Guest Post by
Dr. Vivian Skolnick
Orthodox Judaism is flourishing. Never have we had so much education on such a high and intensive level for men and women.
One cannot fail to be impressed with the level of chesed (organized community concern) we see being displayed daily in the orthodox community. Any family in need can get help; food, clothing, wedding dresses, employment opportunities, medical care, car service, etc. are readily available. What else can we do to improve? Buy Kiddush insurance!
The following will illustrate my point.
In many large cities today, the following scenario is being played out almost every shabbos morning. The shul is burgeoning with devout daveners (worshippers). The decorum is generally (with local variations) one of quiet and reverence. Meanwhile, children are frequently seen running and playing in the halls or outer lobby. The service ends. The locked doors to the social hall where the kiddush is being held are flung open. Suddenly, the inner synagogue decorum vanishes. There is a mad scramble to get to the tables laden with food. The children and adults lead the charge, pushing and shoving to get there first. They attack the kiddush tables as if they had just received a reprieve from Auschwitz. There are no words such as “excuse me for bumping or knocking you over.” Parents seem to have little concern where their children are, or even to monitor or teach them appropriate behavior. In fact they seem to feel that this responsibility belongs to others. The unmannerly behavior of the adults is observed by their children and modeled accordingly. Some adults lean over and “own” parts of the kiddush table, “staking a claim” to that spot as it were, and do not move until they are sated. Going to kiddush can be a dangerous business, requiring some form of liability insurance to protect yourself.
Many years ago, when my children were young, they attended a supervised junior congregation service on Sabbath morning conducted by their peers. Before the Rabbi’s sermon they marched quietly into the main synagogue, sat in a reserved section to listen to the sermon, and participated with the adults in the musaf service. Children did not spend time running or playing in the halls. They were brought by their parents to learn how to daven respectfully in a shul. The service ended, adults and children walked orderly into the kiddush. If, by chance, a child or adult bumped another, the words “excuse me” were used. Some even helped others, especially the elderly to find a place to sit, and moved away from the table so others could have access. Parents reprimanded their children if they were not mannerly. What seems to have caused this change?
There seems to have developed a split between observing ritual practices and ethical behavior, i.e., middos. One of the main ways children learn is through modeling. This is the process of watching the behavior of their parents and other admired persons. The younger children then copy this behavior. Later, teachers, rabbis and other historically prominent figures serve as role models, thereby offering them a broader range of choices. . This process is often characterized by the expression “education is not taught, but caught.” Let’s look at some of the causes for this split or dissonance between what is taught and what is caught.
Jews have always admired excellence in education. Day school teachers strive to produce the best possible students especially in Judaic Studies. There are many teachers who are exemplary role models for middos, and there are yeshivas whose curricula represent a good balance between Torah knowledge and ethical behavior. Nevertheless, it is widely observed that in their zeal to provide the best education, mastering the text becomes the focal point of their studies instead of how it impacts on the child’s behavior in every day life beyond the classroom. In so doing they tend to cater to the smartest level of the class leaving other children feeling less capable, not good enough for the teacher’s personal attention. Education then becomes a materialistic collection of knowledge. At worst, this kind of teacher may demean the slower learner in front of his peers. Children see that some students are marginalized or embarrassed, leading to this split or disconnect between the Torah values they study in their texts, and what they observe practiced in the classroom. It is generally acknowledged that today many day school teens are increasingly religiously at risk. Little wonder that these students are often the ones who later on rebel and are referred to as “off the derech” (off the right path) especially when they reach college age.
This split is then transferred in the child’s mind to the community at large. Where the media exposes him to further examples of dissonance between what he learned in school and what he sees practiced in the real world. For example, the recent exposés of rabbis and teachers being convicted of sexual abuse and other criminal activities. One of the most blatant examples is the case involving Yeshiva University’s high school department where a suit was brought by a number of former students who were sexually abused. Two important Torah laws were violated by the professionals involved. The first is that if you injure someone you are obligated to pay damages (see Exodus chap 21). The second is that the abuses consisted of homosexual acts, specifically prohibited in the Torah (Leviticus 18:22). “How is it possible for Torah teachers to ‘sin’ against the very laws they have been teaching us?” is the confused message they receive. This split widens when the more sensitive of our youth see that these same confessed criminals are then defended and supported by others in the religious community. In fact, these defenders of the convicted then turn against the victims, accusing them of betrayal, because they had the courage to speak up and do what the Torah says, “and thou shalt root out evil in thy midst.” Unfortunately, these victims then become pariahs and are forced to leave their communities. So can we blame our youth who see this split and are faced with the difficult choice of either rejecting their religious education or accepting the cynical idea that ethical behavior and Torah study are mutually exclusive as long as one observes the ritual commandments scrupulously.
What about the traditional influence expected of parents as the dominant role models in shaping the attitudes of their children? How does this relate to coping with this split between formal education and behavior beyond the confines of the school? Many parents, for a variety of reasons, have ceded this responsibility to the Day Schools who are in daily contact with their children from day to night, from kindergarten through high school. The day school rebbes have often become the de facto parents in loco parentis. Parents are becoming increasingly dependent on the day schools to provide their children with the direction and structure that traditionally belonged to them.
It is time to go back to the Torah values that are supposed to set the standard for raising children. We need teachers that are models of middos, ethical behavior, both in and out of the classroom. We need parents to regain control of the family by serving as the key shapers of their children’s value system. We need an educational and rabbinical system that will work together to address this growing split between classroom education and ethical behavior in the community at large. This onerous responsibility deserves the support of all of us. We have the Torah that has provided us with the greatest religion ever produced. Nevertheless, at times, as with all precious possessions, it needs some fine-tuning by improving our middos as we have done so well in fulfilling our religious rituals. When that happens we will no longer need to consider buying Kiddush insurance.
Vivian B. Skolnick, Ph.D is a retired psychoanalyst and author of The Biblical Path to Psychological Maturity.