Thursday, February 20, 2014

Teaching Tolerance

 In case you didn’t hear, an Orthodox high school in New York permitted two girls to wear tefillin at school (this also happens to be the school where I teach). The firestorm following this decision focused on a few major issues, with both participants and observers alike compelled to take a side. Although debating right and wrong is important (if done respectfully), such argumentation usually leaves the sides looking at each other solely through a black-and-white lens. This is unfortunate, as the participants in any debate should be asking themselves “is there anything I learn from my opponent?” In this case, there are a few things to think about; I’d like to discuss one of them.

The arguments against women wearing tefillin have been straightforward and without apology. The dialogue has been strong, but mostly respectful. Some have expressed admiration for the candor and humility with which SAR presented its decision, whether they agreed or not. It was encouraging to see people on one side complimenting those on the other. I would simply like to add one more item of food for thought for everyone involved: the importance of teaching Ahavat Yisrael through tolerance. Whatever side you are on, this controversy provides an important forum for evaluating the degree to which our schools and communities teach this value.

The perceived educational danger of allowing girls to wear tefillin, even as an exceptional situation, was a large part of the discussion. Such arguments have been generally of two types: The first type claims that students will start thinking that halacha is something to modify at will. The second type argues that Orthodox schools have a requirement to uphold Orthodox values and practices at all costs. However, I think both of these arguments are incomplete and missing an important nuance.

Granted that if one had to choose all-or-nothing between teaching two educational values, a large majority of Orthodox Jews (myself included) would take mesorah over tolerance. But this doesn’t mean that mesorah should always be the overriding educational value at all costs. From tzitzis and skirt-length checks to halacha tests and extra emphasis on Gemara, no dearth of opportunities exists for teachers to model and teach the importance of keeping with our traditions. Respect for mesorah is definitely a major highlight of all Orthodox Jewish education.

This considered, I don’t think we need to fear that a few instances of tolerance will completely throw off the educational balance (especially if the reason for the exception is clearly explained to the students in the school). On the contrary, many students often feel burdened by the tradition-oriented presentation of Judaism, reacting negatively to a perceived lack of flexibility and tolerance. Maybe a show of tolerance or two would be beneficial to these young men and women.

Tolerance is a Jewish value. Whether or not one agrees to the degree to which tolerance is practiced in modern society is one thing. However, the messages of v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha and (hocheiach tochiach et amitecha) v’lo tisa alav cheit cannot be ignored. So why is it that we are so quick to put down those who disagree with us? Why is it so easy for many in our communities to make racist comments and jokes? We need to ask ourselves whether we teach and model “respect for the other” enough. The more we think about it, the more we may not like the answer.

So, to those against the decision because Orthodox schools have the responsibility to teach Orthodox values: are we not responsible to teach tolerance and respect? And to those who argued against exposing students to flexibility in Jewish practice: is it really so bad to teach about it once in a while? This is not to claim that one side of tefillin debate is right and another is wrong (and definitely not to claim that tolerance should automatically override all halachic concerns). However, even if you disagree with the decisions made, please realize that teaching tolerance is not poison to our students, and to many, it might be exactly what they need. Whether you are a teacher, rabbi, or parent, at least think about it.

To conclude with a story: A friend of mine told me about an experience he had when speaking with his class about davening. The conversation quickly turned to the compound challenge of tefillah length and finding meaning. My friend told his students that he might encourage an individual to take tefillah slowly, skipping certain parts at the outset if necessary, to build towards a complete and meaningful tefillah. After making this point, one of his students stood up, slapped him five, and gave a genuine “thank you.” Although this is simply a story, it must make one think: maybe a little well-placed tolerance can go a long way.

(Originally Published in the Jewish Link of Bergen County