Al sh'loshah d'varim haolam omed: Al haTorah, v'al ha-avodah, v'al g'milut chasadim.
The world depends on three things: on Torah, on worship and on loving deeds. - Pirkei Avot 1:2
V'shinantam is divided into three sections. Torah contains thoughts and ideas for us as teachers to help support and elevate us in our holy work. Avodah will be teaching ideas and suggestions to use in our classrooms. G'milut Chasadim contains information about a specific mitzvah and suggests opportunities to involve our students and us in the work of helping others, in and out of the classroom.
In all your ways, be aware of God. --Proverbs 3:6 Our students often ask about God. They wonder about the purpose of life, why people die, how the world was created and why bad things happen. Jewish education is not complete unless it includes the discussion of God. All the content we teach in religious school, history, holidays, Torah, prayer, Hebrew, life cycle, means nothing if we can't convince our children along the way that Judaism helps them make sense of their lives, gives them purpose and direction and connects them with something greater than themselves. Rabbi David Wolpe says, "Ultimately we are seeking to enable our children to be the most they can be, not only intellectually and socially, but also spiritually." To transmit Judaism to our children, we have to know Judaism ourselves. Not only must we pursue our own Jewish learning, but we must also cultivate a spiritual life. To help our students build a relationship with God, we have to be willing to be on a spiritual journey ourselves. It is not easy to talk to children about God, but we must, even if we are uncertain about the way to begin. How do you help your students establish a close relationship with a loving God in the classroom, school and in their daily lives? As teachers we first of all need to think through our own feelings and beliefs about God. We need a context in which to develop our own personal theology and God beliefs. You may find it beneficial to work with another person to share your thoughts and views to discuss such questions as: How do you communicate with God? When have you felt close to God? What are some of the ways of making God's name holy? Do you think there are certain places in the world where God can be especially found more than others? What is the importance to you of the Jewish belief in one God? What do you believe about God? What challenges do we as teachers have in working through our own understanding and relationship with God? Being aware of these challenges can help us model the struggle for our students; more than the answers, we need to provide empathy and encouragement. The following are resources for investigating your own theology and how to teach children about God: Finding God: Selected Responses, Revised Edition By Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme, URJ Press A look at different ways Jews throughout history have thought about God. Close Encounters-Jewish Views About God By Ronald H. Isaacs Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1996 An exercise on p. 173 can help you begin to work through your own theology. Teaching About God and Spirituality Edited by Roberta Louis Goodman and Sherry H. Blumberg, Denver, CO: ARE Publishing, Inc., 2002
These guidelines may help you when discussing God in your classroom:
Discuss God at quiet times in the world, not just in times of tragedy. In our classrooms, God needs to be an explicit part of every curriculum. Teaching about God in a Reform institution should reflect the goals, purpose and philosophy of our Movement. The CCAR Statement of Principles, adopted at the 1999 Pittsburgh Convention, "affirms the central tenets of Judaism - GOD, Torah and Israel - even as it acknowledges the diversity of Reform Jewish beliefs and practices. It also invites all Reform Jews to engage in a dialogue with the sources of our tradition, responding out of our knowledge, our experience and our faith. Thus we hope to transform our lives through (k'dushah), holiness."
Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know." You can say, "I think " or you can tell the students that you will ask the rabbi or educator and then let them know an answer informed by Jewish tradition in the next class. You may want to invite your educator or rabbi to your class.
Validate a God question by saying, "Your question is a question that Jewish thinkers have asked throughout the ages " When a question is raised, encourage students to go home and ask their families what they think. The next session, be sure to take a few minutes to discuss the answers.
Make space for a student to express his/her doubt. If a student denies God, don't argue or try to prove him/her wrong. You might say: "There were times in my life when I felt very strongly that there couldn't be a God (or felt very angry, etc.). Later, I began to feel differently. Our feelings about God sometimes change over time."
Don't be dismissive. Give the student who says she believes in God as much attention as a student who says he doesn't believe.
God conversation can be difficult and complex. You do not have to share your personal opinion, especially if you feel it will be a roadblock to your student's curiosity. You can say, "Some Jews believe ". You may want other students to respond to a statement or question before you do so that you can hear additional thoughts and have a few more moments to compose your answer. The teacher is not the only one from whom students can learn.
Look up information together with your students. If comfortable, allow the students to know that you, too, are still investigating your own views about God. Even as adults we search, grow and develop new opinions and meaning.
Have a place in the classroom where students can get up and write their God questions or statements, such as a box or bulletin board. After a few questions have been written, take some time to discuss them.
Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that there are three ways to know God, three "trails" as he puts it. They are worship, learning and action. In these three ways, the covenant is kept alive.
