Monday, January 27, 2003

A Fate Worse Than Being Left Behind

There is much to applaud in the movement for tougher educational standards. The emphasis is now on improving what happens in the classroom – which is where formal education primarily takes place – and not on creating new bureaucracies, an exercise that is akin to moving the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.

But the “Be Tough” chorus is too unanimous. We need to listen to other voices, to question whether educational improvement is simply a matter of more testing and demands for greater teacher and school official accountability. Children do not do well in school for a score of reasons, some of them having little or nothing to do with their classroom experience. Within the classroom, there is an obvious need for tests, grades, assessment, standards. There are ways to succeed in school other than doing well on test scores and there can be failure even when students appear to be doing well on standardized tests.

When Washington makes a statement about a difficult social problem, it seeks language that conveys virtue and the perception of success, as if tackling a social pathology is a marketing issue. We now have the “No Child Left Behind Act,” sponsored by President Bush and enacted by Congress with bi-partisan acclaim. The statute imposes assessment and standards throughout all public elementary and secondary education. Inevitably, it will have an impact on non-public education as well because this sector relies to an extent on public funding and also because states are mandating testing requirements for all schools.

It’s easy to be for tests and standards, if only as a corrective to the laxity that has routinely been accepted within the educational establishment, often to the detriment of students. Besides, tests and grades are essential components of formal education. The fact that they are dispensed with in some places hardly reduces their importance. Still, I have reservations about the new law and the rush to be tough.

Schools exist to teach subject matter and to develop cognitive skills, in short to further the intellectual development of children, the obvious aim being to maximize the prospect for a fruitful adulthood. There are other responsibilities and while they may be of lesser importance, they cannot be disregarded, such things as the development of social skills, discipline, respect for others and for properly expressed authority and loyalty to one’s country. It may be that these attributes of formal education are not regarded as essential because we take them for granted. In this period of abundant social breakdown, when all kinds of pathologies enter the lives of youngsters and limit their capacity to study and learn and when contemporary culture is often destructive, greater attention needs to be given to these responsibilities.

Some of the criticism of the testing/standards mania is familiar fare: classes and other educational activity are increasingly geared to produce good test scores, at the expense of other learning experiences; when test performance is the dominant criterion for judging how well schools, teachers and administrators are doing, inevitably there will be pressure to make tests easier (it’s already happening) and also to manipulate test results; it is well to insist on performance, but at schools whose students are from homes that are awash in social pathologies, we may be asking for more than can be accomplished; educators are being pressured to show improved test results without being given the resources they need to accomplish society’s goals; and school officials and teachers are too often being made scapegoats for failures that are beyond their reach to prevent.

As relevant as these criticisms are, I have another complaint. I do not know whether a child’s life is harder today than it used to be. In key respects – economic and physical health are two examples – it certainly is not. What is certain is that many children seem to be lost in a sea of self-doubt, worrying about their image, friends, relationship with parents, how they look, how they do in school, sexuality and nearly everything else that enters their lives. Too many children appear to regard themselves as failures. The fragility of the mental state of young people is a serious problem, not some psycho-babble. Those who doubt this should examine teenage suicide rates.

We cannot abandon tests to accommodate lack of self-esteem among students, but we also must not stress tests to the neglect of nearly all else. Students need to be encouraged in what they do well, which may be in art or music or athletics or acting or leadership or other skills. They need to be taught subject matter and educational skills, primarily to read and write. However, if they do well in X subject and poorly in Y, there’s no good reason why they should be regarded as failures. They need to be encouraged and praised, at times even gratuitously. We must not add to their self-doubts. Inevitably, the trumpeting of standardized tests does just that in too many instances.

We need to reconsider the wisdom of being tough, of being one-dimensional in the multi-dimensional universe of universal education. It’s possible to be serious about classroom performance and to reject the anything goes attitude without losing sight of the uniqueness of each child. We must remember that there are students who blossom later, that most students are better in certain subjects than others, that some do poorly in school but well in life, while others sadly experience the reverse. Simply put, tests may be standardized; students must never be.

