Back To School

School is almost upon us. With the start of school I can expect that I will inevitably get a call from one, or more, of my congregants – indeed, I too have this issue – that one of my kids’ teachers will be someone who espouses some rather right wing philosophy. It may be in the form of some Midrash or some Halacha or some new and ill conceived Chumrah or interpretation, but whatever it may be, one can pretty much count on it happening. In part, this is due to the fact that most of the religious teachers in Jewish day schools are right wing. The left wing hasn’t really produced teachers in the same numbers. But, the question is, does it matter? That is, how important is it that the teachers espouse the same views as me or any other parent?

Of course, I don’t really expect a teacher in a religious day school to espouse agnosticism, atheism or the like. But what I do hope to be taught (and I imagine many others do as well) is a more balanced view of Judaism, a view of Judaism that incorporates our long history of willingness to adapt and to change, to integrate and be productive member of society at large, all the while remaining Jewish. So I am troubled when my child comes home and recounts that the teacher said, “Goyim aren’t as smart as Jews” or “if a Goy has the opportunity they will kill us” (generally referring to our non-Jewish neighbors as “goyim” while I understand it can be understood as a literal translation, always seemed to be rooted in something more, something sinister and derogatory, and to this day that word is ill at ease on my tongue) or comments along the lines of R. Orlofsky’s recent comments regarding the Modern Orthodox. And, to be honest, I fail to see what the surprise here is, what all the chirping in the blogosphere has been about. I heard similar comments throughout my time in Yeshiva and beyond from many rabbis, including Orlofsky, so the fact that he was caught on tape saying something he always said is not really a big deal. Hearing his voice again for the first time in years, I was struck by how coarse and unfunny he is, and I wondered why I thought him so hilarious so many years ago.

While all these comments are troubling and should never be condoned, is there harm to the child? I would argue that the harm is less than we perceive. In looking back on my own school years it seems to me that while it may be the case some people are influenced by these comments, parents can provide the necessary counterpoint to such comments – not by raising a stink each time but by giving their children something more.

Let me explain. During elementary and high school, a significant percentage of children don’t really respect their Jewish teachers. Sure there are a few exceptions, but think about most of your Rebbim. Most weren’t people you wanted to grow up to be, not in the true sense of the phrase. Think back to your own school experience, is there anyone you can remember today that you really wanted to be like, that you were really were influenced by? There is one important caveat, the post-high school gap year(s). During that time, perhaps due to the conflation of age and place (it is especially common if one is studying in Israel), these teachers are ones that, to a much greater degree, a tremendous influence on their students and their students do say I want to grow up and be like them. Thus, you get kids who “flip-out” during that time and do take what these teachers have to say seriously. That said, by and large, this fervor doesn’t last. For some it extends for the year in Israel, sometimes for a year or two of college, for some even through their twenties, but by the time they hit their late twenties early thirties, their year in Israel and their teachers philosophy is long gone. (Note, however, that if one gets married shortly after the “flip out” period, this analysis is less likely to hold. I will explore that in more detail in a later post.) Is this just due to the time break? No. It is due to maturity. In part, (one hopes) that the impressionable 19 year old has grown up, started working, interacting with more people, has a family perhaps; in a word – the child has become a grown-up. Sure, not everyone will do this, but then again, not everyone can be serious enough about themselves to look at their Judaism, their beliefs, their being, in an objective manner that is what “grown up” means to me. This objectivity, the ability to analyze and challenge ideas, is the key to ensuring one’s children as well as each of us can fully grow up.

How did I get where I am? I did so because I refuse to be passive about what I am doing and who I am, and that, for better or for worse, lead me to reexamine everything. To be perfectly honest, that was not always fun. It’s no fun having to examine my own character flaws and then figure out how I am going to deal with them, how I am going to improve, what I am going to change. But a grown-up cannot merely sweep things under the rug hoping that someone else will deal with these problems. These problems are my own.

Belief is no different. Elul, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur all force us to take stock of who we are. These aren’t merely holidays to demonstrate that we can force ourselves to stand the entire davening or fast for 25 hours; they are times that we need to reexamine who we are. Thus, to return to the school issue, sure it is offensive for my child to come home and relate some things he heard in school, but I have faith that when he is mature enough to understand and examine who he is and what is important to him, he will reject those statements and ones like them. I realize that individual statements by my child’s teachers won’t make or break them. Instead, I focus on teaching critical thinking, realizing that it is a good thing to take a step back and really think about something. Don’t accept just what one is told, you need to find out for yourself. I have gotten to where I am because of these ideas and I hope with the complete faith of a believer that my children will as well.

