Monday, December 28, 2009

Jewish Education: Time for a New Approach?

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who recently became a baal tshuva. I've known this guy since we were in middle school and I've never known him to be religious. He was always very spiritual, mind you, but also always turned off by Orthodoxy as he understood it.

This latest move in his life was due to his encounter with a more spiritual, musical, joyous version of Orthodoxy, of which he now considers himself a part. (Won't specify, so as not to give away any identifiying information.)

Anyway, we ended up having this whole conversation about why he only found religion now, in his late 20s, after so many years of looking for something. From his perspective, much of the blame goes to the Jewish education system. To him, the approach our school took to Jewish education turned him away from Judaism.

On my part, I can't blame my school for my current status as an "off-the-derech" adult. The reasons I don't believe and don't practice in an Orthodox way have more to do with the fact that I have serious intellectual (and a few moral) issues with Orthodoxy.

That said, I see my friend's point. So many of my other OTD friends, it seems, were turned off by the approach their Jewish day schools took in teaching them Judaism. (I know someone who feels sick just stepping inside a black hat-type environment because it reminds him of being forced to learn gemarah till the late hours of the night.)

By the approach the schools take, I mean that they make Judaism into a dry, academic subject that really doesn't have much of a joyous component to it. The tests, the grades, the rote-memorization (After 15+ years, I can still recite the first Rashi in Tanach by heart! WHY?!), the lack of innovation in topics and/or approaches.

And the way I see it, it's completely unnecessary and illogical. People are different from each other, have different strengths, different interests, and different ways they learn. I see serious problems with the way the secular education system is run in our country on this level, as well. But secular education is mandated by the government; Jewish education is not. It can be approached however a school wants to approach it.

For example, why do Jewish schools force all their students to take Chumash, Navi, Gemarah, etc., for hours and hours each day? In theory, they could allow students to approach Judaism in whatever way inspires or interests them. There could be classes in Jewish music (playing, creating, or studying -- whatever appeals), in the Jewish arts (whether that means learning calligraphy in order to become a sofer, designing ketubahs, or just generic art), in practical and everyday Jewish trades (checking for shatnez, kashering/slaughtering, checking mezuzot, etc.), maybe even in Jewish mysticism (although many schools might have problems with this one...).

Orthodox Judaism is a religion whose rules, regulations, and culture permeate every aspect of its adherents' lives. Why are its schools so narrowly focused, so obsessed with making everyone a gemarah/Tanach expert? Not that those subjects shouldn't be studied. They should! And everyone should be taught the rudimentary skills for learning them. But does every single student need to be forced to learn these subjects for hours a day? I say no. Especially when it turns so many people off.