Thursday, June 24, 2010

Jewish Education in America: A Historical Note

Given the conditions of Jewish education in the United States, it is not surprising that so many children behave badly and learn little in Hebrew school. What is surprising is that this situation has existed for at least 140 years.

In a piece published on the Web in January of this year under the title “Stop Blaming Hebrew School,” Rabbi Benjamin Weiner responds to comments reportedly made by a prominent Jewish philanthropist in an interview on cable television. These comments included a characterization of the American institution of Hebrew school as “a shandah—an abysmal failure. . . . Can there be a worse term in the American Jewish lexicon than ‘Hebrew School’? There were six kids in the 20th century who liked it!”

Weiner contests the claim that Hebrew school has been a failure: “Anyone who has jockeyed disaffection with the Jewish establishment into a successful career of personal expression on the American mass-media stage . . . should reflect on the debt of gratitude he or she owes to this half-assed system of religio-ethno-cultural indoctrination,” he writes. But his main point is that “such talk, to paraphrase Tevye, blames the cart for the inherent lameness of the horse.” Weiner likens “the oft repeated claim that synagogue Hebrew schools are responsible for the decline of the Jewish people” to “stripping your parents’ house of all viable woodwork, plumbing, and appliances and then wondering why they live in such a dump.” He writes further:
What created the supposition that two to six hours a week of after-school guttarality could foment a firm commitment to the Jewish people? I don’t think this paradigm was determined deliberately from the outset, by committee. At the turn of the last century, there were viable models of Jewish education, and there was a critical mass of Jewish community prepared to embody them. And then there was mass immigration, and genocide, and breakneck assimilation—from a flummoxed traditional culture into a post-War America that was primed with petroleum to give Jewish people the greatest thrill ride they had ever experienced in a Gentile world. And, at the end of the day, Hebrew School emerged because it was the best we were allowed to do. Speaking, gloves off, as a working rabbi and education director, trying hard to find ways to reflect the “verbiage” of the Jewish religion “realistically upon our lives,” it is frustrating that, by consensus of the parents of my community, I can only educate their children for two hours a week with no homework, and that those hours come well after regular school hours, and that the expectations for behavior and attendance sometimes fall somewhere between a railway station and a monkey house—despite the fact that they are all, without exception, great kids. But this is roughly the extent of the concession that many American Jewish families are willing to make these days to their Jewish identities, and there should be a category of Nobel prize for whoever figures out how to put these parameters to the best use.
The point is that historical circumstances have made the institution of Hebrew school, with all its limitations, the primary arrangement by which Jewish parents seek to transmit Jewish knowledge to their children. The results are dismal because the hours in the classroom are meager and no homework can be assigned—not that having longer hours or assigning homework is a serious option, given that the sessions are supplemental to the children’s weekday schooling.

My attention was arrested by Weiner’s felicitous observation that “the expectations for behavior and attendance sometimes fall somewhere between a railway station and a monkey house.” The phrase seemed to me exactly to describe my own experience of Jewish religious education, and moved me to post a comment under the heading “I have long wondered why we all hated Hebrew school so much,” in which I wrote:
I am ashamed to recall the way that I and my fellows behaved in religious school. I had Sunday school at one Reform synagogue and evening classes once a week at another, with a different crowd at each, and we were all completely ineducable. As far as I recall, the only teacher who got any respect from us was a tough, sarcastic rabbi from Brooklyn (in Seattle, such a creature was rather exotic) who had a great knack for humorous abuse √† la Don Rickles, and who would throw erasers at students whose answers he didn’t like. I can't speak for the other boys (I don’t recall the girls being as troublesome as we boys were, though they may have been just as inattentive), but I was certainly interested in the subjects that I studied in my secular day school, and it would never have occurred to me to misbehave in class there.
The puzzle is that youngsters who, in their daily secular schools, showed at least a reasonable degree of interest in their subjects of study and a reasonable standard of behavior became inattentive and intractable during the measly two hours or so that they were expected to spend in learning about Judaism. Weiner, though he notes this disparity, does not attempt to explain it.

