Sunday, March 11, 2007

They Should Teach The Ikkarei Emuna In Schools

And now I'll probably get some wise guy bringing up Mark Shapiro's book. :) But seriously, they should spend some time on principles of faith, such that at least we understand what the default position is.

What brings this up? I read this post on Freelance Kiruv Maniac, in which he excerpted and then discussed this post on Mishmar. The salient point:
Also notworthy is the advice of the Klausenberger Rebbe concerning how CHUSH(Jewish Center for Special Education) should educate its students:

“...You and your teachers spend most of your time thinking about how to teach a child to read one more letter, one more line in the siddur, prayer book. You want him to learn one more verse in Chumash, or one more segment of Gemara. All this is very good. But, unless you make a conscious effort, you may be missing the point. Your children may grow up and never learn what it means to be a Jew, what a Jew believes, or what he prays and hopes for. I think you should teach these children the 13 Ikrim—Principles of Faith—of the Rambam. I would furthermore put up a big sign in the school reading: Da es Elokei avicha v’avdeihu!”

I was puzzled. “But they don’t even teach that in the regular Yeshivos?!” “You’re perfectly right,” the Rebbe answered. “However, the regular yeshivah bachur, as he grows older, will learn in the bais hamidrash, study hall. One day he will go to the bookshelf to get a Rambam on Hilchos G’zelah V’aveidah so as to better understand a piece of Gemara he is learning.
The Ribbono shel Olam, the Master of the universe, will help him and by mistake he will pick up the wrong volume of the Rambam. Back at his seat he will discover that he has
the first volume in his hand, the Sefer Hamada.

Being a little lazy to immediately get up and return to the bookshelf to look for the volume he originally sought, he will stay in his seat and begin to browse through the volume in front of him. Turning the pages he will find it interesting, spend some time reading it and thus gain at least a passing acquaintance with the foundations of our faith (Yesodos HaEmunah). The regular yeshivos can rely on this error occurring. Your children may never be zocheh to make this error (they may never learn independently in a Bais Hamidrash); thus you must take responsibility for teaching them what it means to be a Jew.”

Indeed, these basics are often ignored or not stressed, under the assumption that students will pick it up along the way. Instead, the focus is often on learning another machloket of Rava and Abaye, or Rashi's perush on another pasuk in Torah.

Quite possibly, ikkarei emuna are expected to be picked up, at least in part, from the fact that people say Yigdal, or say or thumb through the Ani Maamins at some point. This assumes that students have any kavana in what their saying, where their first language is not Hebrew and there is so much to say.

I'll relate a true story (though it is hard to believe!) that happened about five years ago to illustrate this unfortunate point. A high school student of a respectable yeshiva high school approached me and related the following story, in order to ask me a question.

His regular bus driver was replaced by a new bus driver, who was a devout Christian. This driver thought the opportunity was too good to pass up, and so he engaged the students in theological questions, presumably in the hopes of saving some souls.

This driver asked the students, "Does God have a body?" You can imagine where the conversation could go from there -- for example, from corporeality of God to God investing his presence in a physical body, to a man being God, to Jesus being God. The driver was presumably ready to cite Biblical verses to confound them into admission that God has a body.

Now, these high school kids were not on the level of da ma sheTashiv, nor would I expect them to be able to respond intelligently to disputations on interpretations of Biblical verses in TaNaCh (for example, Yehoshua's meeting of the angel, or Avraham in parshat Vayera). The stress is just not there, and even if it were, these are not the ones to engage in theological dispute.

But what astounded me was another student's response. He said: Of course God has a body! After all, there is a gemara that says that Hashem wears tefillin. How could God wear tefillin if he did not have an arm?

This is particularly the type of midrash that Rambam would say was intended allegorically, and fools would take it literally. (I don't want to get off point, but people over apply this Rambam to any midrash they disagree with, which is not necessarily what Rambam meant.) The point of that midrash, that Hashem wears tefillin that says Mi KeAmcha Yisrael Goy Echad BaEretz, is approximately that just as Israel is committed to God wholeheartedly and singularly, such that Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad, so does Hashem reciprocate the sentiment such that He has only one nation (whatever that means). It does not mean that Hashem actually has an arm.

This high school student who I know related this story, and then asked if this other student was correct? I pointed out the Ani Maamin, to which he replied that they did not teach this in school. At least he knew enough to wonder if this was really so, such that the midrash which was presented literally was off enough that it had to be resolved.

