Wednesday, August 26, 2009

More on Revenge after the Shoah

Last night I saw a preview of a new play by Daniel Goldfarb - "The Retributionists". The story is loosely based on history - you can read the background at this article in the Jewish Week.

(excerpt below from 8/25/09 Jewish Week)

"Cohen’s book “The Avengers: A Jewish War Story” tells a revenge tale more fully, while also noting the consequences: Jewish acts of vengeance made Zionists uneasy since they knew it would hurt the cause of statehood. He focuses on partisans Abba Kovner, Ruzka Korczak and Vitna Kempner as they escape from the Vilna ghetto and form a paramilitary group that fought alongside the Lithuanian and Russian armies. After the war, several wanted to take justice into their own hands and formed a Nazi-hunting group called Nokmim, Hebrew for “the avengers.”

The group planned to poison the water supply of several German towns, but was thwarted by someone suspected of being a Zionist informant. Kovner was arrested by the British military before the plan went through, but the group’s backup plan eventually succeeded: a partisan disguised as a baker snuck into a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp where he rubbed arsenic on 3,000 loaves of bread. He then fled, anxiously awaiting the result. It remains unknown how many died, but The Associated Press reported days later, on April 26, 1946, that “nineteen hundred German prisoners of war were poisoned by arsenic in their bread early this week in a United States camp and all are ‘seriously ill.’”

You may want to examine this incident in more detail with your high school students.

One can also see this play through the lens of today's world - a world in which some people wish to right what they understand as historical wrongs through revenge against those they hold responsible, others seek to look ahead to plan positively for the future.

Big Idea:
  • After the Shoah ended, those who survived had differing responses to the tragedy.
  • The world continues to be a place in which some groups suffer at the hands of others.
  • We face a challenge in deciding on appropriate responses to wrongdoing.

Essential Questions:
  • What does Jewish wisdom tell us about response to evil?
  • What does Jewish wisdom teach us about punishment of wrongdoers?
  • What can we do about injustice in the world today that is aligned to Jewish thought?
Activities for Learning:
  • Read about Jewish social action here
  • Mazon, a group dedicated to fighting hunger in the world, has the following list of text sources on its website. Incidentally, the website also has quotations from every parashah along with suggestions for social action projects associated with each.
  • is a site you may or may not want to visit. It includes an article about a joint Jewish/Moslem effort to fight anti-semitism and Islamophobia.
  • There was a symposium in 2005 entitled "Freeing the Captives; The Jewish Response to Human Trafficking. After reading the brochure, you or your students may want to contact one or more of the presenters for more information about this massive problem.
  • There are many Jewish organizations devoted to fighting injustice. Teams of students may research some of them: American Jewish World Service, Jewish Funds for Justice, The Jewish Service Corps, Hazon, Tzedek, Mechon Hadar, Uri L'Tzedek.
  • On1Foot is "an open-source online database of Jewish texts on social justice." It is a wonderful resource for planning learning.
  • Create with your students a plan for activities in pursuit of social justice in your community. Research needs, available services, population, etc. and decide how your efforts can be most productive. Be sure to include study of texts in planning and executing your activities.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Guilt, Shame, Elul and Research

Today's NY Times Science section carried an article about the development and usefulness of guilt in children.

The title of the article is 'Guilt and Atonement on the Path to Adulthood'. When I saw the term "atonement" I thought- and how could I as a Jewish educator at this time of the year NOT think - about the upcoming Tishrei holiday season, and about the month of Elul, and I'm really beginning to think that the writers and editors of the NY Times may be studying Torah with us!!

What prompted me to write this note is the following quotation in the article:
'“The key element is the difference between shame and guilt,” Dr. Tangney says. ...
She recommends focusing not just on the bad deed, but more important, on how to make amends. “Both children and adults can be surprisingly clueless about whether and how to make things right,” Dr. Tangney said. '

Enter the Rambam, who gives us clear directions for teshuvah, for getting from wrong to right, from guilt to atonement:
  1. Recognize the wrong
  2. Apologize for the wrong
  3. Make amends to the one you wronged
  4. Promise not to repeat the wrong
  5. When in a similar situation in the future, behave correctly, don't repeat the wrong.
In addition to the actual steps, the fact that the process is called in Hebrew teshuvah, or 'return', is a concrete way of separating the action from the individual. I may have done wrong, but I am capable of turning toward doing right next time.

