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October 8, 2015 | 25th Tishrei 5776

Teaching values I

Galilee Diary #212
December 19, 2004
Marc J. Rosenstein

[between returning] his own lost article and his father’s - his own takes precedence; between his own and his teacher’s - his own takes precedence; between his father’s and his teacher’s - his teacher’s takes precedence; for his father brought him into this world, but his teacher, who taught him wisdom, brings him into the world to come. If his father is wise (a scholar), then his [loss] takes precedence [over the teacher’s]. If his father and his teacher are carrying burdens, first he removes his teacher’s burden, then his father’s. If his father and his teacher are imprisoned, he redeems his teacher first, then his father. But if his father is wise, he redeems him first.

--Mishnah Baba Metzia 2:11

Though we tend to see the conflict between home and school as a modern problem, of particular concern in settings like the Reform community, where our relationship to religious authority is ambivalent at best, I think that the tension between the authority of parents and teachers, between biological continuity and spiritual continuity, has been with us for a long time. Indeed, it seems to me we can trace it all the way back to the patriarchs (e.g., when God tells Abraham to leave his parents’ house – Gen. 12:12). Interestingly, in the above Mishnah, the rabbis make a rather extreme statement – that one’s teacher’s loss or burden or imprisonment takes precedence over one’s father’s; but then they immediately try to temper it with the proviso that if the father himself is learned, then he takes priority over the teacher.

Who imparts values? Home or community? “If the father is a scholar,” then clearly home and community share the same values and the question of priority becomes trivial. But if he is not – then there could well be a conflict – and the teachers writing our text know who should take precedence! In our modern (or post-modern) reality, there is often dissonance between the values of the family and those of the school – especially the religious school. Hence, the familiar refrain of the Sunday school teacher (and the day school teacher and even the public school teacher), “how can I teach Shabbat (or daily prayer, or tzedakah, or non-violence, or intellectual curiousity, etc…) when the home environment is teaching the opposite at every turn?” The answer, of course, is clear: with great difficulty, a lot of frustration and even pain, and often disappointing results.

This dissonance raises interesting questions. For example, by what right do I as a teacher presume to teach my students, in an open society, values that their parents do not share or even approve of? Or we could ask the mirror image question: by what right do I as a parent teach my child to reject the values that the society of which I am a member has adopted as universal?

Last week, M., the counselor in our teen leadership development program in two Arab villages, came to our weekly meeting very upset. She had raised with her kids (mostly 11th grade girls) the question of the status of women in Arab society. These are girls who are top students, leaders in their class, experienced in talking to Jewish peers, and in most cases with high professional ambitions (doctors and lawyers). They didn’t really see a problem. M. quoted the statistic on the number of Arab women murdered by family members over “family honor” (suspected sexual immorality), not an uncommon occurrence, even in Israel. The girls: “Of course it’s wrong, but you have to look at what they did to deserve it.” M. was speechless.

So, where does cultural relativism end? And where does our right to educate end? No one has delegated us to try to change the values of these teenagers, and no one has appointed us the moral judges of their culture. But how can we stand silent in the face of strongly ingrained social traditions that, even with all our liberal tolerance, we can only see as morally wrong? And if we say, like we do about genocide in Africa, “Well, it’s their way, there’s nothing we can do,” are we not racists? On the other hand, if we say, “We know better, our culture is superior, they’ll just have to assimilate and adopt our civilized values,” are we not patronizing?

Maybe the best we can do is to live our own values consciously, and model them consistently. As teacher educator Parker Palmer puts it: we teach who we are.

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