The following reflection was written by Jorg Drewitz, an Ikkarim participant.
Over the last six months, Sunday mornings have been important fix points in our family’s life. My wife and I – she’s Jewish, I’m not (or at least not yet…) – look forward to Sunday mornings because they (with some exceptions due to holidays or the winter weather) bring Ikkarim, a 22-session class on the core values of Judaism running from Fall to the following Spring. So we take our 12-year old daughter to Hebrew School at our synagogue Temple Hillel B’nai Torah, next door to the house where classes are held, and leave our young son with his little buddies under the care of the two official baby-sitters in a room nearby. Then our little ritual starts: we enter the class room, take our name tags, and settle down to coffee and a bit of conversation with our fellow-Ikkarimniks. Our teacher rises to lead us in a blessing (‘Baruch attah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam, Asher Kidd’shanu b’mitzvotav vi’tzivanu la’asok b’divrei torah’), and class starts.
The Power of the Blessing
By the way, the blessing gave me an important insight into Judaism. Since I don’t speak Hebrew I took the opportunity a few months into the class to ask our teacher to confirm or correct my understanding of that blessing. I emailed him, did it mean ‘blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, for giving us your Torah and inspiring [commanding?] us to learn it’? Well, he emailed me this translation back, ‘Blessed are You, Adonai, Ruler of the World, Who has sanctified us with Your commandments and instructed us to involve ourselves with the words of Torah.’ A dialogue ensued which clarified for me that the kind of study alluded to here is not primarily a transmission of rules from God to the people of Israel, but a pledge by the participants in the study of Torah (or Ikkarim) to make a bottom-up effort, often in a communal setting, to engage in dialogue how one might understand Torah (or, in our case, the Jewish core values). The emphasis in Jewish learning in general and in Ikkarim in particular is on the common effort, on dialog, not on the transmission of a strict credo. To outsiders such as me, accustomed to stricter theological ‘credos’ common to Christian churches, our teacher’s explanation brought home an important difference between Christian teaching and less dogmatic Jewish core values, which I found a welcome one.
Our Ikkarim text and its focus on raising Jewish Children
In class, we Ikkarimniks next would open our spiral-bound workbook. It is a hefty affair, organized into four broad sections, headlined Outward Bound (honoring parents, marriage, the power of speech, acts of loving kindness), Inward Bound (finding our calling, the meaningful life, end of life, the meaning of evil), Upward Bound (the realm of the transcendent, prayer, mitzvot, personal autonomy, the returnee standing before God), and Homeward Bound (the people and the land of Israel, chosen-ness, Tikkun Olam, Jewish Responsibility, Passover). Each part either deals directly with parent-child relations or contains hints as to how parents can communicate the lessons of each section to their children, the intention being to guide the parents towards building a Jewish home. The readings in each section are short, and can be accomplished in class, which means that there is no required homework – a fact appreciated by most of our class mates. While the parent-child relationship is central to the way the book frames these issues, I found that being a parent is not necessary in order to enjoy the fruits of this class. And while it is true that some fellow Ikkarim students would have preferred an even stronger emphasis on the applicability of Jewish teaching to raising children, I enjoyed the class even without constant reference to child rearing. I think the advice that came out of our particular group of Ikkarimniks would be this: Let each future Ikkarim class determine early on how strongly the curricular emphasis of transmitting Jewish values to the next generation should be front and center of each of the Ikkarim sessions (or not).
Students and Teachers
For my wife and me, and I believe for our classmates as well, the most delightful aspect of our Ikkarim experience was how easily and effortlessly we bonded with our fellow students and with our teacher, Rabbi Natan Margalit. The latter impressed us by the depth of his learning and by how lightly he wore it. He shared with us the way stations of his spiritual journey beginning at the tail end of the hippie generation, to excursions into Eastern spiritual traditions, life among the Orthodox in Israel, and graduate school in Berkeley, California. He told us that – by virtue of having had his particular set of teachers – he places himself in the tradition of the Bal Shem Tov, and describes his outlook as Neo-Hasidic, a Jewish spirituality rooted in joy, optimism and even an ecumenically inspired willingness to enter into dialogues with other religious traditions. Likewise, the members of our class in all their diversity freely contributed their life experiences and insights to the conversation without ever monopolizing it. Converts and Jews, lesbian and straight, married and widowed, racially and ethnically diverse, working in many diverse professions, our fellow Ikkarimniks were glad to share their stories of both joy and heartrending losses, of Jewish lessons learned or at least attempted. And as the weather warmed and the flowers blossomed, Ikkarimniks would linger after class, organizing a picnic for the families, and contemplating a self-organized continuation of the class. It seems to me that this was one of the most useful lessons we learned – that the Jewish tradition never exhausts itself in a dry exchange of ideas but extends into the world of human interaction, potentially transforming that which it touches. For my part, I found myself gladly embracing Jewish core values by virtue of having become an Ikkarimnik.