Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Do As We Say, Not As We Do

There is a well-known textbook—not one that we use—in which the chapter on Passover states that the father leads the seder and the mother cooks the dinner.

That statement no longer reflects an inevitable reality, if it ever did. In our congregations, gender does not determine religious role, nor does gender necessarily determine other roles in our society. Accordingly, we prefer to adopt textbooks that define religious roles in the ways that we understand them.

It can be difficult to maintain a completely egalitarian point of view, especially when a textbook has illustrations. Until recently it was unusual to see an illustration of a woman reading from the Torah, even though women have done so for decades in many congregations, and it you are still unlikely to see an illustration of a man lighting Shabbat candles.

It is possible for issues like this to cause misunderstandings in class. For example, it would be correct to teach that it is appropriate for every Jew to light Shabbat candles—but if a child has seen this done only by a mother or grandmother, the teacher’s statement may not ring true. The student may be puzzled, may reject the lesson outright, or may accept the lesson and conclude that there is something wrong with the way his or her family does it.

This phenomenon goes by the exalted name of cognitive dissonance. As learners, we always measure what is being taught against our own experiences, and yet one of the roles of school is to introduce ideas that are outside the experiences of the students.

There are many opportunities for cognitive dissonance in a Jewish school. The pronunciation of Hebrew provides frequent examples, because the school teaches “American Sefardi” pronunciation, while some parents and many grandparents use Ashkenazi pronunciation. If family members help a student to practice Hebrew reading, they and the teacher may be pulling in opposite directions.

Even more opportunities for cognitive dissonance arise when specific observances are taught. Although our school’s policy is to respect the religious choices of each family, we teach the practices that are normative for the two congregations. Some families will choose not to carry out every observance that we teach, and some may find value in practices that we do not teach. Sometimes teaching in a way that does not create unnecessary tensions either in class or at home feels like a tightwire act.

An approach that I like is the one adopted by Reform rabbis in a series of handbooks published in the 1970s. Rather than stating that “everyone should” follow a certain practice, these books typically state “It is a mitzvah to….” This formulation leaves the choice of whether to adopt a particular practice, and how to carry it out, open for each individual or family, while stating clearly that, in the view of the authors, it is a mitzvah.

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