One of the most dynamic venues for explorations of Jewish subjects is ELI Talks, an organization that presents “Inspiring Jewish Ideas.”
Yesterday, I was the guest on their weekly series “ELI on Air,” talking about the Science of Jewish Identity. We talked about the difference between “identity” and “identities,” the role of memory and the importance of relationship and community in forming our sense of who we are.
Below is the video, moderated by Miriam Brosseau, Program Director for ELI Talks.Read Transcript
Hi everyone and welcome to our latest edition of ELI On Air, the ELI Talks weekly interactive broadcast, where we talk with interesting folks from across the Jewish spectrum about different ideas of Jewish engagements, literacy and identity. My name’s Miriam Brosseau, and I am the program director of ELI Talks, and I am really thrilled to be sitting here at our virtual table today with Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman, who is the founder of Sinai and Synapses, a really interesting organization that I hope that you will check out. And we are talking today about the science of Jewish identity. And we will be taking your questions throughout this entire conversation, so feel free to submit those right here through YouTube, or we will be keeping track also of Twitter conversation. Use the hashtag #EliTalks to submit your questions there.
Without further ado, I’m going to let Rabbi Mitelman take it away and do a little introduction for us about what is identity what is it that we’re actually talking about today?
Rabbi Mitelman: Thank you Miriam, it’s good to be able to be here. Thank you very much. I’m very excited to be here online. And it’s wonderful to be able to talk about at least the relationship of science and religion, science and Judaism, and the way that science impacts Judaism, and how we can bring the best of both of them together to be able to inform who we are. So I want to be able to start, we were talking about the science of Jewish identity. And one of the things that actually I want to start with is that we may have actually even mislabeled this a little bit. Because I think that the word identity, singular, is a little bit of a misnomer. We don’t have one identity – at least a lot of the research suggests that the more accurate term would be identities. We bring our sense of identity based on the relationship that we’re in, the context that we’re with. So for example, I’m a rabbi, I’m a father, I’m a crossword solver, I’ve been a Yankees fan since I was seven, and those different elements of my identity come to forefront. They’re really based and used on the context that I’m in.
And in fact, that makes a lot of sense evolutionarily. The purpose of our life, at least in terms of evolutionary perspective, is simply to survive long enough to pass our genes on to the next generation, but different roles in our evolutionary history were needed at different times. A great example of this, for example, was the tension between being a protector versus being a provider. So a protector, for example, had to protect themselves, they had to protect their family, be safe, don’t take too many risks, that really was the job of the protector. But the flip side of that is that if you didn’t do any protection, or if you didn’t do any risks, if you didn’t try to provide for your family, if you didn’t try to take down the mastodon, if you didn’t try all the different fruits or berries that were in there, you weren’t going to be able to find enough of the resources and the food to be able to survive in the next generation.
So there’s a distinction between the protector and the provider. The different identities there would come to the forefront based on what was needed at a given time. There’s an idea called the modular mind. We actually have not one sense of self, but multiple modular sub-selves, and they’re often in competition with each other. So the idea of identity isn’t necessarily as accurate as a sense of identities. And our sense of identity is really created based on the actions that we take in a given moment. Our sense of identity and our behavior really reinforce each other. Who we are is very much based on what we do.
And that has actually a lot of implications, I think, for Jewish identity. We talk a lot about how “do we create Jewish identity for our kids,” “how do we create a sense of Jewish identity for the future,” and I think that’s actually maybe even the wrong question to ask, because you create identity – I think the analogy that I like is the sense of creating happiness. No one ever says, “OK, I want to be happy, now I’m happy.” The way that you become happy is you take actions and the result of the actions you’re taking, you end up feeling happy, you create that sense of happiness inside of yourself.
The parallel is the sense of Jewish identity. You can’t just say “I want to create someone to have Jewish identity, I want to make sure the Jewish identity is strong, OK, now they have a sense of Jewish identity.” It’s a lot of actions that they have to take, whether that’s acts of Tikkun Olam, whether that’s Torah study, whether that’s prayer, whether that’s a sense of community, the sense of relationships, very important sense of identity, we can talk a little bit more about that. So the sense of identity really is much more the actions that we take, and the actions that we take in a given context. So really the science of Jewish identity is much more about the science of Jewish identities, or how our Jewish identity is in relationship to all of our other sense of identities that float around in our brains and who we are.
