The Cavalier Daily
Serving the University Community Since 1890

Digging deep into religious understandings

A Fourth Year student of mine, Erika Jacobsen, is doing fieldwork in Washington, D.C. this semester. Before she left, I supplied her with a huge list of books and contact people, with the hope that the connections she would make, both in her readings and encounters, would lead to insights and perspectives one could not find in a classroom. But I can't say I knew for sure what she would discover -- I just hoped something would open her eyes in a special way.

Last week, Erika ventured back to Charlottesville to give me an update on

her research project, a search for contemporary expressions of Jewish spirituality, particularly those which are expressive of healing. Over tea at Café Europa, she told me of an amazing encounter. She had figured out how to get herself invited to spend a Sabbath -- that's Friday night and all day Saturday, until nightfall -- at the home of a Lubavitch Hasidic family.

Related Links
  • Lazer's Talmd Torah Page

    She had attended Sabbath services on Friday night, and found that she was the only woman who had come to pray that night, as in many Hasidic communities the men will attend Sabbath evening services and the women will remain home to finish setting the table or to engage in a few minutes of rest before serving a lavish Sabbath repast. Erika, sitting alone in the women's section of the small synagogue, soon was joined by the young daughter of her host family, a Hasidic rabbi and his wife.

    Upon close inspection, the little girl discovered Erika was wearing "power beads" -- a topic, by the way, beautifully covered in the pages of the Cavalier Daily just this spring -- and she wanted to know what they meant.

    But Erika had forgotten what her beads were "supposed" to mean. That is to say, she forgot what special quality the manufacturer of her beads said they were supposed to represent or provide for her, such as happiness, prosperity, harmony, creativity, vitality and so forth. Erika answered that she supposed one could decide what the beads meant oneself. No, No, the little girl said, they had specific meanings. Erika said she was surprised that this child, whose religious world separated her from so much of secular culture -- (like TV, movies and teen age music) --, seemed relatively well-informed about these power beads, which seemed to be evocative of non-Judaic beliefs.

    The girl dearly wanted the beads to mean something, and so Erika told her that in this instance, it really would be okay just to decide what they stood for. And so the little girl decided. The beads would stand for Torah.

    In Judaism, Torah means much more than just the literal parchment scroll upon which the Five Books of Moses are printed. It means more than any printed version of the Bible. Torah means the entirety of sacred Jewish learning -- that which one gleans from books; but also the wisdom of living according to a divine image, a wisdom that is transmitted mimetically, through imitation, from one generation to another. Yes, the beads would stand for Torah, the girl decided, and that made her feel very good. It was her way of life. It was everything that was holy and of value to her. It was her people, her identity, her passion. In a previous semester, Erica had studied texts of the Jewish Bible with me, but from the way she recounted the story of the little girl and the power beads, I knew that she had experienced the meaning of Torah for a Jew in a whole new light.

    I share this story of Erika's in order to say that as a teacher of religion, I know that there are certain aspects of religious life that lectures, discussions and course readings will never adequately convey. It is the lived experience of religion. Those who are "experts" in religious life surround us -- they sit in our classrooms, they teach in the Engineering School, they mulch the University landscape, they transport patients at the University Health Center. For those studying religion, that means we need to step out of the classroom and library and venture forth into "real life" -- not just to confirm what we have learned in school, but to see the highly creative and complex ways in which religions are being lived, created, improvised and refashioned.


    Latest Podcast

    Today, we sit down with both the president and treasurer of the Virginia women's club basketball team to discuss everything from making free throws to recent increased viewership in women's basketball.