Guest Blog by Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel, Senior Rabbi, Temple Micah, Washington, DC
In his recent book The Social Animal, David Brooks provides a roadmap for what we should be doing in our religious schools. And for me it creates a sense of urgency, for in the process of illustrating what our religious schools should be achieving, it points out with every passing day that we don’t do it, we lose a sacred opportunity to help our children grow.
“Modern society has created a giant apparatus for the cultivation of the hard skills, while failing to develop the moral and emotional faculties down below. Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops. Yet by far the most important decisions they will make are about whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise, and how to control impulses. On these matters they are almost entirely on their own. We are good at talking about material incentives, but bad about talking about emotions and intuitions. We are good at teaching technical skills, but when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say.”
This is precisely what Jewish education should be about. This is the world of religion—faith, wonder, hope, character. It is the home court of religious education. It is the purview of family and of congregation, Torah and of the sages. And it is ground that has been abandoned by a secular, values-neutral, and often morally relativistic educational system.
I wonder-- How do we “teach” this stuff? I use the word teach advisedly—how well do we present and engage our kids on these questions—as more than vocabulary words or “tenets of Judaism.” How deeply do rachamim, chen, chesed, ahava, mishpat, tzeniut permeate into what our education is about. This is the essence of the Jewish lived life. These are experiences, attitudes, aspirations that defy mere classroom discussions.
I wonder—I truly don’t know—do we have the educational materials and structures to rigorously pursue this kind of curriculum?
Later in his book Brooks writes—“We don’t teach this in school—to harmonize patterns, to seek limerence, to make friends. But the happy life is defined by these sorts of connections, and the unhappy life is defined by a lack of them.” This is what Jewish education should be.
I also read some Wittgenstein this summer—impenetrable though he may be. Try this: “I think I summed up my attitude to philosophy when I said: philosophy ought really to be written as a poetic composition.”
If Wittgenstein is suggesting—as he does in many places—that philosophy can best be conveyed in a poem—it means that philosophy cannot be conveyed in the same way that science is conveyed—in direct literal language. It must be though something more like poetry (for us liturgy, or perhaps experience). Wittgenstein is saying that what philosophers want to say cannot be said—but only shown.
This is a challenge for our entire educational enterprise—This is what Judaism is for us—we have to experience it and then it will inspire.