Friday, September 18, 2015

The guilt trap: surving Yom Kippur without (too much) guilt

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, has to be the quintessential Jewish holiday: it’s all about guilt. If we attend services and everything works just right, we may leave with less guilt and more hope. If it doesn’t, we may leave with more guilt than before.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Feeling guilty is part of the process, but not the purpose of Yom Kippur! Here are seven steps toward making Yom Kippur what it’s really supposed to be:

1. Don’t take on guilt that isn’t rightfully yours.
Use the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to review the past year, so that you know what to focus on. 

Traditional prayer texts for Yom Kippur list sins that you probably didn’t commit and some attempt to induce free-floating guilt over sins that most of us not only didn’t commit, but couldn’t have committed.
So you need to approach Yom Kippur with clarity about what you’re repenting for.

2. Sort out which sins are which.
Many prayer books quote Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, who taught almost two thousand years ago: “For sins against God, the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins against another person, the Day of Atonement does not atone.” 

He meant that repentance and prayer are effective for sins between a person and God, but where any other person has been harmed, repentance begins with righting the wrong. For example, if you had stolen something, you’d need to return it, or pay for it.

3. Begin righting the wrongs.
Theft is an easy example. It’s harder to undo actions that do harm in other ways.

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it’s customary for Jews to apologize for intangible harm to others, such as words spoken in anger. Although we may not have stolen, murdered, or committed adultery, we have almost certainly hurt others through our words. 

Jewish tradition holds that if a person sincerely requests forgiveness three times—that is, on three separate occasions—we’re obligated to give it. And in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, because we may want forgiveness for ourselves, we’re especially likely to give it to others.

4. When you ask forgiveness, do it the right way.
That means in person, if at all possible, not by email. Some people send out broadcast emails that say, “If I have wronged you in any way in the past year, I apologize and ask forgiveness.” That doesn’t count. You need to apologize to a specific person, for a specific act.

If apologizing in person is impossible, a phone call or letter may be appropriate. Don’t use a text message or, heaven forfend, Twitter (with one possible exception).

Make it a genuine apology. A genuine apology is, “It was wrong of me to… and I’m sorry. Can you find it in your heart to forgive me? A fake apology is the celebrity kind that puts the burden on the supposed recipient: “I’m sorry if you took offense at what I said/did.”

5. Apologize in the right setting.
If the last two steps seemed hard, this one may be even harder. When an offense took place in public, the apology may need to be given in public as well. 

This is where the Twitter exception comes in: if you slammed someone on Twitter, apologize directly and privately first, and then post it on Twitter.

6. Resolve to do better.
Instead of ending Yom Kippur with guilt about what you did (or didn’t do), plan to do better in the new year. If you were thoughtless or uncharitable, resolve to be more thoughtful and charitable. If you were dishonest, resolve to be more honest. Tradition says that full repentance takes place when you have the opportunity commit the sin again, but don’t.

7. Know that you’re not alone.
The Yom Kippur ritual described in the Torah was an almost totally collective atonement. Although we no longer sacrifice animals to atone, the confessions in the Yom Kippur liturgy are all framed in the first-person plural: “We have sinned. We have transgressed.” As you resolve to do better, feel that you’re part of a community of people who are all trying to do better.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Enforced ignorance

I’ve written before about the shanda—scandal—of Jewish day schools that deliberately fail to teach secular studies adequately. This happens both in the United States and in Israel, in some ultra-Orthodox schools.

In those schools, secular studies (what you and I would call “school”) are typically referred to as “english” (not capitalized) and rarely exceed 90 minutes per day.  There may be less than that, possibly none at all, in the higher grades.

This comes about because the communities that support those schools believe that only Jewish learning is important. Secular education is unnecessary and possibly harmful, because it takes time away from studying Torah and, especially, Talmud.

These schools graduate students who read and write English poorly—the schools and their communities operate chiefly in Yiddish—and know little of science and modern  history. The young men who leave these schools have little in the way of job qualifications or academic skills for university-level education; they’re only qualified to continue studying in a yeshiva or kollel.

The situation is different for ultra-Orthodox women. It’s not considered important, or even desirable, for them to study Talmud at an advanced level, and since they will likely marry men incapable of doing most secular jobs, they need to be able to support a family—a large family.