Reader Becca Lish, however, does so in a comment in which she writes that the Jewish philanthropist mentioned earlier “might wish to look to the vast majority of parents who expect our children to embrace beliefs and practices which we ourselves eschew. . . . The degree to which we integrate ‘Jewishness’ into actual family life will always be the prevailing factor in determining both sentiment and practice in the next generation.” I am inclined to agree. In fact, just a few days before her comment appeared, I had written something in a similar vein in a comment on my own blog:
Though I was industrious and well-behaved in my weekday secular school, I and my classmates in religious school were rebellious, inattentive, and virtually unteachable. I think that the underlying cause was simply that Jewish observance played so little role in our everyday lives that any study of it or of the thinking on which it was based literally bored us silly.
As I ruefully concluded my comment on Weiner’s piece: “In my adulthood, I wish that I could have learned much more [about Judaism when I was a child], but I don’t know how anyone could ever have taught it to us.” The ineffectuality of Jewish education outside of day schools and yeshivot reflects the thinness of most American Jewish practice.

But why is so much American Jewish practice—at least, so much American Reform Jewish practice—so thin? I think it is thin because the underlying beliefs are thin; and I think that the beliefs are thin because modern scientific and historical knowledge has made them so. But I know too little about the subject for my historical speculations to be worth publishing here.

Recently, I have been making my way slowly through Michael A. Meyer’s compendious Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988). The following passage—and this is really what this whole post has been leading up to—caught my attention:
Limited to a few hours a week, the religious school was unable to undertake the intensive curriculum which had been taught in the day schools. Most met as few as two hours per week. Hebrew especially suffered, students but rarely achieving any real competence in the language. While in the majority of schools some Hebrew was taught, it was often optional and in quite a few not taught at all. Children who behaved well in public school resented the additional burden of weekend classes. As one observer noted, comparing the two: “There attention and quiet, here indifference, often wild noise; there decent respectful behavior toward the teacher, here only the opposite.” (286)
I quote this passage here because, although it almost exactly describes my own experience of Hebrew school, it refers to the situation approximately 140 years ago: the quotation within the quoted passage is taken from a piece published in 1871! Rabbi Weiner, in a passage quoted earlier, claims that “at the turn of the last century”—that is, circa 1901, in contrast to developments in subsequent decades—“there were viable models of Jewish education, and there was a critical mass of Jewish community prepared to embody them.” I don’t know how to square this with Meyers’s historical account. If the passage from that account quoted above is at all reliable, then the ineffectuality of Hebrew school and the refractory behavior of its recipients are not only not recent developments: one could fairly say that they belong to a Reform Jewish tradition.

Previous post: A Dilemma for NOMA

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Dilemma for NOMA

The diversity of religions presents a stubborn problem for Gould’s idea that religion has its own magisterium. The idea that the teaching authority of religion pertains to practices rather than beliefs shifts the problem slightly but ultimately does not solve it. On the other hand. . . .

 Stephen Jay Gould on The Simpsons (episode 908, “Lisa the Skeptic”)

To people who, like me, are neither religious nor anti-religious, Stephen Jay Gould’s thesis of non-overlapping magisteria (“NOMA”) holds considerable appeal.1 To recapitulate it for the benefit of anyone not already familiar with it, this is the thesis that science has “teaching authority” with regard to questions of how the natural world works, while religion has such authority with regard to questions of ultimate meaning and value. I have argued in my two previous posts on the topic (“Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion” and “More on Gould on Science and Religion”) that, while a plausible rationale can be suggested for Gould’s account of the magisterium of science, his account of the magisterium of religion faces serious difficulties. Not only is it questionable whether religion has teaching authority in the domain that Gould assigns to it, but it is questionable whether religion has teaching authority in any domain whatever. In short, it is to be doubted whether there is any such thing as “the magisterium of religion.”

This conclusion can be reached by either of two ways of looking at the matter. The first way is to note the logical disparity between how the non-count noun “religion” relates to the count noun “religions” and the manner in which the corresponding nouns “science” and “sciences” relate to each other. A science is simply the science of a particular subject matter, and all sciences are parts of science. For all the differences of method and content among them, there is no incompatibility between one science and another. There are conflicts between theories within the various sciences, but the work of science consists largely in resolving such conflicts. Religions, by contrast, do not belong to a coherent whole. Different religions do not relate to one another as different sciences do, as parts of a whole, but in something closer to how one scientific theory relates to another theory concerning the same subject matter, that is, by mutual incompatibility. As a rule, one cannot coherently combine the teachings of one religion with the teachings of another. (I include the qualification “as a rule” not because I know of two religions that can be combined in this way but simply because I do not know that there are no two that can be so combined.)