I am reminded of what my very good friend, Arthur W. Fried, formerly the administrative head of the Rothschild Foundation and now chairman of Avi Chai, has repeated in the name of Sir Isaiah Berlin, the eminent British political philosopher who was a Rothschild trustee. Sir Isaiah would say that while philanthropy could not always achieve its noble goals, it always needed to strive to avoid doing harm. This is also true of education. We must make sure that in the name of educational reform we do not do harm.

Monday, January 20, 2003

The Lieberman Factor

If my family is a barometer, we are in for much division among Jews about Joe Lieberman’s candidacy. The disagreement will not be along conventional Democratic-Republican or ideological lines but about whether it’s good for Jews to have a Jew in the White House.

Mr. Lieberman obviously is a serious candidate and right now probably the Democratic front-runner. He has name recognition and he performed strongly as Al Gore’s running mate. His prospects are not impaired by the caliber of the competition, an uninspiring lot whose main attribute is a desire to be President. The possible exception is Al Sharpton, in my view a scoundrel who befouls all that he touches. If what happened some years ago in New York’s Democratic senatorial primary is a guide, he will get a good share of Jewish votes, providing further evidence of the deepening moral crisis in the liberal left circles where Sharpton’s misdeeds are selling points. Republicans at least had the decency to disavow David Duke.

When Senator Lieberman announced his candidacy, he was asked about his religion and faith. His response was sincere and, in a way, moving, saying that while he was not going to campaign as a Jew, being Jewish was part of his essence. I like that, but there are Jews – mainly Orthodox I think – who are worried. They fret that because he is Jewish and not merely by birth but also in practice and commitment, he would feel obliged to demonstrate to the 98% of Americans who are not Jewish that his religion does not influence his public positions and, as a result, he would act in ways that are harmful to Jewish and Israeli interests.

There is something quirky about this reasoning. The fellow has been in public life for nearly three decades and there is zero in his record that gives credence to this pessimistic view. That is, unless we regard his willingness to meet with Palestinian leaders and support for a Palestinian State as evidence of an anti-Israel bias. Since most Israelis and most Jews everywhere else take a similar position, it’s hard to figure out what all the agita is about.

When John F. Kennedy was a presidential candidate in 1960, there were plenty of questions about his Catholicism. But they came from outside his religious community, mainly from those Protestants who feared that the country would be in for some kind of Papacy should he be elected. Catholics weren’t worried about JFK double-crossing them. While he did well with these voters, that had more to do with the tendency of certain ethnic groups to support Democrats than with Catholics supporting one of their own.

The time will come, perhaps soon, when we’ll have a major party Black presidential or vice-presidential candidate. For all of the lingering charges of Uncle Tomism directed at Blacks who are accepted by the Establishment, I doubt that a Colin Powell would get the kind of reception in Black quarters that Lieberman has been getting from some Jews.

The anti-Lieberman Jewish claque unwittingly shares with anti-semites the view that his being Jewish will bring about unwelcome outcomes. There is, of course, the important distinction that Jews who are unhappy believe that Lieberman would be bad for the Jews, while anti-semites believe that he would be bad for the country.

For his part, Mr. Lieberman is saying – or I think he is – that he is a Democrat and a public official and for the most part how he votes and his public service have nothing to do with religion. If he is hawkish on Iraq or security matters, it’s because he believes that that is what is best for America. His being Jewish is not entirely irrelevant to his public persona. Thus, his position against certain cultural excesses which result in his being labeled a social conservative may echo elements of his religious faith, yet that faith is primarily a personal matter. It defines what he eats, but at times not where he eats; it defines his observance of the Sabbath, but does not preclude for him certain public activities; it is the basis for his deepfelt commitment to Israel and to the Jewish people, without impairing his capacity to take positions that some Jews who are supporters of Israel would dispute.

In 2000, Joe Lieberman’s Jewishness attracted considerable media attention because of the novelty of a Jew being a major party candidate and because he is an observant Jew. There is likely to be greater attention this time around, certainly if he gets the nomination. We will then get a ton of articles and broadcasts detailing fine points of Jewish law, with descriptions of how Joe and Hadassah live and how they are raising their daughter. There will be commentary by Rabbis, learned and unlearned, telling the public what is permitted and what is proscribed. There will be discussions of how to use a “Shabbos Goy” and how to maintain a kosher cuisine.