Schools, both here and in Israel, are supposed to teach a state-mandated curriculum if attending them is to satisfy compulsory-attendance laws. Modern Orthodox day schools, as well as Conservative, Reform, and other community day schools, do so. Students in these day schools study the same subjects as students in public schools, in the same amounts, plus Hebrew, Tanakh, and Jewish history.

Enforcement of the requirements is up to local school districts. The ultra-Orthodox schools have been able to evade state requirements because of political influence. This is especially true in New York City, where certain rabbis have disproportionate influence in politics, and in Rockland County, where ultra-Orthodox Jews are the largest constituency in some school districts.

This may be about to change. The New York City Department of Education plans to investigate whether about three dozen yeshivot are providing adequate education in secular subjects. (This affects only schools in New York City, not in Rockland County or elsewhere.) It comes about in response to a request from parents, former students, and former teachers.

It should concern us if any Jewish students are not receiving adequate secular education. Partly because of lack of education, and partly because of having large families, ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to subsist on public assistance. Although no U.S. politicians dare to criticize Jews for this, it cannot be “good for the Jews” if large numbers of us are ill-educated and dependent on welfare.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Ordaining Orthodox women

In 2013 I wrote about the founding of Yeshivat Maharat in New York City as an Orthodox women’s rabbinical school, and its ordination of three women. What was most striking at the time was the acceptance of two of the women ordinees by very prominent Orthodox congregations. (The third, married to the senior rabbi of one of those congregations, did not seek a position.)
Four fresh rabbis ordained by Har'el Beit Midrash. From left: Rabbis Rahel Berkovits, Meesh Hammer-Kossoy, Lev Eliezer Israel, and Ariel Evan Mayse. (Sigal Krimolovski/Times of Israel)
Yeshivat Maharat took its name from the title that it conferred: maharat is a Hebrew acronym for “[female] leader of Jewish law, spirituality, and Torah.” Although its founder had previously ordained Sara Hurwitz as a rabbi, they chose to create a new title for subsequent ordinees, probably to sidestep one possible controversy.

This year, the Har ’El Beit Midrash in Israel ordained two women and two men, all as Orthodox rabbis. Although what to call a woman rabbi seems still to be problematic (rabba, which some ordained women use, is the exact feminine equivalent of rav, the ordinary Hebrew word for rabbi), it was  not an issue at Har ’El. In one sense, it was even more remarkable that the women and men studied together, which is all but unknown in Orthodox institutions.

In the early 1990s, both women had studied at Midreshet Lindenbaum, an institution for advanced study by women. When they wanted to study in the classes that an eminent rabbi, considered liberal in the Orthodox community, gave for men, they could only do so by sitting in total silence behind a curtain.

Neither Rabba Hurwitz nor the first three maharot can be counted as the first women to receive Orthodox ordination. Rabbi Mimi Feigelson received private—then secret—ordination in 1994; she is open about it now, but teaches at a Conservative institution, the American Jewish University. A few  women have also received private, but not secret, Orthodox ordination since 2000.

While some Orthodox communities are expanding the roles of women, others are resisting. In June, the Belz Hasidim in London, on the advice of their leader in Israel, prohibited driving by women. “Modesty” was the basis for the prohibition, but usually this (tzniut in Hebrew) means covering parts of a woman’s body that might be too appealing to men, including the elbow.

The Belz movement operates two primary schools in London, and they announced that children driven to school by their mothers would not be allowed to attend. This brought swift reactions from the mothers themselves, the children’s teachers, the United Synagogue of Great Britain (Orthodox but not Hasidic), and the British government. 

The Belz leaders in England have since announced that children driven to school from their mothers will not be expelled, although it still opposes driving by women. To most of us, this probably sounds like Saudi Arabia, which prohibits women from driving.

The contrast between the Har ’El beit midrash and the Belz Hasidim illustrates the range of opinions in Jewish society today. Some feel that certain changes are long overdue; others resist; and a few attempt to move in the opposite direction.

Monday, June 1, 2015


In the Jewish world, we don’t really go in for excommunicating people.

