Jewish educators speak about meaning in multiple ways: There is a factual or descriptive sense (e.g., The meaning of the Hebrew word סוס is “horse.”). Meaning can also refer to the relevance of what is learned, the ability of learners to engage with learning in a way that has some emotional investment (e.g., Max found the unit on horses to be meaningful because he grew up on a farm. The unit on iguanas? Not so much.). There is also what is sometimes called “capital M” meaning or existential meaning (a term used in the research literature)—a sense of purpose and coherence in one’s life (e.g., Sarah’s work rehabilitating abused horses provides meaning to her life.).
The first two of these connotations of meaning are the stuff of sound constructivist pedagogy. We want our learners to understand what we teach, and we recognize that new understandings are filtered through existing ones. We realize that we actively process new experiences through the meaning-making structures that we’ve developed.
Here, I’ll focus on the third sense of the term. Leading thinkers such as Dr. Jonathan Woocher z”l and his colleagues at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah have given voice and momentum to the idea that a core purpose of Jewish education is to help learners lead a meaningful life. This goes beyond saying that the material we teach needs to be meaningful to our learners (though this is important as well). Rather, it suggests that Jewish learning should help learners develop self-understanding and forge a values-infused relationship with their communities and beyond.
In this sense, we can think of meaning as a bridge between our internal experiences and the external world. We bring into the meaning-making process our own histories, biases, emotional tendencies, etc. But meaning-making doesn’t stop with the self; it has to do with how we engage with others. Our relationships are both expressions of and influences on our sense of meaning. Meaning-making involves the weaving together of our experiences into a narrative that encompasses both self-knowledge and engagement with the world around us. Perhaps we can see the process as occurring at the intersection of Viktor Frankl’s discussion of meaning-making as a basic human drive or need and Martin Buber’s emphasis on one’s relationships as the completion of one’s self.
Promoting Meaning-Making Readiness
So, can we Jewish educators teach meaning or create meaning for our learners? In a word, no. Neither can we provide a blueprint or an instruction manual to our learners for how they can find meaning for themselves. As individuals, we are always changing, as is the world around us. As such, meaning-making, a process that mediates an individual’s relationship with the world, must be ongoing. Our learners will need to develop a sense of meaning for themselves in a world that we can’t anticipate. [The events of the past year are strong evidence that there will be unforeseen circumstances that can present meaning-making challenges.]
If we can’t do it for them, what can we do? Educators in all settings can help learners develop the capacity to make meaning on their own. We can’t take the journey for our learners, but we can help ensure that they are well supplied to pursue their own paths. Jewish educators can promote readiness for meaning-making in two interconnected ways: (1) by helping learners grow the skills and dispositions that can serve as precursors to meaning-making, and (2) by creating learning environments that are conducive to meaning-making.
Enhancing Precursor Skills and Dispositions
If we understand meaning-making as the mediation between an understanding of self and an engagement beyond the self, we can point to skills and dispositions that would facilitate the process: understanding of one’s emotions, empathy with others, perseverance in the face of challenges, and others. While there are many ways to iterate the intra- and inter-personal competencies that facilitate the successful development of meaning, the framework of the Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning is instructive. CASEL identifies 5 categories of competency areas:
Being able to identify emotions, thoughts, and values and understand how these connect to our actions.
Empathy, perspective taking, and understanding and appreciating the experience of others.
The ability to work with our emotions in a way that allows us to stay motivated and to manage stressors.
Effective communication and other elements of connecting with others.
The ability to planfully shape our actions toward prosocial ends.
The development of the field of social and emotional learning (SEL) has made it clear that educators can actively cultivate learners’ growth in these areas. The Jewish educational context adds a rich environment in which to do so. While SEL may take a variety of forms (e.g., mussar/middot, character education, and positive psychology), these are united in bringing intentionality to the promotion of social and emotional growth. SEL moves the discussion of social skills and emotional intelligence out of the background (for example, as only important for behavior management, so that we can get to the “real” learning) and into the spotlight along with “content” learning. In fact, promoting social and emotional growth can and should be done seamlessly within content areas. In Jewish education, these connections are even clearer—the values we promote are our content area.