A while ago, Rav Schachter was on a panel where the question was whether to teach girls gemara. He responded that that was not the question. The question was whether to teach boys gemara! The education in girls schools is not yet messed up. Indeed, in my sister's school they had classes in which they memorized all sorts of Jewish facts and factoids like this - Yidiot Kelaliyot. I would assume they covered the ikkarei emuna besides just memorizing things like all the names of the parshiyot and sefarim in Tanach.

How to do this effectively, and not make it just more of the same? I don't know. I'm not in education. But perhaps saying instead of, or in addition to, davening, if they could say in English parts of the daily prayers (including Yigdal). In Hebrew, many American kids have no real chance at true kavana, since they don't know what the prayers are supposed to mean. (Unlike Israeli kids who have some chance at kavvana, knowing at least the meaning of the words in order to as some point really intend them.) Rote memorization of the prayers in English could be a step in the right direction, perhaps more than even a formal class teaching "meaning of prayers," or ikkarei emunah.


Rafi G. said...

it does need to be taught
I spent most of my life in yeshiva and I ahve no idea about most of these things
and even tefilla other than basic translation of most of the words I do not know much
Sure, I can learn a daf gemara great, but I do not know Judaism and yiddishkeit.
I actually thought the nearly banned book by Reichman was one of the best Jewish books I ever read, because for the first time I saw laid out and understood thr jewish position on many issues.
I am a mature adult now, out of the yeshiva system and am now beginning to work on understanding emuna, but at 34 years old I can testify that it is sorely lacking in the yeshiva world, and I think we are the worse off for it

Soccer Dad said...

It's not just Hakdama L'perek Chelek that needs to be taught. Hakdama L'perush hamishnayos too.

Even if the Rambam's views are not universally accepted, there's nothing in my experience that opens one's mind to the basics of Judaism like the Rambam.

joshwaxman said...

indeeds all around.


Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

In high school we had a Jewish Philosophy class, that included some Rambam (Igeret Teiman, Haqdama Lepereq Hheileq), some RYHL (excerpts from Kuzari), as well as a bunch of other shorter texts.

RYGB also has a curriculum for teaching ‘Iqarey Emuna.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Perhaps the time to teach the important Jewish belief that God does not have form or body is concurrent with teaching midrash aggadah (and Chumash, for that matter) which would imply otherwise.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why the God-has-a-body midrashim must be taken figuratively, but you are unwilling to do so for virtually any other midrash. What is the source for this distinction?

joshwaxman said...

I agree, it would be a good time to do so. Though practically, in high school we encountered the most midrash aggada in bekius class.

joshwaxman said...

It's a good question that deserved asking. Correspondingly, my response will need to be lengthy and non-trivial. Thus, I'll get to the issue of midrash in a while. Bear with me, please.

Indeed, this is what I meant in referring to Marc Shapiro's book. Rambam is by no means the only possible position one can take on the issue of God's corporeality. It is, however, the most widely accepted in the educated Jewish world as a rough *default* position. I addressed this a bit in my post on "The Outer Limits of Orthodox Theology.".

To be as objective as possible, I would note that as to the issue of God's corporeality or lack thereof, there are a number of things to evaluate separately.

a) The objective reality - is God corporeal or not.
b) The Biblical conception of God's corporeality (assuming this is consistent across Tanach).
c) The Pharisee conception of God's corporeality.
d) The approach of various medieval Jewish commentators, kabbalists, and other rabbis as to God's corporeality or lack thereof.

Perhaps a=b=c=d, or perhaps there is some gap.

As to (a), I must profess ignorance. I can try to get a handle on (a) by drawing conclusions about (b), (c), and (d).

joshwaxman said...

In terms of Biblical conception of God's corporeality or lack thereof, we have evidence such as a possible careful reading Vayera that goes against the traditional midrashic (and thus Pharisee) interpretation which would have God in human form accompanied by *two* angels visit Avraham. We have things like Yeshaya's prophecy, which might be taken literally. We have the fact that Adam was created betzelem Elokim. This *might,* or might not, show that God either *always* has human form or can assume human form at will.

On the other hand, while that may or may not be peshat in those instances, there are other references to Divine anatomy that, even or especially on a peshat level, are to be taken allegorically. Knowing to take something allegorically is a hard thing to prove - it involves developing a sense of the text and a sense of Biblical style. Thus, it is an art as much as a science. But when I see the Egyptian magicians say that something that they cannot perform is "the Divine finger," and see that the writing on the Ten Commandments was also written with "the Divine finger," I can make an assessment that this is an idiom connoting wondrousness and something outside of typical human experience, and can assess that it does not mean that God literally engraved in the luchot with His Mighty Pinky.

Similarly, when Biblical *poetry* praises Hashem for mighty deed by calling Him an Ish Milchama, I don't take this as evidence of corporeality but rather correctly understand it as poetic allegory.

