Monday, December 9, 2013


Most students would say that school—secular school or religious school—is boring.

That may be no surprise to anyone. School subjects just aren’t as interesting as, say, the Kardashians.

What is surprising is that students say that school is often more boring than it needs to be. In other words, that we make it boring.

Grant Wiggins, the co-originator of the Understanding By Design approach that we use in some classes, surveyed students about this and then asked classroom teachers to have students write essays about what makes school boring. Students cited the same common practices over and over.

The most boring practice, according to students, is one that doesn’t affect my school: the misuse of PowerPoint. Making PowerPoint presentations is too time-consuming to do for a single class session. It appeals more to teachers who will give the same class five times in one day and repeat it every year.

Students thought that PowerPoint was useful when a presentation needed to include non-verbal content such as visual images or film clips. They said it was boring when the teacher read the content of the slides and expected them to take notes.

Reading aloud from the textbook also got low marks. Alas, we tend to do that in Hebrew school, partly because we don’t assign reading as homework.

On the other hand, having students read the textbook on their own during class time didn’t rate much better. To students, that came across as a demand that they learn the subject on their own, that they teach themselves.

If a school uses textbooks at all, it is difficult to reconcile these three things: no assigned reading as homework, no reading aloud during class, and no reading on one’s own during class, either.

According to some of the essays that Wiggins collected, the real problem with reading in class is that there is often too much of it in a single stretch. 

One of the most striking points in the essays was that students want teachers to teach. That can mean various things, but the students had in mind (a) interacting with students, and (b) varying the methods during each class session.

The first of these is reminiscent of President James Garfield’s comment about Mark Hopkins, a nineteenth-century educator who was the president of Williams College for 36 years. Garfield defined a university as “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other. “

The oldest model we have for Jewish education is that of one of the ancient rabbis with students gathered around him—no PowerPoint. The students learned chiefly through discussion with their rabbi. While they would read earlier rabbinic texts, their study emphasized extracting the most possible meaning from short extracts. They had no state-mandated tests.

The rabbis of old did not vary their teaching methods much, if at all. But there is also historic Jewish guidance for that, from Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah. Maimonides says that if a teacher has taught the lesson and a student does not understand, the teacher must teach the lesson again. The Hebrew word he uses, however, can be read to mean that the teacher should teach the lesson differently the second time.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Time to end the war on Hanukkah

Since the day after Thanksgiving, television, even public television, has been all Christmas, all the time.

Nevertheless, I predict that it will not be long before James Dobson, Bill O’Reilly, and others start to complain about the so-called War on Christmas. In recent years they’ve been fixated on the practices of retail merchants: should store associates say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas”? 

One year I was interviewed by a reporter for local television news. The station was planning a feature about this War on Christmas and wanted me to be the representative of our small Jewish community. Would I be offended if a cashier said “Merry Christmas” to me?

I replied that I tried to accept the greeting in the spirit in which it was intended, but usually responded with “Happy New Year.” This was the only part of the interview that they used.

I did add that most people say what is comfortable and familiar, but also said that it’s not much of a problem in real life.

The reporter somehow concluded that I had no problem with Christmas trees, Christmas carols, Christmas concerts, or Christmas parties in public schools. I told her that public schools were a different question, because the school district is an arm of government and the Establishment Clause of the Constitution applies, and because school attendance is compulsory. She seemed startled again. News reporters for small-town stations are usually just out of college.

[In fact, I don't object to religious music in public schools, as long as (a) singing it isn't compulsory, and (b) it's not intended to be a religious observance. In the Jewish world today, I am out in left field on this. Also, I admit that children may perceive it as religiously motivated even if the school officials do not.]

So where did this War on Christmas idea originate? Not with Fox News, and not with Focus on the Family. 

