Saturday, November 15, 2014

The five percent non-solution

Perhaps you’ve heard of Pareto’s Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. In its most general form, it postulates that 20 percent of any effort produces 80% of the results.

For example, diversified companies usually find that 80 percent of total sales come from just 20 percent of their products. In software development, fixing the top 20 percent of reported bugs prevents 80 percent of system errors—not because the other bugs are inconsequential, but because they are encountered less frequently.

Peter Greene, a teacher in Pennsylvania, adds a Five Percent Rule: the idea that only five percent of anything really matters. Greene writes,

Ninety-five percent of everything is unimportant baloney, crap that we humans use to torture ourselves and each other. Neckties. Eye shadow. Funny hats. Hair length. Only five percent of what we deal with is true and important and lasting. Only five percent of what we deal with is really important. Only five percent of what we deal with really, truly matters. It's what Thoreau was saying—simplify your life by getting rid of the 95 percent junk

Greene continues,

We can agree that a huge slice of life is wasted on inconsequential stupid stuff, and that only that small sliver, that five percent, really deserves our heart and soul and attention.

But we can’t agree on what falls within the five percent.

Greene uses this line of reasoning to argue against contemporary efforts in curriculum reform, saying that the reforms elevate the five percent of learning that one person or group might value at the expense of the five percents that others might value.

I have to dispute Greene’s implication that only five percent of curriculum matters. I concede, however, that there is a lot of room for disagreement about what elements matter, and how much each matters.

In Jewish education, there is a degree of consensus about what is important, but there is nothing close to unanimity. For centuries, Hebrew was the mainstay of the cheder, but in the twentieth century, some congregations considered it unimportant. I worked in one congregation where the teaching of Hebrew had been prohibited for the first 40 years of the congregation’s existence, and limited for the next 30.

Israel wasn’t prominent in Hebrew-school curricula until the 1960s; the first Hebrew-school textbook on Israel was published in 1957. Today, every Jewish curriculum includes Israel, but we still disagree about what to teach and when to teach it. Israeli teachers, for example, take umbrage if Israel isn’t central in every grade. 

This kind of disagreement exists in every field in the humanities and social sciences (less so in the natural sciences, where learning is more incremental). English teachers—Greene is an English teacher—can usually agree that everyone should study Shakespeare. But should everyone also read Middlemarch? Or For Whom the Bell Tolls?

I will say that the Torah is so central to Jewish life and learning that every student in a Jewish school should study it. Hebrew, whether prayer-based or modern, is helpful for participation in communal Jewish life and, at higher levels, for understanding the Torah. Similarly, ritual skills are useful in Jewish life. 

I will also say that learning to live in accord with Jewish values is more important than mastering any specific prayer or ritual. According to a survey that our school took in 2011, the parents of our students agree. We’re not trying to make our children into learned scoundrels.

What is striking, however, is that all of these subjects—Torah, Hebrew, prayer and ritual, ethics—make sense only to a student who already feels Jewish. Although study can strengthen Jewish identity, it cannot create it. 

But how does a student come to feel Jewish? Jewish life at home is the starting point; school is no substitute. The family’s participation in Jewish communal life is the next element.

Both of these are obvious. Less often cited is the family’s application of Jewish values to everyday life. Let children know that you give tzedakah (that it’s not something only for religious school) and why you give it. Explain why it is un-Jewish to participate in gossip. Make your home a model of shlom bayit (peace in the home).

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Israel and us

The Rev. Bruce M. Shipman was the Episcopal chaplain at Yale University until the board of the Episcopal Church at Yale asked him to resign. The board requested his resignation after a letter he wrote about to the Gaza situation was published in The New York Times

His letter was a response to an op-ed column by Prof. Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University that expressed concern about the growth of anti-Semitism in Europe. Lipstadt is famous for winning a British libel trial, against Holocaust denier David Irving, that hinged on whether the Holocaust actually occurred.

Shipman’s letter was brief and, in some ways, unexceptional. It doesn’t take a mountain of research to see a connection between Israel’s actions against Gaza and increasing anti-Semitism, and he criticizes Lipstadt for discounting the role of the situation in the West Bank and Gaza in it.

I disagreed with Shipman’s implication that the anti-Semitic response is justified. I disagreed even more than with last paragraph of his letter: 

As hope for a two-state solution fades and Palestinian casualties continue to mount, the best antidote to anti-Semitism would be for Israel’s patrons abroad to press the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for final-status resolution to the Palestinian question.

This is also something one of us might write, but it’s objectionable when it comes from a Christian leader.

To a Jewish ear, it sounds as if Shipman is saying, “If you [Jews] don’t get Israel under control, we [Christians] will take it out on you.”

That brings to mind the comments that flew around when African Americans first ran for mayor in large cities. I remember people in Ohio saying that they supported Carl Stokes because “he’ll keep his people in line.” We still hear this comment when an African American is appointed chief of police in almost any city.

It’s just not the job of American Jews to keep Israel in line. To suggest that we should is itself anti-Semitic.

Shipman arguably holds a special brief for the Palestinians. He grew up in Cairo, where his father was a public-health engineer for the World Health Organization, and he has spent time in Israel and the West Bank. Thus, his sensibility is probably very much like that of Protestant missionaries who have worked among the Palestinians.

It seems difficult for liberal Christians in America to understand Zionism. Mark Oppenheimer, a contributing editor of the online magazine Tablet, conducted a long interview with Shipman. Oppenheimer suggests that Christians who hold generally favorable attitudes about Jews also expect us to be just like them:  

[and] what I sometimes think is, about the philo-Semitic liberal Protestant experience, is that they don’t understand the why the contemporary liberal Jew might be a Zionist. That in their mind the last good Zionist went out sometime around the late 1960s, was a socialist on a kibbutz somewhere, was totally secular, and that they don’t actually get the lived experience of being, say, a religious Jew in Brussels today.

About two years ago, a local church asked me to speak about Zionism. I began by reading the traditional prayer from the weekday services for rebuilding Jerusalem. For Jews who recited this prayer three times a day, six days a week, for almost two thousand years, Zionism is a religious imperative. 

There are few, if any, other religions that pray for return to a specific place. Catholics do not, in general, feel about Rome the way that we feel about Jerusalem. Irish Americans may hold a special feeling for Ireland, but it’s not primarily a religious one. The idea that sane people could feel a religious tie to another country is largely incomprehensible.

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...