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Tripping Over Words

July 31, 2009 Leave a comment

By Joel M. Hoffman

One of my favorite activities is meeting with pre-bar/bat mitzvah students to talk about their Torah and Haftarah readings.

I recently asked a student, Jennifer, about Parashat Korah, and, in particular, about the sequence of events that involves Korah and Moses. I explained that in her Torah portion, Korah, a prominent Israelite wandering in the desert under God’s leadership through Moses, was unhappy with how Moses was handling things. But rather than try to work things out, Korah instigated revolution. Numbers 16:3 reports that Korah publicly chastised Moses, and then one verse later, that Moses “fell upon his face.” I asked Jennifer if she knew what “fell upon his face” means.

I didn’t expect her to know. How could she? It’s a biblical expression that we don’t have in English, and, in fact, as a translator I wouldn’t even use that odd phrase in English.

But Jennifer surprised me and answered the question with remarkable and unusual insight. She told me she thought that Moses tripped over Korah’s words.

Wow.

In that one answer, the student brilliantly understood what is widely regarded to be the point of the story, and she based it firmly in the larger context of Judaism.

Our words have power. Judaism is clear on that. This Yom Kippur — as we do every year — we will read from Deuteronomy about the power of words. God puts before all of us blessing and curse, commanding that we choose blessing over curse. The point there is not “cursing out” (though that’s probably a bad idea, too), but rather actual curses: saying something bad to make something bad happen. Contrarily, blessings are when you say something good to make something good happen. On our holiest day of the year we remind the congregation that we all have the power to bless and to curse, and that we are commanded to choose blessing.

Of course, the connected notions that our words have power and that we have to choose wisely are not confined to Jewish thought. We find the same sentiments in aphorisms — “The pen is mightier than the sword,” after all, and “if you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all.” — and in laws against slander.

We actually have two Torah readings on Yom Kippur. The first, as we just saw, deals with the power of words. The second, generally called the holiness code, comes from Leviticus 19. It’s a detailed description of what to do and what not to do in order to be holy.

Some of the ordinances seem to be particularly innovative and forward looking, as in Leviticus 19:15, which warns against judicial favoritism based on economic position. That’s something we’re still grappling with thousands of years later.

By contrast, Leviticus 19:14, just one verse earlier, seems to prohibit something so cruel that, one would hope, we wouldn’t need a warning not to do it: “Don’t place an obstacle before the blind.” Is that something people were doing? Is that, like favoritism, something we have to worry about?

Yes, says my student, because the obstacle can be our unseen words. When Korah spoke out publicly against Moses, he put an obstacle before him. And because even Moses couldn’t see spoken words, Moses was like a blind man, and he tripped.

Korah’s unkind actions had a short-term and long-term impact, and neither of them was good. First, 250 people died. Then 14,700 more. All because of Korah’s words.

When children think of power, physicality most naturally comes to mind. One of my projects for the upcoming year is to make it clearer that words — of education, praise, consolation, and support, but also of misdirection, condemnation, antagonism, and back-stabbing — all have power. When we open our mouths, we change the world.

I’m going to take my cue from Jennifer who insightfully connected both Yom Kippur readings. There’s the easy part: we shouldn’t make the blind stumble. And there’s the harder part: if we’re not careful, our words can be the instruments of damage. And there’s the lesson from Leviticus: when we fail, the whole community suffers.

I hope you’ll join me in looking forward to a year free of verbal stumbling blocks.

Categories: Bible, education

Summer is for Planning

May 30, 2009 Leave a comment

By Joel M. Hoffman

excerptAccording to Proverbs, summer is a time for preparation: “Who gathers food by summer is wise,” we learn in Proverbs 10:5. Later on in 30:25 we read that, “Ants are not strong, but they prepare their food by summer.”

Although summer is usually counted as the second season, it has a certain feel of finality to it. We’ve made it through another year. The winter has passed. The days are getting longer. The laziness of summer sunshine, barbecues, and summer camps awaits.

For educators in particular, summer is very different than the other three seasons. Because class is not in session, it really is a time to plan. And the first stage of planning is reflection. How was the year? What went well? What worked? What needs improvement? What might need to be completely reworked? And how do we know?

So here are some of my reflections on what we’ve done this year, and some hints of what to expect in the fall.