For more than a few American Jews, this will be their introduction to the basics of Judaism. Since reporters will be scrambling to get their facts right, I wonder whether my good friend, the wonderfully effy-vescent Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald of the National Jewish Outreach Project might develop a crash course on Judaism to help these folks.

For all of our understandably parochial interests in the Lieberman campaign for most Americans his being Jewish will be a non-starter, in part because he broke the ice in 2000 and also because of this country’s traditions. Voters will decide on the basis of party and policy and by how President Bush handles or mishandles the economy. The Senator’s religion will not be a major factor in voting booths, except for a relatively small number.

Some voters will be receptive to Mr. Lieberman’s preachy style; others will be turned off because his voice does not have the cadence or music that so often envelops the public speaking of the best Black political preachers. When Joe Lieberman is on the campaign trail, he just might ask Reverend Al for some pointers.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

RJJ Newsletter - January 2003

A legal system carries with it the obligation to be obedient. Those whose actions are covered by a body of law are required to respect the law and the rulings of those who have the authority to decide. We may not agree with certain legislation or judicial interpretations of what is on the books, but we must be obedient. The alternative is either anarchy or the use of coercion to obtain compliance.

The obligation to be obedient extends to those who decide. When the law has been settled by prior legislative and judicial actions, judges are not free to impose their views and disregard precedent, although some do. They have more freedom when the law is not settled, but even in those situations there are conceptual and procedural guidelines that cannot be disregarded.

It’s obvious that there is slippage from the ideal of obedience. Violations of tax and traffic laws are commonplace and whether crime is on the increase or going down, there is always plenty of criminal activity. The point about obedience is not that there is perfect compliance or anything close to it. What is critical is the sense of legitimacy, of recognizing that civil society requires acceptance of what has been duly enacted or decided. This is what we mean by the rule of law and the ideal of the rule of law is scarcely undermined because there are violations. Wholesale violations – if relatively few pay their taxes or many jump traffic lights – would be another matter.

While it is a legal system, in key respects halacha differs from the codes of law that govern how societies operate. There is the fundamental principle of the Torah being given at Sinai, received by Moses and transmitted to subsequent generations by Torah leaders whose status was determined by their spiritual and intellectual transcendence and not by elections. In the development of halacha throughout our history, there have been in some places and in different periods processes at work that can be identified as legislative. Even in such instances, the halachic process differs importantly from the legislative process that is a key component of democratic societies.

The authority of halacha and therefore also the obligation to be obedient is fortified by it being our mesorah, the fundamental heritage that we have received. Because of this, halacha is accorded a different and also greater degree of legitimacy than what is accorded to the legislation and legal rulings of temporal political and judicial systems.

Yet it is also true that especially in the modern period and certainly in the context of broader Jewish life, the authority of halacha has been weakened because Jews can walk away from Judaism, as so many have during the past two generations.

As suggested, another distinguishing characteristic of halacha is that the authority of those who decide religious issues is derived from their personal qualities, from their spiritual dignity and intellectual stature and not necessarily from the formal positions that they may hold. This is evident in contemporary Jewish life. In an interview years ago, Israel Shenker, a noted writer at the New York Times, asked Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztl, about the source of his authority as a posek. Rav Moshe essentially responded that over many years Jews turned to him with their halachic questions, he wrote responses and somehow they came to be accepted.

We religious Jews readily accept the obligation to be obedient, an obligation that for all practical purposes comes into play when we are adversely affected by a ruling or may disagree with it. There is, just the same, a certain fragility to halachic decisions, in part because they can be ignored by the many Jews who do not accept halachic authority and, as well, because among religious Jews, rabbinic authority is dispersed rather than centralized. Rav Moshe was the foremost authority on religious Jewish law for the yeshiva world of which we are a part and for many others, yet his rulings are not always accepted by Orthodox Jews in other sectors of the community. In Borough Park where I live, there are chassidim who carry outdoors on Shabbos, claiming that there is an acceptable eruv in place and that they have eminent rabbis to rely on, this despite Rav Moshe’s prohibitory ruling.

Even without communal division, halachic authority rests to an extent on the willingness of those who are affected by decisions to accept what has been decided. Likely, this idea of willingness seems to be inconsistent with the obligation to be obedient. Upon reflection, there is no inconsistency, although how to allow for both obedience and a measure of freedom within the context of the halachic system cannot be easily determined. Rav Moshe’s modest comment to Israel Shenker may shed light on the subject, for he was acknowledging that his authority depended somewhat on the receptivity accorded to his rulings.

