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.