Teaching The Sacred: A Phenomenological Study of Synagogue-School Teachers
Nagel, Louis Alan
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This dissertation is a hermeneutic phenomenological study of synagogue-school teachers of Jewish sacred text. The phenomenological question that orients this study asks, What is the lived experience of teaching sacred text in a Conservative synagogue-school? This study takes place in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. The writings of Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Max van Manen, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Emmanuel Levinas, among others, orient the study philosophically and methodologically. This investigation of the challenge of making relevant to 21st century American youth an ancient tradition is grounded in sacred texts as well as the author's life experiences, and is metaphorically explored in the encounter with natural landscapes. Eight third through seventh grade synagogue-school teachers of Torah and Hebrew prayer are engaged in individual and group conversations to explore the personal meaning they make of their engagement in this service to the Jewish community. The review of recorded conversations, verbatim transcripts, essays, and notes taken during classroom observations reveal existential philosophic themes that are brought forward in the writings of Heidegger, Sartre, and Levinas. In particular, the existentials of being present, relationship, discourse, and the Other, emerge as powerful openings of the phenomenon in question. The narrative of this lived experience is the exercise of Buber's I-Thou relationship, one of profound moments of encounter with the sacredness of the text and of the student; time and timelessness; and boundaries to be respected, tested, and breached. At essence the synagogue-school teacher is seen as taking on the responsibility of perpetuating connection to a sacred community, acting in the role of both the prophet as teacher, best represented by Moses, and in maintaining connections that link to Biblical accounts of encounter with God and with divine messengers. Synagogue-school teachers are seen to demonstrate independence, genius, responsibility, and deep spirituality in a unique educational landscape. These teachers reveal the nature of the synagogue-school as an island of Jewish time, a period rich in engagement with community and sacred text, set in the synagogue environment. A challenge is for the learnings that take place in the synagogue-school to be extended to Being beyond the boundaries of that sacred space.