This sounds like the democratic principle of the consent of the governed, a concept that ordinarily refers to elections and representative government. While the halachic system is emphatically not meant to be democratic as that term is understood, there is a consensual factor in the way religious issues are decided. A notable example is the Talmudic requirement that religious judges be wary of imposing a prohibition that a majority of the community cannot accept. This rule may be designed to protect rabbinic authority from being weakened by massive disobedience or, as likely, to protect the masses against violating a prohibition that they cannot or will not accept. Whatever the reasons, at least in certain instances receptivity to potential prohibitions is a legitimate factor in determining whether a prohibition should become actual.

One such instance may be provided by the several books written all or in part by respected Orthodox Jews and whose contents have been challenged. We are confronted by the question of how to deal with publications that may be regarded as objectionable on hashkafa or other religious grounds. One approach is maximalist, to rule that the offending publications are entirely off limits, that they are not to be sold or bought or allowed into one’s home. A more modest approach is to attempt to isolate the passages that are regarded as objectionable, to indicate why they are objectionable and to deliberately stop short of a ban.

It is tempting because it is in a way easier to condemn outright and to prohibit outright. This relieves those who issue the ban and those who might read the offending works of any obligation to consider what is objectionable and why this is so. This maximalist approach apparently is the fate of a well-intentioned but problematic two-volume work on Torah leadership. While the intention of those who issued the prohibition was probably not to condemn the author and subject him to public calumny, all that we have is very strong language of a prohibitory nature by eminent authorities.

This is not the end of the story, if only because at least in the contemporary world it is rather difficult to successfully ban publications. There is evidence that many who would ordinarily accept rulings from Torah authorities are anxious to read the book and more than a few of those who have read the book are wondering what all the fuss has been about. It is evident that the prohibition has whet the appetite of some who would not be interested in reading the work.

There is additional unfortunate fallout in the cheap talk that has been generated by the condemnation of certain works. We are constantly admonished about wrongful speech, about lashon hora. In fact, there is a mini-industry that has arisen within Orthodox ranks exploiting the obligation to be careful in speech. I wonder whether it is sufficiently recognized that when books are banned or other extreme actions are taken, much of what has been accomplished regarding proper speech is severely undermined.

Consideration needs to be given, as well, to whether prohibitory statements, specifically regarding books, impact adversely on efforts to draw marginal Jews closer to their great heritage. This is a priority goal of contemporary Orthodoxy and there have been significant achievements, although more needs to be done. Perhaps more than any other prohibitory action, book-banning can turn prospective returnees away from Judaism.

We often point to the life and example of the outstanding Torah personalities who led our community during the formative post-Holocaust years, people of great stature who gave us inspiration and direction. There is a lesson to be learned from how they exercised their vast and essentially unchallenged authority, how they led by example and teaching and not by issuing a constant stream of prohibitory rulings.

The foremost of these Torah giants was the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood. In the twenty years of his fervent and fevered activity on behalf of the Torah world, he essentially was responsible for just one major prohibitory ruling, it being against Orthodox membership in rabbinical bodies with non-Orthodox Jews. This ruling came more than fifteen years after he arrived on these shores. In that great period of the development of American Orthodox Jewry, the Gedolei Torah were constantly occupied with major issues. They did not shirk their obligation to lead and they did not lead by prohibiting that which perhaps should have been criticized and not prohibited.

Monday, January 13, 2003

Taking the Rap Off Yeshivas

Newspapers exist to disseminate news and ideas, to promote the discussion of public issues. Inevitably, they are catalysts to controversy, provoking those who disagree with one or another point of view. Because this is also true of Jewish newspapers, a case can be easily made for the publication several weeks ago in this newspaper of “Choosing Public School Over Yeshiva,” in which a mother describes her family’s decision to send two of their three children to public school. But it should be beyond the pale to attack the concept of a Jewish day school education, which the article primarily was about.

There are committed Jewish parents whose children do not attend yeshiva or day school. Finances often are the determining factor, although other considerations come into play. Among the very Orthodox, in particular, there are parents who prefer home schooling. While the evidence is overwhelming that formal and intensive religious education usually yields the greatest Judaic benefits, the right of parents to choose should be respected. This is true of the mother who wrote about her children. Unfortunately, what began as an explanation of this choice turned into a misinformed and rather nasty attack against yeshivas and the Orthodox community.

She transgresses in two ways, firstly by misrepresenting what the advocates of yeshiva education are saying and, secondly, by offering a negative view of day school education that is likely to influence some marginal parents who may now decide against enrolling their children in a religious Jewish school. Such parents are not likely to have the resources or Judaic backup that her family has and they therefore will not provide Jewishly for their children.

Interestingly, the attack comes from a person of the ultra-Modern Orthodox fringe, a tiny group with a negligible impact on Jewish life that specializes in going after the rest of Orthodoxy, specifically including the Modern Orthodox. The ultras who modestly label themselves as courageous are adept at self-promotion and at attracting the support of the super-rich who are in ecstasy whenever there’s an opportunity to give aid and comfort to the anti-Orthodox.

We are left with the task of defending yeshivas – flawed institutions, as are all human contrivances – because a mother justifies a personal decision by attempting to tear down that which she has opted against. In her words, how insufferably arrogant. Sadly, there is still a need to defend yeshivas – our most effective instrumentalities of Jewish continuity – against unfair criticism. Here are perhaps the most frequent grounds of attack.

Values – Like elementary and secondary schools everywhere, in addition to teaching subject matter yeshivas are expected to teach students ethical behavior and proper values, a task that is often easier to articulate than to accomplish. The naysaying mother alleges that the Orthodox, including yeshivas, claim to have a monopoly on good values. If the charge were true – and emphatically it is not – it should be easy to document because there are tons of publications that emanate from the Orthodox. It would be interesting to see a single document that supports this absurd charge.

What is the case and it is something quite different is that yeshivas are critical sources for teaching and transmitting Jewish beliefs and practices, a proposition that should be too obvious to be debated. In the event, although there is room for improvement, yeshivas do a good job inculcating proper conduct.

Finances – Tuition has been rising steadily and this is both a disincentive for some families and a cause for great hardship among day school families, especially since scholarship assistance is harder to come by as outside philanthropic support generally constitutes a declining share of the typical day school budget. While the cost of yeshiva education is expensive for many families, it is quite reasonable when compared to the cost at public and private schools that do not operate a dual curriculum. In New York, which has more than half of all yeshiva enrollment, the average annual per student cost is about $7,000, as compared to about $12,000 at public schools.

Yeshivas are nearly all under-funded and under-staffed, a circumstance that provides no succor for parents who are terribly burdened by tuition charges but which provides a necessary perspective and corrective when we consider the cost of yeshiva education.

Quality of Education – Because they are bereft of public funding and usually are small-sized as compared with other schools, yeshivas often do not measure well in terms of facilities, educational enhancements, extra-curricular activities and much else. These shortcomings are alleviated by the devotion of faculty and staff and by an environment that is conductive to serious education. If we look at results rather than just inputs, our schools have an impressive record.

Their achievements are evident in standard test results, including New York’s Regent Examinations, in SAT performance, in their ability – with some setbacks - to shield students against the pathologies that are wrecking too many young lives, in college admission decisions, and in the Judaic commitment and involvement and subsequent life pattern of their alumni, the overwhelming number of whom are contributing importantly to the general society and to Jewish life.

A decent respect for the truth requires that this remarkable record be recognized. Unfortunately, there are those who are too blinded by prejudice to see the truth.

Of course, yeshivas need to improve; some need to improve a great deal. Tuition is a painful subject that is becoming more painful. It is unfair to place the blame for this on yeshivas, nearly all of whom operate in a state of constant financial stress. Our community needs to address the tuition issue in ways that recognize the value of yeshiva education. I am not optimistic that this will happen.

We can hope that the children of the mother who has made her choice will be successful, both Jewishly and academically, and that they will grow to be respectful of the religion that is our heritage and our future.