That isn’t to say that we’ve never tried. Perhaps the most famous excommunication in Jewish history was that of Baruch Spinoza by the Amsterdam rabbis in 1656. Technically it was a writ of חרם (herem), which could also mean ostracism or shunning. It was brought on by his rationalist philosophy, which they feared would endanger the standing of the entire Jewish community. 

One reason that this has become almost extinct is the diversity of the modern Jewish community: no group has the power to enforce a writ of herem, except among its own adherents. This did not, however, stop a group of Orthodox rabbis from excommunicating Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in 1945, when his radical prayer book was published.

In the rest of Jewish society, the excommunication made those particular Orthodox rabbis look ridiculous. Paradoxically, it strengthened Kaplan’s position as a faculty member of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Even if most of the faculty objected almost equally strongly to the prayer book and Kaplan’s theology, the chancellor of the seminar was forced to defend him.

Nevertheless, I wish that we could excommunicate Pamela Geller, the anti-Islam activist at whose so-called art exhibition in Texas in May two (probably rogue) terrorists were killed and a security guard was injured.

To be clear, the exhibition consisted of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. In January, Geller organized a protest against a Muslim event at the same location. Bloggers had encouraged protestors to bring guns to the event, and the protest did turn violent when protestors assaulted members of an interfaith group. 

I can only think that the May 4 event was intended as a provocation or publicity stunt. Professor John Esposito of Georgetown University writes

Was the “Muhammad Art Exhibit” intended as an art exhibit or a contest in which her anti-Islam and anti-Muslim followers competed for $10K, producing art that deliberately, as with many of Geller's other public ventures, would provoke, outrage, and invite a confrontation. And of course, despite the fact that the vast majority of Muslims like other Texans had ignored Geller, the actions of two rogue murderers would be used to brushstroke the religion of Islam and faith of a majority of mainstream Muslims.

Geller probably accomplished even more to provoke hatred than she had hoped to.

Geller is Jewish, and seems to think that she acts on behalf of the Jewish people. Judaism, however, has no fundamental objection to Islam as a religion, and Muslims in Israel have full civil rights. There is no need to turn a political disagreement into a religious one.

Some in our community may want to respond, “But they [Muslims] are the ones who make it into a religious issue!” 

That raises a different question: who speaks for Islam? 

As far as I’m concerned, Pamela Geller doesn’t speak for Judaism, and it would be impossible to name anyone who does. It’s nearly the same in Islam: there’s no central authority, and anyone who claims to speak for all Muslims assuredly doesn’t.

Geller promoted her “art exhibition” as a free-speech event. It is legal in the United States to criticize a religion, as long as you don’t encourage criminal activity. 

But Geller and her ilk should remember that freedom of speech and freedom of religion are guaranteed by the same Amendment to the Constitution: the First. 

I don’t see what is gained by using freedom of speech to infringe freedom of religion or, for that matter, freedom of religion to infringe freedom of speech.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Teaching character

In December and January I took an online course in character education. The course was designed for teachers in secular, public and private, schools, and offered by the Relay Graduate School of Education. Relay has provided training for teachers in charter schools in New York City, where much of the emphasis on character education in secular schools seems to be taking place.

A religious school like ours is arguably in the business of character education. That may be why I found the course somewhat unsatisfactory. Specifically, it emphasized just a few character strengths—such as persistence and optimism—that have been shown to contribute to success in school.

At its best, Jewish complementary education (that’s the formal name for Hebrew school) contributes to students’ general education and to overall success in school. But success in secular school is not really a goal of Hebrew school, and it shouldn’t be.

First, we place becoming a good person above earning good grades. This is one of the reasons that we don’t use the standard grading scale. Some of the charter schools in which classes were filmed for the online course give “character growth” report cards with numerical grades. 

In fact, that reminded me of the time that a Hebrew-school committee in another city asked me if there was an organization like the Iowa Tests that we could invite in to test all our students every year. 

There isn’t, baruch Hashem. To a student who received a low score, it might have seemed like failing at being Jewish. Our tradition teaches us, “Do not think of yourself as a bad person,” a reason not to grade character.

Second, the qualities that have been shown to contribute to secular school success do not entirely match those that we most want to develop. While persistence is undeniably helpful in, for example, bar/bat mitzvah preparation, another of our goals is to encourage love of [Jewish] learning. Too much persistence in academic drudgery might have the opposite effect. 

Finally, although most Hebrew schools are modeled more on secular schooling than on, say, Christian Sunday school, the direction in which secular education is moving is wrong for Jewish religious education. 

For example, more and more schools expect students to be reading in English by the end of kindergarten, even though it does not lead to their being better readers in upper grades. It is conceivable that we could push students hard enough in Hebrew to have them ready for a bar/bat mitzvah ceremony at the age of 11 instead of 13, but that doesn’t mean that they would be ready to assume responsibility for their own religious lives at the ripe old age of 11.

It was never completely clear why Relay chose some of the specific character strengths that it did. Some of them contribute to academic success; others probably don’t. 

The only one that would have had equal standing in Jewish education was gratitude. Gratitude contributes to psychological well-being but not directly to academic success. It may have been chosen only because it’s possible to promote in the classroom.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Mr. Gradgrind and Jewish education

Education researchers in secular settings give a lot of attention to how (or whether) K-12 schools prepare students for college. In particular, they look at the extent to which high school prepares students for college, middle school prepares students for high school, and elementary school prepares students for middle school.

While the best students are invariably well-prepared for college, other students who may have the potential to succeed in a community or four-year college don’t always have the background.

Their recent work found that the goals of K-12 schools don’t completely align with those of colleges. For example, high-school English classes often spend more time on literature than on expository writing, but colleges all require expository writing and many don’t require any literature courses. 

From a strictly utilitarian point of view, the literature part of high-school English might appear to be a waste. 

English teachers—and I used to be one, albeit at the college level—would argue that the ability to understand works of literature contributes to a satisfying life. They might even argue that, if students aren’t going to study literature at all in college, they should certainly study some in high school.

We see a similar dynamic in Jewish education, where the utilitarian, reductionist question is, “What is necessary for bar/bat mitzvah?” 

To a Jewish educator, this is a confusing question. On one hand, the technical requirements for the service that commemorates becoming bar/bat mitzvah are simple enough to state. 

On the other, a young person becomes bar or bat mitzvah upon attaining the requisite age, whether there is a special service for it or not. At that point, the young person is responsible for managing his or her own Jewish life. This includes choosing the role that Judaism will have in adult life.

So the more important question is not what’s required for the ceremony, but what learning will contribute to a satisfying Jewish life. That learning isn’t limited to a certain set of synagogue skills: while the ability to participate actively in worship services is certainly desirable, synagogue services aren’t the entirety of Jewish life. 

Furthermore, Hebrew school isn’t the entirety of Jewish learning. Research that Prof. Sherry Israel of Brandeis University conducted in the 1990s found a strong correlation between taking Hebrew and Judaic studies courses in college and Jewish identification after graduation. The correlation was as strong as for Jewish day school, Jewish summer camp, and time spent in Israel. 

So what prepares a student for Judaic studies classes in college? Having a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony is hardly relevant at all (except to the extent that it contributes to total Jewish education). Because most students who take Judaic studies classes in college will do so in non-Jewish institutions, good secular education is essential. But secular education is largely outside the purview of Hebrew school.

What seems to matter most is learning that there is something to learn. In that respect, encountering challenging ideas is more important than mastering specific skills. This is why we want our students to have more Jewish education than the minimum for the mitzvah ceremony.

There is one skill that I think does matter. We are often asked why we persist in teaching Hebrew script writing: “If a student isn’t going to study or live in Israel, what use is it?”

Now, I don’t think we can predict in the third or fourth grade whether a student might eventually study or live in Israel. I hope that all of our students might have at least the opportunity to study in Israel for a semester of high school or college.

But script writing is also essential for taking Hebrew classes in college. When I worked in higher education, I met many Jewish students who shied away from a Hebrew course because script writing would be required.

That’s not a realistic fear, because there are almost always students in the class who aren’t Jewish, never studied Hebrew at any level before, and have no experience with script writing. Somehow, they manage to learn it within the first few days of classes. But it’s still a significant deterrent for Jewish students, who feel that they should know script writing, but don’t.

Students who learned script writing in Hebrew school may not be comfortable either writing or reading script Hebrew by the time they enter college. The difference, however, is that having learned it once leaves them with confidence that they can learn it again.

Ye and We

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