This concept aligns so well with the instruction in the article for parents - not only to verbally separate the child from the misbehavior, but to do so with a concrete action that empowers the child to act to right the wrong.

Isn't it wonderful when research reaches conclusions that Jewish wisdom has come to so many years ago!!

Big Idea: Teshuvah is a process

Essential Questions:
  1. What does the word teshuvah actually mean?
  2. What part of the process is internal?
  3. What part of the process involves actions?
  4. What makes the process complete?
  5. Why are there 5 steps listed above, when Maimonides lists only 4?
Activities to Promote Learning:
  • Read about Maimonides' steps of teshuvah here.
  • David Blumenthal writes about teshuvah here
  • Write your own story of teshuvah, either fiction or non-fiction
  • Create a visual display that symbolizes teshuvah. Be prepared to explain the elements of the display
  • Write and perform a song or poem about teshuvah for the rest of the class.
  • Collect true stories of teshuvah from the world around you.
  • Private: choose an area in which you would like to do teshuvah and do it. You don't need to share this with anyone else if you don't want to.
  • Compare and contrast 'teshuvah' with 'reflection'

Hoping Elul is a time for all of us to participate actively in the process of teshuvah.
And to encourage our students to do so in a meaningful and personal way.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Jewish Thoughts on Revenge

You may or may not want to see the movie "Inglourious Basterds" - I am personally not a fan of Quentin Tarantino's work, as I find the extreme violence is not to my personal taste - but I think we can not ignore the conversation that the film has motivated. You may be interested in reading the following article in the Wall Street Journal about reaction to Tarantino's newly released film.

First of all, the story told in this film is not history. That much is acknowledged by the creators and producers and emphasized in every story and review I have read.

Second: it is - as are all Tarantino's movies - filled with as much gratuitous violence as it is possible to include in a movie.

Third: when shown in preview to a group at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City it was greeted with vastly different reactions from the audience - some cheered, some walked out.

Your high school students may very well have seen this film before school begins for the year - it opened BIG its first weekend. If you choose to ignore it you will miss an opportunity to use it as a trigger to discuss some important Jewish values:
  • What does Jewish wisdom say about revenge?
  • What does Jewish wisdom say about guilt? about forgiveness? about compassion? about contrition? about reward and punishment?
Big Ideas:
  • There is evil in the world.
  • People are responsible for evil they do.
  • Judaism has some clear guidelines governing reward and punishment.
  • Judaism includes the concept of teshuvah - translated either as repentence or returning.
  • Elul is traditionally a time of the year when Jews work at teshuvah

Essential Questions:
  • What is the Jewish understanding of teshuvah?
  • Is there a Jewish response to evil?
  • What are some Jewish ideas on reward and punishment?
  • What does Judaism say about taking revenge?

Some Resources for finding the answers to the essential questions:
  • Your students will see how Jewish thinking is and is not supported by popular culture.
  • Students will be able to support their opinion, with reference to sources, that teshuvah is or is not possible for those who perpetrated the Shoah
  • Elul will become a time during which students will purposefully work at teshuvah in their own lives
  • Students will begin to use "Jewish language" in describing the world around them.

Further Thoughts:
Your students will probably return to class having heard at least some minimal discussion about the release of the person who was convicted in Scotland of responsibility in the Lockerbie disaster. Why not take the opportunity to discuss this in the context of the information they have read concerning "Inglourious Basterds" about reward and punishment, compassion, revenge, etc.

If you are addressing any of these issues in your Jewish classroom, please share your thoughts with the rest of the readers by commenting on this post. We have much to learn from each other.

Parashat Ki Taytzay Update

I couldn't resist this - last week we read about prophecy - and how to know if a prophet is a true prophet.

Is it possible that Joe Martin (the creator of the Mister Boffo comic) is studying Torah?

August 23, 2009, Mister Boffo go to this link, then choose the August 23, 2009 date in the archives to see what made me laugh!!


