Lessons for Teachers from Hamilton and Some Dead Rabbis for the New Jewish Year

Screenshot from New York Theater
Screenshot from New York Theater

By David J. Steiner, Ed.D.

One of the benefits of having a lunar calendar that doesn’t sync up with the civil/gregorian calendar is that we start our Hebrew/religious school year at slightly different times in the Jewish year. This year, we are fortunate to have a month of school before the new year enters, and it’s clearly appropriate for teachers to be teaching about the Days of Awe in real time, including the rituals of the month of Elul.

This summer, I was fortunate to participate in NewCAJE, where a lot of time was spent discussing “how” to teach, which is particularly meaningful since most of our religious school teachers are not trained in curriculum and instruction, nor do they teach elsewhere. However, NewCAJE and the community at large seem to miss the boat when it comes to going beyond the pshat (simple or literary meaning) of our teaching. This was particularly poignant when I read responses to Jay Michaelson’s article in The Forward, “Why You Shouldn’t Go To Synagogue On Rosh Hashanah This Year.”

Michaelson made some meaningful attempts at engaging the community in discussion about the really challenges of Jewish ritual involvement, but when the bait was taken, the responses were less than satisfying. For instance, he claims that, “the holiday’s themes and liturgy focus on the least believable, most misunderstandable aspects of Jewish theology.”

Whoa! There is a single Jewish theology? How come I didn’t get the memo? Of course, this is the tool of a great teacher who dangles a claim and sees how readers or students respond. But so far the responses have been unimpressive.

In her rebuttal piece to Michaelson, “5 Reasons You Should Stop Kvetching and Go To Synagogue On Rosh Hashanah,” Rabbi Gordie Gerson simply refutes his theology by arguing, “Yes, It’s the Birthday of the World. … There’s Nothing Wrong With a Little Guilt.” And, “Once you understand what you’re doing, you may find that you enjoy it a whole lot more.” as if to say that we’re just not getting it right, or – my translation – you’re just not getting it my way.

What could be great for Jewish educators is a chance to actually discuss theology without being told what “Jewish theology” is. For instance, Michaelson’s claim that the theme of the holiday and its liturgy are unbelievable needs further discussion.

Fortunately, Gerson brings to this debate something Michaelson misses, the question of responsibility, and illustrates that one of the unique features of the Days of Awe is the collective. “We come together on the High Holidays to remind each other that we’re all flawed, all culpable and all, ultimately, capable of great things and tremendous change, both societally and individually.” Unfortunately, while she alludes to the fact that the liturgy is about sin in the plural, “Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu…” what she doesn’t do is address Michaelson’s question about the believability of God’s immanence. This debate, however, between the transcendence or immanence of a divine, is maybe one of the most important in Rabbinic Jewish theology. It is also one of the oldest, so why aren’t we discussing it while teaching our students about the Book of Life?

In the Sifra, R. Ishmael claims, for instance, that “When two Biblical passages contradict each other the contradiction in question must be solved by reference to a third passage.” while R. Akiva (BT Menachot 29b) sets up a system in which scholars “learn out many many rulings (halachot) from each and every one of these squiggles (on the letters of the Torah scroll.)” In other words, Ishmael believes that you need to construct a legal argument from the body of the text and Akiva says that you should leave the interpretation to scholars, presumably because you cannot do the work on your own.

Another way to look at this is to say that some believe (Akiva) that scholars are the gatekeepers of divine understandings, while others say we must derive personal meaning from debate (Ishmael). On a bigger level, the Akiva school believe that God is immanent with the help of rabbis, and the Ishmael camp relies on human understanding – presumably because God is transcendent, or, possibly, non-existent.

Just think of the benefit the Ishmael philosophy would bring to our community if it were simply offered as a possibility. We could all agree that in the absence of certainty the next best thing is to speak with each other. Certainly, our rabbis agreed with this or else they wouldn’t prescribe learning in dyads (chevrutot) and arguing over the texts. These rabbis went so far as to proclaim, “Chevruta or death[!]” because they knew that there needed to exist a social form of making meaning beside being told what to understand.

Unfortunately, religious schools do not lay out these important spectrums. Instead, in every denomination, for the most part, we try to do what Michaelson said about providing “aspects of Jewish theology,” whether in prayer or in curriculum, which are akin to what the great Brazilian educational philosopher critically called, “the banking method” of education in which we invest in our children and hope to see the interest grow. Telling students how to think about Jewish philosophy, however, doesn’t work, just like treating education as a kindergarten (garden of children) is a flawed attempt at harvesting the seeds we plant.

This is why Gordie Gerson’s claim that, “The Right Rabbi Makes All the Difference,” is so problematic. It’s is not that we have the wrong rabbis. The problem is that we don’t believe in our own sovereignty. My teacher, Ari Elon, explained this best when he differentiated between riboni (sovereign) and rabani (beholden to someone above us). Our texts and traditions give us both models, but as educators we fail to share them with our students.

(Jewish) Education is not a garden where seeds are planted and the fruits we intend to see are then harvested. There are too many factors in the world to try to control how students will respond to a lesson. The Boys of Brazil, the thriller novel by Ira Levin, turned movie, is science fiction because no two people experience the world the same way, thus none of our students reach the same understandings of text, ritual or responsibility. We all see the world from very unique perspectives, which is why we are taught (BT Sanhedrin 38a) “[I]f a man mints many coins from one mould, they are all alike, but the Holy One, blessed be He, fashioned all men in the mould of the first man, and not one resembles the other…”

It is fortunate for those of us who are knowledgeable about Jewish text and tradition to be able to have these debates in the Jewish press and academy, but we need to find a way to have that enter the Hebrew/religious school classroom. Since we are now in a time of self reflection and evaluation, maybe we can muster the strength and courage to share with our students the real debates our forebears had and we still have? Maybe what we need, as Jay Michaelson alluded, is to reassess our priorities, but I have another suggestion.

As we approach the High Holidays, I think we should look to Broadway. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play, Hamilton, based on the biography by Ron Chernow, finds greatness in presenting an historical set of debates with contemporary meaning and style, but it isn’t dogmatic. People leave the theater thinking about what made sense to them from both Jefferson and Hamilton, and afterwards they go to coffee or social media and discuss what they understood. Sometimes they change their minds or acquire new insights, sometimes they strengthen already existing believes. Either way, it gives them a chance to renew themselves in an environment that understands the complexity of the human condition without being forced into a single mould. As we enter this new year, it is my hope that we can do the same for our students. Let them experience the debate without telling them how to understand it. Maybe then we will get the smashing success of Hamilton and not have to worry about kvetching and lack of interest in our Jewish culture.

David Steiner, Ed.D, is a filmmaker, mediator and rabbinical student at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. He has been a congregational director of education for both Reform and Conservative congregations.