Miriam Brosseau: Great. So Rabbi Mitelman, we’re getting kind of a wacky little echo reverberation going on, so if you do have a pair of earbuds that you can slip in that might actually help with that a little bit. If not, we’re just going to ask you to yourself briefly when you’re not speaking, and I will do the same.
Rabbi Mitelman: OK. Yes.
Miriam Brosseau: Excellent. So with that, it sounds like maybe our ills have been fixed since. So that’s a really helpful framing, and a really useful introduction for us, I think. So, can you tell me a little bit about – it seems like something that’s very important for the construction of identity, and maybe I’m not even using the right phrase there, but both this relational piece, but then also the issue of memory. So could you talk a little bit about how the relational aspect of identity, and the memory aspect of identity, kind of play into how we form our Jewish selves?
Rabbi Mitelman: Absolutely, sure. You know, memory is a very interesting piece – there’s a wonderful perspective, there’s a wonderful question, it’s a great philosophical question, which is, “if you lost all your memories, would you still be you?” And I think a lot of people would say the answer is “no” about that. And what’s interesting about memory – there are actually a variety of different elements of memory, and researchers talk about a few different types of memory. One they call procedural memory, which is how do you do things. I have a seven-and-a-half-month daughter, she’s learning how to walk, she’s going to remember how to be able to do that, that’s not as important for our element. One is called semantic memory, and that’s the facts that we have in our brain. So if we were to ask, “Can you remember what 5 x 4 is?” You could get that immediately. That’s actually very helpful if you’re ever on Jeopardy.
But the most interesting element is what’s called episodic memory. Now, semantic memory is retrieved. You ask “what’s 5 x 4?” and it goes back into your brain. Episodic memory is an episode in your brain. So if I were to ask you to say, “think about the Passover Seder that you were with last year,” that actually – if you think back and remember Passover of this last year, that feels different than trying to remember what’s 5 x 4 feels like.
And the reason is because semantic memory is retrieved; episodic memory is reconstructed. It becomes a story that we tell about ourselves. And if you think back on Passover of this last year, or even more importantly, all the Pesach celebrations that you had since you were growing up, that creates more and more sense of identity. The more stories that are told about who you are, the more you can reconstruct that sense of identity, the stronger that sense of identity is, the more ways that we can use memory – the way that we use memory is, what you remember is actually what you tend to think about the most. So if you’re spending a lot of time thinking about Pesach, if you’re thinking about different Jewish activities, it creates not only a sense of memory – the memories that build on each other to create that sense of identity there.
So memory actually – memory and identity, I think, the best way to be able to describe it, is that identity is really a story. Memory is also a story. Memory is not history. Memory is not something that’s necessarily designed to be accurate; memory is designed to be able to inform who we are, give us lessons for today, that sense of identity also has that same element of it. That the sense of memory, the sense of identity, is the story we tell about ourselves, and the way that we can tell that story – whether that’s edited, whether that’s sometimes changed a little bit. One of the hallmarks of both memory and identity is that they can be edited. They can be changed as need be. And different people are going to have different stories about what happened, but the sense of memory really builds into that sense of identity there.
Miriam Brosseau: I keep thinking about Philip K. Dick stories, and replacing memories, and implanting memories, and all of these things. I learned a little while ago that the most oft-repeated phrase in the Torah is “remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt.” Which is a really significant moment in our collective history, but I personally was not a slave in the land of Egypt, although I’m commanded to remember that, and feel as if I were. So what would you say the Torah is asking us to do in repeating that, and in sort of implanting that memory?
Rabbi Mitelman: So there are a couple of different pieces of that. That’s a great question. There are two elements of that. One is that memory is really not designed to be about the past. Memory is really designed about bringing the past into the present or the future. So, remembering that we were slaves in the land of Egypt – the purpose isn’t to go “huh, that’s interesting,” like, that doesn’t do anything. The purpose of remembering that we were slaves in the land of Egypt is to impact the way we’re acting here and now.
One of the wonderful lines – there’s a professor named Steve Jordans who once said that when we remember something – or remember a person actually, too (Kaddish is a wonderful way to think about this, or yahrzeit) – when we remember someone, his phrase is that we “breathe a little life into it.” And so, when we remember that we were slaves in the land of Egypt, we’re actually breathing a little bit of life into that value. We’re actually trying to make sure that we bring that into ourselves.
So the first element is that memory is really about “how do we bring the past into the present or the future?”. If you think about all the different things that Judaism commands us to remember, whether that’s Shabbat, whether that’s Avelech (?), whether that’s that we were slaves in the land of Egypt, if you remember everything that Judaism commands you to do, you would be living a very full Jewish life. You would be having – that would really inform your sense of identity, if you remembered to do all the different things that Judaism commands us to do.
So the first piece is remembering the past, to be able to bring it into the present and the future. The other was actually a piece I wrote a year ago, that one of the words that is in that line of “remember everyone should act as if they were slaves in the land of Egypt.” And the two words that we often sort of gloss over, but I would argue are the most important words, are “as if” (k’einu).
There’s actually a great book by a psychologist named Richard Wiseman, called “The As If Principle.” And the idea is, how do you – if you act as if you are a certain of person, you become that type of person. So if you wanted to be a kind person, you actually do kind actions, and then that reinforces your sense of identity as a kind person. Identity doesn’t always come from the inside out, identity often comes from the outside in. How we act, we go “oh, that’s – I was a nice person, I helped that person out.” “Oh, I actually really enjoyed doing that study of Talmud.”
So, when we think of the “as if” piece, “if we act as if we were slaves in the land of Egypt,” we place ourselves in the shoes of the Israelites, which then say, OK, no, the Israelites acted in a certain kind of way, to be able to recognize that we were strangers, to be able to open up our arms to other people, when we remember that “as if” piece of it, that actually brings us into the here and now, and allows us to translate stories, texts, into our lives in that kind of way. When we actually live as if we were slaves in the land of Egypt, and then act as if we are free, it changes the way we view ourselves and it changes the way we act in this world.
Miriam Brosseau: Hm. So, can we talk a bit about the difference between identity and labeling? Because it seems like the way that you’re speaking about identity is in a really dynamic way, that it’s a fluid, changing thing that depends on circumstance and context and and history and experience and all these things. And labeling something, saying “you are a slave,” vs. “you should act as if you were a slave,” feels very different. There’s something more static about labeling. Could you just speak to that for a moment?
Rabbi Mitelman: Sure. Yeah, I mean that’s a real tension of of labeling versus identity. Labeling often pigeonholes people. So there’s a great little piece of research from a woman named Carol Dweck – which I highly recommend people read the book, “Mindset” by Carol Dweck – and she talks about the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. And some of you may have known this study that she did of looking at different students. So with all the different students, they gave them a very easy math test. And most of the students got an average of about eight out of ten right. And half of the students, they said, “boy, you got eight out of ten right, you’re so smart,” and the other kids said “boy, you got eight out of ten right, you must have worked very hard.”
They then gave those kids a much harder test. And what happened was, the kids who were told “you are so smart,” first of all gave up a lot sooner, and second of all, got a lot fewer right. They did not do as well on the harder test. The kids who were told, “boy, you must have worked very hard,” spent a longer time, they were more invested in trying to solve the problems, and they got more correct.
So the idea of labeling people, of “you are a smart person,” actually can really be very challenging, very dangerous in that kind of way, because then, if the sense of identity of “I’m a smart person,” of, “well, hold on a second if I’m not able to get this question right, well then, am I really a smart person?” It really can create an existential crisis for 13-year-olds, which we don’t want to be able to do.
So for example, when I’m working with bar and bat mitzvah kids, I always make sure to say “boy, you clearly been working very hard, I’m really proud of you, you’ve really invested a lot of your time and energy in that kind of way.” Because certainly, for example, in bar and bat mitzvah some kids are more musical, some are less, some Hebrew was very easy for them, some Hebrew was a little bit more challenging. So being able to say “boy, you must have worked very hard,” instead of labeling them as “you are a smart person,” that’s a very important distinction to be able to make.
