Religious Education and Spontaneous Combustion

This week I had one of those fantastic moments in class where I blew a student’s mind.

The class was made up of students in sixth and seventh grades. The broader lesson revolved around interfaith relationships and focused particularly on the degree to which we, as Jews, should be educated about other religions. I’m on record with my students as saying that it is not only a good idea to learn about other religions and cultures, it is critical for Judaism’s survival that we learn about the people around us so that we can find ways to coexist peacefully. Judaism has never existed in a vacuum and part of my lesson was imparting the message that we need to understand the beliefs of others in order to maintain healthy relationships with them. It is a matter of keeping the peace and being good neighbors, to be sure; but, for a nation that has been attacked and persecuted as long as it has existed, it is also a matter of survival.

During Tuesday’s class, there was a moment when we were discussing some of the basic distinctions between Judaism and Christianity. I chose to contrast the concept of the Holy Trinity against Judaism’s singular God to drive that point home: not only does Judaism reject the notion that God would appear in human form, the idea that there can be three “versions”1 of God runs directly contrary to the Jewish belief in one God. The students were familiar with Judaism’s stance from reciting the Shema but had some difficulty understanding the Trinity. They asked questions like, “How can God be in three parts but also have each part be God?” Also, “Is one of the parts higher than the others? Like, is the Father the ‘real’ God and then the Son and the Holy Spirit are below him?” And, the more basic, “Are the Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost the same thing?”

I might have considered the class a success at that point, if only because I had engaged the students and pushed them to grapple with foreign and challenging concepts. They were trying and they were taking the material seriously, which is all I usually care about. But then I used an analogy I had heard from my father, a Jewish educator in his own right, to help them along a bit more. I wrote the words “vapor,” “water” and “ice” on the board2 and said, “These are all the same matter, just in different forms. The temperature and the environment affect the way the matter appears but its basic nature never really changes.” The students nodded in agreement.

Then I asked, “Now, of water, vapor and ice, who can tell me which one is the real one?”

A couple students immediately blurted out, “Water!” One of their classmates corrected them and said that they were all real because nothing except their appearance was changing. A moment or two passed as the students kept going back and forth and another student started to ask me how the analogy connected to the Trinity. I started to explain that, just as there is no “real” form of water, vapor or ice, there is no “real” form of God in the Trinity, because God is both made up of the three parts and each one is God on its own. I was about halfway through my explanation when one girl, who had been sitting and listening quietly in the back, suddenly sat straight up in her chair and clapped her hands to the sides of her head.

“Whoa!” she yelled. “I think my brain just exploded!”

I couldn’t help but laugh. Her eyes had gone wide as dinner plates and she began stammering, trying to find the words to articulate what had just happened. She was eventually able to string together a few coherent sentences and some of her classmates began to show similar understanding smiles, though there were no more exclamations.

Those are the moments I strive for. The sudden awakenings of understanding where everything somehow slides into place; the proverbial “light bulb” moments. It sometimes feels like my students are already so jaded that I wonder how much of an impact I’m really having on them. In many ways, these twelve and thirteen-year-olds have seen much more of the world than I had at their age because of their access to the internet, so I have to work harder to grab their attention (the social and political events of the last few months have been quite helpful in that regard). When those moments do come, though, whether they lead to smiles or laughter or gray matter getting metaphorically splattered around the room, I feel like my effort has been validated. Not only are my students learning, they are enjoying the process, which means I’m doing my job right.

1. I put “versions” in quotation marks because it’s a difficult concept to explain. As I understand it, the three beings combine to make up God, while God is also simultaneously fully present in each of them. So we’ll go with “versions” and accept that it’s a difficult concept to explain. (Thanks again, Sam, for help with the phrasing.)

2. Technically, first I wrote “steam” and then changed it to vapor when one of my students informed me that steam and water vapor are two different things. It was just one more instance of me learning as much from my students as they learn from me.

One response to “Religious Education and Spontaneous Combustion

  1. water-vapor-ice.

    If this isn’t a perfect testament to just how immensely important it is for all of us to take on learning about and understanding different religions and cultures- and the immense opportunity for growth that comes from seeking out and hearing someone who has a completely different perspective on your own beliefs… I don’t know what is.


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