Teaching Judaism Through the Prism of the Arts

This was a sermon that I delivered in January 2018 at Cedar Sinai Oheb Tzedek:

Teaching Judaism Through the Prism of the Arts

I remember the discomfort and the pressure I felt every time he called my name in class. I so badly wanted not to disappoint him or to let him down. He always called on me. It was as if he was structuring class around my confusion and frustration with the Gemara we were learning. After about two weeks of experiencing these feelings, I decided that I had to quit taking his class. It was just too much pressure.

A few days after I dropped his Gemara class he made a point of finding me in the hallway. Was he mad at me? Was he taking my decision to drop his class personally? Why did he have to keep noticing me?

He told me that I had a special knack for realizing when there were problems in the Gemara. He told me that sometimes recognizing the problems in life are more important than being the first to understand the solution. He urged me to come back to class because it would be a waste of my potential if I didn’t give the class another shot.

I came back to class. Rav Binayamin Tabory proceeded to have a huge impact on my religious development. Over the course of my year in Israel, he made me feel incredibly special. He made me feel like I was designated to continue the path that had been trail blazed long before either of us. That path is the beautiful and challenging one of Jewish Education, chinuch.

The root word of chinuch means designation.  Obviously this root word appears in the context of Chanuka. Why do the rabbis name this holiday Chanuka? Because after the Greeks had defiled the Temple, the Jews fought back in order to reclaim the Temple as their own politically.  But far more importantly –they reclaimed it as their own place religiously.  After cleaning up the Temple they redesignated it to be used only for the service of God.

This is what “dedication” of the temple means. They dedicated the Temple and endowed it with sanctity so that it could be “designated” for the service of God.  I believe that what Rav Tabory did for me during that year was that he made me feel “designated” and special.  Like I was set aside to be another link in the chain of Jewish educators.  And his approach worked.

Two years ago, I was tasked with teaching a group of five junior and senior students who all were uninterested or unable to take Gemara. I was asked to teach them anything Jewish that they could connect with.  I thought deeply about how I could attempt to reignite their Jewish souls to want to engage with their Judaism.  We know that art and music are pathways to the heart and soul and we also know that when students are tasked with demonstrating understanding of what they have learned through creative means, their work exhibits complexity, originality and transformation. So I focused on incorporating the arts into my curriculum in order to engage their hearts and souls as well as their minds, so that what I would teach them would resonate throughout their lives.

I decided to focus on midrash as this way they would be exposed to some form of Rabbinic literature. I also chose midrash because it teaches us how to read the Bible not only literally but metaphorically and allegorically as well. As I began teaching, I experimented one day by taking a midrash we had just learned and asking the students to convey their connection to that midrash through drawing. We had just learned about why Chana’s tefilla became the paradigm of a perfect tefilla, and I conveyed to them the idea that what made it so powerful was Chana’s ability to honestly open up to God and speak her mind freely. I asked them to draw how they thought Chana felt throughout her tefilla. Throughout the process, they seemed extremely engaged. I realized I was on to something.

So I stuck with this approach. I would teach a section of pshat, the literal meaning of the Bible, and then I would teach some Rabbinic interpretation on this topic. I would then ask them to draw their interpretation of the midrash and attach a “write up” that explained how their art connected to the pshat and drash of what we learned. Most of the students in the class preferred using different forms of paint, pastels, paper and canvas but one preferred taking photos and writing poetry.

The course was more successful than I could have imagined it would be. We culminated the year with a very successful art exhibit where many people came to hear the students explain the meaning behind their artwork. We interviewed students for a video which was shown at the exhibit, and the most gratifying part for me was hearing from my students why they liked learning in this manner. They explained that prior to learning this way, they felt disconnected from Rabbinic writing, like it was “made up” stuff that didn’t seem relevant to them. Throughout this course they felt like they had a voice in understanding and interpreting the pshat through their own eyes while still being able to appreciate the perspective of the rabbis on the text.

