The ‘Yearning’ for Torah learning goes to TV


Do you want to be happier?

Do you want to have greater love and intimacy in life?

Do you want greater self-awareness?

And did you know that you could find all these things in the wisdom of Judaism?

That’s the premise of “The Hidden Wisdom of Our Yearnings with Irwin Kula,” a two-hour PBS show airing Dec. 10 on KCET. Based on Rabbi Kula’s new book, “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” (Hyperion, 2006, with Linda Lowenthal), the program is one of the first that PBS has given to a rabbi or Jewish leader teaching to the masses.

Kula, who is the president of CLAL: The National Center for Jewish Leadership, also hosted public television’s 13-part series, “Simple Wisdom With Irwin Kula.” He is one of a number of Jewish leaders trying to bring Jewish teaching to the mainstream, including Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, Rabbi Harold Kushner and conservative talk show host Dennis Prager.

“Can we take Jewish wisdom public?” Kula said in a telephone interview with The Journal.

In the past, the Torah has been used to make Jews become better Jews, but “this is really seeing Torah as a technology to become more human.”

In the program, Kula, wears a knitted kippah on his longish silver hair and an open blue sports jacket; he walks on a stage in front of a live studio audience and discusses the “messiness” in life: life’s disappointments, conflicts, dissatisfactions — what he calls yearning.

“If we don’t have something to yearn for, some dents in our life to fix, some messiness, some crucial quality of our life is missing,” Kula tells the audience. “Yearning can be a path to blessing.”

Like other mass-market purveyors of “wisdom,” Kula has a number of catchphrases, such as “The more we allow ourselves to unfold, the less we will unravel,” and “We can want it all and always be finding enough,” but his message is one that particularly fits these new uncertain times — in which he believes much wisdom does not address.

“There’s a lot of bad messages being given,” he said, such as the conventional religious message that your behavior can improve your life, or the New Age wisdom that problems are illusions and life is actually perfect.

But Judaism knows life shouldn’t be perfect, he says, using the story of Eve eating the apple in the Garden of Eden.

“I love Eve, because she understood that Paradise is not all it’s cracked up to be!” Eve teaches us, he continued, “never to fear the messiness. The messy spaces in our lives are our greatest teachers.”

Rabbi Irwin Kula will appear on KCET on Dec. 10 5-7 p.m. He will also appear on the “Today” show on Dec. 12 and Dec. 25.

Panel Rejects Texts Over Religious Bias


In a surprise move, an advisory body to the California Board of Education rejected a sixth-grade history program that Hindu and Jewish groups blasted as biased, erroneous and culturally derogatory.

During a two-day late September hearing before the state’s Curriculum Development and Supplemental Materials Commission, Jewish critics lambasted the Oxford University Press textbook and related materials for subjecting early Jewish history to a more rigid standard of proof than Christian or Muslim history, for including stories that have traditionally fomented anti-Semitism and for misstating key concepts of Judaism, presenting it as a religion of reward and punishment, rather than one of social justice and morality.

The rejection was a major upset for the prestigious publishing company, which for the first time was trying to enter the lucrative California market for kindergarten through eighth-grade teaching materials. California is the nation’s largest textbook purchaser, and often sets the tone for what is adopted by other states.

David Gershwin of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles laid out for the commissioners Oxford’s depiction of the Exodus. Not only, he said, does the Oxford text note that there is no historical record of the Exodus — a caveat not included in descriptions of the seminal religious events of other faiths — it incorrectly states that the story is important to Jews mainly as a way to set themselves off from other people.

When Jewish groups asked Oxford to change that passage to reflect the importance of the Exodus as a story of national and personal liberation, they were rebuffed.

“It is difficult for us to comprehend why the beliefs of other religions are presented without critical comment, while the essential event of Judaism is subjected to a historical analysis that can only be described as disdainful and highly subjective,” Gershwin testified.

One Hindu speaker pointed to a chapter called, “Where’s the Beef?” and said it offended him to have his faith presented “in the manner of an outdated television ad.”

