Reflections on Teaching about God in Preservice In-Service, and Student Learning

Alvan Kaunfer

Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School

Alvan Kaunfer received a doctoral degree in Jewish Education and his ordination at The Jewish Theological Seminary. He is a Tanakh educator consultant for the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks project of The Davidson School.

Jewish educators might feel intimidated about talking about God with colleagues and students because models and resources for that conversation are lacking. I would like to offer a few examples from my own experience—from the realms of pre-service teacher education, from in-service professional development, and from student learning, that I hope will be helpful in providing such models.

I had the opportunity to teach the “Translating Jewish Theology into Educational Settings” course for several years, following Professors Steven M. Brown and Neil Gillman, who developed the course and taught it for more than12 years. From that course, here are a few examples of triggers to theological thinking that gave students the opportunity to grapple with their own beliefs about God:

After discussing readings that ranged from “right” (ideas about a “personal God” from Louis Jacobs) to “left” (“naturalist positions” such as those of Mordecai Kaplan), students were asked to stand along a continuum of (admittedly stereotyped) beliefs. A sign on one end of the continuum read, “Belief in a personal God outside of nature,” and the one on the other end said, “A concept of God that is inherent in the inner workings of nature and the universe”; the spread of students was fascinating, and rather different with each class. Students from opposite ends of the continuum then paired up and discussed with each other why they had stood at their points on the spectrum.

Students then reacted to each of Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith by checking off, next to each of them, one of three columns: “I believe this,”“I can interpret this,” or,”I do not believe this.” This paper exercise was followed by a think-pair-share exercise. This activity allowed them to confront their own personal beliefs vis-à-vis a common framework of conventionally held Jewish beliefs. (Of course, an appropriate disclaimer was made that there were no Jewish dogmas implicit in the exercise.)

There was also one unexpected opportunity in that course for joining the theoretical discussion of personal beliefs with a real-life situation. In my first class, one student was on crutches. When I asked what had happened, she told me that she had been in a skiing accident and would be operated on during the coming week. At the end of that first session, after a theoretical discussion of beliefs, faith, and the 13 principles activity, I decided, spontaneously, to ask the class to stand to do a misheberakh for our classmate. I recited the misheberakh using her Hebrew name. There was barely a dry eye in the class at the end. One of our students, who would be a JTS graduation speaker a few years later, mentioned that experience as one of the most personally meaningful for her at Davidson. She and others in the class felt they had some experience of encountering a moment infused with the Divine through a genuine sense of prayer, as opposed to a more distanced, academic reflection on “ideas” about God. I believe that it is important to look for such opportunities to move from talking “about” theology to experiencing a sense of godliness.

During the past several years, I have coordinated and taught in a professional development program for complementary religious school staffs in the Boston area, through Hebrew College. One year is spent on the content and pedagogy of tefillah, with one session devoted to the issue of discussing God with their own students. After brainstorming names, descriptions, and epithets for God, I put up signs around the room with several of the names for God, in Hebrew and English. These included Creator, King-Sovereign, Rock, Life of the World. I then asked the teachers to stand next to the name to which they feel best able to relate, and to tell us why they felt affinity for the name they had chosen. The session ended with the teachers developing lesson plans to teach and discuss God with their own students. In end-of-year evaluations, that particular session was always mentioned as one of the most valuable, because it gave teachers a chance to articulate their beliefs and feelings about God.

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.

The following are a few resources and examples which could provide opportunities to discuss God with younger students:

These two student books are useful in teaching about God to children: Partners with God: Teacher’s Edition, by David Wolpe (Behrman House, 1995), and I Have Some Questions about God, edited by Joel Lurie Grishaver (Torah Aura Productions, 2002). Though neither is comprehensive, each provides some practical examples. For instance, the Partners with God teacher’s guide suggests including a “questions about God” box, and designating an “observation window” to record examples of God’s presence in the world. Some Questions about God includes stories with comments by contemporary rabbis, including Bradley Shavit Artson, Ed Feinstein, and Josh Hammerman, reflecting on such questions as “How do we know there really is a God?”

We know that most opportunities for discussions about God come not as a separate subject, but during lessons on Bible, prayer, or holidays. With this in mind, here are two examples from Bible teaching:

The Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project educates day school staffs in developing units for teaching Tanakh. Standard 6 of the eight Bible standards is “Students will develop an appreciation for the sacredness of Tanakh as the primary record of the meeting between God and the people of Israel and as an essential text through which Jews continue to grapple with theological, spiritual, and existential questions.”Schools that choose to emphasize that standard in their school’s Bible teaching focus on relationships between Biblical characters and God, and extend those relationships to the students’ own thoughts about God.

Schools offer many opportunities for students to bring a discussion of God into their Bible studies. Two examples point to this approach. To reflect on how God appears in the first chapter of Genesis, students write in their own journals about how they feel about God and questions they would like to ask God. In connection with their study of Jacob’s ladder in Parashat Vayetzei, students have an opportunity to explore and develop metaphors for God. In addition, there is an exercise to discuss their feelings about God with their parents. See the MaToK teacher’s guides Bereshit (p. 75) and Vayetze (p. 67ff).

One last practical resource: A number of years ago, Harold Kushner wrote a brief article called “The Idea of God in the Jewish Classroom” (Reconstructionism, Oct. 1984). There he argues that in teaching children, we should not ask “Where is God?”—producing answers like “Everywhere" that might be disturbing to some young children—but “When is God?” which would evoke answers like “When my cut heals,” or “When I love my parents.” One teacher has suggested expanding this question into “I feel God when . . . ,” “I hear God when . . . ,” “I see God when . . . .” This approach in itself can open doors to discussing God with children.

Finally, I want to suggest one challenge in teaching about God with children: I think we have not done enough to find ways for children to confront and discuss “nontraditional” concepts of God. To many children God is still imagined as an old man in heaven, or even in a more abstract way, as a Being that controls the universe from without. How might we challenge students to consider a different kind of concept, such as God being “the essence of all existence”? I leave that challenge to you.

We have indeed come a long way in engaging educators and students in serious conversations about God and personal beliefs, yet there is still much more to do.

Rabbi Alvan Kaunfer is a graduate of Brandeis University and Teachers’ College, Columbia University; he was ordained (’73) and received a doctoral degree in Jewish Education (’89) at The Jewish Theological Seminary. He is rabbi emeritus at Temple Emanu-El in Providence, Rhode Island, where he served for 25 years, and oversaw educational programming. Rabbi Kaunfer was also the founding director of the Alperin Schechter Day School in Providence. He has taught courses in Jewish Education at The Davidson School and at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He has published articles on education and Midrash in several books and professional journals. Rabbi Kaunfer is a Tanakh educator consultant for the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project at The Davidson School, and director of the Congregational Education Initiative at Hebrew College.