The Empowerment of the New Jewish Superhero

By Rabbi David Saiger

When my high school students are willing to entertain my delusions of grandeur, I like to ask them to imagine the possibilities of what might be accomplished in the Talmud or Chumash or Jewish Thought classroom. This year, my delusions of grandeur are, depending on the perspective, either more deluded or more grand than ever, thanks to the Pedagogy of Partnership Day School Educator’s Institute I attended at Hadar.

I’ve been working on creating new language for what we might accomplish in class, (and proximity to Hollywood may have influenced me a bit) and here’s what I’ve got: I want my students to become…“Studenterpreters!” Like Batman or Wonder Woman, but without the technological/physical gifts. This type of superhero saves the world by – and this may sound weird but bear with me – listening.

One of the most inspiring and eye-opening aspects of the Pedagogy of Partnership (PoP) Institute was the opportunity to dream about the potential for what listening might accomplish. In chevruta, group study, or even a class discussion, one skill we dissected and practiced at the Institute was balancing listening and articulating. I generally find that my students – and maybe I’m projecting here a bit – are better at the articulating part than the listening part. And the listening itself is subtle and difficult, because in our class we’re tasked with listening both to what the text is saying and to what the students across from us are saying.

And here’s where PoP helped me reframe our work and start thinking about it as grand and superhero-like. Studenterpreters are working, as they study Torah, on the rare skill of truly hearing what both ancient texts and their peers have to say. Rather than being fed a diet of straightforward texts with This Teacher’s own personal interpretations, they’re given complex and layered narrative and legal passages, and tasked with listening closely to both the text and one another. So rather than going on a treasure hunt for the “right answer,” students practice articulating their interpretations, their chevruta’s interpretations, and the textual evidence in support of what they’ve found. Listening to the text and each other leads closer and closer to an answer the students can confidently own and articulate.

I’m also teaching them the parallels to this process, the ways in which our religious, social and political discourse could be elevated by a greater attentiveness to the stories of others, to the ways in which people unlike ourselves see and interpret the world.

My personal challenge is to truly listen to the Studenterpreters’ interpretations and accept that my students are not be made in my image. If it works, they will be empowered, heroic listeners, drawing their own conclusions based on textual evidence, and bringing the ideas and stories they discover into their own lives. They will interpret the texts and the world with a greater openness, a keener sensitivity to the nuances of what they encounter. PoP helped me imagine a new reality in which our Torah study changes lives by modeling an essential practice in the world of civil discourse – true, open, listening.

Rabbi David Saiger is the Upper School Rabbi at Milken Community Schools in Los Angeles.