HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

On Not Teaching Belief in a Jewish Day School

by Daniel B. Kohn Issue: Nurturing Faith

Many years ago I had a conversation with a fellow Judaic studies teacher that touched on the topic of nurturing faith. She had asked me for some teaching advice and rabbinic sources with which to teach her Tanakh classes. As we were discussing our respective teaching styles, she declared that she felt that it was her mission as a Judaic studies teacher to instill in her students a belief in G-d and in the divinity of the Torah. I did not respond but her comment troubled me for some time afterwards as I considered her words.

It took me a while to articulate my thoughts, but what I came to realize upon reflection is that my goal is just the opposite. I believe that the role of Jewish educators is very different from the one enunciated by my fellow teacher. It is not our job to teach students what to believe. Rather, it is our job to present our students with traditional Jewish sources and viewpoints and allow them to decide on their own how they want to express their own unique Jewish identity and what ever beliefs that they or their families choose to believe.

When I first began teaching in Jewish day schools twenty years ago, I discovered that it is nearly impossible to teach any Judaic studies subject, whether Tanakh, rabbinics, life cycle, Jewish holidays, or even Hebrew language without touching upon some subject of belief and faith. No subject is immune from such discussions. Especially because I am a rabbi, even when I teach occasional classes on subjects not directly related to a theological subject, questions about personal belief in G-d, the divinity of the Torah, life after death, resurrection, angels, the problem of evil and more inevitably and naturally arise. I welcome such questions because it confirms how inquisitive and interested young people are for some guidance in such complicated and subtle issues.

However, I approach discussions with my students about theology and personal belief with a great deal of care and caution. I believe that it is vitally important for teachers to be open and honest about their beliefs and religious practices with their students. If students cannot trust or respect their teachers’ honesty and integrity, then there is very little reason for them to accept other religious lessons from their teachers. I believe that issues of personal theological belief must be approached carefully and perhaps even indirectly in the classroom for two reasons.

The first reason is that when a teacher directly reveals his or her personal beliefs in a classroom, one possible outcome is that some students may either virulently agree or disagree with the teacher. Either reaction can seriously impede the teacher-student relationship. I remember when I was in high school my American history teacher was a flag-waving, patriotic-slogan spouting politically reactionary Republican. Certainly he had a right to his own political beliefs, and he also had an obligation to be honest with his students about his political opinions. However, the constant interjection of his political views interfered with the subject. It wasn’t that my history teacher was seeking to “convert” me to his party affiliation or political beliefs. Rather, I felt that he was teaching American History with a strong political spin. Even when we weren’t discussing overtly political topics, I always felt that I had to filter out the politics from the information that he was teaching. I also never knew what was his personal political opinion he was trying to foist on us or what was a more neutral presentation of issues. Perhaps if he hadn’t been so overt in thrusting his political stripes into the classroom, I might have had an easier time in his class. As it was, I felt that I had to be on guard in his class all the time.

I came to my emphatic stance on neutrality of teaching faith the hard way—by engaging in the very explicit faith-based approach of my fellow Judaic studies teacher. When I first started out as a zealous young rabbi and Judaic studies teacher, I harbored the same fervor to transform all of my students inro committed, knowledgeable, observant Jews. It may well be that I was just a poor educator or my approach too heavy-handed, but those first classes were disasters. My students bridled against my positions, rebelled against my approaches and mutinied against my authority. The very intimacy that I sought in my teacher-student relationships eluded me precisely because of my heavy-handed methodology.

Whenever a teacher in a Jewish classroom trumpets his or her own theological beliefs, whether other students agree or disagree is irrelevant. That teacher has just created a new impediment in teaching his or her students. Every student will unconsciously filter and critique all information learned in that class based on what they know about that teacher’s personal theology. The overt presentation of a teacher’s personal theological positions can potentially create further obstacles in the fostering of the teacher-student relationship in the classroom.

The second reason that I approach theological issues of personal belief carefully and discretely is that I believe that many students are so eager and thirsty for spiritual guidance that they may be ready to adopt, uncritically and unthinking, any theological statements that their teachers may make. Many years ago I taught an advanced high school class about the Documentary Hypothesis of the origins of the Torah in an informative, tolerant and intellectually open classroom environment. I felt very strongly about not wanting to threaten anyone’s beliefs and feelings about the divinity of the Torah. I had thought that I had succeeded when I asked my class if they felt that the theory that we had been learning had some merit or not. In other words, did they think that there was a basis for positing the Documentary Hypothesis? If not or if so, what had they found compelling or not persuasive? One student raised his hand and admitted that some of the information had convinced him that it was possible. I seized upon his answer in hopes of strengthening his critical reasoning skills by asking why. He stared at me dumbfounded for a moment and then meekly said, “Because you said so”! Even under the best of circumstances it is difficult to avoid influencing the personal, private beliefs of students.

