Monday, December 20, 2010

Jewish Educational Thoughts Again

12/19/10 NY Times Op-Ed by Ross Douthat, A Tough Season for Believers

While this article was written with Christians in mind, it seems to me just as appropriate for religious people of any faith group, since the tension it describes exists in every religious community.  It is, I believe, the tension between tradition and change, between communal responsibility and individual autonomy, between a religious outlook and a secular one.
One of the books Douthat mentions in his article is American Grace, by Robert Putnam and David Campbell.  Putnam is the author of Bowling Alone, one of my all-time favorites.  His focus in that book was on the disintegration of community and communal responsibility.  He noted then (in 2000) that religious communities were among the most successful communal organizations in the country.  I look forward to reading this new analysis of community, and am anxious to see how he and his co-author describe the state of religious institutional connection today.
The last two paragraphs of the article sum up the problem:
Putnam and Campbell are quantitative, liberal, and upbeat; Hunter is qualitative, conservative and conflicted. But both books come around to a similar argument: this month’s ubiquitous carols and crèches notwithstanding, believing Christians are no longer what they once were — an overwhelming majority in a self-consciously Christian nation. The question is whether they can become a creative and attractive minority in a different sort of culture, where they’re competing not only with rival faiths but with a host of pseudo-Christian spiritualities, and where the idea of a single religious truth seems increasingly passé.
Or to put it another way, Christians need to find a way to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom — and more and more like the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning, 2,000 years ago this week.
If you substitute the word "Jews" for the word "Christians" I believe you are describing the challenge facing the Jewish institutional community as well.  While we may never have been "an overwhelming majority" in the United States, we certainly need to 'become a creative and attractive minority'.  As Jewish educators, we are right in the middle as the situation unfolds, and must think seriously about possible outcomes.


Last year's post on this parasha is really filled with ideas and suggestions for analyzing this week's reading. Since the calendar is different this year, most of us are reading Shemot before the December vacation (if we have one) so the narrative that ended the book of Breisheet should be fresh in the minds of our students.  With that noted, please re-read that post and pick out some of the issues you didn't have time for last year.

When I re-read the parasha just now a couple of questions jumped out at me.  Interestingly, some were the same ones that troubled me last year, and some were a little different.

  1. In chapter 1 verses 15 - 21 the text tells the story of the midwives, Shifra and Puah.  Here's what popped out for me in this reading - Why didn't Par'o punish them for disobeying his orders?  Also, when so many women who played roles in the story of the Jewish people remain nameless in the text, why are these two named?
  2. Why did Par'o allow his daughter to keep the baby, who was obviously one of the Hebrews?
  3. Chapter 2:25 - why do the Israelites cry out to God only after the Par'o who had enslaved them died?
  4. Chapter 6:1 - isn't it strange that Par'o is described as having a "yad hazakah", a "strong hand", a term that I've always associated with God!?

Regarding the story of the midwives, and what they did to save a people in danger, an additional resource I would like to suggest is Facing History and Ourselves, which is a wonderful site about making moral choices in life.  It has excellent teaching ideas that help sensitize students to the importance of being "upstanders" in the face of evil.