Tuesday, January 19th, 2021

What is Lost as We Eliminate the Impossible: Jews and Public Schools by Gidon Rothstein

September 2, 2010 by  
Filed under Education, Jewish Culture, New Posts

Sherlock Holmes’ advice, “Eliminate the impossible; whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth,” made a deep impression on me.  It seemed so logical, so unequivocal, so indisputable1.  In the years since I first encountered the epigram, I have realized some major weaknesses in its presentation; for our purposes, here, some of those weaknesses offer insight into the tuition crisis facing Orthodoxy.

What If You Eliminate the Truth?

First, we can sometimes dismiss as impossible that which is actually true. As we then deal with “whatever is left,” we will already have lost that which we sought most.  The problem in giving examples of this is that readers may still reject them as “impossible,” and would dispute my assessment that we are struggling to find our way when we have already dismissed the truth.

Perhaps the following example is theoretical enough to allow me to make the point without raising any hackles: In my book, Murderer in the Mikdash, I portrayed a post-Messianic society in which not all problems had yet been solved, not all Jews were fully observant (or fully virtuous) and yet which was much closer to an ideal Jewish society than we have today.

Many, many readers were intensely uncomfortable—even distressed—by the portrayal; some even characterized it as a dystopia, as a sardonic suggestion that we would never find the perfect society.  Even as readers agreed it would be better to have a Beit haMikdash, a Temple, than not, better to have a State of Israel that runs to some extent according to Jewish law than not, they still held that a not-fully-perfect Messianic society was “impossible.”

When they spoke to me, I would push them on the point, asking whether they would prefer a society that was imperfect but getting slowly better, or wait an extra two hundred years for a miraculous, immediately perfect Messiah.  Almost all chose the latter.  I was particularly struck by the realization that that was exactly the choice Orthodox Jews made in the early days of Zionism, rejecting the imperfection of working with those who had a vastly different view of Judaism in favor of waiting for a more perfect advent of renewed Jewish life in the Land of Israel.  Hearkening back further, it was also what happened at the beginning of the Second Temple, when so few Jews returned to Eretz Yisrael at Cyrus’ call.

The Lost Opportunity of Such Thinking

I would have thought we would have learned the lesson, since our hesitance back then led to a State significantly less attuned to religiosity than it might have been.  Imagine how different Israel would look today if hordes of Orthodox Jews had joined early, draining the swamps, risking malaria, and the other hardships the early settlers went through: what kind of State would have come into being in 1948?

One danger of eliminating the impossible, then, is rejecting as “impossible,” options and opportunities that are merely difficult or unlikely.  But I want to spend my time here on those ideas or phenomena we make impossible, not because they are inherently so. 

For a small example, I recall a conversation in which I once suggested to a Jewish Day School principal that all graduating 8th graders should have read all of Chumash with Rashi.  It was the response I found so memorable, “It can’t be done.”

What the principal meant, I assume, is that, given the various commitments and concerns we have for our students, accomplishing that task has become impossible.  The fact that Jewish students throughout history have easily achieved such textual proficiency by that age suggests that were “we,” whether as schools or communities, to develop other commitments or views of how to educate children, that particular impossibility—and others—could be conquered.

Impossibilities We Create

Our decisions in life can also create more intractable impossibilities; we think about them as an exercise in self-understanding, not seeking practical change.  For the example I most want to take up here, it is, I agree and admit, impossible to have Jewish students attend public schools and get their Jewish education in supplemental programs.  If I thought otherwise, I would not raise it here, because Text and Texture is not a policy forum; I raise the idea not to advocate it, but because examining that impossibility will teach us a great deal about what we lose in allowing certain ideas to become impossible.

In this case, one of the prime and obvious losses in rejecting public schooling is money and all it can bring.  At least since the recent economic downturn, but even before that, the crushing cost of Jewish education was obviously unsustainable.  The cost affects family size, creates pressures to earn a level of livelihood that creates conflict with other significant Torah values (the easiest example being how much Torah an adult Jew needs to learn daily), and eats into the funds available for other worthy Jewish causes.  There are certainly other aspects of the problem, but most pressingly, were we only able to take advantage of public resources, we could save nearly half the cost of Jewish education.

I will come to the reasons we cannot do so—good, strong, solid reasons— but let me stay with the cost of that fact for a bit more.  We already pay for public schooling; that fact leads some of us to lobby for some kind of voucher program, so that our failing to partake of public institutions leaves money on the table and puts us at policy odds with those striving to protect the public schools. 

Along the same lines, Orthodox participation in public schools would deepen and improve our relationship with the community around us.  Since many of these students come from homes that care about and value education, with parents who readily involve themselves in helping out their children’s schools, they would likely be a boon for those schools as well, which we would hope would generate increased goodwill for the Jewish community.  That is not a reason to do it, but another advantage to note. 