The claim that there is a War on Christmas really originates with anti-Semitic, white nationalist groups. Max Blumenthal traces it to one Peter Brimelow, a former editor of Fortune magazine. The idea was briefly taken up by the National Review; when that magazine dropped it, Brimelow founded, an anti-immigration web site named for the first European child born in America, Virginia Dare. According to Blumenthal, Jared Taylor, a white supremacist publisher, and Kevin MacDonald, an evolutionary psychology professor who has argued that Jews are genetically equipped to out-compete Gentiles, joined Brimelow there. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes VDare as a hate group.

So please understand why I’m suspicious of claims that it subjects Christianity to unfair discrimination if anyone at all says “Happy Holidays.” 

From the point of view of a Jewish educator (my training), these complaints about a War on Christmas constitute a War on Hanukkah, in various senses. First, it’s a claim that the United States is a Christian nation, maybe even a Christians-only nation. Since Jews have lived here since 1654, when New York was still New Amsterdam, and most Americans are proud of our country’s history of welcoming people of many faiths and ethnic backgrounds, this is a strange idea.

Second, it’s a claim that there is pervasive discrimination against Christianity and Christians in the United States. Given that Christianity is more successful here than in any other modern democracy, maybe even more successful than in some medieval monarchies where the king could force it on everyone at the point of a sword, such a claim is bizarre. If any religion is suffering from discrimination in the U.S., it’s not Christianity.

Finally, it attempts—through Focus on the Family’s boycott of merchants that use “happy holidays”—to punish those who acknowledge that some of their potential customers might celebrate a holiday other than Christmas, or no holiday. One year there were also objections to Best Buy’s advertising for Eid Al-Adha.

So let’s all give up the War on Hanukkah (and on other celebrations). Let individuals say whatever they like as a greeting, including saying nothing. Let retailers do whatever they think is best for business. And let’s all stop using a mendacious and unnecessary defense of religion to gain political advantage, build ratings, or raise money.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Vayera: Virtue & the occasional miss

Based on a drash given at Congregation Kol Ami, Elmira, NY, on October 18, 2013.

Parashat Vayera really contains too much good material for one drash. We find

  • Abraham and Sarah's welcoming the m'lachim who announce that Sarah will bear a son. From this we learn the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. (Dare one ask whether, if Abraham and Sarah had been less hospitable, they would have received the joyous news?)
  • The destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, where Abraham pleads with God for the lives of the people if even as few as ten righteous persons can be found. This episode is sometimes cited to explain how Noah was righteous only "in his time"--instructed to build the ark and save his family plus exemplars of all the land animals, he complies, but apparently gives no thought to the lives of other humans or animals.
  • A repetition of Abraham's passing Sarah off as his sister--to save his own skin at her expense (if God didn't intervene).
  • The expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, where Abraham once again pleads for the life of the boy (his son), and God tells him to do what Sarah wants. Strangely, the rabbis of old did not use this as a proof text to show that husbands should obey their wives, but we've had women rabbis only since 1972.
  • The akedah, the binding of Isaac, where Abraham, who argued for the lives of the righteous in Sodom, unquestioningly sets about killing his other son, the one he loves more.

And that's not even everything.

Traditional commentators cited most of these passages as the sources for various mitzvot that we should learn. They drew a different lesson from the Gerar episode, where Abraham says that Sarah is his sister. It's patently discreditable, and unlike the others, contains nothing that we should emulate (not even blind obedience as in the akedah, a test that many of us today would say that Abraham failed).

For the episodes that don't reflect credit on Abraham, the traditional interpretation is to emphasize the truthfulness of the Torah: it shows us the bad as long with the good. While we are supposed to emulate the examples of the patriarchs, we're also supposed to use some judgment in choosing which ones to emulate.

We can also draw a slightly different lesson from this parashah. While Abraham's virtue is a pervasive thread in this parashah and in others, I would say that the lesson from the not-so-virtuous episodes is to show us that, since even an exemplar of heroic virtue wasn't perfect, we shouldn't be too hard on ourselves when we aren't, as long as we keep trying to do better. This is in the same line as seeing Yom Kippur as predominantly forward-looking: what are we going to do now, regardless of what we did before?

