Sarah Tauber

Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School 

Sarah Tauber is assistant professor of Jewish Education at The Davidson School, coordinates The Davidson School’s Educational Leadership Practicum, and is a research consultant for The Davidson School’s ReFrame: Experiential Education in Congregational Schools initiative.

Guiding questions: To what extent do we engage Jewish educators in conversations about God? Specifically, how do we give educators a space to reflect on their own relationship with God, and how do we prepare them to engage learners in Godtalk?

A stereotype abounds all too frequently in Jewish settings: Jews don’t like talking about God. I have heard the claim made in regard to Jews who self-identify as cultural Jews as well as those who choose to focus on Jewish law (halakhah) and ritual practice as the core expression of their Jewish identity. The stereotype, irrespective of its accuracy, often inhibits Jewish educators (including clergy) from discussing God with their learners. Too frequently, moreover, in the course of their own Jewish education—from kindergarten all the way through graduate school and seminary—it seems that my students have encountered too few environments in which open engagement with peers and teachers about their understandings of and feelings about God are encouraged. Theology as a subject for focused Jewish learning is often shunted to the sidelines. Prayer, too—perhaps as a corollary to the God stereotype—sadly gets short shrift. As a consequence, our educators frequently lack the ability and confidence required to undertake these essential conversations among themselves or with their learners. An invidious cycle roots itself in our communities as an outcome. And yet, if in any way we seek to relate to Judaism as a living, dynamic religious and spiritual tradition, how can we justify ignoring God? If there was such a thing as educational malpractice, avoiding God as part of our knowledge base and educational agenda strikes me as high on the list of such wrongdoing.

But this stereotype, as with so many others, is not an accurate representation of reality. Well over a decade ago a unique partnership developed at The Davidson School between the then dean of the school, Dr. Steve Brown, and his colleague in the department of Jewish Thought, theologian Dr. Neil Gillman. Resulting from a mutual interest in education and theology, the two pioneered a team-taught course that integrated theology with teaching methodologies. The course quickly became a staple of The Davidson School’s curriculum. As a student of Dean Brown and Professor Gillman, I had the pleasure of learning from both of these outstanding educators. For several years after the two originators left JTS, the course was taught by visiting instructors. Now, as a professor at The Davidson School, I am privileged to inherit the teaching of this course that resides at the unique intersection of theology and education. And a privilege it is indeed. While the underlying premise of the course, as envisioned by Brown and Gillman, remains active, and is described below, I have introduced a few new innovations in the educational application realm, which I also describe below.

If we believe that teachers and educators need to clarify their own theology before feeling a level of comfort in teaching about God to their own students, those few examples suggest how we can foster serious conversations about personal beliefs.

Translating Theology for Educational Settings is an ambitious course. For many learners, it is their first exposure to the subject matter; or, even if they have studied the material, they have not been asked to process it in a way that transforms their academic knowledge into personal meaning. Premised upon the conviction that theology is above all, in Professor Gillman’s words, an existential discipline—in other words, how we think and feel about God is linked to how we think and feel more generally about our lives, and vice versa—the semester-long class seeks to guide students to encounter theology as a field of Jewish studies, to reflect upon their theological beliefs and attitudes, and to experiment with the educational implications of their learning. We study four core subjects: creation, revelation, redemption, and theodicy. The reading list blends traditional sources from Tanakh, Talmud, and other rabbinic literature with modern theologians’ writings. Topics as varied as the Holocaust and gender incorporate contemporary, and often controversial, issues into the course. Students are encouraged to delve into the personal meaning of theology. Their struggles with and about God (the two are not identical) are voiced as the students confront their theological questions and doubts. The hope is that the students will become more at ease with the discomfort of their future learners.

Students learn from the start how to skillfully and sensitively incorporate theology into their educational practice. From an educational perspective, the course guides the students towards developing ways of thinking about the relationship between content and practice. Accordingly the classroom experience is highly participatory, employing group collaboration, role-playing simulations, and student teaching opportunities.  As the instructor, I see myself primarily as an expert facilitator who guides the process of theological inquiry and educational experimentation. Every year that I teach the course, I am amazed by the uniqueness of each group’s interests in God, no less than by the distinctive theological experiences and beliefs of individual students. An important component of the course, as a consequence, involves giving students ample time in smaller ongoing teams where they get a chance to know, speak, and listen to each other, rather than the learning focusing primarily on full-class discussions or lecture. The end-of-semester project, addressed later in this article, exemplifies the value of achieving a balance between the more intimate learning that happens in these smaller groups and the broader all-class interactions.

There are five key learning objectives:

  1. Demonstrate familiarity with a variety of core theological concepts in Judaism.
  2. Articulate one’s own position on the topics covered.
  3. Practice exercises and teaching approaches that help learners in diverse Jewish educational settings deal in developmentally appropriate ways with the issues covered.
  4. Create short lessons that apply our learning to teaching practice.
  5. Develop a network of peers and colleagues with whom they can continue the conversation and to whom the student can turn for support and learning in the student's ongoing religious education and personal evolution.

Each person on the team brings a particular set of experiences, memories, and beliefs to the learning. It is often in this kind of a space where students find they are most comfortable articulating both their ideas and their emotions vis-à-vis God. Some students, by temperament, prefer to observe and listen in a larger group; the smaller sections invite them (and even push them) to speak up. Students who generally have an easier time contributing orally in a larger group learn to listen more carefully to their peers when in a smaller unit, even if they still have plenty of opportunities to speak.

Along with the course’s continued alignment with the vision of its creators, I have introduced a new component through the final project. Instead of writing a long paper on a selected subject related to the class’s themes, students work in their teams on an educational drama presentation. Educational drama, as a performance-based approach to teaching and learning, brings together cognitive, affective, and performative skills. The creativity it requires also taps into the artistry that I believe is fundamental to teaching. Over the course of several weeks, the students build on their study of theodicy to plan, write, and perform a short dramatic presentation. Each team’s script reflects a central theme that the team wants to explore in terms of theodicy. These presentations bring theology to life through drama in a dynamic and interactive fashion. The groups perform with their peers as audience-learners. The performances act as triggers for discussion and reflection. I call this a “live final.” Every student’s voice is heard during the process. Through this experience students celebrate and acknowledge the learning they completed in their teams and as a class. I chose theodicy as a focus of the final because it is an area that many students struggle with in relation to faith in God. Through the educational drama exercise, students explore how God relates to themes of death and dying, evil and suffering; and how they, in turn, relate to God amidst these very serious existential matters.

My hope, similar to that of Dean Brown and Professor Gillman, is that students leave this course with new knowledge, understanding, and awareness of how God fits into the picture of their lives as human beings and as Jewish educators.

Dr. Sarah Tauber assistant professor of Jewish Education at The Davidson School, graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in History; from the University of California at Berkeley with a secondary-school teaching certification in English; and, in 2010, from JTS with an EdD in Jewish Education. Dr. Tauber coordinates The Davidson School’s Educational Leadership Practicum and is a research consultant for The Davidson School’s ReFrame: Experiential Education in Congregational Schools initiative. She is the book review editor of the Journal of Jewish Education.