Rava sent a gift to the local governor, Bar Sheshach, on one of the pagan feast days. He went to pay a visit, and found Bar Sheshach sitting up to his neck in rosewater petals, with harlots standing before him. Bar Sheshach said to him: “Do you have anything as pleasing as this in your world to come?” Rava replied: “We have something better than this!” Bar-Sheshach said: “What could be better than this?” And Rava said to him . . . (BT Masechet Avodah Zarah 65a)
We pride ourselves on graduating students with a superlative “how-to” skill set to put in their proverbial toolbox – our students demonstrate comfort as well as leadership on the bimah by reading Torah, leading services, and serving as gabbaim; they exhibit strong public speaking skills by putting on presentations and even plays in Hebrew; they are able to open up a Hebrew Humash, identify the parasha, and decipher the Rashi script. But when it comes to the “why” of Jewish practice, do we adequately make the case for Jewish living?
Last Hanukkah, I put together a learning program with an upper school class, wherein they would approach younger grades in an attempt to obtain signatures on petitions for changes at the school. These proposed changes included making kippah-wearing optional, holding school sporting events on Saturday, and not requiring students with meat lunches to sit apart from those eating dairy. Unbeknownst to the younger students, of course, the petitions were fake; they were really meant to be a springboard to facilitate discussions about assimilation in the context of the Hanukkah story.
Needless to say, almost every student signed on to the petitions. This was fine, in and of itself; the upperclassmen were actively soliciting signatures, after all. But as our discussion groups debriefed and explored the students’ decisions, I noticed many of them were having trouble articulating why the Jewish practices in question were significant and important to maintain. Interestingly, many students were at a loss to express in their own terms precisely what was valuable about the rituals and practices that marked each school day.
Was it the case that we focused so much on the “how” of being Jewish that we simply neglected the “why?”
In today’s individualistic culture, with instant global communication nearly ubiquitous, people are provided with an infinite amount of “pleasing rosewater petals” to choose from. The phenomenon of personal choice is a dominant characteristic of the modern Jewish experience. So the questions our students will inevitably contend with are: why be Jewish at all? What is the inherent value of traditional Jewish practice? Given all the options, is it even worth the effort? It is imperative that we help students answer these questions for themselves; otherwise we risk their trading in Torah and mitzvot after graduation for something else that resonates more.
In the Talmudic dialogue above, Rava’s response (“we have something better”) is a bit defensive, which is perhaps typical of a religious minority. I do not believe we ought to espouse a view of Jewish tradition as better than the alternatives, per se. What we must promote, however, is a conception of Judaism as not only rooted in a rich history and heritage, but also as a vibrant system of values that is uniquely capable of speaking to modern-day circumstances and imbuing them with meaning.
One important mechanism for achieving this is that our classrooms must provide authentic learning experiences that relate Jewish content to students’ lives in a relevant way. This is a critical step for enabling students to view Torah as a living, vital entity which affects our lives meaningfully. Here are a few examples of best practices I have encountered:
- For students in a Rabbinics class who learn about the acceptable times for reciting the Shema and Amidah, create a fieldtrip itinerary wherein they plan for tefillot at halachically acceptable times based on the Mishnah; then use the itinerary to go on a real fieldtrip (including the appropriate tefillot at your destination).
- After learning about the laws of lost objects, students create a proposal for a new lost-and-found policy based on the Tanach and other relevant halachic texts, and present it to the administration to vote on which proposal to implement.
- After learning about the laws and customs for each of the Hagim, students create a column for the school newsletter that helps families celebrate holidays at home.
Such projects entail real “problems” with a real audience, and as such would generate enthusiasm among the students, as well as a visceral connection to Jewish practice. When students work together to connect Torah learning to their lives in an authentic way, then they are more likely to give an affirmative answer about the meaning, value and significance of Torah and Jewish practice.
How we answer the question posed to Rava above is the fundamental goal of Jewish education today, that is, to address the “why” of Judaism in addition to the “how.” Our liturgy exclaims, “Ashreinu mah tov helkenu – how great is our portion [as Jews]!” The challenge we face is to convey this concept to our students, and give them the necessary tools to articulate the “why” for themselves.