By Dr. Bill Robinson
We have come around to the final principle (or defining characteristic) of this new paradigm for Jewish education – Authoring the Self. Its fundamental implication is simply to see education as a site for the development of the self, for empowering and guiding learners to find answers to core questions of their identity. To borrow from Generation Now, these may be questions such as:
- Who am I?
- With whom and what am I connected?
- To whom and for what am I responsible in this world?
- How can I bring about change in this world?
Authoring the Self does not seek to promulgate the myth of the sovereign self – the idea of the individual as an island unto itself and master of its fate. In contrast, we see the self as existing ontologically and ethically in relation to others and the Other. We come to know and define our selves through reflecting upon our experiences and relationships with those of significance in our lives.
Thus, this week’s idea is: Narrative forms identity.
As humans, we do not begin with a formed identity that guides our choices in the world and then proceed to tell stories of our life. Rather, we begin by hearing stories of our self (often first from our parents) and, even at a very young age, we to tell stories that involve our emerging self. This is how we learn about who we are. Each of us encounters our self in stories. Our identity is formed through narrative.
As the neo-Aristotelian philosopher, Alisdair MacIntyre, writes
[M]an is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. … I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’ … Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.
Stories give our life direction and meaning. Stories give us a sense of who we are in the world. To author our selves is to exert authorial intention of our lives. Yet, we are not the only one telling stories of our selves, nor does one only tell stories about one’s self. We hear stories that may or may not include us, and our stories certainly include others. As the critical theorist, Selya Ben Habib notes,
The self is both the teller of tales and that about whom the tales are told. … The individual with a coherent sense of self-identity is the one who succeeds in integrating these tales and perspectives into a meaningful life history.
The psychologist and pragmatist George Herbert Mead theorized that you define your self in reference to a Generalized Other that was created out of the bits and pieces of the lives of those significant to you. Our identity is built out of the stories we hear and tell about significant others, both real and imaginary. In yesteryears, these stories come primarily from our immediate community and from hearing the traditional stories of the community told over and over again (from family mythology to fairy tales to the Bible). Yet, today, we are inundated by stories from social media, and whom we consider significant to us has expanded exponentially. We hear (and tell) stories of friends, friends of friends, and perfect strangers who share their “perfect” lives on Facebook and Instagram. As a result, our own sense of self becomes distorted, and our ability to be the author of our own life narrative enfeebled.
Under the barrage of social media, it becomes increasingly difficult to author a self that is responsive to the authentic desires of our soul. The voice that tells a story of those desires becomes drowned out by the cacophony of contemporary reality. To discover what we truly desire – to have, to do, and to become – we need to interrupt our quotidian experiences of life. There are many ways this can happen. In can happen when we are awed suddenly by nature. Often when we are fully present to experience a piece of music, dance or art, we encounter a more primal and mysterious reality, which calls forth from our soul a response.
Yet, it is not just about quieting or interrupting the external world. As we all know, our internal thoughts are often obsessed with how we can get by in that world. To quote from the story of Jacob, when he awoke from his dream of the angels ascending and descending the ladder, he exclaimed “God was in this place, and I, i did not know.” For arguably the first time in his life, Jacob’s thoughts were not occupied by his own how to secure his own needs. In an ironic twist (which the Buddhists know well), to discover an authentic desire, we must first quiet the continual ruminations of our mind.
This may seem contradictory – break from the barrage of social media voices and put aside the voice in your head. But, if we go back to the beginning of this article, the answer lies in relationship. As a piece of popular dating wisdom goes, don’t marry the person because you like something about her, marry the person because you like the person you are when you are together. Authoring the self is not just about telling stories; it’s about which stories to listen to and with whom to Be in Relationship.
Shabbat offers us the opportunity every week to break from our every day lives, and to Be in Relationship with our family, our self, and the Sacred Presence. As the artist Tiffany Schlain recommends, Shabbat is an opportunity to unplug from technology, so that time slows and we become more present. It is also a time of renewal for the weary. This is all of great value, but the gift of Shabbat can be even more psychologically profound and powerful.
Imagine Shabbat morning, when your child is reminded that there is no TV, no computer, and no handheld electronic devices. “I’m bored! There’s nothing to do!” screams the typical child. So, it is with the Jewish People, as Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg illuminates in her exploration of parasha Beshalach. She shows how the wisdom of our tradition can help us to reconnect to others, to the Divine Other, and thus to our true desires.
The parasha begins with the crossing out of Egypt into the wilderness, where Moses and the Israelites sing the praises of God for saving them and destroying the Egyptians. “I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver He has hurled into the sea” (Sh’mot 15:1). Immediately following this personally transformative and communally ecstatic experience, “they travelled three days into the wilderness and found no water… and the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” (Sh’mot 15:22-24). What shall quench their thirst?
“So he [Moses] cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet. There He made for them a fixed rule, and there he put them to the test.” (Sh’mot 15:25).
After only three days in the wilderness, the people have already left behind the amazement of the crossing and begin their complaints. Like children who need continual stimuli to direct them, they have become bored and restless during this “low-ebb time without any busyness.” (Tanchuma BeShellach 24). Zornberg, quoting the psychotherapist Adam Phillips, describes boredom as “diffuse restlessness, the wish for a desire.”
So, what did God do? God had Moses sweeten the waters (providing temporary sustenance) and provides a new statute through which they will not just survive the boredom of the wilderness but learn that boredom provides a space in which to discover the authentic desires of their selves. According to Rashi, the statute that God provides – the educational tools – involves a few sections of Torah concerning “the Sabbath, the red heifer, and the administration of justice.”