The one sort of wrinkle to that – there was an article in The New York Times about a month ago by a guy named Adam Grant, who wrote a great book called “Give and Take” – that actually, for kids who are about eight or nine years old, that if they are labeled in a positive kind of way, that’s actually a positive for them. So if they do something really nice, and the kid is told “Boy, you really act – you must be a very kind person,” that helps them, that actually is, at least the research says, the way to be able to go at this point, in large part because at eight and nine years old is when they’re forming their sense of moral identity. A little too young, a little too old, it doesn’t have that same impact, but at about eight, nine, ten years old, these kids are developing their sense of moral identity.
Again, that has significant implications for when we’re teaching our third and fourth and fifth and sixth graders about how do we act, how do we do acts of G’milut Chasdim, how do we do acts of Tikkun Olam, being able to really use that sense of identity as a kind person, as a caring person – the research says that’s actually potentially the way to go.
Miriam Brosseau: So as you’re saying this, what I’m thinking of is, how often so many of us who are either watching this video now live, or later on, hear this term thrown around, “bad Jew.” “I’m a bad Jew, I don’t do X, Y, or Z.” So what do you do with that, where does that come from, when people are sort of labeling themselves and building that into their own identities, and where do you go with that?
Rabbi Mitelman: That’s a great question, and I think the first thing that I would ask people if they say “I’m a bad Jew,” I would say, well, what do you mean by that? How is that, because I think it’s important, how do people self-identity? And I think a lot of it actually goes back to the context there, because if someone says “I’m a bad Jew” – I hear that a lot as a rabbi – I think because they’re expecting the rabbi to be able to sort of scold them in that kind of way, or sometimes people wear it as a badge of honor in that kind of way. But I think generally people, I don’t know, but I would think that people tend not to, say, use that phrase when they’re just talking with themselves, not among, with each other. So if someone says “I’m a bad Jew,” I would I would ask, what do they mean by that?
And I would try to then spin that and try to be able to find out, are there particular, again, actions or behaviors that resonate with them? Because, again, one of the different interesting things – because the sense of fluid identity, and especially when it’s a broad sense of identity – you can define that in a variety of different ways. So for example, if someone asks themselves “are you a good driver?” Most people are going to say “yes, I’m a good driver.” But that doesn’t – that’s because they define themselves as, “well, I always merge,” but they may go 90 or 95 miles an hour. They forget that that’s part of their identity too, and they focus only on the one element of that. So if you do a broad enough definition of saying “are you a good driver, are you a good person in that kind of way?,” people will focus on their one element that’s good and ignore the other elements of that.
And I think that parallels with “what does it mean to be a good Jew or a bad Jew?”. I think that there is such a broad spectrum that we can actually find ways to be able to say, if people say “I’m a bad Jew”, to be able to say “OK, there may be things that you’re not doing, which is, look, there are all sorts of Jewish activities that I don’t do, I don’t identify myself as a bad Jew.” How do you spin that, how do you find, OK, what are the Jewish activities, the Jewish elements, that resonate with you, and spin that to be able to find a sense of pride in what they do take pride in, if that makes sense.
Miriam Brosseau: Mhm. And so, in thinking about identity formation. There are – so we have this phrase in Judaism, “naaseh v’nishma,” right, do and then understand, or however you kind of want to parse that, and that seems to work well alongside cognitive psychology and the way we actually sort of go about our lives. But at the same time, I’ve heard from different people about, you know, changing the way you think about things can also change your behavior, and so it seems like this sort of, this cyclical kind of process. So where do you start with building Jewish identity? Is it with behavior, is it with thought, is it some combination?
Rabbi Mitelman: I would say, I would argue that we would start with behavior. We’d start with behavior and then move to the cognitive element of it for a variety of different reasons. Actually, I think I would start with behavior, emotion, thinking as the basis on that. For a huge variety of reasons: the behavior actually, again, from an evolutionary point of view, the bodily functions that we have are much more deeply ingrained in our evolutionary history than our higher cognitive functions there.
