Teaching Interfaith Cooperation: An Example of Service-Learning as Ethical Learning

I disagree with the ethic undergirding the oft-quoted rabbinic aphorism “the study of Torah is equal to them all” (Mishnah Peah 1:1). I disagree because the rabbis articulate in this statement a worldview in which “[l]earning Torah was…the supreme commandment.”[1] Chaim Stern in Gates of Prayer amended “the study of Torah is equal to them all” to read “‘the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all.’”[2] But, as Richard Sarason writes, “that is not what this text actually claims…. For the Rabbis, Torah-study is an intrinsic good and a supreme value in itself because, through it, one encounters God.”[3] My disagreement, then, stems from my holding a set of values fundamentally different from that of the Tannaim. For them, study itself, of paramount virtue, sufficed such that deed need not follow; for me, deed alone matters.

Unlike the Tannaim, much of today’s society values education because it aims to shape people into ethical human beings. Admittedly, the question of whether one can even teach the ethical such that it becomes part of a person’s nature remains open to debate.[4] At its worst, education fuels extremism, promotes tyranny, and cultivates hatred.[5] At its best, it works to create positive change makers and healers in the world. Even then, even when undertaken to prepare for a life of service, study in the moment of its unfolding does not alleviate the suffering of the Other.[6]

Service learning does. According to the National Service-Learning Clearing House, “Service-learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities. Through service-learning, [students] use what they learn in the classroom to solve real-life problems.” To this definition, I would add only that learning occurs in the opposite direction as well. Yes, one uses learning “to solve real life problems,” but the praxis itself, the application of that learning to better the world through deed, leads to more learning as well.

As a second year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, I have had the privilege of studying the field of education. Among the many topics covered, developmental psychology has enthralled me the most. The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati Fellows Program empowers me to put that learning into practice through my work at the Beerman Jewish Student Center (henceforth referred to as Miami Hillel) on the campus of Miami University.

With a predominantly Caucasian student body, Miami University has a campus culture where students tend to remain in their socio-cultural and religious silos. To encourage more pluralistic student interaction, the university brought Eboo Patel, president and founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, to speak during October 2015 about the importance of interfaith cooperation in today’s world. As a follow-up, I led an interfaith educational program at Miami University during November 2015, during which I asked participants, “How do we engage the religious Other?” My question addresses a challenge facing Miami students every day: how does one develop a sense of intimacy—in this case, a true, existential relationship with the religious other—while maintaining one’s own religious or non-religious sense of identity?

In part, my study of developmental psychology, specifically Eric Erikson’s identification of the primary struggle of young adulthood as a struggle between intimacy and isolation, had helped me to formulate that question.[7] However, facilitating the program itself deepened my grasp of that theory, enabling me to internalize it. That internalization resulted in deep learning, “deep” because it became part of me and “learning” because it transformed me. Most important of all, that deep learning transpired while I endeavored to help “solve real-life problems.” Service-learning, then, is ethical learning because it helps the Other—in this case, the religious Other.

In the end, I taught students that, if engaging the other means attending to his or her whole person, that engagement hinges in part on our ability to build a relationship grounded in shared values, providing a point of connection for us to see past the Other’s otherness and to recognize him or her as person. In a time of burgeoning conflict between “people who orient around religion differently,”[8] that message will hopefully help students to befriend the religious Other and to foster interfaith cooperation both on campus and in the real world.

David Bloom works at the Beerman Jewish Student Center at Miami University.

[1] Marc Hirshman, The Stabilization of Rabbinic Culture, 100 C.E.-350 C.E.: Texts on Education and Their Late Antique Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 35.

[2] Chaim Stern, ed., שערי תפילה Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayerbook; Weekdays, Sabbaths, and Festivals Services and Prayers for Synagogue and Home (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1975), 698. Emphasis (the bolding of text) added.

[3] Richard Sarason, “Eilu D’varim: The Study of Torah is Equal to Them All,” September 18, 2008, 10 Minutes of Torah, Union for Reform Judaism, http://tmt.urj.net/archives/4jewishethics/091808.htm.

[4] See Michael Morgan, Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[5] For example, see Eboo Patel, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007), xi-xiii, xvi, 1-7.

[6] In capitalizing the “o” in “Other,” I follow the work of Emmanuel Lévinas.

[7] Erik H. Erikson, Childhood and Society, reissued 1993, (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1963), 263.

[8] Eboo Patel, “New Rooms in the Interfaith Movement,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Winter/Spring 2015), http://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/articles/winterspring2015/new-rooms-interfaith-movement.

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