Here is an example of incredible student work that demonstrates the power of the arts to enable students to feel more connected to their faith.  We had been learning the story of Sarah, how complex and challenging it was for her to invite Avraham to have a child with her maidservant, Hagar.  Sara ultimately made this sacrifice, in the hopes of building a Jewish nation through this surrogate child.  Ultimately, we know that Sarah’s idea didn’t end well and the Torah tells us that Sara mistreated Hagar because she was so distraught by how Hagar ended up treating her.

I had taught my students a whole series of midrashim that beautifully flesh out how difficult it was for Sarah to make the sacrifice of giving up Hagar to Avraham.  I had also taught them some commentaries that critiqued Sarah’s behavior in this episode. The prompt I gave them was to draw or create an image that captures why Sarah our matriarch is still considered a heroine even though she failed in this situation.

Here is her painting:

Here is the student’s explanation of her painting:

The characteristic expressed in my painting is how heroic Sara is. We see Sarai making a huge sacrifice in Genesis 16:2 when she allows Hagar to have children with Avram instead of with herself. This shows the extra holiness that she has, which is why I portrayed her as an angel. Avram listened to Sarai because of her ruach hakadosh that  Rashi mentions in chapter 16: 2, commenting on Sarai’s voice, saying how it was the divine spirit inside her (Gen. Rabbah 45:2). The darker colors represent how she still isn’t perfect, after all she is human. In the fifth pasuk in perek 16, “And Sarai said to Abram, ‘May my injustice be upon you! I gave my handmaid into your bosom, and she saw that she had become pregnant, and I became unimportant in her eyes. May the Lord judge between me and you!’ “  The midrash on this pasuk highlights how angry she is because she is so pained (cited in the Sefer Hagada). In the midrash cited by Rashi, in chapter 16:6, “And Sarai afflicted her”, she was shown in a negative light to convey a realism that she isn’t always perfect. Sara, still makes mistakes, and that just makes her all the more relatable. All the colors around her show the torment and tremendous pain that she felt when Hagar had her husband’s child. The black wings are seen as a paradox since they are something that could be so holy, yet they are depicted to be black, a color that signifies the impurity of Sara’s actions in this situation.

A few tangible successes that emerged from the course was that one of my senior girls decided to go to learn in seminary for a year in Israel at the last minute in large part due to her reconnection to learning Torah. She recently told me that she is spending another year in Israel next year.  Another junior student insisted at the end of last year that she must enroll in Honors Gemara next year, which she did.  Finally another student recently showed me her college application essay on the topic of “an event that changed my life”.  She wrote about the experience of presenting her artwork at the exhibit we had.   I am truly awed by the power of the arts to help reconnect these students to their Judaism as well as to learning traditional text.

Because of the success of this course, Fuchs Mizrachi offered the course once again.  I am honored to be teaching a new upper-classmen elective course entitled: “Judaism through the prism of the Arts.”  Here is a video that was made for the first semester’s exhibit: https://vimeo.com/199168472?ref=em-v-share.

As a very young lady I was incredibly lucky to be taught by some exceptional teachers. The teachers who really made a huge impact on me and inspired me to enter the field of Jewish education stand out in my mind because just as the Maccabim dedicated and designated the Temple to be used for holy purposes, I too felt designated by those teachers to pursue my Jewish learning at the highest level.  They made me feel that my seemingly little and timid voice mattered to the Jewish People.  And for that I’m eternally grateful to them.

Now as a teacher, I try to pass on what has been modeled to me, to make every Jewish child I encounter feel that he or she has a unique voice that matters to God, the Jewish People, and the world.  Every person is created in the divine image and therefore every person has the realm of the infinite within her.  Good chinuch should enable every student to feel like he or she is designated for some unique and role to serve in this world. It is our duty as teachers and parents to help each Jewish child find her realm of the infinite and use it to serve God and humanity to her full potential.

May we all encourage the Jewish children that we are close with to feel designated to serve God in his or her own unique way.