This year we implemented weekly musical worship services on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Each week, grades 3 and higher met together in the sanctuary for worship, and the younger kids had their own weekly worship program. To judge from the enthusiasm I saw in the sanctuary and the smiling faces on the students, to say nothing of the positive reports I’ve received from parents, services are going very well. The students are learning the prayers, learning how to pray, and even sometimes praying. And I personally look forward each week to hearing over 100 children sing the Shema together.

We expanded the “Hebrew Center,” a forum for one-on-one or small-group instruction. I challenged the Hebrew-Center teachers to create an environment where every student would thrive, and they rose to the occasion. A good classroom teacher usually reaches around 80% of a class. The Hebrew Center is for the other 20%. We require weekly Religious-School attendance of every student, so I think we have an absolute obligation to make sure that each week is worth attending. The Hebrew-Center is one way we do that. (In spite of its name, it’s not just for Hebrew.) It’s important to me to keep in mind the words of my teacher and friend, Rabbi Manny Gold: “No one fails Judaism.” The Hebrew Center of part of making sure that Judaism doesn’t fail any student at Temple Israel.

In addition, the year was marked by numerous special programs, including field trips, holiday celebrations (most teachers offered a model Seder of some sort), guest presenters, art projects, the creation of a music video in Hebrew (it’s on the school website), nature walks, and much more.

We even augmented the food we serve midweek, offering vegetables and chicken in addition to pizza.

Most of the students seem to like being in school. More than once, we had to remind students that their ride home was waiting, and that they had to leave, because frequently they didn’t want to. They were enjoying one last moment of class, or laughing with friends in the entrance, or talking to me or one of their teachers. It’s hard to learn when you’re not having fun, and, I think, the level of joy here is rising.

So what will I work on over the summer?

We have a new cantor coming, which means we’ll be planning a new music program, and better integrating Religious-School services into the broader worship life of the Temple.

Our curriculum needs work, and summer is the time for that.

Grades 7-10 are crucial ages in personal religious development, so I’ll pay particular attention to re-evaluating the programs we offer to those ages. Look for exciting changes soon.

I’m also looking forward to my own learning. My background in linguistics means that I know a lot about teaching Hebrew. And my own teaching experience has given me significant insight into working with older kids. I know less about young children. Fortunately, other people on our staff are strong in that area, and I hope to spend some time with them, learning from their experience and expertise.

“Im ein torah, ein kemach” the Mishnah teaches. If we have no learning, we have no food. This summer I hope you’ll join me in heeding the words of Proverbs and the words of the Mishnah, gathering not just food but also learning.

Categories: education

There’s no SAT in Judaism

March 18, 2009 Leave a comment

By Joel M. Hoffman

I saw a 7th grader studying for a test on the clouds. She had made herself a chart with the various kinds of clouds — cirrus, cumulonimbus, etc. — on the left side of a piece of paper, and qualities such as “appearance,” “size,” “height,” and “rain potential” across the top. She had almost finished filling out her chart when I saw her.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Studying for a test tomorrow,” she answered.

“On what?”

“On the clouds.”

“Are you ready? Are you going to pass?”

“Yeah!” she said with more than a little attitude, as though the answer were obvious. Of course she was ready. She was an A student and she was going to get an A on the cloud test. She had mastered the material and she knew all about the clouds.

I looked out the window, pointed, and asked her a question: “What kind of clouds are those?”

“How should I know!?” she replied.

Oops.

The student thought she had learned all about the clouds. I’m sure she passed the test the next day, so her teacher thought she had learned all about the clouds. Eventually, her parents will think their daughter learned all about the clouds. And the school principal will look at the average test score in the class and conclude that the school is doing a pretty good job teaching about the clouds.

The only problem is that even this A-student didn’t really learn anything about the clouds. She had learned to pass a test on the clouds, but she skipped over the part of actually learning about the clouds themselves.

And that’s the problem with tests. While they can (sometimes) measure what people know, they’re only effective when students don’t study for them. Used incorrectly, though, tests can actually sabotage learning.

Vocabulary tests demonstrate the point.

Make a list of 500 random English words, ask students which ones they know, and you can get a pretty good sense of how many words in total the test-takers know. (The average American high-school student knows about 80,000.) But the system only works if the words are random and if the students don’t study the list ahead of time. It’s the random nature of the list and the proviso that the students don’t study for the test that make the test a good guide to the vocabulary level of the students.

The vocabulary section of the SAT — built around a representative list of English words — is supposed to work this way. But it doesn’t, because the list of test words was made available, so most students study the list instead of expanding their vocabulary, wrongly thinking that there is something magical about the particular words that happen to appear on the test. As students study the list of SAT words, they skew the results of the SAT, and, worse, misunderstand the very nature of their education.

And even worse than that, teachers start thinking that the SAT words are the important words, and they teach for the test, taking up class time and homework time with what is essentially the useless study of random words. The whole process deprives the students of the very education that the SAT is supposed to measure.

We don’t want this to happen in Religious School. We don’t want students to confuse knowledge with how we measure knowledge, and we don’t want them to confuse accomplishment with how we measure accomplishment. Nor do we want their parents or their teachers mixing these things up.

But in synagogues across the country, people have started to think of bar/bat mitzvah as the test toward which the school should be teaching. Of course it’s not, but the more perception becomes reality — the more students and parents and teachers demand that Religious School serve only as preparation for bat/bat mitzvah — the less the school will be able to teach about Hebrew and Judaism.

If we’re not careful, we’ll end up with a bunch of students who can do marvelously at their b’nei mitzvah, but — like the girl who passed a test on clouds without knowing anything about them — the b’nei mitzvah students won’t have accomplished anything of value on their Jewish path of learning.

The bar/bat mitzvah is not the SAT of Judaism. Let’s make sure it stays that way.

Categories: education

Do Not Oppress The Stranger

March 2, 2009 Leave a comment

By Joel M. Hoffman

“Do not oppress the stranger,” the Bible warns us over and over again, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The saga of the Jewish people is to know what it’s like not to fit in, which is why this notion of welcoming the stranger defines Judaism as much as any other central precept.

The English word “stranger” offers us additional insight into what the Bible is talking about, because our word is nicely ambiguous. A “stranger” is someone from another place, but, equally, “stranger” is “more than just strange.” And of course that’s why being from another place is so hard. When you go somewhere new, you think everyone else is strange, and they all think you are. Visitors wonder at our customs just as we wonder at theirs.

So we learn not only that we shouldn’t oppress the stranger, but equally that we shouldn’t oppress people who are strange.

It’s important, for being from a foreign place is only one way of being strange. There are many others. In fact, Scott Dunn teaches that anyone who lives honestly in the world is perceived as a little bit strange. People wear odd clothes, walk crooked, have funny body shapes, listen to bizarre music, say strange things, have silly habits, and on and on. Are we careful not to oppress them?

I know a student with what she calls — having been told to call it so by her doctor — ADD. I understand the ‘A.’ It stands for “attention.” I even understand the first ‘D,’ which stands for “deficit.” She has an attention deficit, which is a not-so-polite way of saying she has trouble paying attention to one thing at a time. A nicer way to explain her situation would be that she can focus on more than one thing at a time, a skill that helps her notice connections that others often miss, and a quality that makes her a consistently interesting interlocutor.

As bad as the first ‘D’ is, though, it’s the second that really troubles me. It stands for “disorder.” What happened to “do not oppress”? When we classify people’s thinking — their natural way of being in the world — as a “disorder,” haven’t we pretty much destroyed any hope of welcoming them?

To be sure, some behaviors and conditions are more conducive to happiness and success than others. Just as I wear eye glasses so I can see better, attention deficit should be dealt with (if possible) when it stands in the way of a person’s goals. By the same reasoning, life-threatening obesity should be managed. And obsessive-compulsive behavior — normally called obsessive-compulsive disorder, once again making it hard to welcome those with the condition — can be a curious quirk or a debilitating disease, and in the latter case treatment seems like a good idea.

But whatever the nature of the oddity, Judaism expressly forbids negative name calling. We are all strange in our own way, and words like “disorder” have no place in our holy community. We can recognize our differences — and even note that some differences are advantageous or disadvantageous — without stacking people up in a hierarchy of normalcy.

This message is a cornerstone of our school. “No one fails Judaism,” Rabbi Manny Gold teaches, “but if we’re not careful, Judaism can fail them.” Part of my job as Director of Education is to make sure that our school welcomes whoever walks through our doors, even though some students will seem strange. After all, we’re all strange. Some of us just hide it better than others.

Purim arrives this month. It’s a holiday that freely mixes silly masquerading with serious messages. It’s also a time when we all practice being strange and, if we’re really doing things right, practice welcoming those who are strange.

“Do not oppress the stranger,” we are taught. This year, let’s use our Purim partying and seemingly frivolous merrymaking as a mental reminder not to oppress the stranger, the strangest, or even the merely strange.

Categories: education, spirituality

The Facebook Generation

January 19, 2009 4 comments

By Joel M. Hoffman

I recently asked a middle-school student how many friends she has.

“Eight hundred and sixty,” she told me.

“That’s funny,” I replied. “I have about a dozen.” And then I added, “I guess we’re using the word `friends’ differently.”

She was talking about Facebook friends, and, for lack of a better way of describing it, I was talking about “real” friends.

Facebook is a “social networking” site, which I guess means that it’s a way of being social on-line. According to Facebook itself, its 140 million members spend an average of almost 20 minutes each day “on Facebook.” Taking into account the members who don’t use the site daily, that works out to well over half an hour for most Facebook users. Each day.

Facebook’s basic relationship is “friend,” which, it turns out, is both a noun and a verb. A “friend” is what you become when someone invites you, and when you want someone to be your friend, what you do is “friend” them. Facebook conveniently keeps a list of the people you have friended.

Once you’ve become friends with someone on Facebook, you can interact electronically. You can send your friends messages, which is just like the e-mail that now seems like last century’s technology. In addition, your can share pictures with your friends. You upload a photo to Facebook, and then all of your friends — and only your friends — see that it’s there. You can also share one-line updates about your life. “I’m going to mall,” you can post, and then all of your friends will know your plans. If you’re having a bad day, you can tell people. They know about your life, and you know about theirs.

But that’s not all. You can also send them, for example, plants.

That’s right. You click on the right buttons and you send your friends a living, growing, plant. Except that it’s not alive. And it doesn’t grow. And it’s a not a plant.

So what’s going on? And why are 140 million people doing this? Why are so many people, and, in particular, so many young people, practically addicted to “social networking”? What is the point of pushing a button on your computer so a message on someone else’s mentions a gift in the form of a virtual plant? Couldn’t this time be spent on something more productive?

In much the same way that teenagers usually think that they alone are going through the awkward changes of puberty, and that no one understands them, each generation thinks that the older ones wrongly judged them, but that they are justified in judging the younger ones. Our parents misunderstood our generation, we all think, but we understand the failings of our children’s. They text message instead of talking. Their music is terrible. They don’t even send real plants. And don’t even get us started on how they dress.

But if we really want to learn for our experience, let us remember that sometimes the older generation (us!) really doesn’t appreciate the younger one. Styles change. Different doesn’t have to mean worse.

My grandfather was convinced that the only appropriate attire outside the house was a jacket and tie. If he had known that I show show up at Temple wearing neither, he would quite honestly have been ashamed. Never mind the fact that I don’t even own a hat. But he would have been wrong in his assessment. Not everyone wears a jacket and tie, or a hat, these days, and we all know that there’s nothing wrong with that.

We should offer the same consideration to children. Let us be careful when we judge their behavior by our standards. Let us be careful not to repeat our parents’ mistakes.

After all, sending a virtual plant is one really good way of taking seriously the old adage that, “it’s the thought that counts.” And for a generation usually labeled as materialistic, this on-line Facebook experience is a remarkable way to interact.

When we open our minds and suspend judgment, it’s amazing what our children can teach us.

Categories: education

Holy Hanukah Lights

December 2, 2008 1 comment

By Joel M. Hoffman

“These lights are holiness — haneirot hallalu kodesh hen.

This famous line about the Hanukah lights, now part of the standard Hanukah liturgy, comes from masechet sofrim, an 8th-Century Palestinian work that describes the practices of our ancestors in and around Jerusalem. Masechet sofrim goes on to warn that we are not allowed to use the Hanukah candles for anything except looking at them.

Unlike the Shabbat candles, then, which can be used to provide light for reading, or, presumably, warmth (though obviously not much), the Hanukah candles just sit there.

In fact, this is why we have a shamash. The shamash, the “ninth of the eight Hanukah candles,” is technically not actually a Hanukah candle itself. We use it to light the real Hanukah candles, while the shamash sits next to or above the Hanukah candles.

This way, in case you’re walking around the house reading a book, say, and if just as you walk by the Hanukah menorah the power goes out, and if by accident you keep on reading, you can maintain the fiction that you weren’t reading by the Hanukah lights. No! You were reading by the light of the shamash.

Or, if just as you walk by the menorah you suddenly find yourself in pressing need of a candle, you won’t be tempted to use the real Hanukah candles. You can grab the shamash instead.

This is why the shamash is supposed to be the first candle lit and the last candle to go out. (This is possible, even when the candles are identical. Can you figure out how to do it?) You wouldn’t want to find yourself with Hanukah lights and no shamash, not even for a moment.

At first glance, this all seems a bit silly, particularly in our modern day of electricity. I like to think of myself as fairly creative, and yet I have trouble conjuring up a situation in which I might be in dire sudden need of a burning candle.

But the real point has nothing to do with ambulatory reading or candle emergencies or any other practical concern. The real point goes back to the first line: these candles are holiness.

The light from the Hanukah candles, we are taught, is different than any other kind of light. Most light is just, well, light. (Photons, we might now call it.) But the light of Hanukah is the embodiment of holiness itself.

It’s hard enough to understand light, let alone holiness. We speak of light and darkness, even though there’s no such thing as darkness. (The old photography joke about opening the darkroom door and letting the dark leak out comes to mind.) Scientists have studied light and concluded that it is both a wave and a particle, though it’s also neither a wave nor a particle. It’s true, but it doesn’t help most people understand light. Still, we know what light is when we see it, and we know it’s part of our every day life.

Holiness is even harder. We may have a vague sense that God is holy, or that we are supposed to be holy. Holiness is involved in childbirth, perhaps, and according to some in the majesty of mountains and glory of nature. But, unlike light, most of us don’t think much about holiness. Would we even know it if we saw it?

Not surprisingly, the combination of light and holiness is even more difficult. How can light be holy? Even more vexing, how can a Hanukah candle emit holy light when the seemingly identical shamash gives us mere ordinary light? And what would that even mean?

I certainly don’t know. But I do know that we only get once chance a year to see the holy light.

So as we approach the darkest time of year and get ready to celebrate light, amid the stress of the holidays and the curious combination of exuberance and disappointment that accompanies gift-giving, let’s remember that life is mysterious. And let’s not miss our opportunity to gaze on the faces of the people we love as they are illuminated by flickering flames of the Divine.

Halloween and the Jews

October 20, 2008 27 comments

Jewish Star Jack O'LanternWhen I was 11 years old, a grumpy Israeli teacher told me that good Jews don’t dress up for Halloween because it’s a Christian holiday when Christians persecuted Jews.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

First of all, Halloween began as a Pagan holiday, not Christian. The Celtic Pagan year was divided into two halves. The first half, roughly from spring to fall, was for the world of light, and the second half was for the world of darkness. Holidays marked the transitions from each half to the other.

In spring, Beltane celebrated the spiritual beginning of light-filled summer days and the life-giving force of the sun.

By contrast, Samhain (pronounced “sow-an”), the precursor to Halloween, fell on November 1 and represented summer’s end, winter nights, and, in general, darkness. As is typical of gateways and transitions (which are known technically as “liminal” times), Samhain was regarded with suspicion and even reverence. It was seen as a bridge between two opposite worlds: the human world of light and good on one hand, and the netherworld of darkness and evil on the other. Samhain was the time when the inhabitants of the latter might cross over to the former.

The custom of masks and costumes probably comes from the holiday’s general celebratory character. Some people may have dressed up specifically as ghouls to chase away the real evil powers, perhaps hoping that the denizens of the netherworld would try to distribute themselves evenly, and, seeing an abundance in one place, would go elsewhere. Or they may have thought that even the goblins were afraid of other goblins.

The Catholic Church highlighted the theme of the dead on the holiday when it adapted Samhain for its own purposes, merging it into its existing day for saints. All Saints Day, as it was called, was a time for recognizing the power the saints have over the still living. In some traditions, people paid special homage to the newly dead or offered prayers on behalf of the souls stuck in purgatory, hoping to pave a way to heaven rather than hell. Some people carried candles in turnips to represent the souls stuck in purgatory. In America, these would become our jack o’lanterns.

Since Catholic mass was held on the day, All Saints Day was also called All Saints Mass, the Middle English for which is Alholowmesse, and the Modern English for which is Hallowmas. (Christmas similarly gets its name from the mass held for Christ.)

