We expect or at least hope that our schools will teach students midos and proper behavior and values. That’s part of their core mission. We certainly do not think that our schools will have the reverse effect, although there is always the possibility that this will happen in unintended ways. In institutions where discipline is lacking, it’s likely that children will be schooled in improper conduct. Still, that is different from a situation where a school deliberately inculcates in the young wrongful behavior. It’s hard to imagine a Jewish school that as a matter of policy would misguide the children in its care.
Or, perhaps, the possibility is not so farfetched. If, for example, students are exposed to lying and cheating by school officials or teachers, they are being given a message that such behavior is appropriate. If a school plays loose with proper standards when dealing with governmental programs, there is a good prospect that older students will know what is happening and they will be influenced by the experience.
Another example occurred to me a while back when I visited a non-Orthodox day school – it may be the most overrated Jewish school in the country – and was surprised and chagrinned to hear students address their teachers by first names. The students were acting in compliance with school policy, a policy that is both wrong and harmful, although such conduct is in tune with much else that is happening in the contemporary period. During a recent trip to Israel, I read that the new Minister of Education is acting to reverse the policy directive mandating that teachers be addressed by their first names.
We have reached a point where progress is defined as rejecting tradition and as downplaying respect for authority. Such respect is too often regarded as a relic from a misguided past. In many “progressive” homes, children now use names and nicknames when speaking to their parents. It has become uncool to employ language indicating that the generational gap is more than a matter of years, but also a circumstance that should generate respect from the young toward those who are older.
It is small wonder that as society seeks to narrow the generational gap by promoting familiarity in parent-child relationships, the end product is often contempt, conflict and, at times, even worse.
Jews are supposed to be a distinctive people, which is to say that there are times when we buck the trend, when we cherish the old and reject the new. This is what keeping Shabbos and kosher is about, as well as our distinctive dress and practices that set us apart and sanctify us. We have an obligation to maintain this distinctiveness, surely not as a mark of superiority but as a mark of spiritual strength and discipline in service to G-D. We are strengthened by the mitzvos, specifically including those that obligate respect for authority.
When Jewish children are taught to adopt the low standards of contemporary culture when they speak to their parents or teachers, for all of the company they may have, they are being taught to violate values that are central to Jewish living.
We often hear the phrase “Tikun Ha-olam” – improvement of the world – employed by people who cling to it almost desperately as their virtually last Jewish lifeline as traditional Judaism recedes from their consciousness. It apparently does not occur to the tikun ha-olam crowd that we cannot better the world by borrowing society’s worst practices and then integrating them into our outlook and behavior. The sad fact is that too many Jews are leaving the world a worse place, in some measure because they have enthusiastically endorsed that which is antithetical to our traditional standards.
Instead of tikun ha-olam, whatever the words may actually mean, let us first work on self-betterment, on improving our lives and our community. A good place to start is by rejecting ideas that reject tradition and respect, ideas that come with the questionable label claiming that they bring progress. Progress in Jewish life always consists of maintaining that which has maintained us as a people.