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Parashat Ki Taytzay

First I want to say that if it weren't for this parashah there would be many fewer movies, plays or novels in the world. Why? Because this portion is filled with the kinds of statements that make good theater!
You may want to read through chapters 21:10 - 25:19 yourself. Or look at the following link to a synopsis from Teaching Torah, by Sorel Goldberg Loeb and Barbara Binder Kadden.
As you read either the text or the synopsis, try to think of the movies, plays or books you are familiar with that wouldn't exist without the ideas portrayed in this Torah portion. Make a list to share with us.

In fact, there are so many ideas, so many laws, so many seemingly unrelated items that I wanted to think of a way to organize the teaching and learning in a way that is consistent with my last post about Big Ideas.

What are the BIG IDEAS in this parashah? Remember, the Big Ideas are those concepts you want your students to remember after they have forgotten all the rest. Are some ideas more important than others in this parashah? On what do you base your decision?

Is there a theme (or are there multiple themes) into which these discrete ideas can be divided?

I think that a big principle of this Torah portion concerns power
  • how it is to be used
  • how it is not to be used
  • what the restrictions are on those with power
  • what support is available to those without power.

This week's NY Times Magazine section is all about women's issues, and devotes most of its articles to the lack of power women and girls have in most places in the world. You may want to read one or more articles and decide if any of the statements in Parashat Ki Taytzay seem to address the same issues as the articles in the magazine.

One more thing - many years ago I remember studying with Shoshana Glatzer about this parashah, and her telling about how she taught her students the following verses:
יג וְיָד תִּהְיֶה לְךָ, מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה; וְיָצָאתָ שָּׁמָּה, חוּץ.13 You shall have a place also outside the camp, And you shall go there.
יד וְיָתֵד תִּהְיֶה לְךָ, עַל-אֲזֵנֶךָ; וְהָיָה, בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ חוּץ, וְחָפַרְתָּה בָהּ, וְשַׁבְתָּ וְכִסִּיתָ אֶת-צֵאָתֶךָ.14 And you shall have a paddle among your weapons; and, when you sit down out there, you shall dig with it, and shall turn back and cover that which comes from you.

I'm willing to bet that very few of us learned this in Hebrew school!! So why did Shoshana choose, with all the other ideas in this parasha she could have chosen, to present this excerpt.

What do you think her Big Idea was?

I look forward to your comments in person and on the blog.

Thoughts on Teaching Big Ideas in Torah

Don Hewitt, the creator of 60 Minutes, just died.
He is quoted in an article in the LA Times as follows:

My idea was that television reality ought to be packaged as entertainingly as television entertainment," Hewitt said. "I believe that it all comes down to that ancient phrase: 'Tell me a story.' I think people are interested in stories, not issues, even though the stories may be about people coping with issues. In the Bible, the issue was evil, but the story was Noah."

What a wonderful trigger for thinking about teaching and learning Torah.

During the month of Elul we are close to the end of the Torah cycle, which means, naturally, that we are also close to the beginning. So perhaps in thinking about how we will learn Torah this year with our students we can remember to keep in mind that while the story is the "hook," the Big Ideas are the "issues".

Planning a lesson ought to begin, therefore, at the end:
I. Big Ideas/Enduring Understandings/What do I want my students to remember after they have forgotten everything else?

II. Essential Questions/What are the questions they need to challenge themselves to answer in order to reach these understandings?

III. Activities/What are the learning activities our students can participate in/create/view/organize to help them answer these essential questions? What are the resources to which I can direct them so they can be active participants in their learning?

IV. Assessment/How will I as the teacher be able to know if my students have learned the big ideas?

This lesson planning strategy is known as Understanding by Design, or, more informally, as Backward Design, and was popularized by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. No matter what you are teaching, it suggests that you must start with the important outcomes you hope to reach. This is a different from a model that states goals and objectives as discreet bits of content knowledge. It is about learning things that are IMPORTANT.

If you want to learn more about this strategy, you can type the words "Understanding by Design" into any search engine and read about it on the web. While most of the articles refer to meeting state learning standards and other issues in general education, the ideas for planning learning are equally relevant in Jewish studies.

I would suggest that if our students are learning Torah without the sense that what they are learning is FUNDAMENTALLY IMPORTANT, then what they may know temporarily will soon be forgotten.