I used to work for a shul in Los Angeles that considered advertising on cable television, right among the car dealers offering financing for customers with bad credit, the hucksters selling supplements of dubious safety and efficacy, and the dentists offering cheap extractions. I wondered what exactly the synagogue would advertise: two days of Rosh Hashanah for the price of one?

The plan wasn't pursued, but only because the congregation's service area was split between two cable companies, and it was too expensive to advertise on both.

My neighborhood in Los Angeles, however, had a church that advertised on cable TV, with a wonderful ad. The pastor looked into the camera and said (as best I can remember)
Our church is for people just like you.
None of us is perfect, but we all try to help one another lead better lives.
Come and meet us this Sunday.

Can any Jewish congregation in America say that? If I found one, I would move there and join it.

As far as I can see, we all feel pressure to pretend that our lives are already perfect, to keep up appearances. From my years as a synagogue administrator, I know that, while some members who experience financial reverses will seek to adjust their contributions, most drop their memberships and disappear. If we're having personal difficulties or one of our children is, we try to keep others thinking that everything is just dandy.

This also affects how we welcome strangers, or mostly don't welcome strangers. I have felt fully welcomed in many congregations outside the United States, even in Canada, but rarely when I visit another synagogue in the U.S. I'm not sure what is going on--maybe it's just clannishness, or we choose ushers who are exceptionally shy.

But what I often see, especially when the stranger is a new resident and therefore a prospective member, is that instead of asking what our congregation could do for the stranger, we think about what the stranger could do for us. Would s/he join and pay dues? How much? Will the person attend services and help to make a minyan? Is s/he likely to be an enthusiastic volunteer?

Why don't we think more about how the congregation could help the newcomer? I'm not thinking merely of tangible forms of help, but also of spiritual sustenance, of becoming part of a community and developing relationships. Really, it's no wonder that Jews stay away in droves.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Don't tell me how religious you are

The nature of my job and the location of my office seem to encourage people in the local Jewish community to share all their complaints about the synagogue--I mean ritual--with me. And because the synagogue was formed by the relatively recent merger of Reform and formerly Conservative congregations, everyone has something to complain about.

Sharing complaints with me is futile if they actually want anything to change. I'm not even a dues-paying member of the congregation, so I have less influence than anyone else. And if they want commiseration and support, the prospects still aren't good. I'm one of the tiny number of religious centrists in the community; I can do Reform or Conservative (or Reconstructionist) and my preference is smack dab in the middle.

The current crop of complaints comes mostly from the right, the "Conservadox" end of the Conservative spectrum. The most heated issue is whether it was OK for members from the Reform-leaning faction of the congregation to do a work of gemilut hasadim on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, taking into account that the people in that faction have never celebrated the second day and don't intend to begin. From their point of view, it wasn't a yom tov at all--just Friday.

Then there's the issue of what time Neilah should end on Yom Kippur. And that there was no musaf in the morning services (musaf isn't in the machzor we use, On Wings of Awe).

I don't like it when people tell me that they are "religious"--as if I and others are not--and object to [whatever]. 

This week I thought of a response, but not in time to use it effectively. I should have replied by asking, "Is your sukkah up yet?"

You see, not even one of these "religious" people builds a sukkah at home. 

I have to confess that my sukkah wasn't complete in time for sunset on erev Sukkot. I had three consecutive board meetings on Tuesday, which would have been the best day to build it. On Wednesday I found that some of the components were too far out of square to use and had to buy hardware; then I stopped work for Hebrew school. But at least I had the frame up, with only the shade cloth for the side walls and the shchach left to put up.

So don't tell me how religious you are if you don't build a sukkah. 

No, you don't have to build a sukkah. But if you don't, maybe you shouldn't portray yourself as the guardian of traditional Judaism. What you mean is that you've chosen to base your Jewish identity on being finicky about one or two points that are no more central to others' understanding of Judaism than the sukkah is to yours.

