Wrestling with Big Questions in Third Grade
by Jessica Rivo, Teacher and Jewish Studies Curriculum Lead at Temple Beth Ahm (Rambam Day School), and Pardes Day School Educators Program ’17-’19
Teaching Parshat Hashavua to my third graders at Rambam Day School (in Miami) has been a thrilling experience. Often, I write the parsha as a script, with characters and a narrator. My students relish drama and are all eager to have a role. At other times, we sit in a circle on the floor and do a choral reading. I’ve found that these methods are a very quick and effective way to cut to the heart of what’s in a parsha – the conflict and the exposition. (While I would like to introduce chevruta learning, we only have a limited amount of time–a 30-minute Judaic integration period–each week.)
When I taught Vayishlach this year, I emphasized that we embrace the tradition of Yaakov/Israel by wrestling with G-d and with the Torah, and that we do that by asking questions. Thus, as part of our Torah reading protocol, I ask my students to summarize the portion on a Google slide and include one question and one possible answer that they have about it. My class, ever curious, has learned to pose substantive, creative questions.
“Why,” Ari asked, “would G-d destroy Sodom and G’morrah, if G-d promised never again to destroy the world after the flood?”
“What do you think?” I probed.
“Well, I think that perhaps he destroyed it so that G-d could build a better world. Or maybe G-d is imperfect and was swept away by emotions.”
“Hmm,” I reflected, “those are both thoughtful answers.”
Similarly, Lily asked why Avraham had two wives and Yaakov had four. I explained that the Torah was written in a time of male privilege; she nodded her head thoughtfully. I asked her to reflect on how that time period differs from her life, in which she has a leadership role as our class’s student council representative.
While my methods for teaching Torah are simple, during conferences with parents, I learned that Jewish Studies is some students’ favorite subject (I also teach General Studies). I suspect that there are two reasons behind this. First, the Torah gives students a unique opportunity to explore sophisticated questions of theology, gender, family, and more. Second, the conversations that I had in the Pardes Day School Educators Program about addressing G-d and gender in the Torah prepared me to facilitate authentic yet age-appropriate dialogue. I also work in a Reform Jewish school, and the Reform community tends to be more theologically liberal. So, I have the liberty to state that G-d is not male–that the “He” pronouns are a result of the Torah being written in a certain cultural context, that G-d is not physical, and that, as Ari was grappling with, G-d might be imperfect.
As I continue to build my Torah-teaching practice, some questions I have are:
These are questions with which I will continue to wrestle and honor.