It’s time Jewish education confront conflict of Jewish and secular values

It’s time Jewish education confront conflict of Jewish and secular values

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When a school seeks to teach both Judaic and general studies programs – embracing the idea that each offers depth, insight, and wisdom – it runs into a problem. The moment both bodies of knowledge and systems of education are placed before our young people is the moment we have presented them with a seemingly intractable conflict – the conflict between the Jewish and secular worlds. Placing both of these systems at the core of an educational mission challenges our community to make extra efforts to encourage discussion and exploration, or run the risk of passively encouraging identity conflicts.

The considerable financial resources devoted to a Jewish day school education, and the strain families endure to provide it, implies that there is some consensus about its value. Twelve years of Jewish school can form permanent and lasting social and cultural connections. But does it create intellectually integrated Jewish citizens?

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Let’s imagine the following scenario: There is a graduate of a Jewish high school who finds himself, a decade later, living an observant Jewish life, while pursuing a general profession – as, say, a doctor, lawyer or investment banker. He is ostensibly a product of a successful Jewish education, yet he has trouble articulating – even to himself – how these two worlds have anything to do with each other.

This is not to say that he is unhappy or rebellious. Just that he is living his life much the way it was structured for him in his formative educational years. He has a Judaic studies program – he goes to shul, observes Shabbat and the holidays, and studies Torah with his children – and he has a general studies program – he goes to work and seeks achievement in the context of a secular professional identity. But outside of practical considerations, like earning a living, he lacks a narrative to really connect these two parts of his life.

There is a conflict between a world that views as absurd being legally bound to refrain from checking email for one day a week and a world for which that rule is held as sacred. The question is: have we given any thought to the nature of that confrontation? And have educators been teaching their students with that confrontation in mind?

In my experience in Jewish schools, the answer to these questions is yes and no. There is the occasional interdisciplinary program that deals with these issues. Sometimes teachers can incorporate these discussions into their lesson plans. And once in a while, there will be a discussion about the sacrifices of being a observant Jew. But most of time, educators simply don’t have the time to tackle these complex issues with their students.

Integrating these two bodies of knowledge takes time and forethought, as teachers need to proactively foster conversation, provide a dual context to each subject and offer guidance that many of us have our own trouble finding. It is just easier to teach the Talmud and Shakespeare as separate subjects than to try and confront divergent ideas about love, romance and the human condition.

In this vein, I’ve begun to compile a list of ideas that I endeavour to work into curricular preparation, class discussions and dinner table conversations. The goal is to provide parents, teachers and school administrators with a way of thinking about these issues and discussing them with young people.

Constant conversation about value conflicts. High school is our last, best chance to have the proper time and attention to devote to this before choices in life get much more real and consequential.

Not all questions need definitive answers. Questioning is an act of learning; learning is an act of growing; and growth happens over a lifetime. We can make value choices and commitments without having all the answers upfront.

Make note of the difference between “how” and “why” questions. How questions are great for scientific answers, such as “How does the mind work?” or “How does the universe work?” Why questions are great for philosophical answers. Such questions include, “Why am I here?” and “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

A value choice is a value trade off. For example, if we value family and community as a priority, then we will necessarily place their concerns above those of other constituencies.

Ideas matter. Everything, from Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant to Israel, is built on ideas that people take seriously. Understand those ideas and challenge yourself to come up with your own original ideas.

Embrace the middle. Consistency at the cost of complexity will inevitably narrow our perspective. Training our minds to appreciate two opposing ideas at the same time can do wonders for our ability to empathize and limit our judgement of others.

Instead of trying to avoid these conflicts – to avoid confrontation when teaching, we need to start teaching toward confrontation. This, in fact, is nothing new. It has occupied many of our greatest minds, some of whom have offered us intellectual paths to travel. Now it is our job to find ways to make it real.


Hillel David Rapp is the director of general studies at Bnei Akiva Schools in Toronto.

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