The First Trail: Worship Worship involves prayer and meditation. Prayer reminds us that there is a God. Prayer is where you talk to God. Meditation is where you listen for an answer.
"The pious man is possessed by his awareness of the presence and the nearness of God. Everywhere and at all times he lives as in His sight, whether he remains always heedful of His proximity or not. He feels embraced by God's mercy as by a vast encircling space. Awareness of God is as close to him as the throbbing of his own heart, often deep and calm but at times overwhelming, intoxicating, setting the soul afire. The momentous reality of God stands there as peace, power, and endless tranquility, as an inexhaustible source of help, as boundless compassion, as an open gate awaiting prayer." --Heschel, God in Search of Man, p.282
Prayer has the power to transform the way we encounter the world. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Practice saying b'rachot (blessings). A simple act of daily acknowledgement of gratitude for the gifts you enjoy, combined with an acknowledgement of the true source of those gifts, can turn around your entire attitude toward life.
For a handy reference, the Daily Blessings Card from the URJ Commission on Religious Living fits into your wallet or pocket.
The following blessings are included on the card in Hebrew and English translation:
FOR VARIOUS FOODS For bread · For wine or grape juice · For cereals and pastry · For fruits that grow on trees · For vegetables and fruits that grow in the soil · For all other foods and liquids
FOR LIFE MOMENTS For joyous occasions · On hearing good tidings · On hearing of a death · On recovering from serious illness or upon escape from danger · For courage
FOR WONDERS OF NATURE On seeing the large-scale wonders of nature · On seeing the small-scale wonders of nature · On seeing a rainbow · For flowers and herbs
FOR A JOURNEY · Tefilat Haderech
FOR LEARNING Before the study of Torah
FOR SOCIAL ACTION · Before performing an act of tzedek/justice
The Second Trail: Learning Rabbi Zeira said: I was privileged to know a man with perfect trust in God. He set aside hours for the study of Torah, and no matter how much he stood to lose, he would never desist from his period of study. He would say, "If God desires to send me profit, He can do so after my time of study." (Talmud, Sotah 9)
The covenant is also kept alive by studying and teaching the words of the Bible and the words of our rabbis and sages who explained the Bible. There is a body of contemporary rabbinic texts which apply Jewish law to modern circumstances known as "responsa" literature.
The Third Trail: Action Heschel saw this as fulfillment of rituals, the observance of Shabbat and holidays, performing mitzvot.
"God has no other hands than ours. If the sick are to be healed, it is our hands, not God's that will comfort them. If the lonely and the frightened are to be comforted, it is our embrace, not God's that will comfort them. The warmth of the sun travels on the air, but the warmth of God's love can travel only through each one of us." --Robert Kirschner
Doing a mitzvah can bring us closer to God. When we perform mitzvot we are acting as God's partners and are making a difference to people, our community and our world.
Gather as much information about possible mitzvah opportunities. Provide each student and their family with a mitzvah contract form on which the family will indicate what mitzvah they agree to do and when they will do it. Invite parents to class on the day that their child presents the results of their family's mitzvah work. Ask the parent to share from their point of view.
Partners Deborah Shayne Syme, Illustrated by Jeffrey Wiener, URJ Press Partners is a beautifully illustrated book that tells how two young children help those less fortunate than themselves. No. 103104 hardcover ISBN 0-8074-0435-7 $8.95 Trade
Let us learn in order to teach; Let us learn in order to do. -Gates of Prayer
Below are some resources to help you do the mitzvah of teaching!
A few people interested in human development have presented theories that help explain development in areas of religious life. James Fowler, a Protestant minister and theologian, devised a theory called "faith development"; Fritz Oser, a European philosopher, delineated a theory of religious reasoning. Both theories were influenced by the work of Piaget and Kohlberg. See chapter 7, Teaching About God and Spirituality, ARE Publishing, Inc.
URJ PRESS Some Books About God from the URJ Press:
In addition to resources mentioned above, sources for this issue include notes from Rabbi Janet Marder; Coles, Robert, The Spiritual Life of Children, Houghton Mifflin, 1990; Gellman, Rabbi Marc and Monsignor Thomas Hartman, Where Does God Live?, Triumph Books; Gevirtz, Gila, Partners With God, Behrman House, Inc. 1995; Kedar, Karyn D., God Whispers, Jewish Lights Publishing, 1999; and Wolpe, David J., Teaching Your Children About God, Henry Holt and Co., 1993.
We would love to be able to share your classroom successes (credit given), questions and comments with so many other teachers across thousands of miles and in many congregations. The best way to be in touch is email: Irene Bolton, firstname.lastname@example.org and mark the subject of your email, V'shinantam. I look forward to hearing from and speaking with many of you. Shalom!