Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Feedburner moved...

Thanks to all for following The Notorious R.A.V. Blog. It is now officially The Jewish Connectivity Blog by The Notorious R.A.V.  

You can follow via Feedburner at http://feeds.feedburner.com/jewishconnectivity.

Looking forward to your comments there!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Moving day for The Notorious R.A.V. Blog

The Notorious R.A.V. blog is moving!!! Over the years since this blog began, it has registered over 10,000 hits, and generated hundreds of comments here as well as on Facebook, where it also appears.

As I've launched Jewish Connectivity, a Jewish consultancy and Jewish Life Coaching practice, The Notorious R.A.V. blog is now The Jewish Connectivity Blog by The Notorious R.A.V.

All the past content has been moved and you'll find new writings at http://www.jewishconnectivity.com/category/uncategorized/.

Be sure to follow there.

Thanks for following the blog and for your participation in the conversations!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Connectedness of Jewish Wisdom

Connectedness is not just about people, it's also about ideas.

Jewish people have cultivated a mindset in which ideas are interconnected. That's what midrash, the rabbinic discussion of biblical text, is all about. The Torah narrates an event, or states a law. Hundreds or even thousands of years later, Jews are connecting the text to other ideas. The ideas may come from Judaism. Or from general society. Or from a song on the radio or a movie we just saw.

Much is the education that we receive works against connected thought. We're taught to think like scientists, exploring problems and experimenting with solutions. Good stuff, but not if you're looking for creative and connected thinking.

The goal of Jewish education today must be to foster Jewish connectedness as a habit of mind. Connectedness of Jew to Jew and of Jew to Jewish ideas. And also of Jewish ideas to one another (and to related ideas from outside Jewish culture).

One area to develop connectedness of ideas in a Jewish way is through the writing of a d'var Torah. Much like midrash, a d'var Torah is a way of connecting ideas that are not, on the surface, directly related. In a d'var Torah, we show how all wisdom is ultimately connected, and we use that connectedness to build new wisdom.

An example below uses a modified mind map. In a few weeks the Torah portion in which the people of Israel stand at the foot of Mt. Sinai to receive God's word is read. In the diagram below, I've shown a few directions in which our connected thoughts can take us, as we branch out from the core text to create new Jewish wisdom for our lives:

[to view in larger size, go to https://dl-web.dropbox.com/get/Public/Standing%20at%20Sinai%20enlarged.tif?w=7ae7b194 ]

In the center of the map, is the event itself: The people of Israel standing at the foot of Sinai. From there, we can go in a number of directions in our thinking, choosing to look at the event (revelation), the location (Sinai), the people (Israel) or the content (the Ten Commandments). Each of those choices leads to other ideas we can choose to pursue: 

If we think about revelation, it can take us to ideas of who wrote or inspired the writing of the Torah. Which in turn, leads us to a discussion of our roles as co-creators of Torah and of wisdom.

If we think about the content, we can develop ideas about how the Ten Commandments become the core of Judaism and Christianity, or about how law becomes central to society. 

Thinking about the Israelites, in this diagram, can lead to thinking about the midrash that all Israelites who would ever live, including future converts, were present at Sinai. Which can lead to a discussion of how we treat the "stranger" (and foreigners). Or to a discussion of the "Saw You at Sinai" matchmaking website.

Point is, Jewish learning is not about the quantity of knowledge that we gain or convey. It's about the building the capacity to connect the knowledge in order to continually create new connections and new Jewish knowledge.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Networking: An Ancient Jewish Practice

There is a great deal of buzz about the use of networks in moving the Jewish community forward. It tends to rely a great deal of some of the big name thinkers from the general world in areas such as networks, and some "first cousin" concepts and practices, such as Communities of Practice, Professional Learning Communities and the like.

