Thursday, April 3, 2014

Understanding our children's questions- Are we paying attention?

If our students or children have questions about Judaism, we are blessed. It means they are engaged and care about their religion. It's not enough to hear their questions. We need to understand what they are asking.

Much ink has been spilled writing about the four sons in the haggadah. I would like to focus on the question of the חכם, and see what we can learn from it as teachers and parents. (The idea is based on the Ramban Al HaTorah).

The most obvious point is that we contrast the רשע with the חכם, not with the צדיק. It is important to note that child is intelligent, which is not the same thing as being righteous. We confuse the two at our own peril. Understanding the one who is asking is very important if we wish to understand what is being asked.

The חכם asks "מָה הָעֵדֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם" Although his intelligence can be seen from the complexity of his question, he is not asking you to explain what the terms עֵדֹתחֻקִּים מִּשְׁפָּטִים mean. The key word in the question is אֶתְכֶם. He is asking what these laws mean to you. This son observes his parents as שומרי תורה ומצות and he himself is observant as well. He wants to know if it's worth it. He sees some friends and family members growing in observance, while others seem to be casting off a life of Torah and mitzvot. He sees his parents sacricing some luxuries to observe a Torah lifestyle. He wants them to explain why they are willing to do this. What does this mean to you? Is your halachic lifestyle meaningful? Is it real or merely a sociolological phenomena? Do you learn Daf Yomi because learning speaks to you, or is it mostly about doing what others do?

I have written before about some of the weaknesses of the Charedi educational system. One of its strengths, perhaps its biggest strength, is the ability to give over the emotional geshmak of Judaism. Through stories, songs, plays and pictures, a child in a charedi school is given an attachment to his yiddishkeit which goes way beyond the intellect. For those for whom the system works, there is a buy-in during their youth that lasts a lifetime. Even for those who don't, they rarely seem indifferent to the yiddishkeit with which they have been raised. Better a child who is angry at her religion, than one who is indifferent to it.

By contrast, most of the Torah education in Modern Orthodox schools seems to focus on the intellect. Make no mistake. I am not advocating against the importance of skills, yediot and deeper understanding. I am suggesting that those alone are not enough to make it likely that our students and children will wish to continue our lifestyle. The
חכם already knows what the words עֵדֹת חֻקִּים מִּשְׁפָּטִים mean and can give an example of each. He wants to know why he should care. She wants to understand what these ancient laws have to say to her in a modern world that increasingly does not see the value in a religious lifestyle.

It is not enough for us to show our children that we are makpid to daven, be koveiah itim L'Torah, and carefully observe Shabbos. We need to show why. Not only with words, although it can not be denied that that has some importance as well. Our children our watching the quality of our davening. Is it real, or is lip service? They see us learn, but seek to understand whether the Torah we learn speaks to us. Do we mean it when we sayכי הם חיינו ואורך ימינו? Is our Shabbos merely one of dry and punctilious observance of halacha, or does it nourish our soul? Do we sing zemiros to be yotzeh, or do we seem to be transformed through the words and melody? Our children are wise. Wise enough to know the real thing when they see it, and wise enough to recognize someone going through the motions. Which one they see in our homes and classes is entirely up to us.


  1. i dont get what you are saying about mo vs. rw. the mo schools sing all the songs and tell all the stories, etc. as the rw schools.
    and are you saying that the mo schools products have better skills than the rw graduates?

  2. I am suggesting that the chardei schools do a better job with the emotional component. In some cases, MO schools do a good job teaching skills.