Because the Catholic Church at the time still followed the Jewish tradition of reckoning days from sundown to sundown, Alholowmesse actually began on the evening before November 1, that is, on the evening of October 31, which was called Alholowevening, or more colloquially Alholowe’en. That gave us our Modern English name Halloween.

In addition to offering words of prayer for the dead, some Christians prepared physical food for their departed loves ones. Once food was potentially available, the poor wanted in on the action, and before long, the holiday became, in part, a day for begging (leading to Shakespeare’s image of “a beggar at Hallowmas.”) Some poor people asked for food outright. Others combined two Hallowmas traditions and agreed to offer a prayer for a provider’s dead relatives in return for a little sustenance.

But the Puritans who largely founded America despised both the Pagan and Catholic aspects of Halloween, and in this country Halloween was never regarded as a sectarian celebration. It wasn’t even on most American calendars until the mid-nineteenth century. When it finally did take root, it was a mixture of pranks, dress up, jack o’lanterns, and candy, none of which is un-Jewish in any way. So my grumpy Israel teacher was wrong.

He was equally wrong when he told me that Halloween was created to persecute Jews. There were no Jews living among the Celts when Samhain arose, and the Jews had already been exiled from England by the time the Christians turned Samhain into All Saints Day there.

But he was most severely wrong in his general approach. He failed to distinguish the history of the holiday from the holiday itself. If we abandoned everything that had a disagreeable history, we’d have to give up many of our favorite Jewish rituals, too.

Whatever their non-Jewish roots, American holidays such as Thanksgiving and Halloween are now symbols of pluralism, yearly signposts advertising America’s freedom and tolerance. These holidays are an opportunity for Americans, regardless of background, to come together and share an experience. And they can even be an enormous amount of fun.

Pluralism, tolerance, community, and fun are all Jewish ideals, and I, for one, am looking forward once again to greeting bizarrely dressed children as they come to my door and ask for treats.

Categories: education, Judaism

I Have a Little List

September 22, 2008 2 comments

By Joel M. Hoffman

“These things have no limit,” begins a nearly 2,000-year-old list in the Mishnah, our earliest collection of Jewish law. The list details commandments for which more is always better.

Leaving unharvested crops (“pe’ah“) for the poor, for instance, is the first item there. Leviticus (23:22) asks farmers to leave the corners of their fields unharvested so that the poor can — free of charge and anonymously — gather food. The more crops left for the poor, the more people eat. Feeding some hungry people is good; feeding more is better. That’s why there’s no limit.

But the real point of the list is that good things come in two varieties. For some, the more you have the better. That’s what we all expect. But it turns out that some good things — perhaps even most — are only good in moderation, and even turn detrimental with quantity. They not only stop being good, but they can actually become bad.

Food, for example, falls in this second, non-intuitive category. We think of food as a good thing because it’s yummy and we need it to survive. But while 2,000 calories of food a day is twice as good as 1,000, 4,000 calories is not twice better than that. 16,000 calories a day will kill most people. After a certain point, otherwise life-sustaining food becomes a health hazard.

Modern readers may be surprised to find that prayer is not on the ancient list of things that have no limit, because prayer is like food. You should have enough, the rabbis say, but don’t overdo it. By contrast, g’milut chasadim, being kind, does appear. You can never be too kind or kind too often.

A related list, traditionally juxtaposed with the first, comes from the Talmud. It details things that offer inherent reward in return for doing them: honoring parents, for example, or helping people work out their differences. Honor your parents and you’re more likely to be happy yourself. It’s the right thing to do, but even if it weren’t, it would still be a good idea, because it just so happens that it will make your own life better. Similarly, help two people stop fighting and you don’t have to live amid strife.

The second list even details how these good acts will reward those who do them. Good deed doers earn interest on their investment of beneficence “in this world,” and enjoy the principal “in the world to come.” In other words, you get a little bit of benefit for doing the right thing now, and you get even more benefit later.

We find g’milut chasadim (“being kind”) from the first list on the second list as well. Not only can you never be too kind, but the more kindness you can show, the better things will be for others and for you as well. Karma, some people call it.

