Thursday, February 13, 2014

Taking the Longstreet home- A proposal for a paradigm shift in Jewish education

With a casualty rate of over 50%, Pickett's Charge was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. To this day, many struggle to understand what made General Lee launch such an unsuccessful offensive. It seems that the plan of attack involved a “perfect storm” of traditional tactics used against new technology. The invention of the Minie ball, a type of rifled bullet, which replaced musket balls, made it possible to hit a target from 1200 feet, where previously one might miss in a duel at ten paces. Under a barrage of musket balls, a charge might succeed, and overwhelm the enemy position. Under a barrage of the new bullet, a charge was essentially suicidal. Only General Lee's highest ranking general, James Longstreet, recognized the futility of the attack, but his protests were ignored. The results, both that day, and in general, were tragic for the Confederacy.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, recently wrote a post entitled “Unsung Heroes” on his blog, which he cross-posted on Cross Currents. As is his want (or won't, as the case may be), comments and replies are not allowed on either post. What follows is an educational proposal based on what he wrote and implied. Although I will not be addressing the part of his post where he wrote words that were, at least, unkind, and, in my estimation, gratuitously mean-spirited and cruel, please do not take my lack of further comment to indicate agreement with what he wrote.

I think it’s time I came clean regarding my doubts about Judaism, about everything I was taught by my parents and rabbaim in yeshiva. How can we be sure that the Torah was really given to my ancestors at Sinai? Are its laws really eternal? Is halacha really G-d’s will? Are Jews in fact a special people? And are Orthodox Jews true examples of what a Jew should be?
I came across some very compelling literature that called traditional Jewish beliefs into question, and was disturbed by what I had read, and so I read more, and did a good amount of serious thinking and research.
As to Orthodox Jews themselves, yes, most seem to be fine people, but there have also always been “characters” – people with strange fixations or behavior patterns. And then there are Jews proven or rumored to be… not so nice.
The thought that the “outside” world might provide a more rarified and thoughtful community was an enticing one. And so I began to entertain doubts about Jewish beliefs, my religious identity and my community.
I was 14.
To my relief now, many decades later, there was no Internet then to intensify my confusion, and no examples of people who had abandoned Jewish beliefs and observance and written best-sellers about the fact. I had no opportunity at the time to capitalize on my doubts and gripes with a memoir that would garner me the media spotlight, interviews and royalties. Though I had what to tell, like how my second grade rebbe would rap my fingers hard with a ruler when I misbehaved. I would have had to have been truthful and admit that he didn’t do it in anger, and that I felt he loved me dearly throughout. But I could have racked that up to Stockholm Syndrome.
Lacking the commercial incentives, though, allowed me to take my time, do some critical thinking and research, and give Judaism a chance. I engaged my doubts with information, and was blessed to have parents who gave me space, who didn’t try to overly control my reading, dress or activities; and with rabbaim who didn’t consider any question off-limits.

If Rabbis Shafran is being fully open, he has not had any religious struggles or doubts since he was 14. If so, he is quite fortunate, both in never having been challenged by questions that a more developed intellect might ask, as well as having a rebbe who could give him answers to his questions; answers that were either true, or beyond young Shafran's ability to rebuff. Furthermore, he was able to do a search which only turned up answers, and did not lead to further struggles. By implication, he bemoans the fact that the internet can intensify one's confusion. Although I would suggest that a more thorough search might have turned up books which would lead to more questions, I will concede that the internet makes it far easier to discover things which challenges one's beliefs. The question is, how to deal with this reality. Being a student of history, I would suggest that we follow the Longstreet approach, and accept that new technology calls for a new response and not what once (sort of) worked under other circumstances.

There was a time where, more or less, we could shield children from the outside world, and all of its challenges. Educators could skip certain topics in science, with a reasonable expectation that their students would be none the wiser. A rebbe could make a comment about the outside world, and his talmidim would lack the ability to ascertain whether these claims were true. This is no longer the case (I would add the word “thankfully” to the beginning of that sentence). A boy who is curious about what his biology teacher skipped in yeshiva, can, with a few clicks, discover the truth. Students who might never have discovered biblical criticism, no longer have to wait until college to engage this challenging issue.

We, as Jewish educators, have two choices. We can allow the internet to be the one to introduce these topics to our students, and hope that, at best, our students will care enough to ask us questions about their struggles. Alternatively, we can introduce it to them within the relative safety of our schools. To be sure, this approach involves a risk. Dealing with these issues will raise questions for some students who might bot have thought about them. Although, we might try and figure out a way to limit these lessons to certain students, I can't imagine how that might work. Perhaps that is why our chahchamim said in Maseches Chagiga that these topics should not be taught in groups. Still, I would suggest that we no longer have the ability to keep these subjects from our classes.

There are two further challenges. This new approach would require that yeshivas have educators who are well educated on these topics, and by well educated, I do not mean thinking that disproving Wellhausen is all that is needed. This challenge is not insignificant, but it is manageable. Rabbeim and morahs need not have PHDs in Biblical Studies or ANE studies, but they should, at least, have an understanding of a well educated layman. Much more challenging, and in my estimation more important, is for us, as educators, to be willing to help our students (and ourselves) recognize that not all questions have perfect answers. While there will be young or unsophisticated students whom we might be able to convince that we have all of the answers, God forbid, that we should lie to our students about a Torah that comes from God, whose seal is truth.

If we have the courage to accept and engage in the new reality, rather than merely wishing it away, it is my hope and prayer, that God will help us avoid further tragedies which are brought on by a refusal to move on from what once worked.


  1. Thanks for this post. A few thoughts, however:

    I'm not sure how much we can parse Rabbi Shafran's words to infer anything beyond what he wrote, but he only writes that the questions he had initially were answered. He makes no comment whether or not his research dredged up further difficulties and struggles, which they probably did. And while it is easy to read the implied statement that he no longer has struggles, I highly doubt that's the case; I think the idea that he is trying to convey is that he has grown to be "okay" with those doubts that arise - part of being what he terms a "Jew-by-choice" involves the acceptance that there will be questions that we cannot answer, or at the very least cannot answer in a satisfactory way...

    1. I think your comment says a lot about the kind of Jew you are, but not so much about Rabbi Shafran. I don't think I misread the tone and implication of the article. It was disappointing on multiple levels.

  2. I'm just not sure what his ultimate point was from the piece.

    And while Rabbi Shafran can be prematurely triumphant as is his baseline style, both his and your piece bring up a salient point:

    Yes, today the voices of dissent might be more accessible with technology, but a major difference is the quality and tone that we have today viz. the sources that Rabbi Shafran encountered in his day. Of course satire and mockery existed then, but today's measures of vitriol and pathos is astonishing, even within our own camps. That emotion-laden attack is so much more resonant that the yeshivot alone don't seem to suffice...

  3. That was suppose to be yediot, not yeshivot.