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21 Responses to Back To School

  1. mahla says:

    What is it that you want for your children, exactly? That they will believe and then eventually disbelieve, but honor you for having given them not just the opportunity but the inclination to believe before losing their faith?! I am not trying to be hostile, I am just truly trying to understand.

  2. Elliot says:

    IMO you would be better off going back to school and getting a new career. Most people have authentic lives in the real world and come to cyberspace to engage in fantasy world. For you the reverse is true. You can only be authentic in cyberspace. Don’t you feel like you are lying to people when you make them believe that you are a believing Orthodox Rabbi? Can’t you just reveal your true thoughts in person and let people know you don’t believe. Even though you may claim you are behaving ethically because your job entails dispensing Halachic info to those who seek it, nevertheless, you know that according to the Halacha standards that your Shul expects more from you, you are disqualified from being an Othodox Rabbi because of your beliefs. I am sure the internet allows you to feel as though you have disclosed your beliefs but you have not done so to the people who deserve full disclosure. I hope one day you can find congruity and balance in your life as this double life is not harmonious. Become a believer or leave the Rabbinate. It is your only hope for living an authentic life. IMHO

    • EMET49 says:

      Do you really think that the Orthoprax rabbi is unique in Jewish history? The internet has given him an audience impossible to conceive evn 25 years ago. But I am sure there have been rabbis like him in the past and far more orthoprax Jews who hit their doubts from their closest kin and friends. It is easy for you to say “start a new career. begin again”. It is much harder to do. What will his resume say. “Rabbi of congregation X for 20 years. Resigned because I was an atheist”?

  3. Noam says:

    For a modox parent it’s not as simple as teaching to be a critical thinker.
    What if the child has no desire to be a thinker.
    What if seeing the stupidity of the teachers causes the child to start doubting everything, whereas if they would have had likeminded teachers they would be satisfied with the apologetics of Judaism.

  4. Glenny says:

    Elliot,

    Just to correct what was perhaps a typo at the end of your comments. You signed off with IMHO, when I think you simply meant to type IMO, in that the H stands for Humble. I’m sure you did not intend to mislead anyone as to the nature of your opinions which were, in any case, made clear by the paragraph which preceded your sign off.

    Very Truly Yours,

    Glenny

  5. Shades of Gray says:

    Reading the following in today’s Jerusalem Post almost makes me want to cry !

    I wish there were rabbis who had the courage to stand up and condemn this approach, which has the potential to turn many off from Judaism:

    “A singer who performed in front of a “mixed audience” of men and women was lashed 39 times to make him “repent,” after a ruling by a self-described rabbinic court on Wednesday.

    Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak, founder of the Shofar organization aimed at bringing Jews “back to religion” (hazara betshuva), has made it his recent mission to fight against musical performances for both men and women.

    His “judicial panel,” with Rabbi Ben Zion Mutsafi and another member, sentenced Erez Yechiel to 39 lashes in order to “rid him of his sins.”

    In a video clip of the court posted on the Shofar Web site, Ben Zion said that those who make others sin (mahtiei rabim), such as artists who make men and women attend performances or dance together, have no place in the world to come.

    He displayed a leather strip he said was made by his father from ass and bull skin, with which Yechiel was to have been whipped.

    Yechiel, who said, “I accept upon myself the lashing for my sins,” was ordered to stand by a wooden poll with his head facing north (“from whence the evil inclination comes”), his hands tied with a azure-colored rope (“a symbol of mercy”), and served his “sentence.”

  6. Shades of Gray says:

    I just saw the video; it should be noted that the “lashes” which were given were only light taps on the body, and are therefore symbolic, such as some voluntarily do on Erev Yom Kippur.

    Still, responsible rabbis need to speak out against the extremist approach to Judaism which appears to have taken hold of parts of Orthodoxy. If music concerts need to be improved, they can be improved, but this is not the way to do so, and makes a mockery of Judaism and turns people off.