Monday, January 06, 2003

If Ideas Mattered

Thanks to Henry Kohn, a prominent lawyer with a lifetime of devoted Jewish communal service, I have just read the inaugural Henry Kohn lecture given by Jacob Neusner more than two years ago at Yale that gives this column its title. “If Ideas Mattered” is an important document that needs to be read. Professor Neusner discusses the devaluation of ideas in contemporary Jewish life, a subject that is not discussed very much precisely because ideas have been devalued. I believe that copies of the lecture are still available from the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, 80 Wall Street, New Haven, CT 06511.

Jacob Neusner is probably not as well known as he ought to be in view of his awesome scholarly production, a circumstance that provides another measure of support for the argument advanced in the lecture. He is also a terrific writer who on occasion yields to bitterness and this quality came through in the lecture.

His argument is that “the intellectual crisis of American Judaism is precipitated by the demise of intellect.” Accordingly, “ideas no longer matter, emotions do, sentiment does, money matters a whole lot – ideas, not at all.” While “philanthropists spend money on the delivery of ideas,” they spend “nothing on the formation of them.” Professor Neusner insists that “mindless money” does not make miracles and he refuses to “concede that the right organization and techniques of delivering ideas, the mechanical manipulation of public opinion in the end – a sufficiency of indoctrination – decide much.”

In short, “despite our possessing the most intellectual of all religions…we have managed to lose all contact with the life of the intellect of Judaism, even access to the sources that sustain that life.”

This is strong stuff. Is it on target? Is our intellectual life now found in graveyards or in books, old and new, that are scarcely read?

The issue is complicated because in certain zones of Jewish life there is substantial intellectual activity. I will limit myself to the secular world, to the world of major universities and quite a few institutions of higher education that are not major but have Jewish studies departments and endowed chairs in Judaics. There are scholarly conferences and scholarly journals and university presses are probably producing more serious works in Jewish history and contemporary life than ever before. Unfortunately, nearly all of this activity takes place in academic circles, away from our congregations and educational institutions, specifically including those that prepare teachers for our schools. Jewish scholarship, such as it is today, is disembodied or not connected to the instrumentalities that reach our masses, a situation that is central to Neusner’s powerful thesis.

Organized Jewry has installed demographers as its intellectual giants. Along the way, we have virtually abandoned the field of Jewish sociology, a field that once had much intellectual depth and influence. Instead, we have one group of population experts telling us that there are this many Jews while another gives us a different number and from a third we get still another set of statistics. There is little intellectual meat in their findings, which helps to explain why demographers are now routinely highlighted at major Jewish gatherings.

We need to respect scholarship and bring it back into the Jewish mainstream, which is a difficult task because, as Neusner writes, “American Jews have lost access to the Judaism that is embodied in our holy books. Few can read them.” It should not be surprising that philanthropists who cannot read a text can appreciate the value of putting a name on a building.

It is telling – in a way remarkable – that in an important sense The New Republic may be the most significant and certainly the most widely read publication in the U.S. on Jewish history and thought. We obviously do not have a journal that is as timely and chock full of ideas as First Things, the spunky Christian monthly edited by Richard Neuhaus.

As Neusner underscores, we need to have more debate about ideas and not just about transient public policies. We have to grapple with how to apply the doctrine of church-state separation to new issues and new times and what it means to be a tiny minority in American society. There are issues relating to Israel that need to be reconsidered and we have to define the role of religion in Jewish life. Nowadays, the tendency is to articulate our positions via a “Polly wants a cracker” approach, parroting the positions that we have already taken, scarcely changing even a minor detail. When a new issue arises, political correctness is our usual guide.

Because we are not isolated from the world around us and because it’s an old story that Jews always borrow heavily from the host culture, the downgrading of ideas within our community is substantially an echo of what is occurring generally in American life. News consists of people in the news and ever-contracting sound-bites, the apparent implication being that the attention span of the typical American is no longer than ten seconds. Newspapers aren’t much better as they seek to survive in a market place dominated not by ideas but by diversions. The Times has just upped its daily price by a third to a buck, claiming that it needs the additional income not to satisfy any Sulzberger greed but to pay for the extra sections that are provided to readers. These include one called “Escapes,”and it speaks importantly both to the new journalism and to the devaluation of intellectual life.

But while ideas are now largely alien to the contemporary American ethos, it remains that we Jews cannot place the blame on others. We have an exalted scholarly and intellectual tradition and great books that can provide spiritual and intellectual sustenance. What we do not have is the willingness to showcase our intellectual talent.