Torah Joe’s: A Different Kind of Relationship

By Rabbi Alex Weissman

[This is the fourth, and final, article in a series about relational engagement and learning written by M² Relational Engagement Circle participants.]

Early one Sunday evening, I drove from my apartment and met four of my students in the Brown RISD Hillel parking lot. After some quick introductions, we piled into my car and headed to I-95 South. One student began to share her thoughts on Cain and Abel: Why didn’t God take Cain’s offering? What made Abel’s so much better? We discussed for about ten minutes and then another student stepped into the teaching role. She shared some classical Jewish sources about the nature of community. What makes a community? What makes a community holy? How is Jewish identity and life expressed by an individual in relationship to community? After some more discussion, we arrived at our destination – Trader Joe’s.

The students delighted at the sights and smells of fresh fruits and vegetables (not so common in campus dining). One student texted with a friend back on campus to let her know that they were out of the cereal she loves and to ask what else she can get her. We each checked out with our various foodstuffs and piled back into the car for two other students to teach us Torah in the car and head back to campus.

Last summer, I kicked off a year of exploring the concept of relational learning by participating in M²’s Relational Engagement Circle. One of the concepts I was particularly interested in was that of “thirdness.” Borrowed from the field of psychology, thirdness refers to the intangible that surrounds me, the other person, and the relationship between us. This might include things like our roles (rabbi, student) or our contexts (being in a class, the car, a coffee shop, Trader Joe’s, etc.). All of these “thirdnesses” serve the function of both permitting and inhibiting our relationships. Being at Hillel, for example, is part of what permits me to teach Torah, but it also inhibits the ways in which the students and I interact and, as a result, the learning that takes place.

I became curious about what would happen if we shook things up a bit. What would happen if we stepped into a new context (the car, Trader Joe’s), thus changing our thirdness and permitting/inhibiting new kinds of interactions? What new parts of ourselves might emerge as a result? What new layers of our relationship might be uncovered?

For the students, they were able to step into a new role – they became teachers in addition to students. For me, I became a student in addition to a teacher. Our thirdness shifted and so did we. Additionally, we got to experience what it means to “speak of [words of Torah] … when you go on your way/v’dibarta bam … u’vlecht’cha vaderech” (Deut. 6:7). Torah and Jewish life are not exclusively for the Hillel building – they are meant to be integrated into our daily lives. By living this with the students, rather than telling them this is true, we step into a new dimension of relationship together. In addition to all of us getting to inhabit both roles of student and teacher, we also step into the roles of Jews who are living Judaism, not just learning about it. In turn, a new kind of mutuality emerges between us. We become co-constructors of Jewish life and learning. We become partners in the errands of adult life.

While this last point may sound mundane and irrelevant, I think it may be the most powerful. Stepping into this new context together – changing the thirdness that permits and inhibits our relationships – allows new dimensions of relationships to open up. When I welcome students into my home, a similar thing happens. Boundaries shift while new expectations emerge, adding depth and variety to the connections that exist between us. We are able to share more parts of ourselves with each other, allowing us to be more integrated people together.

It is important to acknowledge that experimenting with the boundaries of thirdness also contains a risk. If we let the professional role entirely dissolve into the background for the sake of what else can emerge, we risk boundary violations. The trick is to allow the role to shift just enough that the newness emerges but without losing professional boundaries or responsibilities. I remain “Rabbi Alex” while grocery shopping. We call the program “Torah Joe’s,” itself a signal of both Torah (a marker of our usual role/context) and Joe’s (the new context we step into together).

Roles and contexts are important. They give us the structure we need to do the work of building relationships and learning Torah. They also have the potential to get in the way of expressing and seeing each other as we truly are. For educational relationships to thrive, we need to see each other in new roles and in new contexts. It creates new experiences that grant us the potential to see each other more clearly. As the character Janis says in one of my favorite movies, Mean Girls, “I love seeing teachers outside of school. It’s like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs.” There is something exciting and potentially transformative about changing context and shifting the thirdness that shapes our relationships. Our work is to harness that excitement and use it responsibly.

Rabbi Alex Weissman is a participant in M² Circles: Relational Engagement, Cohort 1 and the Senior Jewish Educator at Brown RISD Hillel.

Are relationships the lens through which you pursue your work, regardless of your role? Are you looking for a cohort of educators with whom you can delve deeply into relationships as central to creating meaning and learning? Learn more about the next Relational Learning cohort and M² at www.ieje.org.