he replies that he can’t draw the vase of flowers correctly. His sister then picks up his crumpled sheets and runs back to her room. Ramon follows quickly wanting the ruined drawings back. Yet, upon entering her room, he sees days and days of crumpled drawings hanging (uncrumpled) on the walls of her room. Walking over to one picture, he asks her why she would hang up something that didn’t at all look like the vase with flowers. Her simple reply was “Well, it looks vase-ish.” And, he agreed. After which
Ramon felt light and energized.
Thinking ish-ly allowed his ideas to flow freely.
He began to draw what he felt – loose lines.
Quickly springing out.
Ramon’s brother made the mistake of seeing the value of drawing in the perfection of the final product, instead of being internal to the messily creative process that brought happiness to Ramon. We, too, often make this mistake. Which is more important, that the learner master the recitation of the traditional prayers? Or, out of the traditional forms of tefillah, the learner crafts a Jew-ish spiritual practice (perhaps even integrating forms from Buddhism and elsewhere)?
There are areas of Jew-ish practice where we have embraced flexibility in order to enable the participants to draw forth the goods internal to the practice. Consider the Pesach seder, which has become the locus of great creativity over the last several decades? Similarly, in harvruta text study, where legitimacy of interpretation is not just granted to the recalling of what this or that rabbi said, but one’s own meaningful connections made between text and life.
What would it look like if we tasked our students to develop Shabbat practices that nurtured a sense of shlemut (wholeness) over the course of the day? They could employ traditional practices, like not using electricity or attending shul, or they could be very creative, like writing poetry or doing yoga in the park. Each week they would experience Shabbat in accordance with these practices, and then reflect upon their experiences with one another, allowing themselves the freedom to adjust these practices till they engendered a sense of flow in the doing.
This can be done with any of our traditional Jew-ish practices, and our educational programs can vibrant maker-spaces for contemporary Jewi-sh practice. Moreover, I know in small ways this is already happening. We have many teachers who are experimenting in these ways, essentially bringing a deeply social constructivist approach to the learning of Judaism. There are just not enough of us doing it yet. We need less teaching about Judaism and more enabling of our learners to explore the many ways in which they can be Practicing Jew–ish.
Dr. Bill Robinson is the dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS.