Theological Issues for Orthodox Educators

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January 1, 2002
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By Jack Bieler

I fully agree with Neil Gillman that a teacher of Jewish studies, whether within the context of a rabbinical seminary, graduate or undergraduate university program, day school, camp, or adult education setting, must be concerned with and draw attention to the theological implications of what she or he is presenting. While the familiarizing of students with the primary texts and corpus of Jewish tradition could be approached as exercises in decoding on the one hand, and/or historical, literary, sociological, and anthropological analyses on the other, for those of us who include among our educational goals the development of personal commitments to the traditions that are being studying, theological dimensions of the material must be formally considered.

The challenges of exploring theology with students will obviously be defined by one’s particular denominational beliefs. For Orthodox rabbis and educators, an acceptance of Torah min HaShamayim (Torah revealed from the Heavens), i.e., a literal belief in the historicity of the Sinai experience, as well as particular events recorded in the Torah’s written tradition, e.g., the Exodus from Egypt, are cardinal components of Jewish theology. An acceptance of the Torah’s Divine origin goes hand-in-hand with acknowledging that God is aware of events that affect His creation and is prepared to provide guidance for and even intervene in human history.

Applying the construct of “myth” to one’s belief, as Professor Gillman strives to do, is not an issue for the Orthodox educator. On the contrary, the presumption that the Torah is a document that contains Divine truths that are not restricted by temporal considerations due to God’s transcendence of time and place, allows each student to develop a highly personal, immediate, and living relationship with the Divine. This, by extension, manifests itself in ongoing and comprehensive observance of Jewish law and traditions. Perhaps the challenge facing Orthodox teachers is just the opposite of the struggles with which a JTS professor engages – if the Torah describes an intimate, viable, and ongoing relationship between God and not only the Jewish people in general but each Jew in particular, how can one account for the tragedies and apparent evil that appear to make up so much of our collective and individual experience?

If God and His Torah are not mere intellectual, cognitive constructs by which a person strives to make sense of the world, but rather real, existential verities that can be trusted and upon which one readily bases his/her lifestyle and communal activities, the “disconnects” with which we find ourselves grappling, e.g., the State of Israel’s ongoing difficulties, instances of protracted disease and sudden death, and man’s unflagging inhumanity toward his fellow man, continually challenge the validity of our theological premises. Theodicy becomes the burning issue raised when belief in revelation and hashgacha pratit (Divine concern regarding individual human events) are treated as postulates of Orthodox belief and are accepted fully by the practitioner of Judaism.

Explaining why “bad things happen to good people” is a perplexing problem to which can be attributed significant disaffection from religious practice and belief by Jews throughout the centuries. Due to the potential damage that can occur to one’s faith as a result of dwelling on this conundrum, some would contend that the question is better left unasked, and the traditions dealing with such a question are best to be left unexplored. Yet, inevitably, despite the best efforts of a teacher to avoid dealing with such a topic, someone will ask about it either in association with what is actually being studied or as a result of some sudden experience, insight, or perception. At such a moment, a teacher will have to decide whether or not to digress from the curriculum in order to address the issue before the entire class. If the instructor opts to explore possible answers to the question without having spent significant time developing a thoughtful approach to such a query, the presentation might be viewed by students as unsophisticated or as containing easily discredited ideas.

I would therefore argue that self-conscious, thoughtful, and well-developed investigations of Jewish theology be proactively offered to all those engaged in obtaining Jewish education, in an attempt to make Jewish study not only culturally significant but also religiously meaningful. Whatever the particular denominational orientation of teacher and student, theology will provide an important perspective by which to regard and understand the diverse components of Jewish tradition.

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Rabbi Jack Bieler, a member of the Sh'ma Advisory Board, is a member of the Judaic Studies faculty of the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, MD, and Rabbi of the Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, MD.

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