Balancing Joy and Discomfort in Jewish Education

The secret to a strong Jewish education is to find the right balance between joy and discomfort. On the one hand, we want our children to be happy in school. That is the number one hope that parents have for their school-aged children: as long as my child is happy. There actually is an educational value to happiness. The research indicates that students who reported being happier are more engaged, both in terms of how they behave in school and how they feel about school on an emotional level. Additionally, students who are happier are more resilient to academic setbacks.

But we also want our children to experience discomfort in the classroom. New York Times bestselling author Jason Reynolds has said, “Be not afraid of discomfort. If you can’t put yourself in a situation where you are uncomfortable, then you will never grow. You will never change. You’ll never learn.” Once our children embrace the necessity of discomfort in their educational growth, then they welcome new learning opportunities and they are poised for increased academic rigor and academic excellence.

I experienced this tension firsthand with my eleventh-grade students in my Contemporary Machshava course when I address “big questions” of Jewish thought. I selected topics that I felt were complex and relevant and that required nuanced thinking. I was unaware the extent to which some topics made some of my students feel uncomfortable. For example, many students have never even considered how we theologically try to approach the Holocaust and they didn’t want to think about it. Additionally, some students felt very uncomfortable exploring a very basic debate between the Ramban and the Rambam as to whether the messianic world post-resurrection of the dead will be a supernatural one when we won’t need to eat or drink and we won’t die or whether it will be a completely natural world. Confronting the afterlife or some unknown messianic future was a bit jarring for these students. I want my students to expand their horizons and take a deeper dive about important issues of faith. At the same time, I want my students to still feel joyful in being Jewish, in feeling the loving embrace of God, even as they grapple with these challenging questions.

I reflected on an essay by Rabbi Lamm that I studied my students entitled, “Faith and Doubt.” In this essay, he describes three types of faith, two of which I will address in this blog. One type of faith is cognitive faith. Cognitive faith is a belief that certain information about God is true. It is an acceptance of certain truths about the nature of God and His relationship with mankind and the world. Rabbi Lamm explains that this type of faith is achieved after a fierce intellectual struggle. We have questions, we struggle with the questions, and hopefully through the struggle we achieve a deeper understanding. As such, cognitive faith is all about embracing discomfort relating to new questions and new ideas, embracing the new questions and new ideas, and emerging with a deeper understanding. I was heartened by the fact that, for example, some students who expressed great discomfort about studying the theology of the Holocaust actually found the topic extremely meaningful.

A second type of faith is affective faith. Affective faith is a belief and an emotional form of trust in God, when we rely on God as our fortress of strength. This type of faith involves a quest for peace, tranquility and joy. While we struggle with discomfort and doubt in trying to have a greater understanding of the nature of God and His relationship with us and the world, we feel the warm hand of God, as it were, resting on our shoulder when we think about our personal relationship with God. And both propositions can be true. We can simultaneously experience the discomfort of cognitive faith while we experience the joy of affective faith. I am so grateful that my high school has numerous inspiring programs that foster affective faith for our students, even while my course mostly centers around cognitive faith. We need both types of faith in our lives.

I have found too often that some people focus only on cognitive faith while others focus only on affective faith. Some people take a deep-dive into philosophical questions and they are driven by their intellect. In doing so, they observe the very first pillar listed in the Rambam’s Mishnah Torah, which is to deepen our knowledge of God. Sometimes, though, I sense a lack of joy and passion in their observance, a lack of passion and feeling in their tefilla, and a lack of a warmth in their connection to God. It is also very challenging to maintain rigorous halachic observance grounded in cognitive faith without a sense of joy or passion in our observance.

On the other hand, some people wear their “emunah peshutah,” their simple faith in God on their sleeve. They project complete joy with the belief that God is their parent that is constantly taking care of them and is always involved in their lives. However, these people have not deepened their understanding of basic questions of Jewish theology beyond what they studied in their first few years of grade school. I am concerned that their affective faith may not be able to withstand challenges and crisis of faith that they may face when they get older if they haven’t sufficiently developed their cognitive faith.

A good school encourages both joy and discomfort in our religious experience and hopefully we all can train ourselves, whether we are in school or not, to work on both elements in our lives. Both types of faith are critical in our development as committed, passionate Torah observant Jews.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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