Open-Mindedness and the Yeshiva High School: Musings on the Range of Views to Which Our Students Should Be Exposed

  • by: Rabbi Jack Bieler

Ten Da’at, Vol. IV, No. 2, Spring 1990.

Copyright 1990 Torah Education Network. Reprinted with permission.


Many of the articles in this issue of Ten Da’at grapple with the extremely complex and highly charged topics of Israel’s political and security concerns as portrayed by the media, and how we can best deepen our students’ commitment to the Jewish State. While these issues are of grave concern to those of us who are engaged in Jewish education and who view Israel as a cornerstone of our personal religious existence, they also highlight a more general dilemma that confronts the Modern Orthodox high school and its staff. Through their religious and general studies our students are daily exposed to role models who may present and represent conflicting basic assumptions and cognitive approaches. Brian Bullivant, in his study of a Jewish school in Australia, attributed at least some cognitive dissonance within the institution’s student body to the conflict between the closed system of the yeshiva tradition on the one hand, “in which the knowables are fixed. Answers…are right and unequivocal, so that there is no need to choose from a number of possible solutions to a problem,”1 and the open system of the generalstudies tradition on the other, “in which there are degrees of rightness and possible solutions to a problem.”2

Clearly, the serious Jewish educator who assumes that his/her educational mission also includes imparting values, attitudes, and behavior patterns, i.e., yirat Shamayim,3 commitment to k’llal Yisrael, and medinat Yisrael, and deference to the authority of Hazal, can hardly do so without being guilty of what critics would consider special pleading, brainwashing or other forms of indoctrination. Some might posit that while in general education manipulation designed to impart a particular political or spiritual perspective is unconscionable and dishonest,4 different rules apply to overtly and avowedly religious education, and therefore all means justify the ends. One cannot help but wonder, however, whether the difference in the above learning experiences might lead at least some students to conclusions that are antithetical to day school education. Some pupils, for instance, might view general studies, particularly the humanities, as being handled in a more intellectually honest and open-minded fashion, since greater numbers of possibilities and conflict resolutions are presented. They may conclude that such disciplines should therefore be taken more seriously than Judaic studies which are traditionally presented in a more monolithic manner. Or, some might be tempted to compartmentalize, to treat Judaic studies issues with less depth of thought and searching questions than general studies where thinking skills and critical analysis are openly encouraged.5

Although such conscious separation between the Jewish and secular disciplines might constitute an efficient strategy for lessening possible cognitive dissonance, it might, at the same time, mitigate against the development of thoughtful, sensitive and intellectually curious day school graduates, at least with respect to Jewish learning and lifestyle.

A more progressive approach that addresses the diverse educational experiences within the context of a single school setting,6 entails a greater dovetailing of Judaic and general studies with respect to critical thinking skills and the analysis of diverse points of view. Recent professional literature has, in fact, been promoting thedevelopment of critical thinking and problem solving.7 Rather than encouraging mechanical and formalistic student performance, pedagogic theorists are advocating ways to actively involve students in the determination and exploration of ideas. One criticalmeans is the presentation of multiple rather than singular approaches to a problem, be it literary, historical, sociological, mathematical, or scientific. The ability to rigorously analyze an argument; to determine the most efficient and elegant means forsolving a particular problem to discern strengths as well as limitations; to make comparisons between the approach at hand and divergent outlooks; and to think independently and actively is achieved, according to these authorities, by presenting several conceptual structures, ideally each opposed to the other. Only then will a student be able to independently analyze and deal with challenges as yet unencountered in the “hothouse” school environment.

It could be argued that given the Talmudic as well as hermeneutical tradition of machloket,8 such an approach is exceedingly traditional rather than revolutionary. The heated debates and disagreements that mark issues ranging from halacha to hashkafa, as well as the nature of peshat and the extent of “Darshanic license”, seem to allow for adapting much of current educational theory to all forms of Tora study. Furthermore, in addition to discussions of minority and rejected views in the Tora SheB’Al Peh, there are debates between Tannaim, Amoraim and a number of minim, political leaders and anti-Semites. Ibn Ezra’s regular presentation of Karaitic interpretations, and Hoffman’s and Cassuto’s citations of various biblical critics—all of which in one form or another, demonstrate the readiness of Jewish tradition to seriously consider divergent points of view, even if only to ultimately reject them. This would seem to justify confronting students with not only positions that reinforce traditional assumptions, but also with at least some views that take serious issue with what has been commonly accepted.

While it is relatively easy to demonstrate the efficacy of such a theoretical teaching strategy, the question of what ought to constitute the range of views presented is less clear-cut. If one adopts the position that students should be trained to discern subtle distinctions between views that vary only slightly from each other, then there may be no need to examine divergent, controversial outlooks. But if it is argued that in order to truly motivate students quite outrageous material should be presented, then can all positions be justified in order to achieve a heuristic coup? And if, for the sake of argument, it were acceptable for a public or non-denominational private school to read Das Kapital in orderto contrast capitalist and socialist theory, or to study Mein Kampf in order to better appreciate the racist ideas that fueled Nazi society, are there any limits to what is appropriate to introduce in a classroom? Do artistic and other sensual experiencesfall under the same category as cognitive ideas? Can all exposures be deemed acceptable, as long as some sort of educational rationale is provided? What ultimately constitutes criminality or gross irresponsibility to the extent that it should not under any circumstances be brought into the classroom or school? And even if one were to contend that First Amendment rights guarantee the freedoms of both instructors and students to engage in an exceedingly wide range of such study, does the same apply to a traditional Jewish school?

