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Jewish Education, Taken Personally

By Doni Joszef

Take it personally. Contrary to common misconception, Judaism is not a one-size-fits-all type of deal. The Torah appreciates and accommodates our smorgasbord of personalities. “Just as no face is exactly like another, so is no psyche exactly like another.” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Berachos 5:9)

Perhaps no Jewish holiday highlights this pluralism more than Pesach.

The Seder entails a highly personalized educational paradigm. We don’t sit the kiddies down and demeaningly demand their undivided attention. We customize the curriculum. We cater to the character.

Son of a kind. “The Torah speaks about four [types of] sons: One wise, one rebellious, one simple, and one who doesn’t even know to ask.” As the Haggadah details the drama of “The Four Sons,” it introduces each character with a seemingly superfluous phraseology:

“Wise son: What does he say? . . . Rebel son: What does he say? . . . Simple son: What does he say?”

[Obviously, the “son who doesn’t know to ask” gets no such introduction, as we already know what he says: nothing. His statement comes in the form of his very silence.]

But why doesn’t the Haggadah simply state:

“When the wise son says . . . you should respond . . .”

“When the rebellious son says . . . you should respond . . .”

Why add the introductory verbiage “What does he say?” before addressing each archetype?

Different folks. I’ve recently had the privilege of learning the Rambam’s Hilchos Deos (“Laws of the Psyches”) with some high-school seniors on a daily basis.

The Rambam opens this manual with the following formula: “There are many personality traits in every individual, each exceedingly distinct and distant from the next.”

As we read this particular passage, one student raised a very simple yet profound question:

Where exactly is the “halachah” in this statement? While it’s certainly a nice nugget of social commentary, it doesn’t seem to provide any applicable, hands-on instructions. “Hilchos Deos” are not strictly hashkafos (idealistic descriptions) but halachos (realistic prescriptions). What practical plan of action are we meant to glean from this seemingly general statement regarding personality particularities?

Enduring education. The most integral ingredient of any educational system is the ability to customize its general lessons for individual consumption based on the specific psychological, emotional, and spiritual needs of each particular student. Include this ingredient in the mix, and the lessons endure far beyond the time-bound confines of their original transmission.

“Educate a child according to his own path.” (Mishlei 24:6)

“This means training and guiding each student based on his or her particular predisposition and personal nature. But if you force it upon him against his nature, he will abide by your instruction in the short term out of intimidation, but will eventually rip the leash off his neck and abandon the path, because it is impossible for humans to entirely break their inherent predispositions.” (Vilna Gaon)

At the Seder, we acknowledge the individual needs of each specific personality, and respond to their character accordingly. We tailor the tutorial, responding to intelligence with instruction, rebellion with rebuke, simplicity with symbolism, and apathy with active engagement.

But before we reply, we need to step back and investigate: Who is this child? Where’s his head? Where’s his heart? What makes him tick? We thus inquire: “What does he say?” before proceeding with our pedagogics. We listen before launching into our lengthy lessons. We cannot teach if we are not willing to learn. Learning the unique natures of our children and students enables us to customize the curriculum to work for them rather than against them. This is enduring education.

When the Rambam notes the unique distinctness of each particular personality, he was not describing humans as much as he was prescribing a method by which to approach them. The knowledge that no two people are exactly alike bears with it an unspoken obligation to see each person as an entire world. It is a humanistic charge to deepen our interpersonal appreciation beyond the superficial chit-chats and pre-rehearsed conversations that make up the majority of our interactions.

As Carl Jung once said, every individual is an exception to the rule. Education should be geared to each exception rather than robotically tethered to the general rule. Some things are meant to be taken personally. Jewish education is most certainly one of them. v

Doni Joszef, LMSW, is in private practice working with individuals, families, and groups in Lawrence. Available by appointment. Call 516-316-2247 or e‑mail to schedule a consultation.

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Posted by on March 14, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.