In Anton Chekhov's moving story, "The Lady with the Lapdog", a cynical womanizer named Gurov surprises himself by falling in love with Anna Sergeyevna, whom he had first thought would be just another conquest in his life of drift. Both are married, and are thus consigned to meeting secretly every few months in a Moscow hotel room. On the way to one such rendezvous, Gurov ruminates about the paradox that his life has become: "Everything that was important, interesting, essential, everything about which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made up the quintessence of his life, went on in secret, while everything that was a lie, everything that was merely the husk in which he hid himself to conceal the truth, like his work at the bank, for instance, his discussions at the club... all that happened in the sight of all."
There are times when the Jewish educator may feel as though he is carrying on a clandestine affair with Torah. Unable or afraid to profoundly express the passion he feels for religion, and fearful of scorn or worse, indifference, he or she is consigned to a discussion of only the most broadly based Jewish topics, with the inevitable descent into politics or gossip that such a compromise entails: Israeli peace agreements; antisemitism; interdenominational relations; and the Rodney King-like mantra of Jewish unity ("Can't we all just get along?").
But the educator must resist, at all costs, the slide into a religious discourse stripped of passion and even tension, despite the possible discomfort that such passion can often cause others. Occasionally there are individuals who get excited about discussions about God; or are obsessed by issues that are often the stock in trade of religion, such as good and evil i.e. how could Hitler do what he did? But for the most part, many people in our society do not define themselves as all that interested in religion. They will say--somewhat sheepishly, and at times aggressively--"I'm not a religious person." And what they mean by this is some kind of stereotypical association that they have made between religion and a certain kind of lifestyle or personality. Judaism conjures up scenes of men in beards and long black coats speaking in a foreign language. Christianity evokes images of Protestant evangelicals "performing" the Gospels in front of rapt audiences or priests in the confessional dispensing formulaic forgiveness. And Islam often becomes automatically equated with terrorist activity.
Many of the people I teach, depending on what stage of life they are at, see their path in terms of friendship, romantic tie, family, leisure activities, job, house. The current so-called "revival in spirituality"--even though it may be light years away from any organized religion--barely touches them, as though it is news from a different country, one that they have heard of but feel no compulsion to visit. The temptation therefore is to lower the heat, as it were, and just surrender to the lowest common denominator in order to accommodate the public's reticence about religion. Hence talk of belief in God gets supplanted by sermons about the environment; difficult questions of religious authority and the compulsory nature of the moral life become seamlessly replaced by an analysis of Oslo.
Beware the Jewish educator who pretends to cultural hipness in place of religious challenge and existential engagement. As Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once noted wryly, "we are who we pretend to be, so we had better be very careful who we pretend to be."