When I was asked to co-teach a combined seventh and eighth grade class, I was excited for the chance to share my Jewish knowledge with the next generation of Jews. Little did I know that, having been asked to teach about hot button issues through a Jewish lens, 2016’s tumultuous political environment would provide more material than I would know what to do with. Looking back on the experience, I find my most profound lesson in the story of Job.
Job, a man of Uz, is afflicted by God with seemingly undeserved punishments. His home is destroyed, his farmland is rendered useless, his body becomes sick and frail, and his family is taken away from him, only for his faith to be tested. The book proceeds as Job’s friends try to convince him that he did, in fact, do something wrong, but Job refuses to believe them. At the climax of the text, God appears in a whirlwind — not to comfort Job or to defend divine justice, but to tell Job how little he actually knows: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding.” Job acknowledges God’s unquestionable authority, and his fortune is returned to him.
I do not invoke Job to suggest that we should never ask questions, or that we should shy away from areas where we lack knowledge. However, in teaching “hot topics,” I was being asked to step into the tempest, the form in which God appeared to tell him how little he truly knew. If the 24-hour news channels were not able to understand what was going on, how was I expected to grasp it, let alone teach it? The answer I found was to confront confusion by learning alongside my students. As a community of learners, we would have meaningful conversations about the issues in the headlines and, hopefully, leave the room with more understanding than when we entered.
One of our most stimulating sessions centered around Richard Spencer, a white nationalist leader who gained national attention by being punched in the face on YouTube. I showed my students the video and asked them to do some quick research on who Richard Spencer is and what he believes. Then I posed the question: Is it okay to punch a Nazi in the face? We searched for Jewish texts to guide our discussion and came to the conclusion that it was okay to want to punch a Nazi, but that meeting violent words with violent actions would not make the world a better place. Of course, not everyone in the class agreed. But that was the essence of it all. I entered that room without knowing the right answer, but, collectively, we talked it through and began to form understanding.
God speaks to us from that whirlwind when, like Job, we feel directionless and confused, and we come to know that we were not there when the stars were formed or when the oceans poured from the heavens. Unlike Job, however, my students and I had each other and a shared purpose in seeking a kernel of truth in the world of conflicting information surrounding us. The answers come out when we are willing to have real conversations. My class stared down the tempest and did not back down.
Michael Weiss is a rising third year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College. In 2016–2017, he served as an education fellow at Rockdale Temple.