Friday, May 28, 2010

Little atheists

Almost nothing rattles a religious-school teacher more than a student’s claim not to believe in God. Sometimes this claim is merely an attempt to derail a class, but sometimes it is a sincerely held opinion. In either case, the teacher struggles to deal with it and still continue with the intended lesson.

The same statement would present no problem in an adult class, but would probably not be made at all. In teaching adults, I say that whether to believe in God is not as productive a question as what to believe about God. Contemporary Judaism encompasses a wide spectrum of belief, from a God who frequently intervenes in everyday life to an impersonal God that comprises all the forces of nature. We have no mandatory “Confession of Faith,” and all strains of Judaism teach that how we live our lives is more important than what we profess to believe.

When a class has time to pursue the topic, students may advance various reasons for not believing in God. When a Torah class studies the two accounts of creation in Genesis, or the story of Noah and the flood, students usually point out that the stories differ considerably from what they learn in science classes. Teachers are, of course, well aware of that, but to most Jewish adults, it is obvious that the Torah is not a science book, and that religion and science represent truth in very different ways.

One especially interesting argument is that God, as described in the Bible, does some things, or orders us to do things, that are evil. For example, in I Samuel 15:3, God, speaking through Samuel, commands Saul to exterminate the Amalekites. Saul’s failure to do so is later cited as the reason for choosing David to replace him as king, and Jewish tradition holds that both Haman and Hitler were descendants of Amalek.

In our time, however, a commandment to exterminate an entire people seems self-evidently wrong. Our children, furthermore, are learning that all kinds of racial, religious, and ethnic discrimination are wrong. Jewish tradition suggests that God may make exceptions to God’s own laws, but now we want more consistency.

It is actually encouraging when a student advances this argument, because it shows that the student is learning what we most want to teach—ethics and values—rather than accepting everything uncritically. What makes it difficult in classes is that not all students will be equally ready to deal with inconsistencies and conflicts in the text; some will read literally what others will interpret metaphorically.

In fact, students who raise these questions are bringing up issues that have troubled rabbis for many centuries. It is not always possible to explore this kind of question fully in a single class session, but the essential point is that the purpose of religious school is education, not indoctrination. When a difficult question arises, it is more important for a student to learn how to think about it than to learn what to think.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Low expectations

Concerned that the study of Talmud had become so complex that most Jews of his time could not follow its arguments, the medieval scholar Rabbi Moses Maimonides wrote a book he called the Mishneh Torah—second Torah, or restatement of Torah. He intended it as a handbook of Jewish practice and belief for average Jews, so it wrote it in simple Hebrew and organized it clearly by topic.

Maimonides covered not only not only the laws stated in or implied by the Torah, but also provisions he believed necessary to implement them. He wrote, for example, that it was mandatory for every town to establish a school. (He meant a school for boys. Typical of his time, he believed that women were exempt from the requirement to study.)

He also wrote that a teacher is required to continue teaching a subject until all the pupils understand it. In modern schools, we call this learning for mastery, but we apply it more to skills, such as multiplication, than to ideas. In his view, furthermore, it was incumbent not only on the teacher, but also on the students, to insist on mastery:

Neither should a pupil say “I understand” when he does not, but should keep on asking questions repeatedly. If his teacher gets angry and excited on account of him, he should say to him: “Teacher, this is the Torah! I
must learn it, even though my capacity is limited.”

What is most striking in today is the idea that every student, regardless of ability, must learn the Torah, and not only superficially. Maimonides says that the class should stay with a topic until all students understand “the depth of the halachah.” He refers specifically to halachah—Jewish law—because his overriding concern is that every Jew know how to observe it correctly.

Most of us do not share that concern. There are large areas of halachah that do not affect us today: laws pertaining to the operation of the Temple in Jerusalem, including sacrifices; many that pertain only to priests, kohanim; and some that apply only in the land of Israel. Most of these were already in abeyance by the time in which Maimonides wrote. Some are superseded by the laws of the countries in which we live. And there are many that we observe differently, or not at all, because of our own religious principles.

With less sense of urgency about halachah, we tend to see mastery of the subjects taught in religious school, however desirable, as less essential. Although we may press for mastery of Hebrew skills, congregational and community religious schools usually do not strive as much for mastery of Judaic knowledge. We value the students’ total experience of Hebrew school more than mastery of content, and we know that academic pressure would not contribute to the environment that we want.

To some extent, we encourage a culture of low expectations. A high grade in math--really, a high grade in any subject in secular schools--may help a student to get into a selective college. High achievement in Hebrew school won't (unless it's a Hebrew-high program that's accredited to offer courses for high-school or college credit, as in a few cities).

Some congregations use bar/bat mitzvah as an incentive, by setting and enforcing requirements. These standards often strike students and parents as arbitrary and capricious. More to the point, the requirements are almost always for attendance, not mastery: at least three years of Hebrew school, or a prescribed number of sessions of Junior Congregation. If a student has met the attendance requirement, the burden falls on the tutor, not on the student, to bring about a creditable "performance." Neither of the congregations that enrolls students in our school has any school-related requirement at all.

There are exceptions. In regions where state-mandated testing in public schools is especially pervasive, religious schools tend to adopt similar practices, often with respect to Hebrew, sometimes also in other subjects. One school board in such a state asked me, more than a decade ago, if there was an organization similar to the Iowa Tests that we could bring in to test all our students in Judaic knowledge. I worried that, to a student who received a low score, it would feel like a failure in being Jewish.

Thus, I don't think that it would be productive to attempt to raise standards through lots of testing. Nor do I think that the strategy used by some public schools in gifted-and-talented programs--assigning mountains of homework--would be a good idea, even if parents would tolerate it. We rarely assign any homework at all, knowing that parents would nullify the assignments anyway.

On the other hand, it is important that we teach with serious purpose. Although students are not always eager to do real academic work in Hebrew school, they take pride in accomplishment and readily distinguish between making progress in learning and merely marking time. Maimonides says that it is wrong for a teacher to do other work with them or to teach sluggishly. By “other work” he probably meant work for financial gain, but we might also include activities that seem appropriate in school but fulfill no actual learning objective. Teaching “sluggishly” might include teaching below the students’ capacity.

Should students enjoy Jewish learning? Yes! But fun in school is not enough: some of the enjoyment should come from making progress, mastering new skills and ideas, and growing in the appreciation of Jewish life.