From time to time I read various polemical articles concerning the problems with Jewish education in today’s school system. These are usually written by educators or those aspiring to be educators, though some are vastly more qualified than others. Some of them argue that traditional methods of studying texts need to be taught more vigorously, while others insist that newer approaches need to be taken.
I am no teacher, but from talking to youngsters in religious elementary and high schools it seems to me the problem across the board isn’t the specific structure in which Jewish texts are taught or the methods of analysis used to explore them, but rather the way their very essence is presented.
Take Tanach, for example. What is Tanach? Rashi’s first comment on the Torah makes it clear that it is not meant to be a mere history book. It is not, however, just a book of laws either, as a cursory reading of that particular Rashi might lead us to believe. It contains much more than that.
And yet it seems that teachers who opt for the more traditional teaching approach view Tanach as a compilation of statements and commentaries on those statements that must be memorized for the purpose of testing.
At the other end of the spectrum, teachers who opt for more modern approaches – including many in my age range who study in seminaries with impressive names and supplement the lessons they learn there with courses (and, in some cases, degrees) from impressive-sounding universities – Tanach is fodder for intellectual games in which its beautiful prose and poetry are cut apart and put back together again to prove a trivial case.
Not too long ago I was invited by friends for a Shabbos meal attended by several teachers in religious schools – or what I thought were religious schools. During the course of the meal I heard the terms “chiastic structure,” “criticism,” “analysis” and other words not ordinarily used in everyday speech. In fact, I heard them so often I felt dizzy by the time I left.
Neither group transmits to students the simple reality of what Tanach is: the Living Word of the Living God, who revealed it to us in order to teach us about ourselves and the best way to live our lives.
Today’s teachers fail to teach Tanach in a way that encourages students to apply its lessons and insights to their own lives. Instead, students are taught to memorize what others read into its words. But even these lessons tend to lose all relevance for students when conveyed in a narrowly rigid manner.
When teaching the story of Gan Eden, for example, students are virtually never asked to really think about the story and answer questions like the following:
Why did Adam and Eve disobey Hashem’s command? Why were they tempted to do so? Have you ever been in a similar circumstance? What is the relationship between that story to the story about Cain and Abel that follows it? What does it teach us about the nature of people?
Why would people trade eternal life for knowledge? What is immortality? Are Adam and Eve immortal in the sense that everyone remembers them, even though they died? Are they immortal because they have over six billion descendants running around the world today? Are their descendants repeating their mistakes or rectifying them? What can we do to rectify them?
What is the existential human condition? What is human destiny? How do the commentaries on the story reveal their perspectives on these issues?
These questions cannot be found in books. They, and their answers, must be generated from the minds of students engaged in vigorous discussion and guided by teachers who are God-fearing and whose experience with life amounts to more than one or two years of post-high school education.
Unfortunately, teachers often don’t have this maturity (and in too many cases their higher education consists of a few years in a seminary that is more like a continuation of high school). Thus, students can’t help but view Gan Eden as a quasi-mythological place that only two people ever saw, and that the events in the story surrounding it occurred so many years ago that they have no way of being replicated today. In short, students are taught to think of the story as having no relevance to anything in today’s world.