Arduous Community—Learning As A Way of Creating Communities

Reflections | Learning from Erica Brown.

Learning as a way of creating communities and relationships is something that struck me as revolutionary. It brings into play a social-cultural dimension to learning, not as an end in itself but as part of a process that leads to a higher objective, that of strong communities and healthy relationships. Its a wisdom we don’t have this side of heaven. So help us God,

It is also a challenging and unapologetic reminder that an ancient faith can be and should be a force of good to impact lives. Through her life, Erica Brown embodies the conviction that a life in God is a path to self-confident and superior living. After this, I wonder if we can or would dare create arduous counter-cultural communities that can bring transformation for its actors?

Excerpts from David Brooks
ARDUOUS COMMUNITY 21 Dec 2010 | New York Times

As one of her students e-mailed me: “Erica embodies Judaism’s stand against idol worship. It is actually true that she worships nothing other than God, which is particularly unusual in Washington.”

“We live in a relativistic culture,” she told me. Many people have no firm categories to organize their thinking. They find it hard to give a straight yes or no answer to tough moral questions. When they go in search of answers, they generally find people who offer them comfort and ways to ease their anxiety. Jewish learning, she says, isn’t about achieving tranquility. It’s about the struggle.

“I try to make people uncomfortable.”

Brown will have a Late Seat — a chair placed directly next to her for a student who didn’t manage to make it to class on time. She writes about the fear adults bring into the classroom: the fear of looking stupid; the fear of confessing how little they know about their religion; the fear teachers have of being unmasked in front of students. With prodding and love, she tries to exploit those fears and turn them into moments of insufficiency and learning. Her classes are dialogues structured by ancient texts. She may begin with a topic: “When Jews Do Bad Things” or “Boredom Is So Interesting.” She will present a biblical text or a Talmudic teaching, and mix it with modern quotations. She may ask students to write down some initial reflections, then try to foment a fierce discussion. Brown seems to poke people with concepts that sit uncomfortably with the modern mind-set — submission and sin.

She writes about disorienting situations: vengeance, scandal, group shame. During our coffee, she criticized the way some observers bury moral teaching under legal casuistry and the way some moderns try to explain away the unfashionable things the Torah clearly says. She pushes the highly successful. No, serving the poor for a few days a year isn’t enough. Yes, it is necessary to expose a friend’s adultery because his marriage is more important than your friendship. All of this sounds hard, but Brown thinks as much about her students as her subject matter. “You can’t be Jewish alone” she told me. So learning is a way to create communities and relationships.

I concluded that Brown’s impact stems from her ability to undermine the egos of the successful at the same time that she lovingly helps them build better lives. She offers a path out of the tyranny of the perpetually open mind by presenting authoritative traditions and teachings. Most educational institutions emphasize individual advancement. Brown nurtures the community and the group. It’s interesting that her work happens in the world of adult education. But adult education is an orphan, an amorphous space in-between. This is a shame, but it also gives Brown the space to develop her method. This nation is probably full of people who’d be great adult educators, but there are few avenues to bring those teachers into contact with mature and hungry minds. Now you hear about such people by word of mouth.

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