Here's something incredibly cool: The networking that took place historically, and continues to take place around Jewish wisdom has unique characteristics:

  • The Sages of ancient (and modern) times communicated and innovated using many of the practices that are at the core of networks today.
  • Unlike today's networks, the Jewish networks that built a new Jewish life in the Talmudic Era and beyond, included communication between people who literally could never have spoken to one another: the network extended beyond distance and, incredibly, beyond time restrictions. Rabbis were "talking to" rabbis who were long deceased.
My teacher, the late Rabbi Selig Starr, of blessed memory, of the yeshiva in Skokie, IL, once took me aside. He said to me, "Samlan, you are a social being. The people will love you. But you need to socialize with Rabbi Akiva, Hillel, Shammai. When I go home and study, I have conversations with them."

It took me over 30 years to understand that what he was telling me was: The rabbis and scholars who came before us are very much a part of our network, in every sense of the word.

Here's an example of how it works, a social network representation of a page from the Babylonian Talmud. The text of Talmud Shabbat 21 a-b takes a conversation about the wicks and fuels that can be used for Shabbat lights and moves from there to a conversation about the lights used for Chanukah. 

The Talmudic text begins with Rav Huna, who is right in the middle of the graphic above. He is in the middle of the Talmudic period, and lived in Sura, Babylonia. In the text, Rav Huna, the Chachamim (rabbis who lived long before his time), Rava, Rav Hisda, Rav Zeira, Rav Matna, Rav, Rav Yirmiah, "The Rabbis", Abaye, Rabin, Rav Yochanan, Rabbah bar bar Hama all enter the conversation.

What then follows is the famous disagreement between the followers of Hillel and the followers of Shammai as to whether a pious person begins the holiday of Chanukah lighting one light and increasing to eight, or beginning with eight and decreasing to one. This leads to interaction with two later sages, Rav Yosi bar Avin and Rav Yosi ben Zevida. and to Rabbah bar bar Hama mentioning two unnamed characters, each of who backs either Hillel or Shammai. This "discussion" takes place (without benefit of phone or Internet) across great geographic distances, in Babylonia and in the land of Israel. It also occurs across several centuries.

One interesting caveat: The rationale attributed to Shammai's opinion about the Chanukah lights brings a relationship between the holidays of Sukkot and Chanukah into play. The origins of Chanukah in the holiday of Sukkot dates back to the apocryphal books of the Maccabees. While these books are not directly quoted, Shammai (and those who explain his views) clearly have an intellectual connection to those books, which I show in the graphic.

In the diagram above, the conversation continues (and it mentioned on the Talmudic page in the margins) with later codifiers of Jewish practice - Maimonides, Rabbi Jacob and the two authors of the Shulchan Aruch code of law - entering the conversation by codifying the current practice (putting them in "direct" conversation with Hillel, who lived over a millennium before).

As Jews, we are networked. It is part of our heritage. In bringing the use of networks to build and spread ideas, what we need to do is to re-educate the Jews of today to join the networked Jewish conversation that has existed since the dawn of the Jewish people. This isn't about taking a new idea and translating it to the Jewish world. It is about taking an ancient habit of mind, teaching it to this generation of Jews, and giving it new life.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Jewish Connectedness - Part 3: Connecting Wisdom

In the last installment about Jewish connectedness as a measure of success to replace "affiliation", I suggested:

Passionate Opinion: The primary goal of Jewish learning today is to reawaken the Jewish habit of mind of building connections

  • between Jew and Jew
  • between Jew and non-Jewish family members
  • between Jew and non-Jewish friends and neighbors, sharing in Jewish experiences
  • between bits (and bytes) of Jewish knowledge and wisdom
  • between bits (and bytes) of Jewish knowledge and wisdom and the knowledge and wisdom of our friends and neighbors and their cultural and spiritual heritages
Connectedness between bits (and bytes) of Jewish knowledge and wisdom

Think back, if you will, to college courses you may have taken in education. Knowledge and learning were arranged in a hierarchy, ranging from least complex to more complex. As you've read this, phrases like "Bloom's Taxonomy" or "Spiral Curriculum" may have arisen to consciousness. According to the models we were taught, cognition and learning, and therefore, teaching, flow upwards from the most basic knowledge to higher level thinking. Many educational thinkers conceptualize all education as being geared to creating scientists, who will research everything in according to logical, sequential rules.

