Jewish Holidays as an Experiential, Spiral Curriculum:
A New Paradigm for Jewish Education – Idea #3

By Dr. Bill Robinson

I began this series by describing two ideas about Judaism itself that are fundamental to a new paradigm for Jewish education.

  • Practicing Judaism cultivates within us the virtues (middot) that we need to cocreate a just and caring world (including our personal wellbeing).
  • God is to be found in our encounter with the other.

In this article and in each of the following five articles, I will focus on one of the 6 core principles of the new paradigm, which emerged from the Fellowship in Educating for Applied Jewish Wisdom. They are represented in this image of a jewel:

For more information on the Fellowship, see this past eJewishPhilanthropy article.

Today, I begin our journey around the jewel with Cultivating Dispositions. This principle captures most succinctly the fundamental shift from an education devoted to Jewish continuity to an education that places the needs and desires of the learner front and center. In the former, our outcomes focus on pride, bits of knowledge, and rote practice; the learner seen as an empty vessel to be filled. In the new paradigm, the educator begins by asking: What are the dispositionsthe virtues (middot) – we seek to cultivate in our learners? Or, what are the dispositions my learners seek to cultivate within themselves? Both questions are worthwhile and important to ask. Note that Cultivating Dispositions exists within the tension between empowering the individual learners (Authoring the Self) and connecting them to community (Being in Relationship).

There are many sources – Jewish and otherwise – that a teacher can draw upon to answer these questions. One can turn to Biblical and Talmudic sources, such as Pirke Avot (6), where the rabbis offer 48 middot through which one can learn to live the worthwhile life of Torah – “learning, listening of the ear, preparation of speech, understanding of the heart …” Or one can turn to modern science, such as positive psychology, where Martin Seligman describes five key elements of well-being: positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. Or, one can turn to Mussar, created by Yisrael Salanter in 19th century Eastern Europe. Fascinatingly, he borrows from Benjamin Franklin’s 13 essential virtues: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. In turn, Ben Franklin (and Jane Austen) relied upon Aristotle.

Today, I offer a singular (and non-exclusive) insight into the virtues we should seek to cultivate in ourselves and our learners, which was taught to me by my teacher, Irving (Yitz) Greenberg.

Idea #3: We are all created in the image of God, and the Jewish holidays offer opportunities to cultivate our divine capacities.

Greenberg, grounding his understanding Talmudic sources, speaks of 3 essential dignities that are implied by the notion of tzelem elokim (created in the image of God). Since we are created in God’s image, we are each unique, equal, and of infinite value. Thus, we are obligated to treat each other as such. For instance, imagine how well cared for are paintings valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars, where their owners spend significant sums to protect them from the elements. We should do even more for humans who are infinitely valuable.

Greenberg’s teaching went beyond this declaration of rights to the notion that in being created in the divine image, we are also endowed with God-like capacities. And, what may these be? One important source is a well-known passage in Torah, when God instructs Moses on Mount Sinai, to place himself inside a cleft in a rock. God will pass by him but he will only be able to see God’s back and only in this way to know the “goodness” of God.

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: “The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin…” (Exodus 34:6-7)

Like God, we have the capacity for unbounded kindness and faithfulness (among other virtues). Moreover, we are obligated as teachers to cultivate these capacities within our learners, who are also created b’tzelem elokim. Notably, in the jewel, Cultivating Dispositions is situated directly opposite to Presencing the Sacred.

As teachers and educational leaders, we may actually choose among any number of virtues to focus our educational endeavors. Thus, my colleague Avi Orlow, of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, visits camps and asks them to select among an impressive list of virtues in his Making Mensches: A Periodic Table. In so choosing, they must balance those middot that speak to the values of their community (Being in Relationship) and those that speak to the proclivities of their campers (Authoring the Self).

Yet, how does one go about cultivating the virtues? Reading about these virtues is certainly useful. But, reading is insufficient; just as reading about the benefits of going to the gym is insufficient to get me to go there. Put slightly differently in The Jewish Way, Greenberg asserts that

A people does not live by vision alone. After communicating the goal [of redeeming the world], the Torah turns to the next key challenge: how to develop the incredible human capacities needed to carry the burden of this mission. Judaism places the nurturing of human capability at the center of its religious life.

As mentioned in the first article of this series, Judaism offers practices intended to cultivate these virtues – the ritual equivalents of “wax on, wax off” to build our ethical and spiritual “muscles.” In each of the following 5 articles, I will explore a different practice. Today, following Greenberg in The Jewish Way, we will explore the intent and power of the Jewish holidays to cultivate the virtues we need to be more like God and together co-create a (redeemed) world of justice, mercy, and well-being.

Before we turn to the particularism of the Jewish holidays, let’s note that all holy days (regardless of religion or culture) structure time for us. First, while we have more placidity in our behavioral repertoire than most other animals on the planet, we too are still influenced by the emotional and physiological pull of the seasons. The institutionalization of these ritual markers at key times during the year amplifies, focuses, and (most importantly) redirects these pulls on our heart, body, and mind. They provide a sense of stability and pause time so that we can process and reflect upon its passage.

Thus, it is no surprise that many religions and cultures mark the same times of the year with similar sentiments – rebirth in the spring (Easter and Passover), reflection followed by thanks and joy in autumn (Thanksgiving, Yom Kippur to Sukkot, Anat Chaturdashi), illuminating hope in the midst of winter (Hanukah, Christmas, Yule, and Bodhi), and farcical play (Purim and Mardi Gras) as we return to spring.