While you're at it, don't position yourself as the defender of "true Conservative Judaism" and then tell me that you're cooking shrimp on the barbecue. You don't have to keep kosher. You can be a good Reform Jew without it. And so forth.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Telling the story, continued

The maggid, the narration, in the Passover seder, often gets short shrift, for at least two reasons.

The first is that the format itself of the seder is otherwise unfamiliar to us. In our everyday lives we have few models for ceremonial meals, and none that is appropriate. We are all familiar with awards banquets and fund-raising dinners, but those are irrelevant and, for many of us, unwelcome models. The seder isn't anything like either of those.

The original model for the seder was the Graeco-Roman symposium. That was a protracted dinner of many courses that upper-class men would eat while lying on couches, the left arm supporting the head so that the right hand was free for eating. We see a vestige of that in the instruction to lean to the left during the seder.

Although the symposium was a feature of Greek and Roman culture, it wasn't considered off-limits to affluent Jews in the period in which the haggadah began to take its present form. By the time of the Mishnah, Jews, pagans, and early Christians were living side by side in some towns in Israel and sharing in Graeco-Roman culture. This was certainly the case in Tzippori (Sepphoris), where Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, who led the compilation of the Mishnah, lived. 

The element that defined the symposium wasn't the food--it was the philosophical discussion. We should understand the haggadah as an example of such a discussion, focusing on Passover. In other words, the haggadah text is not so much a liturgy (like the prayers prescribed for worship services) as a sample discussion. Because the rabbis knew that most of us weren't scholars, they provided questions and answers.

So: the first thing about the maggid that gives us a problem is that we don't recognize it for what it is. Many of us start out expecting it to be sort of like the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, and it isn't. 

The second source of a problem is that the discussion itself isn't like a modern discussion. It's similar to the form of discussion in the Talmud, for which secular education isn't preparation. Talmudic discussion tends to shift without warning from one topic to another, and to veer off through association into new topics that are only tangentially related to the original one. Furthermore, it often embodies multiple, conflicting opinions, and it tends to quote proof texts (often only in part) all the time. In fact, typically the haggadah cites one proof text for a phrase in the maggid and, later, a second proof text for the interpretation of that statement. Both the Talmud and the haggadah are hard slogging if you were expecting something else.

In addition, some of the haggadah text isn't actually the discussion of the topic itself, but rather the discussion of what to discuss about the topic! And the actual telling of the story is the forest that we can't see because there are too many trees.

Modern haggadot deal with the inherent difficulty of the maggid by adding new readings--before, during, and after--that the editors hope will be more meaningful to contemporary Jews. Especially if we're concerned about the total length of the seder, these tend to be substitutes for, not additions to, the maggid. That is, we skip the parts of the maggid that are hard to understand or that don't pertain to the way we understand Passover.

I'm thinking more and more that the way to deal with the maggid isn't to skip it, but to change it. If we understand it to be a sample, not a fixed liturgy, we might choose to replace it with a free-form discussion. We could provide some questions to get started, but not the answers.

On the other hand, most of us aren't scholars, and all of us tend to get off the track. The discussion after the seder is the same in every family: reminiscences of past sedarim, of the family members at whose homes they were held, their recipes, how a zeyde led the seder, who else was there, and so forth. To reserve that discusssion for after the seder, we should probably provide a text for the maggid, but there's no reason that our interpretations can't be new.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Telling the story

Conducting a Passover seder at home, for the first time, is one of the unmarked transitions of adult Jewish life. 

It used to come fairly late in life, not until one's parents were unable to hold it at theire home, and even later if there were older siblings who stepped in. It tends to come earlier now, as more and more of us live far away from the older generations of our families. 

We know from surveys that more Jews in America attend a seder than attend synagogue on Yom Kipper. What we don't know is what kind of seder others attend. Because it takes place at home, generally without the supervision of a rabbi, each of us is free to make the kind of seder we want: short or long, traditional or not, and so on. It can be perfunctory if that's what we want. It can even be just a festive meal.