Compare to that, if you will, the creation and communication of Jewish knowledge and wisdom. A Talmudic argument might begin by following rules of logic, such as those described by Rabbi Yishmael in the second century. But the conversation quickly veers into other areas with only a tenuous link between subjects. So, the Talmudic conversation about havdalah, ending Shabbat, doesn't appear in the Talmud tractate about Shabbat, but in the tractate about Pesach, as a tangent to the discussion of the use of a multi-wick flame or a torch for the search for chametz. And the discussion of Chanukah interrupts the part of tractate Shabbat in which the rabbis argue about the types of wicks and fuel may be used for Shabbat lights.

When looking at how Jewish wisdom evolves and is transmitted, it is more helpful to think of the concept of "mind-mapping" or "radiant thinking"than of linear thinking. Tony Buzan's work on mind-mapping allows for the flow of ideas and learning through connected pathways that may or may not include hierarchical organization. In reading his work, my mind kept coming back to the idea of midrash, in which challenges in a biblical texts are responded to by creating a totally new linkage of ideas. Almost the exact process that Buzan describes. And similar to the connections that are made when one follows hyperlinks in pursuing information in today's digital world.

Non-linear education requires an entirely different framework than that offered by traditional educational approaches. We need to unlearn the linear approach to teaching and look to how we can help learners free their minds to build interconnected Jewish knowledge in the same way that Jewish thinkers have done throughout history.

Connectedness between bits (and bytes) of Jewish knowledge and wisdom and the knowledge and wisdom of our friends and neighbors and their cultural and spiritual heritages

My aunt, Anna, worked in a bakery in the Rogers Park area of Chicago. A simple woman, she conveyed the folk religion of Yarun, her birthplace in Ukraine, to her extended family in the new country. Among the beliefs she communicated was one in which a person's soul, if they were evil, would enter a farm animal after his/her death. She had no idea that this idea of transmigration was shared by branches of Jewish mystical thought, Hasidism, and in Eastern religions. While we don't know specifically how such beliefs travelled, it is safe to assume that they did.

It is clear that, especially in time in which Jews felt safe, wisdom flowed freely between the Jewish world and the surrounding cultures. Contact points between Judaism and Zoroastrianism show up in the Talmud and in the Dead Sea Scrolls; Maimonides is a fan of Aristotle and of the Moslem philosophers of his day; the "pietist" thinking of a few hundred years ago resulted in the birth of new movements in both Christianity and Judaism.

In today's world, Judaism has entered the common language in the U.S. and in many parts of the world. My generation was hesitant to bring Jewish concepts into public conversation, and was resistant to allowing concepts from other religions into Jewish conversation. My children and the generation around them, are eager to have a society in which ideas flow smoothly in both directions.

To prepare young people with the knowledge to participate in that society, Jewish education must look different than it always has. It must pass along the skills and the habits of mind, that build connectivity between bodies of knowledge and between groups of people, rather than fencing off either.

Next blog entry: How do we build a three dimensional map of Jewish connectedness?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Connectedness Replaces Affiliation, Part 2

The previous posting, which generated more traffic than any previous posting on this blog, put forth the idea that all prior definitions of "Jewish affiliation" are becoming irrelevant, as "connectedness" becomes a far more compelling aim for the Jewish community. Today, I'm articulating this further:

Passionate Opinion: The primary goal of Jewish learning today is to reawaken the Jewish habit of mind of building connections
  • between Jew and Jew
  • between Jew and non-Jewish family members
  • between Jew and non-Jewish friends and neighbors, sharing in Jewish experiences
  • between bits (and bytes) of Jewish knowledge and wisdom
  • between bits (and bytes) of Jewish knowledge and wisdom and the knowledge and wisdom of our friends and neighbors and their cultural and spiritual heritages

Between Jew & Jew and between Jew and non-Jewish family members

Over the course of time, Jews have lost the ability to communicate in a shared language. In the most literal way, Hebrew, the only universally shared language among Jews, is no longer one in which all Jews are able to converse. But in a figurative way also, the "diaspora" and Jewish history have made it difficult to communicate across time, distance, cultures and beliefs.

