Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD, Founder and Director
Julie Reed, PhD, Senior Director for Partnerships
Sheila Katz, Vice President for Social Entrepreneurship, Hillel International
Marci Sternheim, PhD, Chair, Advisory Committee
How can Jewish educators invite groups of learners into rich reflective conversations about Jewish wisdom, particularly when those educators might not even be in the room? Since 2011, Ask Big Questions has created over 30 conversation guides that use big human questions to frame conversations about Jewish wisdom on holidays, social justice, diversity and inclusion, and other topics. These conversation guides have been downloaded by over 40,000 users in a wide array of settings. They have provided a powerful and scalable approach for both professional educators and laypeople to engage themselves, each other, and Jewish wisdom.
Our approach begins with framing themes, issues, and texts in terms of Big Questions, which we define as questions that matter to all human beings and that all human beings can answer. Thus Megillat Esther becomes a text framed by the question, When do you conform? And the Haggadah shel Pesach becomes a text framed by the questions, For whom are we responsible? or, Where do you feel at home?, or What are you thankful for? In this way, our methodology follows that of the Torah itself, which places the particular story of the Abrahamic family and the Jewish people within the context of the story of all human beings in Genesis 1-11.
Using this frame of Big Questions, our conversation guides empower professional and lay facilitators to create small learning communities—usually groups of 6-14 participants—that share a common Big Question and build a trusting educational environment through story- and wisdom-sharing. Participants might begin a Shabbat conversation about the question, “How do you recharge?” by sharing something that helps them “refill your sense of joy, restfulness and energy when you feel depleted or run-down.” Everyone can answer this question—there’s nothing inherently Jewish about it, and no expertise is necessary. But it’s a substantive question, and thus the introductions set a tone of engagement and depth.
That introduction sets the table for the heart of our conversation guides: an interpretive object or set of objects—a text, a poem, a set of images, a video—which is followed by clarifying, interpretive, and reflective questions. Participants read or observe the object together and engage in interpretive discussion, focusing on what the text seems to mean. Then they are invited to form smaller groups to reflect on what the text evokes in their own lives.
For example, one of our guides for Yom Kippur frames the day with the question, “For whom are we responsible?” After the initial story-sharing exercises, the main text at the center of guide is part of an interview between Rabbi Sharon Brous and Krista Tippet, from the radio show On Being. In the interview, Rabbi Brous reflects on the way the Yom Kippur liturgy invites us to take responsibility for our actions, as both individuals and as a community. The interview is highly accessible (it has to be, given the show’s broad audience) and at the same time deeply evocative. Participants read the interview out loud, and then take up interpretive questions like, “What does Rabbi Brous mean when she says, ‘all of our impulse and all of the norms of our society push us to deny and reject responsibility?’” and ‘For whom does Rabbi Brous think we are responsible, and how does she suggest we take responsibility?’ These questions enable participants to discuss the text, rather than immediately having to evaluate it with their own opinions.
It is only after this step that the guide switches to reflective questions, like, “Both Rabbi Brous and Ms. Tippett talk about the relationship between awareness and overwhelm. Do you feel overwhelmed when you become aware of responsibility?” This move, from interpretive to reflective questions, is the focal point of our guides and our approach to discussions of Jewish wisdom. It serves as the nexus point where individuals bring themselves, each other, and the textual tradition into dialogue. From this point, participants use the trusting, text-centered environment to explore the Jewish wisdom in their own lives, ultimately moving to commitments about how behaviors they want to undertake as a result of the conversation.
A final essential dimension of our approach is that this work can be done by anyone who is a competent facilitator. They do not require the presence of an educator (though educators can and do use them). By framing Jewish wisdom in the way that we do, and by presenting Jewish wisdom in an accessible and compelling way, we make that wisdom widely available to anyone who is willing to enter into the conversation.
“The primary task of religious thinking is to rediscover the questions to which religion is an answer, to develop a degree of sensitivity to the ultimate questions which its ideas and acts are trying to answer.” ~ Abraham Joshua Heschel
Ask Big Questions makes wisdom accessible and applicable to participants’ lives in two ways: By opening participants up to be ready to explore Jewish wisdom, and by framing Jewish wisdom in a way that it can meet participants where they’re at. The fact that we do both of these, and that we do it in a way that many people can use without a professional educator present, is our special sauce, and the result of the methodology outlined above.
We open participants to Jewish wisdom by inviting them into the conversation first and foremost as themselves—not as educated or uneducated Jews, not as Reform or Orthodox or secular Jews, not even as Jews, but simply as themselves. We hear repeatedly from participants that this dimension of our approach is unique and deeply appreciated. Everyone has access to these questions because they are human questions, and thus no one feels intimidated from participating in an Ask Big Questions conversation.