As much as I like both Passover and the seder, I have to admit that I have disliked many sedarim that I've attended. One reason is that large parts of the traditional haggadah text don't speak to me any more. Another is that many times, depending on the choice of haggadah and the style of the leader, it comes across as "Now we do this, now we do that, now we do this other," without as much attention to meaning as I'd like.

Actually, these are the same thing: when the haggadah text imputes meaning to an action, I tend to disagree with the interpretation. Now, disagreement about interpretations is very much in the tradition of the seder, but it's unusual to be with many others who are ready to emulate the rabbis of B'nei B'rak and continue the discussion until morning.

The first time I led a seder, it wasn't at my home. It was on a university campus, with a group of about 75 people that included students who couldn't go home; faculty and staff, some with children; and a number of non-Jews, the Protestant chaplain among them. (She excelled at "Who knows one?")

We used what is often called the "Baskin haggadah," after its illustrator, Leonard Baskin, rather than after its editor, Rabbi Herbert Bronstein. It was published in 1974 as the official haggadah of the Reform movement. Although it was in preparation at the same time as Gates of Prayer, in comparison it seems backward looking -- partly in a good way, recalling the social activism of the 1960s, and partly in a not-so-good way, retaining too much of the formality of classic Reform.

In my own home, I've been using Gates of Freedom, by Rabbi Chaim Stern. He was the principal author of Gates of Prayer, and the overall feel is very similar. It was neither published nor adopted by the Reform movement, because the CCAR remained committed to the Bronstein-Baskin haggadah.

In recent years I've been dissatisfied with it, too. The Reform movement has published a new haggadah, Sharing the Journey. It's radically different from other almost all other haggadot. Specifically, its maggid (narrative) tells the story more or less as it appears in the Torah, while the traditional haggadah text omits most of the Torah narrative in favor of commentary. Especially, this new haggadah talks a lot about Moses, while the tradition is to focus on God, not Moses. I'll post more about it later.  

So what am I doing? I'm writing a haggadah. I'll post more about that later, too.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Judaism and the War on Science

No stream of Judaism opposes science research and teaching. Not even the most traditional rabbis would say, as did United States Representative Paul Broun, that evolution and embryology are “lies straight from the pit of hell.”

Rep. Broun represents a district in Georgia. He’s not an uneducated simpleton: he holds an M.D. degree from the Medical College of Georgia. He ran unopposed for reelection in 2012—there were 4,000 write-in votes for Charles Darwin—and plans to run for the Senate in 2014.

To be clear, there are rabbis who speak against evolution, including Rabbi Yisroel Lau, the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel. Their view, however, is a minority opinion even among Orthodox rabbis. Most accept all of modern science even if it appears to conflict with the Torah.

One reason they can do so is that we have believed for centuries that not everything in the Hebrew Scriptures needs to be taken literally. The opposition to overly literal interpretations dates back at least to the work of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (called Maimonides or the Rambam) in the twelfth century.

Nevertheless, not all Jewish day schools teach science adequately. There is no problem in day schools affiliated with Reform, Conservative, or modern Orthodox Judaism, but some of the ultra-Orthodox day schools teach little or no science.

It’s also a problem in Israel, where a parallel system of “religious” schools receives government funding. In 2010, university students protested the funding, and one of the issues was the absence of science in the curricula of those schools.

The case helps us to understand why some ultra-Orthodox schools in the United States teach so little science. According to Noah Efron, a professor at Bar Ilan University, they don’t believe that science is wrong. They just believe that it’s unnecessary.

Some of the Jewish day schools in America that don’t teach much science don’t teach much of any secular subject. In yeshivot, all secular subjects are typically lumped together as “english” (not capitalized) and tend to be considered unimportant even if sufficient time (at least three hours per day) is allocated for them. Some schools, however, teach much less than that, as little as four hours per week and perhaps none after the eighth grade. 

These schools are failing to meet the New York State requirements, but enforcement is weak. It falls to the local public schools to monitor secular education in private and religious schools. In New York City and Rockland County, both lack of resources and fear of political reprisals make that ineffective.