Victor Ruggiero comments, “Since teaching students to think often involves consideration of controversial issues, protests from parents and conservative political religious and political groups may very well occur. But there is no reason to fear them as long as the issues to be considered are selected with sensitivity to the students’ ages and levels of academic preparation, and the issues are treated objectively.”9 Who determines what constitutes an objective treatment? Should there be no limits on what is presented within general studies classes in a yeshiva high school setting? Is it appropriate for school libraries to be censored, and for reading lists to be scrutinized? Are there historical, literary, or even scientific views that lie beyond the pale of the traditional day school experience? And with respect to Judaic studies, to what extent should the principle of dah mah l’hashiv l’apikorus be invoked in order to determine curriculum? Is biblical criticism a topic that is appropriate for a day school student who is college bound?10 Is it important that Orthodox students understand the assumptions of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, and if so, how should these points of view be presented? Should the day school consider a course in comparative religions?11 And coming full circle, is there any room within the day school setting for presenting unpopular positions regarding the Middle East just to be able to put all other views within some sort of objective framework?

It could be argued that exposing students to controversial views might mislead and encourage their natural adolescent rebelliousness. But what about the possibility that one-sidedness can ultimately backfire when the counter position is presented—not in the friendly environs of the day school—but in some hostile context, one that would only allow the most prepared individual to defend his/her position?

Aside from certain considerations that make a particular school beholden to the assumptions of its constituent community(ties), can and should some general positions be assumed by educators who wish their students to become conversant with Jewish tradition and interests, as well as with rigorous thinking and honest grappling with the difficult issues of our day? There is much need to consider not only isolated issues within the day school context, but the general approach to learning style and range of viewpoints that a day school is prepared to entertain. Towards this end, perhaps professional Jewish educators should create finite units that would serve as models of curricula devoted to promoting critical thinking and comparisons of dissenting viewpoints. Equipped with such materials and with in-service training, perhaps Judaic studies teachers can then further adapt, develop, and promote our ancient tradition of exhaustive analysis and comprehensive debate leading, we hope, to an intellectual excitement and a secure, informed and steadfast commitment.

1 Brian Bullivant, “Transmission of Tradition in an Orthodox Day School: An Ethnographic Case Study.” in Studies in Jewish Education, Vol. 1 (1983) Magnes Press, Jerusalem,1983. p.68.

2 Ibid.

3 See e.g.Shimon Kerner, “Teaching Yirat Shamayim,” in Ten Da’at 4:1, Fall 1989, pp.11-13.

4 One could argue that in effect, all education, at least through the secondary level, involves some types of approaches that assume that curriculum planners, administrators and teachers, rather than students, are the final arbiter of what is to be studied, and thus, what students are expected to believe and/or how they are to act in public. For a philosophical investigation of this topic see Michael Rosenak, “Jewish religious Education and Indoctrination,” in Studies in Jewish Education, Vol. 1, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983, pp. 117-38.

5 See my “Integration of Judaic and General Studies in Modern Orthodox Day School,” in Jewish Education, 64:4, Winter 1986, pp. 15-26.

6 Some have argued that there is greater assurance that students will not unfavorably view Judaic studies when compared to general studies if both are studies in separate institutions rather than within the same rubric and under one roof.It is specifically when a student is asked to change modes of learning and thinking between morning and afternoon, or even from one 45 minute period to the next, that expectations are nurtured for some sort of consistency between learning experiences and that the inevitable comparisons between subject matters, faculty and approaches are made. While the Day School offers Jewish education to greater numbers of individuals, the quality of that education, and the subtle interplays between the various disciplines have not been adequately researched. Thus, conclusions regarding the specific effects of the educational experience cannot be properly evaluated. Advocates of day school education should feel responsible to undertake such investigations in order to responsibly reflect upon what is currently being done.

7 See, for example, the bibliography of Colette Dajute’s “Play as Thought: Thinking Strategies of Young Writers,” in Harvard Educational Review, 59:1, 1989, pp.22-3; the bibliography of Vincent Ruggiero’s Teaching Thinking across the Curriculum, Harper & Row, New York, 1988, pp. 219-23; and the 1989 ASCD Yearbook, Toward the Thinking Curriculum: Current Cognitive Research, ed. Resnick & Klopfer. (Whereas not all of the works listed in the bibliographies are of recent vintage, their appearance in recent works has made the entire subject take on rewarded significance.)

8 For and impressive array of source material on this topic, see David Dishon, Tarbut HaMachlokot BeYisroel: Iyun BeMivchar Mekorot, Schocken, Yerushalayim, 1988.

9 V. Ruggerio, Teaching thinking Across the Curriculum, Harper & Row, New York, 1988, p.18.

10 See the discussion between Spiegelman, Carmy and Bernstein in Ten Da’at, Winter 1989, and Fall 1989.

11 See David Hartman, “Halacha as a Ground for Creating a Shared Spiritual Language,” in Tradition, 16:1, Summer 1976, as well as Solomon Spiro’s response, in Tradition 16:3, Spring 1977.

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