What We Should Educate For

By Devora Steinmetz

When the editors of the JOFA Journal asked me to write an article about how to educate boys to be feminists, I said that I thought that the critical question was not how to educate boys—or girls—to be feminists. I would guess that most of our sons and daughters, in fact, accept the basic assumptions of feminism as givens. Yet these basic assumptions are not in evidence in many key aspects of our lives as Jews, which makes the issue of feminism one— perhaps the most obvious and one of the most troubling, but still just one—of a variety of areas in which there is a conflict of values between different domains of our lives. The issue, then, as I see it, is not how to teach children to be feminist, but how to educate our children for integrity, responsibility, and commitment, so that they can address the challenges of feminism as well as other difficult challenges, conflicts, and problems that they will encounter. I want to explain briefly why I think that educating for these core dispositions is what we, as Jewish feminists and as people of truth, should be concerned with. 

Given that we significantly embrace the values of contemporary Western culture, I see three possible explanations for the behavior of members of the community who, in their daily (or weekly) religious behavior, participate in, and thus support, the status quo in relation to women’s role in Jewish life. 1) They do not see the problem. 2) They see the problem but do not see it as their responsibility (or do not see themselves as having the capacity) to change things. 3) They see the Jewish ritual component of their lives as peripheral in importance to who they are and to how they spend most of their time and energy—given everything else we do and care about, why bother about what happens during three hours of our lives on Shabbat morning? To state matters boldly, if perhaps a bit too simply, not taking action to change the status quo derives either from (I will define each of the following terms in a moment) lack of integrity, lack of a sense of personal responsibility, or lack of sufficient commitment to Judaism.

Let me explain the first and part of the third of these possibilities in relation to each other. If we actually believe that Judaism is important, that it is a way of life, a set of beliefs and values, a way of being in the world, then there ought to be a constant dialogue between what we learn within Judaism and the beliefs, values, and ideas that we inherit from our place within the general culture. Since clearly some elements of one are in conflict with some elements of the other, we should be always in the process of questioning, challenging, and making judgments about each of the worlds that we inhabit. The response, of course, might not be to embrace feminism at all; it might well be to challenge the feminism of the general culture (from the right to vote to the desirability of women becoming doctors and lawyers) if it seems in conflict with the values that are implied by and embodied in traditional Jewish life, culture, and halakha. So I am not saying what judgments anyone must end up making as one struggles with the challenges that Jewish tradition and contemporary culture pose to each other. But I am saying that not to recognize the power of these challenges means either that we are not looking at things with real integrity (by which I mean an honest, straight-in-the-eye look) or that we do not see Judaism as having implications for the totality of our lives.

The second possibility is more straightforward and, I would guess, more familiar to many readers. That is, we see the problem (at least to some degree), we have a sense that things should be different (though how different we might not have dared to think about, since we are so far from being there anyway!), but we do not see ourselves as the people who can make things the way they should be. We are not the ones who are responsible, or we are not the ones who have the power, to shape Jewish life. Or—to take that power would be to make ourselves, our families, our communities uncomfortable, and that is not a responsibility we believe we should take. I do not want to suggest that the leadership of our community does not have the lion’s share of responsibility, but I do believe that it is the responsibility of each person who believes that things should be different to make them different. Minimally, and very powerfully, that means to refrain from supporting the status quo by participating in it. And, yes, that does mean making oneself, one’s family, and one’s community uncomfortable, at least at the start, as we strive to create a better Jewish community.

Returning to the third possibility, that it just doesn’t matter enough to us—our community has done a fine job of immunizing Jewish life from the challenges of contemporary culture. This, of course, comes at the huge cost of making Judaism functionally irrelevant—so that Judaism, in turn, loses its power to challenge contemporary culture and to shape our lives. There is no greater disrespect to Judaism than to put it in a box, tie it up, and put it on a shelf, only to be taken down on occasion amidst great public fanfare. We have essentially cordoned off our Judaism from our life—and so, at the expense of having to decide that it’s not really important enough to us, or maybe because we have already come to that conclusion—we grin and bear the lies we live on Shabbat morning and in occasional other ritual settings. 

And so that is why I maintain that we ought to be educating for integrity (the absolute requirement to look at things honestly), responsibility (the sense of obligation to make things right and the belief in our ability to do so), and commitment (the belief that Judaism is important and that we may not say “why bother”). Like for all dispositions, the most powerful educational setting is the home, but schools can also educate for these dispositions. To do so might require critical changes in the way we teach children and conceive of schooling, for dispositions can only truly be transmitted in the context of the entire culture of a setting; they are embodied in and read off of everything from the smallest details of curriculum, pedagogy, and human interactions to the largest and most explicit elements of an institution. 

And I would also add the obvious—that dispositions, no matter how powerful and transformative they can be, are weak in the absence of strong knowledge which, when informed by the dispositions that I have outlined, is the most powerful agent of change. And, I believe, authentic Jewish learning—teaching children to become straight, bold, engaged readers of Torah—can be the most powerful teacher of integrity, responsibility, and commitment.

Devora Steinmetz is the founder of Beit Rabban and Assistant Professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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