At the same time, we also bring Jewish wisdom to life. We do that by framing Jewish texts and practices as explorations of questions that matter not only to Jews, but to all human beings—questions of ultimate significance, and by designing discussions based on best practices of interpretive discussion (see above). Our approach doesn’t simply throw a Jewish text at participants and ask them to find meaning in it. Rather, we studiously work to bring learners to a meeting with each other in and with Jewish wisdom—the wisdom they carry within themselves individually, the wisdom they share collectively, and the wisdom borne by the interpretive object. In doing so, we aim (and do) live out an educational vision best articulated by H.G. Gadamer: “In a successful conversation they both come under the influence of the truth of the object and are thus bound to one another in a new community.”
We have conducted two external evaluations of our program and several internal surveys of participants. While we have begun work on a longitudinal study to examine long-term impact, the surveys we have conducted confirm that our conversation guides lead to rich and meaningful conversations and that they are viewed by users as a significant resource. In a 2014 study by Rosov Associates, 83 percent of respondents said our guides were useful or very useful (4 or 5 on a 5-point likert scale; n = 180 respondents). Anecdotally, we have heard from educators and students around the country, and the world, who have used our materials and found them unique in being simultaneously accessible and content-rich.
This letter from Rabbi Michelle Pearlman is representative of many users:
"The curricular resources you offered through Ask Big Questions have been incredibly inspiring to me in my rabbinate, especially in my teaching with young adults and teens. I love the concept of starting with a single deep and complicated question. For example, I used materials from the 'How Are We Seen' folio to help open a conversation and study recently with different groups of teens at URJ Camp Harlam on race relations in our country.
"The pictures that appear at the beginning of the lesson were a jumping off point for a conversation on implicit racial bias, and the conversation that followed was honest, and raw, and incredibly candid. Through use of your excellent materials, the students were challenged to put themselves in the shoes of young adults who were African-American and to understand the assumptions that are immediately made because of clothing and especially because of skin color. The conversation led into very personal territory where students talked about their largely segregated schools and friendship groups, the concept of white privilege, and the personal responsibility all Jews share to pursue justice.
"The materials you provide on a single rich question allow me as a rabbi to add my creativity and facilitate more meaningful lessons and discussions. I consider your materials invaluable and look forward to your developing further lessons and making them available online.
"Thank you for adding so much to my teaching. Thank you for allowing our young people to grapple with the kinds big questions, that too many avoid."
Rabbi Asher Knight of Temple Emanu-el in Dallas wrote to us to tell us about how our conversation guides were being used as part of the small-group conversation project at the synagogue, which has reached over 400 members in monthly small group conversations over the last two years:
"Imagine hundreds members gathering regularly in small groups to learn and laugh, to rest and rejuvenate, and to deepen connections to one another, to your synagogue, to the Jewish people, and to the rhythms of Jewish time and life. This isn’t a dream for us, it is our living reality. Ask Big Questions has helped our community realize this future of a connected, committed membership through the dynamic learning that focuses on a relevant and living Judaism, weaving a social fabric of shared belonging, and shaped by the idea that when we are well-connected, we can better care for the well-being of one another. And when we support the spiritual growth and learning of one another – we will live better and richer and fuller lives."
Finally, we would include the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who has been a contributor to our blog and a member of our Advisory Council since 2012: "Judaism is a faith that, more than any other, values the mind, encouraging questions and engaging us at the highest level of intellectual rigour. Every question asked in openness is the start of a journey towards God. The Ask Big Questions project is a wonderful initiative because it encourages the next generation of the Jewish people to use their understanding of creation in conjunction with the commands of revelation, to help bring redemption – an act at a time, a day at a time. I commend Rabbi Josh Feigelson and all those involved in this initiative and wish them much success in the future.”
When we take these kinds of anecdotal evidence and combine them with the statistical evidence, and with the fact that our guides have been downloaded over 35,000 times and used by countless more users beyond the people who download, we get an overall picture that Ask Big Questions conversation guides are having a widespread, positive impact on individual Jews and collective Jewish communities.
We've learned that Jewish wisdom isn't about Jewish texts answering Jewish questions. It's about Jewish people having conversations with each other through Jewish tradition (which is often mediated through text). And it's about Jews exploring Torah to answer human questions.
We've learned that we don't need to work so hard to make people interested in Jewish wisdom. There are questions that all human beings share, questions we come back to year after year, questions that matter simply because we have bodies and have lived life. Torah and Jewish wisdom have found a way to successfully replicate themselves in virtually every soil in which they've been planted over the last 3,000 years. All we have to do is till the soil: We need to find the fertile ground where the seeds of Jewish wisdom can take root. And Big Questions are very fertile soil.
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