So, why Shabbat (of which we will focus on here)? Zornberg sees it as offering us a weekly experience akin to being in the wilderness and a cure for the bitter taste of restless boredom.
In the “empty time” of Shabbat, the question of the wilderness comes to its sharpest expression: “What does one want to do with one’s time?” In its earliest form, therefore, Shabbat is a paradoxical gift – bitter-sweet, curing the bitterness with bitterness.
Through Shabbat, we encounter the nothingness that is the essential first step to listening to our inner selves and to discovering that which we truly desire – to have, to do, to become. Shabbat nurtures within us the ability to genuinely come to know and author our true selves.
As Adam Phillips offers,
Boredom is actually a precarious process in which the child is, as it were, both waiting for something and looking for something, in which hope is being secretly negotiated; and in this sense boredom is akin to free-floating attention. In the muffled, sometimes irritable confusion of boredom the child is reaching to a recurrent sense of emptiness out of which his real desire can crystallize… The capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child.
[Yet, h]ow often, in fact, the child’s boredom is met by that most perplexing form of disapproval, the adult’s wish to distract him – as though the adults have decided that the child’s life must be, or be seen to be, endlessly interesting. It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time.
Shabbat is an experiential, educational experience prime excellence. And, yet, we (from parents to teachers) tend to fill it up with activities. Instead, what if we asked our learners to experience the boredom of Shabbat? And, then to reflect upon that experience with one another through journaling, arts activities and story-telling? Or, at least to experience during the week, what one of the fellows of the Fellowship in Applied Jewish Wisdom, Rebecca Lieberman of Orot, calls “Shabbat Time.” “When we come together in community with others, we recreate the self anew in these relationships.” And, as another fellow, Michael Shire of Hebrew College says in regard to Torah Godly Play,
We use [biblical] story to prompt the children to find their own way inside the story, to grow their own spiritual lives, to grow a language of religious faith that they can author for themselves.
The educational process of Authoring the Self insists that learners have time to be present with one another without having to be busy. And, in that divine (I-Thou) relationship, to reflect upon their experiences together through simple sharing, artistic expression, and telling stories. Moreover, to craft these stories based on traditional texts in ways that also re-tell the stories of their lives.
As educators, we should ask ourselves: Are we cultivating our learner’s capacity to narrate their identity? Are we giving them access to the tools of good story-telling by exposing them to the rich literary traditions of which they are a part. I say traditions here to note not just the multi-vocality of our Jewish heritage, but also to have us draw upon our secular heritage. In addition to the sacred texts of Judaism, consider having them read Jane Austen and Walt Whitman, among others. When we read text, we interpret the meaning through the accumulated lenses of our own lives. In addition, we then draw upon the metaphors, characterizations, and other tropes found in those texts to better tell the stories of our lives and thus to Author our Selves.
If our learners are telling stories of themselves by reflecting upon their learning experiences with other Jewish learners, and they are drawing upon our traditional Jewish stories to frame their own and to place themselves within a larger story, then they will author their identity as Jews. They will “re-member” themselves into the Jewish people.
For ages, Jewish educators have told their learners the “story of the Jewish People” of whom they are supposedly a member. Yet, it often provokes the learner to ask the infamous Seder question: What does this mean to you? (Or, in a contemporary sarcastic idiom: What does this have to do with me?) The learner in this case is not wicked; the learning experience is.
Instead of considering the narrative of the Jewish People as objective history, which places the learners outside of it and asks them to enter into it. What if we taught Jewish history as an interacting assemblage of personal narratives of Jews over the course of time, seeking ways of being in the world. In this way, their story is already a part of the continually emerging “story” of the Jewish people. And, they have not only the right but the responsibility of re-telling that story and, in so doing, re-interpreting what the past was, who they are today, and who the Jewish People will be. As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
We are each asked during the Passover seder to “see oneself as though one personally came forth from Egypt.” In addition to the traditional questions, perhaps ask these (the tone of which I borrow from Torah Godly Play):
- I wonder who you are in the story?
- I wonder what you may be feeling now?
- I wonder to whom else you feel connected in the story?
- I wonder for what do you feel responsible?
- I wonder how might you fulfill your responsibilities and bring about change?
It may well be that the key moment of the Passover narrative are neither the plagues nor the escape to freedom. It may be how we respond to the existential questions that freedom brings. What do we do after the miracles cease and all is quiet in the empty wilderness of our lives? What stories come to us when we face boredom and our own imagination? Golden calves to save us and frightening giants to avoid? Or perhaps, if we allow ourselves the time to be bored and to confront the demons that first arise, we may discover an authentic desire from which to author a story of the Jewish self we truly want to become.
As MacIntrye notes,
When someone complains … that his or her life is meaningless, he or she is often characteristically complaining that the narrative of their life has become unintelligible to them, that it lacks any point, any movement towards a climax or telos.
This person is like the Jews in the wilderness wandering aimlessly. The story of the Jewish People potentially provides us with a purposeful narrative in which to view our lives. Yet, it’s not all miracles. Moreover, there are many stories of the Jewish people; it is open-ended and multi-vocal. It is constantly being written. As educators, our job is to invite our learners to add their voices, to re-tell the stories of the Jewish people as the past continually unfolds into the present. The purpose of Jewish education is not to nurture a sense of belonging so much as the purpose is to help our learners discover themselves already a part of the never-ending story.
Dr. Bill Robinson is the dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS.