Written by: Akiva Y. Weisinger
I am currently a freshman in Yeshiva College, and I plan to go into the field of Jewish Education. I am very set on this career choice, and no manner of attempted persuasion by well-meaning relatives who want me to go into a field more lucrative will veer me off my chosen course. Seeing my steadfastness, people will occasionally ask me why I have chosen this career path. I answer, usually, that my experiences in high school showed that the current situation is so unsustainable, so incredibly dire, that I feel I have no other choice. The failures that I saw were so highly problematic, and went so alarmingly unaddressed, I saw no choice but to go into Jewish education.
The story I like to tell that I feel pinpoints the problem begins in my Junior year of high school, when I noticed something interesting. Many conversations in my Judaic classes– shiur, Jewish History, Tanach– would inevitably veer off onto tangents of philosophical issues. People would want to know about whether the Biblical account of Bereishit was meant to be taken literally, the status of evolution, the validity of kabbalah, morality of certain mitzvos, divine authorship of the Torah, etc. These conversations would go on in class occasionally, and happen outside of class more often, in a setting where kids did not feel as if they were being judged on their religious observance if they asked a tough question. I also saw that there was no official forum for these kinds of conversations. There was nothing resembling a Hashkafa class, no official study of Jewish philosophical writings. Maybe the Rambam’s philosophy gets mentioned in Jewish History Class, maybe one of the rebbeim talks about a philosophical point on a tangent in class, but as far as an official forum for getting answers to questions on Judaism and gaining and understanding as to what it means to be Jewish, there was really nothing.
So, I, an idealistic sort, who had been brought up with an understanding that the answers to such questions are out there if you look for them, decided to try starting a Jewish Philosophy Club. My goal was to bring philosophical discussion into the school, provide a forum for kids to understand what Judaism and mitzvos actually mean, rather than what I should be doing now, which was something I saw they never got. The club never really got off the ground, as I could never get enough people to come to meetings, and we could never decide on what we honestly wanted to do. The natural reaction to this failure would be what many people told me, which was, “See, no one cares about philosophy.” And I sort of refused to believe that while pretty much accepting that conclusion, until one day, someone comes over to me, and asks me, excitedly, “You hear about the debate?”
“Debate? What debate?”
Turns out, after a number of tangents taken in shiurim and Jewish history classes, some of the kids had come to the conclusion that two of the rebbeim employed by the school had radically different philosophies. One of the kids (and I say this not to insult him to but to emphasize my point), not a serious student by any means, came up with the idea to have a debate between the two on issues of Divine Providence, not a lightweight philosophical subject by any means. The debate was a resounding success, and was well attended by all sectors of the school’s population. I joyfully realized that the failure of my club was not due to kids not being interested in philosophy, but in my own failure to present it. I went over to this kid, expressed my admiration for what he had done, and resolved to work with him to plan more debates in the future.
A while later, I met again with this kid, and we started to plan another debate. I went over to one of the rebbeim in the school, and ask him if he’d like to participate in a debate. He shook his head, no.
“I’m not allowed to,” he told me.
“What do you mean, not allowed to?” I asked incredulously. Why would they intentionally stifle an educational program?
“The administration feels it is unproductive to give students the impression there is divergence of opinion as to what the school holds.”
“What?” I responded. “They got that impression on their own, by listening in class! And who cares if they think there’s a ‘divergence of opinions’ about what the school holds? They didn’t have any idea about what the school held until now! Why would you intentionally frustrate a kid’s attempt to learn more?”
Soon afterwards, signs started to go up around the school, advertising a new club called the “Torah U’Madda Society.”Besides for the title, which was written in English, the description of the club was written entirely in Hebrew. I assumed the club had nothing to do with me, until I was told by one of my rebbeim that the administration had taken my idea for a Jewish Philosophy Club and modified it a bit. I was also told that I was allowed to come. “Why wouldn’t I be allowed to come?” I asked innocently. “Well,” he responded “It’s only open to members of the top shiurim, but because the club was basically your idea, we voted to allow you in.” Needless to say, this was not what I had intended the Jewish Philosophy Club to be. I intended it to be a forum for everyone to think about philosophical questions, not just the elite. The first meeting rolled around, and all of us attendees sat there, eating the free Chinese food given to us, as a program was outlined. We would have opprotunities to hear special guest speakers, and go on special trips to places like the Metropolitan Museum Of Art. We were to be given free books signed by their authors, and we could bring any topic up for discussion with “the society.” At last, I had enough. I raised my hand, and spoke up.
“This all sounds great, but by limiting the program to the top shiurim, you’re basically just preaching to the choir. Most of these kids know this stuff pretty well. If they don’t know this stuff well at all, then, as far as I can tell, it has not presented an obstacle to their religious observance. Meanwhile, we have kids in the lower shiurim with legitimate hashkafic issues, and their problems aren’t being addressed at all. These programs for the top classes are great, but maybe a guest speaker or two for the whole school would be a good idea?”
