The Middot and Jewish Values Crisis in Our Schools: What to Do

  • by: Nachum Amsel
  • Submitted on June 8, 2004

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, vol. 2, 2, 1987, pp. 8-10. Appears here with permission.


This is not the story of one particular yeshiva high school student, but rather, a composite of many students who, unfortunately, exemplify a growing problem in all yeshiva high schools across the spectrum.

This is the story of the student who excels in all of his or her classes, mastering all the information taught in the halakha class, receiving high grades on exams. However, this is the student who will, at the same time, think nothing of picking up and using a “lost” pen or taking home a “lost” article of clothing left in school even after learning the details of hilkhot gezaila v’avaida in the Rambam. This student is able to recite all the intricate details and obligations of hilkbot kibud av v’aim, but fulfills almost none at home. Though aware of the specifics of what is proper or improper thought and action during davening, this student will speak during birkhot-kriat shema anyway, or choose to skip davening altogether during vacation. The subtle differences in the various types of lashon hara can be accurately explained by this student, but daily or even hourly, rekhilut and lashon hara continue without pause. The reader can undoubtedly enumerate further examples of this phenomenon and supply the specific details which apply to individual schools. Middot and values are being taught, with all their halakhic requirements, but, quite sadly, are not being translated into practice. In short, these students are being taught what to do, how to behave as Jews, how to become a “mentch,” but they have not really learned these halakhot, not a learning that is internalized, which leads to action. Each year, the number of these students increases.

A number of studies and recent indicators sadly confirm that our students are not learning Jewish values and middot.1

Although this problem has existed for years (we all know adults who are shomrei mitzvot yet lack proper middot or engage in unethical business practices), it seems that the Jewish community has become, of late, more sensitized to these issues due to the recently publicized moral breakdown by many leaders in the United States, in general, and in the greater Jewish community, in particular. Until now, many Jewish educators have been reluctant to deal with this issue, either by discussing the problems in a public forum or by adopting serious strategies in the school to help remedy the situation. It is truly unfortunate that these situations exist in our yeshivot. It is more unfortunate, however, when principals and teachers refuse to acknowledge the problem and plan effective solutions. Adequate time, money and commitment must be allocated to this issue, which threatens the very moral fabric of our Jewish society.

What, then, can be done to help transfer the information taught into learned values and positive action? Which programs can be instituted in our yeshivot to help connect the mind and the heart, and bring feeling to the laws which seem distant and impersonal?

It is true that numerous programs and school activities have been instituted to help achieve these goals. Yet they somehow remain ineffective on a large scale. The after school chesed programs, yemai iyun and special clubs have been somewhat successful. However, the voluntary after-school program usually attracts that minority of students who already have the proper upbringing, home environment, character or middot which the program is trying to instill. These students certainly benefit, but the students who need these programs most usually do not participate. NCSY Shabbatonim or Yeshiva University Seminars often provide the proper environment and emotional component necessary to effect positive change in middot and values. These experiences, however, are limited to a once or twice a year encounter, and, in addition, do not attract the majority of students. What, then, can be done to change the status quo, to help all students internalize the ideas, middot and hashkafa that are taught in the classroom?

The author has developed, through much trial and error, one possible solution, one program which seems to have great impact upon the students, both short and long range. In order to understand this new program and methodology, however, it is important to first understand, in general, how values are learned.

There are two current theories that explain how children (and adults) learn values. The traditional approach has been that of the social learning theory, developed by Bandura. This involves modelling behavior, where a child tries to emulate the behavior of a model or hero, someone he or she admires. This is certainly not a new idea in Judaism. The basis of one of the mitzvot is modelling the behavior of the Almighty Himself, based on the imperative of vehalakhta bidrakhav.2

Though we would hope that our students would tend to set up parents and teachers as their models (as indeed it was until this century- since these were the only adults that children saw and came into regular contact with), our children today have many more “models” or “heroes” to choose from: movie stars, sports stars, rock stars and other media created heroes. Thus, our students may often emulate those “stars” who usually stand for values and possess character traits antithetical to Judaism. (The solution is not in denying our children all access to all forms of media, since that would not be practical nor prepare them for life in the real world as adults.) This problem exists in all yeshivot across the spectrum (see Jewish Observer, January 1986, “Hero Worship: Distracting or Destructive?”)

