Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Lens of P'shat and Drash

[This blog was originally posted on the URJ Camp Coleman Blog]

Rabbis are used to wearing many hats. But, for about two weeks now at Camp Coleman, I’ve been wearing a hat which is very new to me: photography teacher.

I’ve been a hobbyist photographer for while, and I’ve read and learned a ton along the way, and gotten to be a half-decent photographer while I’m at it. So, when camp found themselves short a photography specialist, I offered to use some of my 12 days on Faculty to fill in that slot and teach some campers a bit of what I’ve learned about this art form (including the fact that it is an art form, but one perfect for someone without much native ability!). I expected to be challenged, which I was, and to have fun, which I did. And, I hoped to inspire at least a few campers, which I’m pretty sure happened. What I didn’t really expect was to get a new way to think about a very old subject.

Rabbis, and readers of Jewish texts, are used to talking about p’shat and drash. P’shat means "simple," and it refers to the simple, direct meaning of a text. D’rash means something like “interpret,” and refers to the various deeper meanings that we find within a text and, often, that we impose on a text. You might recognize it from the word “midrash,” which are stories that the Rabbis told about the Torah. So, for example, the p’shat of Genesis chapter 1 is that God created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th. Some of the drash is that this teaches us that the world has an order to it, or that when we create, or when we rest, we are imitating God. D’rash is a large, expansive, meandering category. It’s a creative interpretation of text.

And, it’s unbelievably frustrating to some. Because, I’ve noticed over the years that some people get very resistant to that expansiveness. I’d teach them that the rabbis say in some midrashim that Isaac was a willing participant in the Akedah (his binding and near sacrifice by his father, Abraham), and almost invariably someone will say, “That’s not what the text says really happened” or, “They’re just apologizing for Abraham.” They’ll say, “That’s not in the text.” We’re so used to reading text critically, and to reading the Torah as a simple, linear story, that straying too far from the p’shat just feels dishonest to some people.

But, it turns out that no one has that trouble with a photograph.

I showed the kids a photo of 2 boys, one young and one older, sitting at a counter, their backs to us. They’re both somewhat hunched over. “What’s the p’shat?” I ask. They tell me they’re sitting. They describe their clothes. They try to guess where they were. “Now, tell me what’s to the left and right of the picture.” They start with some obvious guesses. “But,” I ask, “what if those boys’ mothers were there, just out of frame, watching them with smiles? What would this picture be about then?” They quickly answer that it would be about brotherhood, or mentorship, maybe. “So, what if there was someone on the floor, crying? What would the picture mean to you then?” Well, then it’s a picture of people focusing on their own world, ignoring what’s important around them.

And, the fact that I tell them that it’s actually 2 boys (my son and another boy who happens to now be a counselor at Camp Coleman!) playing on tablets in Barnes and Nobles doesn’t end the conversation. That’s nice to know, but the stories we can tell are much more interesting. The p’shat is a starting place. The drash—the creative, fun, exploring interpretations are where the action is at. And, more importantly, where the real meaning is found.

This wasn’t my insight—I got it from the The Jewish Lens, a curriculum on teaching Judaism through photography (or, was it photography through Judaism? I forget) that the camp provided me. But, it’s brilliant. It’s a new, better way to teach something I’ve had trouble teaching well over the years.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to fill in as a photography teacher again. But, I know that I’ll never teach p’shat and drash without a photograph again. Thanks for that, Camp Coleman. I owe you one.

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