So if there’s something that’s walking, or dancing, or moving around, or smelling, I mean that’s one of the wonderful things about, for example, Havdalah. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love Havdalah. And what’s great about Havdalah is that Havdalah actually hits all five of our senses. Because often people have their arms around each other, and so there’s something physical there. And then we’re singing, so it’s something auditory. And you see the flame, and so it’s visual. And you taste the wine, so there’s taste there. And then you smell the spices, smell is actually one of the most primal senses there is.
And actually there’s a lot of research. The big phrase is called “multiple avenues of encoding.” The more ways you can try to get people connected, the stronger the connection’s going to be. So that’s why, for example, Passover always has “I know Passover’s coming when I smell different things.” If I ever eat horseradish in October, I think of Passover then. So you start with different types of behavior, because that actually automatically, instantly, gets people connected in that kind of way. The emotional piece of it, that’s the next level higher up, and I think one of the wonderful things about, for example, creating a sense of a Jewish identity, is that a positive emotion’s actually going to spark people and keep them excited. So, getting people emotionally connected in a positive kind of way, that’s the next level up, and then the cognitive element, that’s something that is actually relatively easy. You can – people can find information in many different kinds of ways that they would want to be able to find out. The cognitive element is actually the least important piece.
And I think what’s actually going to be the most effective is if all three levels are consonant with each other. If the behavior is consonant with the emotion that it’s designed to elicit, with the cognitive element of it, it really is incredibly powerful there. And the other reason, the other very simple reason that I would say that we start with behavior and let behavior form identity, is that’s actually an easier entry point. You can get someone to do something a lot more easily than you can get them to think something. So it’s a lot easier to be able to get people to do things than to reflect on “who am I in this crazy world that we live in?”. It’s a lot easier to get them to do a particular program, or to be able to to do something in part of the community, and then to be able to use that to inform that sense of identity.
Miriam Brosseau: So I’m thinking of, as you’re saying this, I’m thinking of a couple of things. First is the – this says a lot about why Jewish food, I think, is so important –
Rabbi Mitelman: Hugely important.
Miriam Brosseau: Because it speaks to that that primal part of it, it involves every single sense, and it certainly has those layers of emotion. And, you know, probably sparks certain thoughts, and so I feel like it’s something that really acts on all of those levels. So if you’d like to say anything to that. And I’m also thinking about this idea of “getting people to do something is much easier than getting them to think differently,” I’m also bringing up the trope of Chabad, right, and getting young men to lay tefillin, and doing it on the street corner and just making it happen. So, could you just speak to that a bit as well?
Rabbi Mitelman: Sure. I mean I think that’s one of the wonderful things about Judaism, is that the rituals are very, very physical. And I think whether that is laying tefillin, and I think that’s one of the – I think there are a variety of reasons why Chabad is successful, and I think that’s one of them. That it makes people – it’s a very low barrier, and I think that’s very important. I think to be able to find – the phrase that I’d like to use is that “you have a low barrier and a high bar.” You want to make sure, that is, that the entry point is very easy, but you want to create something outstanding, and I think to be able to meet both of those is a very important element.
I mean, you talk about the importance of food, and it’s huge, it’s huge, and I think that’s, again, it’s the multiple avenues of encoding there. One of the other examples, great examples, there is basically every single holiday, whether that’s Hannukah, whether that’s that’s Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, whether that’s Shavuot, there’s always something that is auditory, there’s something that’s gustatory, there’s something that’s very much about food in that kind of way, that has specific kinds of foods there.
And I think there’s something – if you think, for example, of Kol Nidre. That’s a wonderful example. I think the vast majority of Jews, including me a lot of the time, I have to reach back, right, what is “what’s the words about Kol Nidre, I have to look at that again,” and then to be able to say “wait, this is what’s so powerful.” You tell what you tell lay people or the wider Jewish world, Kol Nidre is this dry Aramaic legal text, and they’re sort of like “wait, what?”. Because they really – because the purpose of Kol Nidre, yes, it’s the purpose about the words, but it’s a couple of different pieces. It’s the music that’s there, and it’s also that “that’s what I’ve done every year since I was three.” And the more that’s created, the more the sense of identity that’s there.
