On Teaching: Rolling Communal Midrash
Updated: Sep 7, 2020
My best educational experiences—both as a student and as a teacher—have occurred within the setting of what the fine people of Solomon’s Porch call rolling communal midrash. While a rolling communal midrash could be succinctly defined as a progressive dialogue, I believe each of the three carefully chosen words in this phrase illuminate important aspects of how we learn and how we are transformed—and what is the point of learning if it is not transformative?
Rolling implies movement, and I believe movement is extremely important to learning. If education is static and stationary, we are more likely to observe and less likely to engage. To be clear, the movement implied in the “rolling” part of rolling communal midrash is not necessarily physical movement (although it does not preclude it). Instead, “rolling” indicates that the direction of the educational dialogue is not static and stationary. Instead, the direction in which things “roll” are, in part, determined by the needs of those invested in the dialogue.
A rolling dialectic does not mean freeform or without structure. It does, however, point toward allowing the expressed educational wants and needs of the collective to inform and shape both the method and the direction of the educational dialogue. Just because the rote memorization and regurgitation of facts can be attained through a stationary instructor behind a podium talking at a stationary group of students seated in chairs does not mean it is the most effective or transformative form of education.
Communal is clearly understood as involving the whole and is most certainly interwoven with the “rolling” aspect of rolling communal midrash. In order for the dialogue to “roll,” it necessarily requires the involvement of others. Thus, education is not solely the responsibility of any teacher but the gathered. The human species is made for community. We come from community, we need community to survive, and our various communities need our input and effort. We require the support of others from the moment we draw our first breath. Accordingly, it stands to reason that we learn quite well in community. Pragmatically, the communal aspect of learning looks less like an expert lecturing the silent and observant and more like a trusted and experienced guide leading a conversational exploration.
Although the origins of the word “midrash” lay in Hebraic spirituality, the understanding it conveys should inform every aspect of our educational exploration. Midrash is defined as the interpretive process of filling in the gaps. Midrash is wrestling with the questions that exist on the tips of our tongues. Wrestling might be the most important word in defining midrash. It represents a philosophy that believes we grow through tension and disruption—that if we will really dig in and wrestle, the struggle itself will illuminate and transform us.
In the ancient Indian parable of the blind men and an elephant, a group of blind men are asked to touch an elephant and describe what an elephant is like. As each man encounters a different aspect of the elephant—from the ears, to the tusks, to the tail—they offer differing descriptors. Each offering is valid and true, but each offering is also incomplete. Only when taken together—in rolling communal midrash—do the varying experiences of the elephant begin to come together to present a greater understanding of the whole.
I feel and follow a specific call to not only create space for rolling communal midrash but to use whatever capacity I may possess to hold and preserve that space and allow others to show up, learn, teach, and join in the wrestling.