Following the public criticism, 14 commissioners voted last Friday against adopting the Oxford materials, and one commissioner abstained. Their rejection came as a surprise, because a special review committee had recommended its adoption to the commission.

California has mandated the study of religion since 1987. Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism are studied in sixth grade, and Islam is covered in seventh grade.

Oxford is one of 12 publishers whose programs were being considered for adoption by the state. Approval of materials means school districts can use state money to purchase them. The Curriculum Commission rejected the programs of two other publishers, as well, but those had not been recommended by the review committee, which said they did not meet state standards.

The state Board of Education will make its final decisions on all the programs Nov. 3.

Although Jewish groups picked out Oxford’s materials as the most egregious, none of the publishers escaped criticism.

Jackie Berman, educational consultant of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), and policy analyst Susan Mogull spent the last few months poring over the offerings of all the programs vying for the California market.

Speaking for the JCRC’s new Institute for Curriculum Services project, they sent extensive reviews of the proposed materials to state commissioners in late August. Their reviews said that “many of the texts contain narrations of the Crucifixion that blame or clearly implicate the Jews, presentations of the parable of the Good Samaritan that identify uncaring passers-by as Jews and Paul as a persecutor of Christians when he was the Jewish Saul — all have been used throughout history as a means of implanting anti-Semitism in young minds.”

Berman said that while other publishers “worked well with us” to resolve issues of concern to the Jewish community, the Oxford team did not.

In a Sept. 27 memo to the Curriculum Commission, Oxford criticized the Institute for Curriculum Services’ concerns as “an apologetic defence of Judaism” and said the Jewish group was “not looking for historical objectivity but a religious agenda.”

The Oxford response stated it “is not relevant” to bring up how the Good Samaritan parable may have been used by anti-Semites throughout history. “Many religious texts in all traditions have been used to justify bad behavior,” the memo said.

However, Anne Eisenberg of the National Council of Jewish Women told commissioners, “Teaching religion to sixth- and seventh-graders is a high-stakes challenge. Jew hatred still exists and, in some places, thrives. This is a book that millions of children could potentially read.”

In addition to rejecting the Oxford text, the Curriculum Commission passed a motion requiring publishers to make changes requested by the Institute for Curriculum Services before their programs can be adopted by the state board in November.

After the hearing, Oxford representatives said they had “misunderstood” the public comment procedure, and are eager to work with Jewish and Hindu groups to make changes before November, when they plan to resubmit their program to the California board.

“We will be reaching out to the Jewish and Hindu organizations that brought up specific issues in our text, so they’ll feel comfortable withdrawing their objections,” said Casper Grathwohl of the reference division publisher of Oxford University Press.

The “Where’s the Beef?” chapter heading was intended “to grab readers’ attention,” said Amanda Podany, a co-author of one of the Oxford sixth-grade textbooks. “No offense was intended,” she said, and the heading will “certainly” be changed.

Both she and Grathwohl said that the Oxford series devotes more space to Judaism than the other course programs under consideration. This both indicates their serious interest in the topic, and provides more to criticize, they said.

 

Familial Forgiveness


 

The syllabus for my USC general education class includes both Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and Chapters 37-50 of Genesis — the Joseph story or “novella.” These two narratives share themes that commend themselves: forgiveness and reconciliation. Both Prospero and Joseph were set upon by their own brothers and narrowly escaped death. Both protagonists contributed to their victim role — Prospero through neglecting governance and Joseph by insensitive boasting. In the end, though, both forgive those who abused them — enabling their family circle to be repaired and the next generation blessed. Just as Prospero realizes that “the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance,” so, too, does the instinct for reconciliation surge through Joseph.

Just barely, however. And it is in this week’s parsha where Joseph turns the corner. That turn allows him to be a brother and son while also being himself. In effect, that turn enabled us to become the Jewish people who went out of Egypt and returned to Israel. Such turning is not easy, then or now, within a family or within a people.