It’s no wonder that Kiryas Joel, in Rockland County, has the highest poverty rate in New York. And it can’t be good for any of us if significant numbers of Jews grow up without secular education.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Experience and empathy

Last month I wrote about fostering “prosocial behavior” in children, and described three theories of how it develops. 

I said that, according to one theory,  the ability to perceive and react to another’s distress—empathy—is hard-wired in humans. Researchers believe this because it can be observed in children as young as one year, too young to have been taught it.

Other research, however, suggests that very young children are not too young to be taught. They may be too young to be taught in words, but not too young too learn.

This research posits that a newborn’s concern for his or her own needs—for example, the crying of a hungry baby—provides the basis for learning to care for the needs of others. Its conclusion is that the way parents and caregivers respond, or whether they respond, to an infant’s cries teaches the infant whether or not individual needs and feelings matter to others.

If parents and caregivers respond when a baby cries, the child learns that they care about his or her needs, and begins to develop a capacity to perceive and respond to the needs of others. If parents and caregivers don’t respond, the child learns that his or her needs aren’t important, and extrapolates from it that no one’s needs and feelings are important.
In real life, few parents respond to an infant’s needs 100 percent of the time, and few ignore an infant’s needs 100 percent of the time. If this research is correct, it suggest that deliberately withholding care—“letting the baby cry it out”—may be teaching the infant to ignore feelings, both his or her own, and those of everyone else.

That idea seems to reflect an industrial approach to child-rearing, where everything is regulated and scheduled. Indeed, we associate this style most strongly with 19th-century Britain and Germany, during the industrial revolution.

Israeli kibbutzim had an extreme take on industrial child-rearing. It used to be the case that all children on a kibbutz lived together in a “children’s house” under the supervision of a few adults whose assigned job it was. Children would spend only a few hours a day with their parents, never at mealtimes or overnight.

Research on this communal child-rearing draws mixed conclusions. Although the attention of a trained metapelet (nanny) during the day was largely beneficial, the absence of responsive care at night,  when “night guards” were fewer and less trained, seems to have been harmful. However, specific effects on empathy seem not to have been studied.
No kibbutz today has communal sleeping for children.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Do we need persecution?

A column last month by Paul Brandeis Raushenbush had a startling title: “Thank You Westboro Baptist Church.”

It was startling because Raushenbush is an outspoken liberal. Westboro Baptist is the extremely conservative church that, among other things, pickets military funerals. Its leader, Fred Phelps, stated that the Newtown killings were Divine retribution for gay rights.

Westboro has also picketed Jewish institutions, including Hebrew Union College and Brandeis University. Raushenbush, although an American Baptist minister, is of Jewish ancestry, the great-grandson of Justice Louis D. Brandeis (and of the famed “social gospel” preacher Walter Raushenbush).

So why is Raushenbush grateful to Westboro Baptist? One reason is that Westboro makes explicit what other groups, trying to seem less extreme, only imply: “This small church of no more than 40 people has created a vivid example of the logical conclusion of self-described ‘Bible-believing Christians’—they just haven't started stoning adulterers or seafood lovers. When Mike Huckabee and Bryan Fischer blame the Newtown shooting on banning school prayer, they place themselves along the continuum with Westboro Baptist Church.”

Another is that Westboro has achieved something that seemed impossible: unifying the country. “It has taken a crazy band of anti-gay zealots to bring us all together, and in this age of deep political, religious and social division, we can all thank them for that.”

This line of thought comes perilously close to the claim that the Jewish people has survived, not in spite of discrimination and persecution, but because of discrimination and persecution. In other words, that exclusion and bad treatment by non-Jews drive us together.

I really hope that being the subjects of persecution is not the only thing that binds us together. I’d like to think that other things, such as the love of Torah and the teachings of the Prophets, are more important to our collective psyche.

Sociologists have studied the forces that bring and hold groups together. Shared experiences and rituals are among the most important. These include secular activities. Think, for example, of Japanese auto companies where all employees sing the company song together at the start of each day.They include behaviors that we don’t always think of as rituals, such as wearing the team colors on game days.