CASEL recommends a comprehensive approach to promoting social and emotional outcomes, including addressing the underlying competencies directly. There are many resources for educators that can be accessed through CASEL.org (with Jewish applications available at sesl4jewished.org). For example, our texts provide entry points to exploring emotions (e.g., How might Moses have been feeling when the people complained that they have no water?) and can serve as springboards for practicing social skills (e.g., Let’s role-play how Moses could have stayed calm even in very challenging situations). We can engage with value-laden texts and ideas—for example, that people should be treated as created in the image of God—not only on the level of understanding but also on that of enactment. What would it look like if we treated one another as individuals created in the image of God? What are some things we can try here in our learning community to do this?
Creating Meaning-Making Environments
SEL also involves attention to the social and emotional climate in which learning takes place. What are some characteristics of environments that are likely to promote meaning-making? First and foremost, learners must feel safe to experiment, question, and take risks. Meaning-making can involve engaging with fraught topics and delving into one’s self. If one’s efforts are greeted by eye-rolls from their peers (and all the more so, from their teachers!), these efforts are unlikely to be sustained. Educators often use the concept of brit (covenant) as a framework for establishing group rules or norms. A group’s brit can become something more than a sign on the wall—it can be reviewed, adapted, and amended as the group members reflect on the interactions that take place in their learning community.
Second, as they develop the capacity to make a positive contribution to the world, learners can have the opportunity to actually make a positive contribution—to their group, their school (or camp, synagogue, etc.), and/or their local community. And, they can take increasing responsibility to shaping the course of their own learning.
Third, a learning environment can and should embrace spirit. Regardless of how one understands the term “spirituality” (and I image that not all readers understand the term in a fully positive light), we can think about two connotations of the term spirit. First, there is the calm spirit one might associate with meditation, or perhaps the ruah Elohim (spirit of God) that provides the counterpoint to the tohu vavohu (chaos) in the creation story. We can also think about the raucous spirit that we may be familiar with from shouting (and stomping and banging on tables) “We’ve got רוח /spirit, yes we do!!” at camp or elsewhere. Educators can create moments of calm or focus and moments of emotional exuberance and can provide learners with opportunities to connect with “something larger” (God, nature, Jewish peoplehood and history, etc.).
Fourth, educators can create opportunities for learners to engage with the stories of individuals who live(d) lives imbued with meaning. This would include the study of the lives of extraordinary exemplars (e.g., Martin Luther King Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Maya Angelo, Ruth, and Hannah). It would also go beyond these individuals to include “locals” who can share their stories and form ongoing relationships with learners. Every community has volunteers and organizers to draw from.
Finally, meaning-making environments would include opportunities for reflection so that learners can pause and weave together their experiences. Reflection can help prevent education from becoming its own sort of tohu vavohu, a chaotic process of moving from experience to experience without the opportunity to connect these to one another or to one’s developing sense of self.
Conclusion: A Jewish Educational Framework for Promoting Meaning-Making
Before closing, a word to leaders of educational organizations: Educators will be in a much better position to help promote meaning-making readiness to the extent that they feel supported in their own quest for meaning. The principles outlined in this paper apply to staff as well as to learners. Many Jewish educators enter the field as a part of their own meaning-making journey—it is one way in which they contribute their skills and passions to the betterment of the world. But Jewish educators face obstacles; there are days that contribute more to questioning meaning than making it. Educators, too, need time to come together as a community in order to process challenges and to learn together. In educational settings, meaning-making is a multi-level endeavor.
As Jewish educators, we have at the forefront of our work a fundamental tool to help us promote readiness for meaning-making: Jewish content! We have wonderful sources for how to function as a community. The language of values can infuse our work. But we must go beyond learning about those values, texts, and ideas and should create learning communities that support them. In this way, our learning spaces can become microcosms of the types of Jewish communities that we’d like our learners to create, in which Judaism becomes a vehicle for intertwining self-growth and engagement with the world. By doing this, we are helping our learners develop readiness for meaning-making.