18 January 2013
7 Shevat 5773
An Educator’s Tefillin Dilemma
I want to share with you a wonderful pedagogical dilemma that I heard from a colleague this week that illustrates essential questions at the heart of Jewish parenting and Jewish education.
Her middle school has a policy that all of their students who are of Bar/Bat Mitzvah age must attend morning minyan and must wear tefillin when they pray. In addition, all Jewish teachers are expected to attend morning prayers with the students, and they, too, are expected to put on tefillin. The school identified and hired an outstanding fifth grade teacher who is a Jewish man but not particularly Jewishly observant and who did not know how to put on tefillin. This left the school and the teacher with two choices: the teacher could come to school during the summer to have someone teach him how to put on tefillin so, by the time school started, he would be able to do so somewhat naturally and comfortably with the students; or he could wait until the year began and put tefillin on for the first time with his students, admitting to them that he, like some of them, was just learning how to observe this Jewish practice.
At the heart of this decision is a pedagogical dilemma with which many teachers and parents wrestle. If the teacher frontloads his learning how to put on tefillin, he will appear to be a knowledgeable and practicing Jewish role model for his students. This will reinforce the message to them that their teachers already are committed to certain behavioral outcomes that they expect of their students. On the other hand, if the teacher makes public his own process of Jewish learning and practice, he will model his own personal Jewish journey. This means being honest with his students about the things he does not yet know or do and open about the experience of trying to learn and experiment in his own relationship with Judaism.
In my view there is not one right answer to this dilemma. The pedagogical answer depends on the educational context, including the particular school, teacher, students, and community. I find this dilemma worth sharing because it raises a fundamental question about what our students need from us—as their teachers, parents, and role models—at different points in their intellectual, moral, spiritual, Jewish development. Do they need to see us exhibit rock solid and unquestioning commitment to our answers about Jewish belief and practice? Or do they need to see adults and role models who, themselves, are in the spirit of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s words, “living our questions?”
This dilemma seems particularly timely as we read this week’s Torah portion, Bo, which continues the Exodus story and contains many of the sources that make up the Passover Haggadah. At the heart of the rabbis’ pedagogical vision of the retelling of the Exodus story and Jewish education more broadly is the question that the Torah predicts the next generation will inevitably ask: “V’haya ki-yishalcha bincha machar laymor: mah zot? – And when, in time to come, your child will ask you, saying, ‘what does this mean?’” (Exodus 13:14). Even as the Exodus from Egypt was happening, as the foundation of our people’s historical memory was being formed, the Torah was well aware that future generations would look to their parents and teachers with an authentic desire to understand: What does all of this mean to you? What is your relationship with Judaism—Jewish learning, practice, and history?
One of the most inspiring things to me about teaching and learning in a Jewish high school is how genuinely curious our students are about these questions. They want to know what Judaism means to us so they can begin to make sense of what Judaism means to them. The work of educating and inspiring the next generation calls upon us to find the wisdom and courage to meet our children’s curiosity as authentically and responsibly as possible.
If you were this fifth grade teacher, which direction would you have taken and why?
Rabbi Marc Baker