HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Remember to Light a Fire

by Mariashi Groner Issue: Religious Purposefulness

Born and raised as a Chabad woman, I knew that I would live in a city where I would work to bring Judaism to Jewish people who wished to learn about their heritage. I never dreamed that I would be head of school at a community day school, governed by a community-represented board. I did not move to Charlotte, North Carolina, for a career in education. I came with my husband to open a religious educational center for Jews of all ages in the Carolinas. I was never concerned about being able to meet the needs of a diverse group of students with varied practices and beliefs, but I was totally unprepared to operate in a politically driven atmosphere.

I was taught that standing tall with the Torah’s teachings, even when I would feel like I was an anomaly, was the only way to educate.

I always knew that when one taught what one believed to be truth, with complete sincerity, understanding, and sensitivity, the message would be well received. I was taught that standing tall with the Torah’s teachings, even when I would feel like I was an anomaly, was the only way to educate. Eventually my experience validated my theory.

But I still heard people say: “I’m afraid your school is too Jewish.” “How could you teach ‘that’ in your school?” “Aren’t you going to lose your students who attend the Reform synagogue?” “We need to adjust our curriculum so that we don’t offend the student who is not observant.”

Hmmm. Some of what they say makes sense. If we teach a strong belief in G-d, we might offend those that would rather see Jewish teachings as a suggestion. If we ask the boys to wear kippot and do not demand that the girls wear them, too, do we meet the needs of those with an egalitarian preference? If we teach the children that the Torah demands that Jewish people be buried and not cremated, will we hurt the feelings of families who do not choose to observe this commandment?

We all deal with this dilemma. Every day.

So what do I do? Since the prime mission for our school is to teach Judaism, which consists of the Torah and its mitzvot, and, since our goal is to provide a sense of history and heritage for our students, I looked to the Torah for guidance on this issue.

This is what I found: There are three places where our Sages have pointed out how the Torah mandates the responsibility of the educator. This is in addition to the overarching commandment to teach our children Torah, as written in Deuteronomy and recited daily in the Shema. The first is in Leviticus 17, where we are prohibited from eating blood; the second is in Leviticus 22, where we are forbidden to eat insects; and the third is in Leviticus 21, where we are introduced to the importance of ritual purity among the priests. From the written text of these three commandments our Sages learned that “the elders are instructed to teach the youngsters” regarding their laws and application.

It seems to me, and probably to you, that out of all the mitzvot and narratives found in the Torah, the above three commandments do not appear to be relevant to educating our children.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, claims otherwise. He proposes that the message is that even when we believe that we couldn’t possibly succeed, that others would never go for it, or that we might even lose our jobs because of these beliefs, we should still go forward and teach what we know to be the “truth,” even if it is not the popular truth or the “in” truth, or what others want to hear.

How does he come to this conclusion? Because these three laws represent three mitzvot that one might believe would be futile to teach. Why are these mitzvot futile? Well, believe it or not, in biblical times, blood was considered a delicacy. Forbidding the consumption of blood at that time would be like forbidding a hamburger or hot dog in our days. Eating insects, one would think, is disgusting and repulsive. If one were already eating insects and were not repulsed by them, then you can assume that it would have been futile to convince him otherwise. Finally, the laws of ritual impurity are not considered rational laws, and choosing this mitzvah to transmit to children denies us the opportunity to also give them an explanation of the law. The laws of purity are classified as chukim—a category of statutes that go beyond conventional logic and cannot be explained. There is no reason given in the Torah for chukim. We simply observe them because G-d said so. The mitzvah of purity deifies logic. To transmit and teach such a mitzvah seems futile, because we do not have the tools with which to convince, persuade, or influence our students.

Yet it is only in these three mitzvot that our Sages learn, “The elders are instructed to teach the youngsters.”

So what can we learn from the fact that the Torah chose these three mitzvot to instruct us on how to educate our students?

The Rebbe explains that the Torah tells us that Jewish education does not work only because we are good instructors. Nor does it work just because we are teaching what happens to appeal to the culture, society, or fad of the day. Our teaching is effective because we are telling the truth. Children are the best barometer for sincerity, straightforwardness, and truth. A truth is true, regardless of where society stands and regardless of where you and I stand.

In order for all the wonderful experiences, studies, and lessons to actually touch our students in such a way that they will be inspired to go on to represent the Jewish people, the Jewish family, and the Jewish past, with determination, strength, and confidence, we must convey the soul, the light, and the truth contained in our Jewish instruction. If we choose to leave out the truth and soul of the Torah they will be confused by this omission and will wonder why we are allowing political correctness to deny them the “meat” of Judaism.

In the early years of our school, I was challenged by this very topic. I was teaching the mitzvah of kashrut enthusiastically, describing the different signs of animals, fish, etc. that were needed in order to render the food we were eating as kosher. I looked up and saw an eight-year-old boy raising his hand. “Mariashi, do you have to keep kosher?” Oh, no, I was in trouble. What was I going to say? I could say, “Yes, you do have to keep kosher. The Torah says so.” But I would get in “political” trouble if I said that. Or, I could say, “No, you don’t have to. Judaism is a choice and you can decide if you want to or not.” But I couldn’t do that, because I didn’t believe that to be true. I first tried an evasive answer and said, “It’s a very big mitzvah to keep kosher.” He wasn’t satisfied and continued, “I didn’t ask that. I asked if you have to keep kosher.” “Benjamin,” I said. “Have you ever looked in your pantry and noticed products with a kosher symbol on them?” Of course, he had some items such as ketchup, Cheerios, etc. With a relieved smile, he said, “Yeah, we do. I guess I’m doing the mitzvah after all!”

I would like to conclude with a parable. There was a young man who wanted to become a blacksmith. He spent several weeks training with a master blacksmith, watching everything and taking notes. When the young man felt that he was fully trained and ready to go out on his own, he returned to his hometown to start his own business. But try as he might, he could not produce a single item. All of his banging was in vain.

It was only when he went back to his master that he realized that there was one important step he left out because he did not see it happen, and it was so basic that the blacksmith never mentioned it. He forgot to light the fire to heat the irons to bend the metal.

I leave you with a mandate and a reminder: Don’t forget to light the fire. ♦

Mariashi Groner is Director of Charlotte Jewish Day School. She can be reached at mgroner@cjdschool.org.

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Religious Purposefulness

The AVI CHAI Foundation has promoted the notion that day schools are primary incubators of “religious purposefulness,” developing the capacity to live deep, authentic Jewish lives through regular contact with the sources of Jewish tradition, be they textual, ritual, communal. Authors here probe the ramifications of this notion for our understanding of the mission of day schools and their role in Jewish communal life.

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