Friday, March 28, 2014

You Can't Have Your Cake and Smicha Too

A young teacher (YT) is interviewing with an assistant principal (AP) for a job teaching Tanach:
AP: Tell me, what do you believe are some goals of Jewish education?
YT: Well, there are a number of ideas that drive my teaching. First of all....
AP: Actually, forget that. Answer me this: A woman living in Florida loses a parent who lives in New York. The parent is being buried in Israel and the daughter in Florida can’t make it to the Holy Land. Oh, and this woman is adopted. Does she sit shiva and if so, when does she start?

I hope this interview scenario seems absurd to most people. After all, what does answering a question about aveilut have to do with being able to teach? Yet, this analogy is a somewhat-accurate depiction of what goes on in our schools. Most males who teach Limmudei Kodesh in Orthodox Jewish schools are trained Rabbis, educated in fields and methods that have little to do with formal Jewish education. It is almost as if this is required. Yes, many Jewish educators are also trained educators with Masters degrees, but is learning for Smicha really the best use of time for a future m’chanech?

To be sure, Smicha can be valuable for a Jewish educator. A teacher ideally should feel confident and connected to their field, not simply familiar with the material he or she has to teach. Receiving Smicha and the resulting authority to decide (certain) halachic questions definitely goes a long way to creating this sentiment for the Musmach. Additionally, there is something nice about a shul rabbi or assistant who is also trained as an educator and teaches in the local school.

Even after taking all of this into account, I still cannot see the argument to encourage Jewish educators to study for Smicha. Imagine if all that time spent studying was divided among more relevant pursuits. Imagine a future educator spending three years studying Tanach, Gemara methodology, Jewish history, relevant ancient history, archaeology, and geography. This same educator might also choose to spend some of this freed-up time getting experience in a classroom and preparing for his or her career. All of this is should be more important to a Jewish educator than the halachot of basar b’chalav.

Although all of this seems obvious (at least to me), the opposite seems to be promoted by our community in general, at least passively. It is basically expected that a male Jewish educator is also a “rabbi.” Our post high-school institutions are bifurcated; the Torah curricula operate with one set of goals while the graduate institutions operate with another. How great would it be for Yeshiva students with an interest in education to start learning relevant material in an organized and directed manner right away? Does anyone really think this is a bad idea? You still want to grant the title “rabbi?” Fine. Have a Smicha program for educators. They can take tests on more pertinent material instead.

Chinuch is not a career for those who want to keep learning. Nor is the purpose of Jewish day schools to provide day jobs for local Rabbis. Jewish education is crucial to our continuity as a people, and should therefore be treated with the utmost seriousness. This means future educators should be learning with one goal first and foremost: how to be the best teachers they can be. You have a question about this? Ask your local Orthodox rabbi.

(Originally Published in the Jewish Link of Bergen County

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Soul Truth

Songs are often more than music, but also the embodiment of ideas and ideals. We can all think of such works. Some inspire us, while others simply tell the story of a certain time or people. The most powerful songs do both. In this light, let’s look at a verse from a popular Jewish song from a generation ago and at the educational idea it contains. Feel free to sing along.

“But dear malach’l no, I don't want to go,
there is so much pain and evil, upon the earth below.
Let me stay here up in heaven, where it’s safe and I'll be pure,
please don't make me go away, can't you see I'm so afraid.”

The basic message of these lyrics, taken from the Journeys song “Neshomele,” is an important one. Life is full of experiences that desensitize us to spiritual pursuits and that make living a purposeful life challenging. On the other hand, life presents a tremendous opportunity to accomplish, grow, and live purposely. Being aware of this tension is essential, and our job is to be sensitive to both aspects of spirituality.

However, with apologies to Abie Rotenberg, I think the lyrics of this song (when taken literally), contain a potentially risky depiction of the Jewish soul. To be clear, my goal here is not to criticize a beloved song or songwriter. As I mentioned earlier, the message of the song is paramount (and also based on statements from Chazal). However, for many of us, the imagery used by the song is identifiable as part of our education and by extension, part of our consciousness (whether we know this song or not). The place of the “Neshomele Parable” in chinuch is what I’d like to discuss.     

Educators and public speakers commonly present the Jewish soul as a gift that comes with instructions: Keep pure, wash with teshuva and mikva water, and return to God when finished. We are expected to keep our souls as pure as possible by avoiding exposure to anything that isn’t holy. Any experience involving “impure” elements damages our souls, and therefore represents an attack on our responsibility to God.

I believe that this representation creates unrealistic expectations and ignores other aspects of human personality. If one is so concerned with the purity of my soul, what happens when it gets dirty? What if it gets filthy? The amount of guilt and despair that a person might experience is scary. How can you live with yourself if constantly carrying around your failure to protect your soul? One cannot unsee what has been seen nor unexperience what has already been experienced. Makes it easy to give up trying.

Additionally, when viewing the soul through such a lens, actions and experiences become binary; either something is good for your soul or it isn’t. Thinking this way is not healthy. Sometimes you need a movie to wind down or to hang out with “old friends” because you miss them. Yes, these experiences might make you feel spiritually desensitized, but they also might make you happy. General mental health should be an important value to everyone, a value that is challenged if you view every moment as carrying the weight of the world.

Yes, we are all fortunate to have souls; they steer us to want to be good God-fearing people. Some experiences will dull this desire, and some will enhance it. However, protecting our sense of the divine cannot be the overwhelming concern when making decisions. Ultimately, our actions define us, and our actions are products of factors of which the “cleanliness of our souls” is but one. Let’s give a break to ourselves, to our family members, and to those who look to us for guidance. We all may actually turn out to be holier for it.

(Originally Published in the Jewish Link of Bergen County