Another theory explaining how values and morality are learned was developed by Lawrence Kohlberg, who showed that people develop moral thinking through specific stages. After much experimentation, Kohlberg’s students and Dr. Ted Fenton have developed certain strategies and techniques for the classroom to help raise the student to a higher level of moral thought. Essentially, they use the moral dilemma and dilemma discussion as the method to achieve these goals. [Kohlberg’s theory and these techniques are quite complex and beyond the scope of this article. (Ed’s note: For a further discussion see TEN DA’AT Sivan 5747 and Cheshvan 5748.) ].

The author has found that one specific stimulus for effective discussion (which works in both the context of the social learning and the Kohlberg theory of moral development) is the trigger film followed by specific classroom discussion. As the powerful trigger film impacts upon all the students, it introduces a specific issue (or dilemma) and the central character often becomes a hero object for the student. The film, therefore, has the ability to affect the students both emotionally and intellectually. This is the missing element from most unsuccessful values discussions and classes, the emotional element. The emotional response is a necessary prerequisite to personal involvement leading to an openness in discussion and allowing for the possibility of accepting new values and behaviors. Although most Jewish educators, as well as secular educators, agree that this is a crucial element in teaching values,3 it is usually lacking in formal curricula which attempt to teach middot and values in the classroom. The discussion following the film thus penetrates the heart as well as the mind.

It is the teacher, however, who determines the effectiveness of the discussion by using certain techniques. The techniques needed in this methodology involve a new approach to teaching which must be learned by the teacher in order that the discussion be maximized. Only then can an atmosphere of openness, honesty and trust be established, an atmosphere that is critical to the success of the approach. It is important for students to learn how to express their attitudes and feelings honestly, and not to say what they think the teacher wants to hear (or even what they think other students want to hear).

The students must gain the confidence of the teacher and vice versa. One way that the teacher conveys this trust is by assuring the students that whatever is spoken (and revealed) will not travel beyond the classroom walls.

The lack of inhibition in student discussion, as well as the student-to-student interaction are also vital to achieve success. In order for students to question their own opinions, attitudes and values, and grow morally through discussion, they must learn to listen to others, and evaluate new ideas and feelings. Only then can students decide to change their present values. One of the best ways to teach students how to listen and respect the opinion of others is through the kinds of questions that the teacher asks. Teachers can be trained in asking the specific types of questions that can help maximize their students’ discussion. Teachers can learn how to help students articulate their own beliefs as well as to entertain possible changes in thought and actions. Teachers can learn the techniques of, for example, role switch questions which help a student see an issue from another perspective, introducing factors never before considered, and questions that encourage students to consider universal consequences as well as to probe into the reasons for their own beliefs and values.

It is important to stress that through the discussion the teacher acts as moderator, not an authority, and the Jewish view is not introduced as the “final answer” to the question being discussed. Furthermore, rather than attempt to “educate” the student about the Jewish position regarding each complicated moral issue (i.e. learning the detailed sources and details of the Jewish laws involved) the goals are more modest, varied and realistic in scope.

The goals of each lesson are threefold. The first is to introduce the moral problem and begin to show the conflict, the two sides of the issue. Surprisingly, many students have “never thought about it before”, never realized that there exist two possible perspectives on a given issue.

The second goal of each class is for the students to leave knowing the general Jewish position on the issue discussed. It is surprising how many yeshiva students do not realize that there is a Jewish view on every issue or have misconceived notions about the halakha in any particular situation. Through the introduction of sources and the Jewish view, the students will begin to “think Jewishly”. They will begin to ask for and study the Jewish view on all issues as they are introduced. This will not only affect their present perspectives on issues but when a potential moral dilemma discussed in the classroom becomes real some time in the future, the student, then an adult, may look to Judaism to resolve the issue, rather than search for different avenues of action.