From these reflections it emerges how dubious Gould’s attribution of teaching authority to religion is. Remember that his thesis is not that each religion has its magisterium, but that religion itself, in kind, has a magisterium. He elaborates what this means in the following passage:
Each domain of inquiry frames its own rules and admissible questions, and sets its own criteria for judgment and resolution. These accepted standards, and the procedures developed for debating and resolving legitimate issues, define the magisterium—or teaching authority—of any given realm. (Rocks of Ages, 52–3)
This passage seems perfectly adequate to characterize science as a domain of inquiry; it may also be applicable to the domains of individual religions, considered separately, and perhaps even to the procedures of some ecumenical religious councils. But applied to the entity “religion” in general, it is a non-starter. Religion considered in kind, as contrasted with individual religions, plainly has none of the attributes that Gould describes as constituting a magisterium.

Another way to arrive at the same conclusion is to consider the following dilemma. Take the body of beliefs that are taught by a given religion. Either that body of beliefs is founded in reason and experience—or in “natural reason,” as Thomas Aquinas would call it—or it is not. If it is, then there is no room for any specifically religious authority with regard to it: it falls within the magisterium of science, perhaps supplemented by (secular) philosophy. If, on the other hand, the body of beliefs is not founded in reason and experience, then no authority—that is, no power to determine the truth or falsehood of the beliefs—is possible with regard to it. At most, a political authority may determine what beliefs may be professed, and legislate penalties for heterodoxy. (I believe that this arrangement has been tried: it was called the middle ages, was it not?) Either way, there is no such thing as a specifically religious teaching authority. Therefore, there is no such thing as the magisterium of religion.

Those are the two arguments. What they have in common, besides their conclusion, is that they make use of two facts, (1) the incompatibilites among the teachings of different religions and (2) the unavailability of any specifically religious way—or perhaps it would be better to say generically religious way: i.e., a way belonging to religion in kind and not to any individual religion—of resolving those divergences of teaching. From these the conclusion is drawn that no teaching authority pertains to religion as such.

As with any well-formed argument, criticism of this one can focus either on the truth of premises or on their sufficiency to warrant the conclusion. Take premise 1 first—the assertion of the incompatibility among the teachings of different religions. There are those, like the present Dalai Lama, who like to emphasize what the world’s religions have in common and what adherents of one religion can learn from other religions.2 But, so far as I know, not even those who believe in a common core of the world’s religious teachings deny the diversity and incompatibility among the less central elements. Nor is it evident that these disagreements are merely peripheral. The teaching that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate is central to the Christian religion, while Jews and Muslims stoutly deny it. Disagreement of beliefs among the world’s religions is not a mere appearance to be explained away but an undeniable and unalterable fact.

What, then, about premise 2, the unavailability of any system of standards or procedures for adjudicating conflicts of belief among the world’s religions? Might one hold that such a system is not impossible but merely not yet formulated, or that it already exists and merely wants development? It is not easy to refute such vague and speculative suppositions. This much, however, can be said. First, the only known body of standards or procedures that can be applied to religious claims is the one that makes up the composite body of what we call scientific method, logic, and common sense. The existence of such a body of standards and procedures plainly provides no support to the idea of a specifically religious form of teaching authority. Second, if there is a body of standards or procedures belonging specifically to religion, no one has yet produced it; so to invoke it to establish the existence of a religious magisterium is as vain as to call upon a phantom to clean one’s house.

The premises of the argument, then, seem unassailable. This leaves only the question of their sufficiency to establish the conclusion. And here, as I suggested in my previous post on this topic, there is a bit of wiggle room. To begin with, suppose that we separate the idea of teaching from that of belief or truth claim. After all, there are plainly forms of teaching that have nothing to do with imparting beliefs: teaching someone how to cook a souffl√© or how to play cards, for instance. The application to religion is not hard to see: religious life is manifestly not a mere matter of belief, but also, arguably even primarily, of observance. Religions are first of all practiced; to speak of “believing” a religion is surely a rather late, and I suspect a specifically Protestant, development in the grammar of religious language.

The idea here is not that religious teaching does not include religious beliefs, but that religious teaching authority does not extend to such beliefs. As far as religious authority is concerned, religious beliefs are, on this view, epiphenomena of religious practices. The incompatibility between one religion and another is then less like the logical incompatibility between two propositions than it is like the physical incompatibility between being in one location and being in another, separate location. That is, one person cannot coherently maintain two or more distinct religious practices (or at least, cannot do so in general); nonetheless, if two people practice two different religions, their mere practices are not in any inherent conflict, but only such practical conflict as may arise from circumstances.

