THE BLOG
12/27/2014 02:52 pm ET Updated Feb 26, 2015

Teaching the Bible as Literature in Public High School (Part 9)

Aphorisms 1

Aphorisms are an excellent way of encouraging critical and creative responses when teaching about the Bible. These quotations offer thoughtful reflections by world authors on a broad range of religious questions. This exposure to different outlooks from other times and places was designed to help students overcome the insularity of an exclusively 21st-century middle-class, American view of the world.

I gave students about 700 of these throughout the six-week unit for class discussion, homework or extra-credit assignments, or general background reading. Students were given ten minutes at the beginning of class to read about 70 of them and choose a few about which they might like to say a few words. The remaining 30 minutes were spent on sharing their reactions.

A student would read an aphorism and say whatever he or she wanted. There was no right or wrong answer. A student might agree or disagree with the aphorism and briefly state why, explain what it meant, or develop whatever implications were deemed appropriate. Students listened and then offered another view of that aphorism or moved on to another.

It was always a relaxed, mellow, yet highly instructive discussion, probably one of the few times in an American high-school classroom when normal, hyperactive 17-year-olds could slow down and step out of time for 40 minutes to quietly read, reflect, and comment upon some of life's Big Questions.

An English humanities class should sometimes be an oasis of calm, a tranquill place of meditation where nothing dramatic need happen, only the drama of self-discovery as one considers the perennial issues that keep us human in a world of confusion. Hopefully, students left class a little bit changed.

As a teacher, I believe that it is critical that college-prep and AP high-school seniors hear a wide variety of viewpoints on whatever they're taught. Not that these views are necessarily true, but that these views exist, and a quality education demands that students hear as many of them as possible to be prepared for the intellectual challenges of college life.

To do otherwise is to insult their integrity by indoctrinating them into only one point of view rather than training them to think for themselves. Students must be able to critically engage with the onslaught of conflicting claims that await them in college, or they will not survive.

Gemara

If two men claim thy help, and one is thy enemy, help him first.

He who weds for money will have delinquent children.

For everything there is a substitute, except the wife of thy youth.

The life of the mother takes precedence over the life of the unborn child.

A child is inclined to exaggerate its own importance.

A man, who does not teach his son his trade, teaches him robbery.

Take care of the children of the poor, for they are the ones who advance knowledge.

A man is forbidden to eat until he has fed his beast.

The thief becomes law-abiding when he can no longer steal.

Whoever neglects to visit a friendless sick person is as if he shed his blood.

He who gives alms in secret is better than Moses.

Poverty is more burdensome than fifty plagues.

Midrash

Better is he who gives little to charity from money honestly earned than someone who gives much from wealth gained through fraud.

Before a man marries, his love goes to his parents; after he marries, his love goes to his wife.
If a man combats the wave, it overpowers him. If he permits it to roll over him, the wave passes on.

Woe to high position, for it takes the fear of heaven from him who occupies it.

In the beginning, sin is like a thread of the spider's web; but in the end, it becomes like the cable of a ship.

To cause another to sin is even worse than to slay him; it is to bring about his death not only in this world but in the next.

From the hour that a man thinks in his heart of committing a sin, he is faithless to God.
Slander is as bad as murder.

He who steals a man's confidence is chief among thieves.

When the wicked are in trouble, they are penitent; but when their trouble is ended, they return to their evil ways.

If one man says to thee, "Thou art a donkey," do not mind; if two speak thus, purchase a saddle for thyself.

Zohar

Neglect not thine own poor in order to give to strangers who are poor.

Who are the pious? Those who consider each day as their last and repent.

He who loves without jealousy does not truly love.

A man should build himself a home, plant himself a vineyard, and then bring into the home a bride. Fools are they who marry while they have no secure livelihood.

Honor thy father and thy mother, even as thou honorest God; for all three have been partners in thy creation.

No one is poor as he who is ignorant of the Torah and its commandments, for this is all that can be considered as wealth.