The stellar moment of Parshat Vayigash comes when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers: “I am Joseph. Does my father yet live?” (Genesis 45:3).

For me, Joseph’s trumpeting of his individual identity within a complex social situation echoes across the millennia: “It is I, Hamlet the Dane.” “Call me Ishmael.” “I am an invisible man.” We know from literature and our own lives how difficult it can be, not only to forgive those who wrong us, but to be both our parents’ child and our own self. American society keeps struggling to strike the right balance between self and other, healthy individualism and civic cohesion. We could do worse than Joseph as a model, precisely because such balancing does not come easy to him.

Upon reflection, it’s clear that being able to forgive requires the stretching of personal borders and the capacity to take a broad view. Ironically, only a secure person or people can manage such a stretch; only a firm hold on one’s own life thread permits that thread’s being woven into a larger tapestry. Through suffering, Joseph has sloughed off his egotism and gained a clear sense of God’s providence. So matured, he reassures his brothers with great sensitivity: “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” He does this while still realistically urging them to “not be quarrelsome on the way” back to their father, Jacob (Genesis 45:4 and 24).

I will not assume that others have as much trouble as I being like the Joseph of Parshat Vayigash. For me, it has not been easy to get beyond familial and other breaches. The struggle continues to transcend resentment for past ills and discern the outlines of a divine plan. On the Jewish level, it can be hard to meet inner needs and participate in community. It is also hard to hold together ahavat Yisrael — the special bond among Jews — with acknowledgment of where we have done wrong, forgiveness of the wrongs that have been done to us and effort to repair the damage and move toward the wholeness that is peace.

All the levels of our lives are linked and require constant tuning. As individuals who belong to families, as American citizens who are members of both the Jewish people and the world order, we have to be able to forgive in order to go forward. From beginning to end, our sacred scripture, the Tanach, records disruption and repair in irregular sequence. Until the Messiah comes, the best we can do is strive toward the enlightenment and clear-sighted resolve displayed by our patriarch Jacob at the end of Chapter 45: “My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die.”

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Jan. 5, 2001.

Rabbi Susan Laemmle is dean of religious life at USC.

 

Two Educators Earn Honors


Barry Koff, who integrates technology and art into his religious school lesson plans, is a recipient of this year’s Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.

Joanne Mercer, retiring director of education at Newport Beach’s Temple Bat Yahm, suggested Koff be considered for national recognition by the Jewish Education Service of North America and the local Bureau of Jewish Education.

Another winner from Orange County this year is Limor Barkol, a Hebrew teacher at Morasha Jewish Day School in Rancho Santa Margarita and Westminster’s Temple Beth David.

"I have had the fortune of studying with many of Orange County’s wealth of rabbis and educators, including my mentor, Rabbi Bernie King," Koff said, referring to the rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’a lot. "King says that ‘everyone we meet is our teacher,’ so I suppose I come by my Jewish knowledge through my family, friends and strangers."

Koff earned a state teaching credential and completed a master’s degree in Jewish education through Chicago’s Spertus College. Yet his first career as an on-air radio broadcaster comes through in his classroom. During three years at Bat Yaym, Koff encouraged use of student-made video documentaries about Jewish genealogy and music videos about historic Jewish personalities.

"I try to bring whatever creativity I can to allow students to express themselves and their Jewish identity," Koff said.

His assignment is seventh-grade Judaic studies and middle-schoolers preparing to become confirmands.

He previously served as education director at Shir Ha-Ma’a lot, where he started, wrote and produced full-length Jewish-themed musicals for the Not Ready for Orthodox Players children’s theater.

Koff, 46, and his wife, Ann, live in Dana Point with 10-year-old twins, Jonathan and Shoshana. Koff currently is a full-time home-school teacher for his children.

The award recognizes 50 outstanding Jewish educators annually. They each receive $2,500 toward funding professional development.

Koff intends to use the prize money for a summer study program in Israel.