Friday, July 20, 2012

The perils of bad Hebrew school, Sunday school, yeshiva

At almost thirteen I dropped out of Sunday school… mainly because I suddenly saw that the picture of Jewish history that we were learning, of a marvelous and talented people surrounded by dull and evil strangers was far from the truth. The error of anti-Semitism is not that the Jews are not really bad after all, but that evil, stupidity and grossness is not a monopoly of the Jewish people but a universal characteristic of mankind in general. … The error of pro-Semitism is… that intelligence, good will, and kindness is not, thank God, a monopoly of the Jewish people but a universal characteristic of mankind in general.  Therefore you see at thirteen I was not only converted to other religious views but I also stopped believing that the Jewish people are in any way "the chosen people."

- Richard Feynman (letter)

In case you figure your kids are smart, that they’ll figure it out and develop a connection to Judaism and Hashem no matter how badly it’s taught to them and embodied in the teachers standing in front of them… Richard Feynman says that’s just not true (I know, I promised I’d stop with these Feynman quotes, and I will, really!!!  Or maybe I’ll get another blog: Adventures in Feynman-Land.)

Here’s where he says that kind of thinking leads – and, of course, he’s right:

To select for approbation the peculiar elements that come from some supposedly Jewish heredity is to open the door to all kinds of nonsense on racial theory.  Such theoretical views were used by Hitler. Surely you cannot maintain on the one hand that certain valuable elements can be inherited from the "Jewish people," and deny that other elements which other people may find annoying or worse are not inherited by these same "people." Nor could you then deny that elements that others would consider valuable could be the main virtue of an "Aryan" inheritance.

These quotes come from this letter, which I have not verified in any rigourous way, but the letter certainly rings true.  I mentioned that in the book I’m listening to (about 10 more minutes left!), Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman (I hope you’ve clicked the link and bought it by now!), he never said anything more than that he came from a Jewish background. a Jewish family, or joined a Jewish fraternity; never, in this book, at least, does he admit to actually being Jewish.

To combat what he saw as irrational and potentially dangerous pro-semitism (and this is a guy who worked on The Bomb, so he knows from dangerous), he embraced a wildly universalistic atheism in which ever person, of any race, could learn all those wonderful virtues thought of (in his Sunday school) as being Jewish. 

He saw that we should be sharing these virtues, not keeping chosen-ness to ourselves behind parochially closed doors.  And he was right.  As Dennis Prager has said often, the Jewish people are a messenger who have forgotten their message.

One more quote, which breaks my heart – a brilliant man, a brilliant Jew, just “not getting it” on so many levels.

God was invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand. Now, when you finally discover how something works, you get some laws which you're taking away from God; you don't need him anymore.

I read this to YM just now and he said “God of the gaps.”  Indeed.  In the spaces where Science lives, God cannot, and vice versa, as if they are both particularly irksome and territorial squirrels.  Here’s the thing Feynman and others just don’t get – I suspect because their Jewish education wasn’t nuanced enough:  you don’t have to settle for that type of science OR that type of God.

Gerald Schroeder has two interesting sections of his website:  Top Five Religious Myths Popularly Accepted as Fact and Top Five Scientific Myths Popularly Accepted as Fact (can a suitably large number of monkeys indeed compose the entire works of William Shakespeare?  find out there…).  You can also listen to this fascinating discussion between Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and a couple of atheists.

Feynman didn’t leave Judaism because he wasn’t religious enough.  It had nothing to do with Reform, Conservative, or anything else – you can find closed-minded, pro-semitic, parochialist bigots in every movement – or at least, folks who teach it that way.  We lost Feynman because all he heard about was how great the Jews were and how terrible everyone else was.  And then he found out that the Real World was actually about something else entirely – in the same way that when a bald man enters a crowded room, all he sees is hair, nobody but us thinks of the world in terms of “Jews and non-Jews.”

Funny thing – sometimes the big kids wander in while I’m typing these thoughts, late at night, and they scatter everything I’m thinking and I resent it.  And sometimes, they walk in and everything crystallizes around them and becomes perfectly clear.  If you’re a teenage girl in a frum high school, apparently, what you get a lot of is talkings-to about skirt length and what could be summarized as, “omg, don’t go off the derech!”  As if there was some derech [path], just lying there for its own sake.

(It doesn’t help that at a cynical age, they will also quickly dismiss the other stuff – that mushy-gushy talk on, “here’s why I love Hashem so much,” that would leave adults in tears is very likely to go in one ear and get scoffed right out the other.)

What this may come down to is something I mentioned a couple of years ago that I heard from Shmuli Boteach (I’m not a huge fan, but I interviewed him once, and he said some smart stuff):  Be POSITIVE with your children.  He said it in the context of parents who dread sitting down for THE TALK – whatever that may be.  If all you talk to them about is negative (“don’t have sex, don’t do drugs… don’t DIE”) you’re sending the wrong message; you’re pushing them away with scare tactics.

The right message – I gathered from my little Chat with Shmuli – is an ongoing dialogue – from birth to marriage and beyond – about how to live holy lives, in line (as I said before) with a higher purpose.  Some version of that is what I will keep hammering into my kids’ heads until I’m  no longer around to hammer.  I lack the hubris to suggest that it would have made all the difference for Richard Feynman, but according to the Torah, there’s nothing so special about the Jews, so that’s really all the ammo we’ve got.

Did you survive bad Hebrew school, Sunday school, yeshiva with your faith intact???