The same for Yad Hashem, where the connotation is mightiness.

This has nothing to do with whether other instances may or may not intend to ascribe corporeality to God. It is about getting a feel for the theme of the text and what role the specific phrase plays. And in this, I find Rambam fairly convincing on the level of peshat about many of the descriptions of God.

joshwaxman said...

This, of course, does not necessarily mean that early Chazal held the same conception that I do (whatever conception I may have) or even one that is equal to the Biblical perspective.

Once again, in order to determine what Chazal meant, we need to examine the context of their statements and decide whether corporeality was intended.

My criticism of the student on the bus, of his friend, and of the school was not based on the particular conclusion he came to about God's corporeality or about the meaning of that midrash. Rather, in order to come up with this "proof" of God's corporeality, and be so utterly convinced so as to respond earnestly to the Christian bus driver about this as the Jewish position, you must be utterly aware of the position of the Rambam on this statement. You must be unaware that the Rambam would take issue with such a literal interpretation of this midrash, and would provide an allegorical one. Rather, you would hear a midrash in the gemara, not wrestle with any theological issues whatsoever, not consider any cues within the midrash itself that it is allegorical (I'll get to that in a moment), but simply take it at its utmost face value.

That reflects a tragic level of ignorance of ikkarei emuna.

joshwaxman said...

Now, to determine what Pharisee Chazal held about God's corporeality, we have to assess various sources. Perhaps they were unanimous in their assessment of this issue, or perhaps not.

If they were unanimous, we can perhaps take certain statements of Pharisaic Chazal that seem to decry statements of God's corporeality/visibility as heretical. Thus, see my post on parshablog here about the tragic death of the prophet Isaiah. He was killed by King Menashe on the assumption that his statements contradicted the Torah, for he claimed to see Hashem. Of course, one can take this many ways. We would need to go through all various statements and see whether there is unambiguous rejection of corporeality anywhere.

However, we could or should take each midrash independently as well, and see from content and context if we can assess whether it was intended literally or figuratively.

In the context of this particular midrash, there are certain poetic elements inherent in God matching Israel's devotion to Him and Him alone by wearing parallel tefillin that describe His devotion to them and them alone as a nation, that strongly suggests that an allegorical interpretation is due here.

This is not due to my own conceptions about God's corporeality or lack thereof, but an assessment based on features of the midrash itself. It calls out to me "darsheni!"

joshwaxman said...

Also, while I often argue against midrashim being taken figuratively, as I tried to stress, this is not to say that I would not often find allegorical interpretations the most compelling.

However, the criteria for deciding a midrash's literalness or figurativeness must be (or so I posit) internal factors, rather than external factors such as what one (in modern times) would like to believe.

Recently, I wrote a post about whether Rav Nachman predicted Erez Lavanon's murder. In the course of that post, I noted that a cryptic statement in the gemara had features that would lead one to take it allegorically. See there for what I mean. But this must be done carefully, on a case by case basis.

And when one proffers an allegorical explanation, one should first take care to understand the midrash in context, see what features/themes of the text are being picked up on, and offer an explanation in line with that, rather than just making one up off the cuff.

My wife needs the computer, so I'll sign off for now.
Kol Tuv,

seraphya said...

There are many things which a Yeshiva High School education doesn't give you. This is just one of them.

Its nice in theory (possibly) but this is giving free reign to educators to insert their dogma into students heads. I don't think any MO school would take that risk considering how most have an abundance of Haredi staff.

Also, students will have problems with some of the Iqarim, a certain reality if they have been unexposed to them, or they have been taught differently at home. How would you teach it without alienating those students to Judaism?

joshwaxman said...

you make a good point. especially learning something that "one has an obligation to believe X," which is after all what the ikkarei emunah are. I would imagine, though, that Rambam would say - "great! they *should* be indoctrinated with these truths. We wouldn't want them to be heretics."


They could teach them as texts, as what X says and what Y says. Teaching is more inspirational, though, when the teacher himself believes what he is saying rather than just giving detached scientific analysis.

not being active in Jewish education, I don't know that I have any useful answers for this.

it probably depends on the specific high school and the specific teachers and students.

i know that in some girls' schools, there certainly is indoctrination that goes on. and so some girls swallow it whole. some disagree vocally. some silently. some go home and ask their parents whether they really need to believe X, and assuming their parents are up on the subject and up to the task, this is a good thing.

I wonder, though, if early indoctrination is all that bad, in that it cannot be compensated for later on by exposure to other material on a more sophisticated level. particularly in (more modern) social groups where this is possible.

but once again, I don't know what is effective educationally for elementary and high school students.


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