The “Immoral” Ones – Teaching the Difficult Parts of Torah

Screen capture: Oakland Hebrew Day School

By Esther Friedman

[This article is the fourth in a four-part series featuring graduates of the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI).  MTEI is a two-year journey of discovery, helping educational leaders transform their educational communities into places where teachers learn together, exploring both Jewish content and how to enrich learning for students.  This series focuses on how some MTEI graduates are grappling with challenges of teaching and leading at this time.]

Years ago, a grade 11 student of mine would come to class with his Tanach filled with colorful post-it tabs. Every time I tried to teach a feel good, ethical, moral, Torah verse, he would raise his hand to counter with what he called “one of the immoral ones.” Favorites of his included slave laws, rape laws, the capital punishment of the rebellious son, all of which he had bookmarked and ready. I remember feeling challenged, in a good way, but also, to be honest, a bit undermined in my efforts to instill love and pride in Torah study in my students.

I was reminded of this student this past year as I traveled the country [pre-Covid-19] to North American day schools, observing and meeting with teachers and students at the finest Jewish institutions for my doctoral research. One theme that arose was the teachers’ desire to create lessons that would inspire positivity and help students feel good about Judaism. At times, though, this desire to keep it positive came at the expense of having really difficult conversations about what the Biblical texts are [also] saying. And although teachers most definitely facilitated discussion, and respectful ones at that, few actively sought out opportunities to engage in controversial or difficult discussions around what is written in our ancient texts, and even then, only as a response to a student question or current events, and when absolutely necessary and unavoidable.

Students, on the other hand, expressed that these discussions, when they happened, did not go deeply enough or lead to anything conclusive. Some of the questions that students and alumni would have liked to see addressed included: Are we “racist” when we talk about Jewish identity, or promote a particularistic mindset? How do we balance that with our universalistic values and those of concern for the “stranger” amongst us? Has this attitude of Jewish self-preservation been key to our survival? Does that make it “right,” especially today? Is there a threat to Jewish survival today? Do the Torah laws make us more moral? Are the Torah laws even at all moral by today’s standards? How do we understand an omniscient G-d whose laws could only be considered moral within a specific historical context? What about the 36 Biblical commandments cautioning us to treat the stranger well “because we were slaves in Egypt”? Does this really mean that our own history of persecution automatically informs how we interact with others? Do these ancient Biblical laws give us the moral high ground? Or, as the famous Tanach teacher, Nechama Leibowitz, points out, is there a danger that having been bullied doesn’t guarantee empathy, because the abused often becomes the abuser.

I am not here to answer these questions but to raise the issues that we can be discussing and should be discussing, both to ensure student engagement and to ensure that that students leaving the Jewish educational bubble are not immediately disillusioned when they confront these issues on university campuses and elsewhere.

The resistance to raising these uncomfortable questions is understandable. Jewish educators enter the profession to inspire a love for Torah and Judaism and are rightly concerned that they could be causing damage by raising issues that may portray the Torah as outdated or in a negative light. In the words of one passionate educator, “The reason why I teach Bible is because it’s meaningful to me. … It’s what my life is all about. So, if they’re going to tell me to say something I don’t believe in [like to point out a negative passage], then I wouldn’t be able to do it.” But I disagree, because avoidance is unsatisfying for those of us who take Torah study seriously. Hiding our religious and historical truth does not create love; and besides, our students are too intelligent for that. Teachers need the skills to navigate these difficult conversations with sensitivity, to engage in discussions from within and not as a way to discard our ancient texts and traditions, and it is especially vital that we engage with these issues through the lens of our historical Jewish voices.

At Tanenbaum CHAT (Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto) we designed a grade 12 elective Tanach course that focused exclusively on challenging ideological issues and difficult questions, such as theodicy [Job], the meaning of life [Kohelet], morality and particularism [slavery laws, Book of Joshua].

Some of our guiding principles included:

  1. Design curriculum around current and real-life ideological issues that are found in Tanach
  2. Don’t hide from difficult questions; raise them, embrace them, celebrate them.
  3. Utilize our long history of Biblical commentary to address these issues both from different points of view within our tradition and in our history
  4. Combine with non-Jewish and contemporary thinkers on these issues to show a relevance that extends beyond the Jewish bubble. We included secular literature and modern media that was thematically connected to the core issues of the course.
  5. Model an honest grappling with the difficult issues, and share your personal struggle.
  6. Ask students to reflect in writing on the ways that they have developed in their thinking on the issues and questions raised.

I recently contacted my former student to discuss the tough questions he was famous for asking. He shared the following: “When I first came across these things, I felt like there were aspects of my own tradition that were being hidden from me.” Experiences where discussions were, “based on personal reflection helped to push back on the narrative that religious authorities are afraid of particular dialogues and/or hide inconvenient parts of scripture.”

He still has his bookmarked Tanach. And I am grateful to him for forcing me to confront my own discomfort, and to recognize that his questions belong front and center in a Tanach curriculum.

Esther Friedman is currently a PhD candidate in Jewish education at the Melton School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She has taught Tanach, written Tanach curriculum and chaired the Tanach department at Tanenbaum CHAT, Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto. Esther is a graduate of MTEI cohort 8 and her work embodies two MTEI principles – “teachers learn and learners teach” and “there is moral meaning in the work we do.”