Miriam Brosseau: Excellent. So I want to get back to – there’s this kind of meme, I guess, going around the Jewish community about relational Judaism, a term coined by Ron Wolfson, in his book of the same title. And there are all kinds of initiatives that feel very similar. We did an ELI on Air with Rabbi Arnie Samlan a little while ago about this idea of connectedness kind of being the heart of Jewish education. And so I’d love to hear from you about the role of – a little bit more about this role of relationships, and maybe let’s touch on the idea of kind of collective identity in addition to individual identity.
Rabbi Mitelman: Absolutely. I mean I think that humans, as we evolved, we did not evolve as isolated individuals. In fact, there’s are a lot of research, I think it’s pretty much a scientific consensus, that the reason our brains are so big is to be able to remember all the social relationships that we’ve had. And that’s why it’s grown. That the idea that you need to be able to remember, “Oh, who helped me last month when I needed to be able to find some food, and who stiffed me when I asked them for help?”
So we are very much moral creatures. But the interesting piece and challenging piece, there’s a researcher named Jonathan Haidt, who wrote a great book called “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” and one of the things that he talks about is that morality – he said, “it binds and it blinds.” So we very much, as humans, create a sense of us and them. We can’t avoid that. We always have a sense of who we are, our in-group, and the out-group. And the in-group is good, and the out-group is bad. Which again, on the African savannah, made perfect sense because there were about 100, 150 people in our tribes and you never met anyone else. Today, in 2014, that’s not going to be as helpful, because we live in this global world. But a sense of collective identity, to be able to find “who is on my team,” “who is part of my in-group,” really is a very valuable skill. I’m going to play on that in one second, because I want to expand on that a little bit.
There’s a lot of research that actually says if you find a point of similarity, you’re going to be more connected with them, more compassionate to them, more related to them, more willing to help. So, I mean, there’s a lot of research that says that actually the easiest way to create compassion in others is to find a sense of connectedness there. So now, because we live with this in-group/out-group, and because it’s so important to find that sense of in-group, that could lead us down a very dangerous path, so I want to give a little caveat. The way I started is that we have actually have multiple senses of identities. So if you are trying to create a sense of collective identity, you’ve got to be able to change the different hats that you have, to be able to find that sense of connection there.
So one of the things I said at the beginning, I’m a big Yankees fan. When I lived in Boston for a year, I did not get a whole lot of friendly smiles when I would wear my Yankees hat. There was a real sense of tension there, because they were the in-group, I was the out-group. But, when I went to a Reform synagogue there, the Yankee/Red Sox rivalry didn’t matter so much, because I was part of this community there.
So the question is, how do we find a sense of our in-group that can also change based on the context that we need to be in at a given time? So a sense of collective identity – one of those senses of collective identity is the sense of Jewish identity, that is a piece of that. How do we help people connect to the in-group that is the Jewish community here, and at the same time, how do we shift our hats if we need to, to be able to say, “well, this is the local community that I that I live in, in the town I live in”? How do I find the people who are my age, how do we find the people who have children of my same age? How do I find the people who – you know, all sorts of different elements of the identity being fluid based on the content there.
Miriam Brosseau: So what would – so tell me a little bit about the implications for this for folks who are interested in instilling a notion of that quote-unquote “strong Jewish identity” in children or in the community. What should Jewish institutions, what should parents of Jewish children, what should we know that we don’t? And what’s sort of the one insight that you feel like we need to take away that we’re not necessarily acting on or thinking about right now?
Rabbi Mitelman: So I would say, the big argument, I would say, is if we want to create a sense of Jewish identity, we shouldn’t focus on creating a sense of Jewish identity. Instead we should be focused on the behaviors, and giving kids the opportunity, and people the opportunity, to form their own sense of identity.
