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.