Some people, I suspect, will find this idea far-fetched and bizarre. For my part, I find it very attractive, and I suspect that anyone who finds it unworthy of serious consideration is simply accustomed to the Protestant conception of religion as essentially a matter of belief. Still, there is no denying that it is strange, and, what is more to the point, I suspect that it fails to solve the problem at hand. The reason is that, even if we set aside the logical incompatibility between religions by making practices rather than beliefs the objects of religious authority, we still have the problem of diversity in those practices. Each religion teaches a particular practice: there is no common practice or body of practices that religion itself teaches. In fact, it is not clear that there is anything that religion itself teaches: there are only the diverse teachings of different religions. The fact of religious diversity remains a problem for the idea of a religious magisterium.

There remains, so far as I can see, one possible way out for NOMA. I have presumed so far that, where a “teaching authority” exists, only one possible teaching can be authorized. Would it make sense to suppose that mutually incompatible beliefs, and perhaps also mutually exclusive practices, can all be authorized within religion? A magisterium, according to Gould, comprises standards and procedures for “debating and resolving legitimate issues.” Well, then: why assume that incompatibilities between one religion and another are legitimate issues? Perhaps the only legitimate religious issues are doctrinal (and perhaps also practical) differences within a religion. Gould’s idea, then, would be that there is a common body of procedures or standards for resolving religious disputes, but it concerns only disputes within a religion, not between one religion and another. Disputes between religions are then not legitimate religious issues, but if anything secular issues, to be resolved on non-religious grounds if at all.

This conception of the magisterium of religion is one that I have not seen considered elsewhere. Perhaps, after I post this, I will find some fatal weakness in it, but for now, I offer it for consideration.


1See Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999) and “Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (1997).

2Tenzin Gyatso (the Fourteenth Dalai Lama), “Many Faiths, One Truth,” The New York Times, May 25, 2010.

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Sunday, June 6, 2010

More on Gould on Science and Religion

The criticisms that have been directed at Gould’s thesis of non-overlapping magisteria (for science, questions of how the natural world is; for religion, questions of ultimate meaning and value) can be reduced to one objection: Why should we believe that religion has any magisterium at all?

Stephen Jay Gould (source)

As I explained in a previous entry (“Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion”), Stephen Jay Gould’s thesis that science and religion have “non-overlapping magisteria” (“NOMA”) is meant neither as a description of the actual scope of claims made by practitioners of science and religion nor as a proposal for how those two activities can stay out of each other’s way, but rather as an account of the range within which each of the two has “teaching authority.” Science, on Gould’s view, has such authority with regard to questions of how the natural world works, and religion with regard to questions of ultimate meaning and value. There is, according to Gould, no conflict between science and religion as such, because their respective domains, though they adjoin each other, do not overlap. Claims about the natural world made on the supposed authority of religion as well as claims about ultimate meaning and value made on the supposed authority of science are one and all void.

Interestingly, while many defenders of science have been highly critical of Gould’s thesis, their principal complaint has been not that it grants too little to science (though some have made this objection: more on that on another occasion) but that it grants too much to religion. The objection is that, even if questions of ultimate meaning and value lie outside the competence of science, it does not follow that they lie within the competence, much less the exclusive competence, of religion. After all, such questions are and always have been prominent concerns of the discipline of philosophy. To hold that they can only be resolved by reliance on religious sources is itself a substantive philosophical position, and an unpopular one among professional philosophers at that.

At the same time, as I noted in my previous entry, these critics find fault with Gould for drawing the boundaries of religious authority in an implausibly utopian fashion. To hold, as Gould does, that such authority pertains only to questions of ultimate meaning and value and not to questions of natural fact excludes a vast body of actual religious claims, such as the historical narratives on which the Abrahamic religions depend. Gould’s assertion that the conflict between science and religion “exists only in people’s minds and social practices, not in the logic or proper utility of these entirely different, and equally vital, subjects” (Rocks of Ages, 3) requires so vast a disparity between the supposed “logic or proper utility” of religion and how religion “exists . . . in people’s minds and social practices” as to make his conception appear more wishful thinking than historical or philosophical analysis. In the satirical summation cited by Daniel Dennett, the thesis of NOMA says in effect: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which Caesar says God can have.” In other words, while Gould’s formulations make a show of giving to science and to religion each their respective shares, in effect it only allows to religion a portion of what is left over after science has done its work.

