26 February 2013

Textually-Speaking: Why I Am So Into Using Texts

Although it may seem obvious that someone who is ordained as a rabbi and serves as a rabbi would be really into text study, since studying texts is the bread-and-butter for becoming a rabbi as well as the area of expertise for rabbis.  However, I have been surprised in my three-plus years of serving as a rabbi that I am quite text-heavy (apparently compared to others?).  (Although we can speak of a variety of media of texts, for the purposes of this post, I am referring to written and printed texts.)
When it comes to leading any classes or learning with people, my preferred style is "text-based discussion" whereby texts from the Jewish tradition are front-and-center and informing our conversation.  Although I happen to lean heavily on Talmudic texts, primarily since they are foundational (I also particularly happen to enjoy studying them), I do use other texts, as well.  Although one thing I have had to learn in my current position is that most Jews do not particularly enjoy going through texts of heritage, there are still those that actually do, and, amongst some of those, like going more in-depth.  Fortunately, I am still able to ply my trade with these Jews :)
Anyways, I have gotten a sense that there are those that don't use texts so heavily and prefer to simply speak about Judaism and about a variety of Jewish topics.  While I may avoid that method because I don't trust my memory as well as others may, I actually avoid it for two primary reasons.  The first reason is that by placing out a visual text that all may see, we have equal access to the text.  We can unlock that text together - it is all of our shared heritage - and I see my role as being the one who can furnish the text and provide a space for a conversation to take place around it.  One thing that this method does is allow the participants to engage with the texts in an intimate way and really wrestle with it, as opposed to hearing a [potentially] one-dimensional view of the text out of a rabbi's mouth.  Another thing that this does is actually selfish on my behalf: it allows me to show some neat textual approaches.
The second reason is that I don't like when other rabbis say that "Judaism takes a ____ approach to ___" or "the Jewish view on _____ is ____" because it makes it so simplistic, when, in truth, many topics are actually quite complicated.  By having texts in the discussion, it offers the audience an opportunity to participate in grappling with the texts and having a greater sense of personal ownership to them.  Moreover, I actually dislike it when other rabbis say that because I either don't like what they're saying, that they are lacking important nuance (making them kind of wrong), or that they are straight-up incorrect.  So, I am avoiding a method I dislike.  Another thing that avoiding this approach accomplishes is that if I say "The Jewish approach/view to _____ is ____", I may end up sounding somewhat flippant, but worse, it would be common for people to pipe up, "But, I thought Judaism says _____ about ____?"  I would then say, "Yes, but..." and a weird conversation would ensue.  Basically, it cuts out that uncomfortable conversation and allows them to see the complexity of the issue (and, of course, perhaps my view of the topic).
For those two primary reasons, I like to share the texts and, apparently, am considered pretty textual(?).

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