Monday, September 11, 2006

Putting God in the Center by Yaakov Bieler

When thinking about where Orthodox Jewish day schools might place renewed emphasis both curricularly as well as experientially, I would advocate that God and the manner in which an awareness of His Presence shouldimpact all that we do should be made the central theme of all religious education initiatives. If Avodat HaShem is the ultimate purpose of Judaism and Jewish belief, I am not sure that day schools are presently doingenough to nurture such a sensibility.

While a symptom of the problem is the quality of Tefilla (prayer) that the average day school student engages in not only within the school precincts, but also on Shabbat, Yom Tov and during vacation times - if a student sensed a personal closeness to HaShem, his/her Tefilla per force would have to be serious and heartfelt - I believe that the manner inwhich the subject matter of the Shiurim that comprise roughly half of thedual curriculum is approached, also contributes to spiritual aridity. TaNaCh, Tora SheB'Al Peh, Halacha and Hashkafa must all be perceived by teachers and students as so much more than mere examples of ancient literature and commentaries that comprise Jewish culture and tradition. While wishing our students to achieve literacy with regard to the textsand concepts of our heritage is an important goal for our educational institutions, nevertheless I would maintain that literacy must be understood as little more than a means to an end rather than an end initself. Even if a student upon graduation can competently read, decode, analyze and comprehend Jewish primary and secondary texts, if s/he is devoid of spirituality and a sense of having a relationship with the Divine, then literally and figuratively "Ikar Chaser Min HaSefer" (the essence is missing from the text).

I have always been inspired not only in my personal study, but also in myteaching by the insight of R. Chayim Volozhin in his commentary RuachChayim: on Pirkei Avot 1:1 :

For when one engaged in the study of Talmud and Codes and Tosafot, and inhis research and dialectical discourse concerning them, he is attached(deveikut) to the Holy One for all comes from Sinai ... The Holy One andTora are a unity, and he who is attached to His Tora is attached toHim.

[1] Placing God front and center in the day school experience is crucial to the viability of Orthodox day school education.[1] Cited in R. Norman Lamm, Tora for Tora's Sake in the Works of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin and His Contemporaries, Ktav , Hoboken, NJ, 1989, p. 243.

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Rabbi Yaakov Bieler is the Rabbi of the Kemp Mill Synagogue, Silver Spring, Maryland, and is on th faculty of the Malvin J. Berman HebrewAcademy. He has published extensively on topics related to the philosophyof education in the modern Orthodox day school, including an article entitled "Preserving Modern Orthodoxy in our Day Schools" accessible at http://tinyurl.com/z2un2

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