Seeking divine inspiration in hard times

September 18, 2009

<i>PHOTO BY Phil Small/The Hoot</i>

PHOTO BY Phil Small/The Hoot

I felt like I had just infiltrated a secret meeting when I stepped into the Rapaporte Treasure Hall Monday evening. It seemed that everyone there was part of the world of professional Judaism or graduate-level Jewish education. Attending “Memory and Y’irah: On Reclaiming a Sense of Awe in Skeptical Times,” a lecture by Charles Bronfman, Visiting Scholar, helped me realize that there is a thriving community of “super Jews” living amongst the mostly oblivious undergraduate population.

The lecture was an event of the Hornstein Professional Leadership Program, which offers several graduate programs to prepare the future leaders of the American and international Jewish communities. Professor Leonard Saxe, the chair of the department, introduced the speaker.

Kurtzer’s lecture was erudite and cerebral yet gentle in tone. The talk began with an explanation of the joint Biblical responsibility of Jews to love G-d (ahava) and to fear or be in awe of Him (y’irah). This speech focused on the latter commandment and explored challenges as well as opportunities for fulfilling its mandate.

Despite scriptural revelation, Kurtzer asserted that most modern Jews establish a relationship with G-d without a sense of divine miracle. And since Judaic wisdom tells us that we cannot see Him directly, some people tend to stop looking. Opening our hearts and minds to awe forms an important solution to this dilemma.

Seeing served as a central motif for Kurtzer’s analysis. The issue with seeing most everything in our contemporary world, whether through microscopes, telescopes, cameras, or television, is that it leads to the problem that we feel awe at nothing. In order to reignite that spark of awe, Kurtzer suggests to “keep looking and take on a mantle of awe.” When we stop using our penetrating gaze to hurt others and focus on empathy we can begin to strengthen that relationship with G-d through y’irah.

Kurtzer also managed to tie this lecture into a past one he gave entitled “Memory and Mitzvah: How We Can Reclaim the Commanding Force of the Jewish Past.” He indicates that awe results in a transformative shift when it becomes a force for remembrance.

By committing these moments of “y’irah” to memory, we complete the “idealized Jewish sequence of see, remember, and do.”

The question and answer session was no less provocative than the lecture itself. Not surprisingly, some audience members wanted to consider the implications of this idea for Jewish education. The concept of making teaching “awe-inspiring” and helping students accept ambiguities reminded me of the “Pedagogy of Wonder” event last April in which educators considered this issue in a more secular context.

For people like me who might have been overwhelmed with the conceptual and philosophical difficulty of the subject, Kurtzer acknowledged this issue.

“It’s okay for it to be complicated. It should be complicated,” he assured us. In the end, the event probably represented what Jews do best: studying vital philosophical issues, schmoozing about them, and demonstrating how teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin.

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