April 18, 2024
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Is Proper Hashkafa Caught or Taught?

Over breakfast in Yerushalayim a few weeks ago, I was talking about the state of American Jewish education with a friend who teaches graduates of American day schools in several seminaries. One of the shortcomings he raised was submitted to the Bar Ilan LookJed listserv and has generated quite a bit of heated discussion online. The rabbi was teaching the Torah’s prohibition to remarry one’s first spouse after divorcing one’s second spouse (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). One girl exclaimed, “That’s so arbitrary.” The frustrated rabbi tried to explain that perhaps the Torah’s wisdom and outlook should be given a bit more credence and authority.

This episode seems to be representative of a wide-ranging gap in our students’ grasp of basic issues relating to faith, trust in Chazal and belief in God. Most high school Judaic curricula are similar. Chumash, Ivrit, Navi, Halacha, rabbinics (Mishna/Talmud) and Jewish history are taught in varying degrees. Occasionally, the Holocaust and Israel/Zionism are thrown in for good measure. Rarely, if ever, is there a structured class in what and how to believe as a Jew. Call it hashkafa, or Jewish thought or Jewish philosophy, it is absent in most schools.

Kids have questions of faith in high school. Especially living in such an open society where there is no public reinforcement of Jewish values. Students are spoonfed and sometimes force-fed texts and expectations. Occasionally they are expected to think things out and reflect. They can analyze Talmudic debates and interpret commentaries (sometimes). Too often, when they ask uncomfortable or disturbing questions, they are put off until “later” or “see me after class” or, worse, chastised for their impudence.

It was once axiomatic in the charedi community that faith was a given, taken for granted. Rabbis were not to be questioned and holy texts were sacrosanct, revered and untouchable. The large number of “off the derech” books and social groups point to a spiritual weakening even in this group. Our students, on the other hand, are taught to be critical thinkers. We encourage questions as long as they don’t challenge accepted norms.

“Why should I daven?” “How do I know God exists?” “Why should I wear tzitzit?” “Why can’t I text on Shabbat?” “Why should I keep kosher?” “Who wrote the Torah?” “Why must we observe rabbinical laws?” “What’s wrong with premarital sex?” “Why can’t I wear a mini skirt?” “Do we believe in angels and demons?” “Why are rituals so important?” “Is the Bible true?” “Why did God let the Holocaust happen?” “Is there a conflict between science and Halacha?”

When are these issues discussed? It is not necessary to immerse oneself in Moreh Nevuchim, but the writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and many others are very accessible. It need not be a text class, but a period per week when there is a free interchange and open questioning facilitated by a knowledgeable teacher is a worthwhile endeavor if we are interested in creating and keeping sentient Jews in the fold. High school administrators face serious scheduling issues and challenges. But a few less perakim of Navi, or fewer mishnayot or dapim, may yield more in the long run.

Many of these questions may not have ever bothered our teachers, but they certainly exercise our students. Some of our teachers may need training to deal with these issues. It is certainly as relevant as some of the other professional development sessions offered. I am always very impressed by the NCSY advisers who often stay up all night with seminar participants answering these questions, and the faculty at the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies who also are able to reach out and tackle these questions. If we are in the business of creating the next generation of intellectually and emotionally committed Jews, we should learn from those who are doing more than just teaching but who are reaching our youth. Passion and fervor have their place. So does intellect.

By Wallace Greene

 Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene, a veteran educator, believes that too often students may go through a yeshiva, but the yeshiva does not go through them.

 

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