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Mixing math and Torah

So why the dodecahedron?  Why my obsession with mixing math and Torah?  How about mapwork – why bother showing kids maps of where the weekly parsha took place?

Sadly, there is a tremendous need. The big kids went to Jewish schools, and I saw the extent of the secular resources they had to use. There really is nothing else out there that mixes Torah with math, say, or English composition, or copywork, or... anything. :-(((

In fact, I’d say the teachers outside of the “Jewish studies” departments rarely put much thought into making their curriculum Jewish at all.  Okay, in the early grades, they can do “apple counting” before Rosh Hashanah, but that’s more of a fall activity than anything else.

image Two examples that shocked and/or surprised me, and I think they were both math-related (but remember, I am easily shocked):

  • Groundhog day:  a reproduced booklet of activities around the concept of Groundhog Day.  Since becoming religious, I had totally stopped “observing” Groundhog Day, which came as kind of a relief after the forced silliness of it all.  But once I was frum, behind the silliness, Groundhog Day started to seem awfully like what the Rambam and other halachic sources are talking about when they refer to “divination.”  Technically, in fact, the Rambam refers to this sort of thing as “soothsaying” in the Mishneh Torah, saying, “those who hear the chirping of a bird and say: This will happen or this will not happen” (Halacha 4).   To me, it’s pretty clear that those who see a groundhog see its shadow and predict more or fewer weeks of winter are soothsaying.  I don’t believe Harry Potter books teach witchcraft, and I don’t believe divination by groundhogs actually works… but this seems very close to the letter of the Rambam’s prohibition. 
  • Hockey player:  this was ANOTHER reproduced booklet – provided by some major corporate source, though I don’t remember who anymore.  It was definitely math-based, but focused on a day in the life of a major-league hockey player.  It was a real player, but I don’t remember his name anymore.  Oh, and he lived with his girlfriend.  Just about the first thing the booklet pointed out was that he woke up in the morning and had a nutritious breakfast with his girlfriend (it mentioned her name, but blessedly, I’ve forgotten the whole thing).  Except… as a nod to the morality of a Jewish school, the word “girlfriend” was blacked out with marker.  Nothing written in its place, mind you.  It wasn’t WHITED out, with “wife” written over top.  Nope – Mr. Hockey Player woke up, had breakfast with his image and then got on with the business of whatever math-related hockey excitement lay ahead that day.  Yup, kids can’t tell there’s anything missing in that sentence.

image image A third example I just remembered:

  • Before Remembrance Day (November 11th, a day to commemorate Canada’s wars and acknowledge veterans), a child was asked to memorize the poem “In Flanders Fields.”  No problem, until I looked at the sheet, and discovered that some Jewish educator had bastardized the first lines to read, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the gravestones, row on row.”  My children had no idea why I was running around the house shrieking, “No!  Crosses!  Crosses, dammit!!!”  If you’re going to teach a poem, about a place filled with death, and crosses… strangely, perhaps, I have no problem with that.  But I guess somebody did.  Sheesh.

(does anyone else remember that the centre of these poppies used to be GREEN???)

In all three of these cases, I did tell the school that what they were doing actually undermined the values they were trying to reinforce on the other side of the hallway, in the Limudei Kodesh (Jewish studies) classes.  Most of the time, when something like this happens, their reaction is something like, “thanks for letting us know,” which is what I would say, too, if I didn’t intend to do very much about it.

imageAs much as people mock the homeschool world for popular resources like Rod & Staff Books, a Mennonite publisher which offers grammar lessons that look like this (Identify Who, What, Place in the following sentences:  “A prophet took a ship to Tarshish,” ”Ruth gathered grain near Bethlehem,” “Jesus broke bread by the seaside.”).  These books are refreshing in that at least these folks put their money where their mouth is – they accept that faith and education need not be polar opposites, and that religion can and MUST infuse every aspect even of supposedly “secular” studies.

image However I personally feel about the age of the world, evolution, etc., I was distressed a couple of weeks ago to see that my teenage daughter’s first introduction to Darwin/ism came not in a context informed and infused with the spirit of yiddishkeit (which is generally found throughout her school in a mostly delightful way), but as part of a course in Human Growth and Development (ie Psychology) where she was left on her own to give an opinion, in an essay, about whether his theories of child development were logical. 

I may not agree with the content of Christian “worldview” courses that expose children to arguments for “Young Earth Creationism” (disagree!), at least such courses acknowledge that Darwin’s ideas OUGHT to be considered as part of a religious person’s worldview, not just tossed at kids in passing in a psych course.

Finally, as I have read in so many Christian publications, kids too often – including in Jewish schools – grow up learning history and geography as concrete disciplines, grounded in places, maps, dates, times, personalities of historical figures and geographical leaders.  All the rich characters and textures of the world around them. 

And then they crack open the… well, let’s call it the Torah, though the reading I’ve done calls it the Bible.  They crack it open and there it is, dry and discrete; a discipline unto itself, studied for its own sake, often without even a nodding reference to its connection to the outside world – its historical setting, its places and times and characters; the personality of its literature and the texture of its narrative.  Yawn.

imageIn history, I remember learning about Egyptians, Sumerians, dinosaurs, pioneers and the Great Depression.  I never learned about Achashverosh and the story of Purim, and nobody ever bothered showing me a map like the one here and told me that, though his “Hebrew name” was Achashverosh, his “Persian name” was Xerxes and he was known and feared throughout the biggest empire the world had ever known.  I figured Purim was a Jewish story – obscure and not really interesting to the rest of the world, never realizing how central Jerusalem and its Temples, its Jews, have been to the history of the Western world. 

We were tricked, I believe, into thinking that, as educated Jews-of-the-world, even WE shouldn’t care very much about particularistic stories that are “only” found in the Tanach.  Mapwork, copywork, math work alone don’t fix the problem, but they go a long way – I think, I hope, I pray – towards mending the rift.

The violent separation of religion and academics strips both of these disciplines at any chance at higher meaning and relevance in our kids’ lives, and I really, REALLY wish Jewish schools could see this too.

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