A few years ago, actually, there was a really interesting piece, and maybe you remember this a few years ago, where the horoscopes changed. Where people – they changed what their horoscopes were. And I don’t believe in horoscopes at all, most of my friends on Facebook don’t buy into horoscopes, but there was such an uproar. “Wait a second, I’m not a Libra, I’m a Leo, you know, what are you talking about!?” and it became a sort of outrage, and I think the outrage was because people were trying to force a sense of identity on to other person. Do the more you say “this is who you are, or who you should be,” is actually going to push people back.
And so the more you say “this is who you should be,” I think the less likely it’s going to be to be able to create that sense of Jewish identity. But the more that we give people an opportunity for each individual child to say “ah, this is who I am, this is how I express myself as a Jew,” that is actually going to be different from child to child, because again, this definition of good Jew/bad Jew, what does it mean to be a Jew, even the sense of Jewish identity, is a misnomer. It’s Jewish identities, so that can manifest itself, again, in a variety of different ways. Giving kids a variety of different options and opportunities to start with behavior, then for the behavior to be layered upon that of elicit types of emotions, and then the top part is the cognitive element of that. That’s actually going to be a natural flowering of a sense of Jewish identity, rather than this g’shrai??? of how are we going to create a sense of Jewish identity. That’s going to come naturally. That’s got to come sort of out of its own sense of who those kids are. Though that would not be my argument there.
Miriam Brosseau: Are there behaviors that we should be encouraging more at different ages?
Rabbi Mitelman: Yeah, I mean that’s a – I think, again, it’s very important to be age appropriate. I think kids, their cognitive styles and their emotional styles change as they as they grow up. I think that it’s very important to be very tactile for young kids, and for them to be able to find the joy in Judaism.
One of the things that I like to tend to say is that “I’m not interested in making people more Jewish, and I’m not interested in making more Jews, I’m interested in being able to have Judaism be a technology and tool to be able to help people become better human beings.” So you know certainly with very young kids, to be able to talk about, do you very tactile elements of this, when it comes to a seventh, eighth, ninth grader, that’s really when kids are forming their sense of identity, that’s when their God concept is really starting to change. I like to say “if you show me an eighth grader, I will show you an atheist.” And it’s because the their view on God, which was great when they were seven or eight or nine, doesn’t work when they’re 13, 14, 15. People need to reincorporate what is it what is their sense of God.
That’s a great line that I love, I think it’s from Laura Geller, but it maybe can someone else who says that all theology is autobiography. If we help kids understand who they are, it also helps them understand their relationship with God. So I think that’s a very important piece of that. Again, it’s really trying to be able to find that the not seventy and start with the with the behavior and build upon that. And the one of the one extra thing that I would say, I make a little plug – Miriam, we were both at the Jewish Futures conference yesterday. And there’s a blog, and actually I had a blog post on the Jewish Futures Conference called “Why Judaism Needs Velcro.” And one of the things that that’s great about Velcro, Velcro is very sticky. If you think about Velcro, it stays for a long time. How does Velcro stay for a long time? Well there’s the soft side, and then there’s the hooks. And without any hooks for the soft side to sort of strike them never try to pick a softer development doesn’t do anything, but if there are no hooks, the velcro stays for really long time.
I tend to view Judaism and Jewish education very much like the soft side of the velcro. I think too often, we give kids all this information, and if you think about the sort of lives right now. Where we’ve got to focus is where are the hooks that the kids have in their own heads? What are kids grappling with in their own lives? What are they excited about? What are they passionate about? Finding out what again comes out of the relational Judaism, you got to find out who your audience is, and if you are able to find, start with what the hooks are in the kids, then the soft side of the velcro hooks on and it stays. And it’s state and if these were really long time and it creates that sense of identity that’s going to grow and develop as kids get older.
Miriam Brosseau: A cool metaphor. Can you can use it for just a moment – I’m curious about text study, because it feels like that is often the entry point for a lot of organizations, you know, to get folks more excited or more involved in Jewish life, and I’m like, on the one hand, “yes, it’s an activity, it’s a behavior,” but on the other going to feel very cerebral. And so you’re just not sure so I was
Rabbi Mitelman: So text study is great when it works and can be deadly if it doesn’t. And I want to actually give a hopefully practical suggestion for those who teach, perhaps than what the barrier tends to be on their. The velcro theory actually I did according to one of my favorite books called “made the stick” by Dan And if you haven’t read it a mistake to everyone go out, buy that book it has the benefit to get one if you read it?
