Jewish religious school teachers have been exploring a topic rarely covered in class: God

Teaching the unknowable

January 18, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,sun reporter

Jewish educators around Baltimore are studying an unusual topic this year: God.

Teachers often shy away from discussions of God or defining beliefs at Jewish day schools and supplemental classes offered by congregations, said Lawrence M. Ziffer, the executive vice president of the Center for Jewish Education in Park Heights.

"Most other religions have a lot of God talk," Ziffer said. In Judaism, however, "that almost never happens on a communal level." Instead, religious education usually covers areas such as holidays, rituals and liturgical or modern Hebrew.

But at the request of principals of Jewish schools, the center -- an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore -- this year has organized a series of workshops and training sessions to help teachers better express their understanding of God and spirituality. Ultimately, the center's staff members hope that the exercises will help the instructors when students raise questions of their own.

Judaism does not require adherence to specific doctrines, said Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, the San Francisco-based author of books about Jewish spirituality. He addressed nearly 400 educators at a recent conference organized by the Jewish education center titled "Yom Iyun: Teaching G-d to Children, Teaching G-d to Ourselves." (Some Jews avoid spelling out "God" to avoid defiling the name.)

"Unlike Christianity, Judaism is not a dogmatic spiritual tradition. You don't have to believe anything to be a Jew," Kushner said in an interview before the talk.

Rather, actions are more important. "Christianity is a tradition of creed," he said. "Judaism is a tradition of deed."

But this year, religious school principals asked for help talking about God. Around Baltimore, about 4,000 children receive supplemental education at congregational schools housed at synagogues, according to the center. About 6,000 are enrolled in Jewish day schools.

Religious education varies depending on the philosophy of the school. Teachers might cover Jewish holidays and culture. Others might teach children how to participate in religious services and how to speak and read Hebrew in its modern or religious forms.

"There's so much to learn about, just learning to manage a Jewish lifestyle," said Amian Frost Kelemer, associate executive vice president of the Jewish education center.

Ziffer said he understood the principals' request. "Educators are aware we're living in a society that's talking about God all the time," he said.

Ziffer initially cringed at the principals' suggestion, he said. "How do we relate as educators to God? How are we going to balance all of the views?" he recalls thinking.

The diversity among and within the different branches of Judaism, which includes Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements, complicated the matter for the center, which assists teachers at all kinds of schools.

Although Orthodox Jews may emphasize a very personal relationship with God, "for many Jews, secular and others, the place to talk about God is in the synagogue," Ziffer said.

Eventually, the center's staff came to embrace the topic. "We, as a religious group -- what can be more logical than to talk about God?" Kelemer asked.

Nationally, different groups have recognized this need. The Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education's conference last year included sessions on speaking about God under the theme, "What does it mean to be a literate Jew in 21st-century America?"

"The main thing is you have to tell the truth. The main thing is you don't know anything about God," Kushner said. "Ultimately, utterly unknowable. God is holy nothingness."

"The problem with all religious teaching in this category is that people lie," he said. "They panic and say what other people say."

"The biggest truth in talking about God could be summed up in two words -- Beats me," Kushner told the educators in his speech.

Ziffer hopes the workshops will prompt some conversations between faculty and students, particularly when disaster strikes. "The ultimate challenge is to talk about where was God during tragedy," he said.

Josh Bender, education director for Beth Am, a Conservative synagogue in Reservoir Hill, said the students at his school want to know more about God. "I think [children] are asking the questions, and they are definitely struggling over questions connected to God and higher purpose," Bender said.

"Our students are not only thinking about these issues but they're thinking really hard," he said. "They're struggling with these deep questions and they don't necessarily express them in a classroom setting, in front of peers."

During a breakout session at the Yom Iyun conference, a group of about 60 Jewish religious instructors armed with glue sticks and scissors attempted to discern their relationship with God.

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