Yet, the holidays do more than this. Especially (but not only) in Judaism, they contextualize cyclical time within historical time, thus Passover relives the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt and Shavuot of their coming to Mount Sinai. Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. Hanukkah becomes a celebration of the Maccabees victory over the Syrian-Greeks and a re-establishing of the Temple cult. The movement around the year is not chronological, and the retelling is more mythic than historically accurate. Yet, the holidays re-situate our seasonal experiences within an historical narrative of the Jewish people.

In so doing, they run the risk of conveying life as cyclical – the eternal repetition of history that leads some on the political right to see in current adversaries representatives of ancient foes (such as seeing today’s Palestinians as Amalek from the Hebrews time in the wilderness). Just recall the Passover admonition – “in each and every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us.”

Yet, the Jewish holidays, as Greenberg asserts, can and should move us toward a progressive view of history, one that is embodied in the famous quote “the arc of the moral universe if long but it bends towards justice.” Instead of a cyclical (almost Sisyphysian) view of life, the Jewish holidays offer us a spiral view of life, where each year we are afforded the opportunity to renew and refocus our efforts to redeem the world, through nurturing our divine capacities (our virtues).

Greenberg begins his exhortation on the holidays with Passover. As he notes,

The Exodus is an “orienting event” – an event that sets in motion and guides the Jewish way (and, ultimately, humanity’s way) toward the Promised Land – an earth set free and perfected.

On Passover, we personally relive the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the wilderness.

Freedom is not given in a day or reached overnight. The house of bondage is within you; it will accompany you unless you are psychologically ready to be free.
Even before we get to the seder, the practice of the holiday asks us to remove all the chametz from our home as spiritual preparation.

Chametz signifies staleness and deadening routine; getting rid of it became the symbol of freshness and life growth.

On Passover, we have the opportunity to shed old habits to make space for our personal flourishing.

Then, on Shavuot, we encounter the sacred presence and (re)align our selves with the sacred purpose of co-creating a redeemed world. We renew old commitments and make new ones, to continue the journey through the wilderness to the “Promised Land.” And, we affirm our covenantal bonds to generations past and future, including those who join us along the way (as Ruth did).

[Through the covenant, the] individual overcomes the isolation of the “I” and bonds with all living Jews. In the community, each generation overcomes the isolation of the “now” and links to the generations that have gone before and to those that will come after it. Because the goal of perfection cannot be achieved in one generation, the covenant is, of necessity, a treaty between all generations.

In between Passover and Shavuot, traditional Jewish ritual involves counting the omer. Today, many practice this 49 day “counting” as a series of daily meditations on the sefirot of Kabbalistic Judaism, in which we are preparing our heart and soul to embrace both old and new commitments with vigor. For example, on day 5, we reflect on having humility (hod) in our loving kindness (chesed); on day 39, we meditate on endurance (netzach) in our bonding (yesod); and so on.

This pathway from freedom to renewed commitment repeats itself, albeit it with important differences, in the movement from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur through Sukkot. On Yom Kippur, we engage in a cheshbon nefesh (an accounting of the soul), where we ask ourselves where we have fallen short of our values and our virtues. A few days later, we literally enter into Sukkot, where we erect and live in a “booth” with its sides open to strangers and its barely thatched roof open to the nature. During Sukkot, the tradition asks us to embrace joy (as we sit in our sukkah open to the vagaries of our world) and to welcome strangers (as we ponder the uncertainties of our life). This is not a joy of simple pleasures, but rather the complex pleasure of living up to the still-valued commitments we have made in our life that pull us in many directions – our work, our children, our spouses, our causes, and more. Welcoming strangers to join with us reweaves the covenant and provides an opportunity to cultivate specifically the virtue of gemilut chasidim (acts of loving kindness). All together, these practices sustain and renew us, bringing us closer to other sojourners, as we all continue “father down the endless road.”

The goal of universal Exodus is far away. The tension of the lofty demand and the limited capacity for response is wearing. The day-to-day tasks of the journey are exhausting. From where can the people derive the strength to go father down the endless road?

And, these are just a few insights into the virtuous practice of some of the holidays.

In a social constructivist approach to education, the child is not an empty vessel into which to pour Jewish wisdom. Rather, the child is an active participant in the educational endeavor, working in collaboration with other children (and teachers) to construct their understanding of the world and how they should engage within it. This is accomplished through play, experimentation, inquiry, problem-solving, and reflection.

Yet, the teachers are responsible for constructing a generative learning environment and subtly guiding the children so that in the process of learning they are actually developing those virtues that enable them to be good learners, such as curiosity, honesty, humility, and respect, among others. Ideally, the children would explore and reflect upon their own relationships as they construct together a virtuous learning community.

As I suggested in the last article, imagine Jewish education as “maker labs” for ethical and spiritual living. Reading the stories associated with the holidays are fine; engaging in the creative arts is always good. But, if these activities focus on teaching about the holidays, instead of teaching in and from a creative experience of the holidays, then we are missing the vital opportunities that the holidays offer. They provide an experiential, spiral curriculum where we can all play, explore, converse, and collaboratively cultivate among ourselves the virtues we seek and need to co-create a world of justice, mercy, and well-being.

Dr. Bill Robinson is the dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS.