Maker Labs for Ethical and Spiritual Learning:
A New Paradigm for Jewish Education – Idea #2

By Dr. Bill Robinson

In Your behalf my heart says, “Seek My face!” Oh Lord, I seek your face.
Psalm 27:8

We are commanded in our tradition to seek the face of the divine. Through this, we will be comforted in our times of need, and we will learn the way of God so that we may follow it. Yet, in today’s world how many Jews believe in a God that one can personally encounter? Or, is it that God’s presence – once intensely and dangerously present in our midst – has become so diffuse that it has become almost impossible to hear the call of the divine? Either way, how do we educate our learners to seek the face of the divine today?

Idea #2: God is to be found in our encounter with the other.

To begin, this is not a new idea. Rather, it attained prominence in the early decades of the 20th century. Yet, its implications for Jewish education have not been fully absorbed. [Feel free to skip to the end, and then come back and read.]

In Martin Buber’s I-Thou, he posits that there are two basic types of relationships that one can have with another person. In I-it relations, another is treated as a means to my chosen ends. For example, when we go in to a coffee shop to purchase a cup of coffee, we consider it normal to treat the people working as baristas as simply a means to procuring our coffee. We are not expected to ask (with any real curiosity) how they are doing, or how their families are fairing. We do not encounter them as whole beings.

However, in a relation of I-Thou, we experience the person in all his/her/their entirety, not mediated by our own particular needs or desires. When we encounter the other as a Thou, we encounter the divine in our life. While Buber recognizes the rareness of I-Thou relations in our everyday lives, we are obligated to seek them, just as in traditional Judaism we are obligated to seek God. Yet, now are relationship with the divine Other is mediated through our relationships with others.

Continuing in this tradition, the 20th century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas adds that in the encounter with the other, we are implicated in a web of obligations. The “face of the other” demands a response from us. For Levinas, understanding how to live ethically does not happen through abstract reasoning, but arises within us as a response to the demanding needs of others as we encounter them face-to-face.

The contemporary philosopher, Mara Benjamin, in her recent book The Obligated Self, offers an illuminating example of this within the context of the parent-child relationship.

By its nature, a parent’s obligation is to a particular child or set of children, each of whom has specific needs and desires. Some children’s needs and desires are common to all young children: the need to be fed, clothed, carried, and comforted. These needs place a set of demands on all caregivers, parental or otherwise. But children vary enormously in temperament, ability, and interests. A parent’s experience of obligation toward his or her child thus cannot be conceived only in terms of a universal set of demands that can be formulated only in abstract terms. In the maternal context, obligation already contains within it the particularities of one’s child and the specific circumstances in which both parent and child live.

As these philosophers of Judaism show, our obligations in the world – the path we seek to follow in our lives – take form only through our relations to particular others as we encounter them in our lives as whole beings (Thou). In our textual tradition, God calls to Abraham or Moses, and they respond with hineini (roughly translated as ‘here I am, responding to your call and ready to do what is asked’). Today, we are tasked with responding hineini when we hear the call and encounter the face of other humans. (Notably, our encounters with nature and text as Thou can also be a source for discovering the divine and understanding our obligations in the world.)

What Buber, Levinas, and Benjamin achieve is replacing God as the source of obligation and commandment, without surrendering to the idea of an individual self as the new sovereign source (which both Kant does through reason and Nietzsche through the will to power). Instead, the source of obligation is to be found in the ethical implications of our relation to others. It is where we respond with “all your heart, all your soul, and all your might” to the needs of the other.

A key outcome and challenge of this philosophical move, as Benjamin’s example attests to, is that we can only understand our obligations in the world through exploring and experimenting in the concreteness of our everyday encounters, and then through reflection with others upon it. We can be guided by the wisdom of the past and our own formal reasoning, but only guided.

This aligns well with the notion of virtues (middot) as presented in my last week’s eJewishPhilanthropy article. When asked what is the correct course of behavior, philosophers tend to ask one of two questions: What is the general principle that I can apply regardless of the specifics of the situation? Or, what course of action will lead to some calculable greatest happiness for all? In contrast, a virtues approach asserts that you can’t figure out ahead of time the correct course of behavior. It must emerge out of the moment through your desire to live in accordance with various virtues that you seek to cultivate in your life (such as gratitude, humility, courage, integrity, etc.) in the context of the particular exigencies of the situation.

In cultivating the virtues, as educators, we understand that this process may often begin by reading about the virtues in one’s tradition. Only after is our understanding refracted and deepened through dialogue, reflection, and interpretation. Yet, the feminist philosopher Judith Plaskow reminds us that our traditions are at best incomplete, having excluded the voices and perspectives of women (and others). Thus, when we read our traditional texts we must do so not through “historical investigation but imaginative exegesis and literary amplification.” We need to imagine ourselves (and the other) into the stories and, in so doing, re-interpret their meaning and significance in light of our (and their) struggles to lead virtuous lives. In this way, havruta text study becomes the locus of critical and creative reflection (refracted through the words of the text) upon our encounters with one another.

Yet, this is still insufficient. As both Plaskow and Benjamin point out, the traditional textual metaphors we use to describe God and our relationship to the divine are ethically fraught and discordant with our contemporary sensibilities. We must counter this by going beyond reinterpretation to offering alternative metaphors that are more inclusive and meaningful. As an alternative to God the King and Father, Benjamin suggests (following her example above) that we invert the traditional metaphor and see God as a child in need or our comfort and understanding.

But since these are metaphors, one in which God is imagined as a baby invites us to name the condition of being obligated to God as being compelled and beguiled, shackled and infatuated, all at once. The care for an infant perfectly captures that pairing of command and love at the heart of rabbinic thought. If God is not only a loving parent, but demanding baby, we may find within ourselves the resolve to meet the demand.

This new metaphor actually has roots in our tradition in which God through the Covenant has chosen to obligate God’s self to being in need of the Jewish People. Similarly, the Orthodox theologian Irving (Yitz) Greenberg has written that we are now in the 3rd era of Jewish history, in which we are now the senior partner in our covenant with the God. Following this line of thought, echoing Liberation Theology, God is found among the needy and in the child-like needs of all of us. Moreover, we learn that we are responsible for our world now; we cannot rely upon this God that is (has become) our child.

So, what may be the implications for Jewish education? As Jews, we are still commanded to seek divine and, in so doing, to understand what is asked of us. Yet, we now will do this through cultivating the desire and the capacity of our learners to encounter the others in their lives as Thou. We will then help our learners to reflect upon those encounters as a way of deepening their understanding of what is being asked of them. All this leads to being able to respond hineini to the calls of the other in our everyday lives.

What is remarkable is how well this aligns with the social constructivist approach of the educator John Dewey,

If one attempts to formulate the philosophy of education implicit in the practices of the new education, we may, I think, discover certain common principles amid the variety of progressive schools now existing. To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from text and teachers, learning through experience …

A progressive approach to Jewish education asks of us to discover the nature of our obligations in reflecting upon our everyday encounters. It offers a radical reading of the well-known verse in Deuteronomy (30:12-14):

It is not in the heavens, that your should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

We are here following in the footsteps of Mordecai Kaplan and Judith Plaskow, who each in their own way asked us to reimagine and reconstruct Judaism so that it may become more relevant and more just. Thus, consider Jewish education as the site at which we develop the relations, cultivate the virtues, and learn the tools (practices) to glean new interpretations and adapt Jewish practices so that they are more inclusive and more meaningful.

Recent advances in engineering technology has enabled schools (in general and Jewish education) to offer “maker labs” where students are empowered to explore and experiment with creating innovative solutions for today’s challenges. Let’s consider Jewish education as a maker lab for ethical and spiritual living.

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