Modern Orthodox Education Attack!

Jeff just wants his Talmud teacher to shoot straight for once.

As summer draws to a close, a thought experiment for Jewish educators:

You are the principal of a Jewish high school in the NY/NJ metro area with a student population of 200. The hashkafa (religious outlook) of your institution is firmly Modern Orthodox (MO), based 100% in traditional Jewish legal and philosophical texts. A staunch believer in Modern Orthodoxy as the Jewish ideal, you envision a sustainable 100% Modern Orthodox graduation rate as your school’s optimal output. You have two pedagogical options: A and B.

Option A will produce 100 law-abiding, philosophically aligned students and 100 unengaged, soon-to-be-unaffiliated graduates.

Option B will produce 200 students of varying religious observance, along a sliding spectrum ranging from “Ultra-Orthodox” to “unaffiliated.” 40 identify as “Modern Orthodox” and only 10 reject or lose their Jewish identity. The rest become proud Jews of all stripes – Haredi, Egalitarian, Conservative, Traditional, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist, Messianist, Spiritual, etc…distributed evenly across the spectrum.

Which one do you choose?

Option A clearly has some kind of polarizing effect. It pulls many students towards its absolute ideal, but it also repels many students to the opposite extreme. Option B only yields a 20% success rate in churning out its ideal student, yet it produces a more even distribution of “Jewishness” in its graduating population and a 95% “Jewish identity rate.”

I don’t know if there is a good answer to this crude dilemma – and crude it is. To take option A is to sacrifice half of the Jewish population (potentially, to intermarriage) in order to maintain a robust Orthodox core. Jewish attrition is high and fast in this case, but a perceived “ideal” is preserved. Option B may substantially slow the rate of attrition, but it does so while shifting the locus of power and influence away from Modern Orthodoxy.

The above scenario may seem simplistic. Indeed, it is a hypothetical binary that ignores the many complexities of educational practice and modern Jewish life. It presumes that Jewish educators have uniform expectations of their students and that they strive to produce any kind of ideal graduate. But I do think that the methods we use today in Modern Orthodox education roughly fall into two categories, necessarily producing something that approaches one of the two above results.

My skepticism of the current state of affairs in Orthodox Jewish education is based on a very simple fact: Our educational institutions have only adopted two methods of conveying educational material – preaching and teaching. Human beings, on the other hand – especially teenagers – are diverse and unpredictably reactive.

The well-meaning preachers of our schools use Modern Orthodoxy as a blunt weapon. They lob dogma at students in the classroom, failing to address many of the assumptions underlying religious practice, and impose religious strictures in the hallway. Talmud instructors dive into Shakla V’Taria (the “back and forth” in Talmudic argumentation) on day one without defending the legitimacy of Talmudic logic. Chumash teachers ask “What’s bothering Rashi?” before explaining the relationship between Drash (homiletics) and Pshat (plain meaning) in his commentary. Tzitzit police (or the Jewish TSA) pat down un-fringed male students. Dress czars keep their eyes peeled for exposed thighs and midriffs. Administrators drown their students in a sea of blue and white on Yom Ha’atzmaut, soaking their spongy skulls in the Zionist narrative. All this in the name of maintaining a thick “Modern Orthodox atmosphere” sure to capture the minds and souls of the student body.

Unlike the preachers, the teachers in Modern Orthodox schools treat Torah like a college discipline. Afraid of threatening students with frankness about the rigors and demands of Modern Orthodoxy, they invite their students to approach the biblical and legal canon in their own manner. They guide discussion, offering legitimate feedback on form, but refusing to offer final judgments on substance. The Chumash teacher accepts the most imaginative readings of the text in the name of shiv’im panim, and the Talmud instructor treats the gemara like a primary source document in a Western Civ course. The dress code welcomes individuality and eccentricity and frames the rules of religious wear in terms of “respect for the norms of the institution.” Israel education loses its Zionist fervor and joins the greater narrative of Near Eastern history. The school remains nominally “Modern Orthodox,” and its openness and tolerance of opinion, assumes the teacher, will make MO an attractive option for the graduating student.