  7. chained jew says:

    I find it a difficult fine line, not to tell my children that their rabbis are talking nonsense in the classroom, I try to point out there are other viewpoints & sometimes that does not work properly as it undermines the teacher with a broad brush & my children might bring up that other view point in class & that is frowned upon & was not beneficial for them , I did lighten up & do delay my timing of bringing up the topics I find it a better way, hopefully they learn to explore & be open to other points of view, however in the case of “goyim aren’t as smart as jews” is not tolerated at all, the derogatory way in which charadie yeshiva boys act & treat others is truly shameful & most defiantly a desecration of god’s name.

  8. LSK says:

    Rav:

    What if the teachers are very charismatic and manipulative? I’m not suggesting that this is a phenomenon, but sometimes there are cases where children do get corrupted by teachers. This can range from just ideas to physical suffering.

    I agree that for the most part, parents can educate their kids about examining and testing all ideas in a healthy way, but we should also watch out for the strange things that are out there.

  9. Dr. Dave says:

    Due to ridiculous comments about goyim and converts, I removed my children who are converts (by an orthodox beit din that was above reproach), from orthodox day school and placed them in public school.

    They no longer hear such non halachic ( and in the case of belittling converts – torah violating) idiocy and are getting a better secular education.

    Unfortunately, getting them to stop resenting their teachers, rebbeim, and by extension orthodox Judaism will be much more difficult.

    • Shmendrik says:

      Really? Your kids don’t hear “non halachic” or “torah violating” statements in public school? That must be one strange public school.

  10. equazcion says:

    What if your kids don’t tell you what they hear in school?

    I had the full orthodox experience growing up, and heard some things from my teachers that, looking back, were pretty extreme. I never once mentioned these to my parents.

    I kept it to myself for two reasons: One, these things didn’t shock me to the point that I thought they warranted mentioning. And two, in varying degrees, I was hearing the same stuff at home. Perhaps the former had a hand in the latter.

    Still though, you can’t expect an elementary school-age kid to know which statements are “out there” and worthy of mention, and I’d disagree with your conclusion that they’ll have the maturity to take what they hear with a grain of salt. Depending on the kid, they could believe it all, and most of the time probably do. Kids’ brains are soft and mushy. I know I believed a lot of what I heard from teachers at that age, and so did my classmates; and we really couldn’t differentiate between when a teacher was espousing political leanings or actually imparting facts. It was all merely what the teacher said, and was therefore true.

    Just know that what your kids are telling you isn’t necessarily all they’re hearing, and there may indeed be cause for your concern. Imagine what they could be accepting without question and NOT telling you. It would be nice if grade-school teachers would at least be instructed to leave their rhetoric out of the classroom, if they can’t figure out that they should be doing that of their own accord.

    • tesyaa says:

      You have to ASK your kids what they’re hearing in school. In detail. And listen when they talk to their friends in the car, on Shabbos, and on the phone, if they’re doing it within earshot and not privately. Listen and ask.

  11. Adam says:

    First, as a frum Jew, I want to say that I do empathize with your position and completely understand. Your blog seems to give the impression that all religious Jews are brainwashed and the ones who left are the the only Jews who can think for yourself, and I’m fairly certain you don’t believe that, so I’d like to dispel that rumor. I’m constantly questioning, to the point that it annoys me (I can’t do shnayim mikra without asking myself “documentary hypothesis or single author?” every possuk), but my current conclusion is believer. I’m not accusing you of labeling us, i just wanted to get that out there.

    Second, someone might have asked this but I’m immensely curious–there HAS to be other halachic issues with what you’re doing. You’re a rabbi, so I guess I’ll ask you–is it really mutar for a kofer (sorry for the use of the somewhat offensive term, but halachically it’s the best word to use) to officiate at weddings, or to perform divorces, or the like? To paskin shylas? I have a feeling it’s an issue. From your point of you I understand–who really cares, as long as they’re happy? But if you truly respect their opinions (mevushal wine, etc.), then what’s the difference between giving them a non-kosher steak and a non-kosher wedding? Just want your thoughts on the matter.

    • Benny says:

      You are missing the point…what you call halacha is irrelevant to the O Rabbi

      • Adam says:

        I know, i made that point myself, but he has said that he respects their opinions, and if they were to find out that a kofer was their rabbi and performing halachic rituals, they wouldn’t be too pleased, so obviously he doesn’t really care too much about their opinions. That was the point I was making.

    • Henoch says:

      Good question on the Halachic impact. Unfortunately, I don’t remember Halachos considering a plain vanilla kofer. Orthoprax, can you make it easier and say that you regularly mechallel Shabbos Be’pharhesya? :)

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