Fresh off the press is “The God Issue” of HaYidion, published by RAVSAK. I am honored to have an article in this journal about my God Talk program that is a key part of my 8th grade Theology course. I am copying the article below (well, my original file of it) and also a link to a PDF for the whole journal which is full of great articles about God. RAVSAK is the Jewish Community Day School Network and this is the third article I have had published in HaYidion.
Talking about God with 8th Graders
My favorite part of my job is reading my 8th graders’ Theology papers and especially their God Talk Responses. God Talk is a speaker series that I run as part of Theology. It was not my idea, but I have worked hard to make it a powerful part of my course. Eighteen or so times during the year I welcome a speaker into the class to share their spiritual journey with my students. The speaker might be Jewish, about half the speakers are, or perhaps Wiccan or Bahai. The speaker might actually not walk into my class, but rather be sitting on their porch in Bat Ayin or their living room in Sarajevo and join us via Skype. Whoever, or wherever, my students are sitting attentively, ready to take notes and ask questions.
One speaker, a Chabad Rabbi, doesn’t think that I should invite non-Jews to speak as it is a temptation. Despite this, he continues to come and share his beliefs and humor with my students. And, just like with the Wiccan and the Bahai and the Lutheran, my students are able to clearly and insightfully speak to what they share with this Chabad Rabbi and where their beliefs part ways. Middle Schoolers are curious. They want to know about other religions and people. They will find out about other faiths. I prefer they do it in my classroom, from speakers I have vetted, and who I know are coming to speak in an effort to inform and share, not convert.
My first year I finished off with a fantastic Sufi Muslim speaker who fascinated the students by showing the connections between Islam and Judaism. They listened to every word of the prayer he said before speaking and loved that they could understand some of the Arabic. I was so thrilled with this interaction that I blogged about it and was questioned by parents who wanted to know when I was going to have the “real, fatwah issuing Muslim” in to speak. I was grateful for the opportunity to clarify that I, like my speaker, taught theology and not politics. My goal is to foster connections between my students and people of other faiths. I want them to know where we are the same and where we are different. I trust that they know who they are and will not decide that being Methodist sounds so great that they want to leave Judaism.
And my students don’t disappoint. Week after week they tell me “of course I don’t believe in Jesus like the speaker, but I find it interesting we both agree on…” A student this year wrote this in his paper on our Wiccan speaker “It would be pointless to mention the things that I disagree with Stephanie about regarding our religious beliefs because we follow completely different religions, so I will talk about the concepts in Wicca that I think hold value and should apply to everywhere outside of religion as well. One of these concepts is doing whatever you want as long as it does not cause harm.” Students also show high level thinking and make amazing connections, as in this recent reflection:
I really liked when Pastor Katie said, “God is water and Methodism is the cup.” I think that this means that the cup, Methodism, is a belief that holds inside it God. This quote really expresses her belief of God and her religion. I say this because when you have an empty cup it is without use and when you have water without a cup you can’t drink. Without God, her religion doesn’t have a meaning, and without Methodism, God doesn’t have a place to go. When Pastor Katie said that God is always changing makes me wonder if this could relate to the glass metaphor. I think that it could mean the content in the glass is always different, it could be whatever you want it to be depending on the way you view God…
In addition to introducing my students to other religions, the variety of Jewish speakers who participate helps to show that there are many ways to be Jewish and many types of Jewish communities. Hearing rabbis and lay people from Secular Humanistic Judaism through Chabad shows them the various ways people make meaning out of Jewish text and tradition and can surprise them in what makes sense. One year I had a number of students eager to meet the Secular Humanistic speaker – sure this was where their beliefs would fit. They were surprised to find that they realized that, regardless of one’s personal belief, Judaism with God made no sense to them. They pressed the speaker to help them understand the difference between a “gratitude” for bread and “hamotzi” and an “appreciation” for wine and “Kiddush”, but were not able to get an answer that made sense to them. This made them rethink their assumptions and their ability to do so showed the value of this program.
Discussing God can be hard and providing just one point of view dangerous. My God Talk program allows my students to discover for themselves the many ways to encounter God, as a Jew and as a human. It encourages them to think deeply, view the world differently and respect the beliefs of those around them – Jew or Gentile. It shows them that there is a place in the spectrum of Judaism for them, regardless of their observance, belief in God or connection to traditional views. It allows them to feel pride in seeing the influence of Judaism on other religions, but also know where we are different and why. Despite the fears of my Chabad friend, I remain convinced that my God Talk program makes my students stronger and prouder Jews rather than weakening their connection to Judaism.