But both methods are flawed, and both have unintended consequences. Preaching is akin to fishing with explosives. Its goals may be admirable, but its methods are harmful to many. At the end of the day, the preachers will capture lots of Modern Orthodox “fish,” but they will also blow some to unsalvageable pieces.

That teenagers question organized religion should come as a surprise to no one. But when we force Jewish students to consume the ideas, practices, and learning methods of a minority sect of a minority religion without addressing our assumptions, can we really be surprised when many students reject Modern Orthodoxy outright?

Is there a fish metaphor for “teaching” methods? Teaching, I suppose, is similar to laying out a fishing net with no bait to actively entice the fish. Some fish are bound to swim in the direction of the net, but most fish will swim every which way in seemingly random fashion. By simply presenting information and giving students free reign to do with it what they will, MO educators risk letting their students, unchained from ideology, choose their own religious paths. Considering the natural diversity of human character, this will inevitably lead to a colorful mixture of sectarian identifications at graduation.

Clearly, options A and B from our thought experiment represent the “preaching” method and the “teaching” method, respectively. And, in case my skepticism hasn’t bled through the page, I think both methods stink. Many people will argue that a balance must be struck in educating our high schoolers about Judaism, that we must push, but not too hard. Many will claim that preaching works as long as we stress the “modernity” in Modern Orthodoxy, as long as we prove that “Jews can have fun too!” Some say we don’t push hard enough, that the lack of emphasis on halacha and machshava leaves students painfully unaware of the foundations and strictures of our religion. And the few defeatists will surrender the fight, bowing to the magnetic strength of a soulless modern world.

But the attitude underlying all of these approaches fundamentally undermines the thankless project of religious education. Both the preacher and the teacher treat their students like laboratory mice, like fickle, manipulable experimental subjects. MO education has become a study in manipulation, in the art of presentation. We spend our efforts on the advertisement of Modern Orthodoxy, and we have lost our focus on the product itself. We have become so concerned with religious retention and rejection rates that we keep asking the wrong questions about religious education. Instead of asking, “how can we keep our children religious,” we should be asking “why are we religious in the first place?” When our teachers are able to answer that question with absolute confidence and integrity, our students will follow suit. High schoolers are not stupid. They can see through the smoke and mirrors that so often cloud the pathetic attempts at keeping them religious.

So how do we approach 100% success? How do we attract students to Modern Orthodoxy? The answer isn’t to make MO attractive, but to defend its inherent attractiveness. Let the philosophy and practice of Modern Orthodoxy speak for itself. Let it stand, on its own, against Ultra-Orthodoxy, Conservatism, Reformism, and cultural Judaism. And, finally, trust that it is worthy of widespread acceptance.

We need integrity, apology, and transparency in our school systems. Without integrity, Modern Orthodoxy seems porous and inconsistent. How often do MO schools employ Judaic studies teachers who preach, but do not represent (and often reject), the tenets of Modern Orthodoxy? How often do they simplify programming on Zionism and Israeli-Arab relations to almost comical levels? Schools need to be honest about the wrinkles and warts in our history and beliefs, and they need to practice exactly what it is they preach.

Without apology, we leave our worldview open to attack from others. The best offense in MO education is a staunch defense of our beliefs coupled with critical, but charitable analysis of competing philosophies. How many mechanchim are capable of answering tough theological questions with intellectual honesty and substantive knowledge of Jewish thought? How often do students finish high school, only to be exposed to fresh and exciting strains of Judaism in college that shake their former commitment to Orthodoxy? We need to address these issues in high school by hiring instructors who are not only Torah scholars, but reliable champions of the creed. We need to start offering courses in contemporary Jewish thought and in Modern Orthodoxy itself. And we need to paint a complete picture of Israel’s history, explaining why the Zionist narrative is the best interpretation of the facts. We cannot simply preach our creed. We must defend it tooth and nail.

Finally, we need transparency. We need to be open and honest about the goals of our institutions. As I’ve said before, students can see through the fog. They know when back-room religious politicking pollutes the halls and classrooms, and they can smell an attempt at kiruv from miles away.

As you ponder the thought experiment, don’t fall prey to the framing trap. Consider whether all the discussion in modern academia about “method” in religious education ignores the most important question of all: Is Modern Orthodox the best?

If we can answer that, the rest will follow.


– Winch