By Vivian B. Skolnick, Ph.D.
Orthodox Judaism is flourishing. Never have we had so much education on such a high and intensive level for men and women. One cannot fail to be impressed with the level of organized chesed we see displayed daily in the Orthodox community. Any family in need can get help; food, clothing, wedding dresses, employment opportunities, medical care, car service, and more are readily available. What else can we do to improve? Maybe we need to buy “kiddush insurance”!
In many large cities today, the following scenario is played out almost every Shabbos morning. The shul is full of devout daveners. The decorum is generally (with local variations) one of quiet and reverence. Meanwhile, children are running and playing in the halls or outer lobby. The service ends. The locked doors to the social hall where the kiddush is being held are flung open. Suddenly, the inner synagogue decorum vanishes. There is a mad scramble to get to the tables laden with food. The children and adults lead the charge, pushing and shoving to get there first.
There are no words such as “Excuse me for bumping or knocking you over.” Parents seem to have little concern where their children are, or to monitor or teach them appropriate behavior; they seem to feel that this responsibility belongs to others. The unmannerly behavior modeled by the adults is observed by their children, who act accordingly. Some adults lean over and “own” parts of the kiddush table, staking a claim to that spot, as it were, and do not move until they are sated. Going to kiddush can be a dangerous business, requiring some form of insurance to protect yourself.
Many years ago, when my children were young, they attended a supervised junior congregation service on Sabbath morning conducted by their peers. Before the rabbi’s sermon they marched quietly into the main synagogue, sat in a reserved section to listen to the sermon, and participated with the adults in the Mussaf service. Children did not spend time running or playing in the halls. They were brought by their parents to learn how to daven respectfully in a shul. When the service ended, adults and children walked in an orderly fashion into the kiddush. If, by chance, a child or adult bumped another, the words “excuse me” were used. Some even helped others, especially the elderly, to find a place to sit, and moved away from the table so others could have access. Parents reprimanded their children if they were not mannerly. What seems to have caused this change?
There seems to have developed a split between observing ritual practices and ethical behavior, i.e. middos. One of the main ways children learn is through modeling. This is the process of watching the behavior of their parents and other admired persons. The younger children then copy this behavior. Later, teachers, rabbis, and other prominent figures serve as role models, thereby offering them a broader range of choices. This process is often characterized by the expression “Education is not taught, but caught.”
Let’s look at some of the causes for this dissonance between what is taught and what is caught. Jews have always admired excellence in education. Day-school teachers strive to produce the best possible students, especially in Judaic studies. There are many teachers who are exemplary role models for middos, and there are yeshivas whose curricula present a good balance between Torah knowledge and ethical behavior. Nevertheless, it is widely observed that in their zeal to provide the best education, the learning of the text becomes the focal point of their studies instead of how it impacts on the child’s behavior in everyday life beyond the classroom. In so doing they tend to cater to the smartest level of the class, leaving other children feeling less capable, not good enough for the teacher’s personal attention.
Education then becomes a materialistic collection of knowledge. At worst, a teacher may demean the slower learner in front of his peers. Children see that some students are marginalized or embarrassed, leading to this split or disconnect between the Torah values they study in their texts and what they observe practiced in the classroom. Little wonder that these students are often the ones who later rebel and are referred to as “off the derech,” especially when they reach college age.
This split is then transferred in the child’s mind to the community at large. The media exposes him to further examples of dissonance between what he learned in school and what he sees practiced in the real world, such as recent exposés of rabbis and teachers being convicted of criminal activities. “How is it possible for Torah teachers to sin, against the very laws they have been teaching us?” is the confused message children receive. So can we blame our youth who see this split and are faced with the difficult choice of either rejecting their religious education or accepting the cynical idea that ethical behavior and Torah study are mutually exclusive as long as one scrupulously observes the ritual commandments?
What about the traditional influence expected of parents as the dominant role models in shaping the attitudes of their children? How does this relate to coping with this split between formal education and behavior beyond the confines of the school? Many parents, for a variety of reasons, have ceded this responsibility to the schools, which are in daily contact with their children from morning to night, from kindergarten through high school. The day school rebbes have often become the de facto parents in loco parentis.
It is time to go back to the Torah values that are supposed to set the standard for raising children. We need more teachers that are models of middos both in and out of the classroom. We need parents to regain control of the family by serving as the key shapers of their children’s value system. We need community leaders and a rabbinical system that will work together to address this growing split between classroom education and ethical behavior in the community at large.
We all share in this onerous responsibility. We have the Torah that has provided us with the greatest religion ever produced. We must properly attend to this precious possession by improving our middos as we have done so well in fulfilling our religious rituals. When that happens we will no longer need to consider buying kiddush insurance. v
Vivian B. Skolnick, Ph.D., is a retired psychoanalyst and author of “The Biblical Path to Psychological Maturity.”