So one of the things the way it starts with is a study about people who are “tappers” and “listeners.” And what they did is they divided everyone into groups, into pairs. The pair, one person was a tapper and the other was the listener. And they’re supposed to tap out a list of songs. And they asked the tapper, can you guess how many songs the listener is going to be able to get right? And the tapper thought the listener would get about 50% right, and in fact the listener got about 2% of them, perhaps. Because the tapper knew what they were trying to do, the tapper had the song going in their head, and the listener had no idea what was going on and what these authors going to talk about they call about the curse of knowledge. And the people who are teaching know, and the people who are learning don’t. And they assume that the people who don’t know already know everything that he.
And I think the curse of knowledge is is really, really important in terms of being aware of in terms of text study. Because there are when you’re preparing a piece of Talmud, you’ve got to know it, you’ve got to know all the context, and by the time you present it, you’ve forgotten that you don’t know everything. And so I think it’s really important, in terms of text study, to be able to, first of all, realize “what are the learners not going to know?” Where do you need to start, you need to start with not what the learners know, but what they don’t know. And the other piece of it too, again – if it’s cognitive, if it’s up here, it’s got to at least be connected with the emotional element too. So one of my favorite lines, there’s somebody who wanted to study to be a rabbi and said to the Rabbi, “Rabbi, I’ve been through the Talmud seven times,” and the rabbi said “Ah, but how many times has the Talmud been through you?”
And it’s really important if you’re teaching text, if you’re teaching Talmud, that it’s not just about text study, but it’s about how does the text inform who we are as Jews, and maybe even more importantly, how does the text help us figure out who we are as individuals?
Miriam Brosseau: Beautiful. I love it. I understand you have an exciting event coming up next week. You want to tell us two words about that before we close out?
Rabbi Mitelman: Sure, maybe a couple more words than two. Sinai and Synapses is – it’s a new organization to be able to bridge the scientific and religious worlds, very much like what we did today. How do we use the best of science and the best of religion? I would encourage people to go to sinaiandsynapses.org, you can see more information there. A week from today, at Central Synagogue, if you’re in New York, at 55th and Lex, Sinai and Synapses and Central Synagogue are presenting a program called “Can Science and Religion Co-exist?” I’m going to be moderating a discussion among three really fantastic people, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, who’s the president of CLAL, Michael Zimmerman, who is the founder of the Clergy Letter Project – he is a biologist in Washington State, wanted to see, could he get some Christian clergy to sign a public document “that says evolution is not a theory, it’s a fact.” He got 13,000 Christian clergy, 500 rabbis to be able to sign that. And the third person is Professor Hank Davis, who is an atheist evolutionary psychologist, wrote a great book called “Caveman Logic.” And he is a very funny, very dynamic speaker.
And I’m going to be moderating a discussion among the three of them, it’s May 29th at 7 P.M. at Central Synagogue. The information is, again, on Sinai and Synapses’ Website , I and I hope as you everyone there.
Miriam Brosseau: Awesome, and that is the end of our time. I can only assume that everyone has taken away – I don’t know what you don’t know, but I feel most I very enriched by this conversation. I hope everyone else as well. Thank you to Rabbi Mitelman, Sinai and Synapses, for a really interesting window into how Jewish identity develops, I hope we all got something to take away from it. So next week, we’ll have another ELI On Air for you with more cool folks talking about interesting ideas around engagement, literacy and identity. We’ll actually be talking with Jack Wertheimer and others about a study into Israel in Jewish day schools, and what are some of the roles and perceptions that are happening in that area, so it should be a very interesting discussion. And we’ll be here every week having these kinds of conversations.
Thank you all for joining us, thank you to Rabbi Mitelman for sharing your time and your talent, and we look forward to continuing this discussion online. Bye everybody, see you on air.