An Analysis of the Clashes Between Judaic and Secular Studies in the Jewish Day School
In the time since Part I of this series appeared, I have been through yet another round of finals, proctoring, lesson planning, and report cards. Enduring the struggle to construct meaningful and relevant lessons for the coming semester while teaching English Literature and Writing in a right-wing yeshiva high school is never simple, and this round was particularly difficult. To understand why, I will need to take you on a short trip through the world of middle and high school literature, its perils and promise, its pitfalls and possibilities.
There are four essential types of literature that are dealt with at this stage: short stories, novels, plays, and poems. Western literature, in particular, seems to be obsessed with two themes above all others, making their presence felt in the pages of the types of works listed here: sex and death. Religion is a common theme as well, but it is often discussed in terms of these two most prominent of topics. The problem with this is that it often makes students and teachers uncomfortable. Shakespeare is a good example: comedies tend to be filled with sex (or at least lewd jokes), and tragedies are filled with death (and often some sex as well). I tend to find the histories kind of boring, but they also tend to be filled with both.
Consequently, the more religious the school, the less willing they are to shove these themes into their studentsâ€™ faces on a regular basis. Therefore, teachers must consider works that are either mild enough to avoid harming the sensibilities of the students and parents, or are straddling that middle ground of themes that are neither romantic nor depressing. Personally, I would rather be more careful in my selection of literature, making sure the works I chose did not need any editing, than present expurgated literature to my students. The term I have heard since my entry into the world of right-wing secular education is tzniyat einayim, literally â€œhiding the eyes.â€ Metaphorically, it implies that just as one should be careful in dressing and behavior to show modesty, one should be careful that the eyes are not exposed to immodest material.
This is a struggle for me every year. In my drive to ensure that non-objectionable material is presented, I often have to endure literature I would prefer to leave aside because it is less problematic than my preferred text. I have come to understand that the trade-off is not the same as intellectual dishonesty, nor is it an unacceptable form of censorship; rather, it is a professional challenge that requires my attention. The challenge is to find literature that does the job I need it to do while meeting levels of moral rigor that are simply beyond most authors. While some consider this inherently dishonest, I see it as an admission that not every student needs to have the most explicit ideas shoved in their faces to make them understand the point. Sometimes, more subtle presentations will be more effective in communicating the relevant ideas, and baseness for shockâ€™s sake (as many films and literature today seem to glory in) is not a literary or intellectual value. In other words, not every movie needs a nude scene to be considered â€œart.â€
But there is another opportunity that is being missed. When considering literature in general, I always ponder the fact that we are called â€œthe people of the Book.â€ The book of our title is of course the Bible, the book of books, the greatest story ever told. Milton may have thought he was writing the most epic of epics in his Paradise Lost, but letâ€™s be honest, it was mostly derivative. The Bible is where itâ€™s at. And shockingly, the more religious the school, the less likely the students are to be familiar with it.
There is a tendency to believe that when it comes to the literature of our faith, the legal intricacies of the Talmud deserve all the attention. Certainly, Talmud study is viewed as the ultimate intellectual exercise, requiring a degree of analysis and sophistication that is pursued mightily by men of great learning and tremendous intelligence. But it seems that, once students discover the Talmud, they are driven and pushed to pursue only the Talmud â€“ all the other forms of learning that formerly occupied their time are given shorter and shorter shrift. Consequently, forms of learning like Chumash (Pentateuch), Navi (Prophets), Mishna, and Hashkafa (Jewish Philosophy) are viewed as something for kids, without the intellectual rigor the Talmud provides. My own studies have shown me that these other forms are no less fascinating, no less sophisticated, no less meaningful, and no less important than Talmud study; in fact, they are often more essential and basic to the bedrocks and foundations of our faith. But their abandonment so early in the education of our youth means they are viewed as kidsâ€™ topics, unworthy of study by the mature mind which, finally developed in adulthood, could gain so much more now that it has the tools with which to truly analyze and plumb the more ancient texts. Surely, the answers to so many of the essential â€œlife questionsâ€ that so torture the developing minds of adolescents are to be found there; it was through my study of Jonah when I was in high school, and not the Talmud, that I began to truly understand the meaning behind my own faith.
It is telling that all of our most important touchstones of faith are texts; that is, even our Oral Torah did not stay oral for very long. The story of our people is bound up in every word, no matter how technical and legal it may seem; even the Talmud is replete with tales and legends, from medical advice and battle statistics to crop-raising techniques and demonology. But it seems like the texts that are more explicitly stories â€“ the books of the Bible, later works of philosophy and thought â€“ are often viewed only from afar. Might these make better fodder for the literature teachers? If the rabbis arenâ€™t teaching Jeremiahâ€™s tales, why canâ€™t I?
The answer is that there is a powerful fear of reductionism when it comes to these works. Essentially, the leaders of the faith are nervous that if we start talking about the Bible the way we talk about Shakespeare or Byron or Twain, the book itself will become no more than another piece of literature. Perhaps that is at the root of the abandonment of these texts once Talmud is introduced: if the students continue to study them, they will just become books, with none of the awe and mystery and reverence they deserve.
While I would never advocate studying the Bible as just another book, one way to read it is clearly as a book. There is much to be learned from Godâ€™s writing style, from His techniques and twists. There are moments, especially in the early parts of Exodus, that give me chills when read, especially in the original Hebrew. The drama and awesomeness of Godâ€™s writing puts any of todayâ€™s action movie directorâ€™s to shame; I challenge any reader to go through the story of the Splitting of the Sea unaffected. While there are obviously multiple levels of meaning and significance, perhaps we could benefit from reflecting on the literary meaning of such a book; at the least, our students would gain new appreciation for the words themselves, and perhaps pay more attention to the moral and ethical messages. How can The Brothers Karamazov compare to the tales of Jacobâ€™s sons? How can Candide hold a candle to Job? By ignoring these magnificent works, we do our students a disservice.
Because I mean this series to express not only my own conflicts and frustrations, but my thoughts on solutions and improvements, I leave you with this suggestion: our study of secular literature must become more intertwined with our study of religious literature. This kind of cross-curricular involvement will lead the students to a more sophisticated understanding of both kinds of writing. The secular, because the Bible is the source of more tropes and plotlines than any work in history. The religious, because with the application of tools of real literary analysis, the Bible can become a touchstone and a constant in the everyday thoughts of students. Simply put, the Bible is too good a book not to teach. Perhaps the literature teachers can sit in on religious courses to better understand the impact of the text; perhaps the rabbis can receive training in literary analysis to better present the other side. Whatever direction the education tends, it is critical that we stop avoiding this magnificent resource because we are scared of it.
After all, God gave us the Book. How could He not want us to read it with every tool we have?