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 RH2 5784 | Rabbi David Wolkenfeld 

01/26/2024 10:26:58 AM


Education and Choice

When I was a teenager, whenever my friends did something slightly edgy, we would say to one another, “what you just did is illegal in 5 states.”  Well, times have changed and federalism is fun, and I can now add to the list of every-day joyful activities in our community that are illegal in certain jurisdictions. In particular, this shul exposes young children to a book that the Davis School District decided would “retain the book in school library circulation only at the high school level based on age appropriateness due to vulgarity or violence.” The book that was taken off elementary school shelves in the second largest school district in Utah was the King James Bible but I have no reason to think that the Hertz Chumash or the Artscroll Stone Chumash would escape this judgment. 

And, while the Torah certainly contains adult content and should be taught to children with thoughtfulness and in age-appropriate ways, there is something absurd about banning the Bible, a book of obvious educational and cultural merit that belongs in an elementary or middle school library. Indeed, the parental complaint that resulted in the Bible’s removal from Utah schools was intended to be ridiculous and to highlight the absurdity of efforts to ban objectionable books from elementary school libraries. As if to say, “if I can use your criterion to ban the Bible, surely this entire endeavor has gone on too far.” But one person’s reductio ad absurdum is another person’s “in hachi nami”(one person’s absurd premise is another person’s logical conclusion) and the school district called the bluff and banned the Bible.

This is an age of great anxiety about what children encounter in school and how that might shape them in ways that make parents uncomfortable. This dynamic is all the more curious when we notice that both liberal and conservative parents and activists have targeted schools and universities as locations in which harm is being perpetuated on innocent children. The common denominators of book bans and speech codes and trigger warnings is the conviction that one can encounter dangerous and harmful ideas in educational settings, that we are shaped and influenced by the education that we receive, and that education matters.

Why do we feel comfortable exposing young children to Humash? I don’t think it is because we are insensitive to its violent content or adult themes. If someone were to make a movie based on the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading, it would get an R rating and I would not want my young children to see it. We are comfortable exposing children to the Torah because we don’t let them peruse it haphazardly; we teach it to them. We inhabit a thick network of cultural experience around the Torah and what it means and how it gives life to the behavior that sustains our community. When we teach Torah as Jews we invite students to join an interpretive tradition that spans generations, to learn what has been said and thought before them, and then to add their own unique voice to that never-ending conversation. 

The Talmud expresses this in very evocative language (Yoma 72b):
אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי, מַאי דִּכְתִיב: ״וְזֹאת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂם מֹשֶׁה״, זָכָה — נַעֲשֵׂית לוֹ סַם חַיִּים, לֹא זָכָה — נַעֲשֵׂית לוֹ סַם מִיתָה. וְהַיְינוּ דְּאָמַר רָבָא: דְּאוֹמֵן לַהּ — סַמָּא דְחַיָּיא, דְּלָא אוֹמֵן לַהּ — סַמָּא דְמוֹתָא.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: What is the implication of that which is said “This is the Torah that Moshe placed before B’nai Yisrael” - if one merits, the Torah is a potion of life, if one does not merit, it is a potion of death. This is what the sage Rava meant when he said “one who is skilled in Torah, it serves as a potion of life, for one who is not skilled in Torah, it becomes a potion of death.

The Torah itself, and the words that it contains, do not determine the impact it will have on us or on the world. With luck, according to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, or with training and skill, according to Rava, the Torah’s impact on the one who learns Torah and on the broader world is positive. But we all know too many examples of Torah that is transformed into a dangerous poison.

How can the same words have such disparate impact? This should not surprise you. Think about yourself. We all have character traits and we all have weaknesses that limit our positive impact on the world. But we know about ourselves that we can transcend our limitations and that we are not defined by any one trait or pattern of behavior, no matter how long standing. 

Maimonides, the Rambam, in Hilkhot Teshuvah, his treatise on repentance, articulates a bold and somewhat radical claim about free will and our control over our characters and virtue:

כָּל אָדָם רָאוּי לוֹ לִהְיוֹת צַדִּיק כְּמשֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ אוֹ רָשָׁע כְּיָרָבְעָם…. וְאֵין לוֹ מִי שֶׁיִּכְפֵּהוּ וְלֹא גּוֹזֵר עָלָיו וְלֹא מִי שֶׁמּוֹשְׁכוֹ לְאֶחָד מִשְּׁנֵי הַדְּרָכִים אֶלָּא הוּא מֵעַצְמוֹ וּמִדַּעְתּוֹ נוֹטֶה לְאֵי זוֹ דֶּרֶךְ שֶׁיִּרְצֶה. 

Each person is fit to be righteous like Moses, our teacher, or wicked, like Jeroboam….There is no one who compels him, sentences him, or leads him towards either of these two paths….

Rambam continues and says that this belief in total freedom is a foundational belief of Judaism.

Were God to decree that an individual would be righteous or wicked … how could God command us "Do this," "Do not do this," "Improve your behavior”...[If anything undermined our freedom], what place would there be for the entire Torah? According to which sense of justice would retribution be administered to the wicked or reward to the righteous? Shall the whole world's Judge not act justly!

Rambam placed his discussion of free-will in the middle of Hilkhot Teshuvah because he thought that the only way we can be motivated to change and to improve is if we are reassured by the freedom that we are capable of remaking ourselves (and that we are held accountable if we fail to do so). But Rambam’s language is so extreme “there is no one who compels him, sentences him, or leads him in any direction,” that it sounds counter to our own experience as people who have strong personalities and long personal histories and deeply impactful interactions with other people that very much pull us or push us towards traits and behaviors. 

Not only that, we actively seek out experiences and settings whose explicit goal is to shape our behavior and our character. That setting is called “education.”

Surely Rambam too would admit that moral education, the ability and responsibility to educate towards values and ethics and decent behavior is a core and fundamental Jewish belief. The single Biblical verse that exemplifies what God found so compelling and significant about Avraham and the household he and Sarah built together was Avraham’s belief in education!

כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַ֩עַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ ה׳ לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט וגו׳

“For I know about Avraham that he will instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is just and right…”

Those words, in Parashat Vayera are the clearest indication of precisely why and how Avraham and Sarah succeeded where Noach, and others, had failed. Their dedication to צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט to doing that which is just and right was also a dedication to instruct their children and their household in that same path. God chose Avraham for a mission nobody before him could accomplish because of that לְמַ֩עַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַחֲרָ֔יו. That verse appears at the beginning of Parashat Vayera before Yitzhak was born. But Avraham and Sarah’s belief in the potential of human beings to influence one another for the good had already set them apart. 

And so, as Jews, we are committed to free-will and the responsibility to constantly improve ourselves and our community, and we are committed to education and the optimistic belief that human beings can exert positive influence on each other. 

Here at Ohev Sholom, we engage in a few minutes of Torah learning each and every time we gather for prayer. And it was so important to me that the holiday bulletins contain a list of class topics for the coming months, in part, because many of us have come to expect every active shul to have a compelling lineup of shiurim and lectures and opportunities to learn Torah and I wanted you all to see that about your shul while perusing the holiday bulletins. 

But there is also a great deal of anxiety and skepticism about education. And even though we have not banned the Chumash from our library (r’l), there is confusion and anxiety about the purpose of education within the North American Modern Orthodox community. We invest so much money and so much effort and attention into curating educational experiences for ourselves and for our community’s children and too often we cannot articulate a clear goal of what outcome we want from those educational experiences. Do we want our children to replicate their parents' commitments? Do we seek out experiences for ourselves that reinforce our own identity or do we seek experiences that challenge us?

At times the expectations that we have for education are so great that they begin to impede on the free-will that we all still possess to choose our own path.  Rabbi Ilay Ofran, the rabbi of Kibbutz Yavneh, and a trained psychologist wrote about an encounter he had with a dear family friend. She shared an update about her own child who, while raised in a religious home, was no longer an observant Jew. “He has free-will,” she admitted, when describing the ways in which her son no longer celebrated Jewish holidays. “But the education that he received in our home still impacts him in the ways that he is generous and hospitable.” 

At first glance it can be too convenient to take credit for all the positive impacts of education while ascribing any deviations to “free will.” But a more sophisticated understanding of what education entails can resolve the false dichotomy between free-will and education. 

Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira is probably most famous today for Eish Kodesh the collection of drashot that he delivered in the Warsaw Ghetto. But he was already famous before the war as the Rebbe of Piasecna and as a published author whose writings included profound treatments of pedagogy and moral education. 

Education, he explained, should not be understood as the transmission of values or the mere conveying of knowledge, but is instead the movement of elements that were already internal within the student from the realm of potential to something that is actualized in the outside world.. An educator does not impose anything onto a student, but helps bring forth into the world the potential that the student already possessed. 

This is why the sign of a great teacher is not students who all mimic the behavior and thoughts of the teacher, but rather a diverse group of students who are all inspired in different ways. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik is someone who exemplified this dynamic. His students include Rabbi Mieselman and Rabbi Ilsen who lead Haredi yeshivot as well as figures like Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and the late Rabbi David Hartman. It is good when people emerge from a common encounter with Torah and reach different conclusions. That is a sign of success because that is how we know that the Torah touched someone’s unique soul and brought something from inside out into the world. 

People embody Torah in ways that are as unique as we are. The Torah is not predetermined because we are not predetermined. The Torah we study, the holidays we celebrate, the prayers that we recite, are all building blocks. But we are the ones who use them to construct the edifice of our lives. We are the ones writing the book. 

And everything that is true for us as individuals is magnified when we come together as a shul community. When we come to shul we are surrounded by teachers. Each one of us can be a role model. Each one of us can inspire goodness among friends. Each one of us has a unique hiddush, a new answer to an old question, or perhaps a question that has not been asked before. The Torah that can be generated by this community can only be generated by this community. 

In 5784 I am so excited to learn with you and for you all to become my teachers. And I want to invite you to learn from one another this year. Look at the classes that are listed in the bulletin for the coming months. Is this what you wanted to see? Is there something else you want to learn? Is there something else you want to teach? I cannot wait to hear your suggestions and your ideas for what we can do together…after October 8th. (I need to wait until after the Haggim to hear your ideas).

But, as we have seen, education is far more than what happens in a shiur or a lecture. Education is soul building. We here in this shul have the unique opportunity to treat one another as teachers who can help us actualize our potential and expose us to ideas and insights that can offer us comfort and joy and guidance. As I look around this room, I'm struck by how my own ideas about Torah have evolved and developed in just the short time I've lived here with you. I am inviting you to teach me, and to teach one another. This is your space, and it is your chance to create a rich web of education that helps us all rise to our fullest potential.

Shannah Tovah


Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784