If you haven't seen it yet, you might enjoy this fascinating article by David Brooks, OpEd columnist for the New York Times, about a scholar named Erica Brown, who leads Torah study groups in the Washington, D.C. area for the purpose of creating "arduous countercultural communities."
It’s also evident that “arduous learning,” including ongoing learning, reflection, debate and action, is key to shaping and strengthening the "countercultural" faith communities in which many of us participate.
For the past few years, there has been a strange motif running through my social life. I'd go out with some writers, and they'd start gushing about someone named Erica Brown. "She has an inner light," one of them once said. I'd be out with my wife and some of her friends, and they, too, would be raving about Erica Brown. "If she taught a course in making toast, I'd take it," somebody remarked.
This Brown woman was leading Torah study groups and teaching adult education classes in Jewish thought, and was somehow inspiring Justin Bieber-like enthusiasm. Eventually, I went to her Web site to figure out what all the fuss was about.
I learned that she's a scholar in residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She has several graduate degrees. She writes columns on Jewish life. But nothing on the Web site explained the respect she commands.
Then I invited her to coffee, and it all became clear. Brown has what many people are looking for these days. In the first place, she has conviction. For her, Judaism isn't a punch line or a source of neuroticism; it's a path to self-confident and superior living. She didn't seem hostile to the things that make up most coffee-table chatter - status, celebrity, policy, pop culture - she just didn't show much interest. 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."
Then there is the matter of how she speaks. Somehow (and I'm not going to be able to capture this adequately), she combines extreme empathy with extreme tough-mindedness.
In her classes and groups, she tries to create arduous countercultural communities. "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.
Brown tries to do the opposite. Jewish learning, she says, isn't about achieving tranquility. It's about the struggle. "I try to make people uncomfortable."
Brown will sometimes gather her students - who are accomplished adults - and tell them to turn off their cellphones in unison before class. She 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. Americans obsess about K-12 education. The country has plenty of religious institutions. 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.