Yet It Is, Clearly, Impossible


What, then, are the downsides that make such an idea impossible?  One which I suspect looms large for many Orthodox parents is the fear of the influences in such an environment.  While the social problems we see in the society at large certainly exist within our own community as well, I suspect that many parents feel that the self-selection of those who send their children not only to private school but to an Orthodox Jewish one offers some insulation.  Perhaps to a lesser extent but still relevant, we might worry about the values of the broader society to which our students would be exposed, many in opposition to those set by the Torah.

Both worries are valid, and yet appear odd in the following sense: at least in the Modern Orthodox community, but even to some extent in the Centrist one, these concerns intrude elsewhere only relatively minimally.  These same parents will have no problem with their children participating in extracurricular activities with the same kinds of children they would meet in public school—Little League, dance, drama, whatever—and will censor their children’s exposure to the outside culture’s music, TV, movies, and books only minimally.  Most of these same parents will expect and want their children to attend secular colleges, and then make their professional way in that society and culture as well. 

I am not criticizing those choices, but rather am pointing out how they seem to run counter to this aspect of the concern that leads us to insist on separate Jewish schools even for the General Studies side of the educational day.  I recognize and am sympathetic to the response that at younger ages we need to insulate our students from the full exposure they will get later in life; I am only noting here that the cost of that insulation runs into the millions of dollars and comes at the expense of other worthy causes, such as helping the poor or advancing medical research, conditions that have no other options than struggling forward at great cost.

And Your Torah, What Will Be Of It?


I suspect, though, that the worries about mixing with those around us are not the central ones keeping Orthodox Jews from utilizing society’s resources for a General Studies education.  The experience of the Jewish community of the mid-40s and 50s, where Talmud Torah education proved wholly inadequate to transmit even the basic grounding in Torah, mitsvot, and Jewish thought seemed to highlight the necessity of a Jewish education that covered the whole school day, in which the environment of the school was one of Jewish values and ideals throughout the day.

Again, I do not write to disagree with that assessment, I write to note the cost of that reality.  First, what was true back then would not necessarily have to be true today.  Talmud Torahs may have failed for many reasons no longer relevant to our discussion. Most importantly, it seems to me, Talmud Torahs were not given nearly enough time to be successful.

The issue of time sits at the center of why any public school use plan could not work.  If Jewish students were going to be in public schools for seven hours a day five days a week, it would leave too little time for meaningful Torah education.  But much of that is because we are not willing or able to insist that our students use the tracts of free time left to them for their Torah education.

Students who finish school at 3pm—as the public schools do—could, at least at older ages, take up to an hour break, and still have three full hours for Torah study.  This would mean their day ended at 7pm, I understand, which may be too rigorous a schedule for us to contemplate.  It would certainly cut into the amount of time these students had for piano, art, ballet, and sports.  Of course, in more “right-wing” Jewish communities, the school day ends at 7 and is focused even more fully on Torah studies. 

And, to offer a fully meaningful Jewish education, that would not be the end of the story.  We would need to insist that our students also spend at least two hours on Shabbatot and another 3-4 on Sundays.  Such a schedule, I note, would still only give them 17-20 hours a week of Torah study, as compared to the thirty or more they would be getting on the General Studies side.  Over the course of a 38-week school year, that is a deficit of some 380 hours just to reach parity.

Here, the structure of public education offers us another untapped opportunity.  Whereas many Modern and Centrist parents accept the necessity of a ten-week summer vacation, we might alter that expectation, and sandwich a summer school (for Torah studies only) around two two-week vacations. The middle six weeks could have a full four to five hours of Torah studies a day, six days a week, with camp-like activities for the rest of those days, at the very least cutting into the deficit that our school year created.

I don’t offer these numbers or ideas with any sense that they could be seen as practical; I offer them to show an example of what we reject as impossible and the consequences thereof.  The system I outlined, impractical as it is, would cost the Jewish community significantly less than Jewish education does now, and would, if we tallied it all up, likely give our students close to the amount of Torah studies they get now, and perhaps more (in many schools, students get a maximum of three hours a day for the 180 official school days of the year).

I imagine other benefits of such a system, but there is little point in elaborating on them, since there is no way it would be implemented.  Let me close, then, by considering out loud why there is no way.  Well, first and foremost, parents and students would bristle at the rigors of the program—so much learning? Kids having to be in school until 7 every night? Having to spend their summers with a full half-day of Torah learning? Having to spend significant parts of Sunday morning studying Torah rather than playing ball, taking dance, or learning an instrument?  Rushing off on Shabbat to learn rather than hang out with friends and family?

The impossible is impossible, I agree; but using it as a mirror lets us see ourselves as we otherwise might not, lets us recognize our most basic commitments, the goals most important to us, and those that we will let slip by the wayside if circumstances dictate.  Whatever is left, then, is not necessarily the truth, it’s the percentage of the truth we are able to tolerate.

  1. a quality I personally seek, as in my Mission of Orthodoxy posts, at blog.webyeshiva.org []
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