Often it seems that no matter where it is, no matter who offers it, Jewish adult education, or continuing education, or lifelong learning, or whatever the term du jour might be, has one element in common.
It often seems to assume that most of the people who have come together to learn are not too smart; they’re not too educated, either Jewishly or generally, and they don’t want to bother their pretty little heads too much. So just talk nicely to them, the theory seems to be, maybe give them some cookies, and they’ll go home happy.
That’s not the approach that Rabbi Daniel Fridman of the Jewish Center of Teaneck and his partner in a new venture, Sarah Rindner of Teaneck, are taking. Instead, they are starting with other assumptions.
First, the question of why to read fiction in the first place.
“We think that reading books is a profoundly spiritual activity,” Rabbi Fridman said. “And that’s true on a number of levels. The great themes of literature understand the human condition, the dignity of the person, and confronting suffering. These are all intrinsically spiritual matters.”
Moreover, added Rabbi Fridman, who is Orthodox, there is unimpeachable Orthodox dispensation for the study of literature. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who was a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University and at Yeshivat Har Etzion, in Gush Etzion outside Jerusalem, and who was Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik’s son-in-law, also earned a doctorate in English literature at Harvard. “He felt that reading literature was an indispensable part of the formulation of one’s spiritual character, and that unquestionably it is a lifelong endeavor,” Rabbi Fridman said of his teacher.
“The second and equally important piece is that we are living in a time of short attention spans,” he continued. “Social media and other technology have great functional uses, but they are extremely disruptive and get in the way of thinking about things deeply. It is something religious leaders have to think about.”
He was inspired by a column by the influential writer and public intellectual Andrew Sullivan, who blogged feverishly for more than a decade, back when blogging was new, and who has taken much time off since then, to recenter his soul. Mr. Sullivan wrote about that experience in an essay called “I Used To Be A Human Being,” published in New York Magazine last September. (Google it. It’s worth it.)
So Rabbi Fridman knew that as part of his new rabbinate in Teaneck, he wanted to explore reading literature, but to do it “through the lens of how this informs us and interacts with our tradition. I needed someone who is very talented, a partner who is an expert in contemporary and classic literature and has a very strong Judaic background.” He knew exactly who he wanted — Sarah Rindner, who teaches literature at Touro College.
“She would pick the book and lead the discussion,” Rabbi Fridman said. “My role is to present Jewish texts that interact with the text we’re reading, and may highlight or underscore certain points, where there is a strong Torah component.”
The group has met once so far. The plan is for everyone to read the book before the meeting, and to discuss one book per meeting. The first book was Marilynne Robinson’s “Lila”; the next will be Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.”
Note that neither author is Jewish, nor are the books heavy on Jewish characters. But Jewish themes, quotes, allusions, understandings, and general worldviews are inescapable in Western literature, and beyond that human themes are Jewish themes as well.
The group drew about 30 people. “They came from our synagogue, and from other synagogues in Teaneck,” he said. “They also came from Manhattan and Brooklyn. Their ages ranged from 20s to 80s, men and women. Not everyone was Orthodox. And we probably had everyone from every profession — from psychologists to teachers to lawyers to accountants. Everyone came with their own life experiences, and everyone came well prepared.
“The feeling in the room was electric. It was a great book, and we discussed it at a very high level,” he said.
In “Lila,” “we dealt with the question of grace,” Rabbi Fridman said. “What is the meaning of grace in the Christian tradition? In our tradition? This is a very Christian book, but one of the main tensions is that Lila keeps gravitating toward the Hebrew Bible.
“One of the major issues we discussed had to do with people’s sense of salvation, which is very important in the Christian tradition,” he continued. “We had an intensive discussion of what our traditions say about who can be saved.
“This is not a book club,” Ms. Rindner said. “I hope that we will develop a nice sense of community, but it’s not about shooting the breeze about a fun book. It’s about analyzing and mining the books for their spiritual and religious dimensions. We are coming at it as a community of readers.”
Her background includes an undergraduate degree from Stern College and a masters in English at Columbia, as well as six years teaching at Touro. Her master’s thesis was on modernism, focusing on a seemingly disparate pair of poets, T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost. “I looked at what they were doing with religion and modernism,” Ms. Rindner said. “My thesis was that if you consider their philosophical background, they are quite similar, even though they seem so different.”
So clearly her sensibility opens her to new understandings of texts, and of small, sharp similarities hidden behind obvious differences, which would lend themselves to a reading group like this one.
“I was really amazed by Rabbi Fridman,” Ms. Rindner continued. “He is a very thoughtful reader, and the Jewish material that he brought into the discussion wasn’t a stretch at all. Instead, it was an excellent reading of the book, and of the Jewish sources.
“I feel that the ideas he brought wouldn’t have existed if he hadn’t read the book,” she said. “I really like this confluence of Judaism and literature, of thinking of Jewish texts from a literary perspective and thinking about literary texts from spiritual and religious perspectives.”
The next meeting is scheduled for February 26 at 8 p.m.; the group meets in the library at the Jewish Center of Teaneck, at 70 Sterling Place. Everyone is welcome — you’ll feel more comfortable if you read the book first. For more information, call the shul at (201) 833-0515.