There are things we know and things we think we know. Here's a tale from my first week of teaching at an Orthodox Jewish school.
I am finishing up my first week of teaching class at an Orthodox Jewish high school in Memphis. When I got hired in May, I realized I had a lot to learn about the culture and religion of the students I was about to teach, and in the short period of time since I signed my contract, I have grown in my understanding. I've done a little bit of research, listened to the teachings of my colleagues, and attended a class called "Judaism 101" that our dean, Rabbi Perl, held for all new hires.
All of this I have been scribbling down in my little notepad, mind you. I am a thoughtful fellow, understanding of others' cultures, and quite a quick study, if I say so myself. If something is new and requires study or critical thinking, well then, I'm the guy to call on. I haven't picked up a word of Hebrew yet, but if you check back with me in a few months, I will probably have improved on that. (I have plans to raid the first grade class and steal a few primers, but don't tell any of the six year olds yet.)
But something happened on Tuesday morning that checked me and reminded me that taking notes and studying can only take one so far. I was teaching my first class to the high school girls. Class had just started, and I was working hard in front of these ten young ladies, trying to win their respect and establish the illusion that I was their intellectual leader. The subject of the day was the heroic archetype--Perseus and Odysseus and all that. My notes were in order, our class agenda was on the whiteboard, and I had made it three slides into my very important powerpoint.
Then there was a knock at the door.
I opened it up to see a rabbi standing there. He apologized for interrupting and asked if the girls had received the shofar yet. Now, a lot had happened already that morning, but I was able to tell the rabbi in all honesty that no, no one had received any shofar yet.
The rabbi thanked me and walked into my classroom. Two things happened instantaneously. First, the girls stood up in silent unison and, second, I realized I was the only person in the room who had no idea what was about to happen. The rabbi produced from some unseen pocket a long ram's horn, put it to his lips, and began to blow.
The sound was sharp and immediate, and it was clear that something of a religous import was taking place. Flummoxed, I fell back on my Catholic school training. I clasped my hands behind my back and stared at the tops of my shoes, just as I had done while reciting the Apostles' Creed hundreds of times in Mass.
The shofar did not last long, and soon the rabbi said goodbye and left. My students sat down. It was probable that I had made it through this short experience without exposing my ignorance, but I decided that that was not satisfactory enough for me. How could I not be honest with them? How could I maintain the pretense that I had something to teach them when they all clearly had something to teach me?
"That," I said, "was a new experience for me. Would someone like to tell me what just happened?"
"That was the shofar," one of them said. "They blow it in the days running up to the new year to get you ready for it. It's supposed to wake you up physically and spiritually."
Though I am not Jewish, the shofar got my attention. Its strident blasts did wake me up.
The girls returned to taking notes. I got back to my lesson about Perseus. But my experience with the shofar showed that studying the culture of a new group of people and treating them with careful respect will not be enough to make you understand them. From time to time, you have to experience life with them. From time to time, it has to smack you in the face.