In this light it is all the more remarkable that religionists (if that is the term for those who follow some religion or other) who have commented on Gould’s thesis seem to be content with his delineation of the religious magisterium. Yet it is not difficult to guess the reason for this. Presumably, it is only the exponents of modern, liberal, intellectually catholic (with a small “c”) interpretations of religion—religionists well up in secular learning, who will not feel pinched or chafed by the strictures of NOMA—who have anything to say about Gould. For them, the role of the defender of the faith in relation to scientific findings that conflict with traditional beliefs is not to refute those findings but to reinterpret the tradition to accommodate them. By contrast, creationists and other religious reactionaries, who take their favored scriptures or clerics to be authoritative for all time and in all questions whatever, are not likely to pay attention to what an evolutionary biologist—a proponent of the hated doctrine of “Darwinism,” which they equate with atheism—has to say about the proper scope of religious claims. It’s either that, or I just haven’t heard their grumblings because they have not carried beyond their closed circle of communicants.

So, to sum up, the objections to Gould’s thesis of NOMA are (1) that it grants religion an authority that it lacks in questions of ultimate meaning and value, and (2) that, however attractive it may be as an ideal scheme, it is too remote from the actual practice of religion to be credible. Alternatively, one can sum up all the criticisms that have been directed at Gould’s thesis by defenders of science in one rhetorical question: By what right does Gould assume that religion has teaching authority about anything? Why, in other words, should we believe that religion has any magisterium at all?

There is an evident contrast with science on this point. Science, one could argue, is defined by a body of methods that can be derived from the inherent requirements of human epistemic rationality. Thus the definition of science—not the definition of the word “science” but the rule by which in practice science is identified—explains why science has the magisterium that it has, and a fortiori why it has any magisterium at all. Science has teaching authority with regard to how the world is because its methods are derived from the requirements for learning about how the world is. This is true not only of science as a whole but of any particular science. Particular sciences are individuated not as competing claims (there are competing claims in the sciences, but there is a commonly accepted methodology for adjudicating among them), but as the science of this or that particular subject matter.

With religion, things stand on an entirely different footing. The various religions of the world are not parts of a whole called “religion” except as a matter of verbal classification. As far as their beliefs are concerned, religions are not complementary at all but conflicting, and there is no common method or practice or principle of operation among them by appeal to which differences of doctrine can be resolved. Gould defines a magisterium as “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution” (Rocks of Ages, 3). It may be fair to say that religion or the religious mode of teaching, whatever exactly that may be, holds the tools for meaningful discourse, but resolving differences of belief is precisely what it cannot do. Each religion may contain the tools for resolving internal doctrinal disputes, but no religion contains the tools for resolving differences between religions, except to the utterly parochial satisfaction of its particular adherents; much less does the abstract generic entity “religion” possess any such tools. Thus, while the existence and extent of the magisterium of science can be derived from the nature of science, consideration of the nature of religion only makes it difficult to sustain the claim that religion has any magisterium at all.

There is, I think, a way out of this, both for Gould and for religion. In making the case for the pedagogical incompetence of religion—the non-existence of anything that can be called its magisterium—I relied on a restriction of religious teaching to beliefs, or truth claims. If religious teaching is essentially concerned with telling us how things are, whether in “this” world (as if there were another) or in some putative world beyond it, then, I think, Gould’s atheistic critics are surely right, and religion has no teaching authority at all. But the assumption that religious teaching concerns beliefs may be called into question. Religion may have teaching authority with regard to something—I am not venturing to say what—that is not essentially a matter of belief at all. Another possibility is that the proper task and scope of religion is not captured by the idea of a magisterium. I hope to explore these possibilities in another entry.

* * *

Correction, added June 10, 2010: I overstated matters in my final paragraph, above, when I equated the non-existence of a religious magisterium with the “pedagogical incompetence” of religion. To lack teaching authority is not the same as to lack competence to teach. Any religion is competent to teach what it will, in the sense that there is nothing inherent in religion as such that prevents given religious teachings from being authorized by some non-parochial standard. But the only non-parochial standards available are (as the term suggests) non-religious ones. Thus, for instance, the fact that certain histories offered in the Bible are incorporated into Jewish or Christian doctrine does not render those histories rationally untenable. The point is merely that their religious status does not confer any authority on them either: whether they are true or false can and must be settled by the same standards as any other historical claims.

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