The third and most desired goal of each lesson is to influence and change behavior in the students. While many lessons do not have immediate practical implications in the daily routine of the students, many other discussions can affect daily life and lead to positive behavior change.

Each lesson (based on a trigger film) is independent of other lessons and can be successful as either a one or two period discussion. In addition, each lesson can be introduced into the regular curriculum (such as Chumash, Talmud, Navi,etc.) where appropriate or can be used as an independent hashkafa course that meets once of twice a week (based on a specific order or presentation).

The lessons for the first year of the curriculum (each with a selected trigger film and lesson plan) include topics on:
Jewish Identity, Individuality of Belief and Self-Determination, Sensitivity and Responsibility to Others, Business Ethics, Cheating and Honesty, The Value of Life and Each Individual, The Jewish Attitude to War, The Jewish Attitude to Senility, Jewish Medical Ethics, Relationship with Elders, Zionism, Antisemitism, Mitzvot, Prayers, Holidays.

It is certainly true that these trigger films followed by discussion cannot, in and of themselves, transform the student into a mentch. These discussions, however, can often act as a catalyst to continued discussions in other classes, at home or in shul youth groups. Without any reinforcement to support the ideas discussed, one cannot possibly expect sizable changes in attitudes or behaviors. However, taken together with other, existing school activities in the area of Jewish values, this program can help transform the general moral atmosphere in school and peer groups.

As of this writing, no formal study has yet been undertaken to accurately measure the short and long-term impact of this program. There is, however, substantial anecdotal evidence that the program is quite effective for students of all backgrounds and all levels from grade seven and above (many thousands of students have already taken part in discussions using this methodology). It is truly surprising that the program is universally effective across age levels (junior high, high school, college and adult) and across the religious spectrum as well (yeshivot, day schools, conservative and reform Hebrew schools).

The first year of the curriculum has recently been published and is being used currently in many schools across the country and Canada. Needless to say, this is only one of the many tools that can be used to help Jewish educators face this crucial and growing problem. The author invites reaction and suggestions of other programs which will improve the middot and values of all our students.

1 A 1973 study by Val Karn involving Day School and Hebrew School children found that “…far from promoting more mature moral judgment, formal Jewish education seems to be associated with a lower level of moral thinking” and “…there is little evidence of religious influence upon higher moral judgment.” In his yet unpublished dissertation “A Comparison of Moral Reasoning Stages Among Jewish Day School and Public School Students” (Harvard University Graduate School of Education), Jerry Friedman reports no significant difference in levels of moral development between Jewish students in public schools and in day schools. Two years ago, the Yeshiva Principals’ Council in New York distributed an anonymous, unscientific questionnaire to junior and senior high school students in the New York area. The results, in both co-educational and separate schools, indicate problems of enormous proportions in all middot areas including: cheating in school, lying to parents and friends, lashon hara, substance abuse and pornography.

2Deuteronomy 38:9, as expounded in Sotah 14a, and included in Maimonides’ list of Mitzvot (Positive Mitzvah #8).

3 Rabbi Joseph Elias, “The Teaching of Middos” in Building Jewish Ethical Character, Joseph Kaminetsky (ed.),The Fryer Foundation, New York: 1975, referring to Rabbi Israel Salanter’s approach, p. 42. In the secular world, see Reimer, Paolitto and Hersh, Promoting Moral Growth: From Piaget to Kohlberg, Longman Press, New York: 1983, p. 38 for Piaget’s explanation of emotional components necessary for moral development and later in the book for Kohlberg’s agreement with this principle. See also Aimee Dorr, “Interpersonal Factors Mediating Viewing and Effects,” Television as a Teacher: A Research Monograph, George V. Coelho (ed.), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Maryland: 1981, p. 61.

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