I was nearly laughed out of the whole meeting. “That’s a waste of our resources,” one rabbi said, “You think the lower shiurim have any interest in philosophy? We should spend our time teaching people who will listen to us.”
“They do have an interest in philosophy!” I protested. “What about that debate? Why did you put an end to the debates? They wanted to know more about Jewish Philosophy, and you ended it.”
“Please!” Was the dismissive response. “Those debates were not about wanting to know any more knowledge, they just wanted to see two rabbis fight. That’s why we stopped them.”
I was dumbfounded. First of all, the fact that they did have philosophical discussions both in and out of class clearly showed they were interested. Second of all, even if they were not at all, and the debates were the rabbinic equivalent of a wrestling match, it still was more than they would learn otherwise, and who really cared if their motives were impure? After all, it’s not like there were no Gemara tests, and all learning done in my high school was purely lishmah. Why do you need an intellectual purity test to learn some hashkafa? Third of all, by telling me they were only interested in teaching Jewish Philosophy to those who they knew would listen, they were implicitly telling me they did not care if three quarters of the school had no religious meaning to their lives whatsoever. That they were content if three quarters of the school had their philosophical questions unanswered.
Why this is, I’ve never truly understood. I mean, I understood it from a business angle. It made more sense to throw all your resources at a kid so that he goes to Harvard, and becomes a renown rabbi and lecturer from the stuff he learnt in Torah U’Madda Society, because now you can write in a brochure, “A product of our school went to Harvard and is renown Rabbi and lecturer.” It didn’t make business sense to sit with a kid, spend your energies explaining philosophical points to him, why this makes sense, why this is actually moral, so now he can feel that Judaism makes sense to him and he becomes a frum, god-fearing, insurance salesman. You can’t brag about insurance salesman in a brochure. My problem was I could not fathom that people entrusted with transmitting Jewish tradition had flat out given up on explaining it to most of the school. How this could possibly be, how rabbis could look at themselves in the mirror knowing they had not done all they can to help all of the students placed under their watch understand what God wants of them, was, and is beyond me. But that was the reality that I saw in my four years of high school. And it was a rude awakening.
However, my problems run deeper than that. It is bad enough that we are content with abandoning most of our population to their own philosophic devices. But, at least those kids who were invited to the Torah U’Madda Society will be great leaders, right? Wrong. First of all, by limiting ourselves to teaching those who will readily accept whatever we tell them is true, we risk alienating people who were smart enough to ignore us. Some of those kids sitting in the back, not caring about Gemara, do so not because they are stupid, but precisely because they are intelligent enough to not settle for a superficial education. By not even trying to reach those kids, we risk losing out on intelligent, original and creative contributions to Jewish thought, not to mention the fact that many educators have no idea how to react to students asking questions they never bothered to think about. I really believe that some of the greatest names in Jewish thought never would have come to our attention if put in our current educational system.
However, let’s, for a moment, fool ourselves into believing that every kid we fail to educate will amount to nothing anyway. Is there a still a problem? Absolutely. Because if you educate those kids who do well on your spit-back tests and do whatever they tell you, those kids in the top shiur, in an environment where it is believed they are of a higher priority, and deserve a better education than those less capable than themselves, they will come to believe it. If the school believes that the ultimate end goal of the school is the education of the most gifted, they will believe in their own education at the expense of others. If their school is not concerned about the kids in the lower shiurim, neither will they. While kids down the hall have no idea what a gemara is, they learn a Rav Chaim, unperturbed, because their school has long given up on those kids down the hall. The fact that there are Jewish people who do not know as much as they should, who have questions about Judaism that could be answered if anyone bothered to take the time, who forsake religion over questions that have good answers, does not bother them at all, because it never bothered their schools. As a result, we are in danger of having raised a generation of Jewish leaders that does not care about the Jewish people as much as they care about their own learning, leaders who lock themselves in their ivory towers so they can they can ignore the sounds of the people long enough to focus on their sugya. Maybe you think I’m exaggerating, but when I made that complaint at The Torah U’Madda Society Meeting, none of the students backed me up. None saw themselves as having any duty to educate their brethren. All of them insisted that what was important was that they learn, and guest speakers shouldn’t be wasted on the unwashed masses. That’s what they told me, anyway. I suspect they were more concerned about having to share the free Chinese food.
Perhaps this is all just an exercise in youthful idealism, but this is what is what has driven me to my career choice. I feel that for the sake of our future as a Jewish people, a nation in which every single person, not just the best and brightest, are important, schools must do a better job of caring about the welfare and spirituality of every single student. Without that, not only will we never be surprised as to what someone can accomplish, our leaders will be flawed as well. And yes, I recognize, it is not easy to preach outside the choir, but no one ever said education was an easy job, and anyone who is in education for an easy career should quit and find an actual easy career. We stand nothing to lose by pouring all our energies into trying.