Learning to Learn

Avram Mlotek
May 24, 2012
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It’s 12:30pm and depending on the content, learning partner, moment or mood, I am fully present.  The fact that I have been spending the past four hours pouring over pages of the Gemara and commentaries gets magically lost in passionate discourse.  But then there are days when I nearly dash from the Beit Midrash (Learning Home, House of Study) and head outside to breathe some fresh air.  I sigh as I look at the trees, grateful that the walls of the world aren’t lined with esoteric Aramaic.  And yet, I can’t help but think of the sentiment found in Ketubot 62a, “A sigh breaks a person’s body in half.”  Torah learning can be draining.

The study of Torah plays a central role in my life as a rabbinical student.  And while the modes of study are almost entirely textual, the value of relating to my past in this way can’t be understated.  As Rabbi Blanchard, a teacher at my yeshiva puts it, “When I pray, I’m talking to God.  When I learn, God is talking to me.”  Participating in that type of dynamic relationship is challenging but the value of engaging directly with my past and joining a discourse that has been taking place for generations can be a deeply rewarding endeavor.

As a learner and teacher in the gamut of the Jewish denominational world, I’ve experienced a variety of learning and teaching methods when it comes to limuedi kodesh (sacred studies).  How do we make Torah engaging?  How do we build bridges between our lives and our past?  The textual ways of Torah learning are avoided for a myriad of reasons: we may not have the language, tools or teachers to engage with them; we find the content out of touch, irrelevant, or at times, offensive.  The non-textual ways (music, poetry, dance, visual art, fiction, theater, film, meditation, etc.) are equally avoided as they get seen as inauthentic, radical, undermine traditional processes, and they too require special teachers and talents.  If, though, we are sincerely invested in learning Torah, must we choose such dichotomous paradigms?  Can’t we teach to the whole person and incorporate the best of all teaching methods?

As an artist and Jewish educator, I seek to create a learning environment that bridges the worlds of learning traditional texts with creative ways of accessing and experiencing them.  In a parasha class, we might explore elements from the weekly Torah portion using theater exercises and improvisational games in addition to source sheets.  During the current holiday season, students might keep a journal for Sefirat HaOmer, the 49 day period between Pesachand Shavuot, where they would be encouraged to reflect on their day and write creatively.  (Working this past summer in BIMA’s Artist’s Beit Midrash (http://brandeishighschoolblog.com/?p=2925) played a central role in how I think about using the arts to create a dynamic and meaningful learning environment).

As we prepare for the holiday of Shavuot, and ready ourselves to reenact the receiving of the Torah at Mount. Sinai, let’s reengage in that timeless learning process.  Learning Torah should leave us challenged, inspired, moved and pushed to ask deeper questions, regardless of the teaching method, textual or non-textual.  Each person’s entry point will be different.  The key is opening our minds and hearts to the journey.

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Avram Mlotek is a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and performs regularly with the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene Center for Performing Arts. His writings have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Forward and The Jewish Week. Avram was recently named in The Jewish Week's "36 Under 36" as a leading innovator in Jewish life today. He lives on the Upper West Side with his wife and daughter.

1 Comment

  1. Great post, Avram! Thanks also for the shout-out to BIMA and our Artists Beit Midrash. We share your commitment to creating “a learning environment that bridges the worlds of learning traditional texts with creative ways of accessing and experiencing them.” Chag sameach!

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