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Sensitivity with Sefer Shoftim: A Window into Teaching with Mindfulness

I am copied on all Beit Rabban Outlook distribution lists, which means I see a lot of reminders to parents about snowsuits for outdoor play, special Rosh Chodesh sushi lunches, and the collection of empty jars for endless purposes. I also read and enjoy the class journals- the daily ones from preschool teachers, the weekly ones from elementary school teachers, and the ones that middle students write themselves. I find all the correspondence delightful, from the most mundane to the most profound. Every once in a while, I am copied on an email that a teacher sends the parents of a class to provide a window into something particularly complicated or multifaceted that the students have studied. Usually, this comes with a request to talk to your children more about the topic or to check in on how they processed a particular conversation. These are my favorite emails from teachers because they give a deep window into students' intellectual experiences and make me feel incredibly proud of my colleagues. This week, one such email landed in my inbox:

Dear 6th grade community,

I wanted to bring you all into a conversation that I had this morning with the sixth-grade students. As you are likely aware… I am learning Sefer Shoftim (Judges) with [your children]. Today's class sessions were based on Shoftim 3:15-22, the story of Ehud and Eglon. This is the story of a left-handed shofet (tribal chieftan/judge) who kills Eglon, King of the Moabites, who is described as "בריא"--literally "healthy," but used in the Tanakh to mean "fat." Eglon's body size factors into the narrative, as Ehud's sword is completely subsumed in Eglon's stomach and his fat covers the hilt of the sword.

In preparing to teach this lesson, I felt a sense of ambivalence and hesitation. Middle school is a time of heightened bodily awareness for students, and often when body image anxieties come to the fore. I could imagine myself as a chubby middle-school student, feeling mortified to be studying a text in which a character's fatness is described. We live in a culture saturated with body negativity, and as a feminist and a woman who navigates the world in a larger body, the last thing I would want to do is contribute to a culture of shame and anxiety around bodies.

At the same time, this is a fascinating text, particularly in its positive depiction of a character who, according to the pshat (straight-forward) meaning of the text, is disabled—Ehud isn't simply left-handed, but the text is explicit that his right hand is paralyzed. His physical difference actually leads to his triumph, as Eglon is not expecting him to draw his sword with his left hand. There are relatively few positive depictions of disabled characters in the Tanakh, and it would be chaval (unfortunate) to miss this one.

I had the chance to speak to some colleagues about these thoughts, including [...] and a friend, Rabbi Minna Bromberg, who administers the group Fat Torah: A Community of Abundance. After some discussion, I decided to be transparent with the students—to share my own ambivalence with them and to bring them into the discussion about representations of ability, disability, body talk, and stereotypes. Some rich reflections came out of our discussion, including students raising the idea that fat was considered healthy in the time of the Tanakh because it meant you had enough resources to eat; and a student pointing out that you can't tell whether someone is healthy or not based on appearances. We also spoke about not stereotyping people, and the value of not commenting on people's appearances, particularly related to body size.

In the end, I'm very glad to have had this experience with the students. I was so impressed with their sensitivity and thoughtfulness in this conversation, and I'm grateful to be in a community where we can bring body positivity (and disability justice) to bear on the text.

I wanted to let you all know about this conversation in case you would like to follow up at home with your child, or if you hear any rumblings of anything we spoke about.

Please let me know if you have any questions or want to continue the conversation together.


[Teacher's Name]

What a gift to have an email like this land in my inbox because of how our Outlook distribution lists are set up. It was not written with me in mind, but it powerfully reminds me why we started the Beit Rabban middle school, the Chativah, just a few years ago. I wanted our children to be mentored through adolescence by teachers who think holistically in the way this message embodies. I am sharing this email with you to showcase our outstanding educators and thank them for the intentionality, sophistication, and commitment they bring to their classrooms from preschool through eighth grade.

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