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
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?