Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Mah mishtaneh beit ha-sefer hazeh?

Having come to Jewish education from a career in secular education, I am often struck by how little of what we do would be recognized as education in any form by most secular educators. Some of it is socialization; some of it is indoctrination; some of it does attempt to teach something, but is not really education. A while ago I tried to envision a Jewish (supplementary) school that would have more to do with education. Here's what I wrote:

How is this school different?

All Jewish religious schools have similar goals, but our school strives to be different from most.

  • Our school is for learning. We have a carefully planned curriculum and we minimize the time relegated to activities that don’t contribute directly to learning. For example, we integrate arts and crafts with the main elements of the curriculum; they are never ends in themselves. We use videos selectively to further explicit learning goals, not to fill time.

  • Our school is for growth. In addition to imparting the knowledge and skills a student needs for Jewish living, we attempt to contribute to each student’s intellectual development. Rather than hold an entire class to a level that every student can achieve, we use differentiated education to ensure that, while all students in a class study the same material, each student receives appropriate intellectual challenge. We believe that education in any subject, at any level, should stretch intellectual horizons and develop the capacity for further learning.

  • Our school has a foundation of intellectual integrity. What we teach is compatible with the best scholarship in the field. While we do not burden children with scholarly detail beyond their understanding, we do not teach anything that a teacher at a more advanced level would want to “unteach.” Thus, we approach the Torah not primarily as a book of history or science, but as the story of our people and as a guide to living.

  • Our school respects Jewish pluralism. We teach the practices of Reform Judaism, but we respect those of every stream of Judaism and we accept the religious choices that parents make for themselves and their children. Furthermore, we consciously include customs from many different ethnic expressions of Judaism as well as the new customs that are developing in our own time.

  • Our school gives every student personal attention. No class will ever exceed an enrollment of ten students.

  • Our school recognizes the influence of family life. Children spend more time at home than in religious school, and parents have more influence than teachers. We ask parents to cooperate in three ways:
  1. The student’s attendance. While illness, emergencies, family celebrations, and other events may require a student to be absent occasionally, we ask parents not to schedule recurring events that conflict with our school hours.

  2. Support for our mission. We do not attempt to dictate a family’s religious belief or observance, but we ask that parents not ridicule or dismiss anything that we teach. We respect your choices, and we want you to respect ours.

  3. Jewish learning at all levels. We will expect parents to participate in family-education programs during the school year. We also ask that you participate in some other Jewish learning at an adult level each year that your child is enrolled.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Naso: Trial by Ordeal

Parashat Naso is a popular Torah portion for b'nai mitzvah, mostly because its reading falls at a time when good weather may be expected.

It comprises four topics: certain duties of the Levites, the procedure for trial of a woman accused of adultery, Nazirite vows, and certain functions of the priests, including the Priestly Benediction. A bar or bat mitzvah almost always chooses to speak about the Nazirite vows.

So in giving a drash in the synagogue, I wanted to speak about the trial of a woman accused of adultery. In short, it's a trial by ordeal--something that does not comport wiith our modern ideas of justice or rules of evidence.

Since this procedure is not currently in effect, and hasn't been for a long time, we feel little urgency to master the details of it. Instead, we struggle with our sense of the wrongness of it. It's one of the clearest cases of a commandment of Torah that we all agree is morally objectionable.

So what do we do? Unlike rituals that require a functioning Temple in Jerusalem or that only apply in the land of Israel, it appears that we could reinstitute this procedure. Admittedly, courts wouldn't accept it as evidence, but few divorce cases today cite adultery as the justification. (There was a time when adultery was the only recognized reason for divorce in the State of New York, which is how divorce became an important industry in Reno and Las Vegas.)

One answer, characteristic of Reform Judaism, is simply to conclude that this commandment is contrary to our principles, and therefore we do not follow it. But where do we learn those principles?

Another, characteristic of Conservative Judaism, is to attempt to view the commandment in a historical context. In this case, we might conclude that it is a vestige of pre-Torah rituals that really does not belong in the Torah at all. To take this position, we must hold that the Torah is a compilation of many oral traditions and not a cohesive document given in its entirety through Moses.

For this passage, we need to take neither approach, because it was set aside centuries ago by our early rabbis--not on idealistic grounds, but on practical ones: the rabbis concluded that the procedure didn't work! Their explanation was that it worked when most of the people of Israel were righteous, but in generally immoral times such as theirs, it couldn't be relied on.

Back to the idea that this commandment is contrary to our principles. It is common in Hebrew school for students to reject a statement in Torah because it seems so plainly wrong. Sometimes that merely means that it's inconvenient or uncongenial. For example, an eighth-grade class that I taught about a decade ago was seriously interest in the rules of kashrut--until it became apparent that the observance meant no shrimp or lobster.

At other times, the Torah is genuinely at odds with some of our secular principles: the Constitution, or various anti-discrimination laws. To most of our students, a religious precept that makes any serious distinction between Jews and Gentiles seems objectionable, and in fact our general practice is to minimize such differences in daily life, making it seem odd to do so in religious life.

But the early Reform rabbis did not draw their principles solely from secular ideology. They also drew them from Jewish sources, but they did not take any precept in isolation. Influenced as much by the Prophets as by the Torah, they tried to place each commandment in a framework that reflected the entirety of the Tanach.