The challenge is that while it is vital as Jewish educators to be open and honest about our own beliefs and theology, I also believe that we seriously impede the spiritual growth and development of our students when we are too overt or enthusiastic about detailing our own beliefs. As Jewish educators, our personal beliefs and theologies were formed as a result of years of life experiences, education and experimentation over a long period of time. Our system of adult beliefs evolved in response to our life experiences—the very element that our young students lack. When we prove too eager to share the results of our personal process of learning and critical thinking, we stifle such processes in our students.

I believe that it is not our job to teach students what to believe. Rather, it is our job to present our students with traditional Jewish sources and a variety of viewpoints and allow them the freedom and support to decide on their own—along with their family’s input—what they choose to believe.

I don’t know how many times students have asked me, “Well, Rabbi, what do you believe?” While I certainly have been sorely tempted to answer, I have refrained from sharing my views too explicitly, too directly, in front of the classroom in a didactic way. I have directed my students to other sources and invited them to return to me with what their own thoughts. I have issued open invitations to come and speak with me one-on-one in my office. I have challenged students to reason through their beliefs together with me to further explore their own emerging ideas. However, I am very cautious because I don’t want to jeopardize my teacher-student relationships that I have forged. I also don’t want to deprive them of the experiments in critical thinking and the experience of independent learning.

Growing up in a predominantly Christian and even evangelical country, many of us—especially Jews—may have had the experience of being proselytized by missionizing Christians of one flavor or another. When it has happened to me in the past, I have remembered thinking that despite the outward respect and deference that such evangelicals have shown me, they had actually been denigrating my intellectual capacities and ability to think for myself.

Whenever educators set out to “teach belief,” I believe that we subtly disparage our students from thinking for themselves and deny them the opportunity to make their own independent intellectual decisions.

Perhaps I was so disturbed by my fellow Tanakh teacher’s comment because I viscerally understood the connection between what she perceived as her mission to be as a Jewish studies teacher in a Jewish day school and Christian evangelical proselytizers. As Jewish educators, we should not have faith-based personal missions. Nor should it be our avowed goal to convince our students to believe in God or the divinity of the Torah. That is their business, not ours. If this is the case, then what should be the goal of Jewish educators?

My answer is that Jewish educators should stress the important and legitimate role that personal theological beliefs may play in our own lives and others. However, the content of that belief is not for anyone else to determine. I believe that my role is to encourage students to wrestle with their beliefs and to help them to understand the implications of various options. In class, I frequently engage students in very intense and personal conversations about religious beliefs. I always inform them of my willingness to share my own personal views in a less public setting. However, I insist that they share an equal responsibility to work out their own beliefs and not simply adopt whatever I might have to say without question. I also emphasize the importance and legitimacy of being confused! Not all questions of personal belief can or should be answered quickly. Living with tension and ambiguity can help focus the questions for many students and enable them to better frame the parameters of the answers they may generate.

While I may not have shared my fellow teacher’s sense of “mission” to instill a belief in God and the divinity of the Torah in our students, this does not mean that I am not interested in encouraging students to develop their own theologies. On the contrary, I believe that through the study of Jewish subjects and biblical and rabbinic texts, students will be exposed to a wide spectrum of historically traditional Jewish beliefs that will influence the development of their personal beliefs. The study of such texts provides students with the opportunity to critically evaluate various theologies and encourages them to develop their own based on our tradition. The teaching of belief can be more effectively instituted indirectly, through the careful and critical study of the classical texts of the Jewish tradition, rather than through a frontal assault. Teachers should encourage students to think independently, experiment and develop their own beliefs. Jewish educators should also be prepared to support students when they become confused or despondent, and legitimate their feelings of confusion and ambivalence.

There are plenty of political and religious leaders who are all-too-willing and all-too-quick to think for us and make decisions for us. Therefore, we as Jewish educators must stand as a vanguard and provide our students with the skills, information and confidence to think for themselves. We must respect our students’ right—and their family’s—to believe whatever they choose to believe. And perhaps—because nothing is ever certain—if we have been effective in presenting the viewpoints and sources of our tradition, and we have been careful in respecting the intelligence and ability of our students to think for themselves, then just maybe we will succeed in creating a generation of intellectually open, religiously tolerant, knowledgeable and committed Jews who will be able to share their tolerance and intellectual openness with their non-Jewish neighbors and make this world a little bit more tolerant, pluralistic and safer for all of us no matter our race or religion. ♦

Rabbi Daniel Kohn, the author of several books of Judaica and numerous articles in print and online, is Rabbi-in-Residence of the Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette, CA, and a Master Teacher for Lehrhaus Judaica, a center for adult Jewish studies in the San Francisco Bay Area. He can be reached at RabbiDan@ccjds.org.

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Faith is the most elusive quality to inculcate, the hardest to measure. Yet at some level, everything Jewish day schools seek to achieve depends upon it. The sense of belonging and connection that is fundamental to Jewish identity resides, at heart, in a sense of emunah, of trust and belief in something larger than ourselves. This issue considers factors that nourish Jewish faith of different kinds.

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