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Back to School and the High Holy Days: A Season of Unlearning

Learn-Unlearn-Relearn © Marek Uliasz / iStockphoto
By Rabbi Rachel Bovitz & Rabbi Dr. Morey Schwartz

It's back to school season, and for those that celebrate, it is also the season of preparing for the holiest days on the Jewish calendar — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Jewish month of Elul, which precedes these holidays, is a time of readying our bodies, minds, and spirits for the renewal that comes with the start of a new year. It is a time of reflection, introspection, and frankly, evaluation, of our behaviors, intentions, habits, priorities, and actions of the past year.

There are a multitude of ways to engage in the process that Elul beckons us to undertake … especially these days! Some of us will embark on a meditative practice, which has the potential to recenter us while committing to a new, and arguably better, habit. Others will look to exercise to re-calibrate their bodies and minds. Still others will look towards learning — passive forms like reading books or listening to podcasts, or more interactive ones like questioning and analyzing texts as part of a community of learners — using learning as a means of unlearning.

That's right … as a means of unlearning! According to Dr. Michael Tims (2014) "...unlearning in its simplest form can be described as the process through which students learn to ask questions about subjects on which they are passionate, and through critical reflection, to reconstruct and validate a new understanding based on observations and information generated by the original questions." So, coincidentally, the time when children embark on a new year of learning we, as Jews, are simultaneously setting out on a path to unlearn that which may not have served us (or others) in the year that has passed.

Indeed, unlearning is at the heart of what the High Holy Days are all about. The act of "unlearning" is designed to give people an opportunity to redirect and reflect. Of course, that requires a modicum of openness and vulnerability on the part of the "unlearner" to unlearn that which they have previously known to be true, only to relearn, and thereby, become better versions of themselves. How much more aligned with the goals of Elul and the High Holy Days could that be?

One of the most significant ways to unlearn, ironically, is by learning itself. What's more, moving from unlearning to learning is described as a transformative process, in which, according to Wendy Grinberg (2014) "critical reflection is an essential component." Enter, Elul. Grinberg continues by pointing out that for adults, "...learners challenge previously held perspectives, become more open, and revise their beliefs and understandings of the world." In other words, the cycle of unlearning to learning and back again continues. And every year, the month of Elul and subsequent Holy Days, and/or the back to school season are the perfect reminder that it's time to "unlearn", to revisit our assumptions and paradigms, and to prepare ourselves to renew and perhaps even redirect that journey.

When children go back to school, their youth affords them the ability to start each year with a "clean slate" — absorbing all the knowledge that lies ahead. For adults, it is a bit more complicated. Both the greatest benefit and the greatest impediment is that adults bring years and years of life experience and biases into every learning experience. So, to accept the challenge of these High Holy Days, and to pursue that challenge of going "back to school" in the "classroom of life", requires vulnerability, not to mention motivation. Only in this way we are able to challenge the status quo, revisit assumptions, and think about what we want to be in the year ahead. Our tradition asks us to rise above, to be brave, and to step into that bravery ready once again to "unlearn"knowing that the outcome, year after year, can be wholly transformative.

So, during this month of Elul, and as we inch toward our holiest days, go ahead and unlearnso that you can learn … again, and again, and again. There is infinite opportunity in being a lifelong learner and continually striving to be the best versions of ourselves — not just at Back to School time, and not only on the High Holy Days, but every day of our lives.


 Photo © Marek Uliasz / iStockphoto

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