Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Commenting on the Ramaz Yom Iyun on Jewish Philosophy for Judaic Teachers

Ramaz's Yom Iyun (Day of Learning) came on the heels of a round of much heated debate on Lookjed about how to ensure religious observance in students post high school.  Extremely relevant, very timely, and incredibly well run, the conference provided educators with a number of options for the first lecture to attend and then followed up with two amazing lectures by Dr. David Shatz and one lecture Rabbi Twersky.  There were well over 60 participants, many of them the movers and shakers from the major Modern Orthodox Yeshivot in the NY/NJ area.  I do not doubt if the next one is not over finals week, they will have many more.  The options for the first session included:

1. How to Address Questions about Free Will, by Rabbi Elly Storch
2. Addressing Conflicts between Divine Command and Human Morality through the Akeida, by  Dr. Shira Weiss
3. How to Address Questions about Evolution of the Oral Law, by Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz
4. Addressing Ethically Challenging Topics such as Am HaNivchar in a Liberal Age, by Rabbi Noam Stein
5. Helping Students Engage with the 4 Questions: "Where did we come from? Why are we here? What is our purpose here? Where are we going?", by Rabbi Yosef Beckhofer

I chose to go to the session by Rabbi Schiowitz on Questions about the Oral Tradition. While he is in fact the Rav of the shul I attend, I had never attended a class outside of the shul by him.  I was particularly impressed by his organization, handouts (with excellent primary sources), and ability to interweave the greater issues of betuchon (belief) and commitment to the system of halakah (Jewish Law) with the complexity of the modern thinker.  His session was fast paced, highly engaging, and rewarding to all. While I had seen most of the sources he utilized, I never had a packet of them organized all in one place.  It was really useful.  I really walked out of it with tangible ways to approach this question with high school students in the future.

He started out the lecture in actually a very unique way.  He explained that some actually have trouble understanding the Oral tradition almost because they are worried the Rabbis got it wrong.  Almost like they are worried they are not doing the "right" thing.  Almost like, what if the Rabbis are violating halakah?

"Question-I believer G-d wrote Torah & gave at MS, but Rabbis forget it.  What if they got it wrong?  How could we be lenient and do what he doesn't want and makoloket always arguing.  Then how do we know anything is right?  In general, why is this good?  Seems like it would be better if more objective, more divine."

This right away set us up for a great lecture.  This is certainly an issue we as educators often encounter.  Students who don't understand the rabbinic chain of tradition and interpretation of law.  They grasp the written law (in the Tanach), they just don't seem to understand the notion that a bunch of people were entrusted with its interpretation long term.  He really addressed the issue head on and in a meaningful way.

Next, Dr. Shatz (I must confess I practically majored in him at Stern) spoke on Divine Intervention.  Literally ripping through countless texts on the problem of evil, why good things happen to bad people (and vice versa) and G-d's intervention in the world, he managed to create a lecture that made me feel like I was back in graduate school at a major university (Columbia?). It was highly intellectually (as he always is) and thought provoking.  His passion for subject many find esoteric actually forces you to not only enjoy your experience, but wonder why you ever thought philosophy could ever be boring in the first place.  

The third session was also led by Dr. Shatz.  He totally rocked the entire day.  For him alone, it was worth taking the day off and coming out.  This time, he left room for teachers questions.  In addition, he spend a sizable amount of time on the remaining scholars' views of Divine Intervention, with special focus on the Ramban and the Rav.  I really enjoyed hearing this.  Personally, I have always taken a Rav Dessler approach to Divine Intervention, which is essentially occasionalism.   This is the idea that G-d directly intervenes in everything.  Not in a pantheistic sort of way, but in a panentheistic way.  However, he made me question this approach as perhaps almost egocentric.  I now have a lot to think about myself!

Lastly, Rabbi Twersky wrapped up the conference discussing practical implementation of the issue in courses.  The specific focus here was that teachers should be confident to make the Torah the #1 and the issues the students having (be it influenced by modern thought, science, or society) not equal to that.  Instead, that the instructor should make sure to emphasize the primacy of the Torah and the secondary nature the issue it is.  So that while science has its merits, for example, the Torah is immutable and always true.  Science often changes its understanding of truth.  Then, by its very nature, science it not revealed truth.  So, science has to work around Torah, not vice versa. He told over stories of gadolim.  He emphasized that the teacher's role is not to freak out when a question he/she cannot answer is asked, rather the teacher's role is to confidently explain why in fact the question may not have an answer, we as humans, will ever be able understand give our limitations and the limitlessness of the Divine.  When I asked him what age it was appropriate to bring up such issues or deal with them, he said bluntly "al pe darcho" each according to their way, but at any age.  He took many questions.  While I greatly appreciate his obvious scholarship and wisdom, I would have liked to see him in a panel with a Orthodox scientist and perhaps another secular scholar instead of the straightforward lecture.  I think that would have been more rewarding.  I also think the question of how to approach a kid struggling with faith is a bit more complex that simply evoking confidence in your individual approach (however, I do think that is important too).  I assume he simply needed more time to flesh this out and, I think a different format would have availed him the opportunity to do so.

You might wonder why a high school administrator, someone who deals predominantly with general studies curricula, observing and hiring general studies teachers, and focusing on best practices and assessment tools, is attending a Judaic Studies related conference.  I hear that.  As an administrator in a Jewish school, my ultimate job, the job of the school itself, is to ensure the continuity and success of our people.   To that end, regardless of whatever individual role each of us play, by the very nature of the fact we are in a Jewish school, we must align our vision, our mission, our every action to this goal. Hence, a conference that focuses on the issues students' deal with in Jewish Philosophy is particularly of interest to all yeshiva faculty and administration.  Furthermore, any area learning deal with Judaic studies and students should be of vital interest to all administrators, faculty, and staff as well.

Yasher Koach (Good job) to Rabbi Schiowitz to arranging this important event and I look forward to more in the years to come!