The dichotomy between the Jewish educational system and its cultural context is perhaps greater today than ever before. The Jewish people, including all segments of Orthodoxy, has never been so fully integrated within a culture which often espouses a competing set of values and assumptions. This integration creates a serious challenge to the cultural integrity of the Jewish people.
In spite of this challenge, we find ourselves relying upon an educational model that unrealistically expects an automatic internalization of Jewish values and modes of behavior. Thus, religious schools expend most of their energy teaching text for its own sake. These schools assume that this quality experience will magically inspire our children to accept any values, ideas or behaviors that are associated with Judaism. The equation the current system depends upon is: "If I love (see the quality in) learning and learning is exclusive to Judaism, than I must also love (see the quality in), and will adhere to, all of Judaism."
Lack of true analysis of how and whether the schools meet our religious goals is a sure harbinger of catastrophe. As a result, the only way to prevent the impending crisis is to give sober and unsentimental thought to our goals as a people, and the role of Jewish education in accomplishing these goals. Once we do that, we will feel compelled to embark on a fundamental reformulation of the contents and methods of Jewish education.
Obviously, serious reformulation of Jewish education will take years, probably even decades. Nonetheless, initiating this discussion is long overdue. Below are a few modest suggestions to get the ball rolling:
It must be understood that the main job of Jewish schools is to create balanced and secure, truly religious Jews. If our students end up becoming talmidei chachamim so much the better, but that must remain a secondary goal. In a world where individuals choose their beliefs and lifestyles, the societal norm is to understand one's choices. In this cultural context, we clearly cannot expect great success without giving our children some background knowledge as to why Jews are supposed to act in a certain way. Our schools need to transmit an understanding of the Jewish belief system and code of conduct. This will then give our children a sense that they know the raison d'ếtre of the Jewish enterprise. In short, our children must be shown that Judaism as an organic system is the most effective way to a meaningful and holy life.
Curriculum must be selected that will explicitly communicate Torah values, their sources and implications. Mitzvot should be studied in their broader ideological context - from a philosophical, as well as legal, perspective (i.e. students must be exposed to the "mega" why of the performance of mitzvot). Teaching the beauty of individual mitzvot without plugging them into something more systemic is a big mistake that may well have been a prime cause of the "hitchabrut" phenomenon in Israel. (i.e. young people pick and choose which mitzvot to observe based on how relevant to their own lives they perceive them to be.) It is for this reason that Rav Kook was in favor of teaching Kabbalah on a mass level in Modern times.
We must teach our belief system and faith. This means that students need to know how Jews have historically understood the nature of G-d, prophecy and other such matters. As a simple example, someone who has not studied the Rambam's discussion on prophecy in Hilchot Yesodei haTorah will probably be unclear about how we can categorically deny the claims of other religions. Since today's individual will be exposed to other faiths, such information is indispensable
More important than anything else is the creation and internalization of students' relationship with God. Prayer is central to this. It should be taken for granted that students have to understand what they are saying, the meaning of the words as well as the ideas behind them. We must teach kavana. Children must be taught with meditation skills as well as to be comfortable with silence and being alone. It is true that such concepts are not easily imparted. Their central value, however, should force us to spend a great amount of time and effort on developing and perfecting the strategies needed to internalize these skills. If this means working in small groups or one-on-one, it is well worth the extra cost in personnel.
Finally, texts must be chosen based on their content and in line with educational goals. As such, we must spend more time on Tanakh and Jewish thought and less time on Gemara. It is worth noting that as far as halacha is concerned, Tanakh is the only subject that a father has to make sure is learned by his son (Y.D. 245:6, see Taz and Gra).
Concerning method, we must prioritize religious socialization over the acquisition of information. Thus, the educational relationship that must be created between teacher and student should be in the form of apprenticeship. Apprenticeship is teaching by theory followed by practical example. The apprentice is then tested on his own ability to use the theory as best as he can under the scrutiny of the master. A good master will allow the apprentice to develop his own unique style with the tools that the master has taught him.
Historically, something akin to the apprenticeship model has often been a trademark of Jewish education. An extreme illustration is to be found among several of our sages in Berachot 62a. None other than Rebbe Akiva and Ben Azai followed their teachers into the restroom to see how they conducted themselves there. Rav Kahana hid under his Rav's bed in order to hear how his teacher would behave while having marital relations. All three students defended their behavior by saying that the actions of their teachers are “Torah” and must be learned by witnessing them. Clearly, these great scholars knew that they could have asked their teachers for such instruction in the sterility of the classroom. They also knew, however, that one can only fully learn Torah from living examples.
Indeed, we will need to spend more time with our students and invite them into our lives. A student needs to see how a truly religious Jew interacts with his children, what he does with his free time, how he eats and makes berachot, etc. Students have to see how Jews celebrate and why they celebrate; they must see how and why Jews mourn. Correspondingly, teachers need to be role models worthy of emulation.
Even within the classroom, we have to take the phrase naaseh venishma (we will do and we will understand) more seriously. As most educators know, a hands-on experiential lesson is almost always a successful lesson. Beyond learning about mitzvot, their performance must be fully experienced. A full mitzvah experience should obviously have more than a physical component. When a teacher shakes a lulav, he or she should find strategies how to prepare for the mitzvah with his or her students, through meditation, song, inspiring stories, and the like. There is often no greater source of motivation than seeing and being involved in a properly performed mitzvah.
Students also need to be exposed to the outstanding role models of our generation. It is important for them to hear about tzaddikim and see them firsthand. People need living heroes. If we do not provide them, children will look elsewhere. One should not underestimate the role of heroes in personal values development. In this, one must be careful to distinguish between tzaddikin and gedolim. While all gedolim worthy of the name have many outstanding traits, sadly they may also have painfully visible flaws and consequently exposure to such people can be disconcerting for students. While their teachers' flaws, within reason, help to make them more human and thus more accessible as role models, we have to be careful about whom we acclaim to be heroes.
The first step in overhauling the current educational system is to give teachers (current and future) the ability and knowledge to do so. Teachers are in an ideal place to be the foot soldiers of the revolution that we would like to implement.
New teachers must be trained to view themselves as religious facilitators. They have to understand that they hold the keys to the next generation's spiritual development, or lack thereof. As a result, a great responsibility will be given to them and, by the same token, the unparalleled merit will be theirs if they can meet this challenge successfully. They would be making a major contribution to epic history.
We live in a time that demands bold thinking. Indeed, we live in a time that also demands bold action. More than ever, it is an "et la'asot lehaShem" – a time when we require the courage to act in a radical fashion, for the sake of the Divine.