There is no true justice unless mercy is part of it.

What is the sign of the proud man? He never praises anyone.

The ideal man has the strength of a male and the compassion of a female.

Blaise Pascal

The heart has its reasons of which the mind knows nothing.

Truth on this side of the Pyrenees may be heresy on the other.

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.

There are two kinds of men: the righteous who think they are sinners and sinners who think they are righteous.

You would not be looking for me [God], if you did not already possess me. So do not be anxious.

It is not good to be too free. It is not good to have all one needs.

Man's condition: inconstancy, boredom, anxiety.

All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.

Reason's last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things beyond it.

Two excesses: to exclude reason and to admit nothing but reason.

The eternal silence of these infinite spaces [of the heavens] fills me with terror.

Man is only a reed, the feeblest thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed.

The way of God, who disposes all things with gentleness, is to instill religion into our minds with reasoned arguments and into our hearts with grace, but attempting to instill it into our hearts and minds with force and threats is to instill not religion but terror.

Voltaire

The comfort of the rich depends on an abundant supply of the poor.

Every man is a creature of the age in which he lives, and a few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of the time.

The longer we dwell on our misfortunes, the greater is their power to harm us.

If you have two religions in your country, the two will cut each other's throats; but if you have thirty religions, they will dwell in peace.

Theology is to religion what poisons are to food.

Life is a shipwreck, but we mustn't forget to sing in the lifeboats.

It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished, unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.

Men will always be mad and those who think they can cure them are the maddest of all.

Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.

Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.

It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.

Religion began when the first scoundrel met the first fool.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

It is not truth in whose possession a man is, or thinks he is, which constitutes the worth of a man, but rather the honest effort he has made to find it out. For it is not by the possession of truth that his powers are expanded, but rather by its investigation. Possession makes us complacent, indolent, and proud.

If God were to hold shut in his right hand all truth, and in his left hand nothing by the ever restless quest for truth, though with the condition of my erring forever, and if he were to say to me, "Choose!" - I would bow humbly to his left hand, and say, "Father, give! Pure truth is for Thee alone!"

Henri Frederic Amiel

Do not despise your situation; in it you must act, suffer, and prevail. From every point on earth we are equally near to heaven and to the infinite.

The man who insists upon seeing with perfect clarity before he decides, never decides. Accept life, and you must accept regret.

It is not what he has, nor what he does, which directly expresses the worth of a man, but what he is.

It is dangerous to abandon one's self to the luxury of grief; it deprives one of courage and even of the wish to recover.

There is no curing a sick man who believes he is healthy.

Truth is violated not only by falsehood, but also by silence.

The man who has no inner life is a slave to his surroundings.

To shun one's cross is to make it heavier.

Life is short and we never have too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are travelling the dark journey with us.

Nature is unjust and shameless, without morality and without faith. The human conscience, however, revolts against this law of nature, and to satisfy its own instinct for justice it has imagined two hypotheses - the idea of an individual providence, and the hypothesis of another life. In these we have a protest against nature, which is thus declared immoral and scandalous to the moral sense.

Simone Weil

To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human heart. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed to feel with them, one cannot understand.

Whatever debases the intelligence degrades the entire human being.

Whoever takes up the sword shall perish by the sword. And whoever does not take up the sword shall perish on the cross.

A hurtful act transfers to others our own self-degradation.

Evil, when we are in its power, is not felt as evil, but as a necessity, or even a duty.

I can, therefore I am.

We must not wish for the disappearance of our troubles, but for the grace to transform them.

What scares me is the Church as a social thing. Not only because of her stains, but by the very fact that it is a social thing.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil - God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.

We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice; we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.

The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world it leaves its children.

Earthly possessions dazzle our eyes and delude us into thinking that they can provide security and freedom from anxiety. Yet all the time they are the very source of anxiety.

The first service we owe to others is to listen to them.

See the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled - in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.

Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more than they are doing now. The Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.