Encouraging not scoffing

June 16, 2011 by

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I’ve been getting really wound up by a series of articles that my friend Rabbi Daniel Gordis has been writing about trainee North American Rabbis and their connection to Israel. His latest one in Commentary just wouldn’t let me rest. While acknowledging that aspects of his problem analysis are sharp and spot-on, I think that the educational consequences of tackling the problem as he defines it are mistaken and damaging.

Danny’s heart is broken because

in the case of these rabbinical students, there is not an instinct that should be innate—the instinct to protect their own people first, or to mourn our losses first.

So here is my first problem. As an educator, I have no idea how I can teach something “innate”. I simply don’t believe that the support of Israel is a genetic disposition. It is something that is “taught and caught”.

I may be misunderstanding Danny’s use of the word “innate”. His article plays so fast and furious with the words “instinct” and “innate”, that it’s not clear if he is referring to nature or nurture: Are we facing an issue that education can tackle, or an issue that education can never possibly address?

Danny refers to his own home education.

It was June 1967, and… my parents didn’t eat. They didn’t even sit at the table. All they did was feed us, watch TV, and pace across the kitchen as the news of the Six Day War unfolded… But how could they not be hungry at dinner time? … My Zionist commitments have some innate root in the simple fact that with Israel seemingly on the very precipice of destruction, my parents couldn’t eat.

This strikes me as an unrepresentative and inapplicable example on which to draw. I’m sure that Danny would agree that his family, full of senior leaders and rabbis of the American Conservative movement, is far from representative of the vast majority of Jewish households now and even then. Believe me, if his family had been representative of “average connection to Israel” at the time, we wouldn’t be facing the ongoing emotional detachment of American Jews from Israel that we are!

Of course Zionism was a powerful aspect of the socialization and education he received in such a household. The challenge remains for the educators who have to work with those who are less educationally privileged, and less outstanding scholars as Rabbi Gordis.

Here Danny goes on the offensive:

“Engagement” is a gloriously vague notion, so evanescent in its purposes and intentions that it casts a fog over the clarity provided by genuine commitment: to loyalty, or heritage, or love, or sanctity, or duty.

Well of course he’s right in some sense. Engagement is nothing like Commitment.

If you are talking about politics.

But if we are talking about education, then most educators worth their salt know that commitment is not the opposite of engagement: Commitment is the aim of engagement. I fully agree with the idea that engagement in and of itself is insufficient, but it would be more constructive to encourage these students to see engagement as a means to an end, rather than an indulgent waste of their time.

One of the world experts in professional training, Professor Lee Shulman, defines “engagement” as step number one in a six stage progression (including understanding, action, critique, judgment) on the way to “commitment”. Especially with people who did not receive their innate attachments in the womb, you have to start somewhere!

The only way one could educate for commitment without allowing for engagement or critique, would be to employ what we tend to call “brainwashing”…

Not an advocate of arranged marriages myself, I tend to encourage some period of ‘engagement’ before tying the knot!

What strikes me as most tragic about Danny’s piece is that in describing the problem in such doomsday terms, he has distracted attention from possible solutions. As my boss Yonatan Ariel often teaches me: “Education is a profession of hope.”

Our experience at Makom suggests that the solution does not necessarily lie in the recruitment nor the intentions of Rabbinical schools, but in the structure of their studies.

It would seem that too many Rabbinical courses find it very difficult to send their students to Israel in order to study Israel. Graduate Rabbis are graded according to their liturgical, scriptural, and pastoral capabilities, and not their in-depth knowledge of and connection to contemporary Israel. As a result it is very challenging for a Rabbinical school to take time away from these areas of study and invest them instead in Israel.

Yet if we are working with a troubled, non-innate generation, then ideally rabbinical students would need to study Israel, study their responses to Israel, explore approaches and attitudes, tackle tough issues soberly without hysteria, and have sensitive people around to help them form robust personal connections and professional strategies.

Some Rabbinical schools are currently making important steps in this direction. All who care about the issue should work at encouraging these efforts rather than scoffing at their difficulties.

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