You could say that it’s our worship rituals that have held the Jewish people together, and there is some truth to that. The need to pray in a minyan of ten adults keeps us from becoming hermits or other kinds of extreme individualists, and when we share rituals, we become stronger as a group.

Religious rituals, however, aren’t the whole story. All group activities within a community have a bonding effect. Rev. Connie Seifert, a Methodist minister in Corning, speaks evocatively of the church suppers of her childhood, which integrated children into the church community even before they were old enough to participate in Sunday services.

I’m inclined to think that all activities within the Jewish community strengthen us as a group, even those that have no religious content.

They have this effect, however, only to the extent that we participate in them. In a traditional community, religious services had a major role in binding us together; they still function that way, but because we are not all religious in the same ways, we also look to other events.

We don’t all have the same tastes in entertainment or education, either, so not every possible event will appeal equally to every community member. Nevertheless, participation in as many events as possible is good for the community and for our feeling of connectedness.

The program committee of our Jewish Center is experimenting this year with some programs that aren’t explicitly Jewish. Because Jewish life is central to our mission, our efforts in secular programming have been modest so far, but we think that they’re worthwhile.  We hope that participating in them helps everyone to feel more connected to one another.

One non-Jewish program that we didn’t schedule for this year was a hockey excursion. Instead, we’re hoping to set up a baseball program this summer. Go Pioneers!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Examples, not rewards

Some years ago I worked in a Hebrew school that had a program to reward students for various kinds of good behavior: giving tzedakah, arriving at school on time, helping the teacher during class, doing mitzvot outside of class. A student who did any of these things would receive a “Mitzvah Dollar” that could be spent in the school “Mitzvah Store” at the end of the year.

The only good result I saw from this was that it made it easy to teach the Hebrew word שמש (shamash, helper). The other effects—in particular, trying to get Mitzvah Bucks without putting in too much effort—were deleterious.

Research on “prosocial behavior” partly explains why the Mitzvah Bucks didn’t work as intended.

Scientists have three theories about how, or whether, children learn prosocial behavior. One theory is that the ability to perceive and react to another’s distress is hard-wired in humans. It can be observed in children as young as one year, too young to have been taught it.

This theory holds that the capacity is at least partially genetic. For example, identical twins react to a third person’s distress more like each other than do fraternal twins. They say, however, that this effect is small, a by-product of personality characteristics that experience also influences.

The second theory is that social behavior follows from motivation: it feels good to help other people. That’s hardly news, but brain research shows that giving to others activates the same parts of the brain as winning money for oneself.

The third is that good behavior derives from social cognition—the recognition that other people have needs and goals. 

The second and third theories are compatible: cognitive understanding accompanied by a motivational reward reinforces prosocial behavior. 

What is absent from these theories is any suggestion that external rewards encourage prosocial behavior. The research shows that financial rewards can undermine prosocial behavior. 

So what should parents and teachers do? The first step is to model both prosocial behavior and its roots. In particular, we can help children learn empathy by explaining how others feel. For example, we might say, “It hurts Tommy when you hit him,” or “Sally feels sad because she’s left out.”

We should also be sure to offer opportunities to do good that our children will see as voluntary. And we should teach our children to perceive themselves as kind, generous, and helpful.

We should also help children understand and manage their own emotions. Sometimes empathy becomes a barrier to helping, because a child feels the emotion too strongly to respond appropriately.

We shouldn’t offer material rewards. The expectation of a reward is at cross-purposes with altruism. 

Religious educators are sometimes unsure how to  handle the promise of Divine rewards, that is, in the hereafter. It appears that the promise of a reward in the afterlife isn’t very effective in religions that emphasize it. Mainstream Judaism emphasizes doing good for its own sake, not for a future reward.

Ye and We

I was probably in high school before I learned that “Go Down, Moses” wasn’t originally a Jewish song. I had learned it in model seders in re...