Monday, March 17, 2014

To Be or Not To Be- What can be done to reach our best and brightest students

I've met them in almost every school in which I've taught. The student who is bright and cynical and convinced that the Torah education that he (I use “he” for stylistic reasons, and not as a way to suggest that this problem mostly occurs with boys) is receiving is more indoctrination than education. Additionally, this student is not convinced of the truth of what he is learning in his Torah classes. Invariably, this student finds a secular studies teacher with whom he can openly and honestly discuss these concerns, and it is sometimes one who fans the students concerns, rather than try to help or to steer them towards limudei kodesh faculty who might be able to help. By the time this student graduates, he is ready to move on from more than just high school. I have long wondered what, if anything, can be done to keep these students from reaching the conclusion that Torah (and mitzvah observance) has nothing to offer them. While I am not comfortable sharing all of my ideas on this matter, what follows is part of my thinking on helping these students see depth and seriousness in the Torah they are learning.

To begin with, I'd like to point out something which is quite ironic. The same student who comes to doubt the reality of biblical figures like Avraham and Sarah, has no problem engaging in an analysis of Shakespeare and speaking of Romeo and Juliet, or Hamlet as if they are real. What are we doing or not doing that prevents many intellectually-minded students from seeing the people and stories in Torah as real?

Midrash is fascinating. Understood correctly, they have much to teach us. Too often we do not provide our talmidim with the chance to move beyond the literalness of “Little Midrash Says”. While telling midrashim over as literal stories might be a good way of educating young children (or not), it is disastrous for older students. We live in a time when miracles are thought to be the stuff of fairytales. While there are certain miracles which we will teach with pride as having happened, adding to that list, especially when it is far from clear that Chazal intended these statements to be taken at face value, is a mistake. This is especially true for things that are scientifically not only impossible, but absurd. Whatever was meant by the midrash that Og was 300 amos tall (I have heard good explanations), basic knowledge of human physiology tells us that no such person could ever exist. I would suggest that the advice I received from Rabbi Howard Bald when I worked for him at Yeshivat Rambam be followed. He told me to never teach a midrash that I could not explain. I think this would include any Rashi which contains a midrash as well. Midrashim are not there for fun. They too must be treated as serious Torah.

The second issue is that we often teach Torah essentially as ahistorical. I wonder how many of our students could tell us when various biblical events took place, let alone what was going on at that time in the rest of the world. I recently saw a book which dealt with the historicity of the Purim story, where the author thought it necessary to justify why he was making use of archeology. Among other justifications were the fact that Rishonim made use of ancient artifacts when they came their way. Any time we fail to provide historic context as well as other information that students take for granted in their general studies classes (such as maps photographs of the area), we are unintentionally suggesting that these events are somehow less real.

Finally, I would add one more suggestion based on a conversation I had this morning with Dr. Alan Brill. It is important that our students also encounter the more rational mephorshim (as opposed to only those who relied more on midrash and/or mysticism). In doing so, they will discover the complexity of our tradition and come to realize that many of their “heretical” thoughts and doubts are anything but heretical. Ralbag, Ibn Ezra and others said things which some people today would consider to be theologically out of bounds. Why hide ideas from our students which might help them better understand and accept Torah?

As I alluded to at the beginning of this post, there are other things that need to be considered if we are not to lose some of our best and brightest students. If we recognize the problem, and are up to the task, it can be done.

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