Studying Torah is also on both lists. Unlike food, whose benefits turn deleterious after a point, more learning is always better. That’s why it’s on the first list. Its role in the second list is more oblique. We read: studying Torah “is like” all the other things on the list. (A common translation misses the whole point, wrongly claiming that studying Torah “is equal to them all.”) The list doesn’t tell us in what way studying Torah might be “like” honoring parents, helping two people get along, or being kind. Perhaps one has to study Torah to find out? That’s why we spend so much energy on studying Torah, giving children and adults alike a path into Jewish learning. We may not know why, but somehow, the more we study, the more we augment the world’s supply of the other good things, too.

Considerable unhappiness comes from mixing up lists like these. Addiction, for example, is the inability to keep things off of the first, short, list. What about money? Is more always better? Capitalism says yes, but Judaism says no. Wealth isn’t on the list. Maybe, like food, after a certain point money stops improving our lives and even makes them worse.

These complex and important issues are masked in a deceptive facade of simplicity. So as we celebrate a new year together, let’s also find time to reevaluate the lists of our lives.

Shanah Tovah.

Why Religious Schools Have a Bad Rap

August 18, 2008 Leave a comment

By Joel M. Hoffman

An old joke observes in bad taste that to deal with unwanted house guests, all that’s needed is a rabbi to bar mitzvah them. “Then they’ll never come back.”

It seems that Religious School has a bad rap. And in a sense, this poor track record is surprising, for at least three reasons:

  1. Children naturally like learning. They are curious about the world, and they are generally eager to discover more about it. They’re proud of what they learn. A new accomplishment or mastery of new material makes children feel good about themselves. Among many other things, children love learning codes, and Religious School naturally focuses on one, because Hebrew is a code of sorts.
  2. Children like being with other children. By nature, most people are social, and children are particularly so. They enjoy each other’s company, and thrive not alone but in groups. Religious Schools bring children together in exactly the sort of semi-structured environment that is best for them.
  3. Judaism is fun. Children like stories, and Judaism is built on some of the most enduring stories ever penned. Children like celebrating, and our Jewish calender provides a celebration almost every month. Children like puzzles, and decoding Hebrew is a puzzle.

Religious Schools across the country start with this winning triple combination — learning, socializing, and fun — and yet they frequently end up with programs so bad that the only source of joy for the children who attend is mocking their teachers. I know, because I’ve traveled around the country and seen it.

So what went wrong?

It’s true that Religious Schools face some immutable obstacles. Some children can’t focus in the afternoon. Some children are tired Sunday mornings. Most schools are tragically underfunded. Soccer and ballet and piano and baseball create conflicts for the kids. (And I can’t count the number of schools that give children pizza and Coke and then tell them to sit down and be quiet.) But surely these are minor problems that can be overcome.

So again: what went wrong? Here I’ll mention two things.

The first problem is that in an effort to make schools more fun, too many organizations focused only on fun and not on content. But in large part it is the content that makes school fun. Children like lots of things. In particular, they like playing and they like learning. But they don’t like playing when they think they should be learning, and, at any rate, whatever games a school can offer pale compared to the opportunities outside the school. School will never compete with the video games or amusement parks, and schools that try only to be fun will fail.

Instead, Religious Schools must be a source a deep and authentic learning, living out our tradition of serious study. No less than adults, children deserve to be challenged. The problem with Religious Schools isn’t that they try to teach too much, it’s that they don’t teach enough. So we need to teach more. If we require weekly attendance of children — and at TINW we do — our teachers have an obligation to make sure that each class is worth going to.

The ubiquitous question, “I missed last week. Did we do anything important?” should have only one answer: “You missed something very important, something you would have loved to learn.”

The second problem is more important. Judaism is clear on the inherent value of every individual. The Talmud teaches that a single soul is like the entire world. In contrast to secular school and pop culture, which emphasize what a person can do or how a person should look, Judaism leaves no doubt that every soul is already a prized creature of God. Children should be able to count on the comfort of knowing that, even if nowhere else, at Religious School they are appreciated regardless of what they can or can’t do, irrespective of how smart they are, and without consideration for the degree to which they are like their peers.

Teachers need to love not only what they’re teaching but also who they’re teaching.

Writing of colleges, Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that, “if they really had it, you would need police at the gates to keep order in the inrushing multitude.” With a good school, we’d have to fight to keep people out, not to keep people in.

That’s our goal for Religious School, too. And if we keep our priorities straight, we can get there.

Categories: education