These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PEEP Graduation ’13] Athletes of God

Posted on June 11, 2013 by Leah Kahn

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Here is my dvar Torah from the PCJE Graduation ceremony!

Martha Graham was one of the sages, entrepreneurs and Rebbes of modern dance. Says Graham:

“I believe that we learn by practice. It is the performance of a dedicated, precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit. Ultimately, one becomes in some area of life, an athlete of God.”

935732_10151636413148826_1926686261_nGraham’s words resonate with me, because her words are rich with the wisdom of a dancer’s life…as a dancer is a prime example of someone who becomes what they practice day in and day out….

While I have spent over 40 hours a week in this Beit Midrash over the past 2 years, the place where I spent my free time was in the dance studio. Every class my ballet teacher is very clear about what she is looking for at the barre. If she doesn’t see clarity of movement from her students, she reminds the class repeatedly: “Stretch your feet! Use the floor! Stand tall!” You might be wondering: Why does she need to repeat herself? She constantly reminds her students because she is acutely aware that the dance class is where we practice technique, and every action of the body programs the muscle memory, so practicing correctly is very important for the dancer. A dancer is trying to accomplish a lot in every given movement – musicality, expression, strength, quality of movement – so it is easy to forget the basics. Thus the dancer needs a teacher guiding her in order to practice correctly and get the most out of class.

This is true also in the Pardes Beit Midrash: Reading / translating Hebrew, gaining insight, staying in synch with your chevruta, delving into Mifarshim: we need our teachers to be partners, helping us to be exact during the learning process. Pardes is aware of this fact – and it has taken 18 invested teachers and staff over the course of 2 years to bring me to the place where I am today. That’s an amazing amount of resources, but integrating good Torah learning practices into muscle memory requires that committed teachers guide the student, ensuring they practice correctly so the student can achieve mastery.

The wisdom of our sages does not conflict with Martha Graham’s wisdom.
In Pirkei Avot Ch 4 Mishnah 5 it says:

רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל אוֹמֵר, הַלּוֹמֵד תּוֹרָה עַל מְנָת לְלַמֵּד, מַסְפִּיקִין בְּיָדוֹ לִלְמוֹד וּלְלַמֵּד. וְהַלּוֹמֵד עַל מְנָת לַעֲשׂוֹת, מַסְפִּיקִין בְּיָדוֹ לִלְמוֹד וּלְלַמֵּד לִשְׁמוֹר וְלַעֲשׂוֹת

Rabbi Yishmael said: He who learns in order to teach, is enabled to learn and to teach; and he who learns in order to practice, is enabled to learn and to teach, to observe and to practice.

I want to focus on one aspect of this Mishnah: “He who learns in order to practice.” The reward of a person who just wants to learn in order to practice learning or practice what they’ve learned is greater than the reward of a person who learns to be able to teach. The Rabbis discuss this in terms of being able to practice the mitzvot, enabling the learner to do benevolent deeds for others, and thus the learner will be blessed with an opportunity to learn, teach, to observe and perform. I think this is what Martha Graham meant when she said that “Ultimately, one becomes in some area of life, an athlete of God.”

Pardes is a laboratory for Jewish life, learning and living. As I’ve watched other people learn inside these walls, its not just Torah I’ve witnessed them trying to master – I’ve witnessed them trying to gain mastery over their piece of the world through Torah learning so that they can become an athlete of God. I came to Pardes to be able to do the same – to take responsibility for my piece of the Jewish world, different from my esteemed colleagues but just as important – the world of experiential Jewish education.

I stand here today confident that after two years of good practice, I can learn, teach, observe and perform.

I would be remiss if I did not thank particular teachers and mentors who have granted me special time and attention Dr. Judy Markose for understanding this important project and taking me on as the pilot of the pilot; Aviva Goldbert, a constant mentor and rock; Susan Yammer for helping me to become a better teacher; Rabbi Zvi Hirschfield for helping me to clarify my positions on the “big questions” of Jewish life and making me laugh; to Dr. Daniel Roth for inviting me into his vision and collaborating to create an exciting Jewish learning series for Hillel professionals; to Rabbi Michael Hattin and Neima Novetsky, for inspiring me to fall in love over and over again with TaNaK; and of course, to my loving husband Darrell, a true partner-in-crime, for allowing me to drag you across the world to follow my convictions.

Thank you!!!