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.