What do we want to reawaken? In the Talmudic era, rabbis and scholars "spoke" to one another. If we were to read the Talmud, we'd make the mistake of believing that the participants in discussions were sitting across from one another. In fact, they often lived hundreds of years apart and hundreds of miles apart. Yet, I remember my teacher, Rabbi Zelig Starr, of blessed memory, speaking about how he conversed with these rabbis of Babylonia and Israel from his classroom in Skokie, IL, across nearly a 2000 year time difference.

I once drew a network map of a Talmudic conversation. It was unlike any contemporary social network map, because it transcended time and location. Very futuristic, yet it mapped a conversation of nearly 2000 years ago.

The goal today is to bring all Jews and their families into the big Jewish conversation. Today's technologies allow for some previously unimagined communications to occur in real time. But we can also link to conversations and wisdom, much of it accessible in English as well as Hebrew, for the first time ever. And available through technology as well as the printed word.

Between Jewish and Non-Jew

Recent studies of the young generation show that its members want to "do Jewish in non-Jewish spaces". They want their friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to be able to join in Jewish celebrations and conversations. My students cannot remember a time when Jews felt uncomfortable wearing kippot in public (and in Temple!), or one in which people would Americanize their Jewish sounding names. They take pride in their Jewishness and want to share it in society alongside everyone else's heritage. Events like Sukkah City, in which Jews and non-Jewish friends and family walked together an explored Sukkah architecture, were custom-made for this generation of Jews. And one of the most innovative approaches to Jewish youth, Jewish Student Union, boasts that as many of half of the participants in some programs are non-Jews, often accompanying Jewish friends. Our goal today must be to enable this generation to make their Jewish connectedness happen on its terms.

In the next installment, we'll look at the knowledge and wisdom components of Jewish connectedness.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Forget about Jewish Affiliation, Think about Jewish Connectedness

My colleague, Beth Finger, is working tirelessly on a project called Jewish Without Walls. Be sure to check it out on Facebook.

During our conversation this morning, we both challenged the relevance of  "Jewish affiliation", which has been used in every Jewish demographic study as a measure of community success in modern America. The problem is, and has always been, that the operational definition of "affiliation" is often "pays dues to a synagogue". Even those who expand the definition someone, rarely get beyond handing money to an organization (JCC, Federation, Hillel) as the operational definition.

The problem with the definitions:

  1. Synagogue affiliation doesn't include serious Jews who are "not religious".
  2. Those for whom membership is of little if any value are "not affiliated", although they may be "very Jewish": large numbers of elderly and many Gen Y'ers, for example
  3. These definitions don't include significant numbers of Jews who relate to their Jewishness independently, including growing numbers who use social media to express their Jewishness

I'd like to suggest a more important measure of success than "affiliation". It's about Jewish Connectedness. This idea (with gratitude to Beth for helping to shape this over breakfast) takes note of all sorts of ways of relating meaningfully to one's Jewishness and, if desired, one's Judaism:

  • "seasonal" connections of families of summer campers
  • participants in independent minyanim and Chabad
  • younger adults, in particular, who are doing Jewish in non-institutional spaces or in secular spaces
  • Jews connecting online in meaningful ways
  • folks who participate in Beth's Jewish Without Walls, in havurot and in other groupings that are not (yet) dues-based groups
Someone with far more of a mathematical intelligence than me will figure out how to measure Jewish Connectedness. For now, I simply propose that we begin using Jewish Connectedness as an operational definition of success and as THE goal of our work in building Jewish communities and in the work of Jewish education at all ages.

Looking forward to comments...