Thinking Jewishly: The Role of Student Programs in a Judaics Curriculum

Dr. Larry Kutler, Head of School

Jewish day schools are in a unique position to transmit the Jewish tradition to their students in an environment that is nurturing, inquisitive and embedded with elements of excellence. If we were successful in this transmission and linked our chain to the Torah that was revealed to Moshe and transmitted to Joshua, etc., we would have fulfilled our duties and we could collectively say “dayyenu.” However, it is not enough. We would not be preparing our students for the challenges that await them on campus and in the workplace. Students need to learn to work in groups, think critically and imaginatively. One excellent way that schools can help their students gain 21st century skills and achieve vital Jewish objectives is through participation in outstanding student programming.

Our schools are tasked with twin responsibilities in the educational domain. The first is to deliver a first-class secular education that rivals our competitors in the private and public school systems. This would include all the disciplines of the Western canon, namely math, science, language and literature, and the arts, with STEM as a welcome recent addition. The second is to impart the Jewish canon, which includes Torah, rabbinics, Israel study, Hebrew language, etc. Most day schools deliver on both canons to the general satisfaction of the student and parent bodies. Here too we could say dayyenu and claim that we have fulfilled our vision and mission statements. We have completed our curricula.

But have we?

Perhaps our students learn to solve problems, face challenges, and contribute to the general culture. They perform well on standardized tests, at science fairs and artistic competitions. But there is the Jewish canon to consider. Aside from specific texts that we want students to know and decoding skills we want them to have, I would propose there’s a deeper goal that Jewish day schools aim for: challenging students to think Jewishly. Do they graduate with the ability to see the world differently and from an enriched perspective? Thinking Jewishly is a process whereby the student will not look for easy answers to intricate questions. Instead, students will probe texts and sources in order to uncover the right questions and values that propel them to think and struggle.

Thinking Jewishly often leads to further soul searching and reflection. This year’s Moot Beit Din program (discussed below) offers an apt illustration. The case involves a sick person, where action or inaction could prolong the life of a person. Students must probe halakhic sources to determine what should be advised. We are commanded not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbor—what does this mean? What other questions are necessary? What is the role of analogy in determining the moral imperative or the Jewish value? How can these lessons be applied to other circumstances? This process, when properly applied and complemented with the Western logical system, can offer students greater insight and perhaps transform the perplexing system of Jewish law into an enabling one guiding their ethical descision-making.

Over the years RAVSAK has presented many programs to our schools. I want to speak to two of them: Moot Beit Din and Jewish Court of All Time. Do these programs help us to teach our students to think Jewishly, and if so how? What is the Jewish way of thinking? Why is it a benefit to our student body?

The Moot Beit Din is RAVSAK’s high school program in intensive Jewish study. As explained on the RAVSAK website, “Moot Beit Din exposes high school students to the vitality of the Jewish legal system and helps them to fine-tune their critical thinking skills by applying Halakhah (Jewish law) to hot topics such as stem cell research or immigration policy. Grappling with current issues from a rabbinical perspective, students learn to think on their feet, connect the past and the present, and create a compelling case. … [Teams] produce written arguments. They then present their oral reports and defend their conclusions before a panel of judges while they are all gathered together for a weekend-long Shabbaton.”
I believe that the program does far more. In our school, Herzliah High School in Montreal, it has changed the very culture of the school. Each year 36 students compete for limited spots in the international Moot Beit Din competition. We have our own mini-Moot Beit Din, invite our own judges and allow parents and selected students to see the process unfold. Our students use their free time at lunch, on the weekends, and after school to sharpen their knowledge and learn to think Jewishly. By this I mean, they grow to understand that simple quick responses to complex questions is not a part of the Jewish tradition. Through havruta work and mentoring, they learn that one studies in order to ask the right questions and to search for the competing values, ways of thinking, and issues that are behind the texts.

The students learn that Jewish thinking, more often than not, leads to further questions and reflection. They force themselves to confront difficult issues and ask how traditional values can compete for a viewpoint. In a Moot Beit Din competition, it is quite common for different groups to argue distinct viewpoints even when using the same texts. Each answer creates another question. Analysis of text is not enough; association and imagination are also prerequisites. This is thinking Jewishly. This is wrestling with the words of God. This is the delivery of the Jewish canon.

The depth of analysis, collaboration and excitement generated by the Moot Beit Din or a similar program can serve as a cornerstone of a curriculum that aims to endow students with the ability to think Jewishly. At Herzliah, we use the program to engage students in a set course of study in order to learn the skills of argument, to acquire the ability to navigate rabbinic texts, to foster the dispositions to work in groups and to create more questions. Students learn to separate the trees from the forest in rabbinic argument. The curriculum is set up to encourage dialectic and expects the students to be inventive and bold. The students learn these skills in the formal classroom and significantly, in their preparation for Moot Beit Din, done on their own time.

In the Shmoneh Esrei prayer we find the phrase Hashiveinu ‘avinu letoratekha, “May you [God] our Father, return us to your Torah.” This Torah is the Torah of thinking Jewishly, the Torah that our students discover through Moot Beit Din by engaging text on multiple levels and convincing judges that they are erudite and correct.

RAVSAK’s middle-school program in Jewish history, the Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT), creates an environment where students are challenged to role play, to think Jewishly and to persuade passionately. (For a fuller description, see the article by Deborah Skolnick Einhorn in this issue.) The use of empathy in role playing is a highlight of this program. Students assume roles and act out the responses of the protagonists. This exploration of historical figures creates a venue for the students to explore the roots of diversity of opinion within the Jewish identity of the characters. Interestingly enough, the Talmud Torah middle schoolers are asked to imagine the responses of real historical figures to current events. Students research the responses of the characters to events and become aware of the multiple nature of argument, the wide tent of Jewish identity and the myriad approach to ethical issues. All of this contributes to the Jewish identity of the participants and develops their capacity to think Jewishly. Both the cognitive and affect areas of curricula are enjoined as a result of this program.

The challenge to the North American Jewish day school is to find ways to inspire students to think Jewishly. This is not simply a call to more Jewish textuality; it is a call for a meaningful complement of the two canons. Integrating student programs such as RAVSAK’s Moot Beit Din and JCAT into the school’s curriculum is a powerful means to achieve this goal. The challenges of the university and the workplace can better be met when our students know how to work in havrutas (or groups), perform well when faced with challenges, and most importantly come from a value-laden background. Perhaps this is also not dayyenu, but it is substantive and relevant.

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HaYidion Jewish Literacy and Curriculum Spring 2016
Jewish Literacy and Curriculum
Spring 2016